Monday, March 16, 2009

iPod sales is slowing


Apple shipped 22.1 million iPods in its October-to-December quarter, up a mere 5 percent from same quarter last year.

But as I've argued before, you must count iPhone unit sales for a fair year-to-year comparison because each iPhone takes the place of a potential iPod sale. It's essentially the highest-end, most expensive iPod.

But even with the 2.32 million iPhones it sold, that makes a total of 24.42 million, for a total of 15 percent unit growth over the previous year's quarter. That's respectable and Apple's doing spectacularly well elsewhere--for example, iPod revenue (not including the iPhone) grew 17 percent over last year, suggesting Apple's selling a lot of high-end iPod Touch units. But compared with the previous quarter, which showed 17 percent unit growth in iPods--and 30 percent growth if you add in the iPhone--this is a definite slowdown.

I doubt people are buying other MP3 players instead of an iPod--I don't expect Microsoft to report anywhere near a million Zune sales for the December quarter, for instance. (Microsoft reports earnings Thursday.) Rather, I'm guessing that we're seeing the maturing of the MP3 player market. The early adopters were in three or four years ago and have already gone through one or two replacements. The mass market's been in for at least a year now, and now it's coming down to bargain hunters and the normal replacement cycle.

Yahoo prepare to support DRM-free MP3s


Yahoo Music's going to join Amazon.com in offering DRM-free MP3s, either for free as part of an advertising-supported service, or for sale on a per-download basis, according to anonymous record company executives cited in this AP story.

Ian Rogers, the exec in charge of Yahoo's music service, has certainly thought long and hard about the future of the music industry, and Yahoo's got tons of traffic (which it hasn't done a very good job of monetizing, but that's another story). I like the site's search interface--it's a lot better than Amazon's, which mixes MP3 downloads and physical CDs with no rhyme or reason--and it's the only major commercial music download site that offers lyrics.

They've got a fighting chance, in other words, but will need something extra to differentiate themselves from the rapidly growing pack. Some ideas: offer a range of bitrates, all the way up to lossless. Do more with the lyrics, like integrating them into music streams, then scrolling them across the Yahoo Media Player when users play or link to a song that's hosted on the Yahoo streaming service. Make it as easy as possible for independent artists to post their files on the site, like CDBaby and (recently) Last.fm--depth of catalog is key.

What not to do: stay wedded to Windows Media Audio, require a subscription fee or online registration, or (worst of all) try and create yet another desktop application for playing music--we've got plenty of those already, and most iPod users will stick with iTunes.

I'll wait on the details before speculating further as to whether a revamped Yahoo Music will hit or miss.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A poll about music


Do you buy CDs, LPs, MP3s, iTunes, or 8 track cartridges?
I purchase about 80% of my music on LP. For a few years in the early 1990s it was almost impossible to find new vinyl, but now it's reasonably common, especially for indie rock, electronic music, and hip hop. (Classical? Not so much. Jazz? Only re-releases.) In fact, vinyl availability sometimes convinces me to buy a record I otherwise might have skipped--Of Montreal'sGladiator Nightstick Collection and Wilco's Sky Blue Sky come to mind. (The Wilco was particularly nice because it came with a full CD, so I could more easily rip it to my computer to transfer to my iPod and Zune players.) About 1 in 20 brand new LPs have defects--most recently, Radiohead's In Rainbows was marred by a bunch of crud in the grooves on side 2. When that happens, I'll exchange it for a CD, reasoning that there might be some persistent manufacturing or storage problem. (A record store worker recently told me that every shipment they received of the $200 Sigur Ros box set contained warped records. They had to take a lot of returns.)

If so, do you buy them from Amazon or other online retailer, brick and mortar chain store, or local "record" shop?
Local record shops have the best selection of vinyl, so I usually buy from Sonic Boom in Seattle, and go out of my way to visit Amoeba whenever I'm in the Bay Area and Other Music in New York. If I really want a new release, I'll check the band's or label's Web site to see if they sell the LP. I also buy LPs at shows whenever they're sold--I'll buy an LP from a band whose set I liked in a heartbeat, but hardly ever a CD. I have not bought anything from iTunes because of DRM, although I've gotten plenty of free downloads as promotions. I've bought a handful of songs from the Zune Marketplace and other Windows Media-based stores for testing purposes.

Do you regularly buy used CDs or LPs? And rarely buy new CDs or LPs?
I regularly buy new and used LPs and occasionally buy new CDs. I never buy used CDs. For used LPs, the seller might have gotten rid of it as they replaced it on CD. For used CDs, the seller almost always got rid of it because (a.) it sucked (which means I'll seldom take a risk on a used CD) or (b.) it had a scratch or other mar that made it physically unplayable. Either way, I'm often too lazy to go back to the store to exchange it within the allotted time period, which means I'm stuck with a CD I don't want.

Do you subscribe to a subscription service, if so, which one? Rhapsody, Yahoo, Napster, etc?
No, but I might if it offered lossless downloads with no DRM.

Or do you get your tunes from a P2P like Morpheus or Blubster?
Only for tracks that I can't find easily, like unauthorized live recordings. Instead of suing me, why not sell them to me?

What about DRM, do you care?
I won't buy DRM-protected files because I want to play music I own on any device or player I own. CDs don't have DRM, analog sources don't have DRM, why should I pay the same price for less portability?

What percentage of your physical music collection did you get for free (ripped CDs, gifts, etc)?
Less than 10%. I have about 40 ripped CDs and a number of LPs and CDs I've received as gifts over the years. I also have a number of digital files that have been given to me on flash drives.

Is sound quality a factor, would you pay more for higher quality downloads or subscriptions?
Yes, I'd pay more than $0, which is what I pay for downloads today.

Do you buy CDs, burn 'em, and them sell them?
Luckily, I've always been able to find work, so I've never needed to do this.

How do you discover new music? Radio, friends, online, record stores?
Almost exclusively through friends and by going to shows, with about 10% through local radio station KEXP. Often, I'll hear about the same band or album several times from multiple friends who don't know one another, read a great live review in a local weekly, then hear a song on KEXP--that happened to me with Battles last year, and it turned out to be a good indicator that I'd like them.

Microsoft iPhone?


How long have we been reading these Zune Phone rumors? Microsoft still hasn't officially announced any plans to build an iPhone, but yesterday's corporate reorganization clearly points that way.

Microsoft has reason to be worried. After about five years of plugging away with Windows Mobile, Microsoft's managed to create a reasonable competitor to Research in Motion for e-mail-enabled phones. But that's about it. In contrast, Apple launched the iPhone in June 2007 in the U.S. and by Q4, it was already the number-two provider of smart phone (or "converged device") OSs in the U.S., with 28 percent market share--ahead of Microsoft's 21 percent and behind RIM's 41 percent. Worldwide, despite an October European launch and a smaller global footprint than its competitors, Apple managed to reach 7 percent share worldwide, just behind RIM's 11 percent and Microsoft's 12 percent , although all of these folks are bit players compared with Symbian's 65 percent share. (All numbers courtesy of a February 2008 report by Canalys.)

Microsoft's acquisition of Danger has already been the subject of much speculation on CNET and elsewhere, so I won't spend too much time pondering how long it will be until Microsoft kills the Sidekick and its Java-based OS (as long as it takes to build a Windows-based version) or guessing about the acquisition price ($500 million sounds high, but possible given the premiums Microsoft has been offering lately).

The interesting part is buried in yesterday's press release announcing the latest Microsoft reorg: the company has appointed Roz Ho to lead the Danger integration. Ho has spent the last few months in an unspecified "special projects" role under J Allard, Mr. Zune himself. But before that, Ho was the longtime leader of Microsoft's Mac Business Unit, which means there's probably no Microsoft executive more familiar with Apple. Connect the dots and they spell iPhone.

So how will Microsoft go about it? My guess is they'll whip out some sort of Zune client software for the current iteration of Windows Mobile as a stopgap measure, while simultaneously building a completely new device that combines a consumer-oriented UI, mobile services, and an associated hardware reference design. They will probably brand it as a Microsoft product (like Zune and Xbox), instead of merely licensing the software (Windows Mobile) or software+reference design (the short-lived Portable Media Centers). Sidekick's manufacturing partners, Sharp and Motorola, might be involved. Timeline: probably not until 2009, although the Windows Mobile Zune client could come out this year.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Artists experimenting with USB releases


A Billboard story this weekend discussed the rise of flash memory drives and bracelets as a medium for album releases. I knew that Willie Nelson had experimented with selling USB bracelets of live recordings, but artists like the Mars Volta and Ringo Starr are also offering new albums on USB. So far, because they're more expensive to produce than a CD, most artists are selling them as niche products for the biggest fans--for example, the Mars Volta is offering a monthly download to fans who pay $30 for the USB version of their last album, The Bedlam in Goliath, and Radiohead's former record label, EMI, is offering a live show download to fans who bought the USB drive containing all seven of the band's EMI albums. Eventually, though, as memory prices continue to drop--as they inevitably will--USB drives could become a mainstream product.

Companies like All Access Today and Aderra are already promoting services where they'll record you live and immediately press the recording on to a USB drive for sale at the show, so I'm sure independent artists could strike a deal with them to press a limited number of new albums on USB as well.

So while the CD's certainly not dead yet, its physical replacement is in the market today.

Jill Sobule


New or relatively obscure artists might have to turn to an organization like ArtistShare or Sellaband to get listeners to fund a professional-level recording project, but established artists have an easier way: they can ask their fans. (Or have their mothers do it.)

That's what Jill Sobule has done. She's best known for her minor 1995 hit "I Kissed a Girl," but has released several albums since then. Unfortunately, she's had a lot of trouble with her labels--two have gone bankrupt, and another two have dropped her. So to fund her next recording, she's soliciting fans on her site jillsnextrecord.com, and offering them exclusive perks based on how much they give: $25 gets you an advance copy of the CD, $200 gets you into all her shows for a year for free, and $5,000 gets her to play your party. Before the AP published a story about her earlier this week, she'd received more than $54,000 since mid-January; now, she's at more than $66,000.

My only question is: 75,000? She explains that she wants to create a record that "kicks ass"--think big-name producer, professional studio musicians--plus do some serious promotion on it, but that seems pretty expensive for a recording by an independent musician. Money can't necessarily buy a great recording--I've heard amazing full-length LPs recorded with SM-57s and 58s into a Roland VS-880, and we can all think of terrible recordings by artists with enormous budgets. Then again, if she can get that kind of money up front without capitulating to a label, more power to her.

BlackBerry users can download musc


BlackBerry owners may be feeling like they have nothing to brag about now that the iPhone has added connectivity to Exchange e-mail systems--the BlackBerry's bread-and-butter feature.

Not to worry. By April, Blackberry owners will have something the iPhone still lacks--the ability to download songs over the air from any location with cellular access. Canadian company Puretracks, which has licensed more than two million songs from all four major labels and plenty of indies, announced plans to launch a mobile store for the BlackBerry family of devices in April.

The files will be in the AAC format used by iTunes, which offers higher quality at small file sizes than MP3. But unlike iTunes, none of the songs will be encumbered by DRM, allowing users to transfer them to as many computers as they like. Puretracks also promises to make a Wi-Fi enabled version of the store for BlackBerry devices with built-in Wi-Fi connectivity--a direct competitor to the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store. No word yet on download pricing.

Different Music have colors?


Synesthesia is a mental phenomenon in which different senses (sight, sound, smell, and so on) become associated in unusual ways. A friend of mine has a form of synesthesia in which numbers have particular colors. I think it came out for the first time when she said my phone number was very blue and black. I asked her what she meant, and she explained how each number has a specific color, although these colors can sometimes change based on a number's proximity to other numbers. She also said that numbers and the fingers of her hands have particular genders.

Perhaps my friend would understand Guitarati, a music recommendation site that launched earlier this week. The front page consists of a collection of colored dots. Click on a dot, and you will see some songs that somebody (editors at the site? the artists?) have decided fit into that particular color scheme. Users can sample the songs and, if they like them, stream them for a penny or download them for a price set by the artist (most songs are $0.99 today). Over time, as users listen to particular songs, they can vote on the color they should be, and the song's color will reflect the average of all votes.

I give Guitarati points for uniqueness, but I'm not sure I get it. OK, perhaps Brian El's song "Aquatica," which appears about halfway down the page for a blue dot, is kind of turquoise, but that seems to be a suggestion from the title rather than the music. Most of the other songs on this page don't seem particularly blue to me...in fact, the top song on the page, "Eddy" by Happy Elf, sounds too aggressive to be blue. Perhaps it's more orange. Then again, maybe I'm a bad test case--Kind of Blue has always sounded grey and black to me. More like a rainy evening, not a clear sunny morning.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Future iPod with about 1 million songs


IBM researchers have reportedly demonstrated technology that will increase hard drive capacity 100-fold, as well as offer major improvements in energy consumption (leading to much longer battery life) and better reliability. Production is estimated in seven to ten years.

The reports summarizing the researchers' findings, which were published in Science (subscription required), use the shorthand "500,000 songs on a portable MP3 player" to describe the advance.

Today's iPod lineup contains no product advertised to hold 5,000 songs, so I'm not sure where the 500,000 figure came from. In fact, the current highest-capacity iPod is 160GB, and is advertised as being able to hold 40,000 songs. So this shorthand would imply a hard drive size of just under 2TB--only 12.5 times bigger than today's largest iPod.

That's actually well short of what Kryder's Law predicts--if hard drive capacity continues to double every year, then the hard drives of 2015 should be 128 times larger than today's. So the IBM researchers' claims of up to 100x capacity, while impressive, are not particularly surprising given the trends of the past decade. According to my calculations, 100x would mean the biggest iPod would have a 16,000 GB hard drive, which would be enough to hold more than four million songs at the current advertised compression rates. Or if you assume that Apple's lossless codec compresses the typical song to about 25MB, it could hold about 650,000 songs--with no loss in audio quality.

Of course, few people would use a portable hard drive of that size solely to store music--movies, games, and applications will probably take up most of that space. Still the idea that we'll be carrying terabytes of data in our pocket in a few short years explains why Apple, Microsoft, Google, and the rest of the industry are focusing so much attention on mobile computing.

I like Apple Store


A few months ago, they remodeled to get rid of the large screen and seating area they used for in-store workshops. I liked the few classes I happened in upon during the weekend, but most of them were sparsely attended, and the workshops I really wanted to take--like Garage Band--were during normal work hours. In place of the demo area, they more than doubled the size of the Genius Bar, Apple's in-store customer support desk. The end-result: a mass of highly engaged customers at the back of the store, instead of a mostly empty space. (Engaged might mean enraged, but it seems that even customers with serious problems--like a dead iPod out of warranty--remain calm when faced with a real person as opposed to an anonymous phone support employee.)
Recently, I've noticed two interesting changes at my local Apple Store, both evidence of Apple's mastery of retail.

More recently, my wife went in to buy me a Shuffle as a surprise--my 4th-generation iPod died a copule years ago, her iPod is permanently connected to an iHome clock radio upstairs, and my 30GB Zune is a little bulky for walking the dog or going to the gym. After talking to a salesperson who led her through colors and GB sizes and prices, she said she was ready to buy and started walking toward the registers at the front of the store. Not necessary--the salesperson had a handheld device with a credit card scanner, checked her out on the spot, and e-mailed her a receipt. Genius.

Sony has a lot of great products as well, but when I go to the nearby Sony Style store, it always feels a little haphazard, with PlayStations next to flat TVs next to Blu-ray discs. And it's never crowded. And I never leave with a purchase. (Although the array of flat-screens looping this Bravia commercial is refreshingly inoffensive--very little branding--and completely mesmerizes my two-year-old daughter.)

I've occasionally seen and heard rumors of a Microsoft push into retail. If so, they should be using the Apple Store as a model--nobody else does it better.

Blackberry 9000 will get iTunes sync


Smartphone fans are excited about yesterday's announcement of the Blackberry 9000, aka Blackberry Bold, aka Research In Motion's iPhone killer. But Blackberry users are a different breed than iPhone users--the Blackberry's reason for existence is always-connected e-mail, and Blackberry users tend to be all business, afraid of being out of touch for even a moment. (An old friend in Washington D.C.--where Blackberry users are legion--had to make a vow after her third child was born not to check her e-mail after 6 p.m.)
So while the iPhone grew out of the iPod, and thus counts music playback as one of its primary features, the Blackberry Bold focuses more on its core communications features--e-mail, messaging, and telephony--as well as new physical improvements, like a bright color screen. You can see this focus in the first detailed hands-on review of the product at Crackberry.com, where media playback isn't even mentioned until part III (of IV) and gets no more than a paragraph. And 1GB of onboard memory isn't really enough for serious music listeners anyway, although it's expandable to 16GB.
But the clearest indication of all: while the 9000 might echo past Blackberries and ship with a Roxio application for organizing music on your PC and transferring it to your phone, RIM is also preparing a new application called Blackberry Media Sync that will let you use Apple's iTunes to transfer files to the phone. Of course, once you do get music onto the device, a relatively powerful internal stereo speaker system might actually make listening without headphones a reasonable option--sort of like the boombox of tomorrow. The iPhone's speakers are apparently not quite up to the task.
Still, for music fans in desperate need of a new phone--like me--the iPhone is still the most obvious choice, especially now that a 3G model is almost certainly on the way. But if you're already a Blackberry fan, or are primarily concerned with having access to e-mail at all times, the 9000 seems like the clearest alternative to the iPhone.

Wii demo at low-tech music festival


Contrary to predictions, Sunday in Seattle was sunny and warm, so I took my daughter down to the annual Northwest Folklife Festival, a donation-funded event at the Seattle Center.
Because of its focus on traditional forms of music, Folklife is an unusually low-tech festival. There was a Balkan dance band, Orkestar Zirkonium, with oom-pah tuba holding down the bass and various brasses, woodwinds, and string instruments weaving Eastern European melodies. There was a bagpipe/drum duet, Nae Regrets, that seemed to be playing a version of "Tom Sawyer" by Rush. There was a youth fiddle orchestra from British Columbia. There was a learn-to-bang-a-drum tent, a hippie drum circle, and random ensembles in the walkways with lots of string basses, banjos, small drum kits, and other non-amplified instruments. The crowd was wearing traditional folk costumes (tartan kilts, dashikis), tie-tye, and this retro-depression look that's been popping up recently in Seattle (knee pants, suspenders, hats with brims).
Right in the middle of this aggressively low-tech festival, standing out like an alien spaceship, was a white-and-green demonstration booth filled with high-definition TVs. There, attractive young women in skintight costumes who looked like they should have been at E3 were demoing Wii Fit, a fitness game that's played with a balance board. I watched some kids laugh at each other as they played the hula hoop part of the game, then wandered on, scratching my head. It looked like an interesting game, but I'm puzzled why Nintendo decided to demo it at Folklife. Is there some crossover between folk music fans and Wii users?

BurnLounge


I first heard about BurnLounge about a year ago when a fellow musician was approached by one of its representatives in a mall. He asked me if I'd ever heard of them and what I thought.
I did a little digging, smelled a multilevel marketing scheme, and suggested he proceed with caution. Sure enough, later that week the Federal Trade Commission announced it was investigating the company on suspicion of being a pyramid scheme, and a couple weeks later, BurnLounge said it would get rid of its Amway-style program where representatives earned compensation from signing up other reps.
Now the site's gone. You can still see all the skeptical and hostile posts about BurnLounge in the Google search results, but when you try to click through to the site itself--nothing. This doesn't necessarily mean that the company has disappeared--there could have been a domain registration snafu or dispute with their hoster. The Wikipedia entry for BurnLounge says that the company laid off most of its employees last August and suspended operations in November, but has no citations for this information. I can't find any news stories or blog postings about the company that are dated later than mid-2007.
Posting on this subject used to garner lots of comments, so here goes. Any BurnLounge resellers still out there? How's business?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Web 2.0 eMusic


It's sometimes lost in all the flavor-of-the-week mix-remix-download-social networking sites, but eMusic has been selling DRM-free MP3s--meaning they can be played on the iPod or any other player--from independent labels and artists for a decade now, and has a reasonable claim to be the No. 2 music store behind iTunes.
A planned redesign is meant to help eMusic retain this position. According to reports in Fortune and Digital Music News, the site's slated for an overhaul beginning next week. Artist pages will be updated with Wikipedia biographies, original editorial content, and embedded YouTube videos. In a nod to Web 2.0, fans will be able to embed portions of these artist profiles, including streaming song samples, in their Facebook pages, as well as on other social-recommendation sites such as Digg. A navigational update is also in the works--for such a well-established site, eMusic is kind of hard to get around.
One thing they're not getting rid of: the subscription-based purchasing model. That's always been a deal-breaker for me, as I simply don't download 30 songs from independent artists and labels per month. Still, if you're a voracious consumer of new music, and prefer legal downloads to file-sharing or buying physical recordings, eMusic remains an excellent choice.

Microsoft Surface


Starwood Hotels, one of Microsoft's initial partners for the Surface touch-table, has begun rolling the tables out in some Sheraton Hotels. I happened to be in downtown Seattle this morning and stopped by the Sheraton there to check it out.
I've seen Surface in a controlled demo environment at Microsoft, but this was my first time encountering it "in the wild," and despite the big-ass table criticisms that some have leveled at the product, there's an undeniable thrill in seeing something so weird and new in a public place. No, it's not going to revolutionize computing like the iPhone, but I think it has great potential in public spaces like hotel lobbies and restaurants. At 7 a.m. in the Sheraton lobby, all four tables were occupied, and three of them had people actually using them. (The fourth was serving as a more conventional table, as one traveler rested his bag upon it.)
Sheraton and Microsoft built a jukebox application for the table, and while the song selection is extremely limited--it's got about two dozen albums, all from Sony BMG, each with a single song on it--I saw how Surface could be a great jukebox. You drag albums from a menu onto the main surface, touch them twice to see a list of songs, and drag the songs onto a playlist. In this case, the music played through small speakers on the side of the table, creating a little ambience for folks sitting on the chairs around the table, but I could imagine it working like a regular jukebox hooked into a house sound system in a bar or restaurant.
For this to happen, Microsoft would have to make the tables more broadly available and offer a software development kit to the general development community, who will think of all sorts of clever ways to use it. Imagine what Pandora or Last.fm could do, for example. Right now, the company's limiting rollouts to a few customers to make sure the first apps offer a consistent experience. (For example, making sure that they're all multitouch and that drag-and-drop works in the same way.) But I expect the company to open the program up by the end of this year, at which point the product could really start to flourish.

LimeWire Store deal.


Lime Wire LLC has announced a deal with The Orchard, a large digital distributor for independent artists and small labels. The deal will effectively double the amount of music available in the LimeWire Store to more than 2 million tracks.
I wrote about the store when Lime Wire first announced it a year ago, thinking that it was a possible exit strategy in case the major labels won their lawsuit against Lime Wire and forced the shutdown of its Gnutella-based file-sharing client. But this announcement seems to show that Lime Wire is taking the store seriously as an alternate business.
Here's my question: if you're aware of LimeWire at all, aren't you already using it to grab free music? I suppose if you couldn't find a file for free, it might be convenient to use the same client to buy it, but doesn't that seem a little bit like...giving up? Any LimeWire users out there care to chime in?

A nice boombox


I was a big fan of Logitech's Squeezebox Duet, which I saw demonstrated at the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show, and today Logitech announced a follow-up that looks even better: a boombox for your digital music collection. And unlike the Duet, which had to be plugged into a stereo, the Boom has speakers.
Once again, CNET's John Falcone has beaten me to the punch with a full review, but even without his validation, at first glance this looks like a great product for users with large collections of digital music trapped on their computers. Beginning in September, $300 will get you a boombox that can connect to your computer over a Wi-Fi network, and plays a huge variety of files--not just garden-variety MP3s, WMAs, and AACs, but also relative rarities beloved by digital audiophiles like Ogg, FLAC, and Apple Lossless. The necessary software works not only with PC and Mac but various flavors of Linux (including a Debian/Ubuntu installation package). It also lets you connect to various Internet radio services, such as Pandora, Rhapsody, and LastFM. The only possible drawback: it can't play DRM-protected files. Which means if a large portion of your digital music collection was purchased from iTunes (or a WMA competitor) before the last year when these services began offering more DRM-free files, you won't be able to play it on the Boom.
An aside: the product line is called Squeezebox, which I assumed was a reference to the 1975 Who song. But Logitech's product shots show the Boom playing "Tempted," the 1981 single by Squeeze. So which is it--Who fans or Squeeze fans?

Albums as applications


There's been a lot of speculation lately about whether iTunes is a boon or burden to album sales.
Kid Rock has sold more than 1.7 million copies of his latest album, Rock and Roll Jesus, with no iTunes presence at all. And last week, Warner Bros. pulled Estelle's new album from iTunes in the U.S. in hopes of spurring physical sales. (The plan appears to have failed miserably.)
Apple is striking back before this scattered practice turns into a trend. According to Music Week, the company is working with alternative rock band Snow Patrol on an interactive iPhone/iPod Touch application for its next album that will include more album art, videos, and--most important--lyrics, which are still way too hard to find online. (The exceptions are those pop-up-infested and largely inaccurate lyrics sites that show up in Google search.)
I hope this becomes standard practice for new releases--one of the greatest losses in the move from LP to CD to digital files was the gradual elimination of lyric sheets.

Buy from FM?


A couple weeks ago, after being briefed on the new Zune, a colleague described some of its features to his teenage daughter. She responded positively to the Wi-Fi download feature, but was skeptical about the "Buy from FM" concept that lets people tag songs they hear on the Zune's built-in radio for later purchase.
Would lots of radio stations actually support this feature or would it be relegated to a narrow niche like XM radio? (Her example, not mine.)
She need not have worried. On Monday, Microsoft announced that many of the largest radio conglomerates in the U.S., including giant Clear Channel, would support the RDS tagging technology necessary for this feature.
Let me just get this out of the way: I find commercial music radio to be way too narrow and repetitive, I hardly ever listen to it, and I don't get any new music recommendations from it. But I'm in the minority. A Microsoft-commissioned study recently showed that more than 60 percent of music listeners still use radio as their primary source for discovering new tunes.
So this is a win for Microsoft. While Clear Channel was rightly reviled earlier this decade for allegedly accepting money and other compensation from brokers to play particular tracks, it's still the big gun of U.S. radio, with 9 percent ownership. (That's about 1,200 stations.) Other partners announced Monday include Citadel (with more than 200 stations), CBS Radio (with 140 stations), Entercom (110 stations), and Cox (86 stations).
When the feature launches on September 16, it will immediately work with 450 stations across the U.S., with many more to come.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Good news for Zune users



Most of the news about today's release of the Zune 3.0 software and devices leaked last week, but one piece of interesting news remained under wraps.
Microsoft signed a deal with public Wi-Fi provider Wayport and McDonald's restaurants that will give Zune users free access, no password or Web page log-in required, to hot spots in more than 9,800 McDonald's. This addresses a potential "gotcha" with the Zune's download-from-Wi-Fi feature--the fact that users can't access any hot spot that requires a browser redirect (either to enter a password or accept terms). Now they'll have nearly 10,000 guaranteed places from which to buy or (with a $14.99/month Zune Pass) stream music wirelessly.
The other point I didn't mention in my previous Zune posts is the MixView feature. As you're playing one song in the Zune PC software, other related artists, songs, albums, and Zune Cards of other users with similar tastes will gradually fade in around the central image, which will be the artist or album cover for the song you're playing right now. This gives users a really cool way to find music they might like based on what they're playing now--particularly if they have a Zune Pass, which will let them play any suggested song immediately. As Wired's Listening Post blog pointed out, this feature makes the iTunes Genius feature--which I like--look a little bit primitive.

Kid Rock comes to Rhapsody


Truck stop rocker Kid Rock has been one of the poster boys for the "ignore downloads" crowd.
His latest album, Rock and Roll Jesus has not only sold more than 2 million albums, but has continued to sell lots of copies long past its release date--this week, nearly a year after release, it's still at No. 7. That's almost unprecedented in this day and age, when top-selling pop artists (think Mariah Carey) sell hundreds of thousands of albums in their first week then plummet off the charts. Why the staying power? Some argue it's because the hit single from the album, All Summer Long (which is basically a reworking of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama") hasn't been available as a digital download on iTunes or anywhere else. If you want to own the song, the only way to get it has been to buy the full CD.
That changes today: you can now download the entire Rock and Roll Jesus album--and Kid Rock's entire catalog if you're so inclined--through the Rhapsody MP3 store. The albums are also available to Rhapsody subscribers. You still can't buy the single on its own, as Kid Rock considers himself an album artist and wants you to hear the full package. And still no iTunes, as Apple frowns on album-only sales. It'll be interesting to see if digital availability has any impact on sales, or whether fans keep preferring the CD.

iPod is already dead!


There has been much blogorrhea over Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak's offhand comment to the Telegraph that the iPod would go the way of the transistor radio and the Sony Walkman, becoming a cheap and eventually boring commodity product.

News flash: it's already there. Sure, Apple will still sell millions of units every quarter, and it might even continue to grow unit sales and revenue for a while. But it's clear from Apple's most recent announcements that the company no longer views the iPod as its main vehicle for innovation--new (old) form factors, colors, and one interesting update are the kind of incremental tweaks you make to a cash cow product line, not the groundbreaking innovations that move markets forward.
Apple passed its mantle of innovation to the first iPhone a year ago, and that's where the action's going to be, from now on--multifunction devices with interesting new interfaces (touch is just the beginning) that act more like tiny computers than single-purpose devices. iPod? That's just another application icon on the iPhone deck.
(And here's something you'll never hear in a presidential debate: I was wrong. Specifically, I was wrong when I suggested that consumers would continue to favor single-function devices and that the iPhone's bet on convergence would sink it. I underestimated the power of the touch screen and Apple's relentless focus on ease of use, which have made the iPhone the first ultraportable computer for mere mortals.)
I appreciate Microsoft's latest Zune innovations, but they needed to be in the product when it launched two years ago. MP3 players are becoming a commodity in which low price overrides new features--especially given how tight consumer spending is likely to be this holiday season. Microsoft isn't into commodities, unless it's got dominant market share, so look for the company to turn its attention to building a more competitive version of Windows Mobile. Zune will live on--as the music playback application for Microsoft's mobile phones.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

$20 MP3 player from Sandisk


Like many other commentators, I greeted last month's SlotMusic announcement from SanDisk with befuddlement. I don't understand why a consumer would pay $14.99, which is almost the same price as a CD, for a tiny MicroSD card preloaded with digitally compressed audio. Yes, the attached USB dongle gives you compatibility with any computer with a USB connector. But still, a CD gives you higher sound quality, compatibility with billions of devices, and much less chance of misplacement between the couch cushions.
Today's announcement that SanDisk will also release a SlotMusic player for $19.99 changes my opinion a little bit. If you're just getting into digital music--and new teenagers and ex-Luddites are created every day--and want the cheapest way to take large quantities of music with you anywhere, a SlotMusic player could fit the bill. It's tiny--less than 3 inches along its longest side. Earphones and battery are included. I'm getting a unit to test out, so I'll let you know if the sound's any good.
The idea is that you'd buy a player and one of these preloaded albums, which comes on a 1GB card. Even with a full album of songs, artwork, and a couple videos, you'd have plenty of extra space to fill the card with other MP3s or unprotected WMAs. I'm not sure how many people have a bunch of MP3s and no MP3 player, but I suppose they exist--perhaps your older brother (or college-aged son) just left for college with his MP3 player and a new laptop, leaving a bunch of music files stranded on the home PC.
There's still a lot of potential for confusion: you'll have to remember which files you burned to which card before you put it in your SlotMusic player. But SanDisk also sells cards up to 16GB in capacity, and I suspect this is the real long-term play for the company. Once users get fed up with buying preloaded cards, they'll just move everything to a bigger card and never swap it out again. Not a great story for the record labels, but fine for SanDisk.
SanDisk also announced today that more than 30 artists from the four major labels are releasing albums on SlotMusic cards, including old faves like Jimi Hendrix and Kiss and new stars like Coldplay and Nickelback, with more artists to come by the end of the year. There will also be artist-branded SlotMusic players from Abba and Robin Thicke for $34.99. All are on sale at Wal-Mart and Best Buy, so mainstream American consumers are going to see these things.
If the format takes off, perhaps we'll begin to see curated collections. For example, maybe a radio station like Seattle's KEXP could sell a SlotMusic card with the top 90.3 songs of the year, instead of simply listing them on its Web site. Or Billboard could issue monthly cards with a selection of hits from its various charts. Rights clearance would be a chore, but not so much harder than putting together a compilation like the Now That's What I Call Music series. Other possibilities include higher-definition uncompressed audio files--imagine the 96kHz/24-bit masters of your favorite albums--or complete collections from single artists--no more bulky box sets.
Finally, one more sure-to-be-useless plea to SanDisk and marketers everywhere: can we please end the creative use of capital and lowercase letters in product names? The actual terms are "slotMusic" and "microSD," but I never remember to type them that way. Product names are proper nouns. Apple gets a pass because the iPod's been so ubiquitous in the media and advertising for the last five years that if I typed "IPod" or "IPhone" it would draw attention to itself, breaking the first rule of clean writing. But apart from Apple, forget it. Sorry.

iPhone app proviede by JamBase


If you're into live music, JamBase is essential, with a searchable list of more than 50,000 shows in the United States. It's updated by fans, so it tends to be up-to-date and more complete than newspaper or events sites. And it's a heck of a lot easier to run a search on JamBase than it is to pick up your local weekly and look through the ads and print listings.
Now, JamBase has come to the iPhone. You could always access it through the built-in Safari Web browser, but a free app released Monday lets you enter your Zip code--or, if you allow it to use the iPhone 3G's built-in GPS tracker, it will figure out where you are automatically--and then displays a list of shows in your area for the next few days. If you've saved a list of favorite bands at the JamBase site, you can enter your username and it'll limit results to just those bands.
It's definitely a version-1 application, and thus a bit klunky--when you click on a listing, it opens the JamBase site in Safari to give you the listing details, and you can't search for particular bands directly from the app. But it's free, and nice to have if you're stranded in, say, Los Angeles for a tech conference and want to escape from the officially sanctioned parties for some authentic jazz at a club nearby

Save your music library


Last week some family members suffered a corrupted hard drive on their only PC. They had no backup. They're relatively light computer users--no online banking, no important business documents--but the lesson still hurts. Their e-mail contacts weren't too hard to recover--they simply called everybody they had regular e-mail contact with and told them to send an e-mail. Their digital photos are gone forever, unless emergency tech support courtesy of their son-in-law produces a miracle. And their music library?
That's one nice thing about having a large-capacity MP3 player: if you're lazy about backup, at least you still have all (or most) of your tunes. The easiest solution for iPod users, in my opinion, is to use a utility like Music Rescue (I used it back when it was called iPod Util and highly recommend it) or 4Media iPod to PC Transfer for a Windows PC, or Senuti for Mac. Follow the instructions carefully--you don't want iTunes on your new replacement PC to try and automatically sync its (empty) library to your (full) iPod or you'll overwrite all the songs in their last remaining location!
If you don't mind improvising a bit, this CNET tutorial from 2006 describes how to set up your iPod as an external drive in Windows XP, although you'll have to skip step 1 if your original PC is dead. (Steps 3 and onward should work for many other MP3 players as well.) Apple has also posted instructions for moving songs from an iPod to a Mac or PC, but again they assume that the computer with your original library on it is still working.
If you're among that minority of users who bought a Zune player from Microsoft, it has a pretty straightforward reverse sync process.
Of course, the most important lesson to learn is backup, backup, backup. If you've got a few GB of files you just don't want to lose, an inexpensive flash drive or online service (I use Microsoft's SkyDrive, which has a 5GB capacity and is free) is probably fine. External hard drives are for large amounts of critical data--like if you're building multitrack recordings. If you want backup and restore--that is, the ability to restore everything on your computer to the way it was, not just recover lost data--then you'll need disk imaging software for PC or an equivalent Mac solution.

Music Gift Cards


Opening gift cards is always a bit of a letdown. They're great gifts--I'd much rather get a gift card than some expensive gadget that I don't want or already have, and which I'll have to return for store credit. But the moment of revelation itself? Oh, a plastic card. Kind of boring.
Until now. Beginning Tuesday, Best Buy is selling $50, $100, and $200 gift cards with a built-in mini-headphone (one-eighth-inch) jack, connecting cable and speakers. Why? Because they can! Plug any MP3 player into it and you'll be able to rock some tunes around the Christmas tree. And you know they'll sound awesome. Or at least as good as the ringer in your cellphone. (I saw this first on Engadget, which embeds a wacky online advertisement for them as well.)
Not to be topped, Target's offering gift cards that double as a digital camera. Which is great for off-the-cuff holiday-morning shots, but somehow that lacks the instant appeal of the audio gift card--you'd have to connect the camera to a computer before you could really do anything with the pics.
Prediction: these things are going to be huge. You will know somebody who gets one of them. Maybe you'll be that person.

$14.99 for 10 permanent downloads per month


One more detail about the latest Zune update: the Zune Pass, which costs $14.99 a month, is now going to allow users up to 10 permanent downloads per month. That's in addition to the unlimited downloads that expire if you stop paying your subscription. Think of it like an insurance policy for Zune Pass: if your Zune breaks and you decide to switch to another brand of MP3 player, you'll still get to keep some of the songs you downloaded.
Soon, you'll be able to get 10 permanent downloads a month with a Zune Pass, in addition to unlimited music as long as you keep paying $14.99 a month.
I believe that Microsoft is the first company to offer free permanent downloads alongside unlimited temporary downloads. Subscription service eMusic does sell permanent downloads, but limits you to a certain number per month. Nokia's Comes With Music might offer more bang for your downloading buck, as it allows you to keep all of the songs you've downloaded during a one-year period. But those songs are DRM-protected, limited to your phone and one PC, and can't be burned to CD. In contrast, Zune's music catalog is about 85 percent MP3s. (Microsoft also announced that it's added songs from Universal Music and Sony BMG to its MP3 catalog, along with Warner, EMI, and a lot of indies.) This means a lot of the Zune permanent downloads will be completely unrestricted.
Is all this going to be enough to wrest some market share from the iPod, or even help Microsoft overtake number-two SanDisk in the MP3 player space? Probably not this year. But given that the Zune devices are just the first shot in a long-term plan to become a major digital audio and video distributor, I'm not betting against Microsoft. Look how long the company was willing to spend money on the Xbox business before it became a real player in console gaming.

Nobody loves the new touch-screen phone


The reviews are in on the Storm, the new touch-screen phone from Research In Motion, and nobody loves it. Check out takes from CNET, Engadget, Gizmodo, and Time for a sample.
In particular, the mechanics of the touch screen--you have to press areas on the screen with some force, as if they're actually keys--have been greeted with almost universal frustration.
But for a would-be iPhone killer, the reviews are remarkably light on the Storm's music features. It's true that BlackBerry users are traditionally e-mail junkies, and the phone's communications features (apart from the touchscreen weirdness) are expectedly top-notch. But if this is going to be a consumer phone--Verizon's attempt to make up for its epic fail in passing up first rights to the iPhone--music is critical. A big part of the appeal of the iPhone is that you don't have to carry around a separate cell phone and MP3 player anymore.
Apparently, though, the Storm isn't much of an improvement over the nontouch BlackBerry Bold, which was announced in the summer and came out a couple weeks ago. The Storm's got an 8GB microSD card, as opposed to the Bold's 1GB, but otherwise, it uses the same media management program from Roxio (known for creating functional but not particularly user-pleasing software) and the same ability to sync your iTunes library, and that's about it. There's no on-board music store, although this Time review says a deal with Rhapsody is imminent. (No V Cast? That's no big loss.) And the BlackBerry app store isn't set to launch until March--the current iteration has only eight apps--which means you won't have any great musical add-ons like Shazam, Bloom, Finetune, OurStage, or JamBase.
Of course, if you want a smartphone with a touch screen, and you insist on using Verizon, you're probably going to buy one of these. In fact, you probably already have. But if you're a music fan, don't count on replacing your MP3 player with this particular phone.

$99 iPhone from Apple


It's just a rumor at this point, but the usual anonymous tipsters have told the Boy Genius Report that Apple is planning to sell a $99 iPhone at Wal-Mart. There's been some debate about whether this would be a good idea for Apple. One financial analyst ran the numbers and believes that Apple would double or triple sales while still maintaining very healthy margins of more than 40 percent. Other onlookers have noted that Apple does not typically play the low-cost high-volume game; it certainly made fools of any suckers who believed the $800 laptop rumor.
I'll throw my hat into the ring and say that a $99 iPhone would be a great idea. Why?
1. The smartphone market is new(er). Laptop computers have been around for more than a decade and have practically become a commodity, as evidenced by the recent rise of sub-$500 Netbooks. The typical way to compete in a commodity market is by ruthlessly slashing expenses and competing on price. But the better way--if you can swing it--is to break out of the commodity ghetto and position your product as a luxury exception. That's exactly what Apple has done, largely by way of design. (You can argue the merits of OS X versus Windows all you want, but there's no arguing that OS X has a simpler--not necessarily "easier"--and therefore more elegant appearance.)
But smartphones are still a relatively green market. Yes, we've seen "feature phones" capable of running simple applications like games for some time, but true smartphones--with large displays, sophisticated user interfaces, and the ability to run multiple types of computer-like applications--are still rare outside the business world. If Apple can compete aggressively on price now, it could dominate the consumer smartphone market, just as it dominates the MP3 player market today. Once that happens, all sorts of interesting long-term revenue possibilities open up--App Store revenue could become significant with 50 million iPhones out there, not to mention upgrade cycles, attached devices and services, and the "halo effect" on Apple's other products.
2. The competition is behind. As today's Gartner report on smartphones makes clear, the competition is in disarray. Nokia/Symbian's market share showed an annual decline for the first time ever in the third quarter because of a lack of competitive touch-screen devices. Windows Mobile fell behind the iPhone in North America. And while Research In Motion is also growing, its entrant in the touch-screen race, the new Storm, has been met with a decided "meh" or worse.
None of these competitors is standing still. Nokia's got its Ovi Internet services online and is unveiling touch-screen devices left and right; Microsoft's busy at work on Windows Mobile 7, which will almost certainly incorporate music functionality from the Zune and design and other features from Danger. And the Storm won't be RIM's last effort at a touch-screen phone.
3. The economy. Times are hard. Apple's got a backlog of 2 million iPhones in the channel, according to that Gartner report. RIM just downgraded expectations for its third quarter. What better way to dominate than by being the low-price leader and creating the product with the most mainstream appeal? It sure seems to be working well for Nintendo.
By striking now, the iPhone could become "everybody's" first smartphone. Five years from now, it could be as synonymous with smartphone as iPod is with MP3 player.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Phone news from Microsoft


As one of my colleagues put it the other day, Microsoft killed the rumors that it's building a Zune phone, but it didn't drive a silver stake through their heart and bury them at a crossroads at midnight. In other words, until Microsoft makes some kind of phone-related announcement, misinformed analysts and news outlets will continue to speculate that there's going to be a Microsoft-built Zune phone, and Microsoft spokespeople will continue going on the record with vehement denials.
This is getting silly. I've been saying since February that the most likely course of action for Microsoft to take is to build a Zune client for Windows Mobile. Not a Zune phone.
Why? Because Microsoft--unlike Apple, and Research in Motion, and Nokia--isn't a hardware company at its core. Microsoft only builds hardware when it can't get a partner to do so (Xbox--who'd take the per-console loss?), or when it feels that partner products aren't getting enough traction and thereby letting a competitor build a threat to Windows. It built Zune because the iPod was slaughtering all the Windows Media-based players, revitalizing Apple and getting consumers to take another look at the Mac. (Sure enough, Apple's now the fastest-growing computer manufactuer in the U.S. and has taken a couple points of market share away from Windows-based PCs.) Microsoft briefly built wireless home routers because it felt partners weren't making them easy enough to set up on Windows, especially compared with Apple's Airport. And way back when, the company originally built keyboards and mice to promote Windows, and found that it was a profitable little business.
Windows Mobile may have stalled in the water while the iPhone and RIM phones have continued to take market share, but to Microsoft, 11% global market share and 16 million units a year isn't unsuccessful enough to kill the platform and change strategy completely.
So let's assume the rumors are based in fact and that Microsoft is going to make some sort of phone-related announcements at CES. (I haven't been briefed on any such announcements, so this is all speculation on my part.) Befitting Microsoft's new self-image as a software plus services company, I would expect the company to announce new and refreshed software and services for mobile phones. Specifically, a Zune client that connects to the Zune Marketplace, plus a revamp of the historically lame MSN/Windows Live services for mobile.
Recall that Danger--the company Microsoft acquired last February--has some expertise in services. The company's Danger Service automatically backs up e-mail and photos in an online repository, pushes e-mails out to the device, offers remote storage for games and other apps, and synchronizes everything between the mobile device and a PC. In other words, everything Microsoft's been saying under the "software plus services" rubric for the last couple years.
I imagine something like this Danger Service renamed under Windows Live for Mobile brand, with more connections to relatively new services like Windows Live Photos, and perhaps new client pieces as well. Music will be part of the picture, but this is more about mobile than Zune.


Luqi - Microsoft's online chief


When Microsoft hired Qi Lu to run its online business last week, the company trumpeted the fact that Lu holds 20 patents.
Patents are far from rare at Microsoft--many developers and researchers hold them--but the online business has typically been led by people with a business or marketing background. That hasn't been working out too well, so it's putting a geek in charge.
The Seattle Post Intelligencer's Microsoft reporter, Joe Tartakoff, did a little digging on Tuesday to uncover exactly what kinds of patents Lu holds. Most interesting to me, one of them relates to music.
Specifically, it describes a PC application that could take a snippet of a song or audio file, break it down into component parts, analyze them, and then recommend similar songs.
It sounds superficially similar to what Shazam does, but the method is very different and more complicated. From what I can tell, Shazam simply takes a sound sample and matches it against a database with millions of audio files. Getting a fast result requires some fast data crunching, but there's not much deep analysis going on there.
Lu's patent (shared with two other engineers) proposed breaking the song all the way down to very small components like measures and individual notes, analyzing those components to find patterns--for example, a repeated sequence of notes might be the refrain or chorus--and then analyzing the relationships among those parts.
For instance, a pop song is typically constructed of several repeated verses and choruses, with a bridge somewhere in the middle. This is how the application would be able to identify and recommend songs that are similar to the song being played.
Instead of Shazam, the end result might have been more like Apple's recently introduced Genius feature, which builds playlists of songs based on the song you're currently playing.
I suspect that Apple's relying on data from all its iTunes users (Genius asks to collect data about your playing habits) and song meta data--for example, it often recommends songs by the same artist, or other artists in the same genre, or other songs released in the same era. That's much easier--both to program and for your CPU--than trying to analyze audio data for patterns.
Lu received this patent in 2000, which means that he was probably working on it several years before that. Check it out.

Job posting reveals Zune-Xbox integration


Zune speculation is an armchair sport here in the tech sector of the Pacific Northwest (especially when we're all housebound because of a few inches of snow), and today Todd Bishop at TechFlash posted some interesting excerpts from the Zune team's job listings.
Based on his post, it looks as if the Zune Marketplace will begin to use the back end from Musiwave, the European provider of music for mobile phones that Microsoft acquired a little more than a year ago--and if that doesn't point to a Zune service for mobile phones, nothing does--and will continue to feature DRM (couched in ever-so-reassuring phrases like "to let consumers enjoy music in new and interesting ways").
But here's something else: Zune is coming to Xbox. There's a job listing for a user experience designer to work on the Zune Device UI, Zune PC Client and--hang on a second--Zune Xbox.
Zune Xbox? Of course. Both Xbox Live and the Zune Marketplace use Microsoft's own pseudo-currency, Microsoft Points. Xbox Live already lets you download video content and stream movies on demand from Netflix (if you're a subscriber).
You can plug any MP3 player into the Xbox 360 and listen to a mix of your music as you play. So why not take all these pieces to their logical conclusion, and let you access the Zune Marketplace from Xbox Live? Integration would be particularly useful for Zune Pass subscribers, giving them another device on which to use their unlimited monthly listens and 10 permanent downloads.

Cisco is getting into the consumer electronics busines


Networking is a dark art, and putting the word "home" in front of it makes it no simpler. Debugging a home network is not for the faint of heart--the intelligence of the on-screen wizards peters out after the first few obvious fixes, and soon you're checking help forums, running ipconfig commands, and tweaking DHCP settings.
So today's news from The New York Times--that networking giant Cisco Systems is getting into the consumer electronics business--filled me with dread.
The idea of piping audio files from your computer to your home stereo or other audio devices is valid: I'm a big fan of the Sonos Multiroom Audio system, and Logitech and Apple have also made a go at it. But all three of these companies specialize in consumer products. They understand--nay, live and breathe--the process of hiding complexity under a clear user interface.
Playing music from multiple sources in a single playlist on a Sonos system is simple. Connecting a Mac or iPhone to an existing home network is almost invisibly simple.
Cisco's purchase of Linksys got the company into the consumer home-networking space. While setting up my Linksys wireless router for the first time was relatively painless, thanks to a downloadable applet, I had to use their free phone support line several times over the next few years to debug mysterious problems that cropped up.
The support itself was great--a real person always picked up immediately, and they were always able to resolve my problem eventually--but the complexity of the underyling technology just couldn't be hidden. Any support call that asks you to log into your router to check your DHCP settings is not simple, even if you are walked through the steps.
Cisco's a solid engineering company. If it manages to hire some great UI designers and brands these products appropriately--coming up with names that are more interesting than these would be a start--it has a fighting chance. If it thinks that enabling multiroom audio is just a few simple tweaks to its existing home networking products, forget about it.

SanDisk's SlotRadio strategy


SanDisk's SlotMusic strategy puzzled me at first. I didn't understand why anybody would pay almost the same price as a CD for an easily misplaced microSD card with lower-quality audio. The release of the $19.99 SlotMusic player, which is basically an MP3 player capable of playing these cards, changed my opinion a little bit. But I suggested that the real strength would come in curated cards containing, for example, a selection of songs from the Billboard charts. Given that a regular album cost $14.99 on this format, I figured that a curated card for the same price would include 20 or 30, or maybe 100 songs.
At CES this week, SanDisk surpassed my expectations with the new SlotRadio, a $39.99 MP3 player with a preloaded microSD card containing 1,000 songs. That's four cents a song, plus you get to keep the player, which is capable of playing the SlotMusic albums and other music contained on a microSD card, and also has an integrated FM tuner.
The first players will contain cards preloaded with Billboard chart hits, which is a fine place to start, but SlotRadio could get really interesting if SanDisk branches out beyond the mainstream. Imagine a collection of the year's top-rated albums by Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, or Nic Harcourt. Or heck, go a little further and hire musicians to curate the collections: imagine Keith Richards' favorite blues songs, or an Alan Bishop collection. You might expect that music nuts--the kinds of people who care about Sublime Frequencies--wouldn't relinquish control of their playlists, but at four cents a song, I'd be happy to save myself the trouble of ripping or downloading 1,000 tracks and let somebody else drive for a while. As long as it's a driver I trust.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

New USB-recording interfaces



I didn't imagine there was much room for innovation in USB-recording interfaces, but at the 2009 NAMM show--the annual convention for buyers and sellers of professional music gear (read: music gearhead paradise)--a couple of companies introduced some new takes on this very prosaic, but necessary, piece of gear.
For the uninitiated: A recording interface is the bridge between your musical output and your computer. You attach it to the computer, then plug your instrument (or multiple instruments, or output of a mixing board) into it, and voila. There are countless types of interfaces at all levels of price and complexity, but for home musicians who just want a quick way to get their musical ideas down on their hard drives, an inexpensive USB interface is the way to go. M-Audio is probably the best-known brand at this level, although Tascam and Edirol (part of Roland) are somewhat common as well.
IK's new StealthPedal is the weirder of the two new USB interfaces introduced at NAMM. It's sort of a Frankenstein's monster combination of guitar pedal and USB interface. The idea: You use the pedal to control a particular parameter (volume, wah, whatever) on the included AmpliTube2 software, which mimics the sonic characteristics of various amplifiers. (Although it's not limited to AmpliTube, but works with any software that's MIDI-controllable--effects modelers, digital-audio workstations, whatever.) It seems a bit like a solution in search of a problem--sort of like the keytar, but it could be useful in a live-recording situation. It'll run $270 in the U.S.
The new UA-1G from Cakewalk (owned by Roland) is probably more useful for most home musicians, especially those who want a quick and dirty way to record ideas to a laptop. It offers a surprising array of features for under $100: high-resolution (96kHz and 24-bit) recording, a bundled copy of Sonar LE (the low-end version of Cakewalk's digital audio workstation), a Hi-Z .25-inch input for recording electric guitar or bass, and a big volume knob. It's only one-input/one-output, which means you won't be recording your whole band, but it's perfect for those late-night inspirations or simple multitrack demos. Available in March.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

More Microsoft Zunes will Come in this year


Remember that teenage trick of sticking your fingers in your ears and saying, "I can't hear you"? That's how I felt on Thursday morning when I talked to Adam Sohn, the marketing director for Zune.
I don't mean that Microsoft is oblivious to reality: Sohn admitted that the latest Zune sales figures were bad (though apparently in line with Microsoft's very low expectations) and that the company would prefer to be selling millions of the things instead of having them pile up in warehouses. It's more like Microsoft doesn't care what the world thinks.
Despite calls from me and other bloggers for Microsoft to stop making standalone digital-media players--and maybe focus on its increasingly embattled Windows Mobile platform instead--Sohn insisted that as long as anybody else (read: Apple) is selling lots of standalone digital-media players, proving that there is a market for them, then Microsoft is going to keep trying.
Without getting into details, Sohn promised that there will be new Zunes before the 2009 holiday season and that they'll be a surprising step up from the current models.
The conversation eventually moved into other ways Microsoft could benefit from the Zune platform--integration with Xbox and Media Center, reselling it to cell carriers for their own music and video stores--but I kept wondering what Microsoft could be planning for next year.
A touch-screen Zune? Apple did that in 2007. Games? Apple's advertising the heck out of games for iPod Touch now. Some sort of whizzy communciations application, like voice communications in Wi-Fi hot spots using Windows Live Messenger IDs? (I'm reaching now, plus the mobile carriers--to whom Microsoft is trying to sell Windows Mobile--would freak.)
How about a built-in Zune Pass subscription, giving you unlimited music streaming and some number of permanent downloads for the first year or two? That idea doesn't seem to be working so well for Nokia, but Microsoft wouldn't have to rely on cell phone carriers (which have their own services) to push it.
Seriously. What, if anything, would convince you to buy a Zune next year?

Allchin goes from Windows to whammy bars


Seattle has an overabundance of rock musicians for a city its size, from pure garage amateurs to club bands to touring stars.
Microsoft employs about 40,000 people in the Seattle area today, and there are legions of ex-Microsofties who stuck around after they left the company. So there's bound to be some overlap between the two groups.
I know several serious and talented musicians who have or had day jobs at the 'Soft, but they tend to downplay the connection--showing up sober to work every day to build or sell software just doesn't play well in rock biographies.
Of course, some employees are so famous that it would be silly to pretend otherwise. Jim Allchin, who led Windows development for more than a decade, is among them.
I had heard for years that Allchin is a serious guitarist, and as Todd Bishop reports today, now he's got an album coming out.
After listening to the samples on Allchin's Web site, I will say that he can certainly play. I'd guess that he counts Eric Johnson, Joe Satriani, and Pat Metheny among his guitar influences.
He also produced the record, and his Web site has a bit of info about his recording techniques and gear: everything was recorded straight to hard drive using MOTU interfaces (I'm going to guess PCI rather than USB or FireWire) and Sonar Producer digital-audio workstation software--which is, not surprisingly, Windows-only (though you can run it on a Mac with emulation software). But I wonder if he used Windows Vista or XP?
Although Allchin's fairly famous in the tech community, he's probably the second most famous ex-Microsoft guitarist. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, a longstanding guitar player, released an album with his band Grown Men a few years ago. He's particularly well-known in Seattle music circles for jam sessions that can occur any time, any place.

Nokia 5800 - Comes With Music



It's been a long wait, but more than a year after Nokia announced its Comes With Music plan--free music downloads built into the price of the phone--the first Comes With Music phone is apparently coming to the U.S. in February.
According to The Nokia Blog, the Nokia 5800 Xpress Music (a.k.a. The Tube) will go on sale at U.S. retailers on Feb. 26 for a suggested price of $399. No carrier partners have been announced, so there's probably little chance of a carrier subsidy reducing the price at launch. CNET reviewed a preview version of the phone back in December and liked it fairly well, but I'm most interested in how the Comes With Music plan will stack up against Apple's iTunes.
According to the information CNET got back in October, when the 5800 was unveiled in the U.K., Comes With Music tracks will be playable on the phone and one PC, and will not expire after the year is up. From the reviews I've seen, it's truly an unlimited downloading service--there's no hidden limit, although Nokia's terms of use would let them cancel your service for "abusive or excessive downloading."
The experience is a little clunkier than iTunes from what I've read in the reviews. The phone comes with a card containing a code; enter that code into the Web-based Nokia Music Store and all prices in the store disappear. Everything has to be sideloaded--there's no direct over-the-air downloading to the phone as you can do with the iPhone--and it's PC only. You can't transfer the songs to any other phone, even another Comes With Music phone, nor can you burn them to a CD without paying extra. Songs are encoded in the Windows Media Audio format (which I've always thought is an excellent audio codec, for all of the other flaws with Microsoft's digital media strategy and products), and of course come with DRM to limit what you can do with them.
Still--everything you download lives on your PC forever. So while $399 is a significant premium over the iPhone, add in the price of a few thousand PC-tethered downloads, and it looks pretty competitive. At the very least, it could be an extremely convenient way to discover music--you can always buy full CD-burnable tracks of the songs you really like, then transfer them to other devices in other formats later on.


Unboxing my custom Zune 80


As a longtime iPod loyalist, I had a lot of mixed emotions ordering a Zune 80 for myself last Sunday. Part of me felt like a traitor, honestly. I thought about my poor 5G video iPod, which had been ignored for weeks at the bottom of my messenger bag while I played with Microsoft's loaner for my review. Now, I'd never abandon my iPod completely, especially considering that part of my job is reviewing the seemingly endless parade of iPod accessories. Still, I figure there's room in my life for another MP3 player, right? I mean, I would be negligent as a digital audio journalist if I didn't order one.
Well, my Zune 80 arrived today, and I can honestly say I have no regrets (so far). I went the custom route and ordered the Zune 80 directly from Microsoft on its ZuneOriginals site, complete with custom artwork. Say what you want about the Zune, but the designers have definitely outdone themselves on packaging details. From the foil-embossed box, to the golden envelope, the entire package from ZuneOriginals felt like it should be holding Lil' Jon's diamond-encrusted Pimp Cup. Considering that Microsoft is offering these deluxe versions of the Zune for roughly the same price I'd pay in the store, it feels like a bargain despite the fact that I'm really putting more money in Microsoft's pocket by ordering direct. From an industry perspective, I think it's interesting to see how the marketing team behind the Zune is using the ZuneOriginals concept to both make good on its "You make it you" campaign, and at the same time offer a real incentive for customers to buy direct.
I know all this Zune-love is going to make me sound like a shill for Microsoft, but trust me, I have my complaints, as well. I'm writing this because I think what Microsoft is doing with the design and marketing of the Zune is noteworthy, especially when so many iPod competitors seem to be getting more sheepish about their product launches year-by-year. I had just as much excitement opening my custom Zune 80 this morning as I did unboxing the iPhone on the day it was released--and that's no small feat. It may sound like novelty, but part of that excitement was because of the mystery of how good or bad the artwork etching would turn out (quite good, I thought). I think it's also worth noting that this was a fun product to order, thanks to the online customization tool employed on the ZuneOriginals Web site. Getting two lines of text etched into my iPod was not nearly as exciting as browsing Zune's catalog of full-size artwork. As a longtime iPod fan, it pains to admit when the competition looks this good, but I honestly believe the Zune deserves some recognition here.
And now for the show...Here's a hastily-produced video of the unboxing of my "Originals" Zune 80, with running commentary from Josh Lowensohn and Nicole Lee. A more detailed photo gallery can be found here.

Where shall I download music for my 3G iPhone


According to Apple's iPhone 3G product page, the mobile version of the iTunes music store will remain accessible only over the phone's Wi-Fi connection, and will not take advantage of the new 3G capability. I guess it shouldn't come as a shock that the wireless version of iTunes (dubbed "iTunes Wi-Fi") should remain a strictly Wi-Fi service. Still, it does seem like Apple has missed an obvious opportunity to allow users more ways to purchase music.
With services such as Napster Mobile and Rhapsody already allowing wireless music downloads over 3G networks for many iPhone competitors, Apple's reluctance to jump on board likely comes down to an unwillingness to share per-track revenues with AT&T. After all, when you own the music service and the hardware, why concede any profit to a wireless carrier if you can help it?
Only Apple knows for sure why music downloads have been locked out of the iPhone's 3G capability, but personally I'm disappointed to not see it included. The iPhone is so close to becoming a great music discovery tool, but limitations such as this and lack of Flash audio support are big barriers for online music fans. Oh, and don't get me started about the lack of streaming Bluetooth audio.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

My Mustc Gadgets



There are a few things I look at when considering a music gadget for personal use--OK, who am I kidding? I look at everything. But some key points top my list. One of them is design; I prefer devices that are stylish or unique in some way without sacrificing usability. Other necessary features include solid sound quality, a customizable interface, and handy features.
The 32GB Creative Zen scores high in most categories. It's a high-capacity device with a slim, compact design, a large screen, and a customizable interface; it sounds fantastic; and it's a breeze to operate. It also packs in features that I really use, such as an onboard calendar and a contact list (that can by synced from Outlook), FM radio, and support for subscription music. For the gym, I prefer the SanDisk Sansa Clip, which offers a removable belt clip, a tiny chassis, and impressive sound quality. Plus, it's super friendly on the wallet and works with Macs. Finally, we have the Sony NWZ-A810, which garners my attention with its stellar audio quality and fantastic battery life. In fact, I bought this player for my brother.
Of course, you can't make the most out of any MP3 player without some worthy audio accessories. For me, there are a couple that stand out from the crowd. In the $100 range, I'm really digging the Philips SHE-9850 earphones because of their solid sound quality and super sleek and small earbuds. Plus, they're super comfortable. For active pursuits, my top choice are the Sony MDR-AS50G Active Headphones. Their unique design keeps them secure on the head and they sound good, too. Finally, there's the iMainGo 2 portable speaker case, which comes in a variety of colors, fits most MP3 players, and packs a punch in the audio department without adding to much bulk to your carry-on.


Remote control app


A report from the MacRumors blog shows supposedly leaked details of Apple's plans to allow the iPhone and iPod Touch to act as an in-home remote control for iTunes. As CNET's News.com reported this morning, the leaked remote control feature was discovered in a developer-only beta release of iTunes 7.7, evidenced in part by this unconfirmed screen shot.
If the rumors are accurate, the new iTunes remote control feature will be offered as a free application for iPhone and iPod Touch users once the iTunes App Store goes live. Presumably, a touch-screen remote control for iTunes could offer some of the same onscreen display and control functions as products like the Sonos music system or Logitech Squeezebox Duet. Unlike the music-subscription-friendly Sonos or Squeezebox systems, however, users of the iTunes remote control application would only have access to content from their iTunes library.
While users of iPhone-optimized Web applications such as iPeng have had similar iTunes remote control functionality for some time now, a one-step Apple-engineered solution would be less convoluted, and perhaps offer as-yet-revealed advantages. For instance, if the remote control feature already solves the problem of wirelessly linking your iPhone or iPod Touch into your home network, what's to stop Apple from finally offering the same type of wireless sync included on the Zune?

Buy music online

As one may suspect, working in digital music gives a person a somewhat skewed view about the permeation of online music in the general population. Everyone (aside from audiophiles and vinyl buffs) is getting their music fix though the Web nowadays, right? Wrong. Although digital music is on the rise, it's still well behind CDs in terms of overall sales ($2.8 billion versus $15.9 billion, according to one report).

Another report forecasts that digital music sales won't surpass physical media for another four years. Well, what say we prove some people wrong (always fun) and shave a year or two off that number? To help you sort through the clutter of online music, I've rounded up my Top 5 choices for digital tunes. These selections aren't really in any particular order; rather, each service offers a variety of advantages depending on your personal needs and preferences.


iTunes: Owned by Apple, the iTunes store set the pattern for a la carte music shopping and still reigns king over the customer base. iTunes has sold more than 5 billion songs to date, and it offers excellent integration with the world's best-selling MP3 player, the iPod. It's catalog contains more than 8 million songs as well as a variety of podcasts, TV shows, and movies. The one major bummer is that most of the tracks sold in iTunes can only be played on the iPod or iPhone and not any other MP3 player. You must download the iTunes software in order to access the store, but it works on both Windows and Mac operating systems.

eMusic: This indie representer is quite a ways behind iTunes in catalog numbers and sales, but it controls the second largest market share (10 to 15 percent, according to label feedback). eMusic has sold more than 200 million tracks in the past four years and is currently averaging five to six million song downloads per month from its catalog of over 3.5 million tracks. The company made a name for itself with an all-you-can-download service but now offers limited subscriptions, starting at $11.99 per month for 30 unrestricted MP3s. Thanks to this "track pack" pricing and the fact that the company doesn't currently sell big label songs, eMusic offers an incredible value: it is the cheapest of the bunch by far (27 cents per track with the Premium plan). It also has a large number of music reviews by editors and users alike.

Amazon MP3: Started by online retail giant Amazon.com, this music store was the first to offer DRM-free MP3 tracks from the Big Four (aka major music labels). In fact, Amazon deserves a lot of credit for the current movement to do away with confusing restrictions on music downloads. Plus, the company has a huge audience and broad appeal, which will no doubt give digital music a violent shove into the mainstream mindset. Amazon offers a constantly growing catalog, which currently holds over 5 million tracks. It is a Web-based store with only a light app required for queuing downloads. Anyone with a Windows, Mac, or Linux machine can access the store, which also offers audiobooks, movies, and TV shows as digital downloads.



Napster: Once the reigning peer-to-peer music service, Napster is now a legal music store. It recently transitioned its catalog from DRM-protected WMAs back to the ever-popular unprotected MP3 format that it slung back in its trading days and currently offers the largest selection of legal MP3s on the Web (more than 6 million tracks). Napster offers some excellent editorial content, including music reviews as well as preprogrammed playlists and radio stations. The downloadable client only works on Windows, but anyone with a Web connection can access the store online and purchase tracks.

Rhapsody: Similar to Napster in most respects, Rhapsody offers a catalog of more than 4.5 million DRM-free MP3s. It's chock-full of preprogammed playlists made by editors and other listeners and includes an innovative radio feature called Channels, some of which are offered up for free listening. Rhapsody is the only service that allows full track previews (up to 25 per month) prior to purchasing the songs. It can be accessed directly on the Web or downloaded as a jukebox (for Windows only) and offers a subscription plan as well.