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CES: Connecting the home with HD, Part 1

Wirelesshd_2The consumer electronics industry may know where it's headed, but it doesn't seem to know how to get there. That was my takeaway from this week's International Consumer Electronics Show, where once again there was more talk than action around the topic of the connected home. Clearly, manufacturers are focused on creating devices that link seamlessly to each other to share audio, video and images. And they had plenty of prototypes and demos showing how two or three items could feed the same screen and respond to the same remote control. But if you were hoping for a standard way to bring together every piece of your personal entertainment gear, from TV and stereo to camcorder and cell phone, regardless of the brand, you were out of luck. It's not for lack of trying. There are several inter-industry groups working on various aspects of the problem. It's just that seemingly every year a new set of pieces get thrown into the puzzle.

Continue reading CES: Connecting the home with HD, Part 1 »

CD sales' abysmal year

Josh_groban_noel The year-end sales numbers for the music industry came out last week, and they were even more grim than expected. So I have to admit, I was wrong a year ago when I said:

We seemed to have reached the point now where digital sales have grown enough to fill the void left by slumping plastic-disc sales. And if the growth continues at anything close to the current rate -- downloadable albums doubled to 32.6 million, and downloadable tracks increased 65% to 582 million -- total sales of albums and songs in the U.S. might actually (gasp) grow.

Yeah, I feel pretty stupid now. CD sales were down so much in 2007, even when you included digital album sales the total was 15% below the previous year's numbers. Throwing in digital singles doesn't help much, either, despite a 45% increase there: the total for CDs, digital albums and digital album equivalents (i.e., each group of 10 downloadable singles) was 9.5% below the corresponding figure for 2006.

We can all speculate about the reasons for the accelerating slide, although I'm not inclined to blame the artists. Every year I think there's an incredible amount of great music being produced, albeit mostly by independents, and last year was no exception. Instead, I'll refer you to some great number-crunching by Bob Lefsetz. In a nutshell, the problem for this hits-dependent industry is that the hits just ain't as big anymore.

-- Jon Healey

The photo of "Noel" by Josh Groban, the top-selling album of 2007, is courtesy of Groban's website.

CES: Schilling makes his pitch to the video game industry

Schilling_pic_2 As a World Series champion pitcher for the Boston Red Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks, Curt Schilling has long used computer analysis as part of his rigorous pregame preparation.

Now he hopes his stellar baseball career has prepared him for a life with computers. Schilling, who is 41 and says the coming season (for the Red Sox) will be his last in baseball, has founded and self-funded a computer game company that has been hiring industry veterans as well as some notable outsiders.

Though the first big game from 38 Studios won't come out until late 2010, the Maynard, Mass., start-up already has 35 employees and is looking for outside investors.

During a small dinner for the media at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, Schilling said he had long been an active player of such major multi-user games as "World of Warcraft" and "Everquest."

As a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s "The Lord of the Rings" and other detailed fantasy realms, Schilling hired bestselling novelist R.A. Salvatore to create the world and Todd McFarlane, who won an Emmy for the HBO series "Spawn," as creative art director.

Schilling said his only post-baseball occupation will be serving the company, which he likewise hopes will be the last job for other workers.

The Beantown icon said he was motivated in part by the possibility of changing his employees' lives for the better, especially after learning how debilitating the gaming industry can be for software developers.

"My only two rules are: Show up on time and kick ass," Schilling said, attributing that mantra -- and the rest of his managerial strategy -- to Red Sox Manager Terry Francona.

But he conceded that there were times when his All-Star history made it hard to empathize completely with the staff. Schilling, who is famous for pitching with a bloody sock as a result of having his injured ankle tendon sutured in place, recalled one weekly meeting where an employee complained about being tired.

"Let me tell you how this works: I stitched up my ankle to pitch in the World Series," Schilling remembered telling the man. "Let’s GO!"

-- Joseph Menn

Photo by the Associated Press

CES: Paramount endorses hard drives

Videogiants_logo_2 Here's an unusual first. Paramount Pictures announced a deal Wednesday to let MusicGiants, an online music store that caters to audiophiles, sell collections of movies loaded onto hard drives. Buyers will be able to transfer the contents of those drives onto personal  computers or, more likely, home media servers. The deal marks the first time Paramount -- and probably any major Hollywood studio -- has let its films be a) delivered on hard drives and b) loaded in bulk onto home servers. MusicGiants will also be able to sell downloadable titles one by one through its new online video store, dubbed VideoGiants, although it doesn't plan to do so until later this year.

Continue reading CES: Paramount endorses hard drives »

CES Video: Tech goes into the gutter

CES Video: Low-tech wheels at high-tech expo

CES: PortoMedia's video kiosks

Portomedia_movie_key_2gb Heard this one before? A tech start-up company plans to install movie-rental kiosks in airports, train stations and convenience stores. This go-around, the would-be entertainment retailer is PortoMedia of Galway, Ireland, whose business plan revolves around tiny, souped-up flash drives. The company is backed by IBM, which is supplying the kiosk technology, and claims to be in late-stage talks with the major Hollywood studios. The kiosk idea has been floated (and sunk) many times, most recently as a way to burn DVDs on demand at video stores and other retailers. What makes PortoMedia a bit different -- in a way that bodes well for its business -- is shorter wait times for customers and lower equipment costs.

Continue reading CES: PortoMedia's video kiosks »

CES: Gadget of the day


Polaroid has rediscovered its mojo.

The company that defined photographic instant gratification introduced a new inkless printer for pictures taken on a cellphone or with a digital camera. Transfer the image to the Polaroid Digital Instant Mobile Photo Printer via Bluetooth wireless technology on the phone or a USB cable on the camera. The portable printer spits out an image on a 2-inch-by-3-inch sticky-backed paper. In demonstrations, the whole thing happened in about a minute.

But what's really magic about the printer is its zero ink technology -- or Zink, for short. It uses special paper that is embedded with 100 billion yellow, magenta and cyan dye crystals. The colors appear when the printer applies 200 million heat pulses, in 30 seconds, in a single pass. The paper costs about 30 cents a print, and the printer sells for $150.

Unlike Polaroid photos of old, this image is resistant to fading and can be dunked in water without running (we watched).

-- Dawn C. Chmielewski

Photo: Polaroid

CES Video: The Amazon perspective

Amazon.com's vice president of consumer electronics, Paul Ryder, walked the show floor with us to talk about some of the themes from CES 2008 that resonate with Amazon customers. One theme he repeated was the important distinction for users between convergence-capable and convergence excellence.

-- Michelle Maltais

CES: Penn Jillette will make you puke

Sony Pictures Entertainment Co. has spent the last six months trying to elevate its online video site, Crackle, as a cut above the creative chaff of other user-generated sites that serve up fat cats watching TV and skateboarding dogs.

It is in this spirit that Crackle announced the premiere of "Penn Says," the first unscripted series created specifically for the Internet by the outspoken comic, magician and pundit Penn Jillette. I should have prepared myself for what would come next: Even the press release describes the short, four-times-a-week videos as a "raw look inside Penn's life."

Penn placed a bean on his tongue, and, through a series of snorts, grunts and painful facial contortions, expelled the bean through the tear duct of an eye. The gross-out feat -- which Penn chose because he was prevented from doing fire eating -- literally made me retch over my keyboard and, for once, appreciate being too busy at the show to eat lunch.

"Remember, this is what I do when they don’t let me do what I want to do," Penn said. "All the Sony people should keep that in mind: You put one barrier up, it’s going to get worse."

I wonder how much worse it'll get for Sony's online site, which has apparently abandoned the creative high ground for the mosh pit.

-- Dawn C. Chmielewski

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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