Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Apple Undercuts the Zune

Apple's Rock and Roll Event

I hate to say it, but the biggest news from the past couple of weeks is Apple's event. This isn't unfortunate because I have a vendetta with Apple products (I think they're very high quality, in fact), but it wasn't a very exciting event. Not every year can be an iPhone year, but it sounds like it was still a good event. You can get all the juicy details here but the gist of it is: new iTunes, new Nano, and new Shuffle. The new iTunes 9 allows you to share music across multiple machines, has a re-designed store (geared more towards sharing than before, in a legal way), features endless genius mixes, and adds iTunes LP for enhanced liner notes. The only brand new feature here really is the home sharing thing, but this doesn't seem very different from what Windows Media Player already does. The new Nano is kind of nifty, I have to admit.

It comes in some beautiful colors, features a camera (for pictures and video), has a larger display, includes a pedometer, and allows you to pause live radio. Interestingly enough, it also has a mic and a speaker. More than ever, the Nano feels like just a small iPod. It's not a mind-blowing update to the Nano series, but it does look great overall.

The Shuffle update was much less eventful: it supports normal headphones (like it always should've) and comes in 5 colors, plus a limited edition stainless steel.

What I really wanted to get to were the prices: they're lower and come at an inopportune time for Microsoft with the Zune HD looming in the very near future (as in, tomorrow). The Shuffle is $60 for 2 GB and $80 for 4 GB, the new Nano is $180 for 16 GB and $150 for 8 GB, and the iPod Touch was dropped down to $200 for 8 GB, $300 for 32 GB, and now there's a 64 GB flavor for $400. Comparatively, the Zune HD is $290 for 32 GB and $220 for 16 GB. This definitely takes away some of Microsoft's thunder, and Apple may have timed this event for the purpose of undercutting the Zune HD's great price points. In the end, this is all great for consumers, but I hope that Microsoft doesn't get sidled out of the market by an event proclaiming only incremental updates. I'd like to see some real competition for Apple aside from just Sansa, which has a pitiful share of the market compared to Apple's more than 75% share, which leaves Microsoft with a single digit share of the pie. I'm not a fan of Sansa's showings and I'm a little afraid that if the Zune HD fails that we won't see innovation in portable audio for years. So here's to hoping for a clean fight!

Palm Pixi

Who is this guy that Palm is hiring to name their products nowadays? I mean seriously, is this guy high out of his mind? Treo and Centro were good names, I thought, but the Pre and Pixi are really bad names. It's pretty emasculating for a guy to carry around a phone named 'Pixi'. Anyway, it's official now and it's what we suspected: a candybar webOS phone akin to what Centro was to the Treo. Unfortunately, it'll be exclusive to Sprint, but it will be out this holiday season. To be fair, I'm on Sprint and don't think it's as bad as people say: my coverage, especially 3G, is excellent, the pricing is fair, and I love the new Any Mobile feature (free calls to any mobile phone in the country with an Everything Plan), but their customer service sucks. Still, I was hoping that Palm would expand to other carriers in the spring with webOS. They still can, but I don't think Pixi is going to do a whole lot for Palm or Sprint.

The software is pretty much what you'd expect from seeing the Pre; the only major difference is that it now adds LinkedIn and Yahoo to the list of sites it can sync contacts from, and will include a Facebook app that looks better than the terrible website Facebook has for webOS. On the outside, it definitely looks slick. It's even slimmer than the iPhone 3GS, has the nice back plate that you normally only get with the touchstone for the Pre, and keys on the keyboard are higher so they're supposedly easier to type on than the Pre (mind you, I'm quite comfortable typing on my Pre so I have high hopes for the Pixi keyboard). Under the hood, it's less powerful than the Pre but looks like it performs quite well from Engadget's videos.

I know I started out negative on the Pixi, and while I don't think it'll be groundbreaking (since it's staying on Sprint), I think it's going to turn more heads and bring more people into webOS who were turned off by the Pre's slider or keyboard or the fact that it was first generation. I'm really concerned that Palm won't make it to Verizon with webOS before the iPhone, or that it'll never be a success on AT&T because of the iPhone, but I do hope it flourishes because I'm really loving it. I still haven't had time to play with the SDK, but I'm liking the apps on it so far (new ones every Friday) and all the basics of the phone have worked out great for me with very few glitches compared to my old Treo 650. Plus, it looks like the app store really isn't going to be crazy strict like Apple's despite a media player being turned away. Palm reached out stating that it was only rejected for use of unsupported APIs and they'd like to find a way for the application to get released but have nothing against it being a homebrew application freely available outside of the app store. Now that's how you're supposed reject an application, not with smoke and mirrors like Apple does.

Government Control of the Internet

A cybersecurity bill has been proposed that gives the government the power to control the Internet (e.g. cut people off) in an emergency situation, and the Internet was not pleased. I agree with them: this bill is flat out stupid. I'm not a big proponent of big government, and I don't think the government has the technical expertise to manage the Internet in a time of crisis. Does it really need to, anyway? The Internet is bigger than the power of the U.S. government, and it's not really clear, as far as I can tell, what the use case for this really is. I feel like it gives too much power in the case of a situation that's hypothetical. There are cyber security threats all the time that are handled by private companies, and of course the military handles cybersecurity threats against them, but I can't envision a situation where the government would need to be involved, especially since the Internet isn't a public utility.

Best Buy Employees Spread Misinformation

This story was too crazy for me to not talk about it briefly. It's been confirmed that Microsoft has provided training documentation to Best Buy employees that attacks Linux and, by most Linux users' account, slanders Linux. Like the "I'm a Mac" ads, the information provided wasn't full of outright lies, but anyone familiar with Linux would be able to explain why the claims aren't true. It's disappointing that Microsoft is standing on the cusp of their best product release since XP and yet they're doing crap like this. This came to light a couple of weeks ago when a Best Buy employee leaked the training documentation, and Daily Finance then followed up and got an official statement from Microsoft on it.

I have two points I'd like to make. First of all, this shows that Microsoft is scared of Linux. If they didn't feel threatened they wouldn't bother with this. 5 years ago they scoffed at the mention of Linux, but with the popularity of the open-source operation system growing every year (albeit, not to a mainstream size yet) I guess they decided that it had reached a critical mass. I think Linux contributors should take this as a compliment, to be honest. The second point is that this shows why brick and mortar stores are losing business. Retail is a crazy industry and if you're not going to raise the bar and you're going to choose to provide a bad customer experience by spreading questionable information then you deserve to lose business. I haven't been to a big box electronics store in months and since I joined Amazon Prime I literally have had no desire to do so, especially since (as I mentioned a while ago) a Fry's employee try to pimp Monster cables to me with bullshit. Ok, time to get off my soapbox.


I have a few more stories I'd like to cover before I start preparing for my recruiting trip this weekend (Longhorn CS majors should stop by the Amazon booth next Monday at the career fair, for sure - I've got some fun questions lined up for people).

Google has announced a plan to develop a syncing service for the Chrome browser to sync bookmarks and other browser data to the clouds. Clearly, they're gearing up for Chrome OS.

YouTube is looking into movie rentals, which is just one more avenue Google is investigating in its longstanding hunt to monetize YouTube. It doesn't seem unreasonable that we could see movie rentals on YouTube next year given that you can already rent movies digitally from the Playstation 3, Netflix, and Amazon Video on Demand, among others.

More solid rumors surfaced regarding an Apple Tablet and the possibility of it coming out as soon as November. It seriously does sound real this time, but only time will tell.

Tech Radar has a really cool article up about OLED highlighting its advantages and disadvantages. If only it was cheaper to produce!

Sony pushed out version 3.0 of the PS3 firmware (aka XMB, the Cross Media Bar), and it may be the most drastic change yet with animated themes, a fancier default theme, a better notification area in the top right corner, improvements to the friends list and trophy section, simultaneous output across audio connectors (still not sure what that means), more avatars, and a What's New that the PS3 boots up to that features new updates in the store and the games you recently played. Very cool stuff (I'm a fan of the simple elegance of XMB).

I don't know if I'll be able to post next week since I'll be in Austin Friday through Tuesday morning, but I'll do my best to get something up here next week.

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