A Big Week for Blu-ray, But Is It Enough?

blu-ray-logoIt’s been a year and a half since Blu-ray toppled HD DVD to win the high-def DVD format war. While Blu-ray won that battle, it hasn’t exactly set the marketplace — or the tech industry — on fire. Consumers have been relatively slow to upgrade to Blu-ray players, and many tech pundits are convinced it’s nothing more than a stopgap technology.

Gee, the future for Blu-ray seems pretty bleak, doesn’t it? Well, not exactly. This week, the format gained some ground, earning the backing of its onetime archrival, Toshiba. And it’s rumored that Apple, which has been vocal in its opposition to the HD disc format, may even be next in line. Combine this with recent news that sales of Blu-ray players are increasing and that more consumers are aware of the technology and plan to make purchases, and you might think that a Blu-ray boom time has arrived. I’d like to think so, too, but I’m not convinced. Still, it is a good sign for the future of the format — and for consumers who want more Blu-ray options in stores.

Blu-ray on the Upswing

Recent data from the NPD Group shows that sales of Blu-ray players increased 72 percent in the first quarter of 2009 compared with the same period in 2008. Of course, the first quarter of 2008 was when the Blu-ray-HD DVD war ended, so the comparison isn’t entirely applicable. But the research also shows that consumers are more aware of the Blu-ray format than they have been in the past, and they’re ever-so-slightly more inclined to actually buy Blu-ray players. Six percent of people said they are “extremely or very likely” to buy a Blu-ray player in the next six months, compared with 5 percent of consumers asked that same question in an August 2008 survey. FutureSource, meanwhile, is predicting that Blu-ray discs will account for 50 percent of all home video sales by 2012.

A 1 percent increase in the number of people “extremely or very likely” to buy a Blu-ray doesn’t bowl me over. Sure, you can blame the economy — if times were better, I’m sure more people would be thinking about buying a Blu-ray player. But even in today’s economy, I’d like to see more than a 1 percent increase. And a 50 percent market share gain by 2012 seems like an awfully slow uptake.

Toshiba: HD DVD No More

The least-surprising Blu-ray item of the week is news that Toshiba has finally thrown its support behind Blu-ray. The company says it will launch a line of Blu-ray products this year. This is notable because Toshiba, of course, was the primary backer of the HD DVD format — the chief rival to, and eventual victim of, Blu-ray.

Toshiba said it will offer Blu-ray players and laptops with Blu-ray drives later this year. The company also announced that it will join the Blu-ray Association. In a statement announcing the news, Toshiba said the decision to jump on the Blu-ray bandwagon was made “in light of recent growth in digital devices supporting the Blu-ray format, combined with market demand from consumers and retailers alike.”

The move is not unexpected. Industry watchers have been waiting for Toshiba to back Blu-ray for more than a year. The big deal here seems to be not the fact that Toshiba has finally succumbed to the wills of Blu-ray, but instead that it took it so long to do so. That Toshiba waited a year and a half to make this statement speaks volumes louder than the announcement itself.

Apple Goes Blu-ray?

Of greater interest (and intrigue) are rumors that Apple will add support for Blu-ray to the next major release of iTunes, version 9. While Apple has not confirmed the reports, BoyGeniusReport.com claims to have been tipped off to the news by a “pretty reliable source.” That source says that iTunes 9 will get “Blu-ray support” but doesn’t detail exactly what that means; Engadget, meanwhile is speculating that it may just be support for Blu-ray’s “Managed Copy” feature, which allows consumers to make a backup copy of their discs.

While Blu-ray support in iTunes is nothing but speculation at this point, it does seem to be a more substantial rumor than the one concerning Apple and the high-def disc format: that the company will add Blu-ray drives to its MacBook laptops. Adding the hardware would make it easier for Mac users to take advantage of the Blu-ray features in iTunes, but it’s still an unconfirmed rumor at best — and a pipe dream at worst.

And we’ve heard this before. Apple was rumored to be adding Blu-ray drives to the MacBooks that it debuted last October. When they arrived without Blu-ray drives, CEO Steve Jobs famously called the format a “bag of hurt.” Calling the licensing “complex,” he said: “We’re waiting until things settle down, and waiting until Blu-ray takes off before we burden our customers with the cost of licensing.”

If Apple were to throw its weight behind Blu-ray, it could be a giant step forward for the format. And I think that’s a good thing. Blu-ray may have won the format wars, but it’s still struggling, and it needs all the help it can get. Sure, I think we’re moving toward an all-digital future, where movies are streamed directly to our TVs. But I think that future is a long way off. In the meantime, I’d like a solid, reliable HD format. And, for now anyway, I want that format to be Blu-ray.


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Unofficial Apple blogger makes $125,000 a year

According to Silicon Alley Insider, Josh Gruber, who runs the site Daring Fireball, pulls in an estimated $125,000 a year from his blog.

John, reached by e-mail, wouldn’t comment on how much money his site makes, but he says it provides his full-time income. He says the site has recently been close to averaging 2 million monthly pageviews and about 250,000 monthly unique visitors — including some very important ones at Apple headquarters. He also estimates about 150,000 subscribers to his RSS feed.

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Dexim’s Decent iPod Dock

dexim_dockI really like Dexim’s AV Dock Station, a handy little gadget that lets you connect your iPod or iPhone to your TV. In fact, if not for one pretty major flaw, I’d be ready to buy one of these myself.

The DRA107 AV Dock Station is a compact iPod/iPhone dock that connects to your TV via composite A/V. The necessary cables — and eight different iPod/iPhone connectors — are included in the $69.95 package. You just connect it to your TV, plop your iPod into the dock, and you’re in business. The Dexim dock has its own battery, and comes with an AC adapter for charging it when it gets too low. It will also charge your iPhone or iPod when the device is in the dock.

You can control your iPhone or iPod by using their controls (even when in the dock) or by using Dexim’s remote — which is convenient, but a bit limiting. The remote’s buttons didn’t always work as I expected, largely because while the round wheel on the remote looks like the touch-sensitive controls on the front of my iPod Nano, the remote itself is not touch-sensitive. And pressing the wheel up or down controls the volume, rather than letting you navigate through menus. Instead, you have to resort to using up-and-down arrows on the remote to navigate, which seems counterintuitive.

Once you start playing a song, a video, or even a YouTube video on your phone, the content automatically displays on your TV screen. In my tests, most video looked very good, though some content looked slightly washed out. My iPhone and iPod don’t hold any true HD content, but the videos I played back looked sharp — much more so than standard-def content viewed on the same TV. Video automatically reformatted for playback on my 16:9 TV, and the audio was loud and clear. The overall experience was far more enjoyable than watching video on the small screen of an iPod or an iPhone.

I didn’t have the same luck with the AV Dock Station’s audio playback, though. Many times, I was simply unable to get it to play on my TV. I’d start a song on my iPod or iPhone, but my TV would display a message saying it wasn’t receiving a signal from the AV connection. Dexim said the problem was likely due to a faulty setting on my TV, which I was unable to fix. I was able to get the audio to play sporadically, but even when it was working, the audio quality left me underwhelmed — in large part due to the low quality of my TV speakers.

You can find similar products that will connect your iPod/iPhone to your TV. Griffin, for one, offers a $50 set of cables that will handle the job, though without the neat dock to keep you organized. Apple also offers a dock and a set of cables, but buying both products will cost you $100.

I like the Dexim dock’s affordable price. And while I’m not sold on the idea of playing my music through my TV, I still wish the AV Dock Station worked consistently as advertised. That would make me much more eager to recommend what seems to be a pretty cool product.


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Vid-Biz: Magnify, Tremor, Spinal Tap

Magnify.net Raises $500K; new funding comes from previous investors, brings total amount raised to less than $3 million. (paidContent)

Two Execs Leave Tremor Media; co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Andrew Reis and co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer Jesse Chenard depart the video ad network to pursue startup opportunities. (MediaPost)

Smell the Glove, Apple to Produce Original Spinal Tap Content; first original short film from iTunes reunites the aging mock rockers. (Tubefilter)

ESPN Bans its Workforce from Twittering Sports News; supposed internal memo from the network says “If ESPN.com opts not to post sports related social media content created by ESPN talent, you are not permitted to report, speculate, discuss or give any opinions on sports related topics or personalities on your personal platforms(.)” (CNET)

Study: Out of Home Video Reached 155 Million Americans Last Month; video displays in retail locations, grocery stores, gas stations and more are becoming ubiquitous. (MediaWeek)


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Vid-Biz: Schmidt, Netflix, YouTube

Eric Schmidt Resigns from Apple’s Board; move comes as the two companies increasingly compete head-to-head in multiple sectors. (GigaOM)

Report: Netflix Coming to iPhone/Touch and the Wii? Multichannel’s unnamed industry source says you’ll be able to watch on additional devices (though probably only over WiFi). (Multichannel News) Meanwhile, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said there is no magic number that would trigger the company offering a streaming-only solution, and that the company is still focused on its hybrid strategy. (Video Business)

YouTube Gets Into Local News; video site wants to work with news outlets to deliver (and monetize) News Near You content, but local stations aren’t sure if hooking up with Google is really in their best interest. (The New York times)

Real-Time Animation Starting to Transform TV Production; the ability to create graphics and animation on the fly helps with visualization during green-screen shooting. (Variety)

WGA to Rep CBS New Media Writers; 15 news, promo and sports writers creating content for CBS in the LA area joing up with the scribe’s union. (The Hollywood Reporter)

Add Some Asparagus to Your YouTube Video; CollegeHumor gives you the secret codes to spice up any YouTube clip. (via Mashable)


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What the Heck Is Going on With Apple TV?

Apple, during its quarterly earnings call yesterday, didn’t bring up its stepchild set-top box, the Apple TV. For those who follow the video industry, this is more of a predictable disappointment than a shocker. But as the video world evolves all around it, Apple appears to be stuck on pause, rather than fast-forwarding us into a television experience of the future. What gives?

AppleQ3

The company has a history of relegating the Apple TV to the kids’ table, referring to it as a “hobby,” or not referring to it at all, as it did yesterday during its second-quarter conference call. But time isn’t on Apple’s side, and if it wants to be a player in this space, it needs to do something. Consider:

  • Microsoft, ironically, is becoming a true innovator in the living room. The company associated with boring PCs isn’t just using its Xbox game console as a gateway onto people’s TVs, it’s busting down the door with new social viewing features, social media integration and 1080p HD streaming.
  • Netflix and Amazon continue to strike deals with multiple consumer electronics partners, putting their services on just about every net-connected Blu-ray and TV out there. (And who knows, the two might merge to form one gigantic VOD Voltron-like service!)
  • Hulu and the cable companies will offer a one-two punch of putting TV shows from the broadcast and cable networks online. Granted, there will be windowing issues and you’ll need a cable subscription for some of that content, but these options greatly expand a viewer’s VOD choices at any one time.

But we still won’t count Apple out entirely. Michael Wolf over at our GigaOM Pro service (subscription required) recently outlined some new directions Apple could take with the Apple TV, including a shift towards gaming and apps and tighter integration with other Apple products, like the iPhone or a web pad.

What do you think is going on with the Apple TV? Do you have one? Do you use it? What does it need?


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Review Round-Up: iPhone 3G S Offers Improvements, But Nothing Revolutionary

Some of the first reviews have started to trickle in on the new Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) iPhone coming out this Friday. Above and beyond the consensus seems to be that the 3G S upgrades will be nice, but it’s nothing that will blow your socks off. Instead, the software update — which everyone can start downloading today — is much more important in terms of new features, especially since it’s accessible to all. Here’s a look at what the technology reviewers are saying: WSJ’s Walt Mossberg: “I don