Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Format Wars c. 2007

I confess to finding it really hard to understand the thought processes that allowed us to reach the current state of affairs in high-def DVD. Yes, I know a lot of the history and all that but the current impasse is just so destructive to everyone involved. I don't really buy the thought that the format will be made irrelevant by movie downloads (too complicated, too relatively pricey). However, I have no doubts that very little is happening on the high-def front because consumers don't want to invest in a format that could end up the loser. I suspect, at the end of the day, it will take dual-format readers/writers to make the issue largely irrelevant as with DVD+ and DVD-.
But forget the anecdotal take on the situation. Here's real data from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings from the Wall Street Journal:
WSJ: How important is renting HD-DVD and Blu-ray movies, the two new high-definition disc formats, for Netflix?
Hastings: Tragically small. We have all the titles on HD-DVD and Blu-ray. They're running neck-and-neck, but the total volume is less than 1% of our volume. Consumers want high-def, but the perception of a format war is freezing consumers out. Until that perception stops, very few consumers will try the new high-def discs.
via Hacking NetFlix.

Lasting Appeals

Mark Caro of the Chicago Tribune brings us some unexpected statistics from Netflix that show less-watched and less-awarded films now beating out better-known ones for renters and buyers.
“Box office success doesn’t mean it’s going to have a lasting critical appeal, and even an Academy Award is no guarantee,” said Patricia King Hanson, executive editor of the American Film Institute’s Catalog of Feature Films. “Some of the films that are going to be very high on the all-time greatest lists are likely to never have won an Academy Award.”
As both the article and some of the commenters on Hacking Netflix note, there are a number of possible explanations for this data. More people may have seen the blockbusters in the theatres and now are catching up on the "smaller" movies via rental. Or they tend to buy the DVDs of big-name popular films down at Best Buy. Some popular movies, e.g. The Sixth Sense, don't lend themselves as well to repeat viewing as others.
I think there's probably some validity to those explanations. I'm a Netflix subscriber but I picked up The Departed at loss-leader pricing when it came out. So there's one data point (i.e. anecdote) in favor of the counter-explanations.
On the other hand, there are more than a few cases where Oscar winners have proven to be ephemeral favorites compared to some of the also-rans. This piece from The Guardian entitled "Oscar's Greatest Crimes" recaps some of the worst offenses. My all-time vote goes to Apocalypse Now's loss to Kramer vs. Kramer. Whatever the former's flaws it remains a well-admired film whereas Kramer vs. Kramer set a high-water mark for ordinariness (which only lasted a year before the aptly-named Ordinary People eclipsed it.)

Getting Power Right

One wouldn't think at this point in history that getting power outlets right would be such an all-defeating challenge for hotels. Especially, brand-spanking new hotels on the Boston waterfront right next door to the almost equally new convention center. One wouldn't think.
They tried, mind you. There are a couple of sockets thoughtfully provided in the desk lamp so that the usual exercise of crawling around under the desk is avoided. So a "B," at any rate for effort. However, as I've written before, it's execution that's today's thing. The concept by itself doesn't cut it.
And, you see, someone then thought it would be smart to plug said light into a switched outlet which, in the way of such things, means that the power to the sockets is turned off along with the light when one goes to sleep for the night. Leaving no small number of analysts staying at said hotel powerless laptops in the morning. Might want to rethink that. And the clam chowder had to be heated up at their high concept restaurant too.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Single

This is one of the best summaries that I've read about the current situation in the music business from James Robertson's Smalltalk Tidbits, Industry Rants:
The music industry reaction to this is that digital sales are both salvation and damnation. They would like to translate the business model that's been in use for CD's and LP's onto the new world, but what's actually happening is a return to the 50's and 60's - the single is back.

This bothers both executives and artists. Artists have become used to the idea of producing an entire album as an artistic "statement", and executives have gotten used to the revenue stream produced by full album sales. iTunes threw a gear into that set of wheels, and they are still in denial over it. In a very real sense, the DRM fight is a symptom of the larger problem - the unwillingness to accept the change in business conditions.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Links for 03-12-07

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

DMD Cameras

As I've complained about previously, there's a dearth of a certain class of digital camera. When I bought my Canon G5 a couple of years back it seemed like a step in the right direction:

the Gx is essentially the high-end of Canon's more-or-less pocketable digital camera. A large pocket to be sure. It also has a fair degree of manual control, a moderately fast lens, and a usable (if not exactly great) viewfinder. It also supports RAW mode, a camera-specific storage format that preserves the maximum amount of image data for later processing in the PC. It's ubiquitous is digital SLRs and the like but far less common in lower-end models. I think of my G5 as occupying a tier between true "point and shoots" and SLRs--albeit without fully allowing a traditional "rangefinder" level of control. Which is one of the things I like about it and, frankly, is a category of camera that largely disappeared in latter film days.

However, the G7 represented a step backwards in some ways (e.g. removing RAW support and the G5's sometimes handily-pivoting LCD display) and didn't make any real advance in any of the areas where it was still lacking from my perspective--shutter lag, slow focus, narrow f-stop range (albeit with a relatively fast lens), so-so optical viewfinder (at least it has one). Instead, the G7's advances were the ones that look good on spec sheets to the unsophisticated--especially the overexposed megapixels.

Just to be clear, I'm not looking for a Leica here. I'm looking for a moderately-priced, modern analog to film camera like the Olympus XA, Canon QL-17, or Yashica T4. (One can argue about the exact specs, but that's the general category. Reasonable levels of manual control, pocketable at at least some level, and not overly complicated.) I own a couple Olympus XA's and a Canon--although I haven't used them in a while and their light meters aren't too accurate any longer. These would typically be second cameras for folks who are serious about photography--probably SLR users for the most part.

I'd been meaning to write about this for a while, but I got stimulated by this post by Mike Johnston over at The Online Photographer in which he lists 8 "Digital Cameras We Need." I confess to not seeing anything on the list that I'd rush out immediately and buy until he hits the top slot:

1. The DMD. I've ranted about this before, so enuff said. I'm amazed—really, honestly amazed—that we still don't have this. It's so obvious, so crucial for street photography and some kinds of art photography, and it would require absolutely zero in the way of new technical development. It could easily be put together with existing technology. Whoever does it first will instantly create a new digital camera category. I hereby offer my services, free, to any camera company that wants me to spec out what it ought to be. Just because it hasn't existed heretofore doesn't mean it shouldn't—to paraphrase Al Gore, all that's needed is the will to do it, and that's a renewable resource.

Mike points over a longer article on the subject that he wrote over at the Luminous Landscape. I might argue some of the specifics--e.g. the lack of a zoom lens--depending upon the tradeoffs involved. (Likewise, on camera flash is pretty useless as the main light source, but can be handy for fill.) And might wonder if we couldn't even have an option to focus manually. (Retro is in, you know.) But I fully endorse his bottom line which he summarizes as: "Bazillion digital point-and-shoots currently inundating market: tiny sensor, slow zoom. DMD: large sensor, fast prime."

Read the whole thing.

Links for 03-06-07

Monday, March 05, 2007

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Outside Magazine Podcast on Mt. Hood Climbers

I normally stick close to topics at least peripherally connected to IT here. This one probably couldn't be more far afield. However, as I do some mountaineering, this topic is of interest to me and this seemed a particularly good take on the media frenzy around the climbers lost on Mt. Hood last December.

The bottom line is that this event clearly had a very sad outcome but:

  • Climbing in winter is not some whacked-out activity
  • These climbers were very experienced but (presumably) something unexpected happened
  • Accidents happen
  • Oregon Search and Rescue deals with more mushroom pickers than climbers

I don't see the text of Outside Magazine Senior editor Dennis Lewon's column online but there is a podcast. Well worth listening to.

Customized Content Presentation and fishWrap

One of the little Web 2.0 mini-trends going on is the rise of the customized portal. It's not new, of course; you've long been able to customize your My Yahoo! page for example. But there's been a fair explosion of AJAX-y and Flash-y (i.e. highly interactive) sites such as Netvibes and Pageflakes. (There are many others as well.)

But my interest here isn't in discussing these myriad sites per se. Rather, it's to ponder a bit the question of how content gets presented and how much control we exert (and want to exert) over that presentation. I mention these new portals because they very clearly combine layout with content. They're not just a customized choice of information source. They're also a customized presentation of that information. Contrast this, for example, with the typical RSS reader which deliberately extracts the content from its design context.

All this was brought to mind by a recent discussion with Pascal Chenais over at his fishWrap blog. The name of the blog comes from an early MIT Media Lab project in personalized news delivery. As Pascal describes it:

When fishWrap was created it was meant to help incoming MIT freshmen transition into their new community. MIT has a residence orientation period in which the freshmen acquaint themselves to the campus and pick where they will live. In the early 90s this involved non-stop activities in which the dorms and independent living groups would put their best face forward. MIT kept track of where the freshmen traveled through a system called Clearing House. For the freshmen this is a particularly intense and confusing period. To help them with this process a group of freshmen in my Newspapers of the Future seminar proposed using the Media Lab’s personalized news systems to prepare a personalized editions for each of the incoming freshman. Each edition would reflect the things they had experienced on campus the previous day using data from Clearing House and news from their home town. Moreover, the system could include news about majors they were interested and current events. These personalized hardcopy editions were to be delivered to the freshmen each morning to their temporary residence.

Apropos the subject at hand, fishWrap included some very innovative work around optimizing layouts. Pascal notes that the intended use of fishWrap pretty much demanded a physical implementation. After all, there weren't a whole lot of WiFi hotspots in 1993! In addition, as he notes in this follow-up post, even leaving aside that practical detail, the early Web just wasn't a very design-oriented place. Especially before the advent of Cascading Style Sheets (which made it easier to create a consistent look to pair with HTML content), many designers were less than fond of presenting work through the lens of HTML--preferring technologies such as PDF that gave them, the content creator, control over the ultimate output.

It's unclear to me that, for the most part, we will ever be nearly as focused on layout and presentation for our daily, hourly, and minutely information streams as a print newspaper--much less a stylish magazine such as Wired. However, as the tools improve, it does seem more than conceivable that we'll improve on raw data feeds--if only to better our mental filtering, comprehension, retention, and organization.

Which is what good design is supposed to do anyway.

Links for 03-02-07