TV app wars are the new mobile phone wars are the new browser wars

App on TVFirst there was the browser wars, when you went to sites that refused to work in your browser due to some arbitrary decision by the developer and success was determined not by competition and features, but by courts in the US and Europe. Now, there is the mobile phone wars, which are equally religious and as such have protagonists equally unable to step back and think about the user rather than their own beliefs when recommending the “best phone”.

Next, there will be the TV app wars. All the major TV manufacturers have started thinking and working on ways to connect your TV to the internet, and enhance your viewing experience by publishing content from both their own portals and content from others such as LoveFilm, YouTube and BBC iPlayer. Panasonic have Smart Viera, Sony have their Internet TVs and Samsung have their “Smart TVs”.

But that’s only pre-market gadgetry, there’s also the post-market kit in the form of set-top boxes and integrated hardware in games consoles. Apple TV aims to extend the now well known and adopted iTunes platform and push its space into the living room. The Sony PS3, Nintendo Wii and Microsoft XBox 360 have all got their own services and ecosystems that extend their software into your everyday life rather than limiting itself gaming.

The problem is the market place is currently fragmented, arbitrary and proprietary. When buying a TV, you are asked to make your purchase decision with regards to internet content (which is a significant domestic purchase) based only on trade relationships between the TV manufacturer and the content provider. Want LoveFilm? Then Panasonic TVs are no good. Want iPlayer? Then Microsoft’s XBox 360 is no good. Buy a Panasonic, which can serve YouTube content, but you already have an XBox 360, which can also serve YouTube content. Now you have duplication. Whereas previously you had multiple players vying for the same market, we now have multiple players vying for converging – but separate – markets. And that provides one key feature to the user: confusion and doubt.

Meanwhile, Samsung have their own application platform. XBox 360 has just launched (or rather re-launched in a more obvious format) its own app marketplace. So you have a YouTube app for your Samsung TV, your XBox 360 and your Android phone. I guess you never can get enough of cat videos, no matter where you are. These application marketplaces are fundamentally incompatible. Your app from Microsoft will not work on your Android phone, or even its own Windows Phone 7 line. Features are also dependent on trade relationships. LoveFilm only recently launched on XBox 360 despite being available on “selected” TVs and the PS3, and BBC content was taken out of Windows Media Centre for some reason while the XBox 360 is the only console that it continues to be unavailable for – based only on the BBC’s stance that the content should not be confined to users with a paid XBox Live subscription. I struggle to see their logic. TV License holders have paid for the content, but I have also paid for Apple users to have their content, too. Such grandstanding is inconsequential to Microsoft, but the user is given a second-rate experience.

There is hope. Ubuntu TV is hoping to launch and gain ground in TVs, which could create a more open marketplace using an established operating environment. Windows 8 and Windows Phone 7 will ultimately converge so could conceivably execute the same code. Download it for your phone, and you have it on your PC. And with rumours of a Microsoft set-top-box in addition to the XBox 360, the same execution environment is possible (think WinRT/Silverlight and HTML5/JavaScript). Like your smartphone, it depends to a large extent on your ecosystem at home. And if your ecosystem doesn’t fit the trade relations content providers have made, tough luck.

Selecting a mobile phone for you … a simple guide that is free of religion, politics and sex

There is another highly religious topic in tech other than “Are you PC or Mac?”. It’s “are you iPhone or Android?”. Did you notice anything wrong with that sentence? Given a market which comprises of 4 key smartphone operating systems, there is the distinct absence of both BlackBerry and Windows Phone 7. I am a big fan of Windows Phone 7 and I am always evangelising about it (after all, Microsoft are crap at telling us about their own products) but I do try to remain unbiased when people ask me which phone should they buy.

I can achieve this position by having them answer a few questions.

Do you have Apple devices in your house and/or are you a frequent iTunes user?

While a phone may be the best phone in the world, if it does not fit within your lifestyle/ecosystem, it is just a clever gadget without connectivity. If you have already invested in an Apple lifestyle, then the odds are iOS is best for you, so get an iPhone. You can use your iTunes, and the user interface will be pretty similar to what you’re used to. Coupled with the iPad, and you get yourself a really cohesive user experience.

Are you a tinkerer? Do you like to install apps, play with your phone for hours?

Android is an “open” source operating system. I’m saying “open” because I’m using the Google implementation found on mobile phones as the benchmark, here. And not all of it is open in the truest sense. If you like to play with your phone, hack it, configure it, tweak it, update it and hopefully avoid bricking it, then Android is a great choice. For most users, it’s simple enough to just work.

Do you have an XBox, with an XBox Live profile (Silver or Gold)? Do you want your phone to “just work”?

In this case Windows Phone 7 is a gem. It does not get in the way of what you need to do. It is not trying to be clever, it is trying to help you use your phone for what it is good for: making calls, texting and interacting on social networks. If you have an XBox, you can use your XBox profile on the phone and enhance your Gamerscore through XBox Live achievements. If you have Zune (that’s Microsoft’s poorly marketed iTunes competitor), you can listen to music on your phone, your XBox and your PC. It really does “just work”.

Are you interacting with your workplace/colleagues regularly?

BlackBerry may be on the wane, but it is undeniably a strong OS with regards enterprise integration. If you demand secure communications with your office, BlackBerry is a tough act to follow. However, whether the relevance of BlackBerry is on the decline as a result of the failure of the OS to keep up or changing user requirements is not clear. While BlackBerry is a strong contender, it isn’t necessarily a contender that will be around for long.

Under the covers, all these phones are the same. They are all running the ARM processor. They are all able to make calls, send messages, browse the web, etc. So it is not about “what phone is better”, it is “what phone best fits your lifestyle”. They all have application marketplaces, games, music players, etc. Some phones may do it better that others, but this is always relative to your own requirements.

For example. If you have iTunes at home, an Android is not going to play your iTunes.

If you have an XBox, an iPhone is not going to help you increase your Gamerscore

If you like to tinker, Windows Phone 7 is going to work against you.

On the other hand …

If you use Office a lot, maybe have a SharePoint of Office 365 scenario, Windows Phone 7 integrates seamlessly into this. All phones can read/write Office documents, but which one works naturally and fits best for you?

If you have high principles regarding software ownership, then Android is by far the winner. All phones have an established API and can be “hacked” to different levels, but how deep do you want to dig?

If you want to keep up with the Joneses, then an Apple a year will keep the stagnation away. There are a huge number of phones available and being made available month on month, year on year; but which one is the one to be seen with?

Hopefully this will help to separate vendor-religion, community politics and marketing sex from the mechanics of choosing a phone. It’s all about you and what works for you, as under the hood, they’re all the same.

Plantronics Backbeat Bluetooth Headset

Plantronics BackBeat headphonesI’m a big fan of my HTC HD7 Windows Phone 7, and particularly of the Zune Player application on it. Unfortunately, I am not a fan of the crappy headphone set typically supplied in the box with high-value smart-phones. They’re neither use nor ornament. Previously I have been using some Sony Walkman wired headphones, which had really good reproduction of sound. Unfortunately, and inevitably, the microscopic cabling was going to fail sometime and now I have no right-ear speaker. So a replacement is in order.

I have been struggling to find a suitable set of earphones that provide good sound reproduction, with minimal sound leakage to avoid annoying my colleagues and with phone headset controls so I can answer the phone without forgetting than my headphones are masking the microphone. Surely there would be some good quality wired headphones suitable for use with the HTC HD7? Seems not. If you want all the above, it’s all iPhone. This is very frustrating and discriminatory for an open market. Understandably, there are a lot of i* devices out there, but surely there could be some compatibility struck?

I asked at XDA Developers Forum for suggestions and I was suggested to get a pair of BlueTooth headphones, specifically the Plantronics BackBeat 903+ Stereo Bluetooth Headphones. I was reluctant to try BlueTooth headphones out because my previous experience with BlueTooth (albeit v1 of the specification) was very poor and the last thing I need is yet another battery I need to remember to charge. But they came highly recommended so I gave them a try.

They paired really well with the HTC HD7, the Metro UX makes it an absolute snap. Getting the headphones on and off your head can be a little tricky as they need to fit around/through your ears for a good and secure fit. You’ll get the hang of it, over time. If you wear them for longer periods of time, however, they do start to make your ears ache. This isn’t an audio ache, more of a physical ache associated with having to bend your ears around the headphones. Maybe I’ll get used to them in time. Interestingly, they also repeat ambient noise so you still hear around you, and having just heard the phone ring while listening to music, seemingly during playback. It’s not a distraction as such, I guess it reduces the opportunity of you ignoring your colleagues. But what about the music quality?

They do block out noise (at sufficiently high volume), though have no noise cancellation. They don’t seem to leak, having had no complaints from my colleagues. The music quality is … okay. I’m not an audiophile, but I get wound up by poor quality in audio reproduction – particularly when I know the source is good. Most songs are fine on these headphones, but some songs do exhibit deficiencies. Specifically:

  • Elbow: Some Riot (3:20 in)
  • Elbow: Friend of Ours (2:16 in)
  • Take That: The Flood (1:30 in)

These were listened to on volume level 16 of 30. Not sure how high the headphones were, but I prefer high amplification in the source, low amplification in the speakers.

So while they are acceptable for most music, I do find that there are more variables in play when it comes to streaming the music than if I used wired headphones. But where was the deficiency creeping in? Was it BlueTooth bandwidth? A deficiency with the original source? Or maybe the headphone speakers were poor quality?

Consider the following stages we identified in a typical audio playback:

  • Bandwidth of the original recording, about 44.1Khz (CD quality)
  • Down-conversion during ripping of CD to 192Kbps on a typical MP3, resulting in loss of definition. (I use 320Kbps MP3 at home, and down-convert MP3s to 192Kbps WMA for the phone, to match the Zune-sourced music quality)
  • MP3 Player application (Decompression of source)
  • Amplifier in mobile phone
  • BlueTooth transmitter (v2.0 practical is 2.1Mbps, theoretical 3.0Mbps) and compression for over-the-air. It seems that a stereo 192Kbps audio stream is on the very edge of practicalityfor BlueTooth.
  • BlueTooth receiver (Decompression)
  • Re-encoding of data stream back to audio by DACon headset
  • Speaker capabilities (bass reproduction, definition, etc.)
  • Location of phone in relation to headset (metallic cases or your head may attenuate the signal!)

Plenty of opportunity for problems to creep in. It seems that the overlaying of the 192Kbps source, with the BlueTooth bandwidth creates a combined effect as a result of the headphones being unable to compensate for errors in transmission from the original, already lossy source.

That said, putting other sources such as Björk through them did work quite well. Björk is always a good test for audio quality, though it can often be difficult to pick out deliberate distortion and incidental distortion in her work.

So I think it might come down to application. I’ll probably use these headphones for walking to work, where background noise is sufficient for me to not be bothered by very minor deficiencies in the audio and a wired set at my desk for total immersion (Have a set of Sennheiser MM70’s on my desk waiting to be tried). If you’re not as unnecessarily fussy as me, buy them, they’re a great set for most music. Just keep in mind that extra battery to keep charged!

Update: Having now listened using the Sennheiser earphones (the control test), the quality is much better on the wired set. proving my assertion that BlueTooth adds unnecessary processing stages to the detriment of audio quality. The wired headphones work well with the HTC HD7, I can play/pause music and answer/end calls using the control button on the headphone lead as you would expect. The volume buttons and track advance controls don’t work, however, which is to be expected on i* headphones, I guess.

Once again, I’m not an audiophile, nor am I anything more than an amateur physicist. If you can clarify or improve my modest findings, it would be appreciated.

Looking forward to gadgets

It’s been a good couple of years for Microsoft in terms of products. After the Vista debacle and Office 2007 ribbon complaints, they’ve really turned a corner. They’ve listened to users of all skill levels to produce some cracking products. Yes, I am a Microsoft shill, but unapologetically so. They are a developer company, and I’m a developer – it’s a natural fit. Windows 7 was sublime, Visual Studio 2010 is “just right” and Office 2010 seems to have finally grown into its new ribbon UI (shame it has only just seen to supporting open data formats such as oData and .ICS).

There’s more to come, though. I’m excited about 2 products in the pipeline.

The first out is Windows Phone 7. What was the Windows Mobile platform suffered from Microsoft’s insistence that they should put the desktop on a mobile phone. Clearly, they were wide of the mark and it is odd it took them so long to realise this. Arrogance, I guess. The only benefit I can see of the iPhone – kicking innovation into what was becoming a stale market. The Windows Phone 7 platform is integrated with Facebook, is developer friendly and offers integration with XBox Live. Oh and Zune finally makes it to the UK – a DRM model that I could just get on with. The hard part is waiting for the right model to be launched – with a keyboard. If you want me to spend anytime with your smart phone, it needs a keyboard. Having seen the reviews and videos of the device, I look forward to that “Oh, that’s very cool” moment. Many phones offer integration with social media and a rich experience, but are scuppered by lack of support for Flash (need I say?), awkward user interfaces (BlackBerry) or under-powered processors (Nokia). Windows Phone 7 seems to be a best alternative to these and offers an open development platform, which is a refreshing change.

The second product is Kinect, formerly “Project Natal”. This has been in gestation for a few years both within Microsoft and in the original product developer, 3DV Systems. Microsoft have struck gold in their XBox Live and Arcade gaming platforms, gaming is now no longer just for the serious gamer. Buy an XBox and you can immediately start playing cheap and highly-playable games from the Arcade and involve the entire family. The so called “casual gamer” represents a serious opportunity and I regard myself in that group as someone who loses interest in games as soon as it gets hard! Even so, with the traditional Control Pad input mechanism, it still feels like a special language is needed to play the games. Kinect removes this barrier, allowing interaction with the games using your body as a controller. In truth, we’ve seen this before, the Playstation Eye Toy was a great product and a smart web cam to boot (if you could locate the drivers for Windows). But that’s not where Kinect is going to stay. Steve Ballmer was reported to (possibly annoying other product departments) say that Kinect is the most significant development for Microsoft this year, maybe because while Kinect is starting out in the home, it will soon become integrated into your Windows and Office experience. Authenticating and controlling Windows suddenly becomes more accessible for the disabled and “regular” user, Office becomes easier to navigate through large spreadsheets, PowerPoint slides, etc. and video conferencing gets better thanks to the directional microphone-array (captions over people’s heads, anyone?).

That’s not to say Microsoft haven’t missed the mark or opportunity on other products, though. The Kin phone was a surprise and seemed to be a typical example of the company competing with itself. Luckily enough, it was canned weeks after but not before a shuffle of senior management. The XBox 360 has recently been redesigned to give it a fresh image in line with the Kinect. The price is attractive, the hard drive bigger and it has wireless – but so what? Still no Blu-Ray player, a real shame as Blu-Ray is starting to get traction – because of the PS3. Sony are giving the same kick to the Blu-Ray market as they did with the DVD market when they included a DVD player in the PS2. Clever – and obvious. And where are the Windows 7 slates? Seems odd considering Windows 7 is touch optimised in so many ways. Maybe (and probably) it is because putting a desktop OS on a battery-powered device is never going to work, surely one of Microsoft’s several embedded OS implementations would suffice? I sometimes feel like I should apologise for the stupidity of Microsoft in its product launches, but I guess when you’re as big as Microsoft, it’s slow to move and competing products within its mass would be inevitable.

Gadget churn

I’ve just spent 2 days spending all my free time researching speakers to replace my current 5.1 set-up. Unfortunately, due to the damp problems of the poor quality houses built by Dandara, my speakers have suffered damage to the grills and warping of the wood. What was a significant expenditure was made all the more urgent while I was listening to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odysseyat the weekend, and in particular, the awful crackling sound from the left rear surround speaker. Oh well, bite the bullet. The speakers are Kenwood and have been taken from a Kenwood separates system which I had already sold. The speakers have been excellent quality and very reliable and it struck me that I have had these speakers for 10 years now. For their expense, I wouldn’t expect anything less!

Nowadays, it seems to surprise me if purchases last more than a couple of years. Even though I was reminded that my HP laptop is over 2 years old and still going strong. The amplifier driving my speakers is 8 years old. However, if I get 12 or 24 months of use out of a gadget I a remain genuinely pleased – even surprised. Is it because technology moves so fast that gadgets are rendered obsolete within a few months of their production? Mobile phones have become almost disposable, with people renewing their contracts every 12 months in order to get the latest model. It’s almost a modern ritual of the connected consumer. Phones with even shorter life cycles only contribute to this trend, the Apple iPhone having a particularly aggressive disposable trend thanks to “new” features being announced on the next model. (Even though such features are hardly ground breaking on existing models by other manufacturers.)

Component failure is also an aspect that may contribute to my surprise of products that outlast my notion of their expected lifetime. Electronics get smaller and more disposable, so companies continue to drive component costs down. This has to have an effect on the quality of the components that come together to build a complex device. We have a standing joke that disposable hi-fis may be bought from Argos that last for 12 months and 1 day, because that is what is required to avoid a return under the manufacturer’s warranty. Alba and Bush are both culprits. Manufacturers want to build them cheap, fast and easily disposable so the next model can be used as an upgrade.

For a while now, I have had a policy of keeping to quality names in my purchases. In my Audio/Visual gear, I try to keep to Panasonic. It’s probably a high mid-range set of products that have proved to be pretty reliable. For laptops and servers, I recommend HP, otherwise I build them myself.  I am a firm believer in “you get what you pay for”. You buy low, your product lifetime is likely to be short and your user experience poor. The disadvantage of this approach comes when you buy expensive items and they just go out of fashion or become obsolete due only to the churn of the technology. This disposable society and constant updating of gadgets contributes to a lot of unrecyclable, poisonous contaminants in landfill. Gone are the days when you can perform your own repairs, upgrades or reverse engineering. Now is the day of the black box that you throw away soon, so you can get the next model.

Windows 7 Eunach edition is out for pre-order

So Windows 7 has just appeared in online stores for pre-ordering. The pre-order deal is also very competitive. Except, it was. The news was announced yesterday and I jumped on to Amazon to get some prices and they were about £80 for the Home Professional version. Amazon have since mailshotted customers announcing the news, headling a price of £44.97, which I suspect is for the Home Premium version.

However, clicking through or searching for Windows 7 in Amazon now displays nothing more than a “Be notified when this product becomes available” message, alongside a reminder about the limited time period.

European users should look closely at the box, though. We’re special, because we get a special version, “Windows 7 Home Professional E”, “Ultimate E”, etc. The “E”, I guess, stands for “Europe”. In the top left hand corner of the box is the message “Windows 7 Home Premium E: Requires a web browser to access the Internet. Internet Explorer not included*”.

This is doubtlessly down to the European Union’s aggression towards Microsoft. Rightly or wrongly, Europe has an axe to grind where Microsoft are concerned. Citing anti-competitive practices, they have caused the creation of special SKUs particular to the European market with no Media Player before now, but now with no web browser.

Several questions jump out at me.

In the age of the connected operating system, what use is there in an OS with no web browser? The first thing a user typically does when they install a new OS is to jump on the Internet to download updates, install the latest drivers for hardware or just browse around while the OS completes its installation work. Doesn’t look like this will be possible for us.

If there is no browser in the box, how do you download a browser, without a browser? Maybe there is a splash screen that allows you to download a browser from a finite list of “approved” browsers such as Internet Explorer or Firefox. Isn’t this “approved list” just as anti-competitive?

Local, off-line content may need a web browser just as much as an Internet connected machine. Many software applications use the IE component in particular to display help information, or enhanced splash screens/dashboards. How will these programs work, if at all? Just because you may not be on the Internet, doesn’t mean you don’t need a web browser. How can a user install a web browser to facilitate this function with no Internet connection?

This really winds me up. This will only cause slower browsers like Firefox to become more popular and increase the variety of browser standards which will mean compatibility with systems and web sites can only get worse, which is annoying after Microsoft have done so much to improve issues with IE 8. An end user is not going to know the value of IE over Firefox, Chrome over IE or some open source browser some geek has coded in his bedroom over a reputable, supported browser. They want to use their computer to get on the internet, fast.

This is typical European legislation getting in the way of common sense. It makes me want to vote for the BNP and reduce their effects, though common sense and basic intelligence means I won’t do this. What is their next step? After removing Media Player, and now Internet Explorer, will they remove Windows Explorer – after all if it is the default GUI/shell then isn’t that anti-competitive?

As an aside, I noticed yesterday Ultimate edition was down as a “notify when becomes available” whereas the lower-end SKUs were available for pre-order. I do hope Ultimate will have a price before the reduced prices expire, otherwise they may raise the prices, then release Ultimate for purchase meaning those who want Ultimate have to pay full price, or twice for Professional version then use the AnyTime upgrade path to get to Ultimate.

Our new Kenwood Car Radio … Awesome

Following the Blaupunkt Car Radio debacle, we decided to switch brands and get a Kenwood. I’ve always liked Kenwood gear, already having had a Kenwood hi-fi system that I lovingly called “The Monolith”, in that it was big and black and very very mean. So I don’t understand my reticence in getting a Kenwood from the outset when looking at car stereos.

We needed a car stereo that could play CDs and MP3s using CD-Rs and USB Mass Storage, such as a hard disk. We also wanted some form of handsfree functionality for my wife’s mobile phone. We opted for the Kenwood KDC-BT8041U from Car Audio Direct. Bizzarely, considering we spent upwards of £300 for the Blaupunkt equivalent, this package had all the features (and more) for half the price. We got DMC on Desmesne Road, Douglas to do the installation for us.

From the outset, this device has been impressive. The radio is excellent, and the Traffic Announcements work well (they never worked on either of the last two Blaupunkt’s we had). The CD player is responsive and sounds well enough (considering we’re using OEM speakers) and there is an AUX in. Usefully, the AUX in uses a standard 3.5mm jack, unlike the proprietory version on the Blaupunkt unit (which had to be disabled when used with the Bluetooth module, anyway). The USB has worked almost perfectly, too. For some reason, it does not like the hard disks we are giving it, but we suspect that is because the hard disks need more than the 500mA the USB connection is able to provide. Instead of looking at some hacky attempt to find the remaining 1000mA required via cigarette lighters, etc. we decided to switch tactics and use USB keys instead. This works brilliantly.

Oh… and it plays New Order!

The Bluetooth function is built into the unit, this time, which is really welcome as it operates as a combined unit and not as an extra. The phone pairing is fast and reliable. Calls are very clear and the user interface in using the phone/stereo when making/receiving calls is excellent. Some neat features are also supported, such as downloaded phonebooks, SMSs and phone status. What really impressed me on this is the support for Bluetooth Streaming Audio. After hooking up the phone, it is a breeze to play Podcasts and MP3s through the car’s stereo and it works very well. You can also switch between phones so one phone can handle calls, another phone can handle Audio streaming – though we haven’t yet used this feature.

Use of the device’s user interface is pleasurable. Unlike the Blaupunkt, the screen is responsive and there is tactile and auditory feedback provided. While using a device as complex as this via the limited controls available will always result in compromises for User Experience, Kenwood have done well to minimise issues. What I particularly like is navigating through large file directories using the control knob. It is fast to navigate between screens and if the data isn’t available to display, it is “filled in” asynchronously.

Unfortunately, the user manual isn’t that great, relying on mnemonics to identify features and when to those features are available. Also, the unit doesn’t support a Random mode across an entire USB device which sort of detracts from the point of having large amounts of audio files available.

Otherwise, though, highly recommended!

New XBox 360 Experience – Avatars networking on the cloud

The third post in as many days. I’m not on a roll, there’s just a lot happening.

Microsoft’s successful XBox 360 console received a bit of a makeover last
night, in the form of the much anticipated “New XBox Experience“. Previously,
the XBox user interface when turned on was a series of “blades”, representing
distinct actions and tasks within the console such as playing games, playing
music and videos and making purchases from the various stores. All in all a
functional if uninspiring interface.

The New Xbox Experience was pushed to users last night, in a very impressive
global rollout of the software. This itself must have been a technical
nightmare! The new user interface is very 3D-based, concentrating on “slides”
rather than blades which come in and out of focus (literally). It is very
attractive.

Where the clever bit comes in is with the use of Avatars. Previously, gamers
were represented in the community by a GamerCard. Much like an ID card, the only really customisable part of it is the icon used for the image.

Avatars are becoming increasingly popular in various applications, so I’m
sure you’ll know that an Avatar is a computer-representation of yourself that
exists in the digital world. Games like Second Life centre around users’
avatars. Whether it is on the XBox 360 console or Facebook. The New XBox 360
Experience invites us to create an avatar to represent us in the XBox 360
environment. Gamers have been playing on line with each other for years, and
forms the hub of major games such as Rock Band, Call of Duty and Halo 3. Gamers
are often required to join up into teams to complete tasks, for example. Where
the New XBox Experience improves things is that your avatar can now appear in
games themselves, reinforcing your digital representation. This idea has been
criticised as a copy of the Nintendo Wii Mii idea, which works on a similar basis. A number of “Party Games” are also going to be launch which allow gamers to participate in “live” games, much like TV gameshows where the gamers’ avatars take part in a digital game occuring – to all intents and purposes – on the “cloud”.

I’m not a gamer, indeed, I actually represent a small part of an increasingly
successful market that gaming companies are targetting – that of the “casual
gamer”. The casual gamer market consists of people who may be 30-something and who enjoy a quick stab at a game to come down after a day at work. Whether they are just wasting time or re-living retro-classics, they can’t afford the
commitment required of the mainstream games such as Call of Duty, Grand Theft
Auto, etc. We still enjoy playing PacMan and Frogger in original blocky graphics
on our expensive HD gaming systems.

The significance of Microsoft’s work hasn’t passed me by, however. The new
user interface re-inforces the community of gamers in the living room. No longer
are fellow gamers hidden behind a subscription-only service, now they appear on
your dashboard using their own avatar representation. You go to them and point
to them to join in a “party”, conversation or compare successes. The concept of
the gaming community is quickly becoming like that of Facebook or MySpace,
allowing social networking to occur in the living room in a safe environment.
Gamers, particularly young gamers, can socialise with their friends using their
console (no complicated PC to configure) in a “sandbox” which comes with
parental controls and a hefty terms of use agreement which is rigorously
enforced. Avatars take this to the next level, and Microsoft promise a number of
other improvements to increase the networking opportunities of gamers.

The YouTube video below shows how the new Avatar system works.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VExbd1oZ760

Unfortunately, however, these networks are very vendor-based. Your XBox 360
personality can’t exist in a Wii Mii context, even though it is the same idea
and you and your friend are running the same game, for example, Rock Band. I
guess it’s only like Facebook vs MySpace vs Bebo, but a £160+ investment in a
social network that may or may not include people you get on with is a bit of a
risk. Obviously, you buy the console for the gaming possibilities (amongst
others) but the networking opportunities will form an increasingly more
important aspect of the marketing of the product by the producers and the
selection of the console by the consumer.

The XBox 360 and platforms like it are also becoming a more attractive
purchase for people who don’t play games. As Windows Vista rolls out, more
people are realising that they can watch, record and manage their TV, music and
picture libraries using an XBox 360. XBox 360s can play DVDs, can rent HD video
content from the internet for viewing on HD sets (not requiring the expensive
Blu-Ray player) and form a controlled access point for the internet, and
therefore, the “cloud”. Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform looks very
exciting, coupled with Mesh, Office Live, Windows Live and XBox Live some
seriously cool applications could be developed that bring us away from the
conventional desktop and returns us to the living room for social networking,
video download, etc.

Freesat via a Humax Foxsat-HD

I’ve had this little box for a couple of weeks now, and am very
impressed not only with the box but with the BBC and Humax as a
company.

As I live in the Isle of Man, an island wholly forgotten about in the digital
switchover and other modern technologies implemented by the BBC and others, my options for receiving reliable digital TV have previously been limited to lining
Ruper Murdochs pockets. Lucky people living in Ramsey can receive a reliable
signal from across the Irish Sea in Cumbria, but having moved to Douglas, this
is not an option until 2009 when we won’t even get the full complement of
channels anyway on the Freeview platform.

Therefore, the Freesat offering from the BBC really helps islanders make that jump to digital without subscribing to the – much of it quite frankly crap – content available on Sky. For a one off purchase of between £100-£200, it is possible to get either a standard box or one with HD functionality. I’m not sure of whether the island’s retailers have taken Freesat on board, having bought mine from Currys. (Note that I thought the box didn’t come with an HDMI cable, so bought one for £18, turns out it does)

My set-up is quite complex, my installed Humax Foxsat-HD outputs an SD
content through the RGB SCART output into my Windows Vista Media Centre and a second HDMI content straight into the back of my Panasonic LCD TV. The box
therefore is particularly useful as it outputs to both SD and HD connections,
enabling me to integrate it into my PVR functionality of Media Center, yet still
watch HD content “live”. Unfortunately, as UK HD content is broadcast in H.264
format, which Microsoft don’t support, there is no option at the moment to
integrate HD content into my PVR set-up.

The box itself is quite petite, and has buttons hidden behind the flip down
panel on the left for when you can’t find the remote. An LED display shows the
current channel, a useful improvement on a Sky box. On the back, outputs are
available for RGB SCART, VCR SCART, Component Video, HDMI and digital audio via a TOSLink port. Additionally, the box also sports a USB slot and an Ethernet port. While I don’t expect the USB port to support anything other than firmware upgrades, the Ethernet port is exciting particularly as it is required in any
Freesat platform – BBC iPlayer will surely appear on these devices soon.

The Humax device fits well within a Windows Vista Media Centre set-up,
although I did have to teach Media Centre the remote codes for the device. Once
done, channel switching can be done on “Fast” and is reliable. The GUI on the
device is attractive enough, and a full EPG is provided. Obviously, as I
primarily use Windows Vista as my schedule planner I am not able to really give
any detail on the EPG function but I have found key features such as programme
descriptions, auto-turn over functionality and the data is pretty comprehensive
and up to date. One issue I did find in setting the device up with Windows Vista
Media Centre is that the Freesat platform is not yet configured as a complete
EPG, instead only “Freesat unmapped” is available. Obviously, an unmapped
configuration is next to useless, so I had to opt for my Manchester postcode on
a Sky platform and walk through the channels renumbering the ones I did receive.
A couple of hours doing this, though, you should be sorted.

The BBC have obviously been key to the whole process of developing the
Freesat platform, and much credit has to go to their technical teams in being
able to roll out the platform in time for the European Cup, Wimbledon and
Olympics. Unfortunately, the schedule was particularly tight, so the Euros and
Wimbledon did not see the multiscreen functionality that the Sky and Freeview
platforms sport. As a Wimbledon fan, this is a bit disappointing, but as the BBC
output to so many platforms, I can hardly complain! While I am truly struggling
to receive a reliable signal, I am enjoying what WImbledon coverage I can
receive. Unfortunately, my annual holiday watching WImbledon (either there or on TV) has been ruined this year by a tree that has grown too much in the last few
weeks and is now blocking my dish. That said, the content I have received is
very good, particularly BBC HD. I am not exagerating when I say that you can
pick up the detail in the scuffed grass at each baseline. (Wimbledon is
broadcast in 1080i.)

More credit also has to go to Humax for their involvement in the userbase. As
I have said before, in particular at the previous Work Connexions site (which I
wrote 😉 ) companies must open up to the internet community in their product
development. Both the BBC and Humax have done this. The various BBC blogs all provide opportunity for users to feedback to the editors – who do reply to posts to show that they are at least taking notice of feedback. Also, Humax have also
contributed to a support thread at the very good site Digital Spy, further showing that they are open to feedback and are willing to act on it in as transparent manner as possible within their corporate policies.

In the future, I’m looking forward to a high likely iPlayer implementation,
further bug-fixes and software updates on the platform and more channels
becoming available. While the BBC is planning some exciting content and services
for the Olympics, which I’d love to see, I won’t be watching it for reasons of
principle (Human Rights, Tibet not being autonomous), but I’m pig-headed like
that.