I mean the really, really small screen: your cell phone. On Friday, AT&T announced that it will offer subscribers ten channels of television programming. The images may be small, but the networks providing the content are some of the giants: CBS, Comedy Central, ESPN, FOX, MTV, NBC, NBC News, and Nickelodeon.
AT&T will be using the MediFLO system, which is the same used by Verizon for its mobile television. Verizon customers can also access live content from the same eight channels listed here for AT&T. The differentiation comes from the fact that AT&T and Verizon offer two more channels, each network with their own pair of exclusive channels.
This is not just a straight rebroadcast of the content being shown at the same time by local broadcast stations. Instead, the most popular content is rearranged to play serveral times a day. So you can catch up on last night’s late show during this morning’s commute.
Is mobile TV going to take off? I keep coming back to the Nokia experiments in England a couple of years ago, and reminding myself what a big hit it was. And the most popular place to watch TV on their cell phones was at home, of all places! I believe that watching on a cell phone is the equivalent to listening to an iPod. You don’t have to share the remote control with anyone, and you don’t have to negotiate about what channel to watch. You get control, no matter where you are. My biggest question is whether or not 10 channels can deliver enough content to keep subscribers renewing the monthly fee after the novelty wears off. Stay tuned….
Earlier this week, a US company named Microtune sent a letter to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The NTIA is the federal agency in charge of the program to provide rebates for the coverters that will allow analog televisions to receive digital broadcasts. (You can read more about the rebate program in an earlier HDTV Almanac entry.) The NTIA is responsible for making sure that the digital converter boxes meet certification requirements in order to qualify for the rebate program.
Microtune manufactures semiconductor tuners for use in devices such as televisions and digital converter boxes. Like any good company, they keep an eye on competing products. They tested a number of digital converter boxes that used tuner components made by other companies. And as a result of their testing, they discovered that some of the units did not meet the NTIA qualification requirements. So the letter was a request that the NTIA enforce the certification specifications, and to make sure that all the eligible models actually meet the requirements.
How could we get to such a situation? In the past, the FCC relied on independent, third-party test labs to do the certification testing on electronics products. This took time and cost money, and many companies felt that they could get their products to market more quickly if they could apply for certifcation themselves. They had to do the testing anyway to make sure their designs were going to meet the requirements, so why take the time to have it done again? As a result, the FCC moved to self-certification by the manufacturers.
Now, without making any judgment about the merits of the Microtune complaint, I can certainly believe that some companies may be more rigorous than others in testing their products for compliance with the NTIA requirements. And I also can believe that some companies may not have quality control systems that will make sure that all units will conform to the performance of the sample test units.
The problem is that there is no easy way for a consumer to tell by looking at the box whether the converter has a Microtune tuner or some other component. There is no easy way to know if the unit will actually perform to the certification requirements. I hope that the NTIA will move quickly on this complaint, and can come up with a way to restore consumer confidence in the digital converter certification program. Otherwise, there may be a lot of unhappy customers come February next year.
As the Rainman might say, “there are thousands and thousands of them.” At a time when most of the copyright holders for music, movie, and video content are going bananas trying desperately to lock up their products and prosecute anyone who misappropriates their product, Paramount is taking a different approach. The company is embracing the new reality of Web-based social networks, and is making thousands of short clips from its movies available to FaceBook users through its new VooZoo application. Clips last from a few seconds to several minutes, so now you can put Eddie Murphy or Charleton Heston on your FaceBook page.
Paramount hopes that this effort will help them market both existing DVD titles as well as new theatrical releases (such as the upcoming Indiana Jones movie). This seems to make a lot of sense to me, and one that other companies would do well to emulate. There’s nothing like a great catch phrase from your favorite movie to liven up your page and provide another peek at what makes you tick. (Sadly, Paramount doesn’t have the rights to the clip that I’d want to post: “When will then be now?” “Soon…”)
You catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and it looks like Paramount is willing to experiment with a sweet approach to getting its content out in distribution. Expect to see other companies follow suit (especially if you and all your FaceBook friends sign up for VooZoo).
You walk into a big box store like Best Buy and see a price posted on an HDTV. Or you scan through their sales circular and see prices for specific models. That’s the price you’ll pay, right?
Maybe not. According to a report in the New York Times on Sunday, a growing number of United States customers are starting to haggle over prices and they’re successful. According to one former Best Buy salesperson, as many as one quarter of Best Buy customers try to negotiate an additional discount, and “much of the time he was able to oblige them.”
Let’s face it. We’re coming into the slow season for HDTV sales. There may be a small blip from March Madness, but there are doubts about how much of an impact the Beijing Olympics will have on sales. If you make a reasonable offer, chances are good that the sales staff at many consumer electronics stores will do what they can to accomodate you rather than lose the sale to some other store.
Many people in the United States seem to feel that there is something undignified or greedy about haggling over the posted price in a store, though they’re quite comfortable to do so at yard sales or on eBay. And haggling is the norm for doing business in many parts of the world. Current economic conditions prompt U.S. buyers to get the most that they can for their dollar — especially for discretionary purchases – and thus we can expect the haggling habit to increase.
At least you don’t have to haggle over the price of your daily HDTV Almanac!
Last year, federal law made it illegal to manufacture or import television devices in this country that contained analog tuners unless they also had digital tuners. Manufacturers and retailers were allowed to sell existing inventory of analog-only devices, but only if they were clearly labeled about this limitation. Apparently, not all the retailers were diligent enough about the products they sold.
According to a report by TVTechnology.com, the FCC chairman, Kevin Marting, is seeking fines against a number of companies. The list reads like a who’s-who of the consumer electronics industry, including Best Buy, Circuit City, Sears, Target, WalMart, and even Toys R Us. The report indicates that a decision is expected at the commission’s meeting scheduled for April 10.
DISH Network (of Englewood, Colorado) is locked in a struggle with DirecTV and other television subscription services to attract and retain customers. And one of the key competitive features is HD channel coverage. DirecTV has a lead on this score, but a new satellite launched by DISH Network was intended to help the service catch up. According to reports, the Russian rocket used to launch the companies latest satellite on March 14 failed to reach the intended orbit.
The satellite is functioning properly, but will need to be moved to a higher orbit in order to serve its purpose. That can be done using the positioning rockets on the satellite, but this will consume a lot of the onboard fuel. According to some reports, this could shorten the useful lifespan of the satellite from more than 10 years to as little as two.
The press release on the DISH Network Web site does not address these issues directly, but does state that in spite of “the launch anomaly“, and indicates that the company “will increase its local HD offering by more than 60 percent” over the next two months.
This will still leave DISH Network in a catch-up situation, as DirecTV is extending its lead in HD channel coverage. DirecTV had a successful launch on March 19 that gives it the potential for as many as 150 HD channels, including HD coverage on 100 local markets. And consumers appear to respond to the additional choices; according to a Wall Street Journal Report, DirecTV added about 474,000 new subscribers in the fourth quarter of 2007, while DISH Network only gained about 85,000.
If you want to compare satellite service offerings, go to http://hdtvprofessor.com/SatelliteTVService/satellite-comparison.html.
In case you were wondering about why analog televisions broadcasts are scheduled to end next February, I can give you nearly 20 billion reasons. By switching to digital broadcasts, large segments of the radio frequency spectrum will be freed up for other uses. And on Tuesday, the FCC concluded auctions that sold off the licenses for much of this spectrum to companies.
The sales were originally projected to bring in about $10 billion, but when the dust settled, the final total was nearly double that. According to reports by the Associated Press, Verizon was responsible for nearly half of the total, buying the nationwide “C” block of licenses. AT&T ponied up nearly three quarters of the remaining bids for 227 licenses in the “B” block.
Where does the money go? A portion was set aside by Congress to pay for the $40 digital adapter rebate coupon program, which is expected to cost up to $1.5 billion for the distribution of upt to 33.5 million coupons. The balance of the proceeds will be put in the federal government’s general fund.
Okay, today’s item is not a little technical; it’s a lot technical. But as always, I’ll not only tell you the story, but also what it means. So hang in with me on this one….
At the end of last month, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute issued a press release about Martin Schubert, a doctoral student in engineering, who has been awarded the $30,000 Lemelson-Rensselaer Student Prize. So what did Martin Schubert discover that earned him this prize? He has invented a new type of LED (the inorganic type, not the Organic LEDs that are being investigated as a new display panel technology). These new LEDs have one peculiar and valuable trait; they produce polarized light. Apparently, Schuber discovered that all LEDs produce polarized light to some degree, but were not optimized for this feature. He discovered a way to maximize the effect.
What is polarized light? Light behaves like waves, but unlike waves on the ocean that only go up and down, light can “wiggle” in any direction. Polarizing films are like setting up an iron railing fence and flinging plates at it. Only plates lined up vertically will go through; all others will be blocked. This is why polarized lenses in sunglasses cut down on glare. They only let light through whose waves are oriented in one direction, and block all the others.
So why should you care? Polarized light is essential for LCD displays. The liquid crystal material rotates the polarize light so that it is transmitted or blocked by a top polarizing layer. But for this to work, it needs a source of polarized light. Traditionally, this is achieved by putting a polarizing layer behind the liquid crystal layer. Like the iron fence and the plates, most of the light gets blocked, and only the waves in the right angle get through. This is part of the reason that 95% of the light from a typical LCD backlight is blocked, even when the panel is showing an all white image.
Schubert’s discovery could mean that the LEDs could be used to create an LCD backlight that does not require a polarizing filter before the liquid crystal layer. This could result in more efficient and effective backlights that would require less energy and would make a more vivid image on the panel.
It will likely be years before this technology appears in commercial products, but it’s an intriguing advance that could help LCD maintain its dominance in flat panel displays.
Were you like me, and you purchased an HD DVD player at the end of last year? The chances are good that you may be suffering from a bit of buyer’s remorse at this point, now that Blu-ray has carried the day (for reasons that I’ve covered in previous entries). The Fed has bailed out Bear Stearns, but are there bailouts available for those who bought HD DVD players?
Well, you may be pleased to know that there are. Circuit City led the way by extending their return period to 90 days. If you return your HD DVD player, you can get a store credit for the full purchase price. You’ll still have to pony up for the difference in cost in order to get a Blu-ray replacement, but at least your original purchase money won’t be completely down the tubes.
And now Best Buy has stepped up in a big way. They are giving $50 in store credit (through a gift card) to anyone who ever bought an HD DVD player from them. There’s no time limit, and even better, Best Buy won’t wait for you to make a claim. The company is going to go through its sales records and mail the cards out to you. And you don’t even have to turn in your HD DVD player (so you can still watch that free bonus copy of “The Bourne Identity” that came in the box with your player). Members of Best Buy’s Reward Zone, or customers who purchase an extended warranty, or made their purchase online at BestBuy.com should receive their gift card by May 1. (The company announcement implies that if you’re not in one of these three categories, you may need to contact the company to get your gift card.) Best Buy estimates that they will give out more than $10 million in gift cards as a result of this program.
And if you have an HD DVD player or even HD DVD discs, you can get a Best Buy gift card for them, no matter where you bought them. Starting March 21, you will be able to visit www.bestbuytradein.com and find out how much you can get for the items. If you want to accept the offer, you will be able to download a prepaid shipping label to make it easy to send in your items. (This site also offers credits for computers, digital cameras, and other consumer electronics devices.) Hey, it’s a lot easier than trying to sell them on eBay!
It seems to me that the main achievement of the tiny Sony XEL-1 is to leave us wanting more: more resolution, more screen, and a lot more for our money. Many companies are working hard to deliver more from OLED technology, which as the Sony TV has demonstrated, can deliver an impossibly thin and light screen with the detail of an LCD and the emissive image quality of a CRT.
LG Display took a step forward on its journey to create a competitive OLED HDTV, announcing last week that they had signed a cross-licensing agreement with the Eastman Kodak Company for OLED technology. Kodak holds the patents on a a group of OLED materials, which should be valuable to LG Electronics as it furthers its development. The company is focusing on small and medium sized displays at this point, which for the most part includes panels for cell phones and portable media players.
LG does have a 3″ OLED panel that is used in a the portable 1-Seg TV from KAGA Electronics, which was developed by the two companies, Kodak, and Andes Electronics. The 1-Seg is expected to ship in Japan by the end of this month.