Real Networks Fights Back Against DRM

DRM: it stands for “digital rights management” but many believe that it’s just an indirect way of saying “copy protection“. Publishers of all sorts of copyrighted material — including music and movies – have tried to find ways to prevent people from making illegal copies of their products. The major Hollywood movie studios created the DVD Copy Control Association (CCA) to provide a central organization to control their use of copy protection on DVDs and other forms of movie distribution. This protection is what can prevent the use of an HDMI cable to make a digital-to-digital recording of a published DVD.

Real Networks created RealDVD software that circumvents these protections, and allows DVD owners to make backup copies of their discs. The making of backups is permitted under copyright law, but the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) makes it illegal to “reverse engineer” or otherwise develop technology that overcomes copy protection. So the DVD CCS and Hollywood studios have sued Real Networks to prevent the sale of the RealDVD software.

Now Real Networks is fighting back, however, and their current tactic may make the studios regret that they ever started down this path. In their motion filed earlier this week, Real Networks made the following argument:

Through their interpretation of the CSS License Agreement, the Studio Defendants and the DVD CCA agreed, from the outset, that the Agreement would preclude all copying, regardless of whether that copying could otherwise be licensed individually by a given Studio or was lawful without a license under the fair use doctrine. In so doing, they […] entered into an agreement that necessarily prevents competition from third parties like RealNetworks.

In other words, the studios set up a structure that prevented an individual studio from negotiating a separate deal with a third party. Real Networks argues that this is in violation of anti-trust statutes.

From a layperson’s perspective, it would appear that Real Networks has a plausible case, which could rapidly turn the tables on the DVD CCA and the studios. The personal computer software industry discovered long ago that copy protection features are generally not worth the effort, and the music industry is rapidly moving in that direction as well. It looks as though Real Networks may have found the weakness in the movie industry’s fortifications, and copy protection on movies may soon come tumbling down as well.

Blu-ray Player on the Wall…

Who’s the thinnest of them all? I don’t know if the Samsung BD-P4600 is the thinnest Blu-ray player on the market, but at 1.5″ thick, it’s certainly a contender. And it’s designed to hang on the wall right next to your flat panel HDTV. Pretty cool, huh?

The Samsung BD-P4600 is only 1.5

But wait; there’s more to this than just a skinny face. The player can connect to the Internet using either a wired or WiFi connection to your home network. You need this to take advantage of the BD Live interactive features, but it also provides you with access to Pandora’s Internet music service and Netflix’s streaming movies. (If you have a Netflix subscription, you get unlimited access to any of 12,000 movies at no additional cost.) The player also supports both standard and high definition DivX discs.

Like other Blu-ray players, this costs more than a standard DVD player. In fact, the BD-P4600 has a premium price, which is not surprising given its rich feature set. However, Samsung is running a promotion with Best Buy through this Saturday, May 16, offering a $50 instant rebate off the $499.99 price. In spite of the time limit for the rebate, I wouldn’t be surprised if the price cut became permanent soon.

Systemax Expands Online Empire

As I reported last month, the auction of Circuit City’s assets happened yesterday, and according to several published accounts, Systemax came out as the top bidder for the online retail site and other intellectual property. The deal requires confirmation by the bankruptcy judge, which is expected later today.

You may not be familiar with Systemax, but you’ve likely heard of at least some of its online retail brands. TigerDirect has been its mainstay, but earlier this year the company added CompUSA.com when it bought that company’s online business as well as a handful of its retail stores. The other brands include Misco and Global Industrial.

Given the company’s emphasis on HDTV and related home entertainment products at both TigerDirect and CompUSA, the addition of the Circuit City brand and Web site will increase its strength in the online retail business for consumer electronics. You might find it odd that one company would have so many major brands, but it turns out that this can be a successful strategy in a market where there is little differentiation. The classic example is laundry detergent; next time you’re at the supermarket, stroll down the laundry aisle and see which manufacturers make the various brands. You’ll find that the majority of brands are made by just a few companies. This is because any brand with sufficient advertising is almost certain to gather up a baseline market share. So you increase market share by adding brands. Since there’s not a lot of difference between online retailers — especially for consumer electronics items — this mult-brand/multi-site strategy could pay off well for Systemax.

Vizio Regains #1 Spot in LCD TV

DisplaySearch has released their preliminary data on the flat panel TV market for the first quarter of 2009, and it indicates that the market was much stronger than might have been expected. The company tracks manufacturer shipments, not the actual retail sales. (Retail sales are tracked by DisplaySearch’s parent company, NPD.) LCD TV shipments declined for the first time ever in the last quarter of 2008 — no surprise given the lousy economy and huge inventory backlog at retailers — but then rebounded to a 23% increase in the first quarter of 2009, compared with the first quarter of 2008.

One highlight of the results was the fact that Vizio regained first place in the LCD TV segment, pushing Samsung and Sony into second and third place. Vizio also showed a 21% increase in unit market share in LCD TVs over the prior quarter, while Samsung and Sony both posted share declines of about 26%. Another interesting fact is that Samsung also took second place in plasma TVs behind Panasonic, but second in plasma and LCD was sufficient to give Samsung the #1 position in total flat panel TV unit shipments with an 18.2% market share. This was enough to just top Vizio’s 17.9% overall flat panel share.

As DisplaySearch points out in its analysis, Vizio has done well with its discount retailer distribution which is where consumers have turned in order to get the lowest price possible for their flat panel TV purchases. The question will be what happens for the second half of this year. The LCD plants are returning to full production, but manufacturers are also trying to squeeze a price increase out of the market. Will this be a recipe for suppressing consumer demand that could result in another inventory pile-up next winter? Or will aggressive competition keep prices low so that consumers keep buying? It would appear that Vizio is probably in a good position to do well in either case.

Will Someone Please Answer the Remote?

You’ve got a short stack of remote controls in your lap as you’re watching television, and the telephone rings. Now you have to shuffle around and find the phone handset to answer the call. Well, if Motorola has its way, your pile of electronic controls could be pared down to a single device.

At CES 2009, Motorola introduced its R331 universal remote control. Designed to work with the company’s set top boxes, it also can be programed to work with “most consumer electronic remote controls” (according to the product spec sheet). Unlike most remotes, however, it comes with its own recharging base unit that also contains a convenient clock display. The remote also has a speaker, which is used to make a sound when you activate the “lost remote” function on the base unit. (That sure would be handy to have in our house!)

But according to a report in Multichannel News, Motorola may have bigger plans for the device. Add a microphone, and you’ve got a remote control that can respond to voice commands. And now that you have a microphone and a speaker in the unit, why not add the circuitry that will let you use it as a wireless telephone handset as well? According to the article, Motorola is working with Microsoft to add Caller ID functions to the system so the information on incoming calls would be displayed on the TV screen.

I certainly can see the appeal of a single remote/phone handset, but I can also envision possible problems. For example, if you’re watching with someone else and you get a call, you might go to another room so the other person can keep watching the show while you take the call. If this means that you’re walking off with the remote, however, that could be inconvenient.

What other functions can you imagine adding to your TV’s remote? Share your ideas with me now at alfred@hdtvprofessor.com.

Not Your Father’s Rabbit Ears

Have your experiences with “rabbit ear” TV antennas been like mine? Have you ever draped pieces of aluminum foil and copper wire off the telescoping rods in hopes of getting a slightly better picture? Maybe you’ve turned them this way and that, only to find that the image changes when you let go?

Well, the good news is that antenna technology has advanced a great deal since those rabbit ear designs first became available. I have not tested these new antennas, but Antennas Direct has announced a new model that appears to be worth a look.

The ClearStream Convertible antenna from Antennas Direct doesn't look like the typical rabbit ears.

The ClearStream Convertible looks more like a prop from a 50s science fiction movie than a TV antenna. The device is moderately directional, rated at a 70 degree beamwidth. The antenna is rated at a typical gain of 8.1 dBi. The coil portion rotates on the stand so that the unit can be mounted either on a wall or on a table top, and can even be mounted outside where you can also use the included 12-inch square reflector grid. The company claims good performance across the VHF and UHF frequencies used by digital television broadcasts, and is suitable for distances up to 30 miles from the transmitter. The antenna has a list price under $80, and is expected to be available through Best Buy, both online and in its stores.

With the cut-off date for analog broadcast transmissions just over a month away, now is the time to make sure that you can receive a strong digital signal if you rely on over the air broadcasts for your television. If you’re analog signals are weak and snowy, you may need to upgrade your antenna in order to get adequate reception of digital signals.

Maine Senators Concerned about DTV Cliff

The two U.S. Senators from Maine, Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins , have introduced the The DTV Cliff Effect Assistance Act of 2009. This bill aims to address some of the problems that rural consumers are encountering with poor reception of digital television broadcast signals.

As mentioned here on more than a few occasions, digital signals behave differently than analog. The image from an analog signal gets snowy and filled with static as the signal gets weaker, until you can’t see any of the image. Digital images look as if they were coming from a DVD until it crosses a threshhold, at which point you get a blank screen. This is known as “falling off the cliff” because of the abrupt change based on a small change in signal strength. Consumers who are used to getting weak images from analog broadcasts are likely to not receive any TV images at all after the conversion to all digital broadcasts on June 12.

The Senators from Maine figure that the solution is to fund additional translator and repeater stations for television stations so that they can extend their broadcast range for digital signals. The bill provides for $125 million in reimbursements for the construction of the additional towers. These cost about $80,000 to $100,000 apiece, so this means that the funding would cover at least 1,250 extra towers. That may sound like a lot, but there are 1,800 full power television broadcast stations in the country, and many of the rural ones are surrounded by areas that have no other source for over-the-air broadcasts. Conceivably, some of the stations in remote and mountainous markets might need several extra towers to effectively extend their reach to the areas that currently receive adequate coverage from analog signals.

In any case, these new towers won’t get built in a month, so even if this bill were to be passed today, it still would not provide uninterupted coverage for those who are affected by the loss of reception due to digital signals. These extra towers may be a good idea, but once again, it’s something that the FCC should have thought of years ago.

Hulu Scores Again

Last week, Disney announced that it will join NBC Universal, News Corp., and Providence Equity Partners as an equity owner in Hulu, the online video site. As part of the deal, Disney will post a wide range of full-length episodes of ABC and Disney show content on the Hulu site. Among the shows to be added are Lost, Grey’s Anatomy, and Desperate Housewives. Content will also include programs from ABC Daytime and ABC Family.

This is a major step forward for Hulu, which already has full episodes from NBC and Fox as well as content from Comedy Central, Lionsgate, MGM, MTV Networks, National Geographic, Paramount, PBS, Sony Pictures Television, and Warner Bros. Television Group. (This leaves out CBS network programming, which is only available on the separate CBS.com Web site.) Many of the shows on Hulu are available in high definition, so if you have a high speed broadband connection, you can watch the shows in full screen HD on your home television.

And best of all, the programming is free. There are advertisements interspersed in the shows, but these are short — 30 seconds or less – and far less of an interruption than in the typical broadcast programming. Hulu is truly delivering on the promise of Internet delivery of video content: what you want, when you want it.

LED LCD TVs: Back or Side-Lit?

Until recently, just about every LCD TV used cold cathode fluorescent lamps (CCFL) to provide the very bright backlights required to create an image using an LCD panel. (Even when showing an all-white screen, about 95% of the light is absorbed by the panel, so the backlight needs to produce a lot of light.) CCFL technology has some limitations, however, including the fact that it relies on some materials that are environmental hazards. As a result, TV makers are moving to using LEDs for to light up their LCD panels. These solid state light sources are highly efficient and produce a more natural range of color than CCFL, which makes for a more life-like image.

The question is where to put these LEDs. At first, manufacturers simply used them as a replacement for the CCFL modules, and created a huge matrix of LEDs behind the LCD panel. One bonus advantage of this approach is that you can create “localized dimming“. When a portion of the image is dark, such as a shadowy doorway, the LEDs behind that portion of the screen can be turned down. The net result is a darked black in those areas, which can benefit the “dynamic contrast” which refers to the amount of difference between the darkest part of the screen and the lightest part. Localized dimming has helped LCD TVs approach the black levels normally found only in plasma displays, so that they can achieve similar contrast ratings.

The problem with this matrix approach is that it requires hundreds of LEDs, which can be expensive and adds to the manufacturing assembly costs. You also need to provide sufficient space for the mixing of the light so that there are no hot spots on the screen over the individual LEDs. And perhaps most important of all, it creates problems with heat dissipation; the LEDS can put out a lot of heat, and they can fail if they get too hot.

Another solution is to put the LEDs along the edge of the LCD panel. This approach requires fewer LEDs but they must put out more light. This approach also requires complex diffusion plates to evenly distribute the light from the edge across the whole screen. On the other hand, it places all the LEDs along the edge of the screen where it is much easier to manage the heat problems. And as an added benefit, the diffusion layer can be very thin, resulting in a large panel that can be less than a half inch thick.

Both of these approaches cost more than a standard CCFL design, but they both can produce better quality images. The backlit approach offers the advantage of local dimming, but the edge-lit design gives you a thinner and lighter display that may be more reliable due to the more manageable heat.

Panasonic HD Camera Give-Away

Panasonic has created a “Living in HD” (LiHD) social networking site which it hopes will help “demystify High Definition and ‘unconfuse’ the consumer”. It provides places to post still and video images, discuss technology, find answers to your questions, and more. And to promote the site, Panasonic is giving away an HD digital camera every day for the month of May to members of the LiHD community. That’s a total of 30 cameras in 30 days. You can join LiHD.com for free, and then register to enter the contest.

Just a few years ago, we were amazed when HD-capable video cameras fell below $1,000. Up until then, only professional models with five-figure price tags were available. Now you can find a wide range of camcorders at reasonable prices that can capture HD content. Also, most “still” cameras have video functions, and many of them also offer HD video resolutions at remarkable prices. In the LiHD contest, you get your pick between the DMC-ZS3 10.1 Megapixel compact camera, the DMC-TS1 12.1 Megapixel sports camera that is waterproof down to three meters (about 10 feet), or the HDC-TM20 camcorder with 16GB capacity and Full HD resolution.

The prices for such cameras have fallen to the point where many people are likely to start taking their home movies in high definition to play back on their high-definition televisions. And if you’d like to try this for yourself, join LiHD.com and then register at http://livinginhd.com/go/promo/30x30entry. Panasonic is also looking for additional families to take part in their Living in HD Family program. If your application is selected, your family will receive everything you’ll need to live in high definition, including an Internet-enabled 50″ flat screen HDTV, an HD camcorder, digital cameras, a Blu-ray disc player with movies, and a notebook computer. Participants share their HD experiences, and play a part in shaping the design of future Panasonic products. You can apply for this opportunity at http://www.livinginhd.com/hd/app/registerForm.htm.

And good luck!