Fall Back — Bah, Humbug!

And now for a public service announcement: Don’t forget to turn your clocks back an hour on Saturday night (unless you live in one of those areas that does not observe Daylight Savings Time).

And now for my semi-annual rant: Why should I have to reset the clock on anything? It seems that I have more and more devices in my home and office that have clocks of some sort. Some of them — like my computers — have finally figured out how to keep track of the correct time on their own. A few — like my clock radio — don’t know what the time is for sure, but still are able to change an hour automatically when Daylight Savings Time begins and ends. But far too many of them don’t have a clue and have to be reset twice a year.

Here is Alfred’s Rule for Clocks: No clock should ever have to be reset if:

1. It is in a device that is connected to the Internet.
2. It is in a device that receives television signals.
3. It receives cell phone signals.
4. It receives GPS signals.
5. It is in a device that is connected directly to any device covered by points 1. through 4.
6. It has a network connection — wired or wireless — to any device covered by points 1. through 5.

While I’m at it, there should be a powerline network device that gets time and date information from one of the above sources, and then makes it available to any device that plugs into the home electrical system.

With so many technology systems depending on accurate time these days, it just makes no sense that we have to run around the house resetting all the clocks, and then trying to figure out how to change the time on our car clocks since we only have to do that twice a year. It’s a colossal waste of time, and these devices all are smart enough to know better. That’s something to keep in mind as you wander around your home with your cell phone (my most accurate portable source of time information) this year as you reset your clocks.

At least we get an extra hour of sleep this time.

Sears: Eating Their Young?

Hmmm, it’s still October but the Black Friday madness has started already. Sears has decided to start a “Black Friday Now” campaign that offers “doorbuster” deals every Saturday from now until Christmas. The offers will be available from 7 AM to noon each Saturday, but in honor of Halloween this week the doorbusters will be available starting tomorrow (Friday) at 5 PM.

The company press release does not mention an HDTV products for this week’s deals, but makes a point of mentioning that on November 7 (next week), a 42″ Zenith Plasma TV will be available for $499 instead of the regular $649.99 price. Now, this is a little curious because you can pre-order that deal today online at the Sears site, and not have to wait for November 7.

UPDATE: I opened today’s paper and found a circular from Sears. On the front page, it showed a “Black Friday Now” deal on an LG 42″ 1080p LCD HDTV (42LF11) for $649.99, which is a $50 discount. That price is good from 5 PM Friday to noon on Saturday.

The bottom line here is that once again, the “Black Friday” sales are moving earlier and earlier in the season. Will this help put buyers “in the mood” or just steal sales from that day and move them earlier? My guess is that it’s a zero sum game, and these “pre-sales” are going to come at the expense of reduced revenues on Black Friday. In any case, it’s time to start watching the sales flyers as the retailers start clawing to make any sales that they can.

How Much Would You Pay for Hulu?

Sky’s offer of satellite service over the Internet for United Kingdom customers is an interesting step, but it raises a major question: How long can streaming video on demand sites remain free? I’m talking about Hulu, which reportedly attracts more than 40 million viewers these days, but the same question applies to Joost and other sites. On the one hand, we see that few information sites have been able to make a subscription model stick, with the Wall Street Journal leading the exceptions. Having to rely just on advertising has changed the game for magazine Web sites and other information sources, and not always for the better. (But that’s another story.)

You have hybrid models, such as the Netflix streaming service that is free if you already pay a subscription for one of their standard service plans. But can a free service attract enough revenue from advertisers and other sources to make it? News Corp — owner of the Fox Network among other things — is a partner in Hulu, but has publicly been making noises about raising licensing fees for cable services which in turn makes you wonder if they’re getting enough return from Hulu. The CEO of Hulu, Jason Kilar, is taking a strong stance that they are right on track, as reported in an excellent article by Claire Atkinson on Broadcasting & Cable. But it looks as though a subscription fee may be in the future for Hulu, or at least for sections of its content. Get them hooked, and then raise the price from free to something.

So if you watch Hulu, how much would that “something” be and you’d still pay it? Is it not worth anything to you, or would you pay $1 a month? How about $12 a month? Where’s your breaking point? Or would you rather have an iTunes Store or Amazon Video style pay-as-you-go model, instead of a subscription fee?

Let me know how you feel about this. Write to me at alfred@hdtvprofessor.com and tell me what you’d be willing to pay for Hulu, if anything.

No Blu-ray for XBox

According to a Digital Trends report, a Microsoft spokesperson has stated that there are no plans to build an XBox version with a Blu-ray player in place of the current standard definition DVD drive. Microsoft was a backer of the ill-fated HD DVD technology, but now that even Toshiba has started shipping a Blu-ray player, you’d think that Microsoft might soften its position. Instead, the company is focusing on network-delivered content through its XBox Live subscription service, which offers access to a variety of content including the Netflix streaming on-demand catalog.

I have stated more than once that the whole concept of a high-definition disc player may have missed its window, and that Blu-ray’s victory over HD DVD may be hollow in the end. Broadband service is growing so rapidly that it could well overtake Blu-ray as the distribution method of choice for HD movies and television programming. those little carbonate plastic discs are so 20th Century, after all.

Satellite Without the Dish

Got Windows 7? Want satellite TV service? Don’t want to hang a dish on your house? Well, if you live in the United Kingdom and your version of Windows 7 includes Media Center, you’re all set. You can subscribe to the Sky satellite service and get all your programming content sent to you over the Internet. The service will provide all the broadcast channels as well as on-demand programming.

Sky has stolen a march on the U.S. cable and satellite providers. The U.S. providers hope that their “TV Everywhere” initiatives will give their subscribers access to content over the Internet when they are away from the settop box. The key difference here is that Sky does not require that you be an existing subscriber; you can sign up for the service without using the satellite broadcasts at all. This could well be the bellwether for subscription TV services in this country, too. I believe that people would prefer an “all you can eat” monthly subscription over a “pay as you go” where you have to buy or rent individual episodes and movies, and it looks as though Sky may be the first to deliver this.

It is worth noting that Sky is making a name for itself as an innovator. Recently, it also announced that it will be providing a 3DTV channel next year.

NBA Knicks Get Courtside LED TVs — Really

While 10 NBA teams now use DLP rear-projection modules from ANC Sports Enterprises as courtside displays, the New York Knicks are the first to use the company’s new LED modules. Built by Mitsubishi, the panels are thinner and have better viewing angles than the bulkier DLP models.

Note that these are true LED displays, where individual LEDs are used to create the image on the screen. This is different from the “LED TVs” being marketed by some companies such as Samsung and LG, which are LCD TVs that just use LEDs as a backlight.

New Wireless HDTV Option

You’ve got your beautiful, big, flat screen television hanging on the wall. Now how do you get the signal to it? You can buy an expensive HDMI cable to cover a long run, or you can spend a lot more to get a professional to run wires through your floor, wall, or ceiling. Now there’s a Door Number 3, thanks to Philips. The company has started shipping its Wireless HDTV Link that provides wireless HDMI links with support for up to 1080p transmissions.

The pair of devices — transmitter and receiver — list for $799, and are available now from Amazon and Dell (though it doesn’t appear to be on the Dell Web site yet), while Sam’s Club and Costco will start carrying it in November. The transmitter has two HDMI connections and two component video connections. While I’d like to see another HDMI connection or two, this is a reasonable configuration.

I like the idea of this class of product for a variety of reasons, the least of which is that it means that you only need an AC outlet for your TV. Even that will disappear if you can put the outlet behind the television. The wireless connection will take care of the messy wires. The main reason I like it, however, is that it lets you get away from the traditional concept of piling all the components around the base of the television set. It makes far more sense to put them on the other side of the room, where you’re seated, so that you have easy access to disc players and switches and settings.

One problem I see with this arrangement is that it does not provide a network connection for NeTVs (which is a term that friend and colleague Peter Putman coined recently for network-capable televisions, and that I like the term a lot), but a fast 802.11n WiFi connection should take care of that. So I exhort all TVs to go wireless; you have nothing to lose but your cables!

Consumers Still Buying HDTVs

A new survey by market research firm NPD indicates that one out of four U.S. households intends to buy a new TV within the next six months. Size and high resolution were the most important factors, according to the survey.

For those planning to buy a new set, the average size for the intended purchase is 40″ to 42″. According to NPD, the average price for this size range was $838 for the first three quarters of 2009. This is a 27% drop from the average $1,150 for the same period in 2008. While these lower prices are encouraging to consumers, it means that even with increased unit sales, flat panel TV manufacturers are likely to see their revenues remain flat or even decline.

Taiwan Power Outage Cools Corning

In September, it was an earthquake in Japan that shut down one of Corning’s glass factories. Last weekend, the gremlins struck again, this time at the company’s Central Taiwan Science Park plant. A power outage caused an unspecified number of the plant’s glass melting tanks to shut down, possibly damaging them in the process.

The outage is likely to reduce the supply of Gen 6 and Gen 7 glass substrates for Taiwan LCD manufacturers in November and December. This should not have any impact on prices as we enter the holiday sales season, because the panels for those products were made last summer or earlier. The shortage could cause prices to hold steady or even rise next spring, however, if consumer demand grows.

Once again, events like these help underscore how small the flat panel TV industry really is, and the outsize impact that can result from what might seem to be relatively minor incidents.

ATSC Approves Mobile TV Standard

Last week, the ATSC approved a standard for mobile digital television broadcasting. “Mobile DTV” will give consumers access to free programming on a variety of mobile devices. Already, 70 broadcasters in 29 markets have annonuced plans to roll out Mobile DTV this year. Manufacturers including LG Electronics will ship a Mobile DTV device early in 2010. Other companies have shown prototype devices, and products are expected in 2010 that will add Mobile DTV support to notebook computers and smartphones.

The Mobile DTV services use the standard 6 MHz bandwidth ATSC digital TV channels, and supports the use of sub-channels. Progamming can include regular network programming as well as special short-segment clips for news, weather, and sports, and even datacasting such as traffic reports. A press release by the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC) suggests that interactive features may be available in the future.

I have to wonder how much traction Mobile DTV is going to get, especially as 3G and 4G networks are giving owners of smart phones and other mobile devices direct access to the Internet. Will consumers be satisfied with scheduled programming and limited choices when they can have access to an enormous range of on-demand video content on the Internet whenever they want? Mobile DTV sounds like a good idea, but I suspect that it may just be a stopgap measure that will be overrun by mobile broadband access.