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The February 25, 2007 Issue Provided by System Dynamics Inc.
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Sandy Cuts Loose: Digital Media and Skype

The frustration finally caught up with me. Every year when Dave and I go to CES, we spend nearly all our time meeting with semiconductor manufacturers whose chips will form the basis of future broadband-related products. As we head up and down the aisles and through the various halls, we whiz past all the neat gizmos that TV stations like to feature during CES.

I was looking for a new digital media player, and I was frustrated that most retail stores don't let you pick them up and play with them. So I cut loose at CES. Although I visited my share of chip vendors, I escaped long enough to play with some of the new digital media players and the services that run on them.

Sandy Goes for Gigabeat, Urge, Vongo and Bose

Sandy's Toshiba Gigabeat and Bose headset --> Click for larger pictureEveryone has their own particular set of wants and needs so I won't dwell on all the devices I played with, except to tell you what my evaluation criteria were. I wanted a unit that was compact and relatively light, had lots of storage, was capable of playing video as well as music and photos, and allowed me the greatest flexibility in terms of content. For me, the decision turned out to be the Toshiba Gigabeat 60 GB unit. In addition to meeting all my criteria, it was completely intuitive, has excellent sound performance, and has the bonus of an FM tuner.

At the end of the day, the purpose of a portable media player is to play content. Dave and I were early users of Rhapsody and like the idea of subscribing to content at a fixed monthly rate, rather than selecting and paying for individual songs, albums, and movies. At CES I had the chance to play with Urge, a new subscription music service from MTV. When I got home, I subscribed to Urge All Access to Go, which gives me access to a wide range of songs, playlists and radio stations, all of which I can copy to my Gigabeat and take with me when I travel.

In his talk at CES this year, Bill Gates announced that Urge is built directly into Microsoft's Windows Media Player 11 software. He also announced a new partnership with DirecTV to allow its subscribers to move shows from their set-top boxes onto Windows PCs, the Xbox 360 and other mobile devices like the Gigabeat that are part of Microsoft's "Plays For Sure" DRM program.

Vongo movie service --> Click for larger pictureIn January 2006 we wrote about Vongo, the movie service from Starz. It lets you download as many movies as you like and put them on up to three PCs or portable devices that run Microsoft's DRM. Some blogs say Vongo's content isn't rich enough and all the "good" movies are pay-per-view and not part of the subscription service. But I'm not a movie junkie, so Vongo provides a wonderful opportunity to catch up on films while I'm traveling that I'd never find the time to watch when I'm at home. (Vongo is only available to people within the US; I'd welcome input from our readers on similar services in other countries.)

One of our adult daughters is having surgery at the Mayo Clinic next month. While I'm in Rochester, MN, I'm looking forward to getting some diversion from Vongo and Urge. After I've given these services a thorough work-out while I'm away from home, I'll have a better idea of the breadth of their content.

Electronics for the road --> Click for larger pictureOne postscript to getting hooked on all this portable media: After some hesitation, I let go of my wallet long enough to buy the new Bose Quiet Comfort 3 headset. That cost as much as the Gigabeat, but I really love it so far.

The only problem is carrying around all the devices, chargers and cords needed to make all this stuff work!

...and Skype

Skype is certainly not new news. We've both been using it for a while and have been impressed with its call quality compared to earlier VoIP services. We've contributed to Skype's viral marketing by encouraging family and friends to use it with us.

Skype Video: "Over the Bar"

Sandy in Skype video --> Click for larger pictureRecently we've been using Skype video. With our daughter in another city preparing for major surgery, we've had lots to talk about and to do--on both a practical and an emotional level. She got a new PC with a built-in camera last year, so we decided to try Skype video as a way of working through the many items on our plate. Once we started using it, we were hooked.

I've been involved with personal video for what seems like forever, and have read (and written) many papers on the applications of personal video. I last wrote about consumer video services three years ago. Dave and I have played with many video services since then. None fully met my expectations in terms of quality, usability, price and cross-platform operation (one of our other kids is part of a Mac family). Thus I was a long-term skeptic on the value of "talking heads".

The ability to see how my daughter is doing and the subsequent use of video with my grandchildren (I know--it's a cliché, but it's real) have completely turned me around!

Skype video is the first personal video service I've found to be "over the bar". While still characterized as a beta, it's very impressive. It's easy to set up and use, the video quality is good and the voice quality is usually excellent. It works equally well on PCs and Macs, and it's free!

We have finally passed the point where the cameras, PCs, codecs and broadband lines are all relatively affordable and widely deployed. No wonder broadband video of all kinds is growing geometrically.

Skype Phones

GE Skype cordless phone --> Click for larger pictureThe second news about Skype is all the "Skype phones" that are coming to market. At CES, we met with Kate Opekar of Skype and Chaim Haas of Kaplow PR to talk about the beehive of activity building around Skype. At this year's CES, new devices and accessories from ASUS, IPEVO, NETGEAR, Philips and TOPCOM were added to the more than 150+ Skype Certified products already available.

Netgear SPH200D Skype Phone --> Click for larger pictureIn new Skype cordless and Wi-Fi phones, new introductions included a Dual-Mode Cordless Phone with Skype from Netgear and a similar phone from Philips; the same cordless phone is used for Skype and landline calls. Skype desktop Internet phones are a new category of "Skype Certified hardware"; Skype is built into the base station, so users can make and receive Skype calls via broadband without being connected to a computer. Other portable phones have Skype capability built right into the phone itself, and can be used to make Skype calls at home or at any Wi-Fi hotspot.

We started writing about IP phones back in September 2000 as the direction for telephony in the longer term. We said customers will be interested "in new phones with new features designed to work with the broadband network". Fundamental change takes time, but the future is playing out, with IP devices starting to offer many features and services that were not affordable--or even possible--in the past.

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