The Zune Player’s new user interface

August 31, 2006

A psuedo overview of the first Zune device’s new interface has been posted on iLounge.  In general, the authors have gotten some of it right and some of it wrong. zune-back.jpg

User Interface:  They’re right that the screen is white on black, making the interface easy to read and not-so-blinding in the dark.  And they’re right that the UI is similar to that of iPod’s… after all, we actually have a patent on the iPod UI.  And when you are scrolling through many songs, just like the Windows Mobile "contacts" interface, you start to see the first letter of the songs superimposed on the screen going from A…. down to Z, allow you to jump from the B’s to the T’s relatively quickly.  There’s more to this than they’ve mentioned but I’ll leave that for the launch.  The mockup to the right is a pretty good representation of what the device’s beta UI looks like from what I’ve seen.

Screen:  The display is much larger than the iPod’s making videos viewable in landscape with a much higher resolution and a much clearer, more relevant view of photos and images like the covers of the album of a given song.  This may not seem like a big deal to you unless you’ve actually tried to watch a movie on an iPod or you get to see what photos & album covers look like on the screen of the Zune player making the difference evident.  When it comes to screen size on these devices, it’s become apparent that size matters.

Weight & FM Radio:  This is REALLY important and really downplayed by iLounge which to me shows how out of touch they are with the average consumer.  Seriously.  iLounge dings the player for being made out of "plastic", which is ludicrous.  Most of the iPod casing is plastic.  Every cell phone casing is plastic.  The Compaq iPaq, the Palm Treo, and the case of every PDAPhone or Smartphone on the market is made entirely of plastic – even though the outside is a faux metal and most people don’t know it.  Yet somehow having a lighter weight device that still feels well-constructed out of solid material and a quality frame is a "bad thing".  No – these folks completely missed the boat on this point. 

For a large segment of media player owners, having an FM Radio is ridiculously important.  Why?  Anyone that works out at a gym regularly knows why:  It’s because when you’re working out, nothing beats an FM tuner for music when you’re bored of your own blather.  It’s just something about having new, live, random media that’s important.  And remember that most gyms have privately broadcasted TV audio operating over FM frequencies.   I belong to two gyms and each broadcasts over 88.1FM, 89.3FM, and 91.1FM to allow you to listen to 3 different TV stations being shown on the overhead monitors while you’re busting your butt on the elliptical machines or stairmasters.

(NOTE:  If they’d install racing games into the exercise machines linked to said monitors based on how hard I worked out, allowing me to compete with others in the room, I swear I’d be back to my old college physique when I has 8% body fat and could benchpress twice my body weight.  Hell – if they made it possible to SHOOT other folks working out "virtually" in some sort of video game linked to the stairmaster, I swear I’d never leave the gym.  I can’t understand why someone hasn’t done this yet.  But I digress.)

Wi-Fi:  This is the one feature that they really "didn’t get" and the fact that they used the term "apparently" meant to me that they didn’t really know anything about the feature or even try it out.  Zune player allows up to 4 people with players to all listen to music that you’re broadcasting over a very battery efficient 802.11b transceiver, effectively making one person a "DJ" of the group.

This is really big folks.  Ask yourself how tightly knit networks learn about what’s hot and what’s trendy in the music world.  It’s through personal communities & friends.  By sharing.  The iPod isn’t just an ‘island’ when it comes to sharing… people with iPod’s NEVER share their content between devices, nor is there any easy way to communicate what you’ve got between devices outside of "telling people what’s in your playlist". 

Not on the Zune player. 

  • Wanna share music just by being in broadcast range with whomever?  Zune can make your broadcast public.
  • Wanna have a private session between just friends?  Zune can do that and make your playlist the center of attention.
  • Wanna NOT share anything but rather just "listen" for other people’s broadcasts?  Zune can do that too.

The great part about all of this is that it’s FUN.  Sharing content and being the DJ of your own playlist for people is really really cool.  It puts the focus on you and challenges you to get the best music… to showcase your insider knowledge of a music genera.

And it encourages legal music sales as well.  When you hear a tune, you get a link that allows you buy the song using the Zune Music Store – kind of a like a "history of songs heard".  No more guessing or having to remember "what was the name of that song that that friend played for you.

PRICE & MARKETSHARE:  But this is only cool if MANY people have Zune Media players.  Damn right.  And I don’t believe that marketshare is going to be a problem.  Remember that WiFi connectivity is a theme amongst Zune devices (Zune is just one of at least 3 different devices to be released) and people will finally have a consistently themed, consistent UI, and a consistent series of devices that will be released for the Media Player market.  People will be able to depend on Zune to be revised and around for the long haul.  People will know that a v2.0 version of their device will be released and that their music libraries won’t need to be completely retrofitted, nor will they need to learn yet another UI on either their device or their desktop.

Here’s a list of communities that I believe will immediately flock to the Zune:

  • Enter every XBox360 owner on the market.  I can assure you that those folks with XBox360’s are going to go out and get one.  Why?  Besides just having the thrill of an affordable media player practically designed for their entertainment console, more than 60% of the 7M XBox360 owners in the world have them wirelessly connected making them immediately ready for Zune – you can turn on both Zune & the Xbox360 and without plugging anything in, have your XBox360 sound system play your Zune’s music.  No USB, not connector, no nothing.  More importantly, the demographic of a Xbox360 owner is one in which the purchase price of Zune isn’t going to be a problem come this Christmas.
  • Enter kids.  This is a network effect device designed for completely invisible, wireless peer-to-peer sharing in school, at home, at work:  If I get a Zune, unlike the iPod, I as an owner have a direct incentive to get others to buy one because the more people that own one, the cooler my experience is.  If I get bored, why not listen to someone else’s playlist?  iPod owners really could give a damn whether or not anyone else owns either an iPod or a Creative Labs player.  It’s not like you share accessories or media files and in fact, Apple’s iTMS and the iTunes interface pretty much makes sharing an impossibility.  But not with Zune.  Sharing is an integrated and crucial part of the experience.
  • Enter every Windows operating system owner on the market.  At least those that have used iTunes on Windows and felt jilted.  Apple’s going to finally get their come-uppance for providing a crummy experience for iPod owners on Windows.  iTunes for Windows is metallic grey and in no way conforms with the current theme of your Windows desktop.  You could have the coolest theme on your machine and iTunes grey interface, like Quicktime, sticks out like a sore thumb.  It doesn’t do CDDB album information lookups over port 80 making usage behind firewalls impossible.  It doesn’t seemlessly plug-and-play and show up as a hard drive – even though, like every other media player on the market, it could.  It doesn’t allow you to minimize the application to the System Tray like most other media players.  There’s no dynamic tagging, allowing me to select any music file I’ve got and have iTunes immediately do a CDDB search on it to pull album information, author names, etc. and associate it with the file in the iTunes metabase… every other tool on the market does this including Windows Media Player & WinAMP.
  • Enter every IT Professional.   Very few IT administrators & help desk engineers that I know of like Apple for one reason.  Macintoshes are always the thorn in the IT administrator’s side – it requires different lockdown policies, different patching & management technologies, different applications & core tools like anti-virus & backup… it’s just generally a lot of work for only a smaller percentage of the actual systems in a company – usually 1 or 2%.  Imagine the number of end users whining to help desk about wanting to load iTunes for Windows on their PC’s.  The last thing IT pros ever really want is to support the company that’s creating more complexity for them by deviating from their clean, managable, standardized environment.  And anything that works well with Windows Media Player, the standard player for Windows, is a great thing.
  • Enter every jilted Windows Media user on the Internet.  Windows Media is the single heaviest-used managed format/codec in the world beating Apple’s AAC & Real Networks RealAudio.  It provides playback in a format that is half the size of MP3 with the same fidelity, or twice the fidelity at the same file size.  Apple’s lack of incorporation of .WMA playability is going to come back to haunt them from the sheer resentment of individuals that do use Windows Media.


MARKETING:  The final frontier
Last but not least, one of the big reasons Zune will take off is marketing.


That’s right – marketing.  Ever notice how Microsoft as a company, unless the product is something like Windows Vista or Office 2007, it does a cheap-o, lame-assed job of marketing it?  The ghetto-budget, lackluster marketing of Windows Mobile for example almost doomed it and had it not been for the fact that the technology and underlying foundation was so good, the product would have died from lousy marketing.

No sir – the Zune family will be marketed like the XBox:  Creatively, uniquely, autonomously, and without interference from the corporate mothership.  It has a massive budget to connect with specific demographics and seed devices to specific individuals in the limelight.  It will sponsor key events, key TV programs, key movies, and be in the public eye – much in the same way you have the ubiquity of iPod’s advertisements and product placement.  And it will get a lot of airplay from music companies and media outlets because the technology will be virulent AND these folks will want the opportunity to tap that massive promotional advertising budget that we have.

But unlike Apple, you will have the innovation of the Zune networked community, the focus of a Microsoft organization with a budget analogous to Apple’s, and the integration with the Windows experience.  And that’s going to be big because while Apple’s always been a hype engine, bashing Microsoft and Windows, they’ve been historically treated like an annoyance.  Apple’s never gone head to head with Microsoft’s real guns: 

  • Focused & unfettered creative talent on par with Apple’s in house folks.  Without naming names, we hired folks like the original creative hardware designers of the Macintosh, just as an example.
  • Seamless integration with Microsoft’s Windows operating system which has 89% marketshare.  Apple could have produced a better integrated software product for Windows but they chose to ignore our UI Guidelines for Windows and go with a Mac look-and-feel for iTunes.
  • A $50 Billion warchest unmatched in the industry.  That’s $50B in liquid capital to be used in whatever way Microsoft sees fit.  To put this into perspective, Apple as a company has a market cap of $57 billion.  To put this another way, in order to beat Sony in the game console market, less that $6 billion was earmarked over 7 years for the effort …much less appears necessary to compete with Apple’s iPod because of the existence of Microsoft’s backend "Live" datacenters which can of course be leveraged for music sales.

Have doubts?  Take a look at Xbox.  It went from having no marketshare to owning mindshare as the next-gen console of choice today beating out Sony Playstation.  While Sony hasn’t shipped a single next-gen console, Microsoft is already up to 7 million units.  Sony might gather steam this Christmas, but so will XBox360… and it’ll have more games, more accessories, and more users for a larger online community.

The sleeping giant has awoken, and its weapon of choice this holiday season is Zune.

Another reason Microsoft’s a great place to work…

August 24, 2006

Today, I found out that for each hour I volunteer at the local animal rescue that Anne & I got our adopted pet "Sheepa the Dog" ( from, Microsoft will "match" our time in much the same way that it will match my tax-deductible contributions to 509c3 non-profit organizations.

How does it "match" my contributed time?  By paying out $17/hour.  That’s right.  For every hour I work for our animal rescue ( Microsoft will give an addition $17 in actual cash to the shelter. 

Now consider that both my wife and I work for Microsoft and we both donate our time on the weekends.  Just a single days worth of work (5 hours) between the two of us is $170 to the rescue organization. 

That’s $170 to pay for food, supplies, gas (to transport the animals), medical bills, grooming, electricity,… you name it.

This is the first time in a while I found my jaded-self thinking about just what a neat company Microsoft is to work for.

COMMENTARY: Freely downloadable Texas Hold’em on XBox Live Arcade… it’s just friggin’ evil.

August 24, 2006

That’s right.  I said it.  Texas Hold’em is EVIL.

As you may know, XBox Live Arcade for XBox360 users can download for free (for another 36 hours as of the posting of this entry – the deal expires at the end of Friday, August 25th) their very own copy of Texas Hold’em Poker absolutely free.

Yep.  Free.  No charge.  Zilch.  Nil.  Nada.  And it has all of this:

  • Xbox 360 Camera Support.  Sure the damned thing isn’t released yet.  But it’s supposed to be rearing its ugly head this September so it’s as good as here… right?
  • Single Player Support.  Doesn’t sound like a big deal until you realize that this is a really good way to train and learn and otherwise hone your skills for real play.  It’s not like people get together for Poker every evening in LA.  Or do they?
  • Evolutionary growth.  You start with $2000 and progress from $2/$4 blinds to tables with larger blinds and larger buy ins.  That’s the only way you evolve and play stronger players.  By the way, the Artificial Intelligence in the players is pretty cool.
  • Multiplayer.  This obviously gets ridiculous.  No need to talk about this here.

…AND IT’S ALL EVIL.  Why?  Well, for one it’s really addictive.  I found myself playing over and over (and losing repeatedly I might add but learning a lot about reading behavior and hands and player tendencies which each AI/computer player does have) and to be honest… I DON’T WANT TO. 

That’s right, I don’t WANT to play this game over and over.  My proficiency is in Blackjack which is a very different, fast paced game.  I can see how someone could make their living playing poker being that humans are flawed and with enough skill and enough "fish", a person could be a professional at playing poker.  I get the feeling that based on a person’s stamina, a skilled player could continue to play as long as they could and continue to make money.

Meanwhile, Blackjack is different.  Blackjack is very fast paced and not really a stamina game in my experience.  It’s more of a rhythm game, meaning that sometimes the cards are there and sometimes they aren’t and unlike poker, you can’t ‘bluff’ your way out of a bad shoe.  But much like losing the blinds, you’re gonna lose some money on lousy hands over time because like one of my favorite players, Sam Farha, likes to say, "You don’t gamble, you don’t win."

That being said, you still watch players, you watch what’s been dealt from the shoe, you watch for patterns and face card runs, and most importantly, you leave the table when the cards turn and this can be after just 15 minutes of playing. 

Personally, I have a rule:  I have to see the dealer break before I sit down and play, after which I’ve been known to play at a table for no more than 5 minutes before leaving with a few $1000.  This pisses off some pitbosses to no end being that they start the clock on your rated play only to have to stop it but hey – you play to win… you never play for comps.

What does this have to do with Texas Hold’em being evil?  Well, it is a very different mindset – one that I don’t want to get accustomed to because I’m a Blackjack player and you can’t play Blackjack and Poker and be good at both.  You just can’t.   I read an article with Freddie Deebs in Poker Life Magazine the other day that basically says the same thing:  If you want to be good at a game, you have to focus on just that game and that game alone.  You can’t screw around on other casino games because you lose focus and you disconnect from what’s important. 

And if Freddie Deebs, a professional gambler who once turned $40 into $300,000 in a single night, says it’s true, who am I to argue?

So what am I gonna do re: Poker?  I’m gonna play and I’m probably gonna be someone’s fish.  But I’m gonna have a good time doing it, socializing and drinking with some friends and maybe if I get a few good cards, I might win a few hands, but I’m not banking on it.

Not like Blackjack.

Are Apple’s Steve Jobs & Sun’s Scott McNealy separated at Birth?

August 15, 2006

I don’t often refer to other blog entries.  Part of the reason for that is that I don’t want people thinking I approve or disapprove of an author’s line of thinking.  More often than not, I’ll read one entry that I think is spot on, the 24 hours later, I’ll read something else that’s just plain asinine.

But this one caught my eye and considering my background, I feel compelled to publish something about it:  It’s Paul Thurott’s article on Apple Macintosh’s Mac OS X Leopard entitled "Who’s the Copycat Now?"


I stopped being surprised a long time ago at how bizarrely the average Macintosh user acts around me once they discover I work for Microsoft – never mind that I’ve been the Mac software champion locally within Microsoft for several years – none of that seems to matter.   The most professional individual in the world seems to regress into a primordial Mr. Hyde at the mere mention of the word "Windows" as if it were the name of the person that beat up their grandmother.  If it’s not some attack about, "Why don’t you release MacOffice at the same time as Windows Office?", it’s some tired dig about, "Microsoft doesn’t know how to innovate… they copied the Mac’s <insert feature here>."

(By the way, just as a total non-sequitur, have you ever noticed that Mac users are always the ones randomly "hanging out" in coffee bars, tooling around with their Palm Treo(p) devices, driving around in VW Beetles – usually those lima bean green-colored ones, wearing bohemian clothing made of hemp fibers, and walking around with either fanny packs or tattered backpacks with writing on them made with a blue Sharpie?)


Recently however the Cult of the Mac’s fanatic behavior has taken on a completely new level.  Apparently, cult leader & Apple CEO Steve Jobs has started publicly laying in on Microsoft & Windows Vista at the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference – a move that Apple has until recently held back from acting out.…

Not unlike the former CEO of Sun Microsystems Scott McNealy, Steve Jobs has apparently resorted to sustaining a constant barrage of insults and sneers as his main weapon of choice in his personal war against Microsoft and anything that doesn’t lie within his domain.  It should be noted that just like Apple, Sun’s primary source of revenue was its extravagant hardware margins… effectively killing it in the early 2000’s when it was discovered by the computer market that hardware "wasn’t where it was at".


Even with all the shouting from Cupertino, for the most part, no one in the real world seems to really give a rat’s ass.  I mean, for those of you who weren’t aware, Apple’s marketshare has slid steadily downward over the past 5 years.  That’s right:  Downward.  Macintoshes now occupy around ~2% of the computing market whereas they used to be ~6% just 5 years ago.  All those switcher commericials… all those revisions of Mac OS X… all those iPods sold hoping to hook people into buying Macs… all the hype about moving to Intel…

None of that made a bit of difference.  The world is still moving along to it’s own beat and it’s not using an Apple branded drum.  There’s been no halo effect from iPod sales, meaning there’s no correlation between Mac sales & iPod sales.  There’s been virtually no "switchers" and the move to Intel might make Macs more affordable but they haven’t changed anything in the way of software availability, programmer friendliness, or partner integration.  In fact, the day that Apple has to start dealing with System Builders pirating their OS and putting it on cheaper "clone Mac" hardware, is the day Apple starts to see what a mistake it was to move to Intel.  At least they had a chance while they were on a proprietary non-commoditized platform.


Apple makes it’s money off of the high margins it gets from it’s hardware, not from it’s OS or services.  If other manufacturers start producing hardware that MacOS X runs fine on and looks like Macs (which we’ve seen many clones of), why would anyone want to pay Apple’s margins in a commodity Intel hardware market?

And that last one is the killer:  Apple’s own agenda is to own everything – the Apple Hardware you buy, the Apple OS you buy, even the Apple applications you buy like Final Cut Pro, Keynote, & Safari… leaving very little of the pie for anyone else.  Ironically, this is the attack most often used against Microsoft by Apple fanatics:  "Microsoft wants to own everything!"  Sure the iPod has succeeded in this model, but the iPod succeeded primarily because as every think tank out there will tell you, everyone else was just so bad at marketing and coordination in this space – Microsoft & its partners included.  From advertising to device-design to end-to-end experience… it’s all been just plain BAD, next to Apple’s moderately good campaign.


So that’s been their success:  The iPod.  Their second revenue stream.  Mac was somewhat sustainable but while the XServe, Quicktime, and their other investments have virtually tanked (FinalCut Pro, while successful is too small in revenue to really be considered a factor), iPod has essentially become the other breadwinner in the family.  What’s weird though is that for all the talk about what a success the iPod’s been, what people haven’t mentioned is what happened with iTunes Music Store?  It turns out that iTMS is a complete wash for Apple.  They neither lose, nor make money on their investment in iTMS.  They’ve commoditized the cost of selling music down to a level so low that no one can effectively compete with them and turn a profit.

Why would they do that?  Because Apple makes money on the iPod.  That’s right.  Apple makes money on the extravagant prices that people are willing to pay for a high margin item that is technically inferior to most other devices on the market.  In fact, that’s the ONLY time in the iPod lifecycle that Apple makes money.  As soon as the device is sold, that’s the end of Apple’s revenue stream.  The iPod accessories ecosystem brings in virtually nothing in Apple’s 10K financial report.  Meanwhile, iTMS exists simply to provide services to iPod users, and since it’s a breakeven venture, it’s no skin off of Apple’s back as long as iPod device sales continues to make money for them.

Enter Microsoft & Zune.  If Zune can become even modestly successful and begin to take away iPod marketshare with a lower margin, well-integrated, more capable offering, Apple iPod projections could quickly take a turn for the worst.  And even if Microsoft doesn’t do it, how long before someone does?


The irony is that Linux was the worst thing that could have happened to Apple:  Apple’s no longer the only other viable game in town.  With Ubuntu Linux and that bazillion and one distros that are out there, Apple is just another OS vendor, making Apple very vulnerable to the whims of the market.  Microsoft no longer has to continue to support them.

So let’s say that Windows Vista is found to be much more secure than Windows XP, effectively ending the onslaught of security vulnerabilities typically associated with Windows.  Let’s also say that the bar set by Windows Vista in terms of hardware makes it as attractive as Apple visually.  And let’s say Microsoft works with OEM vendors to start manufacturing cool, elegantly designed hardware.  Now imagine a full subscription move for corporate customers to Windows Vista.

What do you think that would do to the Macintosh?  Add to that the threat on the iPod and I’d say you’ve got yourself a head-to-head challenge.

Oops.  Silly me.  All of this has already happened.

COMMENTARY: Your tax dollars at work – “UC Joins Google Book Search Project”

August 14, 2006

While I’m not exactly Switzerland when it comes to talking about issues involving Google, I’m a little concerned about the University of California dedicating time, energy, and most importantly, its libraries and resources to Googles’ Book Search project.  Millions upon millions of volumes will be scanned, imaged, and indexed into Google Search Indices on Google Servers and effectively become Google controlled information.

Information that my tax dollars are providing exclusively to Google.

Doesn’t it bother anyone else that a state-funded institution is unilaterally giving a commercial company the exclusive benefit of its people and libraries to enhance it’s project to search books?  Doesn’t anyone else consider this to be a blatent abuse of the UC’s powers?  Why isn’t the same benefit being provided to Yahoo?  Microsoft’s Live Search?  I’m CERTAIN all 3 engines would be happy to provide the necessary back ends to index the same content.

This isn’t altruistic at all, for those of you that are fans of Google’s mantra of "Don’t be evil":  Google blatently states that their agenda explicitly commercial in this quote:  "The company sees the effort as a way to attract more vistors to its Web site, and in turn, sell more ads. Google’s text-based advertising generates the lion’s share of revenue for the company, and ads placed aside scanned works could help increase its profit margins."

Traditionally, assets like the IP and labor being contributed here by a state funded institution are collectively integrated into a shared source in an open standards fashion so that anyone can take advantage of them using things like open standards protocols. No one private entity owns the information being aggregated this way and everyone – Yahoo, Ask, and yes, even Microsoft – could make use of the fruits of the state, while also maintaining competition – not just Google. Google would be more than welcome to SPONSOR an effort again maintained and operated by the UC but certainly not own & control the environment upon which the data resides upon.

If the UC were to state that it’s contributions could be formally extracted and/or repurposed in the same way that Google is – even on Google’s own servers using remote queries – I think that would nix my concern.


BetaNews | UC Joins Google Book Search Project

COMMENTARY: More on why Blu-Ray’s video quality is so poor compared to HD-DVD

August 10, 2006
As you read in my last post, the reason Blu-ray’s video quality is so poor in its high definition DVD’s is that the codec being used is MPEG2 – a really boneheaded move by the folks assisting the studios in producing the content.  One might think, "Hmmm.  HD-DVD has access to H.264, VC-1, and MPEG2… but so does Blu-Ray.  Blu-Ray could have used a better codec."
Let’s completely ignore the fact that Blu-Ray players are $1000 & that HD-DVD players are $500. The $64 technical question has to be:  Why would the Blu-Ray folks use MPEG2 and why would they encourage such a fundamentally lousy viewing experience for their customers?
Apparently, the story I’ve heard is that Sony’s braintrust decided that MPEG-2 produced a better image than H.264 or VC-1 so they went ahead and pushed studio production teams to use their MPEG2 encoding technology in their transfer tools and author the first-release content exclusively in a format that would take much more storage space than the other two codecs at roughly the same image precision.  This made sense when they thought they’d have larger dual-layer disc capacities available at Blu-Ray’s launch.
The problem was that they didn’t have the 50GB discs available at launch (they still don’t have mass production apparently – media manufacturing yields are horrible according to ZDnet and various other reports) and had to move forward with MPEG2 encodings but at lower-bitrates on smaller capacity 25GB discs. 
Less sophisticated codecs + smaller disc capacities = poorer video quality.  Plain and simple.
So can Blu-Ray get better?  Yeah, probably – if they encourage the use of VC-1 or H.264 as the codec in use or they manage to start reliably and affordably producing 50GB Blu-Ray discs – which is unlikely.  But the fact that they didn’t release in anything but MPEG2 even when it should have been relatively easy to produce mastering samples in all 3 codecs for side-by-side comparisons tells me that something technical likely prevented this from happening. 
While their Blu-Ray disc production tools description says that they will support encoding in other formats other tha MPEG2 – I’m betting that the first wave of studios using the tools only had MPEG2 as an usable option being that everyone reviewing Blu-Ray discs are saying that the images across the board just aren’t very dramatically different from standard def DVD…most say that the video is just plain disappointing relative to HD-DVD’s demonstrable clarity and quality.
Oh.  And in other news, Microsoft demonstrated the XBox360’s upcoming HD-DVD drive.  Apparently, all the playback is done on the Tri-Core processor on the box and in software meaning that the HD-DVD drive is just a drive, which should make it VERY AFFORDABLE.

COMMENTARY: Why does the video in Blu-Ray-based HD movies suck so badly?

August 7, 2006
First of all, for those of you who missed it, the high-definition world is discovering in the first head-to-head disc-to-disc challenge between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray that HD-DVD’s picture quality has absolutely beat down Blu-Ray. 
HD-DVD and BluRay Compared Using Identical Source Material
"In our first head-to-head comparison, we found the HD DVD to be superior. The unfortunate cropping of the Blu-ray image, coupled with more noticeable compression artifacts and an overall darker cast, can’t compete with the more consistently pleasing presentation of the HD DVD … I must say, our first Blu-ray versus HD DVD comparisons continue to yield surprises. I wasn’t expecting to see much difference in video quality between the two formats with ‘Rumor Has It…’, yet the two discs did bear noticeable differences, with the HD DVD boasting better detail and a more film-like look."
The question people are asking is, "Why?"  Why has Sony apparently laid yet another goose egg along side BetaMax, Memory Stick, MiniDisc, UMD, and "ATRAC" (Like MP3 or Windows Media or Apple’s AAC, this is the audio format they use on Sony Connect, Sony’s proprietary music service… no, I didn’t think you’d heard of it.)
There are many reasons why HD-DVD is better consumer choice, but in the case of the mysterious video quality difference, the answer lies in the fact that the people at the controls of Blu-Ray decided that MPEG2 was a perfectly acceptable encoding format for high definition content.  You will recall that MPEG2 is what SD-DVD (Standard definition DVD’s) use for encoding the video stream.
Meanwhile, the folks helping the HD-DVD studios used VC-1, the documented version of the Windows Media Video 9 codec, and as a result the video quality is 100% demonstrably better to even the most unseasoned eye.  Remember that Windows Media Video 9 was created by Microsoft Research along with the Windows Media team – it’s a technological quantum leap relative to most other codecs.
"Rumor Has It…" was a movie available in both Blu-Ray & HD-DVD.  The HD-DVD version of the movie was a "flippable-DVD" meaning it provided the SD-DVD version on the opposite side or some other content, making only half the disc available for the high definition movie material.  In techie numbers, this meant that only 15GB was available for the HD-DVD content.  Compare this to the full 25GB of space that Blu-Ray had for it’s MPEG2 version being that it used the entire disc.  (Those of you that are confused should remember that contrary to the hype, Blu-Ray discs are going out to consumers as 25GB per disc.  The much ballyhooed 50GB per disc is not what consumers will have available to them when it comes to high definition movies – it’s too expensive and too hard to manufacture in quantity for something where the storage really isn’t necessary with codecs like VC-1 available)

HD-DVD >> Blu-Ray

August 7, 2006
I’m beginning to firmly believe that HD-DVD has a very good shot of beating Blu-Ray.
It initially seemed that the war was over: 
– Blu-Ray had acquired the commitments of 90% of the content owners with Sony Pictures & Entertainment, MGM, Walt Disney, 20th Century Fox, Lion’s Gate, Paramount/Dreamworks, Warner Bros, New Line Cinema and HBO committing to publish their high definition movies in Blu-Ray. 
– Additionally, companies like HP, Apple, Sun, were supporting Blu-Ray for one reason or another.
– Oh, and there’s that little thing about Sony providing a free Blu-Ray drive in each of their Playstation 3’s.
And then there was the FUD war between the technical camps:
– It was widely acclaimed that Blu-Ray promised 50GB discs relative to HD-DVD’s 35GB capacity
– It was claimed that Blu-Ray supported 1080p and HD-DVD only supported up to 1080i resolution
– It was even claimed that Blu-Ray would support lossless audio and HD-DVD wouldn’t.
Meanwhile the story for HD-DVD began to look bleaker and bleaker. 
– Only NBC/Universal was providing content for HD-DVD
– Only hardware companies like Toshiba, and Microsoft were committing to HD-DVD.
– And only the #2 market player, XBox, was supporting HD-DVD
Suddenly a string of announcements started pushing Blu-Ray off it’s pyrrhic pedestal.
– Paramount/Dreamworks, Warner Bros, New Line Cinema and HBO all announced dual format support
– Hewlett Packard reconsiders their position and supports both platforms (after a frank discussion with Microsoft and Toshiba about HD-DVD’s support for desktops & server computers, relative to Blu-Ray)
– All the assertions people were making about the technical superiority of Blu-Ray turned out to be patently false:  HD-DVD supports lossless audio as does Blu-Ray.  Additionally, media manufacturers have been completely unable to massproduce movies on 50GB Blu-Ray discs and instead have had to resort to producing movies on 25GB Blu-Ray discs.  All HD-DVD discs are recorded on disc in 1080p.
– Blu-Ray’s first player is announced at $1000 relative to HD-DVD’s first player which is $499.
And now, it’s become very apparent from reviews that HD-DVD is superior in picture quality to Blu-Ray by a long shot.  It’s so superior that it’s very visibly noticable.  HD-DVD looks to be a major step up from conventional DVD, whereas Blu-Ray looks to be a rather minor shift in quality relative to conventional DVD.
This is the first comparison of Blu-Ray vs HD-DVD’s quality & usability that I’ve seen by actual video experts, instead of CNET or
  • On the Samsung BDP1000 Blu-Ray Player:
    "Overall, our initial experience with the Samsung Blu-ray player and the initial Blu-ray discs leaves us underwhelmed. The image quality does not measure up to what we would expect from a high definition source, and it certainly falls short of the hype. Though there is an obvious difference in quality between the three Blu-ray discs we have on hand, even the best of them falls short of the video quality of our HD-DVDs. "
  • On the Toshiba HD-A1 HD-DVD Player:
    "…when the first images from the HD-A1 began to light up the screen Tuesday afternoon, all of my doubts melted away in short order. The image quality was superior to any of the previous demos I’d seen—pure, rock solid, pristine, razor sharp, highly detailed, and virtually artifact-free are just some of the superlatives that come to mind. It actually surpasses broadcast HDTV, for it is in the same class in terms of image resolution, but it is free of the noise and compression artifacts that are part of the broadcast signal. We have used several 720p resolution projectors for our initial look at HD-DVD and the results are beyond any expectation I had. Our associate Bill read my mind when he said "After seeing this it will be hard to look at standard DVD again."
  • On quality of the HD-DVD:
    "We started by viewing the film U-571 in both standard DVD and its new HD-DVD version side by side. The DVD was played on the Oppo 971 DVD player, and the HD-DVD disc was played on the Toshiba HD-A1. Both players were set to feed the signals at 1080i via DVI.
    The result: a night and day difference. The HD-DVD image was much higher in contrast and showed beautiful detail in high resolution that was completely lost in the DVD. It was smoother, cleaner, and much more three-dimensional. The standard DVD looked surprisingly dull and grainy in comparison. This was true despite the fact that the U-571 DVD is actually a much better than average video transfer."

VALUE:  I believe that $499 for HD-DVD players versus $1000 for Blu-Ray Player will make a big difference on who buys what this Christmas holiday.

  • On the topic of cost and value:
    "The Toshiba HD-A1 is currently retailing for a mere $499. HD-DVDs are selling at discounted prices as low as $18.99 through our Amazon-powered DVD store (click here for current and soon-to-be-released HD-DVD titles). For this modest investment you can literally transform the performance of your home theater." 
    "From the outset we were happily surprised by the substantial improvement in image quality being delivered by the $500 Toshiba HD-DVD player. And after investing $1000 for the Samsung BD-P1000, we were expecting to see at least comparable results. After all, the player is twice the money, and the discs are encoded in the same 1080p resolution format. How different could it be?
    Quite different, as it turns out. The Blu-ray launch delivered a rude surprise—picture quality that is moderately better than that available on standard DVD, but not rising to the level of anything one could call high definition. We viewed The Fifth Element, Terminator, and The House of Flying Daggers side by side in their DVD and Blu-ray versions, deriving the same results from each test: the Blu-ray discs showed somewhat better contrast and detail over their DVD counterparts. But the difference was not nearly as dramatic as the comparisons between DVD and HD-DVD. Moreover, none of the Blu-ray discs matched the higher quality of the HD-DVDs."
    [There is a huge section entitled "The Price Factor" on the site]

MARKETING:  I’ll leave this one for later.  I have a lot to say on this.