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1. New Music Download and Streaming Services Seek Success on the PC
By Paul Thurrott, News Editor, [email protected]
In the wake of the success of Apple Computer's iTunes Music Store, which has served more than 10 million legal digital-music downloads since its debut earlier this year, a host of competitors have cropped up, eager to capitalize on the more widespread Windows platform. The iTunes Music Store wasn't the first online music store: Services such as Roxio's pressplay and listen.com's RHAPSODY were plying their wares online a year earlier. But the iTunes Music Store was the first to incorporate legal music downloading with no strings attached, whereas the other services offered only radio-style music streaming or implemented expensive monthly subscription fees and draconian rights control over the content you paid for. Although the other services had been in business a while, few consumers were interested.
Apple's service was like a breath of fresh air when it first appeared, offering reasonable and consistent licensing terms that respected users' fair-use rights. Users faced only one problem: The iTunes Music Store was (and is to this day) available only to Mac OS X 10.2 users running iTunes 4.x--a tiny minority of potential users, or about 1 percent of the computer-using public. Apple pledged to deliver a Windows version of the iTunes Music Store by the end of the year, and the company says it's still on track to do so. But even if Apple delivers on its promise and the Windows version of the iTunes Music Store is as elegant and easy to use as its Macintosh equivalent, Apple saddles its customers with the little-used and barely supported Protected Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) audio format. Based on MP3 technology, Protected AAC adds higher-quality, smaller file sizes and the crucial Digital Rights Management (DRM) capabilities that content creators in the recording industry require. But the only portable audio player that supports Protected AAC is Apple's expensive iPod, making AAC a poor choice for most users. And in my tests, Protected AAC offers no technical advantage over Windows Media Audio (WMA) 9, the dominant Microsoft format that virtually all currently available portable audio devices support.
Windows users, who represent about 95 percent of the market, need a music service that offers the iTunes Music Store's licensing goodness and ease of use but uses the superior and better-supported WMA format. Not coincidentally, Apple's competitors have been working feverishly to release PC-based products in a bid to become first to market and boost their market presence. The first service, BuyMusic.com, debuted this summer. I discussed BuyMusic.com in the August 6 edition of Connected Home Express ( http://www.connectedhomemag.com/audio/articles/index.cfm?articleid=39899 ). BuyMusic.com offers an iTunes-like experience, similar or cheaper prices, and Windows compatibility. But the service suffers from licensing restrictions: Each song on the service can come with unique limitations, and you have absolutely no way to use the songs on more than one PC--even if you upgrade to a new system. Because of these problems, I can't recommend BuyMusic.com. However, the company could fix the product's problems fairly easily. (Note to BuyMusic.com: Come back with more reasonable licensing terms, and we'll talk.)
Last week, PC media-player maker Musicmatch suddenly unleashed Musicmatch Downloads, its entry in the downloadable digital music arena. Identical or superior to the iTunes Music Store in virtually every way, Musicmatch Downloads is clearly the download service PC users have been waiting for. Like the iTunes Music Store, it offers a simple UI, but it also presents valuable artist and song information culled from All Music Guide (AMG)--an important feature that the iTunes Music Store lacks. Most songs cost 99 cents (as with the iTunes Music Store), and most albums cost $9.99. Musicmatch Downloads doesn't charge a subscription fee. Also like the iTunes Music Store, Musicmatch Downloads offers the ability to copy tunes to three PCs, compatibility with an unlimited number of portable audio devices, and the ability to burn songs to CD. Musicmatch Downloads even features a convenient one-click purchasing option. And Musicmatch Downloads offers songs in the more desirable and compatible WMA format.
Musicmatch Downloads? stumbles a bit in its interface, which is almost too subtle. The Musicmatch Downloads service is available through a link in the Musicmatch Jukebox 8.1 software, alongside several other options. If you weren't looking for it, you might never know it existed. And the software is somewhat buggy, resembling a beta release. I suspect Musicmatch was eager to get its product to market. No matter: Unlike BuyMusic.com, Musicmatch Downloads does the iTunes Music Store one better by running on Windows. If you're interested in legitimate music downloads with reasonable licensing terms, Musicmatch Downloads is the real deal, and it's available now.
Musicmatch won't have the PC market to itself for long, however. In addition to Apple's Windows-based offering, which could be released as early as October 16, Dell announced a consumer push recently that includes an upcoming iPod-like portable audio player and music service, which could possibly be based on Musicmatch's service. We'll know more about Dell's plans later this month, but the company has a habit of low-ball pricing, so the scene could get interesting.
Another service that looks appealing is Napster 2.0, the rebirth of the downloading service that started it all. (See the News & Views section for more information.) Unlike its predecessor, however, Napster 2.0 will offer legitimate digital music downloads as well as streaming music to subscribers. Napster announced the service last week; it will debut late this month. I've been testing a beta version of the service that's geared especially for users of Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) 2004. Interestingly, this version of the software works solely with a Media Center PC's remote control. (I've also been testing a beta version of Musicmatch Downloads that works the same way.) Napster executives figure that the service's infamy and catalog of 500,000 songs will win it a slew of legitimate, paying customers. They could be right.
The RHAPSODY service isn't sitting still either. Owned in part by RealNetworks, RHAPSODY plans to soon bolster its streaming subscription service with an online music store. And competitors as diverse as Amazon.com and Sony have also announced plans for online music stores, whereas others, such as AOL MusicNet, will continue offering only streaming services. Personally, I've never been a big fan of streaming services because you can't access them while you're away from your PC or offline. But streaming services are more profitable per customer than download services, so they still represent a viable business model for many companies.
Given the sudden competition, digital music downloads are finally ready to take off and just in time for the holiday season. Do these services offer what you want, or are store-bought audio CDs still a better value? Let me know what you think.
2. News and Views
An irreverent look at some of the week's Connected Home news, contributed by Paul Thurrott and Keith Furman ([email protected])
Increased-Capacity Recordable DVDs Coming Soon
Dual-layer DVD technology is finally making its way to DVD recordable devices. The technology, which commercial video DVDs have long used, lets the device write double the amount of information (as much as 8.5GB) on one side of a DVD because it writes the information on two separate layers. Last week, Philips and Verbatim demonstrated the technology for DVD+R recorders. Pioneer is working on the technology for DVD-R recorders. Both technologies will be compatible with current DVD video players and DVD-ROM drives. However, you'll need a new recorder to record to dual-layer discs. These recorders will be available in 2004.
Sony PlayStation Digital Entertainment Center Revealed
Sony has unveiled a new version of the PlayStation 2 that will offer digital video recording (DVR) features. The PSX will include a recordable DVD drive, a 250GB hard disk, a TV tuner, and the ability to play PlayStation 2 games. This ultimate console will go on sale in Japan by the end of the year and will be available in the United States and Europe next year. The unit won't come cheap. Sony expects to sell the 250GB model for about 99,800 yen ($900), and the device will store about 100 hours of video. The PSX will let you edit video clips, play digital-music files, and go online for downloads and miscellaneous updates. Sony is also talking about offering an online digital-music service for the device later next year.
Nokia Launches the N-Gage
Do you enjoy playing mobile games? Nokia--which just released its new $300 N-Gage portable game, PDA, and cell phone--hopes so. The device lets gamers play mobile games with 3-D graphics. Nokia is launching the system with a slew of games, including "Tomb Raider" and "Sonic." The game system will compete with Nintendo's GameBoy Advance, which has an install base of more than 14 million users. Sony will get into the portable gaming market next year with the release of a new portable PlayStation-branded device. After years of little to no competition, Nintendo suddenly has a lot of competitors in the portable gaming market. Fortunately, Nintendo hasn't let the lack of competition stop it from innovating.
Global Music Sales Tumble
According to a new IFPI report, music sales were down 10.9 percent for the first half of this year. The report estimates sales at $12.7 billion. The decrease is even greater than the 7.2 percent drop the industry experienced in 2002. Audio CD sales, which account for about 90 percent of total music sales, fell 11.7 percent in the first half of 2003, but IFPI expects a stronger second half and an overall drop this year of around 7 to 8 percent. Not surprisingly, the record industry blames online piracy for the sales decline. New online music initiatives could help stop the decline, but as always, we request that the industry lower prices and find better music!
Napster 2.0: Industry Savior?
Everybody's old friend, Napster, is set to return to the music industry. Unfortunately, your old friend has changed: It's not nearly as rebellious anymore, and it believes in respecting copyrights. Worst off, its goods aren't free anymore! The shock! The horror! Roxio, developer of the popular Easy CD Creator, bought the valuable Napster trademark for $5 million in bankruptcy court and has now announced that Napster 2.0 will launch on October 29. Napster 2.0 will take advantage of the pressplay music service, which Roxio also acquired earlier this year, and offer customers an unlimited number of streams for about $10 per month. We'll have to wait and see whether the Napster brand, once synonymous with "free," will help people respect copyrights and actually pay for music again.
(from Windows & .NET Magazine and its partners)
New White Paper on Exchange 2003 Deployment
In this timely white paper, author and Microsoft Exchange expert Kieran McCorry, from HP's Consulting and Integration Technology Group, outlines the best options for organizations migrating to Exchange Server 2003. The paper outlines inter- and intra-organizational migration issues and the benefits of server consolidation during deployment. Get your copy today!
Readers' Choice and Best of Show Nominees and Winners
The votes are in! We asked you, our readers, to give us your opinions about the latest industry products and services. Find out who is the best of the best!
4. Quick Poll
Results of Previous Poll: Media Center PCs
The voting has closed in Connected Home Online's nonscientific Quick Poll for the question, "Do you own a Media Center PC?" Here are the results from the 123 votes:
- 7% Yes
- 31% No, but I plan to buy one
- 63% No, and I don't plan to buy one
New Poll: Legitimate Napster Customer?
The next Quick Poll question is, "Do you plan to become a legitimate, paying Napster customer when Napster 2.0 debuts?" Go to the Connected Home Online home page and submit your vote for a) Yes or b) No.
Tip: Preserve Battery Life
by Paul Thurrott, [email protected]
With the ever-increasing number of battery-powered portable devices, mobile battery power is at a premium. But you can conserve power in several ways and make your batteries last longer. If you have a notebook or Tablet PC, dim the screen a few notches, turn off wireless and other network adapters, and consider setting up a mobile hardware profile that turns off nonessential hardware devices. If you have a digital camera, consider turning off the LCD screen and using the small viewport for taking pictures. If you have an Apple Computer iPod or other hard disk-based portable audio player, turn off the backlighting and set the machine to shuffle: Manually changing tunes kills the battery. And if you have a digital camera, consider getting a memory card adapter instead of connecting the camera directly to the PC. All these techniques will keep your portable devices running longer and keep you in business. A portable device that doesn't work when disconnected from power is a bit pointless.
Got a question or tip? Email [email protected] Please include your full name and email address so that we can contact you.
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7. New and Improved
by Jason Bovberg, [email protected]
Wirelessly Distribute Video and Audio
SMC Networks announced the EZ-Stream line of home entertainment networking products. The EZ-Stream line wirelessly distributes audio, pictures, and streaming video throughout the home. The EZ-Stream Universal Wireless Multimedia Receiver is a high-end networked entertainment server that streams, plays, and shares audio (including Internet radio), pictures, and video. The receiver can access Internet resources; access music, photos, and videos stored on a computer's hard disk; and link to entertainment devices, including TVs and stereo receivers, through standard audio/video (A/V) connectors. The line's EZ-Stream Digital Media Networking products employ wireless 802.11a/g technology for universal compatibility. For pricing information, contact SMC Networks at 800-762-4968 or on the Web.
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