Weekly News Roundup (17 January 2010)
December 2009 was a monster month for the Wii, having otherwise suffered a pretty bad 2009 (relatively speaking, of course). You can read all about this in the December 2009 NPD US video games analysis post. The PS3 has been averaging close to a 90% year-on-year increase in sales based on the last few monthly figures, although it’s still involved in a close fight with the Xbox 360. Don’t know if this says more about the popularity of the Slim/price cut, or about how poorly the PS3 was doing this time last year. Probably a bit of both.
In any case, all of this is pretty trivial compared to what’s happened in Haiti during the last week. This is a good page set up by Google that gathers all the information you will need, whether it’s to read more about the crisis, to donate or try to communicate with people you know in Haiti.
Starting with the copyright news, Real Networks has lost an anti-trust counter-suit against the MPAA. As you may know, the MPAA sued Real Networks’ RealDVD product, a software that creates a heavily copy protected copy of a DVD that can be played without the original disc. The MPAA won a successful injunction against the sale of Real DVD, but Real Networks hit back with an anti-trust lawsuit claiming the MPAA studios, through DVD copy protection licensing, is operating a cartel and prevents products like RealDVD from existing legally.
It was always a shot in the dark, so it was no surprise that it missed the mark. The judge explained that no damages could be found from the MPAA’s actions, and that the only damage was being done by RealDVD. Not what Real Networks wanted, and their CEO stepped down, probably not as a result of the court’s decision, but perhaps also not entirely unrelated. So was the judge right in dismissing the case? First of all, a cartel is defined as “a combination of independent business organizations formed to regulate production, pricing, and marketing of goods by the members”. We know that DVD copy protection is so ineffective, that a junior computer science student probably has the ability to break the code in less time than it takes to make a sandwich. And so from a technical point of view, DVD copy protection is useless. But the studios still persist with it, and charges licensing fees all over the place. For something that they know doesn’t work. So instead of acting as a copying deterrent, it’s basically there only for licensing, and through licensing agreements, to prevent people and companies from doing things to the DVD that the studios don’t agree with. And it was with the licensing agreements that they attempt to kill innovative products like RealDVD and Kaleidescape, products that may affect the production, pricing, and marketing of DVDs, and also the studios’ own products like Digital Copy and Managed Copy. And it wouldn’t be like the first time that DRM is used in an anti-competitive way, and even Apple has gotten into trouble in Europe over this very issue. You get the feeling that governments and courts really do not yet understand the full implications of DRM, and its anti-competitive nature when coupled with something like the DMCA, as otherwise the DMCA would never have been passed or there would be provisions in there to force interoperability and to prevent anti-competitive behaviour.
But it seems not all courts, and juries, can be intimidated by the copyright holders’ usually well (and expensively) prepared cases. Alan Ellis, the founder of the music sharing service OiNK, has been found not guilty by a UK court, despite the website being shut down in 2007. The “Google” defence was used, in which Ellis’s defence claimed that OiNK operated in the same way as Google, by not actually hosting infringing content, but by simply organising the available information. Of course, this is true of all BitTorrent download websites as well, and the same defence did not work for The Pirate Bay. But for Alan Ellis, this is a major victory, and a permanent one, since there’s apparently no more avenue of appeal for the copyright holders, and so the decision will be final. Whether this sets a precedent that will be referred to in future cases, particularly ones in the UK, only time will tell.
With courts being sometimes unreliable, the RIAA wants the FCC to act and make ISPs copyright cops in the US. ISPs disagree, as do digital rights groups, consumer groups, and some business groups. While these groups have been making the right arguments, I’m still somewhat surprised that more has not been made of the implications of allowing private companies such as ISPs to spy on user’s activities and pass on user information onto other private companies for financial benefit. And even if you take away the privacy arguments, there’s still the issue of whether ISPs have the power or the legal knowledge to determine just exactly what is infringement. I know it is common sense in most cases, but we do have police and courts for reason, and that is to prevent private justice being dished out without regulation to guide the rulings and prevent abuse. If the RIAA is given the power to order ISPs to become copyright cops, do you trust them (or the ISPs, who will be fearing lawsuits from the RIAA if they do not comply) to not abuse this power, which effectively can cut off their most important form of communication, which can lead to serious consequences such as the loss of a job or a business.
In HD news, more information is slowly trickling out in regards to 3D TV and Blu-ray. To summarise the whole situation, I would say that an active shutter LCD glasses will be used, which will require a display with 120Hz refresh. Now, most TVs have that but what they don’t have, at the very least, is the ability to actually accept a 120Hz signal (most accepts the 60Hz as outputted by Blu-ray players, and then duplicate frames to get to display it as 120Hz). This, plus signal processing requirements and certain display issues, will mean that you will definitely need a new TV, unless it is one of the very few that is stated to be 3D ready. For similar reasons, you will also need 3D ready Blu-ray players, although as mentioned here before, the PS3 should be fine with a firmware update (and this may be true of a few other players as well).
I suspect as we get closer to the 3D rollout, terms like “3D Ready” will have more meaning, and perhaps some kind of certification and labeling program will be introduced to avoid consumer confusion. So the question many of you may have, and it’s one that I’ve been asking myself as well, is that should you buy a TV now or wait until the 3D ready sets are out. For those in the US, you won’t have to wait long, and if you like plasma TVs, then the new Panasonic 3D line up will be the one you need. The cost of adding 3D compliance to TV sets is probably not all that high, and so I would expect most new models to be 3D ready by the end of the year or sooner. But the real question is do you want or need 3D? That’s a question only you can answer, but my feeling at the moment is that 3D is a gimmick, but one that I would definitely want to experiment with. So need? No. Want? Maybe. So with that said, if I find a new TV (and I need one) for a good price and I’m in a hurry to buy, then I’ll probably buy it even if it doesn’t have 3D. But I will at least wait until several 3D models are available and then see what the price situation is like, and if there’s no premium on the 3D models (and I don’t expect there to be), then I’ll get one (and then probably spend less than 1% of the time using the TV in 3D mode). If the TV manufacturers do charge a large premium on the 3D models, then I’ll consider that a rip off and buy one of the outdated 2D models on the cheap.
Speaking of rip offs, how would you like paying $3,500 for a Blu-ray player that only costs $500 (or less). The $3,500 Lexicon BD-30, marketed as a THX certified Blu-ray player, is apparently nothing more than an $500 Oppo BDP-83 with a new outer shell and minor modifications (like a new splash screen when the player loads). The Oppo is not THX certified, but somehow the Lexicon, with practically identical hardware, gets it, which suggest THX certification is little more than handing over some cash to THX, at least in this case. So if you want a THX certified Blu-ray player, without the actual THX logo on the player itself, then I have to throw yet another recommendation towards the Oppo BDP-83.
If standalones are not your cup of tea, and HTPCs with Blu-ray playback are too bulky and noisy for your needs, then Asus may have just want you need. It was only a matter of time before Nvidia Ion enabled Nettops come bundled with a Blu-ray drive and allow you to play Blu-ray movies in these small, quiet systems, and the Asus Eee Box may be the first of many that can do this. They would make ideal home theater PCs, due to the small space, low heat and noise and the usually stylish design of the systems.
And finally in gaming, the NPD analysis sort of covers this week’s news items. The reactions from the companies involved are, as always, positive. Nintendo will be happy no doubt having dominated everything in December, having lost a lot during the rest of 2009. Sony is happy because the PS3 is finally selling in numbers that the successor of the PS2 should be selling at. And Microsoft is happy because they managed to get themselves a good lead over the PS3, and will look forward to holding on before Project Natal arrives, and with all the hype the add-on is getting, there’s a good chance that Microsoft will get a bit of the “Wii-effect” when it comes to selling Natal to non traditional gamers.
The other piece of news is that the PS3 3.15 firmware is now a mandatory install, unlike previous firmware updates that have always been optional. This is bad news for those that have been skipping firmware updates fearing that each update increases the risk of their console suffering the dreaded “no disc reading” problem, or the infamous Yellow Light of Death. While I was a victim of a the “no disc reading” problem after a firmware update, I was recently forced to install 3.15 as well, not because it was mandatory, but because I had to if I wanted to play new Blu-ray movies that required a AACS key update. So far, the PS3 is acting normally, and I had a good chance of that happening since the firmware troubles I suspect affects much less than 5% of all PS3s. Nobody knows just how many PS3s are affected of course, and Sony refuses to even acknowledge there is a problem even after being sued over it, and with most PS3s unaffected, fanboys can easily claim everyone who says their PS3 bricked after a firmware update is a liar or just someone who doesn’t know how to use sofisticated [sic] equipment (until it happens to them, of course). What I really should do now is sell my old PS3 and get a new one, which will be easier to sell now that I’ve managed to get the latest firmware loaded on it. You really do have to admire Microsoft’s eventual response to the RRoD problem, even if you can’t exactly admire the design and engineering of the actual console.
Okay, that’s all I have this week. I will be writing a 2009 year in review type of piece for the NPD video game stats, which should be online this week or the next at the latest.