Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Weekly News Roundup (16 November 2008)

Sunday, November 16th, 2008

Sorry for a lack of the usual weekly blog post. There were quite a few things I wanted to blog about, including my new computer and the drama that went with that, the October NPD figures as well, plus a few other things, but due to the first thing I mentioned (new computer drama), I just didn’t have the time. Basically, I bought a new computer but the RAM was faulty, and I didn’t get it resolved until Friday, and I’ve been busy installing everything since then. It’s settled down a bit now, and I’m actually typing this on my new Intel E8500 computer, so hopefully normality will return soon.

CopyrightLet’s start with copyright news. If you live in Britain, then think of two other people that also live in Britain. Then at least one of you is an online pirate, according to the MPAA that is. I don’t know why the MPAA wants to brag about this, because if everybody is doing it, then it shows the problem is not that some people are dishonest, but rather, there’s a much bigger problem. Perhaps it’s the high prices, poor release schedules, the lack of legal alternatives and many other possible explanations. 

The owner of IsoHunt expands upon this point further by saying that it isn’t the copyright infringers that are in the wrong, but the law itself is the problem. The law currently fails to distinguish between several important differences, such as offering torrent files versus hosting actual pirated material, and whether sharing  1% of a file constitutes the same kind of piracy as sharing 100% of the file through P2P. And then there’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s perfectly legal, but still treated in the same way as the worst of piracy.  

Will the Obama administration help to preserve Net Neutrality?

Will the Obama administration help to preserve Net Neutrality?

A sign that real change may be coming to Washington DC, President-Elect Obama’s transition team will hand over the job of reviewing the FCC to two Net Neutrality advocates. This is great news for the fight for Net Neutrality, to prevent media companies from dictating what we can and cannot do with *our* Internet. Let’s hope this is signs of things to come, because the White House has for too long been in the pockets of those whose greed will ultimately be their undoing. All eyes will be on who Obama will pick to be the copyright czar, that newly created position by the Bush administration to grant the MPAA an office at the White House. If Obama picks a consumer friendly advocate to fill this position, then that will truly mean the battle-lines have been drawn and for once, the White House may be on our side. Change we need, indeed (but don’t be too disappointed if nothing happens, as is the way with Washington politics).

Microsoft has launched their US online store. Why is this in the copyright news section? Well, the store now allows for downloads for their popular software titles, instead of using the traditional CD/DVD model. This is a step in the right direction one feels, but the step is far too small coming from Microsoft as the downloads are offered at the same price as the DVD version. Drop the price of Windows Vista by half, and I think you’ll see Vista piracy drop dramatically. With my new computer purchase, I was eligible to get the OEM version of Vista for about half the price of the retail version. While the OEM version is limited to one computer, and it only comes with either the 32 or 64 bit version (I opted for the 64 bit one due to my system having 4 GB of RAM), and it lacks full support that comes with the retail version, the lower price more than makes up for it. Now if Microsoft can do something similar with downloads, then their online store might get a few more customers. Still with Microsoft, they also started banning a whole bunch of Xbox 360’s for using pirated games. Some are easy to spot, because they play games that haven’t even been released yet. And this time, it’s not only Xbox Live accounts getting banned, but also the Xbox 360 console itself – if you see cheap “too good to be true” Xbox 360’s on sale at eBay or something, beware. Xbox 360 piracy, and console piracy in general, is less of a problem than PC piracy. But there are probably only half a dozen must have games each year, plus many of them go on sale for peanuts without a short amount of time, so there’s really no need to pirate console games. I wager that people spend a lot more on DVDs than on games, but one good game can offer 10, 20 times the entertainment of a typical movie, at only about 3 or 4 times the price (at release). 

High DefinitionOnto Blu-ray news now, this holiday season is bringing mixed news for the only HD disc format left (this is the first holiday season where Blu-ray has been the sole HD format). While the spate of new Blu-ray releases will surely sell incredibly well to existing users, it’s the adoption of the format by new users that have the Blu-ray people worried. The price drops, discount hardware and movie deals are now happening on a scale I’ve never seen before, and without considering other circumstances, this would be a great time to Buy-Blu™. Unfortunately, those “other circumstances” happens to be the greatest economic downturn in nearly 100 years, so if there was a worse time to promote a new more expensive and optional format (competing against a firmly established budget alternative), this would be it.

Circuit City filling for bankruptcy could have a negative effect on Blu-ray sales

Circuit City filling for bankruptcy could have a negative effect on Blu-ray sales

With Circuit City filing for Chapter 11, other electronic stores such as Best buy reporting this is the worst holiday sales period they’ve seen in 42 years of retailing, this Christmas is turning blue rather than Blu. I personally think the BDA are doing all the right things at the moment. Lowering hardware prices, lowering movie prices, not relying as much on the PS3 (the PS3 hasn’t dropped in price to tempt consumers away from standalones) and plenty of good titles. But certainly there are external factors they cannot control. Right now, Blu-ray is living off the early adopter and PS3 crowd, the hard-core fans that will buy everything that comes their way, money being no object (relatively). And that’s reflected in the sales stats too, with titles that appeal to these types of consumers selling like hotcakes (do people still eat hotcakes?), while the more mainstream titles such as comedies or kids films doing quite poorly in comparison (a 94% to 6% DVD to Blu-ray sales ratio for this week’s Kung Fu Panda, for example, but as high as 17% for Iron Man). This holiday season will have to be about pushing Blu-ray mainstream, but it’s harder and harder now that people don’t have the cash or confidence to spend.

The other threat to Blu-ray is digital delivery. Here in Australia, video rental giants Video Ezy and Blockbusters are setting up download kiosks in their stores to allow people to download movies. This is the same Blockbusters that have been doing a lot of work to promote Blu-ray here in Australia, but this could signify a change in strategy. But one thing I will say is that Blu-ray players are perfect platforms to host online download services, and it might just be the trojan horse needed to make digital delivery mainstream.

Toshiba, their first holiday season without a HD format to support, are going full steam with their “upscaling is better than real HD” pitch. This time, it’s an HDTV that has the upscaling built-in; you don’t even need an upscaling DVD player anymore. Perversely, these TVs use the same processing chip as found in the most popular Blu-ray player so far, the Sony PS3. If you can remember from earlier in the year, Toshiba purchased Sony’s Cell processor manufacturing plant, and they said it at the time that they want to be the Cell to all forms of home electronics. And it’s not only Toshiba that is using the Cell processor, Leadtek are coming out with a PC graphics card powered by the Cell processor. That’s an interesting concept, and I will be very interested to see the benchmark scores for it.

Don't be tricked into buying expensive HDMI cable

Don't be tricked into buying expensive HDMI cable

And to round-up the HD news, have you ever had an experience where you are pressured by salespeople to buy expensive HDMI cable? The same con has been here forever with component cables, but at least it made some sort of sense with these analogue cables. But with these digital “picture or no picture” cables, there’s almost no difference between a $20 cable and a $200 one.  It makes as much sense as a computer salesperson trying to sell you expensive USB cable because it will prevent data loss. For most people who do not need 20m HDMI cables, there’s almost no advantage to buying expensive cable over cheap ones. The expensive ones may have better build quality, but if you buy a cheap one that break, you can replace it 10 times and still end up spending less. So don’t fall for the con. Buy reasonably priced HDMI cables that still have warranties and certification, and save the money on buying better equipment or more movies 

GamingAnd finally onto gaming, the October NPD figures are out and I will analyse them early next week. The results prove quite positive for the Wi as usual, while the lower priced Xbox 360 sold almost 2:1 compared to the PS3, which actually dropped in sales compared to last month (usually never happens, this close to the holiday shopping season). Sony will go on about how their year-to-year increase (October 2008 compared to October 2007) is the biggest out of the 3 consoles, but our NPD analysis started around this time last year and I have the full analysis right here for October 2007. So yes, the PS3 increased 57% in sales compared to the same month last year, but PS3 sales were absolutely dismal last year this time (last out of all consoles, including the PS2), and it was outsold by the Xbox 360 by a 3:1 margin and by a 4:1 margin with the Wii (which is still outselling it by almost exactly the same margin). The biggest worry has to be the sale decrease compared to the September, despite LittleBigPlanet being released. LBP also didn’t do very well in the sales charts either, barely commanding a place in the top 10 which was once again dominated by the Xbox 360 (5 out of the top 10 titles, including the number one, and platform exclusive, Fable II) and the Wii with the rest.

The price cuts for the Xbox 360 are happening all around the World, including Australia. What I found interesting was a quote from Microsoft’s marketing manager:

You can buy a Wii and an Xbox 360 for less than a PS3, or you can buy an Xbox 360 and a stand-alone Blu-ray player for less than a PS3

You can clearly see Microsoft’s marketing strategy here, and they are not ashamed at all to mention the Wii and even standalone Blu-ray players, and quite clearly position the Xbox 360 as a companion to both of these devices, rather than a competitor. If you can’t beat them, drop prices so you can join them, I guess is what this means. And with the holiday season, you can pick up an even cheaper Xbox 360, for example get a new Xbox 360 plus Rock Band for only $199 from Dell’s Black Friday special. That’s a sweet deal, if you can get your hands on it.

Okay, that’s all I have time for this week. Once I finish installing my new computer, I will hopefully have the NPD analysis up and have time to scour the net for more worthy news items. See you next week.

My PS3 just broke – Redux Part 3

Monday, October 20th, 2008

As expected, my refurbished PS3 arrived this afternoon. The turnaround was a bit slower this time, two days shy of 2 weeks, but I’m not complaining.

Opening up the package, the first thing I noticed that it wasn’t packed very tightly, as the PS3 could move around inside the box slightly. Not a good sign. The second thing I noticed was that the PS3 case wasn’t snapped in properly at one end (front, right hand side was popped up). This is easily fixed of course, just apply pressure to pop it back in, but again it’s not a good sign.

Starting the PS3, doing all the usual set up stuff, the freezing problem (right after the Sony Computer Entertainment fanfare music plays) is still present – it must be something to do with certain settings or something, but I did a quick system restore (not the full one), and it seems to have fixed the problem. The PS3 came with firmware version 2.42, so I’m a little bit afraid. I’m also afraid to update to 2.50, due to the various problems that have been reported so far. I think I shall skip using the PS3 much until 2.51 comes out and people have volunteered to be guinea pigs for it.

I did notice that, unlike my last refurbished PS3, the fan noise is more smooth. The last one had a creaky fan which I did not talk about, it sounded like it needed some oiling. The problem with refurbished PS3s is that you don’t know how it has been used by the previous owner, and while the faulty parts were replaced, the parts that aren’t faulty (but have been used near to death) are still in there. I much prefer Microsoft’s repair policy, where they try to repair your own console before giving you a refurbished one.

So wait I shall for 2.51, which means there will be at least one more post in this series of blog posts. Hopefully, that one will be the last one, because my warranty runs out next month and even if it didn’t, I don’t know if I want to go through everything again.

Update: Bad news. The wireless remote/controller drop-out problem has happened again, and what’s worse, plugging in the controller doesn’t work anymore. I had to do a soft reset, but the PS3 refused to reboot (the green light keeps on blinking), and so a hard reset was the only other choice. Not surprisingly, everything worked again after the restart. I’m now updating the firmware to 2.50, since I have nothing to lose anymore (and Sony tech support will probably ask me to do it anyway). I think I might have to send in my PS3 again. Damn.

My PS3 just broke – Final

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

Good news! My refurbished PS3 arrived today, and I’ve hooked it up and tested it to make sure it works. I even finished watching Memento, although I feel like I’m the one with the memory loss as I try to make sense of the story.

So the whole story (in the right order, of course) is that I sent in my PS3 on the 10th, Sony acknowledged that they received it a exactly week later. 2 days after that, on the 19th, I received an email from Sony that my PS3 was being sent out. And the PS3 arrived at my home on the 22nd, which is today. So overall, a 12 day turnaround, or basically 7 business days including today. Not bad. Again just to stress this has only been my experience, and at best, only applies to people in Australia. Some will receive their PS3 even quicker, while others will have to wait a lot longer.

So is firmware 2.42 to blame? The interesting thing is that the refurbished PS3 returned with firmware 2.41 installed. Why would Sony stop at 2.41, and not install 2.42 into the refurbished PS3, even though 2.42 has been available for nearly 2 month now. Then there’s the comment that a user called “ryan” posted in the blog comments for my original “My PS3 just broke” post, which suggests that Sony has confirmed 2.42 is to blame and that 2.5 will fix the problem. More on that if it’s true, and maybe this isn’t the final part of this story just yet…

Weekly News Roundup (21 September 2008)

Sunday, September 21st, 2008

A very quiet week this week. Don’t know why, but it was really just the same discussions last week being rehashed again. Maybe the financial meltdown on Wall Street has something to do with it, or maybe last week’s topics were just too interesting (Spore DRM, mainly). I posted the analysis of the August 2008 NPD figures, and my broken PS3 should be returned to me early next week (fingers crossed that it’s properly fixed and remains so).

CopyrightLet’s start with the copyright news. Police officers in Chicago are now reporting to the RIAA before their own bosses, in policing copyright infringement for the RIAA. How do you feel about tax payer funded enforcement officers, whom are licensed to use deadly force, now working for the a private industry group to protect their profit margins. Not feeling so good? Well, that’s the sad reality these days.

EA backs down over Spore DRM

EA backs down over Spore DRM

Last week was all about Spore’s controversial DRM, and after a lot of public pressure, EA has relented and eased the DRM restrictions. You’re still limited to one account per copy of the game, and the installation limits still exists, but you are also now able to de-authorize computers that the game has been installed on, so you can install the game on as many computers as you need, except there is a limit to the number of computers the game is installed on at any one time. Sounds like a fair compromise, but does this really stop the pirates who just rip the entire DRM scheme out from the game and make it have unlimited installs? Sometimes I think that DRM isn’t aimed at pirates at all, but at legitimate users as a way to control their spending. In the past, you can install the same game as many times as you want. But now they want to change this, and it’s as if publishers now want to make you pay 3 or 4 times for the same thing in the same household. I can only see this helping piracy to thrive, because being cost free is a huge incentive, but even to those who want to pay for games, having a copy that’s less restrictive would be nice. So I can see people buying the game, but still downloading the pirated version just so they can use it the way they want to.

Will Wii Homebrew increase piracy?

Will Wii Homebrew increase piracy?

Onto gaming piracy of a different kind, the Wii homebrew community has been working on many ways to hack the Wii. One of the very first game on the Wii, Zelda: Twilight Princess, had a buffer overflow exploit in it that allowed custom made applications to run on the Wii, including home made games. And as you would expect from the ongoing development of this hack, there is now a software solution to play backed or downloaded up Wii games, opening up a whole new level of piracy for the most popular console in the world. There was a YouTube video of it in action playing, ironically, a backed up version of Twilight Princess, but it has since been removed. Software solutions are easily fixed though through firmware updates, so I’m sure Nintendo will try to plug this loophole very quickly. But then again, the same principle applies to the hack it self, in that it’s software and so can be easily modified to skip around any attempts to shut it down from Nintendo. Or one can just forgo firmware updates.

High DefinitionOnto HD news now. Last week, Blu-ray sales had their best week in the Nielsen VideoScan charts, accounting for 12% of the top 20 titles by sale volume compared to DVD. In other words, it means that out of the top 20 selling titles by volume, 12% of it was Blu-ray, with 88% belonging to DVDs. That may not sound like much, but the usual percentage for Blu-ray is under 8%. But it turns out that was just a one-off, as sales dropped back down to 8% this week. It seems that the Blu-ray only re-release of Transformers had a huge effect on sales, but it didn’t last long. More meaningful figures will emerge once Iron Man and The Dark Knight hit shelves, then we can see how much of an impact Blu-ray is having on the home video market. Don’t forget to keep a bookmark on this forum thread, where I’ll be posting the sales numbers every week.

NetFlix: Blu-ray not making an impact in 2008

NetFlix: Blu-ray not making an impact in 2008

NetFlix says that Blu-ray won’t be having much of an impact in 2008. The sales figures that I’ve been posting does back this up, where the Blu-ray sales percentage compared to DVD has been around 5 to 8% throughout the year, with peaks for Blu-ray whenever a new hit movie is available. The last 6 months, a short while after Toshiba announced the end of HD DVD, hasn’t seen a dramatic rise for Blu-ray sales at all (still averaging around 6-7%, which is better than before HD DVD’s fall). NetFlix also believes that Blu-ray prices will fall soon, which will make it more appealing to consumers. I wish that were true, but I’ve kept a close eye on prices ever since last year (for updating my Blu-ray and HD DVD deals page), and if anything, they’ve gone up after the fall of HD DVD, not down. The retail price is the same ($27.95 at Amazon for “hit” titles), but there has been less sales (2 for the price of 1 deals are one, replaced mainly by 3 for 2 deals where the prices are hiked up for the sale). The number of sales are still good (check out the deals page now, and there are half a dozen sales right now), but the prices are higher. The situation is the same in Australia, where older titles are now available for $25, but new titles are still $40-45, which is ridiculously high (the highest price for DVDs is $30, and most are available 3 months after release for under $20). Price drops will help Blu-ray, but it negates the whole point of having a new (and more expensive to manufacture) disc format if profits can’t be increased through price rises. If the high priced Blu-ray isn’t selling and isn’t providing studios with more profit, then you can say that Blu-ray has been a failed experiment in trying to market a more expensive movie format to replace a cheaper one. If Blu-ray prices drop to DVD levels, then studios won’t have benefited much at all, except to replace a cheaper to manufacture format with a more expensive one, albeit providing consumers with a better product (but with more DRM).

To further back up my point about Blu-ray being an experiment in trying to jack up prices of home movies, the BDA says that Blu-ray price drops are not happening anytime soon mainly because Blu-ray isn’t selling in as great numbers as they would like. So Blu-ray will remain expensive and unpopular because it’s unpopular? I think studios need to come to their senses and see that Blu-ray won’t help them increase profits, and so they should accept that and lower prices. I still like Blu-ray because I like HD, and so I would want it to succeed. Proper HD video is better than upscaled DVD for sure, but not worth twice as much money, as the studios seem to think.

And while H.264 is on it’s way to becoming the industry standard for this generation of video, On2’s latest codec claims to be able to save up to 50% on bandwidth compared to H.264. H.264 is already very efficient, and if On2’s codec can be even more so, then that’s good news for online video streaming and downloading.

GamingAnd finally in gaming, the Xbox 360 is finally having a great time in Japan, as it rose to the top of the sales charts, even going above the Wii. It’s all very “one-off-ish”, of course, as the reasons for the sales surge are many. Low stock from a previously high demand game, a new game that’s attracting users, the price drop and the increased HDD, all helped to make it number one in Japan for the first time ever. It’s not easy for an American console to make it big in Japan, and I think Microsoft has finally understood the reasons why – games matter! And getting the Japanese game producers on-board is more important than anything there.

The Blu-ray drive reading error is not new

The Blu-ray drive reading error is not new

Staying in Japan, the PS3 has a new firmware but it’s for Japanese consoles only. You can install it if you live outside of Japan, but it’s not compulsory (and it doesn’t to anything). I’ve still not seen any response in relation to firmware 2.42 and the Blu-ray drive problem – I’m still thinking it’s more than a coincidence, but also more than just a firmware problem. My current theory is that 2.42 was released to “flush out” the consoles with bad Blu-ray drives – the bad Blu-ray laser is a design fault for quite a few PS3s, and the problem existed before 2.42 with similar symptoms. The fact that after 2.42 came out, the report of problems suddenly increased suggests there is some relation there. But I don’t think 2.42 “breaks” perfectly working PS3s, but it might help those problems show up sooner.

That’s all the news for this week. Not much, I know. Hopefully next week will bring more news. See you then.

Killing Piracy, Promoting Fascism

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend recently. Those that have read this blog regularly will have noticed too. It concerns the tactics that organizations such as the RIAA and MPAA have been using to fight piracy: by killing off privacy.

Those in the UK will be familiar with the recent agreement between the BPI (British Phonographic Institute) and UK ISPs. The deal basically forces ISPs to spy on their users and to report piracy to the BPI for further prosecution (or is that persecution).

On the surface, this sounds fair enough. If you pirate stuff, then you should be prepared to face the consequences. Legal music downloads and movie purchases are cheap enough these days, and casual piracy means that you can always get make less than 100% legal copies of stuff from your friends’ legal copies.

But looking at the big picture, what has just happened exactly? Basically one industry group, a rich and powerful one, has just forced another industry group and all its members to start spying on their customers. The government was not involved for better or worse, so basically two private entities made a deal to invade the privacy of consumers to ensure future profits, with no oversight, on police or rights protection, and possibly not even a charter of what’s allowed and what’s not. When corporations start making deals with each with the effect of eroding our basic liberties, all in the name of profit and done so in such a public way, is this the time to start getting really worried? Not only has government around the world not acted to stop this, they have helped these organizations by creating new laws and legislation, such as the DMCA, to empower and legalise these actions. There is this quote that often comes to mind when I read these type of stories:

Fascism should more appropriately be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power 

— Benito Mussolini

Now, perhaps I’m overreacting just a bit. I’ve always been a fan of conspiracy theories, and so maybe this is just that side of me looking to be outraged. But the Internet is now possibly the most frequently used communications platform we have today, at least for people in the developed countries. If private companies are now allowed to spy on our most intimate communications, all in the name of protection intellectual property, then where will it stop? Random computer searches? Which is now easier than ever thanks to spyware. Searching laptops at airports for pirated material? Sounds far fetched, but amazingly, it’s already been proposed.

And when you look at the current political climate around the world, what with terms like ‘enemy combatants’, ‘Gitmo’ and ‘rendition’, plus ‘third degree interrogation’ techniques such as ‘waterboarding’ all becoming accepted parts of democratic society, is this really the direction we want to head in (and that’s not even mentioning those other countries that don’t care about human rights).

Going back on topic slightly, I know a lot of people who hate the movie “Starship Troopers”. In typical Paul Verhoeven style, it was crass, loud, extremely violent and many claimed that it promoted piracy. I thought it was a brilliant movie because of the message that it delivers … that any society can turn into a fascist one, and we probably wouldn’t even notice. Seeing Doogie Howser M.D. in an Nazi SS like uniform, and being one of the “good” guys, says it all really. In fact, all the good guys in the movie promoted fascist ideals, and that’s also why many people were outraged. But were they outraged that this was a movie portraying fascists as the good guys (and gals), or were they more outraged by the fact that it was so easy for themselves and other moviegoers to start cheering for symbols of fascism? And should we start embracing corporate fascism just because we want to do the right thing and respect the rights of artists. If this the cost of anti-piracy, then sign me up for the Swedish Pirate Party.