Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 5, Number 8: June 2005

Trends & Quick Takes

High-Resolution Audio

It’s been around for five years, and it’s never gotten very far. Or, rather, they—Super Audio CD (SACD) and DVD-Audio (DVD-A): the two contenders for CD replacement. Both offer higher resolution than regular CDs, high enough to satisfy even most CD-hating audiophiles. Both offer multichannel sound. I’ve written about them, together and separately, in the past. Your library quite possibly has a few SACD discs in the form of hybrid CD-SACDs, for example recent Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan reissues.

The latest twist in this ongoing story, DualDisc, offers a “sort-of CD” on one side and a DVD (DVD-Video or DVD-Audio) on the other. I’ve also mentioned it before. As with SACD, it’s being introduced to the market as the only form for a few new discs. Unfortunately, it’s not compatible with some CD players. (Recent promotions for DualDisc are careful not to call the music side a “CD” or “compact disc,” given the differences—instead, it’s a “full audio album.”)

The latest twist is that Sony—or, rather, Sony BMG, the recent merger of two big record publishers—is releasing some DualDiscs. That’s significant because SACD is Sony’s creation—and DualDiscs don’t include SACD as one of the audio options. Jon Iverson’s news coverage in the April 2005 Stereophile notes that Sony is “apparently abandoning SACD” and that Warner, which had done more than any other major label to push DVD-Audio, isn’t releasing many new ones. “[T]he fifth anniversaries of SACD and DVD-A last fall looked less like birthdays and more like a DualWake (or DualDud, or DualDead…).”

Stereophile readers care about high-resolution audio. Most people likely to buy DualDiscs will be interested in the video side—and it’s being marketed partly to compete with downloading. As Iverson’s piece notes, the press announcement on DualDisc releases in February and March “made no mention of hi-res audio whatsoever.”

One other aspect of DualDisc is pricing: Most releases carry roughly the same suggested price as regular CDs. “Are the record labels finally admitting that regular music CDs have been overpriced and are a bad value, or are they saying that the video and surround extras on a DualDisc are not really worth anything extra?” I’d suggest a little of both—but mostly an attempt to combat infringing downloading. At the same time, the prices may pose a problem for a music industry that wants to profit from legal, DRM-heavy downloads. Iverson says, “The music [industry] is in a fight for its life to prove to consumers that a compressed, compromised, DRM-laden audio track downloaded from the Internet—with no cover art, no disc, no videos, no surround sound, and no hi-rez audio—is worth at least 99¢, or around $12 for a typical album’s worth of material. Good luck.” I would add that $0.99 downloads only make sense when you don’t want the whole album or more than half of it—and that most analysts now assume that CDs or their equivalents will continue to account for the bulk of most recorded music sales well into the future.

High-Resolution Video

Here’s another high resolution: HD video, more specifically the high-density successor to DVD. Once again, there’s a format war—this time with Sony and most electronics companies on the side of higher total capacity (Blu-ray), while a few companies and studios push HD-DVD (lower capacity, but cheaper to convert existing production lines).

The format war might or might not happen. As of January, announcements made an all-out competition seem likely. As time goes on, the picture may be changing. Should libraries care? Yes, because:

Ø    If there’s a single high-def DVD replacement, it will start having an impact in a few years. It won’t be as fast as DVD itself, since only 10% of Americans currently own HDTVs (and there’s some sense that many of those owners don’t understand high-def), but it will come.

Ø    High-def DVD replacements can also store standard-definition video—a lot of it. One dual-layer Blu-ray disc can store the equivalent of five dual-layer DVDs. You could see an entire season of a TV show on a single disc.

Ø    On the downside, Blu-ray may be more vulnerable to damage than DVD, given that the polycarbonate substrate protecting the data layer is one-sixth as thick.

David Ranada’s “Home theater” column in the April 2005 Sound & Vision considers possible ways out of the hi-def DVD war. First, he notes that universal players are at least as likely for the two formats as for SACD and DVD-A (where you can buy a universal player for $250 or less). Ranada suggests that the nature of Blu-ray means you could produce a dual-format disc—a Blu-ray layer over an HD layer. JVC announced a Blu-ray/DVD combination; Cinram announced an HD-DVD/DVD combo—but as of that date, nobody had combined the two hi-def formats.

For regular users, the two announcements may have been more significant. If you can buy a disc at a reasonable price that includes the DVD you need now, but also includes a high-def version of the same movie, you might pay an extra buck or two for that future flexibility.

A May 10 Reuters story says that Sony and Toshiba are indeed talking about a unified format—one likely to be based on Blu-ray, but with software from Toshiba (prime mover in HD-DVD). Stay tuned.

OLED on the Small Screen

Those of you who love portable digital products should keep an eye out for a dazzling technology—not new, but apparently ready for prime time. Organic Light-Emitting Diodes are direct-display devices: Like other LEDs, they emit light (in various colors) rather than filtering it (like LCD screens). They’re brighter, sharper, and have a wider viewing angle than LCD technology—and they use a lot less power.

According to an April 2005 PC World look at some new OLED devices, they also refresh faster than LCD so they’re better at displaying video, and the best ones “can display nearly four times as many colors as equivalent-size LCDs can reproduce.” Monochrome OLED displays have been around for a while. Full-color ones are reaching market now. As a newer technology, they’re inherently more expensive and “difficult to make” compared to mature LCDs, so you’ll pay a little more. Current devices with full-color OLED displays include Creative’s Zen Micro Photo media player and Ovideon’s $600 Aviah; TMobile’s Samsung P735 uses a monochrome OLED display for its outer screen, and MobiBlu’s DAH-1400 MP3 player has a monochrome OLED display.

OLED may reach the TV screen, but not for a while—Samsung, a leader in the field, says it’s several years away from mass-producing OLED TVs.

Longer-Lasting Batteries

Those who believe in wireless everything, all the time, everywhere have been frustrated that battery improvement isn’t (and probably never will be) as rapid as electronics improvement. Chemistry doesn’t follow Moore’s law. But there are better batteries, for a price—both dollars and the environment. An April 2005 PC World writeup on Panasonic Oxyride disposable batteries shows them lasting twice as long as ultra alkalines for the same price. Lithium disposables last much longer—but they’re a lot more expensive.

“Disposable” is tricky. While none of these batteries are as awful as nicad rechargeables when it comes to poisoning the environment, you shouldn’t be dropping disposables in the garbage. (Where we live, the recycling program includes a bag for batteries.) If you’re using something that chews up batteries on a regular basis—a heavily used music player or camera—you really should spend a few bucks and switch to rechargeables. Unfortunately, rechargeables don’t work well in infrequently used devices (e.g., the portable CD player I use three to ten times a year): rechargeables don’t retain their charges all that long.

Quicker Takes & Mini-Perspectives

Ø    I continue to be bemused by the absolute assurance of some people that the Connected House, however you want to define it, is coming. Take Eric Taub’s column in the April 2005 Sound & Vision. He went to CES 2005 and was wowed by all that stuff that “will be completely connected.” Yep, there’s the remote-control oven: You really will “use your laptop to call up the [oven] controls from the train…” and “tell the oven to switch to refrigeration mode when the food is cooked and cool it until you get home.” It “will all begin to take off in 2005.” Including, presumably, that $3,000 internet refrigerator. “The Connected House is coming.” Maybe. But not quickly—and certainly not uniformly. (Sometimes John C. Dvorak nails it—as when he went to the same CES show, picked up a Consumer Electronics Association pamphlet on “Five technologies to watch in 2005,” and was baffled by “hybrid white goods”—which means smart appliances.)

Ø    Microsoft may have a good idea in Windows XP Media Center Edition, its OS for PCs as hearts of home entertainment systems—but so far, people haven’t flocked to the concept. According to the April 2005 Computer Shopper, only a million copies of the OS were sold in the first two years it was available (through October 2004). That’s a million PCs, since you had to buy a new PC to get the OS—but it’s such a small slice of either the PC market or the home entertainment market that it barely registers. Apparently the 2005 version is doing a little better, but only a little: 400,000 copies since October 2004. Microsoft wants Media Center to account for more than 10% of consumer PC sales. It still has a long way to go (and MS doesn’t always get what it wants). I do see that Dell is including Media Center on some of its big-screen notebook PCs (as are some other makers); that may be a way to sneak the OS into more households.

Ø    Larry Seltzer looks back five years at “the end of the world”—the Y2K scare—and draws interesting conclusions in a brief essay, “Five years after the end of the world,” in the March 8, 2005 PC Magazine. His primary conclusions: “Don’t believe everything the experts tell you, and be especially skeptical of worst-case predictions for technology.” Seltzer argues that worst-case planning is rarely warranted. As it relates to PC technology, he concludes that as long as you have the normal security measures—which these days means firewall, antivirus software, and antispyware, all regularly updated—you shouldn’t spend too much time fretting about vulnerabilities. He’s probably right. (If you think Y2K wasn’t disastrous because so much money was spent on remediation, Seltzer reminds us that nothing much happened in the Third World, where there was little or no remediation effort. And it’s good to be reminded just how ludicrously overblown predictions were, including Ed Yourdon’s wrongheadedness.)

Ø    I don’t know what to make of much “mobile content,” such as the stuff discussed in Steve Smith’s “follow the money” column in the March 2005 EContent—like Sports Illustrated swimsuit model phone downloads for $2 each (“phenomenally successful” according to Paul Fichtenbaum—more than 1.1 million of them in less than six months) or Randy Nicolau’s assertion of “the need for Playboy-style content on cell phones.” To say nothing of ever-more-annoying $2 to $5 ringtones (if you can call these tacky little musicales “tones” any more), which serve a certain useful purpose as anger management systems: Every time one of these goes off, you get to practice the restraint of not grabbing the phone and stomping on it. Somehow all of this makes me sound like an old fogey, and feel like one too. Next time I’m nearly blindsided by some “driving” idiot fixated on a cell phone, will I feel better knowing he’s contributing to the e-conomy by paying $4.99 a month for ESPN Bassmaster, a fishing game?

Ø    I marked Geoff Daily’s “Epaper: the flexible electronic display of the future” in that same EContent for discussion somewhere—but I was so struck by the extent of unintentional metacontent within the article that I wrote a “disContent” column about it. Look for it in the September 2005 EContent—or, maybe, repeated here a year or three later. For now, I’ll quote industry analyst John Blossom in one of the great English-language sentences of our time, as he explains why the “mass-produced publishing model for paper” is “dead”: “In general, content is moving towards the proliferation of contextualized content objects that are most easily monetized when they flow into the venue where their value is most easily recognized by very specific audiences.”

Ø    Sometimes PC writers do care about audio quality—Bill Machrone of PC Magazine more than most (he has his own test equipment and modifies electric guitars as a hobby). His April 12, 2005 column talks about the “secret” in Apple’s iPod shuffle: “Stellar audio performance”—particularly in the bass range. Not because it reproduces tones lower than its competitors, but because it does a better job of square-wave playback, which is much more demanding and has more to do with musical performance than standard sine wave testing. Read the column for the details, and note that you need something better than Apple’s earbuds to hear the difference—if you care about the difference. (A followup column April 26 discusses audio performance on portable players in general and some of Machrone’s results in applying actual tests. “You can find lots of digital audio player reviews online and in print, but you won’t find many that dig into the audio performance and quantify what’s right and what’s wrong with a player.” More’s the pity.)

Ø    It had to happen. Two mini-reviews of cell phones with lots of extra features, in the April 26, 2005 PC Magazine, make one wonder just what matters in product design. The $600 Nokia 7280 looks like a long, wide candy bar or something; the review says “Sure, it’s hard to use. But oh, heck, just look at it.” And Sony Ericsson’s $450 S710a is lauded for its excellent, usable camera, Memory Stick slot, and “Class 10 EDGE” (whatever that is), with the notes that it’s heavy, the keypad’s “difficult,” and the microphone picks up noise. Bottom line? It’s “a terrific camera phone, but talking actually takes a backseat to photo, video, music, and connectivity features.” After all, actually phoning on your cell phone is passé, right?

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 5, Number 8, Whole Issue 64, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG.

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