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Monday, March 19, 2007

From the NAB Futures Summit: Technologies to Watch

Arrived in Pebble Beach yesterday, where the National Association of Broadcasters holds its annual Futures Summit, a gathering that looks at some of the trends and technologies changing television and radio. I don’t play golf (aside from the miniature variety), but went for a nice afternoon bike ride along the 17-Mile Drive.

When I arrived in the conference room, Brian Cooley from CNET was giving a talk about the most important consumer electronics trends to watch, most of them media-related.

He observed that people in the 15-to-24 age group are listening to more MP3s than radio, and using more Internet than TV. Cell phone usage is growing, which magazine and newspaper readership is waning. These technologies are taking advantage of (and perhaps spurring) some of those shifts. Some rough notes:

- TV on Phones

Image quality improving, and more content is available. First service he mentions is VCast Mobile TV. CBS, Fox, NBC, Nickelodeon are all providing content – and importantly, none of the stations offered are local broadcasters.

He also talks about Apple’s iPhone – which won’t receive live TV broadcasts, but will enable video viewing from the iTunes Store – and notes some of the drawbacks: no 3G data connectivity, no memory expansion slot. Then, on to Modeo, which is building its own network and marketing a Windows Mobile smartphone that will take advantage of it. Modeo is currently in beta in the NYC area.

TiVo Mobile allows you to program your TiVo box from a BREW-capable cell phone, for $2 a month. But you can’t actually watch video.

- Internet on TVs

68 percent of adults are interested in watching Web based video on their TV, and 45 percent are interested in watching Web video on their PC, according to eMarketer. (This is among people ages 18-34.) “Online video is becoming HD,” Cooley says, observing that Apple TV will support 780p content. SlingCatcher, for under $200, will beam anything on the PC onto a TV, and also has HD support. He also mentions a device called the Miglia TVMax, which adds DVR capability to a Mac Mini, and also can export video in iPod format. It costs $200, and is apparently on sale now.

The HP MediaSmart TV can be linked to a wired or wireless network, but seems to only give access to a few providersm including CinemaNow. Sony’s Bravia Internet Video Link only works with new, 2007 Bravia TVs. It clips onto the TV, costs $300, and will be on sale in July. “My concern is that it limits where you can get content,” from services like AOL TV and Grouper.

The Netgear Digital Entertainer ($399) is for the true techies. It supports 1080p HD. If you have two of these, the content you’re watching can follow you from one TV to another. Offers access to YouTube, BitTorrent, and others.

- HD TV

“We’re starting to get people to understand it,” Cooley says. The typical HD TV people were buying last Christmas was a 42” LCD flat panel, with a price of $1327. The prices came down 30 percent in 2006, and that should continue. Biggest-selling brands: Philips, Samsung, Funai, Panasonic, and Sharp.

- High-Def DVD Battle

“We recommend people stay on the fence.” A CNET analyst thinks that by this September, HD DVD will capitulate. Blu-ray began outselling HD DVD just before Christmas – but the numbers are still small. He gets a laugh when he shows a chart of the number of titles available – about 250 for each format. “This isn’t in thousands, or millions,” he says. “It’s 250 titles.”

Warner Total HD Dual Disc – a disc with a Blu-ray file on one side and HD DVD on the other – will be available in June 2007. WB says that the price won’t be “materially higher” than either format.

Sony has introduced a Blu-ray player, the BDP-S300, for $600. A PlayStation 3 is still cheaper. Howard Stringer, Sony’s chairman, hinted that he though the market needs a $300 deck – which could mean Sony has one in the works.

- Internet in cars

Dash Express gives you traffic data, and lets you do local searches via Yahoo. It has two ways to get on the Net – WiFi and 3G cellular. Every unit reports how fast it’s going, and where it is – which is a way to collect traffic information from each user, to benefit the community. It’ll cost $600 to $800 a month, plus a monthly service fee.

AutoNet and WAAV, using a 3G cellular connection, turn the entire car into a WiFi hotspot. Opens up the possibility of streaming Internet radio, rather than listening to broadcast or satellite radio, or viewing streaming video. Avis is starting to offer AutoNet in some selected market, for about $11 a day.

Sirius has a $300 box that links in to a Sirius receiver in the car that may be out this spring, which delivers TV. Programming will be geared to kids.

- HD Radio vs. Sat Radio

Cooley answers a question I’ve had about the proposed Sirius-XM merger: a new radio will be required to access the merged Sirius-MX channel line-up, though current radios will still let you listen to the stations from whichever provider you initially signed up with. Cooley thinks the merger is necessary for satellite radio to provide.

- Death of the Disc?

This is the possibility that people don’t upgrade to either of the HD disc formats, and instead skip right to downloads. Cooley says that the predictions of $2 billion in online downloads of movies and TV shows by 2009 might actually be on the low side.

I think he’s on crack, though, when he says that Wal-Mart will be a big player in digital downloads. But he acknowledges that “iTunes is still the category leader.”

He characterizes Netflix’s “watch now” feature as a preview service – rather than a genuine movie-viewing service.

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