Macintosh gets its First HDTV PVR

Macintosh OS X users now have their first HDTV PVR – and it’s digital too. Elgato Systems have released the EyeTV 500, a Firewire-powered box that sits next to your mac and can be used to record, rewind and edit over-the-air digital TV. Elgato have had a range of digital tuners for the mac, but this is the first HD offering to the market.

Digital television is gaining popularity in the US after a slow start, with more than 1200 DTV stations now reaching almost 100% of the population. HD television has been popular there for some time, with broadcasters boasting four times the picture quality of DVD.

Elgato are hoping to capitalise in the new interest in that DTV is attracting with this new HD product. “We have designed EyeTV 500 in line with the growth and success of free over-the-air HDTV services in North America,” said Freddie Geier, Elgato’s CEO in a statement. “Mac users can now enjoy free prime-time programming from the major U.S. broadcasters (including ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, UPN, and WB) – and all in TV image quality never seen before on the Mac.”

Users will have access to more than 20 HDTV and SDTV channels, and will be able to archive programmes directly to their Macintosh’s hard disk. The box can even be programmed directly over the internet with TitansTV’s electronic programme guide.

The EyeTV 500 costs US$349 (€288) and is available now.

Elgato Systems

UPDATED: BT Cuts Broadband Prices By Up to 25%, but caps downloads.

With many companies getting in on the cheap broadband bandwagon, BT has been losing customers to upstarts like Wanadoo and Tiscali. In a effort to attract more customers, and keep the ones that it has, the British telco has announced cuts across their range of consumer broadband packages. And about time too, as they were the most expensive provider out there.

The standard BT Broadband package is down from UK£27 to UK£25 (€40 down to €37.30) for a 512k connection, whilst the BT Yahoo! Broadband 1mb product gets cut down to £30 from £41 (€44.75 down to €61.16) – more than a 25% reduction.

No doubt BT’s broadband competitors will react almost immediately with price cuts of their own, in order to keep winning business, but the question is: how low can it go?

UPDATE: The bad news is, that bandwidth is now capped.

BT have written to their customers to explain:

“So that we can continue to offer our best possible price to customers, we’ll be introducing a usage allowance of 15GB of data a month. This is more than enough for the vast majority of our customers – for example, you can still download up to 3,000 music tracks every month. ”

“You’ve absolutely no need to worry: the usage allowance will only be applied from early 2005 and, based on your current usage levels, you won’t be affected by this change to your Terms & Conditions.”

The danger here is – what happens when you want to view video on demand on your PC? At 2 megabits per second, a 2hr film will use up 1.9 gigbytes of storage, so you’d get just under nine films a month and no browsing or music. We’ll be coming back to this and exploring it in greater depth in the next few days.

BT’s broadband pricing

The BBC’s Digital Future

With the BBC’s Royal Charter up for renewal in 2006, the corporation has outlined its vision for the future in a new paper “Building Public Value: Renewing the BBC for the Digital World”. Apart from the two ‘the’s and that ‘for’, you can tell every word in the title was chosen in a focus group for maximum effect.

Top of the list are the BBC’s suggestions for regulation – much like BT, the corporation sees that it is better to regulate yourself than have regulation thrust upon you. Obviously, BBC management has been under criticism by the government for recent editorial decisions, and so the corporation is suggesting a reformed board of governors, independent of the BBC and open to scrutiny.

Programmes and BBC services will have to pass a ‘public value test’ before they are approved, and will be tested on quality, impact, value for money and reach. If a programme fails the value test, then the governors will hold the managers responsible to account.

The BBC is also planning to make the complaints process easier and faster, with a more open attitude and active right to reply.

As the UK government is keen to free up the analogue spectrum, the BBC is pushing access to digital services, aiming for a switchover by 2012. The corporation wants to involve the public more in the process, and indeed greater openness and public participation is a common theme throughout the entire document.

Local news, services and properties are also high on the agenda as the BBC is often criticised, often unfairly, of being too London-centric. To combat this, staff are being moved out of London and ultra-local news services are planned for up to 60 British cities.

Finally, the BBC is looking towards more successes with interactive projects – meaning more events like the Big Read, and the launch of a digital curriculum for schools coupled with enhanced learning facilities on BBC Online.


FindLaw: 56% of Americans Oppose RIAA Lawsuits

A survey by legal website FindLaw has found that 56% of those polled were opposed to the legal actions currently being undertaken by the music industry. With the Recording Industry Association of America stepping up its action and the new Pirate Act coming into effect, then this dissatisfaction can only increase.

3,400 people have been sued since last September – more than 600 of those cases have been settled for an average of US$3000 (€2,473) each, netting the RIAA at least US$1.8 million (€1.48 million). No case has gone to court, no artists, ostensibly the victims of file trading, have received any of this money. Recent figures suggest that CD sales are up 10% on last year, legal music download sites are doing such good business that the market is rapidly becoming crowded.

FindLaw surveyed 1000 participants and found that 56% were against the lawsuits, 37% supported the action, and 7% had no opinion. Opposition is higher amongst younger people, with nearly two thirds of those between 18 and 34 objecting.

Quoted on the FindLaw site, Professor Sharon Sandeen,intellectual property law tutor at the Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota said: “Although the RIAA’s lawsuits are unsettling to many, they are based upon sound law because it is a clear violation of copyright law to make a verbatim copy of a protected sound recording,” says “The underlying public policy at work is the notion that without copyright laws, musical artists would be less inclined to create music and, as a result, there would be fewer sound recordings. So the individuals who complain about the lawsuits should ask themselves: ‘Would I rather live in a world with freely distributed but less music, or pay for the music I enjoy so that there will be more of it?'”
“I suspect that many people, when educated about the purpose of copyright law, support the law,” Sandeen continued. “Public opposition to the lawsuits may be due, in part, to what some people consider hard-handed tactics by the RIAA.”

FindLaw, legal news and commentary

Peppercoin Aiming for More Efficient Micropayments

The basic flaw with small monetary transactions, whether internet related or not, is that the processing charge levied by banks and credit card companies eats a big chunk of the value of your original sale.

The road to creating an efficient micropayment system is littered with the corpses of those who didn’t make it – ecash, digicash – weathered corpses stripped clean from their deaths in the late 90s.

Yet, deep down inside, we know that micropayments must work. Like the first farmer who experienced frustration when he tried to pay for some wood with a cow, only to be told “Sorry mate, I can’t change that – have you got anything smaller?”, we know there must be a way of making transactions more efficient.

Peppercoin, backed by the R in RSA, Ronald Rivest, have brought the micropayment system up to the 21st century, and have launched version 2.0 of their service. Peppercorn 2.0 is aimed at online retailers who shift low-priced digital content and physical goods, or offer subscriptions and pay-per-use services – so it won’t just be ringtones then.

The company has concentrated on making the experience as transparent as possible for the user, as customers can use their credit card to pay a merchant without having to register or create an account. Neither do they have to pre-deposit any money to get started – I can think of at least two micropayment systems from about 1997 that owe me at least US$3.

Merchants and vendors don’t even have to be web-based – one of the key applications of Peppercoin is in coin-op games. The new version of Golden Tee Golf (coming to a pub near you) will feature the Peppercoin system to provide cashless purchases. If I’m hearing you say big deal, then consider that punters spent US$350 million (€288 million) playing this one game last year alone. Peppercoin are well aware that when you allow people to use their credit card at point of sale, they will usually spend more.

The new service works by aggregating low-priced transactions across many consumers, merchants and payment providers, reducing the average processing fee for each individual sale. Customers pay by entering their credit card details online, or by swiping their card through a reader on the device they are paying to access.

Customer service is cleverly automated to keep costs down, with integrated bills and automated pre-dispute resolution dealing with most cases before expensive people have to get involved.

How efficient is the payment system? Peppercoins fees work out at about 10% of a US$1 transaction, which the company claims is 70% less than the usual card not present processing fee.


UK Download Chart Launches September 1

The Official Chart Company has announced that legal music downloads will be getting their own chart from September 1 2004. “The rapid growth of legal download music sites has shown the music industry that downloading is the future,” they said in a statement.

It looks like they’ve finally cottoned onto the fact that there’s not much point in doing a singles chart if only eight people are buying them. iTunes UK has sold 450,000 downloads since launch, against the 500,000 CD singles that were sold during the same period.

Now that we have a number of high-profile legitimate music download sites in Europe, there’s finally somewhere to collect reliable data from. ITunes, Napster and and others will be providing metrics. Where’s Bleep, eh?

Since those sites are doing very good business by all accounts, it’ll be interesting to see what total sales numbers are. I personally can’t wait to see what effects demographic spread, the complete lack of content from some labels, and the fact that under-18s don’t have credit cards will have on the new chart. However, when The Beatles’ back catalogue finally comes online, the charts will be entirely dominated by those irritating mop-topped shriekers once again.

The number one downloaded track last week was the Pixies’ Bam Thwok, which is an iTunes exclusive. Happily this reinforces my point about the demographic skewing of the new chart: the last time the Pixies were number 1 was …. never, having last bothered the single-buying public in 1991 with a brief stint at 27.

The BBC is considering broadcasting the chart on Radio One. Surely they should be webcasting it?

The Official Chart Company

Sun’s Radical Java Update

Sun Microsystems, purveyor of all things Java have introduced the most significant update to their platform in five years.

Java2, Sun’s write-once-run-anywhere software platform, popular in everything from mobile phones to PCs to smart cards has gone from version 1.4 to version 5.0.

Previously known as Tiger (stripy mammal, now mostly employed to sell breakfast cereal), the new release hopes to address previous concerns related to speed and scalability. This release of the platform has over 100 new features, including updates to the language and metadata. The amount of memory required by the virtual machine and code has been reduced, and new management tools have been included to help developers and administrators keep track of resources, applications and services. The compiler and code interpreter have been tweaked, providing performance that exceeds C++ … in some applications.

Java was originally seen as a computing platform for small devices, but got a new lease of life with the world wide web as a way of adding interactivity to web applications on a variety of host machines. Recently, Java has received a second huge boost in the form of mobile phones – many modern phones incorporate a Java virtual machine so that games and applications will work across a range of mobile hardware.


Instat: Digital Set-top Box and PC TV Tuner Market US$3.8 billion in 2008

In-Stat/MDR are projecting that the worldwide market for digital tuners in set-top boxes and PC TV cards will be worth US$3.8 billion (€3.12 billion) by 2008.

PC TV cards are growing rapidly in popularity, due to PCs being more readily accepted as the entertainment centre of households. Many lifestyle PCs are being sold with cards preinstalled and preconfigured – and even if a PC doesn’t ship with one, the installation of a decent card will enable the owner to turn their PC into a fully functional PVR.

Consumers now expect their PC to be able to satisfy all of their entertainment needs, and television is an important aspect of this. A home entertainment computer without digital television will not be acceptable for much longer.

Motherboard manufacturers are also getting in on the act, and are producing boards with integrated tuners. Motherboards have always demonstrated a trend for integration – many features which previously required an expansion card, like 5.1 sound, RAID arrays, graphics accelerators and Bluetooth, are now built into some boards.

In-Stat predict that international growth (i.e. non-US) will be key, and that Europe will continue to lead the market for some time. Lifestyle PCs are remarkably popular in Europe, with many major brands such as Sony, HP and Shuttle doing well out of products aimed specifically it the entertainment niche. Asia is rapidly climbing into second place – will there be a time when Asia becomes the world’s largest entertainment market?



H.264 Codec Adopted for Next-Gen HD DVDs

The DVD Forum has ratified the new H.264 Advanced Video Codec (AVC) for inclusion in the forthcoming High Definition DVD platform.

The H.264 codec, formerly known H.26L, was was developed by the Motion Picture Experts Group (responsible of course, for the various MPEG formats) and the International Telecommunication Union, and has now been ratified into the MPEG-4 codec. The codec enables a variety of video content to be compressed for transmission and decompressed for playback in a highly efficient way.

Apple has already made an announcement to the effect that H.264 will be included in a release of its QuickTime platform next year.

“Apple is firmly behind H.264 because it delivers superb quality digital video and is based on open standards that no single company controls,” said Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing in a statement.

H.264 is intended to be used on a number of platforms, and as such covers a wide spectrum of bandwidth requirements – from HD television to mobile phones. The codec is highly efficient, and has been demonstrated playing back 1920×1080, 24fps HD movies at up to half the data rate of MPEG-2. Less data means room for more channels – or better audio and video.

Don’t expect HD playback performance on your new mobile phone – Apple’s test detailed above required a dual processor G5 to do the playback. The new codec will be more suited to digital television broadcasts to phones and mobile movies with a much lower resolution.

How H.254 works – and it’s not too technical, either

MPEG resources on the internet