Category: Uncategorized

Facebook launching music service, but not in Canada

image credit: Forbes.com

According to a report by Parmy Olson on Forbes.com, Facebook has signed a deal with streaming music provider, Spotify, in a move that could see music added to the giant social network in as little as two weeks.

Unfortunately for Canadians and Americans, Spotify has yet to sign the necessary agreements with North American record labels to bring its very popular product to Facebookers in Canada and the U.S.

Olson makes the connection between Facebook and Spotify clear for those who aren’t familiar with the two organizations: Not only is Mark Zuckerberg a big fan of Spotify, Facebook’s first president and early Napster employee, Sean Parker, sits on Spotify’s board, while the two companies also share investors.

But the coming-together of these entities is not limited to dollars and directors. While Spotify started out in 2006 as a way to listen to music online, it has grown considerably since then, most recently in 2010 when it added a social networking feature powered by – you guessed it – Facebook.

Once integrated into Facebook officially, according to Olson, a Spotify icon of some description will appear to the left of users’ Newsfeed.

The intent is move Facebook’s media strategy forward (they already have a movie agreement with Warner Bros.) while giving Spotify access to a massive new source of potential subscribers. Spotify’s free service is ad-supported, but they also have a paid service which is ad-free and offers a higher bitrate for the music streams.

The real question however is: Will this new socially-powered angle prove tantalizing enough to Facebook users to make a real difference for either company? After all, this is hardly an original concept. Microsoft tried to make music social with their nearly-defunct Zune product – even going so far as to let users of their Zune media players “find” other Zune-ers who were located within range of the device’s Wi-Fi connection. Apple has kicked this can too with their poorly received Ping product which is now a feature built-in to every copy of iTunes and several of their devices including the iPhone. Yet even with Apple’s significant market share, Ping is hardly a success story.

But if social music on Facebook is going to be a success, it will happen in Canada. Why? Turns out our very own country has the world’s most extreme users of Facebook. I can’t say I’m surprised. Sync readers seem to have an insatiable appetite for all things Facebook-related. So that’s all the more reason why Spotify has to hurry up and sort out whatever remaining legal hurdles it faces with record labels and add Canada to its list of supported countries. Heck, given how rabid Canadians are when it comes to Facebook, it might make sense to get the Canadian deals ironed out first, before the U.S. – we could be the perfect test-bed for new features.

Alright readers – your turn: Are you excited by the idea of being able to share your musical tastes with your FB friends via an integrated platform like Spotify?

[Source: Forbes.com]

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Want an iPhone 4 for $99? Run to Montreal. Or B.C.

Here’s how the unusual offer works:

Only on days that the Montreal Canadiens are playing a playoff game, you can go to any BestBuy or BestBuy Mobile outlet – but only in the Montreal area – and pick up an iPhone 4 for $99 on a three-year contract with Virgin Mobile.  The longer the Canadiens stay in the Playoffs, the longer the offer continues.

Oh, there’s one other catch: You’ll need to download this coupon and bring it with you when you roll into one of their stores for the offer.

Full details here.

But wait there’s more…

Turns out Montrealers aren’t the only ones who get to bask in the iPhone Playoff celebration. The same offer is being made in British Columbia. Grab the coupon and head in to any BestBuy or BestBuy Mobile location anywhere in B.C. This offer is good for (you guessed it) any day that the Canucks are playing a playoff game.

E-mail is dead. Long live email.

image (c) Getty ImagesThough it may not always be apparent from my occasionally incoherent ravings on this blog, I am an English major.

And like many English majors, I tend to be a bit of (a) stickler when it comes to the evolution of our language. I wrinkle my nose at terms like “mixtape”, “staycation” and “frenemy.” I resent it when people use words that have had long-held meanings in a new context e.g. “voluptuous” now means “overweight” in certain circles.

And for a very long time I insisted that it was “e-mail”, not “email.” We even debated the word here in the office with most of the twenty-somethings doing a very poor job of hiding their amusement that us we old-timers could cling so firmly to our precious hyphen.

For years however, I had the power of the press behind me. Every traditional publication at least, was consistently using “e-mail” so I certainly wasn’t going to abandon it.

Today however, the hook that I had been hanging my e-mail hat on, was unexpectedly taken away in the form – of all things – a tweet.

Not just any tweet. An official tweet from the folks who run the AP Style Book twitter account, in which they said:

Language evolves. Today we change AP style from e-mail to email, no hyphen.There we have it. Not that the Associated Press is necessarily the last word on spelling, but if they have now moved to a world of hyphen-less emails, it’s only a matter of time before it makes its way into more official records such as the Oxford English Dictionary.

So long e-mail. We had a good ride, but I think our time to part ways has come. I’ll miss you old friend. I’ll always remember with great fondness the time you entered my life and all of the promise and excitement that you brought with you. I will especially miss your hyphen. It suited you.

CRTC to make switching broadcast, telco services as easy as one call

image (c) Getty ImagesWhile I’ve never experienced any hassles when switching providers for any of my services, I know that this has not been the case for many Canadians. And clearly that’s the message the CRTC has been receiving, because today they have announced a new process whereby consumers can place a single call to their new provider and from there the new provider will make all the arrangements for the switch, including service cancellation, with the old provider.

In a press release sent out today, Konrad von Finckenstein, Q.C., Chairman of the CRTC said, “In a competitive marketplace, consumers are always encouraged to explore different options for their broadcasting and telecommunications services. The new rules will make the transfer process a seamless and convenient experience, while enabling Canadians to benefit from receiving retention offers from their current providers.”

Along with the new, simpler switch procedure comes new requirements for how long any switches should take: “The CRTC requires that customer transfers be completed within two business days, except for wireless service where transfers must be completed within 2.5 hours.”

2.5 hours? That’s seems like a tall order… we’ll see if that ends up being the reality or not.

The new rules don’t prevent you from doing a regular cancellation, if that’s what you want. In fact, it may arguably be a better way to go about switching, especially if you’re planning to move for pricing reasons. By calling your existing provider to cancel in-person, you’ll likely be offered any number of incentives to stay, which will not happen if you use the “one-call” technique.

The CRTC is warning Canadians that these new procedures do *not* help get you out of any early-cancellation fees that your current provider might charge you depending on the nature of your contract, so don’t be surprised if you get a bill in the mail following the switch-over process.

Finally, near the end of the release, the CRTC mentions that it “has established safeguards to prevent service providers from sharing confidential customer information with their internal sales and marketing groups during the transfer process,” presumably as a way to prevent the old provider from placing calls to the customer in an attempt to lure them back before they leave. Interestingly, the Commission isn’t completely convinced that this decision is in the best interest of consumers and is seeking comments on the issue.

Do you think these changes are good for consumers, or will you still use the cancel-and-switch-yourself technique the next time you decide to move?

Why Thunderbolt (Light Peak) changes everything

The new Thunderbolt port as seen on Apple's new MacBook Pro. Image courtesy of Apple.

The new Thunderbolt port as seen on Apple's new MacBook Pro. Image courtesy of Apple.

Have you ever looked at the back of your desktop or the sides (and back) of your laptop and wondered why there are so many ports? Multiple USB ports, VGA, HDMI, Ethernet, two flavours of FireWire (IEEE 1394 and the newer 800 standard), eSATA and on some models you’ll find DisplayPort and Express Card slots too. Regardless of their shape, name or quantity, in the end, they all do the same thing: allow your computer to talk to external devices or networks.

The computer I’m writing this post from has a grand total of 10 such I/O interfaces and until today this abundance of connection options was something I took a sort of pride in. After all, the more and varied ports on a PC, the more and varied devices you can connect to.

Today however, all of that changes.

The Thunderbolt icon. Image courtesy of Apple.

The Thunderbolt icon. Image courtesy of Apple.

Imagine a world where a single, small port on the side of your laptop is all you will ever need to connect to any peripheral or network – including external monitors. Now imagine that this port allows your computer to swap data with those connected devices at a staggering 10 Gbps (that’s 20 times faster than USB 2.0 and fast enough to transfer a feature-length full HD movie in 30 seconds) and that it can pass along up to 10 watts of power to those devices so they need not rely on additional power supplies. Truly plug and play. Now stop imagining.

This new port exists (exclusively for now on Apple’s new MacBook Pros) and is called Thunderbolt.

Thunderbolt is actually the consumer name chosen by Apple and Intel for a technology that the two companies partnered on known as “Light Peak.” Not that Light Peak is a bad name, but Apple has a spectacular record for finding catchy names for new or existing technologies (consider FireWire, MagSafe and FaceTime just to name a few) so Thunderbolt it is. They’ve even designed a clever little lightning bolt icon to stamp on Thunderbolt ports and cables.

The Mini DisplayPort found on older MacBooks - identical in shape to the new Thunderbolt port.

What makes Thunderbolt unique (other than its groundbreaking speed) is that it was designed from the ground-up to be display-friendly. While it’s true that you can attach external displays to USB ports, this has always been a bit of kludge – a clever workaround that forces USB to do something it was never intended to do. Thunderbolt on the other hand, includes both DisplayPort and HDMI technologies within its architecture. In fact, take a close look at the Thunderbolt port (top of this page). Now look at the current Mini Display Ports (image above). Yep, they’re the same shape. This means that existing Mini Display Port cables can snap right into Thunderbolt ports, no adapters required.

The other clever thing about Thunderbolt is that it can be daisy-chained. Apple has always been a big backer of daisy-chain technologies, first with SCSI, then with FireWire – and now Thunderbolt keeps that ability alive. In essence, this means if every Thunderbolt-compatible device had two ports, you could string them all together (up to 6 in total), one after the other, and plug the device that was closest to your PC (the monitor perhaps?) into a single Thunderbolt port on your computer. Voila – instant access to all of your devices and only one cable to keep organized. Sounds very Apple doesn’t it?

Is this the end of USB?

Not likely. At least, not in the near-term. The fact is, almost every single peripheral on the market today was built using USB, so it will be several years before people no longer need USB ports on their computers. And so far, no USB-to-Thunderbolt adapter has been announced (though that’s probably in the works as we speak). Where USB will be most greatly impacted is the development of USB as a future standard. USB 3.0 was only recently released and since then we have seen precious few peripherals with the new port and finding a PC that ships with a USB 3.0 port is very difficult indeed. My guess is that Thunderbolt will effectively kill any future investment in USB 3.0 making it a lame-duck technology.

And what of eSATA?

Since eSATA’s core benefit is higher transfer speeds when compared to USB 2.0, I have a feeling it too will eventually sunset in the face of Thunderbolt’s blistering speed and 10-watt power supply (it’s very hard to find bus-powered eSATA hard drives).

Cost benefits?

It might be a little naive of me to think so, but I’m hoping that the architectural simplicity that Thunderbolt creates will eventually result in lower costs for PC manufacturers. It just makes sense that a single port is cheaper to produce than 10. Whether this turns out to be the case and whether manufacturers end up passing along these savings to consumers is tough to call, but competition being what it is, I remain optimistic!

iPhone iOS 4.2 update wipes iPod content: problem fixed

sad-iphoneSee update below…

Original post:

Oh the excitement of a iOS update! The thrill of being able to access brand-new, never-seen-before features! The anticipation as you download and install the update!

The disappointment as you realize that you can no longer play any of your iPod content.

This sure sounds like the beginning of one of those MasterCard commercials, but the sad truth is that it’s the reality facing some people who have been brave enough to install Apple’s latest update to their iOS on their iPhone 4.

Actually I have no idea how many others have experienced this since a quick Google on the topic hasn’t turned up anything.

The update downloaded and installed just fine, and all of my apps appear to be working – in fact I can’t find a single problem – except the whole iPod thing:

iPhone 4's iPod screen after installing iOS 4.2.1 (click for larger)

iPhone 4's iPod screen after installing iOS 4.2.1 (click for larger)

Strangely, when I check my settings panel, everything looks normal: I can see I’ve got music and a few videos.

iPhone 4's "About" screen after iOS 4.2.1 update showing songs and videos on the device (click for larger)

iPhone 4's "About" screen after iOS 4.2.1 update showing songs and videos on the device (click for larger)

The only thing I can think of is that the PC I used to perform the iOS update is not the PC that I originally loaded my music from. Could that account for it? It hasn’t been a problem in the past when I’ve done the same thing.

Anyone else having trouble?

Update, 4:48 p.m.: Thanks to reader jonoo who suggested re-connecting the iPhone to the PC and playing a few tracks in iTunes FROM the iPhone’s library, then disconnecting the iPhone. It works! All tracks are now back.

Let us know if this fix does not work for you.

Sony Dash vs. Chumby One: Battle of the "internet viewers"

Sony's Dash (left) and Chumby Industries' Chumby One (right)

Sony's Dash (left) and Chumby Industries' Chumby One (right)

Some of you might recall a few years ago, a little device made its way onto the gadget scene that let you wirelessly connect to the web so that you could see stuff. All kinds of stuff. It had a touch screen and even a “squeeze sensor.” It was called the Chumby. It was 2008, the iPad was still 2 years away and the Chumby was a bizarre but charming hybrid between an iPod Touch and a beanbag.

Based on open-source software with an embedded version of Adobe’s Flash, the Chumby runs apps that appear on its diminutive screen in a never-ending slideshow of information. If you’ve ever looked up at one of those elevator screens that show you headlines, weather etc., you’ll get the concept. I was immediately taken by the idea and hounded the folks at Chumby to send me one. Sadly, they wouldn’t do it since the Chumby wasn’t eligible for sale outside of the U.S. In the end, I gave up on ever getting my hands on a Chumby and moved on to other things.

It’s now 2010 and here’s what’s been going on with the Chumby in the intervening years…
It seems I wasn’t the only one who saw lots of potential in the cuddly little web-viewer. It ended up being named by Wired Magazine as a top gadget for 2008. In 2009 Chumby Industries created the Chumby One – a cheaper version of the original Chumby encased in hard white plastic instead of the Italian-leather exterior of its older brother. The Chumby One lacks the original’s squeezable form factor but introduces a large volume knob on the side and an FM radio. But perhaps more interestingly, Sony took notice of the Chumby platform and began development of their own internet appliance, the HID-C10, otherwise known as the Sony Dash, which they debuted at this year’s CES show in January. If the Chumby One is retro-looking clock-radio with a touch-screen, the Dash is a thoroughly modern wide-screen HDTV. Yet both devices run the Chumby widget platform, and now – for the first time – both devices are available to Canadians which means the time is ripe for a comparison.

Before we dive in though, here’s how the Chumby/Dash devices work, in case everything I’ve written to this point has left you wondering what I’m rambling on about. Feel free to skip to the specs if you’ve heard this before…

Sony's Dash has a modern, monolithic shape compared to the Chumby One's toy-like appearance

Sony's Dash has a modern, monolithic shape compared to the Chumby One's toy-like appearance

Chumbys and Dashs use your Wi-Fi network to connect to the web. After some minor configurations steps on the devices themselves, you use your PC or Mac to customize the content that the gadgets display through a dedicated website. The site lets you choose from amongst the 1000+ Chumby apps that are freely available, which you can then organize into “channels”. Think of Chumby/Dash channels as TV channels – you choose the kind of programming you want on each channel. Once set, you can “change channel” anytime from the device itself. Most folks will likely stick to a single channel, but having the choice to view others is handy.

Each app comes with its own set of customizable features. The Picasa widget lets you choose a URL with your photos, while the Weather Channel lets you choose your city and preferred temperature display (Celsius or Fahrenheit), and the Facebook Newsfeed app lets you “like” or comment on your friends’ updates – the latter via an on-screen keyboard. Others only let you choose how long they will remain on the screen.

App content runs the gamut from News to Travel and everything in between, but some categories are more populated than others. “Clocks” for instance has over 200 apps, which I suppose isn’t surprising given that these devices are primarily intended as desktop or bedside table companions. There are even some games you can play using the touch-screen such as “Reversi” or “Pinball” but frankly neither the Dash nor the Chumby One are especially good gaming gadgets.

Personally, I’ve gotten the most out of a combination of news, Facebook updates & photos, and humour. That’s the channel I keep running during the day. But I’ve also got a channel that runs a single app: Flickr. It runs continuously and turns the Chumby into an ever-changing digital photo frame. It’s also a great way to discover new photos as the app lets you see public photos by keyword – my suggestion: use seasonal terms like “autumn.”

Okay now that you know a bit more about how these Chumby-driven devices work, let’s get back to the comparison with a look at the specs…

  Sony Dash  Chumby One 
Price   $229 CDN  $119 USD
 Screen size  7″  3.5″
 Screen resolution  800×480  320×240
 Wi-Fi  b/g  b/g
 Video Playback  Windows® Media Video 9 (up to MP@HL 1080p)
Microsoft VC-1 (up to AP@L3 720p)
MPEG 4.10/H.264 (up to MP@L4.0 1080p)
 FLV
H.264
 Audio Playback  MP3, AAC, WMA  MP3, OGG, WAV, FLAC and M4A
 Audio-in  Microphone  Microphone
 Audio-out  Headphone jack  Headphone jack
 Speakers  Stereo, 1W+1W  Mono, 2W
 Power  A/C adapter  A/C Adapter with travel plugs or optional Li-ion rechargeable battery
 USB  1 USB 2.0 port  1 USB 2.0 port
 Accelerometer  Yes  Yes
 FM Tuner  No  Yes
 Ethernet over USB  No  Yes

A few things jump out at you when you look at this list.

First, the Dash is twice the price of the Chumby One. Actually it’s a little less than that since the Chumby One is priced in US$ and you’ll have to pay for shipping and possibly duties, whereas you can drop by your local Sony Store and buy the Dash – or via SonyStyle.ca. The Chumby One can only be bought online through their web store.

This price difference brings us to the other big difference: the screens. The Dash’s screen is likely the biggest reason for the extra bucks. It’s nearly twice the diagonal size and more than double the resolution. And though Sony doesn’t publish the details on its processor, I’m guessing it’s more powerful than the Chumby’s. That said, it is a very nice screen. Not razor-sharp like you’d find on an iPad or a laptop but still very good to look at.

Why the larger, wider screen on the Dash? In a word: video. Although Sony has chosen to “wrap” the Chumby experience in its own themed dashboards, the main reason the screen has 16×9 ratio is to facilitate video playback, something the Dash does much better than the Chumby. Most of the video-watching options are via a menu of streaming services such as YouTube and Netflix, but the unit can also play compatible video (and audio) files off of an attached USB key – at least that’s the plan. Currently the video portion of this feature is listed as “coming soon” when you try to use it. To be fair, Sony doesn’t promote this aspect of the Dash on their website but it’s tormenting to be offered the menu item and then not be able to take advantage The video quality is surprisingly good and while I didn’t try streaming full movies on the Dash (not quite sure why you’d want to) I did watch several of the movie trailers, some of which were in HD, from Flixster and the stream quality was rock-solid. Sound from the Dash’s internal stereo speakers is, as you’d expect from such a small device, on the tinny side but the volume is enough for the 2-3 feet experience.

The other video options on the Dash include: FIFA World Cup, blip.tv, Wired, Syle.com. FordModels, DailyMotion and many others. But the big omission from this list is Sony’s own Crackle.com free movie service, which launched in Canada earlier this year.

The Chumby One won't win any beauty contests but it sure is cute

The Chumby One won't win any beauty contests but it sure is cute

Video playback isn’t Chumby’s strong suit, but that’s not a deal-breaker and given the smaller size of the Chumby One’s screen, you probably won’t find yourself wishing it could handle more video.

Instead, the Chumby focuses on audio. The audio options include playback of several audio formats (see list above) from a connected USB storage device, various streaming services such as ShoutCast, podcasts from NYT, Mediafly and CBS, the ability to playback content from an attached iPod, or a collection of internet streams known as “Sleep Sounds” (rain falling, white noise, waves crashing etc.) – kind makes sense for a bedside gadget right? Makes you wonder why the Dash doesn’t have it. But the Dash does have native support for Slacker Radio, which for those who subscribe to the streaming service, will be a big plus.

While it’s true that the Chumby One only produces monophonic sound from its internal speaker, don’t let the cheap-looking plastic exterior fool you. Much like the Tivoli Model One – a mono desktop radio with a huge cult following – the Chumby One manages to pump out surprisingly rich sound. You can’t crank the volume very high, but it doesn’t matter; the sound that you do get is great.

The ironic thing here is that the Dash is arguably the natural heir to the Radio-Alarm-clock experience given Sony’s age-old domination of the category via their omnipresent Dream Machine product line. And yet the Dash lacks a built-in radio which has been a mainstay of the alarm clock for decades. The Chumby One on the other hand, has an FM tuner complete with an external wire antenna that tucks into the battery compartment when not in use. Speaking of batteries, shouldn’t all modern alarm clocks contain at least a back-up battery? The Dash has one that keeps the clock time from needing to be reset, but you’re still without functionality in the event of a power-outage. The Chumby One doesn’t have a backup battery but you can add one yourself and it not only helps in the event of a power failure, it lets the Chumby One operate completely cord-free for up to an hour.

Another great feature on the Chumby One is the ability to assign a timer to your audio playback. You can choose from 5 to 240 minutes in 5-minute increments before the timer shuts off the sound – great for people who like to fall asleep to music but who don’t want their dreams to have a soundtrack.

By now, some of you have noticed that the microphone – a feature of both devices – doesn’t appear to have a purpose. You’re right. So far, none of the Chumby apps or the Dash’s proprietary functions make use of the mic. I’m probably not alone in hoping that a Skype app will surface sooner rather than later… how cool would it be to chat via one of these gadgets from the comfort of your bed without needing a PC or smartphone?

Alright, it’s bottom-line time. Which of these devices should you buy?

My overall recommendation goes to the Chumby One. The cheaper price, great sound, uncluttered interface and retro-appeal make the Chumby One a very attractive choice. The more expensive Sony Dash doesn’t offer enough extra features in my opinion, to justify the extra dollars. That said, there are bound to be some who feel the premium is worth it in order to get the Sony brand name and reputation, the sophisticated dark-wedge design, the superior video playback and the larger, wider screen. If, for instance, you need a device like this for the kitchen, the Dash’s larger display would be a distinct benefit. Likewise, if you plan on using either of these gadgets as a serious digital photo frame replacement, the Dash wins again. However, after having used both devices – and given the plethora of options I have at the home and office for watching video and looking at photos, I feel the Dash’s extras are nice-to-haves but certainly not need-to-haves.