Sunday, July 5, 2009

Walkman from Sony celebrates 30 years

Sony introduced its Walkman portable cassette player thirty years ago this week, kicking off a revolution in the consumer electronics industry by changing the way people enjoy music. Until its introduction, the only way people could enjoy their own choice of music while on the go was to lug around a larger, heavier cassette player, but the Walkman brought music to the belt-clip, purse or pocket.

The first Walkman, the TPS-L2, cost ¥33,000 in Japan and US$200 in the U.S., but despite the relatively high price tag the reception was enthusiastic. In 1980 The Wall Street Journal called the Walkman “one of the hottest new status symbols around” and noted that prospective U.S. owners faced a month-long wait because of a backlog in orders.

The player had several features that were innovative for the time including dual headphone sockets, independent volume control for the left and right audio channels and the distinctive orange “hotline” button on the top that faded the tape output and engaged a microphone so the listener could talk to someone nearby without stopping the music or taking off their headphones.

The design and much of the mechanics of the TPS-L2 was based on a model that came out in 1978 but was never branded as Walkman. The TCM-100 was a portable cassette recorder aimed at people who needed the ability to record audio clips on the go, such as business people and journalists. The TPS-L2 brought the technology to the mass-market.

With the success of the Walkman a product line was born that would go on to become one of the world’s best-known brand names — but that global branding almost didn’t happen. Fearing that “Walkman” wasn’t proper English, Sony initially chose the brand name “Soundabout” for the U.S. market, derived from the word walkabout, and “Stowaway” for the U.K. It wasn’t until a year later, in 1980, that Walkman became the global brand name.

Within a few years the products were developing fast.

The WM-2, introduced in 1981, was notable for its styling, which was much more modern that of the TPS-L2 and also offered in several colors to suit personal tastes. By 1983, just four years after the launch of the Walkman, Sony introduced the WM-20, which was the same size as a cassette case. Then in 1984 the Walkman line expanded with the introduction of the D-50, the first CD Walkman.

For much of the eighties and nineties Sony reigned supreme in the personal audio space. It sold hundreds of millions of Walkman players and was the standard by which most competing products were judged. However, things started to change with the arrival of digital music.

Sony’s first Walkman to accept digital files, the NW-MS7, was introduced in Japan in December 2000 and went on sale elsewhere the following year. The product tied Sony’s MemoryStick flash media format with its ATRAC file format and MagicGate copy protection.

Sony didn’t know it at the time but the formula would prove disastrous to Walkman’s leading position in the portable audio market.

The introduction of digital music didn’t just mean more convenience for users. It lowered the entry barrier to the player market and suddenly companies that had never made a digital audio player before could throw together a few chips, add some buttons and a display — or more likely find a Taiwanese contract manufacturer to do this for them — and launch their own player.

Users were rallying around downloaded music or ripping CDs into the MP3 format and there was no shortage of companies lining up to sell them players. In contrast Sony was requiring users convert MP3 files to ATRAC before they could be loaded on the Walkman.

Apple’s entry to the market in 2001 with the iPod was the first step in a what would be a short journey to replace Sony as the most fashionable brand name in portable audio.

In recent years under CEO Howard Stringer Sony has been attempting to reinvigorate its Walkman line and sales have been rising. Sony sold 7 million Walkman digital music players in the financial year that ended in March, up from 4.5 million in 2006. For the current financial year it expects to sell 6.3 million units, a lower number due in part to the poor economy.

Sony’s latest flagship model, the NW-X1000, packs noise cancelling, a bright touchscreen display, mobile TV, and the ability to surf the Internet and watch YouTube videos. It’s already on sale in major markets and supports Sony’s ATRAC format but also MP3, Windows Media and Linear PCM in addition to AVC, MPEG4 and WMV9 video files.

Source: PC World

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Roaming fees drop under new EU law

European mobile phone users can now cross national borders in Europe and know they won’t be slammed with a huge cell phone bill when they return home. Roaming charges for cell phone and texting messages are dropping.

A new single tariff, in the works since 2007, covers all European Union countries and the charges for many consumers for some messages will plunge. Roamed text charges will drop from 28 European cents to 11 cents and roamed mobile calls will also drop, but not as much as text messages. Calls will drop from 46 cents to 43 cents. Sending a megabyte of data will cost 85 cents — about one-half the previous data price.

“The roaming rip-off is now coming to an end,” said EU telecommunications commissioner Viviane Reding, who lobbied hard for the lower prices. “Expect the new roaming rules to make it much cheaper to surf the web on your mobile while abroad in the EU.” The EU pushed for the lowered charges to be effective before the summer holiday season when many Europeans move from country to country on vacations.The price cuts were implemented in the face of opposition from the GSM Association, whose members dominate the wireless carrier industry in Europe. The GSM argued that prices for consumers were dropping anyway and the imposition of price ceilings was unnecessary.

Before the uniform price schedule, carriers in some countries charged twice as much as some carriers in other countries.

The new tariff is expected to be a boon for American students studying in Europe, who purchase phones and SIM cards in Europe. Previously, some were charged exorbitant prices when they travelled about Europe.

In June, television personality Adam Savage of the Discovery Channel’s Mythbuster’s program used Twitter to rail against $11,000 in roaming charges he racked up in Canada in just a few hours of Web surfing.

Source: Infoweek

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Firefox 3.5 already tops 4 million downloads

While still not as ubiquitous as Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, Mozilla’s new Firefox 3.5 browser was just released yesterday and is off to a great start. The browser was met with mostly positive reviews. Reuters stated, “There’s no doubt that version 3.5 of Firefox is significantly faster than version 3…All in all, this is a major improvement over Firefox 3. Even if you’re not currently a Firefox user, you’ll want to give it a try.”

CNET was slightly more measured commenting, “Firefox 3.5 is a much-needed improvement to the world’s most popular alternative browser… While some of the improvements, such as the HTML5 and other developer enhancements will continue to make the browser their first choice, many of the other changes merely keep it in-line with the competition.”

At the end of the day, though, Firefox 3.5’s hot new features like HTML5 support and a faster JavaScript engine won over users. Downloads were blazing at 100 per second for much of the day yesterday. Mozilla’s servers performed admirably under the load.

The new browser hit 1 million downloads within a couple hours and 2 million downloads in 7 and 1/2 hours. By this morning it had 4.3 million downloads. You can view the progress yourself on the download tracker found here.

The U.S. leads the world with 1.1 million downloads, with Germany in second with 496,000 downloads.

While the new Firefox is certainly very popular, it failed to surpass its own Guinness World record set by Firefox 3, which recorded 8 million downloads worldwide in 24 hours. Firefox also faces reinvigorated competition — Apple claims that 11 million copies of its new Safari were downloaded in 3 days, and Opera is gearing up for a big 10.0 release.

Source: DailyTech

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Apple iPhone OS 3.1 Beta released

Only two weeks after launching the 3.0 software update for iPhone and iPod Touch, Apple is now working hard on delivering an update to the iPhone OS. The iPhone SDK 3.1 beta has been pushed out to developers last night, which already reported a few new features and refinements.

Apple has not mentioned specifically the improvements in the iPhone 3.1 beta update, but numerous developers have downloaded the software and reported on forums and blogs some of the new things they discovered within the update.

At a first glance, reports say that the iPhone 3.1 improves Voice Control functionality (introduced with the iPhone 3GS), which now works over Bluetooth as well. Video editing on the iPhone 3GS is going to be improved also, as users will be able to save a copy of the original video before they start trimming.

Other visible user interface improvements reported include tactile feedback (vibration) when moving applications icons on the screen and paste capabilities in the dialer application. The dialer app will also convert alphanumeric numbers (such as 1-800-MY-APPLE) into regular phone numbers when pasted in.

Developers also found a few under-the-hood changes in the iPhone 3.1 software beta to the OpenGL and Quartz engines and an Video Editor Controller API, which allows third-party applications to call up the video editing interface.

The MMS functionality is enabled by default say developers, but it still doesn’t work for AT&T users (although the AT&T profile was updated to 4.2). It is yet unclear whether this change signals that AT&T will enable MMS messaging as soon as the iPhone 3.1 software update is widely available to the public.

Apple has not said when a final version of the 3.1 software will be released to all iPhone users or whether this update addresses the latest iPhone 3GS overheating reports.

Source: PC World

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Chinese surfers celebrates delay of censorship software

Chinese web users flooded to a trendy art zone cafe on Wednesday to celebrate a last-minute halt to a rollout of government-sponsored filtering software, and make a stand for freedom of expression in the Communist-run state.

Dressed in t-shirts mocking the Green Dam program, about 200 Beijing residents had arrived by mid-morning to eat a traditional Chinese breakfast, denounce censorship and prepare for a day-long party.

Originally conceived as part of an Internet boycott to mark the July 1 launch of the filter — and to give a web-addicted generation something to do during the 24 hours of offline — the atmosphere was festive as guests celebrated what many said was an unexpected victory against state censorship.

“This is a very rare example for the government to suddenly push back an important decision the night before it is due to be rolled out,” said outspoken artist Ai Weiwei, who organized the boycott and the party.

Beijing made a surprising about-face late on Tuesday, hours before an edict that all personal computers sold in China must be preloaded with the program was due to come into force.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said the launch would be postponed and did not give a new deadline.

Officials had said the software was intended to stamp out Internet pornography. But it was assailed by activists, industry groups and foreign officials as politically intrusive, technically flawed and commercially unfair.

“We are very happy because we got what we wanted,” said Liu Yaohua, a 27-year-old artist. “We wanted to express our attitude to Green Dam.”

There was trepidation among some party-goers about attending an event that was a direct, if light-hearted, rebuke to a government wary of public challenges to its control.

“I am a little bit nervous, but I felt it was very important that I find the strength to come,” said painter Zang Yi.

The plan might now drift into oblivion if Beijing decides it does not want to face a second round of pressure from overseas and at home.

At a Beijing mall which specializes in computers and software, vendors shrugged at the news of the climbdown.

“It’s a piece of software like any other. You can take it out if you don’t want it. It’s no big deal,” said Zhang Bo, standing in front of a row of Chinese-made laptops.

But a lawyer who campaigned against the software warned it was premature to declare victory.

“It has not been canceled, just put back, so it’s possible that after a certain amount of time it will be pushed back out,” said Liu Xiaoyuan, who wants the government to explain why a software ostensibly designed to protect a minority of users — children and teen-agers — must be installed on all computers.

Source: Reuters

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Some tips to consider before your next electronics shopping trip

Going to a retail store for consumer electronics purchases can be both exciting and frustrating. After working at Best Buy for two years, I have a few opinions to share that you might want to consider before your next shopping trip.

1. We have no formal training in the field of consumer electronics.
Upon transferring to the computer department from home theater, I expressed concern to the manager: “Will there be time for someone to train me on laptops/desktops? What do these specifications mean?” His reply was simple: “Just do your best. A good salesperson can just read the labels and compare specs.” Ouch.

Salespeople are not necessarily experts in the products sold in their departments, even if they are expert salespeople. Though many express a strong interest in the products they sell, your time spent at a retail store fishing for information about a future TV purchase could be better spent online researching the products yourself (I heard CNET has pretty great reviews).

2. We make little off the big-ticket items, so we smother you with accessories.
Remember the story “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie“? Well, if you tell a salesman you’re going to buy a TV, he’s going to want to sell you a DVD player to go with it. Once he sells you the DVD player, he’s going to want to get you to buy an HDMI cable, too.

Managers at Best Buy (and possibly all retailers) tell employees that the store profits surprisingly little from video game consoles and computers. Cables, accessories, mice, and other components, however, have a huge profit margin– stores can make about $120 from a $150 Monster HDMI cable. Angry yet? The point is, we’re going to work really hard to convince you to purchase that big item, but once you’ve said “OK” you’ve opened Pandora’s Box.

Here’s my advice: Grab the big item, and run. Purchase all accessories online, including memory cards, cables, traveling cases, and so on. Amazon, Monoprice, and Newegg are all reputable discount Web sites. You’ll find what you need at a much lower price.

3. There are times when you should purchase extended warranties.
There’s no telling if a product will break down, but some are more apt to have problems than others. Not all stores offer extended warranties, but if they do, think about it before you decline the offer.

Manufacturers usually offer 90 days to one year of limited parts and labor. Take note of the word “limited.” Those warranties only cover manufacturer’s defects, so if your speakers blow out, the manufacturer will consider it misuse. Manufacturers do not cover “wear and tear,” while most store-provided warranties do. Other store warranties present coverage for accidental damage like spills and broken parts. So if you’re clumsy, go for the extended warranty.

If you’re unwaveringly against extended warranties, you may consider putting your purchase on a credit card that doubles the manufacturer’s warranty upon purchase.

4. It doesn’t matter whether we make commission, we’re all equally pushy.
When I worked at Best Buy, many customers would say, “You just want me to buy this stuff ’cause you’re on commission” (I wasn’t). For employees not on commission, hours are based on whether sales goals are reached. If I didn’t meet my goal for the day, I’d see a cut in hours. On the other hand, if I landed a $40,000 sale, my hours increased.

What does this mean for you? If you want the best customer service, don’t let the salesperson know you are “comparing prices” or “shopping around”–that’s a red flag for them. Sure, you’ll be helped if you’re the only one on the sales floor, but customers who show a genuine interest in purchasing something get the special treatment. Lead the salesperson on a little bit–trust me, you’ll get a lot more help that way.

5. No receipt? No problem!
If you’ve lost your receipt and you’re worried you’ll be stuck with that sad excuse for a monitor, you’re in luck. As long as you made your purchase with a credit or debit card, most stores can look up your receipt within minutes. If you paid cash, and the item is relatively inexpensive (about $50 or less), the retailer may still be able to do the return, but you may get store credit instead of cash back.

I called a few stores, and here are their policies:

Fry’s Electronics: Receipt lookup, very difficult no-receipt return
Best Buy: Receipt lookup, no-receipt return
Target: Receipt lookup, no-receipt return
RadioShack: Receipt lookup, no-receipt return
OfficeMax: Difficult receipt lookup, but it’s possible

Note that you must meet all other conditions of the return policy.

6. We offer expensive services I think a 12-year-old could perform.
In Best Buy’s computer department, where we didn’t profit from system sales, there was lots of pressure to sell not only accessories, but Geek Squad services. Some of these services were just embarrassing to sell. Customers are encouraged to purchase the optimization service in which the technician removes preinstalled programs to boost performance. Oh! Don’t forget you’ll need a recovery disc in case you need to restore the hard drive. That’ll be $60, please. Cha-ching.

These are services you could probably do yourself in about 15 minutes. Removing those preinstalled programs is as simple as removing any other program through the “Settings” folder. Instructions for making a recovery disc are provided by all manufacturers who don’t supply the disc in-box.

Bottom line: try and figure it out for yourself before resorting to these costly services. With all the how-to Web sites out there, you’re sure to find the help you need.

7. Forget what your parents taught you–complaining usually gets you what you want.
If your customer service needs haven’t been met, and the associate refuses to make it right, don’t give up. Sometimes employees fall into a power trip in conjunction with their refusal to help. If you find yourself arguing with the employee, immediately ask for the manager. Upon speaking with him/her, calmly inform them of the matter. Never ask, “Will you be able to do this for me?”, but instead say, “I am a frequent customer here. How are you going to make this situation right so that I continue to visit your location?” The former makes it easy for the manager to say “Unfortunately, no;” the latter demands customer service.

The problem is usually solved in-store, but sometimes employees can be stubborn. Write down the names of everyone involved, and the store number, then call corporate. Deliver the same dialogue, but be sure to speak to a supervisor since those answering calls are associates who may not have the ability to help you.

Source: Cnet

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