Sony

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David Siegel, author of the excellent new book Pull, shares with me an abiding frustration with all major camera makers — especially the Big Two: Canon and Nikon: they’re silos. They require lenses that work only on their cameras and nobody else’s. In Vendor Lock-in FAIL David runs down the particulars. An excerpt:

If you have a Canon body, you’re probably going to buy Canon lenses. Why? Not because they are the best, but because they are the only lenses Canon bodies can autofocus. Canon keeps this interface between body and lens proprietary, to keep Canon owners buying more Canon lenses and prevent them from using third-party lenses. A company called Zeiss makes better lenses than Canon does, but Canon won’t license the autofocus codes toZeiss at any price, because Canon executives know that many of their customers would switch and buy Zeiss lenses and they would sell fewer Canon lenses. The same goes for Nikon. And it’s true – we would.

I didn’t know that Canon froze out Zeiss. Canon doesn’t freeze out Sigma and Tamron, both of which make compatible lenses for both Canon and Nikon (many of them, in fact).  Zeiss makes three lenses for Sony cameras but none for Canon and Nikon. I had assumed that Zeiss had some kind of exclusive deal with Sony.

In any case, photographers have long taken camera maker lock-in for granted. And there is history here. Backwards compatibility has always been a hallmark of Nikon with the F-mount, which dates back to 1959. Would Nikon photographers want the company to abandon its mount for lens compatibility with Canon and others? I kinda think not, but I don’t know. I’ve been a Canon guy, like David, since 2005. I shoot a lot, but I don’t have a single lens that a serious photographer would consider good. For example, I own not one L-series lens. (Those are Canon’s best.) All my lenses I bought cheap and/or used (or, in one case, was given to me).  I was a Nikon guy back in the 70s and 80s, but my gear (actually, my company’s gear, but I treated it like my own) all got stolen. Later I was a Pentax guy, but all that stuff got stolen too. Then I was a Minolta guy, and which I stayed until Minolta went out of business (basically getting absorbed into Sony, a company that could hardly be more proprietary and committed to incompatibility). I decided to dabble in digital in 2005, with a Nikon point-and-shoot (the CoolPix 5700, which had great color and an awful UI). I went with Canon for my first (and still only) SLR, an EOS 30D. (I also use a full-frame EOS 5D, but I won’t consider it mine until I’m done paying for it. Meanwhile none of my old lenses work right on it –they all have vignetting — another source of annoying incompatibility.)

Anyway, I do sympathize with David here:

While Nikon and Canon will both say they need to keep their proprietary interfaces to make sure the autofocus is world-class, they are both living in an old-world mentality. The future is open. Some day, you’ll be able to put a Canon lens right on a Nikon body and it will work fine. And you’ll be able to put a Zeiss lens on and it will work even better. But that day is far off. It will only come when the two companies finally realize the mistake they are making with their arms race now and start to talk openly about a better long-term solution.

Stephen Lewis (who is a serious photographer) and I have talked often about the same problem, [later... he says I got this (and much else) wrong, in this comment)] and also look toward the future with some degree of hope. As for faith, I dunno. As companies that are set in their ways go, it’s hard to beat the camera makers.

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In response to Dave‘s Reading tea leaves in advance of Apple’s announcements, I added this comment:

Steve loves to uncork constipated categories with the world’s slickest laxative. So I’m guessing this new box will expand Apple’s retail shelf space to include newspapers, journals and books as well as sound recordings, movies and TV shows. It will be the best showcase “content” ever had, and will be a wholly owned proprietary channel. A year from now, half the people on planes will be watching these things.

It would be cool if it also helped any of us to become movie producers, and to share and mash up our own HD creations. But I think Steve is more interested in hacking Hollywood (entertainment) and New York (publishing).

I’ve thought for years that Apple’s real enemy is Sony. Or vice versa. But Sony got lame, becoming a Hollywood company with an equipment maker on the side. So think instead of the old Sony — the inventive one that owned the high-gloss/high-margin end of the entertainment gear business, the Sony of Walkmen and Trinitrons. That’s the vacuum Apple’s filling. Only, unlike Sony, Apple won’t have 50,000 SKUs to throw like spaghetti at the market’s wall. They’ll have the fewest number of SKUs possible. And will continue to invent or expand whole new categories with each.

And there will be something missing to piss people off too. Maybe it’ll be absent ports (like you said). Maybe it’s no multi-tasking, or skimpy memory, or bad battery life, or an unholy deal with some “partner.”

Whatever it is, the verities persist. Meaning items 1 through 6 from this 1997 document still apply:

http://www.scripting.com/davenet/stories/DocSea…

At that last link I wrote,

These things I can guarantee about whatever Apple makes from this point forward:

  1. It will be original.
  2. It will be innovative.
  3. It will be exclusive.
  4. It will be expensive.
  5. It’s aesthetics will be impeccable.
  6. The influence of developers, even influential developers like you, will be minimal. The influence of customers and users will be held in even higher contempt.

So now the iPad has been announced, Steve has left the building, and the commentariat is weighing in.

The absence of multi-tasking might be the biggest bummer. (Makes me wonder if mono-tasking is a Jobsian “feature”, kinda like the one-button mouse.) Adam Frucci of Gizmodo lists mono-tasking among eight things that suck” about the iPad, including no cameras, no HDMI out, no Flash, 3×4 (rather than wide) screen and a “Big, Ugly Bezel”. (That last one is off base, methinks. You need the wide bezel so you can hold the device without your hot fingertips doing wrong things with the touchscreen.)

Elswehere at Gizmodo, Joel Johnson says “PCs will be around as expert devices for the long haul, but it’s clear that Apple, coasting on the deserved success of the iPhone, sees simple, closed internet devices as the future of computing. (Or at the very least, portable computing.) And for the average consumer, it could be.”

The Engadgeteers mostly panned it. Unimaginative… underwhelming… one of Apple’s biggest misses.

MG Sigler at Techcrunch says, “The thing is beautiful and fast. Really fast. If you’ll excuse my hyperbole, it felt like I was holding the future. But is it a must-have?” Then answers,

Most people won’t yet, but as long as Apple has its base that will buy and use the iPad, they have plenty of time for either themselves or third-party developers to create the killer uses that make the iPad a must-have product for a broader range of people. We already saw that happen with the App Store and the iPhone/iPod touch. And at $499 (for the low-end version), there will be no shortage of people willing to splurge on the device just to see what all the fuss is about. They’ll get hooked too.

That’s getting close, but it’s not quite there.

First, the base Apple wants is consumers. Literally. We’re talking newspaper and magazine readers, buyers and users of cameras and camcorders, and (especially) TV and movie watchers. To some degree these people produce (mostly home video and photos), but to a greater degree they are still potatoes that metablolize “content”. This thing is priced like a television, with many improvements on the original. Call it Apple’s Trinitron. They are, like I said, after Sony’s abandoned position here, without the burden of a zillion SKUs.

Second, there will be a mountain of apps for this thing, and more than a few killer ones.

What depressed me, though I expected it, was the big pile of what are clearly verticalized Apple apps, which I am sure enjoy privileged positions in the iPad’s app portfolio, no matter how big that gets. It’s full of customer lock-in. I’m a photographer, and the only use for iPhoto I have is getting shots off the iPhone. Apple’s calendar on the iPhone and computer (iCal) is, while useful, still lame. Maybe it’ll be better on the iPad, but I doubt it. And the hugely sphinctered iTunes/Store system also remains irritating, though I understand why Apple does it.

What you have to appreciate, even admire, is how well Apple plays the vertical game. It’s really amazing.

What you also have to appreciate is how much we also need the horizontal one. The iPad needs an open alternative, soon. There should be for the iPad what Google’s Nexus One is for the iPhone.

I got a ride home tonight from Bob Frankston, who was guided by a Nexus One, serving as a better GPS than my dashboard’s Garmin. Earlier in the evening Bob used the Nexus One to do a bunch of other stuff the iPhone doesn’t do as well, if at all. More importantly, he didn’t need to get his apps only from Google’s (or anybody’s) “store”. And if somebody else wants to make a better Android phone than this one, they can. And Google, I’m sure, hopes they do. That’s because Google is playing a horizontal game here, broadening the new market that Apple pioneered with its highly vertical iPhone.

So a big lesson here is that the market’s ecosystem includes both the vertical silos and the horizontal landscapes on which those silos stand, and where all kinds of other things can grow. Joel may be right that “the average consumer” will have no trouble being locked inside Apple’s silo of “simple, closed Internet devices”. But there are plenty of other people who are neither average nor content with that prospect. There are also plenty of developers who prefer independence to dependence, and a free market to a captive one.

Captivity has its charms, and an argument can be made that tech categories are best pioneered by companies like Apple and Sony, which succeed both by inventing new stuff that primes the pump of demand, and by locking both developers and customers inside their silos. But truly free markets are not restricted to choices among silos, no matter how cushy the accomodations may be. Nor are they restricted to the non-choice of just one silo, as is currently the case with the iPad. Free markets are wide open spaces where anybody can make — and buy — anything.

There’s more to fear from heights than widths.

Bonus link: Dave weighs in. This is just a jumbo Oreo cookie.

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One of the reasons I liked Dish Network (to the extent anybody can like a purely commercial entertainment utility) was that their satellite receivers included an over-the-air tuner. It nicely folded your over-the-air (OTA) stations in with others in the system’s channel guide. Here’s how it looked:

dish_guide1

Well, the week before last I discovered that our Dish receiver was having trouble seeing and using its broadband connection — and, for that matter, the phone line as well. That receiver was this one here…

vip622-lrg

… a ViP 622. Vintage 2006. Top of Dish’s line at the time. Note the round jack on the far left of the back side. That’s where your outside (or inside) over-the-air antenna plugged in. We’ll be revisiting the subject shortly.

So Dish sent a guy out. He replaced the ViP 622 with Dish’s latest (or so he said): a ViP 722. I looked it up on the Web and ran across “DISH Network’s forthcoming DVRs get detailed: hints of Sling all over“, by Darren Murph, posted May 18th 2008. Among other things it said, “The forthcoming ViP 722 will be the first HD DVR from the outfit with loads of Sling technology built in — not too shocking considering the recent acquisition. Additionally, the box is said to feature an all new interface and the ability to browse to (select) websites, double as a SlingCatcher and even handle Clip & Sling duties.”

So here it was, July 2009, and I had a ViP 722 hooked up to my nice Sony flat screen, and … no hint of anything remotely suggestive of a Sling feature. When I asked the Dish guy about it, he didn’t have a clue. Sling? What’s that? Didn’t matter anyway, because the thing couldn’t use our broadband. The guy thought it might be my firewall, but I don’t have one of those.  Just a straight Net connection, through a router and a switch in a wiring closet that works fine for every other Net-aware device hooked up to it. We tested the receiver’s connection with a laptop: 18Mb down, 4Mb up. No problems. The receiver gets an IP address from the router (and can display it), and lights blink by the ethernet jack. But… it doesn’t communicate. The Dish guy said the broadband was only used for pay-per-view, and we don’t care about that, it doesn’t much matter. But we do care about customer support. Dish has buttons and menu choices for that, but—get this—has to dial out on a phone line to get the information you want. I had thought this was just a retro feature of the old ViP 622, but when I called Dish they said no, it’s still a feature of ALL Dish receivers.

It’s 2009, and these things are still dialing out. On a land line. Amazing.

So a couple days ago my wife called me from the house (I’m back in Boston) and said that the ViP 722 was dead. Tot. Mort. We tried re-setting it, unplugging and plugging it back in. Nothing. Then yesterday Dish came out to fix the thing, found was indeed croaked, and put in a new one: a ViP 722k, Dish’s “advanced, state-of-the-art” reciever of the moment.

Well, it may be advanced in lots of ways, but it’s retarded in one that royally pisses me off: no over-the-air receiver. That jack in the back I pointed out above? Not there.  So, no longer can I plug in my roof antenna to watch over-the-air TV. To do that I’ll have to bypass the receiver and plug the antenna cable straight into the TV. (That has never worked either, because Sony makes the channel-tuning impossible to understand, much less operate. On that TV, switching between satellite and anything else, such as the DVD, is a freaking ordeal.) Oh, and I won’t be able to record over-the-air programs, either. Unless I get a second DVR that’s not Dish’s.

Okay, so I just did some looking around, and found through this video that the ViP 722K has an optional “MT2 OTA module” that gets you over-the-air TV on the ViP 722k. Here’s some more confusing shit about it. Here’s more from Dishuser.org. Here’s the product brochure (pdf). Digging in, I see it’s two ATSC (digital TV) tuners in one, with two antenna inputs, and it goes in a drawer in the back of the set. It costs $30. I don’t think the Dish installer even knew about it. He told me that the feature had been eliminated on the 722K, and that I was SOL.

Bonus bummer: The VIP 722k also features a much more complicated remote control. This reduces another long-standing advantage of Dish: remote controls so simple to use that you could operate them in the dark. Bye to that too.

So. Why did Dish subtract value like that? I can think of only two reasons. One is that approximately nobody still watches over-the-air TV. (This is true. I’m one of the very few exceptions. Color me retro.) The other is that Dish charges $5.99/month for local channels. They did that before, but now they can force the purchase. “Yes, we blew off your antenna, but now you can get the same channels over satellite for six bucks a month.” Except for us it’s not the same channels. We live in Santa Barbara, but can’t get the local over-the-air channels. Instead we watch San Diego’s. Dish doesn’t offer us those, at any price.

The final irony is that the ViP 722k can’t use our broadband or our phone line either. Nobody ever figured out that problem. That means this whole adventure was for worse than naught. We’d have been better off if with our old ViP 622. There was nothing wrong with it that isn’t still wrong with its replacements.

Later my wife shared a conversation she had with a couple other people in town who had gone through similar craziness at their homes. “What happened to TV?” one of them said. “It’s gotten so freaking complicated. I just hate it.”

What’s happening is a dying industry milking its customers. That much is clear. The rest is all snow.

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