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We’re still about 36 hours from Microsoft’s CES keynote. Yet the Seattle Times looks to have stolen a bit of CEO Steve Ballmer’s connected home thunder:

Microsoft’s going to make a splash in this market with a stripped-down version of Windows tailored for set-top boxes and connected TVs. The software is a version of its embedded device software, overlaid with the Windows Media Center interface, with media streaming and remote-control capabilities.

This doesn’t come as an entire surprise, and was alluded to last spring. Yet, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen any new Media Center extenders (beyond the Xbox) and Microsoft’s been conspicuously absent from the small form factor set-top play… somewhat surprising their long history in this space.

In fact, this isn’t first time MS has attempted to port the Media Center experience onto a consumer electronic device – as they tried to take on TiVo in 2005/2006 with the LG DVR pictured above. Hopefully this latest foray into the living room fares better. The market is ready, assuming they can successfully execute and offer something compelling/competitive. However, I’ve said it before and I’ll probably keep on saying it, MS is best served by more tightly integrating their properties and initiatives, such as Mediaroom and Media Center.

(via Business Insider)

A Big 2011 for Jinni?

Dave Zatz —  December 30, 2010

We’ve been following the Jinni content recommendation service for nearly two years, beginning with Davis’ glowing review. Based on their 2011 goals below, they obviously intend to break free of the web browser:

  • JinniTV – a new guide which will enable online users to enjoy the Jinni experience through remote-control access to their connected living room
  • Jinni mobile – our mobile app (available first on iPhone) which will provide 3 guide services in one simple user interface for content discovery of TV shows and movies over-the-top, in theaters and within the home
  • A personalized remote-control for the iPad aficionado for pay-TV operators
  • A touch-screen kiosk for DVD/Blu-Ray discovery within retail stores

Mari caught wind of their strategy earlier this year at a CableLabs winter conference, where Jinni was recognized with the Best Product Idea.

The idea is to create a better VOD experience, and Jinni says it expects to announce operator deployments of an EBIF version of the app later this year

Of course, breaking into the MSO space with Internet-sourced content is easier said than done. And perhaps why Jinni missed their 2010 target and is now emphasizing a “connected living room” in 2011. Jinni would make a mighty fine Roku or Yahoo TV widget. Even better if it could link directly into other apps, like Vudu, Netflix, or Amazon VOD, with suggestions. However, it appears their strategy is multifaceted as they haven’t entirely given up on “pay-TV operators.” Regardless of direction(s), we dig their product and intent – and wish them the best in the new year.

If you’re an Android user and have been dying to try out the new Xfinity app, you’re wait is over. Comcast released the app for the Android platform this week, complete with email inbox, digital voice account access, TV listings, on-demand menus, and access to your myDVR Manager app.

The new Android implementation is solid, and a good way to get a handle on all of your Comcastic services, particularly if you’re a triple-play subscriber. I don’t have digital voice service, so I can’t evaluate that component, but if you use the SmartZone software Comcast already offers online, it doesn’t look like the set-up here is much different, and Will Richmond over at Video Nuze has good things to say about how voicemail and email are integrated.

Email should also look very familiar to any subscribers who have used Comcast webmail. The Xfinity app adds in an alert icon that shows up as an envelope with a glowing red aura whenever a new message comes in. I can’t decide if it’s cool or annoying, but in any case, it’s easy to switch on or off in the settings menu.

The TV and on-demand listings are the best part of the app. While the iPad version is great at home, having access to TV info on the phone I always have with me is more practical. The interface lets you scroll through content chronologically or by category (including HD), and the integration with the MyDVR app is actually tighter than it is on the iPad. (There’s no exiting to a browser.) The on-demand section has several TV and movie clips, so if you’re bored, there’s always a short snippet to watch of whatever Comcast is highlighting in VOD. Hopefully Comcast will also make good in the near future on adding full-length videos to its mobile apps.

A major shift is taking place. The interwebs are now important enough for major content providers to start throwing their weight around online. Sure, they’ve been doing it to some extent over the last several years – networks keeping content off Hulu, broadcasters blocking video scrapers like RedLasso – but the studios are upping their game. The latest evidence is a report from Reuters that “senior executives at three of the big six television and movie studios” are looking to renegotiate their deals with Netflix. You know those 28-day DVD release windows before Netflix gets access to certain movies? The studios are looking at extending them further. And the money Netflix pays for digital rights to studio content? Increases are likely on the way. (Of course Netflix may be very willing to pay. There’s one report out that the streaming company would pay up to $100K per episode if it could get its hands on current TV line-ups.)

None of this is surprising. Just look at the retransmission wars taking place between TV networks and cable providers. As Netflix moves closer to that latter category, the company is going to start getting similar treatment. It’s just a distribution channel after all. And now that it’s a highly profitable one, the content companies are going to shorten their leashes.

There are other recent examples of networks putting pressure on digital distribution too. The limitations placed on the likes of Google TV and Boxee Box count as one example, but I also listened in at an industry event yesterday where it became clear that networks want to increase the ad loads for content online. Will Richmond of VideoNuze hosted the event with execs from MTV Networks, Comcast, and elsewhere, and one of the discussions centered on how much advertising consumers will tolerate online. The prevailing view seems to be that there’s still a lot of room for ad growth.

Don’t get me wrong – I do believe content producers and providers have a right to get paid for their work, and high-value content isn’t cheap to make. As a consumer, though, I can only sigh with resignation as I watch the online distribution channel evolve along the lines of traditional television, and hope that greed doesn’t push the pendulum too far.

I’m a big fan of photo gifts around the holidays, and after years of making my own, I’ve learned a trick or two. Here are five tips to help keep you sane while turning photos into personalized presents this holiday season.

Use a Batch Resizing Tool

If you need to upload a bunch of photos to an online site for processing, it helps to bring the files down to manageable size before the big transfer. The photos should still be big enough to create quality prints, but even dropping a standard shot down by 50% still leaves you plenty of wiggle room and decreases the upload time significantly. Try a tool that lets you shrink a large batch of photos at once so you don’t have to handle each one manually. I’m a fan of FastStone Photo Resizer. It’s free, easy to use, and very efficient.

Auto-Fill Your Collages

Collage frames are great, but a lot of photo sites now offer their own collage gifts that you can organize digitally and print out on a single poster or sheet of photo paper. Better still, some sites will take the photos you upload and organize them automatically into a collage design. You can still make placement changes, but having a collage filled automatically as a starting point can save a lot of time, particularly because it doesn’t require you to figure out image dimensions and which images will fit reasonably in which spaces.

Make Your Own Photo Ornaments

I admit that I often create photo ornaments online, but if you’re looking for a cheaper solution, go out and buy a pack of photo frame ornaments at Michaels or Costco and fill them yourself with wallet-size pics. You can easily spend a quarter of what it costs to make an ornament online with a photo service, and the results are often just as nice. Friends and family will certainly appreciate them just as much.

Get the Right Digital Photo Frame

Buying a digital photo frame for someone this year? Unless you want a large-screen frame, don’t even bother trying to compare the numerous options available. Just bite the bullet and get a Wi-Fi-enabled Kodak Pulse. After years of testing and fiddling with digital photo frames, I finally found what I was looking for in the Pulse. The wireless connection lets you easily add photos remotely, and even though it has flaws (like the fact that you can’t export photos you add to the frame via email), the Pulse is by far the best Wi-Fi frame on the market. It was only available with a seven-inch screen until recently, but the ten-inch version is now on the market too. It’ll run you $168 at Amazon.

Don’t Forget the Simple Solutions

I’ve been known to go into a panic when I realize I don’t have time to get a photo gift made online and shipped out in 24 hours. Being so used to working online, it’s easy to forget that there are analog (so to speak) alternatives. If you need a photo fast, take your SD card or USB stick to Walgreens, Target, or the like, and print your images in minutes. Slip them in an ornament or frame, and you’ve got yourself a lovely gift to give.

Own a WDTV Live or Live Plus and feeling left out now that the appilicious 1TB WDTV Hub has arrived? Well, WDTV hasn’t forsaken you. Their latest firmware update brings new apps including Facebook, AccuWeather, and Flingo. Additionally, USB keyboards are now supported to facilitate text entry — I assume this includes wireless HID keyboards. Lastly, the WDTV Live Plus (our review) also receives that Blockbuster Video on Demand service found on the Hub. (However, they’re not long for this world.)

Installing the update is as simple as firing up your networked set-top box and awaiting the upgrade prompt. Alternately, a USB update option will be available soon. Which doesn’t make much sense (beyond disaster recovery of a bricked device).

(Thanks, Sorin!)

Fuze Box and Why I Love It

Mari Silbey —  November 19, 2010

There’s nothing like a Pepcom event in New York to get you in a CES frame of mind, and though I have a number of products I want to write up, Fuze Box tops my list. You’re forgiven if you haven’t heard of Fuze Box yet. The company’s Fuze Meeting app only started making the press rounds in the last few weeks, and the big-news product update –  native video conferencing in the app – won’t launch until the new year. Fuze Meeting will support HD video conferencing across multiple platforms. Right now the web meeting version of the product (no native video conferencing) has iPhone, Android, and Blackberry apps, but a dedicated iPad app is coming, and the demo last night showed video on a Galaxy Tab as well.

If you think video conferencing sounds boring, think again. Unlike a big (expensive) Cisco enterprise solution, Fuze Meeting is in the realm of an impulse buy. According to the rep I talked to last night, the company has an option coming so that you can purchase a one-day pass for $9.99. Only the host pays that money. Everyone else who joins in gets on for free. Monthly fees range from $29 to $49 depending on the features you want.

The interface for Fuze Meeting is awesome. You get multiple video windows (supposedly up to eight, though that seems a bit impractical), and you can even stream high-def video to share with the other people on your conference call. (Option for a joint Sling-like experience here?) The video I saw last night was running at thirty frames per second. No other specs at the moment, but I expect we’ll learn more as we get closer to launch date.

Fuze is clearly going after the small-business market with its video conferencing solution, but I can see small business defined all the way down to individual web workers. At $9.99, why not use it on occasion as a premium alternative to one-on-one Skype or iPhone Facetime?