Monday, November 28, 2005

Orb: taking the home out of home entertainment

Orb Networks homepage

Another recent discovery which promises to revolutionise my media consumption is Orb - a free web service that enables me to access all of the media stored on my home PC from any web-connected device with RealPlayer or Windows Media Player installed. So, from my work PC, laptop, PDA or mobile I can stream all of my music and videos and view any of my photos. Crucially, it automatically detects the device's available bandwidth and media player and optimizes the size and format accordingly. It even copes with the DRM'd Napster/iTunes content, validating the license locally before transcoding and streaming it. Plus, if your home PC has a TV tuner you can access that to watch live and recorded TV on your mobile device. It's obviously a fairly niche service at the moment, but as more people get Media Center PCs it could take off and just conceivably provide an alternative to DVB-H/DAB for TV on mobile devices. Oh, and they've got a cool strapline: "Orb takes the home out of home entertainment". Nice.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

How I learned to stop worrying and love the PSP

OK Sony, you've got me. After years of resisting the allure of the all-conquering PlayStation, I've fallen hook, line and sinker for the latest and dinkiest addition to the family, the PSP. Even then, it wasn't until a saw one in the plastic that my resolve crumbled and I had to concede that here was a product that looked like the future and put the modest ambitions of the new video iPod into perspective.

So, two days into our relationship, how are we getting on? Has love (ok, lust) turned sour...? Well, so far so good. The jaw-dropping quality of the screen still hits me every time I switch it on and sets the bar intimidatingly high for other players hoping to enter the mobile media space. The ease with which I was able to log onto the web via my home Wi-Fi network was a pleasant surprise, as was the rendering of the web pages on the built-in browser. The interface also feels pretty intuitive, bearing in mind the number of options it has to marshal (an increasing problem for Apple judging by labyrinthine menus on the latest iPod), and after a few wrong key presses I was soon whizzing my way through the menus.

My introduction to movies on PSP came sooner than expected as Sony sent me a free UMD of Spiderman 2 after I registered the device on, clearly hoping the magnanimity of the gesture and the quality and convenience of movies on UMD will prompt me to further purchases. Whilst I suspect they'll be disappointed on that front, it does highlight an interesting difference in the revenue models of Sony and Apple's portable media devices. Whilst Apple is famously selling media (songs on iTunes) for little or no profit in order make money on hardware (iPods), Sony is selling hardware (PSPs) for little or no profit in order to make money on media (UMDs).

Both companies have been working hard to offset the risks associated with these contrasting business models. For Apple, the possibility of market saturation is being countered by shortening the product life of each generation of iPod and the 'halo effect' on other Apple products (most notably it's computers). For Sony, the risk of virtual product overtaking physical product (the traditional revenue stream for games consoles) is being tentatively addressed via the downloads available from (currently free, but paid-for content can't be far off).

Whilst the PSP's support of physical media initially seems like something of an anachronism, one quickly realises it is just one half of a canny 'belt and braces' approach which is poised to take advantage of the final years of substantive physical media sales whilst simultaneously preparing for the preeminence of virtual media via the PSP's wireless capabilities.

The PSP's other obvious weakness (it's relative dearth of storage and reliance of removable media) may also turn out to be an advantage in the longer term, depending on the rate at which Memory Stick Duos increase in size and fall in price.

As for me, my biggest reservation is when I'll actually find the time to use the damn thing. Waiting for a bus seems to be the scenario invariably trotted out during discussions of mobile video/gaming content, but I'm pleased to say that waiting for busses accounts for a very small proportion of my time. What's more, it's a braver man that I who would get out a £180 bit of kit on Brixton High Street.

This uncertainly about how, where and when I will actually use this expensive piece of technology I've just bought reveals the masterstroke of Sony's PSP - they've managed to sell me a device without an obvious USP. Whilst other divisions within Sony seem to be lurching from one half-baked idea to the next (please stop with this ATRAC business, already), the PSP's success is assured and could just provide the necessary momentum to reverse the company's recent fortunes.

Anyway, I'm off to wait at a suburban bus stop...