Friday, December 22, 2006

Virgin Radio launches VIP area

Following on from the introduction of digg-style music news in August and a full site relaunch in September, Virgin Radio this week introduced a VIP area to its site, enabling users to build an online profile detailing their favourite artists and introducing basic social networking functionality such as shout boxes and blogs.

In order to enter the VIP area you first need to sign up for a free Virgin Radio VIP account and confirm your email address. Once in, you're encouraged to add a welcome message and image and list some of your favourite artists in order to start building a picture of your musical tastes. This list then acts as a filter to the content on the rest of the Virgin Radio site, flagging up any music news, forum posts, blog posts or other content related to your chosen artists.

Adding artists to your profile is a smooth process with auto-suggestions appearing as you type, although it is only possible to add artists who appear in the Virgin Radio database and you must fill out a Contact Us form if you wish to have less mainstream artists added - arguably not an issue for the average Virgin Radio listener... ;-)

It is also possible to add friends to your profile (by username, real name, age range, location or by the artists they love) whose activities (e.g. submitting, commenting, rating) then become visible on your profile. There's an option to specify up to three favourite artists and five favourite friends who will then receive a greater weighting in your recommendations.

The addition of user blogs into the mix is a worthwhile enhancement and is particularly well executed. Whilst obviously not massively sophisticated in functionality, the ability to add artist tags to each post and the quick launch toolbar bookmark are options that some of the major blogging outfits are only just getting around to adding.

The VIP content is also well distributed throughout the rest of the Virgin Radio site. The Artist Dashboard appears on all artist profiles and enables you to add an artist to your favourites, blog about them or submit a related news story. Some pages also feature a tag cloud of the most popular artists which gives a nice snapshot of the audience's musical proclivities (or at least what they're prepared to admit to).

On the down side, navigating around the VIP area can be confusing at times with the naming conventions adding to a lack of clarity around whether specific bits of functionality will be found in your VIP Dashboard, your VIP Profile or your VIP Lounge.

Arguably the biggest shortcoming of the Virgin Radio VIP area as it currently operates is the lack of visibility on the whole community. Where sites like Flickr offer a three-tier view (Your Photos, Photos from your Contacts and Everyone's Photos), Virgin Radio only offer the first two. With the exception of the tag cloud, there is very little indication of how big the Virgin Radio VIP community is or what it is current doing.

Still, early days. Whilst inevitably not as sophisticated as dedicated music communities like, the Virgin Radio VIP area is a significant step forward in creating online communities around real-world radio stations.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Key technology trends for 2007

Writer and management guru Peter F. Drucker once said that attempting to predict the future is "like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window". A touch hyperbolic perhaps but the litany of wildly inaccurate past predictions, particularly in the field of technology, is testament to the difficulty of anticipating future trends.

Will that stop me from attempting to forecast next year's key technology trends? Hell no. But before I get on to the folly of future predictions, here's a quick round up of some of the key technologies that 'tipped' in 2006.

Key technology trends for 2006

Web 2.0
Whilst no-one can agree on exactly what it means (the best definition I've read is Paul Graham's which boils it down to Ajax, democracy and not maltreating users), there can be little doubt that Web 2.0 encompasses some of the defining technology trends of the past year. Whilst the term itself and many of the sites it describes have been around for a couple of years now, 2006 has been the year that the sites which most epitomise Web 2.0 really went mainstream as the below chart from Alexa illustrates.

Online video sharing
YouTube was the runaway online success story of 2006. Founded in February 2005 (but only officially launched last December), modest growth quickly gave way to an avalanche of traffic which culminated in its sale to Google in November 2006 for a cool $1.65bn. Dozens of pretenders to the YouTube throne have now entered the market (see earlier post) although the big YT still commands a whopping 64% of the UK online video market.

Not so long ago, beta referred to the final stage of software development where applications were made available to a closed group of testers for a limited period so any bugs could be identified and ironed out before the public (gold) release. Not any more. The web is now awash with sites labelled beta with seemingly very little correlation to their state of development. Of course it was Google who pioneered the perpetual beta with the likes of Google Catalogs (in beta since 2001), Froogle (since 2002) and Gmail (since 2004) to name but three. However it wasn't until 2006 that betamania really took hold (check out the 2000+ betas listed at The Museum of Modern Betas). Whilst in part this is a legitimate reflection of a shift away from release-based development towards more on-going iterative development, the beta label has also become both a universal disclaimer and a strange Web 2.0 badge of honour. Flickr (another pioneer of the perpetual beta) is only too aware of this and has playfully re-edited its logo to indicate that the site is now in 'gamma'...

With UK broadband connections passing the 11 million mark in 2006, Voice over IP was a technology whose time had come. Sure enough, the introduction of mass-market VoIP services mushroomed in 2006. Skype led the way, signing up 100 million users by April 2006 and joining Google in the elite club of online services that have become so synonymous with an activity as to become verbs (e.g. skype me at...). A range of increasingly attractive handsets followed as did services from the major UK Telcos.

The wiki is another web technology which has been around for a while (WikiWikiWeb, the first ever wiki, went live in March 1995) but which really came of age in 2006. Whilst the daddy of the wikis, Wikipedia, passed 1.5 million English-language articles last month and trebled its traffic over the course of the year (see above graph from Alexa), the real breakthrough was the explosion in grass-roots wikis (WikiIndex now lists 3,638) and the emergence of WYSIWYG wiki creation sites like PBwiki, Wetpaint and JotSpot (acquired by Google in October) which significantly lower the barriers to entry by taking the technical know-how out of setting up a wiki. Special mention must go to Lostpedia - a Lost themed replica of Wikipedia - which has clocked up over 40 million page impressions since it launched last September.

Multi-core processors
It's six years since IBM launched the first dual-core module processor (the POWER4) but its only now that multi-core processing is starting to hit the mainstream, most notably in the guise of the XBox 360 (which has a triple-core CPU) and the PlayStation 3 (whose Cell processor has an 8 core design). The new range of Apple Macs are also furnished with multi-core processors (the Intel Core 2 Duo). Whilst its difficult to quantify the impact this has on the end user, multi-core processing will definitely mean more powerful processors in the future with as yet undreamt of applications. Intel has apparently developed an 80-core processor prototype, which it says will be released within the next five years.

Now it's time for some wild speculation...

Key technology trends for 2007

As previously posted, widgets look destined to be big next year, not only on the desktop and on the web but also on mobile phones.

Virtual worlds/online avatars
Building on the burgeoning success of immersive online environments like World of Warcraft and Second Life (see earlier post), 2007 is likely to see a lot more of virtual worlds. I also anticipate that the two-dimensional rendering of MySpace pages will gradually make way for more 3D expressions of people's personalities and interests. One site which is ahead of the curve on this is IMVU which has the tagline "beyond instant messaging". The site invites you to create your own 3D avatar which you can then use to chat to your friends in 3D scenes (see below screengrab).

Personal Video Recorders
Despite the zealous evangelism of owners, the PVR has thus far stubbornly refused to go mainstream in the UK. TiVo launched in the UK way back in 2000 and Sky+ followed in October 2001 (TiVo has since withdrawn from the UK market) but subscriber numbers have remained relatively low. That all looks set to change as the drive towards analogue switch-off gathers momentum and DTT PVRs start tumbling in price, aided by the Freeview Playback initiative. The launch of BT Vision may also help espouse the joys of PVRs.

Like many of the above technologies, the IEEE 802.11 Wi-Fi standard has been around for years. However, it's been slow to take off in the UK. In May 2006, Strategy Analytics published a study suggesting that just 6.1% of Britains use wireless. So what will precipitate a change in 2007? The biggest factor is likely to be the integration of Wi-Fi into an increasingly broad range of devices, from mobile phones (enabling free calls over VoIP) to digital cameras, from HDTVs and PVRs to digital radios. Philip Solis, senior analyst at ABI Research, has said that they expect the number of Wi-Fi integrated circuits sold into consumer electronics to grow from 6.6 million units in 2004 to over 70 million units in 2007. All three of the seventh generation consoles support Wi-Fi (the PS3 and the Wii natively, the Xbox 360 by means of an adapter) and Windows Vista promises much better wireless support. The falling costs of laptops, which increasingly come with wireless as standard will also increase the number of Wi-Fi capable devices in the market.

The other side of the equation is access points, which look set to becoming increasingly ubiquitous as 2007 progresses. BT's Wireless City project aims to bring city-wide coverage to 12 UK cities and the success of free community networks in Bristol and Norfolk has prompted Manchester City Council to draw up plans for a similar network there. In addition, the number of local hotspots in cafes, airports and other public spaces looks set to rocket as businesses cotton on to Wi-Fi as a selling-point. Home networks will also become more commonplace as broadband packages increasingly come with Wi-Fi routers as standard and home media servers start dropping in price.

Finally, the adoption of the 802.11n standard (due for final approval in July 2007, but already supported ) will offer data transfer speeds of up to 540 Mbit/s and should make wireless sending high-definition video around a home network a reality.

RFID tags
RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) is another technology which has been around for donkeys years but is only just starting to hit its stride. Traditionally used for the secure identification of people, vehicles and animals, prices of passive RFID tags (which don't require a battery) have fallen dramatically in recent years opening up a whole new range of possibilities. Recent applications include Transport for London Oyster cards and the Nike+ iPod Sport Kit (which has raised some interesting privacy questions). Expect to see RFID appearing in increasingly bizarre and scary places like in your passport and mobile phone and even under your skin.

Music on mobiles
The quality gap between the once untouchable iPod and mobile music phones is narrowing all the time and after the disappointment of the Nokia N91 (the first mobile with a 4GB hard drive), its only a matter of time before one of the handset manufacturers puts out a truly desirable music phone. That assuming that Steve Jobs doesn't get there first, of course. Rumours of an Apple iPhone have been circulating for years although the smart money does now seem to be on a January announcement.

Remote storage
The concept of remote storage has gradually permeated the collective consciousness over the past few years. Most of us are now content that the majority of our written correspondence is stored on a remote email server and not saved locally or printed out and filed. A similar thing is starting to happen with music, film and photography although these media are still primarily stored locally. 2007 is likely to see a significant shift towards remote storage as we increasingly come to expect all of our digital stuff to be available regardless of our geographical location. One service which is prepared for this nascent demand is which offers 1GB of free storage. Another is Orb which is specifically geared towards media storage (see earlier post). Of course it's not just data which is becoming increasingly remote, applications are also making the move to 'the cloud' (e.g. Google Docs & Spreadsheets.). The final piece of the puzzle is the operating system which will one day also be stored remotely - something Microsoft is already giving quite a bit of thought to.

Digital home hubs
The converged digital media hub has been a 'next big thing' for a long time now, but it was never going to take off whilst it depended on people shelling out a grand on a dedicated media centre. In 2007, a growing number of consumers will purchase another item of consumer electronics (e.g. games console, computer, set-top box) and find that they've effectively got digital hub functionality bundled for free. A few products which are going to prove key in this process are Windows Vista, the PlayStation 3, Apple's iTV product and BT Vision. Whilst there's clearly a long way to go on the interoperability front thanks to the quagmire that is DRM, the converged digital home hub is finally started to become a reality.

Personal GPS/location aware applications
You can now buy a mini GPS receiver for under £100 which can communicate your geo-coordinates to your mobile phone via Bluetooth which can in turn be uploaded to the web. A whole crop of Web 2.0 apps are springing up to take advantage of this new data set (e.g. Plazes, Everytrail, Socialite). Even without GPS data there are location based services to suit, relying on other methods to ascertain your whereabouts, such as triangulating the mobile phone signal (e.g Dodgeball, ZoneTag). Location aware applications could just turn out to be the mobile internet's USP.

Really Simple Syndication is seemingly constantly on the brink of crossing over into mainstream. The signs are certainly all there for 2007, with IE7 integration taken care of, aggregators like Bloglines and Google Reader going great guns, podcast usage slowly catching up with the hype, and the ressurgence of the personalised homepage (see earlier post). I expect alot more people to be regularly accessing content via RSS next year whether they know they are or not.

TV on demand over IP
Sky Anytime, Channel 4 on Demand and BT Vision are all now live and the BBC iPlayer is expected to launch next year (pending the outcome of the Public Value Test). The $64,000 question is just how many people are ready to consume TV in this way and whether the technology can live up to their expectations.

Whilst I'm here, I may as well also take a punt on what some of the key tech trends are likely to be moving into 2008...

Key technology trends for 2008

Ultra-wideband - UWB could potentially sound the death-knell for all those messy USB cables around your computer and the SCART lead connecting your TVR to your PVR.

Wi-MAX - A strong contender for Ofcom's proposed spectrum auction, potentially joining the Wi-Fi dots and providing 'last mile' connectivity for those unable to get broadband via cable or ADSL.

Mobile TV - Whilst almost all the UK mobile operators have dipped their toes in the mobile TV water, there is unlikely to be a truly compelling consumer offering up and running before 2008 when flat-rate data tarifs may make streaming via 3G a viable option or one of the competing broadcast technologies (e.g. DVB-H, DAB-IP, DMB, MediaFLO) emerges as a clear winner.

HDTV - High Definition TV is a technology which is available in the UK today (from Sky or Telewest) but is likely to take a number of years to mature. Despite a successful trial this summer, capacity for high definition broadcasts on terrestrial television (Freeview) will be very limited until digital switchover.

Fuel cells - Some of Japan's leading consumer electronics companies have been working on developing DMFCs (direct methanol fuel cells) which are small enough to function as a mobile phone recharger.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Top 20 singles of the year

BBC 6 Music is currently inviting listeners to pick their top five singles of the year in preparation for a top 100 countdown on 30th December. Whilst the notion of a singles chart seems somewhat quaint in these post-Top of the Pops digital download days regular readers will know that I can't resist a list, so here are my top 20 singles of 2006:

1. Us - Regina Spektor
2. Trouble - Ray LaMontagne
3. Young Folks - Peter Bjorn And John featuring Victoria Bergsman
4. Heartbeats - José González
5. Men in White Coats - The Dallas Guild
6. We're From Barcelona - I'm From Barcelona
7. Crazy - Gnarls Barkley
8. A Lady of a Certain Age - The Divine Comedy
9. Made-Up Lovesong #43 - Guillemots
10. Gold Lion - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
11. When You Were Young - Killers
12. Supermassive Black Hole - Muse
13. Fill My Little World - The Feeling
14. The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song - The Flaming Lips
15. Snow (Hey Ho) Red Hot Chili Peppers
16. Funny Little Frog - Belle & Sebastian
17. Cellphone's Dead - Beck
18. Empire - Kasabian
19. Better Together - Jack Johnson
20. She Moves In Her Own Way - The Kooks

You can download 14 tracks from this playlist as an iMix from the iTunes Music Store for the princely sum of £11.06.

GCap launches Mi-Xfm

GCap Media this week launched what it is calling an "interactive online radio player". Mi-Xfm (enough of the 'my' prefix already!) is actually much closer to an online jukebox, randomly shuffling tracks consistent with the Xfm brand which users can rate or skip in a manner familiar to users of Pandora, LAUNCHcast and Critically, it features no DJs and no advertising - commercial radio without the commercials (and come to think of it, the radio).

So, what's the game plan? Well, primarily it appears to be a brand building exercise, attempting to position Xfm as a brand whose focus is on music and putting the listener in control. Not that the whole enterprise is a lost leader; whilst the player may be free of spot advertising, it is sponsored (by Xbox 360 for its first 2 months - hence the player's unpleasant lime green hue) and carries banner advertising. Users must also register in order to use the player, enabling GCap to find out more about the Xfm demographic and start building a relationship with them via email/text etc.

So, it is any good? Sadly many users won't ever find out as getting the player up and running required almost as much tenacity as installing Channel 4 on demand last week. For starters, it's another Microsoft DRM fest, insisting on a Windows PC running Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player. They do, however, gets points for the candour/humour of their Technical Requirements blurb:

"There is currently no Mac or Linux support as we're using Windows Media format and we need to put some Digital Rights Management over it to prevent our friends in the record industry having sleepness (sic) nights."

"Does not work with Netscape, Mozilla, Opera or any of the other good browsers out there because they don't like integrating Windows Media Player as an object, and/or some of the mad Javascript to make it all work. Try it, but it probably won't work."

Bizarrely, it also didn't work with Windows Media Player 11 and I had to roll back to version 10 (having only just upgraded at the behest of the 4oD software).

The final hurdle to clear was preparing the browser. In order to successfully launch the player you must switch off IE's pop-up blocker or temporarily allow pop-ups not only for the Xfm site but also for, which is where the player is hosted (Mi-Xfm is actually a re-badged version of an off-the-shelf product from RCS called iSelector).

Once finally up and running (assuming you haven't thrown your PC out of the window by this point), the listening experience comes as a pleasant surprise. The audio is quick to load and the sound quality is good. There are four streams to choose from - Chill, Loud, Hits and X-list - which by and large do what they say on the tin. The main interface controls work well, but its very easy to see the joins on the elements which didn't come as standard. Clicking on the Playlist or Reactivate links launches (another) pop-up which lacks the visual finesse of the main playback window. The Playlist window also gives false hope by presenting each artist name as a link which disappointingly all point to the Xfm homepage.

This highlights a key shortcoming of the Mi-Xfm service. It's entering a space already very well served by the likes of Pandora, LAUNCHcast and which all offer a greater degree of sophistication and contextual depth. Unsurprisingly (but still disappointingly) GCap have opted to placate the record labels by limiting the skip/rest functionality of Mi-Xfm. The FAQ states that "By agreement with the recording industry, this service cannot be an on-demand jukebox and we don’t want your player to run out of songs or have so few that it plays the same ones over and over" which inadvertently draws attention to the limited size of the catalogue.

For all it's faults, GCap deserves praise for trying something new with Mi-Xfm. Whether it's radio or not remains a moot point (see earlier post). It's certainly poses interesting questions about the future of radio advertising and the role of on-air talent. At a time when most radio podcasts are comprised of DJ banter with no music it's interesting to see the opposite configuration being tried in the streaming space. My suspicion is it will prove fairly popular with existing Xfm listeners who will be sold on the music they love without the ads. Whether it will make an impression in the (increasingly crowded) wider online music market I'm less sure.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Top 20 best computer games ever

The obsessive list making continues. This time it's the best computer games of all time, prompted by a piece on the revival of retro gaming in this week's Guardian Guide and the UK launch on the Nintendo Wii (which will resurrect a number of classic games by making them available for download via the Wii's Virtual Console).

Inevitably it's a very subjective list which probably has more to do with the age I was when these games game out than their empirical merits. That said, I have attempted to stick to some basic criteria. All of the games listed below are in some way innovative, unquestionably addictive and they have all have stood the test of time (hence only one game from this millennia). I've added commentary to the top 10 to help explain my choices. So, without further ado...

1. Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge

Platform: PC
Developer: LucasArts
Publisher: LucasArts
Released: 1991
Genre: Adventure

The Star Wars of the gaming world, the Monkey Island series not only owes its genesis to George Lucas it also captured the hearts and minds of a whole generation of teenagers and set the standard for so many elements of the medium which the vast majority of recent releases are still struggling to match. The second installment in the series was its apogee, delivering unprecedented narrative depth and complexity coupled with engaging characters and laugh-out loud humour. Here's hoping for a Monkey Island 5.

2. Tetris

Platform: Nintendo Game Boy
Developer: Bullet Proof Software
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1989
Genre: Puzzle

Along with Pong, Space Invaders and Pac-Man, Tetris is one of the most iconic computer games of all time. What sets it aside from those other games is that it managed to tap into something deep in the human psyche to create a game so fiendishly addictive that it needed a new term to describe its effect on people; the Tetris effect is defined by Wikipedia as "the ability of any activity to which people devote sufficient time and attention to begin to dominate their thoughts, mental images, and dreams". Originally developed by Russian computer engineer Alexey Pazhitnov way back in 1985, Tetris found its true home of the Gameboy where it could be slipped into a generously-proportioned pocket and taken anywhere. Nintendo has reportedly sold over 35 million Tetris cartridges to date.

3. Lemmings

Platform: Various
Developer: DMA Design
Publisher: Psygnosis
Released: 1991
Genre: Puzzle

Lemmings is testament to the value of innovate thinking. At a time when most software houses were churning out run-of-the-mill platform games, DMA Design thought way outside the box and came up with something genuinely new. Of course the real triumph of Lemmings lies not in its innovative blend of strategy and manual dexterity, but in successfully conveying so much personality is so few pixels.

4. Day of the Tentacle

Platform: PC/Mac
Developer: LucasArts
Publisher: LucasArts
Released: 1993
Genre: Adventure

Building on the success of Monkey Island 2, Day of the Tentacle upped the absurdity quotient a notch or two to deliver a irresistible tale of time-travelling tentacles. It also took adventure game production values on a step with full voice acting throughout (on the CD version) and lovingly rendered animations. The ability to play three different characters, each stranded in different eras and therefore able to influence the future in a Back to the Future stylee, provided extra charm.

5. Goldeneye 007

Platform: Nintendo 64
Developer: Rare
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1997
Genre: First-person shooter

The received wisdom is that every new gaming platform needs a killer app. Nintendo hit pay-dirt early with the release of Goldeneye 007 and cannily started bundling the game with its new N64 console. Whilst the one-player mode was a cut-above the current crop of first-person shooters it was the multi-player deathmatch mode which caught the imagination of gamers worldwide and it remains unsurpassed as a multi-player experience.

6. Sensible World of Soccer

Platform: Amiga/PC
Developer: Sensible Software
Publisher: Sensible Software
Released: 1994
Genre: Sports

Forget FIFA, with its overly complex keypad combinations, Sensible Soccer delivered unadulterated football joy with just one-button and a joystick. What's more, the simplicity of the interface and the birds-eye view of the pitch allowed for far more frenetic gameplay than rival efforts. The addition of international teams and a twenty season career mode made Sensible World of Soccer the ultimate Sensi experience.

7. The Secret of Monkey Island

Platform: Amiga/Atari/Mac/PC
Developer: Lucasfilm Games
Publisher: Lucasfilm Games
Released: 1990
Genre: Adventure

It's easy to forget quite what a breakthrough The Secret of Monkey Island was when it first launched in 1990. For starters, the main character (the now legendary Guybrush Threepwood) couldn't die, which had been a frustrating staple of the graphic adventure thus far. It was also the first adventure game to use character scaling, enabling Guybrush to grow or shrink depending on his position on screen. However what really set The Secret of Monkey Island apart was the calibre of its characters and storytelling, which put many a Hollywood movie to shame. It even made the transition to stage thanks to a enterprising high school student whose Monkey Island Play has attracted something of a cult online following.

8. David Leadbetter's Golf

Platform: PC
Developer: The Thought Train
Publisher: Microprose
Released: 1992
Genre: Sports

Like Sensible Soccer, David Leadbetter's Golf was always in the shadow of its more attractive sibling, Links. However, Links' beauty was only ever skin deep, whereas David Leadbetter's created an immersive 3D world with contoured greens and fairways which, shock horror, obeyed the laws of physics. Moreover, because the six available courses were all rendered in polygons, the camera could track and spin around the ball in real-time. Whilst the Tiger Woods PGA Tour franchise has since mastered the tricky combination of photorealism and real-world physics, David Leadbetter's will always be the original and best golf game in my mind.

9. Cannon Fodder

Platform: Amiga/PC
Developer: Sensible Software
Publisher: Sensible Software
Released: 1994
Genre: Action

Another gem from Sensible Software, Cannon Fodder combined tactical thinking with frenetic mouse manipulation to produce one of the most addictive games of 2004. It's cartoon-style graphics and tabloid-baiting tagline ("War has never been so much fun!") may have given the impression of trivialising conflict but those who've played the game will know Cannon Fodder has its tongue very firmly in cheek. A PSP version of the game is planned for Spring 2007.

10. Super Bomberman 2

Platform: Super NES
Developer: Hudson Soft
Publisher: Sony
Released: 1994
Genre: Action

Another game falling into the fiendishly addictive category, Bomberman is all about the multi-player battle mode, which is arguably the most fun consenting adults can have with their clothes on. Enough said.

11. Super Mario Kart

Platform: SNES
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1992
Genre: Racing

12. Sam & Max Hit The Road

Platform: PC
Developer: LucasArts
Publisher: LucasArts
Released: 1993
Genre: Adventure

13. Super Mario 64

Platform: Nintendo 64
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1996
Genre: Platform

14. The Curse of Monkey Island

Platform: Mac/PC
Developer: LucasArts
Publisher: LucasArts
Released: 1997
Genre: Adventure

15. Micro Machines 2: Turbo Tournament

Platform: Various
Developer: Codemasters
Publisher: Codemasters
Released: 1994
Genre: Racing

16. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Platform: PS2/PC/Xbox
Developer: Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Released: 2004
Genre: Action

17. California Games

Platform: Various
Developer: Epyx
Publisher: Epyx
Released: 1987
Genre: Sports

18. Grim Fandango

Platform: PC
Developer: LucasArts
Publisher: LucasArts
Released: 1998
Genre: Adventure

19. Super Mario Bros.

Platform: NES
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1985
Genre: Platform

20. Bubble Bobble

Platform: Amiga
Developer: Taito
Publisher: Romstar
Released: 1987
Genre: Puzzle

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Channel 4 on Demand - first impressions

Tomorrow sees the official launch of Channel 4's UK on demand broadband TV offering, 4oD, which they've been previewing to newsletter subscribers over the past week or so. I received my preview invite last Friday. Four days on and I've finally got around to installing the client following a couple of abortive attempts, first on my Mac (4oD is PC only), then using Firefox (4oD requires Internet Explorer 5.5 or above).

The download and installation of the 4oD programme itself (basically a shell for Flash-heavy IE pages) didn't take long, although the compulsory installation of .NET framework 2.0 did. It then refused to recognise my up-to-date copy of Windows Media Player 10 and I had to download WMP 11 in order to get it working (followed by a mandatory DRM update, natch).

Once up and running, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a relatively clean and simple interface, running in a full-screen (but re-sizable) window. The 'homepage' offers five primary navigation options (TV, Film, Schedule, Recommendations and A to Z) plus one giant wallpaper promo (currently Mr Gordon Ramsey) and four smaller promos which expand and start playing video on rollover in a rather attractive fashion. The schedule strip along the bottom of the homepage, offering a view of last night's prime time, is less successful, falling below the fold at a 1024 x 768 screen res and bumping up against the bottom of the screen on rollover.

So, what of the content offer? Unsurprisingly, quite a bit of the schedule is labelled as "Not currently available for download" although there are an impressive 128 programmes listed in the A-Z. It's perhaps indicative of the on-demand world that the schedule proves to be one of the weaker element of the 4oD proposition. Whilst it's helpful that the schedule is colour coded to let you know at a glance which programmes are and aren't available, it's still feels frustrating to be reminded that you can't watch The Simpsons, The Channel 4 News or Without a Trace, but you can watch Hollyoaks and 8 Out of 10 Cats...

A more fruitful way of browsing for content is via the genres and recommendations. There are currently seven TV genres (Comedy, Docs, Drama, Entertainment, Food & Health, Homes, Music) and three film genres (Comedy, Crime & Thriller, Drama), augmented with a 'Popular' list. The 4oD Recommends section currently includes a selection of Merchant Ivory films and U2 to you - the palindromatically titled U2 season.

In terms of pricing, there appears to be two main prices points: 99p to 'rent' a TV programme and £1.99 to 'rent' a film or 'own' a TV programme (although this isn't an option for many programmes). There's also a smattering of free content, grouped under the heading 'Free for All', which is mostly teaser episodes for longer series.

Once downloaded, you have 1 month to watch a programme and 48 hours to finish it once you've started watching. It is also possible to pre-book content up to 2 weeks in advance. Download times aren't too bad, especially if you're used to BitTorrent. A 24 minute episode of Trigger Happy TV (166.52MB) took 45 mins to download on my 8MB connection. The playback window offers three choices of image size (Regular, Large and Fullscreen). The image quality is pretty good when viewed as Regular or Large but inevitably starts to pixelate in Fullscreen mode (the clips are encoded at 576 x 432 pixels, 1Mbps).

Unsurprisingly for a still wet-behind-the-ears beta there are one or two rough edges which will hopefully be ironed out over the coming weeks. The search engine doesn't seem to be indexing films at the moment and the text sometimes spills out of the playback frame to name two minor quibbles.

Infinitely more frustrating are the things which are a great deal harder to change, such as the across the board Microsoft dependency, determined by the use of the Kontiki P2P client and the Microsoft Plays For Sure DRM package (both also employed by the recently rebranded Sky Anytime). The inability to transfer content to portable devices is also likely to prove annoying for seasoned BitTorrenters.

Not that these issues are unique to Channel 4. The challenge of how to assuage the anxieties of nervous rights holders whilst simultaneously meeting the growing expectations of digital consumers is going to continue to exercise the whole spectrum of digital media providers for some time to come.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Top 20 best music videos ever

As linear music television continues its slow but inexorable decline, the music video has found an unlikely saviour in the form of the free video sharing website. To quote YouTube's About page, what "originally started as a personal video sharing service...has grown into an entertainment destination".

Whilst EMI continues to attempt to hold back the tide, the other three majors are finally starting to get with the programme and all have licensed their catalogues to YouTube in exchange for a slice of the ad revenue and the ability to police the site of copyrighted material.

All of which is just a preamble to me listing the twenty best (IMHO) music videos of all time and, Blogger beta willing, embedding them in this page.

1.) Weapon of Choice - Fatboy Slim

2.) Hurt - Johnny Cash

3.) Thriller - Michael Jackson

4.) Just - Radiohead

5.) Fell In Love With A Girl - White Stripes

6.) Here It Goes Again - OK Go

7.) Frontier Psychiatrist - The Avalanches

8.) Rabbit in Your Headlights - U.N.K.L.E. feat. Thom Yorke

9.) Hey Ya! - Outkast

9.) Knights of Cydonia - Muse

10.) Stan - Eminem

11.) My Baby Just Cares For Me - Nina Simone

12.) Californication - Red Hot Chili Peppers

13.) Criminal - Fiona Apple

14.) Street Spirit - Radiohead

15.) Everybody Hurts - R.E.M.

16.) Virtual Insanity - Jamiroquai

17.) Common People - Pulp

18.) It's Oh So Quiet - Björk

19.) Subterranean Homesick Blues - Bob Dylan

20.) Take On Me - a-ha