Friday, July 30, 2010

EReader Wars

Amazon has announced two new Kindles. These are respectable units with better contrast, longer battery life, and lighter weight. In fact, they weigh around 8oz or 1.5 as much as a Droid X. The best part is the price which is $140 for the WiFi version and $190 for the version that includes a built-in phone connection.

There is speculation about the cost of producing these. Informed opinion is that the $140 model costs at least $100 to manufacture and possibly as much as the list price. That is bad news for anyone trying to sell these at a profit.

I don't think that this is a consideration for the three big book retailers - Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, and Borders. They could just about give the readers away. In fact, they are giving away software that runs on other platforms. The object is to sell EBooks. The readers are incidental.

I've written about this before but the latest round of prices seems like a good time to repeat myself.

With the Kindle, Amazon had a chance to do for publishing what Apple did for music with ITunes. Their rivals recognized the danger and reacted. Time will tell if they reacted in time but the important thing is that they are still in the game.

Amazon made one big mistake with the Kindle. The IPod can play MP3s as well as content from Apple. Right now the closest thing to MP3s is the open EPub standard. The Kindle will not read EPub books, only Kindle books.

This is important to my wife. She might consider an EReader but she gets most of her books from the library. Our library system has provisions for checking out books... in EPub format. So that means that any reader we get will have to support that format. That means a Nook or one of the readers that Borders sells. That, in turn, locks us out of Amazon.

Now, if Amazon supported EPub then I might be pre-ordering a Kindle now.

What about the IPad? There is no way I am going to buy one to read books. I can expect to save more than $140 over the next year or two and the EReaders are a lot lighter and easier to carry than an IPad. It would take forever to save enough to justify a $500+ device. If I was going to buy an IPad anyway then I would go ahead and download the apps for Kindle and B&N and Borders but that's a different rant.

The next move may be up to the publishers themselves. How strongly will they push the two competing standards? If they do nothing then Amazon may be able to win through its sheer size. If the publishers make at least as many books available through EPub as through Kindle then Amazon may be forced to capitulate.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Happy Birthday Bugs

Seventy years ago today, Bugs Bunny made his first appearance in "A Wild Hare". You would have trouble recognizing him if you only knew his later appearances. He looked much more rabbit-like. He was being hunted by a character known as "Egghead" although his real name, according to an earlier cartoon, was "Elmer Fudd".

Bugs was not the first Looney Toons rabbit. A white rabbit had appeared in a couple of shorts starting with a Porky Pig one, and Pinhead/Elmer Fudd had tried to photograph a gray rabbit. It was not until the July 27, 1940 cartoon that Bugs began sounding like himself. Mel Blanc who did the voice said that he wanted the rabbit to sound tough. The two toughest-sounding accents he knew were Bronx and Brooklyn so he used a combination for Bugs.

The two characters evolved quickly and were pretty much fully fleshed out within a year or so.

The only real changes to Bugs came after Chuck Jones took over. Bugs grew taller and thinner but kept his voice and character.

Just as Micky Mouse defined Disney for generations, Bugs Bunny became the symbol of Warner Brothers.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Disney Studios has a long history of mining older properties for live-actions moves. They have made them based on previous live-action movies, feature-length cartoons and rides. The newest installment in this is a live-action movie inspired by an animated short. Not just any animated short, though, but one of Disney's favorites - the Sorcerer's Apprentice.

Given that the source is so short, that leaves a lot of padding. This was given to the team that created National Treasure.

The result is mixed. It is not as good as Pirates of the Caribbean and not as bad as the Haunted mansion.

The casting was a problem. Nicolas Cage is a talented actor but he doesn't come across as a 1,400-year-old-sorcerer. He is ok in the role but not as good as Alfred Molina as the villain.

The real problem is with the star, Jay Brauchel. Since he is in nearly every scene, he needs to carry the movie. The problem is that he is more of a sidekick. He has a whining, nasal voice that can be grating. He also looks and dresses too geeky. At one point we see him preparing for a date and pulling out a new, white shirt. Then he covers it in the same layered flannel and hoodie he has been wearing since the first reel.

The plot itself is familiar - a young man suddenly finds out that he is special. With the help of a mentor, he learns to use his gifts and beat the villain. This was old when Star Wars used it. Just this year we have seen it in Percy Jackson and in How to Train Dragons (also voiced by Jay Brauchel).

There is also the cliche that a young hero in training is told about an impossible-seeming feat that can only be performed by the chosen one. In Eregon, you knew when Bron was told that only the best dragon riders could stand on the dragon's tail that he would be doing it by the end of the movie. The same thing happens here.

Casting aside, there is nothing wrong with the movie. The plot is well-thought out without any obvious holes. Dave, the apprentice, may come by his powers too fast (he picks up more in a couple of days than Harry Potter does in years) but you do see him having to work for it.

The movie is at its best when the wizards battle. There are several battles and they are much more imaginative than anything in Harry Potter.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Did Futurama Get Edgier?

When Futurama moved to Comedy Central, did the show change it's tone, adding shock for its own sake? The question was raised after a couple of things in the first three episodes. In the second new episode, Leela and Zap Branigan spend some time naked except for leaves, conveniently held in place by sticky bark. Leela is showing more skin than usual but no more than a bikini would cover. In the third episode, Fry and Bender have a bet in which the loser has to dive into a pool filled by the PukemePoopyou, a creature with two goat heads. It spends much of the episode spewing from one end or the other.

So, given that Comedy Central is the home of South Park, where you can say anything except "There's Mohamed dressed as a bear!", is Futurama upping the shock level? I don't think so. The show was originally on Fox at a time when it was known for bad taste so the standards have not really changed. Consider a few classic episodes:

In Three Hundred Big Boys, Leela stuffs her swimming suit with rotten fish in order to retrieve a watch that Mushu the whale swallowed. It works and the whale spent some time vomiting. "It just keeps coming and coming," the robot cop observed. At the same time, the whale ate Leela's swimming suit and she had to wrap herself in a banner, showing about as much skin.

Slurm is excreted from the rear end of a giant slug.

Fry was once infested with intelligent worms. The Planet Express crew journeyed through his bowels. At one point Zoidburg appeared riding a sperm cell saying, "You'll never guess where I've been."

Nibbler once ate Amy's bikini top. She used a couple of hamburger buns for modesty until the Professor could spray on a replacement.

In the episode with Fry's petrified dog, Leela and Amy were dressed in sexy leotards, practicing disarming each other in sexy ways. Later Leela started to tear her already brief outfit off.

The professor appeared fully nude from the rear several times. Leela, disguised as a man, had to avoid Zap while showering. Zap was nude with his modesty preserved by Nixon's head.

There there was the episode with "human horn".

Clearly, Futurama was never a model of decorum. I think it only seems shocking now because we have seen the older episodes so many times (I lost count years ago).

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Steve Job's Mixed Year

It's been an amazingly mixed year for Apple and Steve Jobs. On the plus side, the iPad got rave reviews. It and the new iPhone 4 have sold millions. But there has been a lot of bad press mixed in.

Many reviewers felt that the new iPhone and the upgraded operating system were mainly about catching up with Android.

When Gizmodo acquired a prototype iPhone 4, Apple managed to overstep the law. Even after they got the phone back they still arranged for Gizmodo's offices to be raided and equipment confiscated in clear violation of laws shielding the press.

Steve Job's insistence that Flash cannot be allowed on the iPhone or iPad seems to be more about control than technical considerations. With a version of Flash about to be released for Android, it appears that Apple wants to keep people from using services like Hulu and force them to but from iTunes instead.

The iTunes app store has gotten a lot of bad press. No one knows what the standards are for accepting an app. They seem to change over time. At one point Jobs admitted that he banned an entire class of app because one developer had leaked information about the iPad.

Apple's censorship also earned them bad press. A Pultzer-prize winning editorial cartoonist was rejected because of the nature of editorial cartoons. Other adult material has been rejected or had cuts in order to pass Apple's standards.

Apple's policies about stopping leaks also came out. At any time, any section believed to have a leaker can be placed under what amounts to house arrest while workstations and phones are searched for incriminating material. Anyone found to have leaked information to the press is fired on the spot.

All of this was more background noise than anything else but the antenna issue has really hurt Apple's image. First, it means that they can release a flawed product. Apple hates to admit it when this happens. In fact, at Steve Job's press conference last week he didn't really admit anything. He claimed that this happens with all phones and Apple put up video showing problems with other phones. Had Jobs been more contrite they story would have gone away. Instead, the new story is Job's arrogance.

How bad is this? My dentist was talking about it. He is around fifty and is not likely to ever buy an iPhone. He does not text nor does he send emails through his phone. But he knew all about the antenna issue and the other phone companies' objections to Jobs' press conference.

When people talk about you the same way they talk about Lindsay Lohan, you have a public relations disaster on your hands.

Apple will survive, of course, but this will give a big boost to Android and the upcoming Windows 7 phone (which got great reviews). In two or three years people might look back and see this as the turning point where Apple lost their dominance of the phone world.

I've seen a couple of telling columns about Steve Jobs. One pointed out that he is in his fifties and already had a major health issue. He can't live forever. At some point Apple will have to replace him. The other pointed out that, these days, Bill Gates makes the news because of his charitable work. Steve Jobs makes the news because he is selling defective phones. Which coverage would you prefer?

Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3 has been out for weeks but we've been busy and we just got around to seeing it.

Anyway, by the third installment, series usually feel a little tired. There are exceptions but those usually had a week second installment (Pirates of The Caribbean, Back to the Future). Series with a strong second installment usually fare particularly poorly (Spider-Man, Shrek). Then there is the problem of a sequel years after the original. By that time, the excitement of the original is long gone.

It is a tribute to the Pixar development process that Toy Story 3 still feels fresh. It helps that it was constructed as a totally stand-alone movie. There are only a few of explicit references to the previous movies and can be picked up from context.

Of course the premise is the same - toys are sentient creatures and come to life when no one is around to see them. There are a few plot elements that are in all three movies - one or more toys are separated from Andy and have to return. Near the end each movie has an exciting action sequence involving danger to the toys. Also, it wouldn't be a Toy Story movie if Buzz didn't get confused about reality somehow.

The big difference in this movie is that Andy has grown up and is going to college. The toy's big hope is that they will go to the attic to a peaceful retirement instead of being thrown away and destroyed. They are accidentally donated to a day care which seems like the perfect retirement until they end up in the pre-schooler's room. It turns out that the many of the daycare toys aren't all that nice.

It all works out and comes to a satisfying conclusion.

One problem that the movie had to overcome was the lack of sophistication in the original. The toys looked fine but the humans looked like big versions of the toys. When we first see Andy, he still resembles his original version but the college-age version and the other people look much more human.

When Pixar announced a couple of sequels (Toy Story 3 and Monsters 2) it seemed like they were running low on creativity or had been corrupted by the Disney merger. This proves that they can still make good movies.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Attack of the EReader

When the iPad came out speculation started about which would win the eBook wars - the iPad or the Kindle? What people didn't seem to understand is that Amazon doesn't really care. As long as they do not lose money selling the Kindle, market control does not matter. That is because they are after dominance of the eBook market, not the reader. In fact, they give away Kindle applications for the iPad, the iPhone, android phones, and PCs.

Things in the eBook market got really interesting a few weeks ago.

First Barns and Noble cut the price of their eBook reader, the Nook. Amazon followed by cutting prices on the Kindle. Now Borders has entered the eBook market. Rather than subsidize their own reader, Borders is selling four readers made by others. These readers lack the wireless and cell phone features of the Kindle and the Nook which makes them less expensive. The lowest price one, the Libre eBook Reader Pro is only $119. Unlike the others, it uses a black and white LCD instead of the E Ink that nearly every other reader uses. This gives it a shorter battery life but makes the display refresh faster and gives better contrast. Like Amazon, Borders also has eBook reader software for a variety of platforms. Borders also supports the open EPub standard rather than using their own proprietary standard.

With an entry price around $120-$150, eBook readers start looking attractive. If you only buy a dozen books you are ahead financially and there is a lot to be said for the small, lightweight form factor. Also, there are a lot of books that are otherwise out of print.

Music players show that connecting to a PC to control content is not a burden. My Zune HD can sync wirelessly but I seldom use that feature. As long as I am syncing content, I might as well charge the battery. The Kindle's original Whispernet was meant to encourage people to make impulse purchases or to pay premium rates for newspapers and magazines. I do not have a long commute on a train so I have no need for these.

Over a decade ago technologists told the recording industry that it had to change or die. It refused to listen until Steve Jobs convinced them to sign on with iTunes. Now that is their biggest source of income.

Hopefully publishers will not make the same mistakes. There may always be a place for paper and cardboard but electronics will play an increasing role in future publishing.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Costume Changes

According to news reports, Wonder Woman is getting a completely new costume and origin.

I can't say that I care for the new costume. It would be fine for an entirely new character but it isn't Wonder Woman. In fact, it is barely a costume, more like distinctive street-wear like some of the X-Men sport. I am also slightly offended by the need to "globalize" her by getting her out of the American Flag.

Realistically, the new costume will just be a phase. In a couple of years she will be back to her blue and red tights. DC has way too much invested in her iconic look to permanently switch her.

Still, this gives me an excuse to go over other costume changes.

Wonder Woman's own costume has changed over the years. In her first few appearances she had a skirt instead of satin shorts. In the early 1980s, DC's lawyers were concerned that they could not trademark the eagle on her chest so it was quietly swapped out for twin "W"s. During the late 1960s, Wonder Woman changed completely. She lost her powers and learned martial arts. She started sporting a series of cat suits inspired by Emma Peel from the TV show The Avengers. Obviously, she switched back after a few years.

In general, once a hero becomes established, his costume changes very little. the really big heroes may change their outfits for a while but they always seem to go back to the original. Spider-Man has changed his costume twice (not counting the clone's costume). Both times have been part of a long-term plot arch which ended with him back in his original red and blue costume. Superman never changed costumes for more than an issue or so. Batman added a yellow circle to his chest and experimented with an all-black outfit but keeps going back to the blue and gray original.

Heroes who have not become established can get away with a costume change. Daredevil's original yellow and black outfit looked like it was designed by a blind man and was swapped for his red outfit pretty fast. I've already written about Iron Man's changes.

Captain Marvel started out in a white uniform with green helmet and accents. He got a new red and black uniform just in time to be canceled for a while but kept it when his strip returned.

Team heroes are more likely to change their look. The Fantastic Four started without costumes (prompting Marvel's first fan mail). By the third issue they were given uniforms. they kept these until the mid-1970s when the Torch switched to a red uniform. They switched back to the original blue uniforms in the 1980s followed by a darker version with white accents.

There was a general move away from team uniforms around 1970. The X-Men started with identical uniforms but were given individual costumes later.

Several members of the Legion of Superheroes got new costumes during the 1970s and again in the 1980s. Long-standing solo DC characters sometimes changed their costume after joining the JLA. Black Canary and the Elongated Man are a couple of examples.

Sometimes a character's costume changes slowly over time. Spider-Man started out with webbing between his arms and his torso. Later artists abandoned this but it has been brought back a few times. Daredevil's red tights started out black with red highlights (artist Wally Wood was thinking of velvet when he designed the look). Later artists switched to straight red.

Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch's costumes stayed recognizable over the years but Quicksilver's went from green to blue. The Scarlet Witch started out in a modest body stocking with loose bodice, long boots and gloves, and a headpiece that only left her face and the top of her head exposed. As time went on, her bodice became much tighter, shwing a lot of cleavage. Her body stocking became sheer and her headpiece became a hair band.

Like her male counterpart, Ms Marvel changed her costume. He original one was based on Captain Marvel's second costume but with bare legs and stomach. The artists quickly grew tired of drawing the stomach cut-out. After resolving a split-identity issue, she changed to a tight black number with a belt/sash.

Marvel often tried to boost sales with a costume change. Besides Captain Marvel and Ms Marvel, they tried this with Doctor Strange in the late 1960s. Strange was given a skin-tight costume with a full-head mask. It didn't work. Fans hated the new look. The book was canceled a few issues later. When it was brought back, Strange reverted to his original costume. 

The Wasp probably holds the record for the most number of costume changes. During the 1970s she seldom appeared twice in the same outfit. Her ex-husband did her one better, changing identities as well as costumes. At various times he was Ant Man, Giant Man, Goliath, Yellow Jacket, and simply Doctor Pymm. He had at least eight distinct costumes to go with these various identifies.

Muscle-men like the Hulk, the Thing, and Conan the Barbarian have changed outfits several times without altering their over-all look.

In her first strip, She-Hulk didn't dress for her change and usually wore something ragged. After joining the Avengers she settled on a swim-suit-style outfit. She temporarily joined the FF and used an abbreviated version of the FF's dark blue uniform.

Luke Cage and Iron Fist had very 1970s costumes when they were introduced. When the characters were revived they got different looks.

Super Girl changed costumes numerous times. She started out with a mini-dress version of Superman's costume. After graduating from back-up strip to having her own comic book, she got a series of more stylish costumes. This was back to something like the original except with a red skirt when the character was killed.

Supergirl was revived as a new character but with the previous costume. Eventually she vanished leaving an empowered human alter-ego who improved a costume based on a cut-off tee-shirt and a mini-skirt. The bare mid-rift looks continued into the next incarnation.

Wonder Man started out as a one-shot in a garish costume in the 1960s. He was brought back from the dead in the 1970s and swapped his costume for a red safari jacket. In the 1990s he got his own book and a new costume featuring a big "W".

For the most part, Thor followed the rule that costume changes were part of a long-term plot arc and reverted back to his original when the arc ended. At one point in the 1980s his face was injured and he grew a beard to cover the scars. Injuries mounted and he ended up in full-body armor. In the 1900s he lost his powers and spent a short time running around shirtless. In the last few years his costume has been reworked but still suggests the original.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Microsoft's Phone Failures

Microsoft lost its edge years ago. Now it seems to have lost its way.

Last year they introduced the Zune HD. I have one and it is a nice music and video player with the added attraction of touch-screen, a web browser, and a limited selection of apps. Many people felt that this would be the basis of a new Microsoft phone. Microsoft confirmed this earlier this year. They will be launching a new phone under the Windows 7 banner this Fall.

Then they came out with the Kin phones. These amounted to feature phones. They did have a browser built in but otherwise their capabilities were locked-in. They were considered rather deficient and they had nothing to do with the new phones coming out this Fall.

The Kin didn't sell. You can tell that by the advertising blitz that Microsoft launched (although I don't believe the rumor that they only sold 500 units).

Microsoft is supposed to have sunk around $500 million into the Kin effort. Some of it may be salvaged. The phone backs itself up regularly and everything on the phone is available through a web interface. Microsoft promised that the new phone will probably have that capability sometime in the future, just not at launch.

This seems typical of what Microsoft has begun. During the 1980s and 1990s, they evaluated a market then entered it. Their initial offering was seldom very good, the joke was that you should never buy a Microsoft product before it's 3.0 release. By then it was usually on par with the industry leader. From that point, Microsoft would use its leverage to shut out the competition.

For most of the 2000s, they have tried this formula in different markets and failed. Bing is the newest in a string of search engines that failed to attract Google's business. Hotmail has been losing market share for years. Internet Explorer is still the dominant web browser but their market share keeps dropping. At one point they had better than a 90% share. Now they are around 60%.

They also failed at establishing themselves in the music market. They have gone through several services including the ironically named "Plays for sure".

Microsoft has deep resources. It is possible that they can regain their momentum. By all accounts, Bing is a credible search engine and there is some excitement about the new phone. At the same time, the Kin flop has hurt them. It may have soured their relationship with Verizon which will limit their potential market a great deal.

Maybe the real problem is that Steve Balmer need to go.