Lunch & Learn: The Joys and Ploys of Little Toys with Doug Dixon

devices.jpgDoug Dixon, Manifest Technology, returned to Princeton to exhibit the hottest, miniature technological wonders in the electronic marketplace, notably media players, communication devices, and audio accessories. On his web site, Dixon maintains a technology blog as well as thematic galleries with information on trends and sample products including detailed specifications and prices about these latest hip-pocket wonders.
So much fun, or too many choices? As became obvious at his April 23 Lunch ‘n Learn presentation, there’s no one integrated full-featured gadget that does it all. Suggests Dixon, it’s a wonderful, but confusing, world at the electronics store — for consumers as well as manufacturers. What is the industry to do? There’s so much new technology to leverage, so many possible features to add, and so much potential in integrating multiple devices. But you can’t ask customers what they want, because the new devices have not been invented yet. So instead we see a profusion of different combinations of features, form factors, and price points thrown into the market to see what sticks.


Dixon displayed a range of portable media players. Some media players add features like video and internet connectivity. Others add Internet radio, streaming video, internet playback, Web access, or GPS navigation. And yet, fortunately perhaps, we’re as yet unlikely on a small device to watch TV while reading a live map and talking on the phone. Apple’s iPods dominate the portable player market, but there are also different options from Creative, Samsung, SanDisk, and Archos. Consumers will appreciate the continuing increase in storage capacity, functionality, as well as the decreases in price.
There are stick players, essentially memory cards with audio jacks; there are simple players, some with displays that give some control over what you want to hear; there are flash media players that play video; and there are hard disk players that offer more storage capacity and often larger viewing screens. In the iPod line, the Shuffle represents the entry level with a small unit that randomly selects what to play from among your stored favorites. Apple favors simplicity, with just a few models and not many options; By contrast, Creative, SanDisk, and Samsung offer a full range of small and large players that include FM radio with presets, speakers, battery slots, and voice recording capabilities, and Bluetooth.
Flash Video Players add displays for viewing video clips as well as access to album art, photographs, and of course, the ability to play videos. As players add storage for thousands of songs, larger displays are needed to scroll through the lists. How will consumers react to watching video on a small screen? We’re about to find out, says Dixon, because Apple and many companies are introducing video on players and phones. They have 4-8 GB of storage, access to significant collections of videos, and some have the ability to communicate with external Bluetooth speakers or headphones.
dixondevice.jpgSome players have wi-fi capability in support of online streaming. And mobile phones are adding Interent connectivity for on-demand audio and video. It’s an interesting idea, says Dixon, but not yet particularly successful. They are reasonable for short videos, or “snacking,” but mobile providers are not anxious to encourage continuous video streaming.
Then there are the hard disk players like the iPod Classic and models from Creative with 4-7 inch screens that can store even more songs and videos with built-in wi-fi internet browsing. Photographers could store their portfolios, business travelers could share their presentations, and anyone could effectively share videos with friends.
Phones today provide an interesting range of features. For example, your phone can provide wireless data services to your PC for DSL type access from anywhere. Media to the phone is the hot issue, says Dixon. Verizon provides a vCast service that provides on-demand video and music. Subscribers can watch snacks, notably news, weather, and segments from Comedy Central, on their phones. Sprint offers Mobi-TV, live streaming video to a handheld device over the cellular network as part of its bundles. There are more than 30 video channels, including the major networks, and more than 50 channels of digital radio. Dixon expects that within two years or so, all of our cell phones will provide digital TV service for the major broadcast channels as well as other clips on demand.
Smartphones (like Apple’s iPhone, the Google Phone, and the Verizon touch) combine impressive functionality with comprehensive integration. And so, from these phones, you can browse the web, send e-mail, take pictures, watch TV, play music, get GPS services on Google maps, and even open a small QWERTY keyboard.
The main trends for audio are Bluetooth and noise reduction through soft and hard devices that stick in or hang on your ear. Dixon recommended the Jawbone, a device that hangs on your ear but reaches out to touch the cheek in order to sense when you are talking. Some have slides to bring the microphone closer to your mouth, as well as extra connections to provide stereo. With these devices, your computer, media player, or phone can provide a stereo experience that won’t bother your neighbors.
Doug Dixon is an independent technology consultant, author, and speaker specializing in digital media. A graduate of Brown University, and previously a product manager and software developer at Intel Corp. and Sarnoff Corp., he consults and provides expert witness services on the digital media market and technology. He is the author of four books and has published more than 250 feature articles. He is currently Editor-in-Chief of CDSA’s Mediaware magazine and East Coast Technical Editor for Camcorder & Computer Video magazine, and has contributed to DV Magazine, CNET Reviews, and the U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton. Dixon blogs about new developments and makes his articles and technical references freely available on his Manifest Technology site.
A podcast is available.

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