Saturday, November 24, 2007

Sony Celebrates One Year PlayStation 3 Birthday, Claims U.S. Sales Skyrocket

Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. (SCEI) this week celebrates the first year anniversary of the PlayStation 3 game console release. Even though the console has hardly managed to become successful, it is fighting hard and the recent price cuts, according to Sony, substantially increased the number of game consoles sold in.

“When we designed PS3 our goal was to introduce a system so technically advanced that it could stand the test of time and could take the industry in a whole new direction, which for PS3 was high-definition entertainment. While we’re excited by the progress we’ve made this first year, we know that like our other platforms, the best is still yet to come, especially given our new hardware and software line-up, and that PS3 will continue to take the industry to new heights for years to come,” said Jack Tretton, president and chief executive of Sony Computer Entertainment America (SCEA).

Despite of Jack Tretton’s optimism, actual statistics is hardly positive for Sony, which still loses money on each PlayStation 3 game machine sold. According to figures by market tracker NPD Group, Microsoft sold through more than two times more Xbox 360 game machines compared to Sony PlayStation 3 in the last twelve months: 4.232 million Vs. 1.978 million, whereas Nintendo Wii was acquired by 5.038 million gamers.

Sony PlayStation 3 is more successful than Microsoft Xbox 360 in Japan, where 1.341 million of PS3s and 0.6 million of X360s were sold through life-to-date, according to figures by Media Create market tracker. Still, Nintendo Wii beats both competing platforms combined with 3.816 million units that have been sold to end-users so far.

Recent data for Europe and other PAL regions was not available at press time. But some market observers said this Summer that Xbox 360 outsells PlayStation 3 by more than a factor of two in the rest of the world.

But troubles of SCEA may head to their end, as one of the major disadvantages of the PS3 was named its price, which was as high as $599 for the premium version of the game console. Sony has slashed the premium PS3’s price to $499 and also introduced a $399 version which features all the advanced multimedia capabilities of the PlayStation 3, including Blu-ray movie playback, but lacks backwards compatibility with games developed for PlayStation and PlayStation.

According to SCEA, PS3 sales “increased by 192% at the top 10 retailers in North America” following the price-cut of the premium unit and the introduction of the $399 model. Typically Sony reports sold in figures, which means that the company tracks down only the number of game consoles supplied to distributors. Keeping the particular situation in mind, 192% increase of shipments is likely to reflect three factors: increased demand towards game consoles in November overall, increased demand towards PlayStation 3 in particular as well as stockpiling of game consoles by retailers for demand skyrocket in December.

T-Mobile Sells Apple iPhone without Contract for $1500

The German court ordered T-Mobile to start selling Apple iPhone without a contract, which will allow customers to get the device and use it in whatever network in whatever country that has GSM/EDGE networks. But the device will cost its owner €999, or nearly $1500, the cost that users have to pay for premium-class stylish mobiles.

Vodafone’s German unit was behind the action to stop T-Mobile from capitalizing on its exclusive deal with Apple, reports News Factor web-site. The company petitioned the court to block sales of the iPhone in Germany until its complaints about an exclusive agreement between Apple and T-Mobile are addressed. But even though the device can be acquired without a contract, hardly a lot of those, who can afford a €1000 cell phone, actually get the iPhone.

Earlier customers who wanted to obtain Apple iPhone in Germany had to sign a contract with T-Mobile and pay a certain sum of money every month in the course of many months while using services provided by the operator. On the other hand, customers had to pay €399, which is a lot for a mobile phone in Europe and which is much more than the price customers have to pay for the iPhone in the U.S.

German customers who obtained Apple iPhone after the court’s ruling can have their phones unlocked to work with any other network carrier, however, many of the functions will only be available to T-Mobile clients only with the complete tariff package, the company is reported to have said.

Apple iPhone combines digital media player, phone, Web browser and personal digital assistant’s features. The device is equipped with 3.5” touch-screen instead of keypad, includes support for quad-band GSM, EDGE, 802.11b/g Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.0 EDR wireless technologies. The iPhone also features a 2 megapixel (2MP) camera along with a photo management application.

Microsoft Windows Vista’s Market Share Soars Slowly But Surely

Despite of widespread critics among certain groups of end-users, Microsoft Windows Vista operating system (OS) captured additional part of the market in October, whereas other operating systems from Microsoft reduced their installed base. At the same time, platforms from Apple reduced the shares of the market they command.

In September the share of Windows Vista-based personal computers used to browse the Internet was close to 8%, 7.91% to be precise, up insignificantly, according to data collected by Net Applications, a provider of Web tools. The shares of Windows 2000 and Windows XP operating systems decreased to 3.16% and 79.07%.

The share of systems based on Mac OS decreased to 6.55% in October, down from 6.61% a month before, which may indicate that sales of Apple Macintosh computers were not faster than sales of Microsoft Windows-based systems.

“Other” operating systems, namely outdated Windows versions, Linux OSes and so on, which have been losing market share for many months now, are now used in 3.31% of devices that are used for Internet browsing.

It remains to be seen whether Microsoft Windows Vista manages to capture 10% of the market by the end of the year, as it has to capture more than two percent of the market in two months. On the other hand, sales of PCs increase dramatically in November, thus, the new operating system may truly expand its presence considerably in the coming months.

It was unclear at press time how many computer systems Net Applications tracked in October, 2007.

Blu-Ray and HD DVD Optical Disk Drives to Be Installed in 10% PCs Next Year – Panasonic

Following the recent price drops of blue laser-based optical disk drives (ODDs), about 10% of personal computers (PCs) will incorporate either Blu-ray or HD DVD drive next year, a Panasonic executive said in an interview.

“The adoption of blue-laser optical disc drives (ODDs), Blu-ray Disc (BD) and/or HD DVD, built into desktop and notebook PCs will increase from less than 1% of all PCs in 2007 to 10% in 2008,” said general manager Masayuki Kozuka for the Storage Device Business Strategy Office of Matsushita Electric Industrial (Panasonic) in an interview with DigiTimes web-site.

Earlier this year the same Panasonic executive said that Blu-ray and HD DVD ODDs will account for about 5% of all ODD sales this year. It is unclear whether reconsideration of estimates is a result of slower-than-expected adoption rate of modern ODDs, or the consequence of overoptimistic initial expectations.

Currently Japan is the market promoting blue-laser consumer electronics the most around the world. BD or HD DVD players as a percentage of all disc players/recorders sold in Japan has risen from 14.8% in 2006 to 20% in 2007 and is expected to grow to 50% in 2008, Mr. Kozuka is reported to have said.

While Blu-ray standalone players are still quite expensive, several companies, including Pioneer and Philips/LG recently unveiled relatively affordable Blu-ray disk drives for desktop PCs, whereas Toshiba offers cost-effective HD DVD drives for both desktops and laptops. With lower pricing and better support from movie studios, blue laser-based drives may truly face skyrocketing popularity in 2008.

Macrovision to Acquire BD+ Blu-ray Disc Security Technology

Macrovision Corp. has announced that it has signed a definitive agreement to acquire certain technology assets from Cryptography Research (CRI), the San Francisco-based R&D organization focused on solving complex security problems. After the transaction, Macrovision will own the SPDC (Self-Protecting Digital Content) technology, which formed the basis of BD+, an element of Blu-ray’s content security platform.

BD+ has been adopted by more than 20 companies including major CE manufactures and motion studios. Upon the close of the transaction Macrovision will be the primary licensor of BD+ technology to studios. The BD+ will complement Macrovision’s existing ACP and Ripguard video security solutions used to protect DVDs from copying. The company itself did not say whether BD+ will be used for other products than Blu-ray discs.

BD+ is the latest copyright protection layer for Blu-ray discs that compliments AACS, HDCP and so on. BD+ is a small program recorded on a Blu-ray disc that is executed by player and examines whether the players security keys were changed as well as decodes part of the content encrypted with BD+ keys. The BD+ technology was finalized in June, 2007, and when first implemented, it required Blu-ray players to be reflashed in order to playback new movies.

“As we continue to build our business and work with our partners to develop and implement new distribution models in the digital marketplace, we seek to expand our capabilities to address emerging standards such as Blu-ray,” commented Fred Amoroso, chief exec of Macrovision Corporation. “The integration of SPDC into our product portfolio will enable us to continue to provide innovative technology to our customers as they expand their distribution vehicles. Not only is BD+ critical for content security, but it also supports value-added features that enhance the consumer playback experience, such as potentially unlocking bonus content.” Mr. Amoroso also noted, “I am especially delighted to add some of the cryptographic talent for which CRI is renowned. We believe they will allow us to accelerate our future security solution development efforts.”

The consideration for the SPDC assets is $45 million in cash plus warrants exercisable for Macrovision stock, a portion of which are subject to certain performance milestones. The transition is subject to customary closing conditions and Macrovision expects it to close in the fourth quarter of 2007 and be slightly accretive to 2008 earnings.

ATI Set to Launch Offensive with ATI Radeon HD 3000 Pricing

ATI, graphics product group of Advanced Micro Devices, may lower the pricing of its ATI Radeon HD 3000-series graphics processing units (GPUs) in weeks after the introduction in an attempt to recapture the lost market share from the No. 1 discrete GPU supplier Nvidia Corp. The decision will allow add-in board manufacturers to decrease the prices to end-users.

“Two weeks after the launch, the ATI RV670 drops the price,” a source familiar with the matter told X-bit labs.

The ATI Radeon HD 3850 with 256MB of GDDR3 memory begins at $179 manufactured suggested retail price (MSRP) and the ATI Radeon HD 3870 with 512MB GDDR4 memory from $219 MSRP, available from AMD’s selected graphics products partners. Unfortunately, not all suppliers of graphics cards could get the new boards on time from AMD.

ATI Radeon HD 3000-series GPUs support a breed of advanced technologies, including DirectX 10.1 that is expected to provide enhanced graphics effects in future video games; Avivo HD and UVD (universal video decoding) video engines for decoding and post-processing of high-definition videos from Blu-ray discs, DVDs or HD DVDs; ATI CrossFire X that enables up to four GPUs to work collaboratively; as well as ATI PowerPlay for desktops, which monitors graphics chip’s command processor to determine its actual load and decides its power state and cooling requirements.

Price reduction of the already not very expensive ATI Radeon HD 3800-series boards is likely to help AMD to capture attention of many end-users seeking for a new high-performance graphics cards for Christmas. Since the new lineup of graphics solutions support both DirectX 10.1 and high-definition video playback, the features demanded by end-users this year, the novelties truly have chances to become popular this holiday season.

Last year AMD managed to increase its graphics market share by about 2.1% to 23% with the ATI Radeon X1950 Pro and ATI Radeon X1650 XT graphics boards, according to figures by Jon Peddie Research. However, this year AMD’s market share has been on the decline, even despite of ATI Radeon HD 2000-series introduction, and currently the company commands 19.1% of the market, JPR claims.

But this year Nvidia is also pretty aggressive with its Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT graphics product, which is based on the G92 graphics chip. Even though the first weeks of availability did not prove that Nvidia’s partners are capable of shipping enough graphics cards to the market, the company may try to boost shipments of its chips to tackle AMD’s market share attack.

The first graphics cards in the ATI Radeon HD 3000-series product family are Radeon HD 3850 and HD 3870, which are based on ATI RV670 graphics chip and have 320 unified shader processors (SPs), 16 texture units (TUs), 16 render back ends (RBEs) and 256-bit memory controller. ATI Radeon HD 3850 clocks GPU at 668MHz and sports 256MB GDDR3 memory at 1656MHz, ATI Radeon HD 3870 graphics card features GPU operating at 775MHz and has 512MB GDDR4 memory at 2250MHz.

Officials for AMD did not comment on the news-story.

NME Delays Availability of HD VMD Movies

New Medium Enterprises, the developer and supplier of HD VMD – the third high-definition video format – hardware and content said that instead of November it would start to sell movies in HD VMD format in January. In a separate news-release the company said that it sold in ten thousands HD VMD players to a central European distributor.

“Due to unforeseen global demand from our distributor partners in our 6 initial regions, our individual titles will be available from January 1st 2008. However, we are already taking pre-orders for Bundle Boxes with the delivery date from December 1, 2007,” a spokeswoman for NME said.

HD VMD format is not supported by any major movie studios, like Blu-ray or HD DVD are; as a result, NME has to rely only on itself when it comes to content availability. One of the major concerns about HD VMD is ability of NME to license and provide enough high-definition movies to its customers.

HD VMD format is the third optical disc type to record high-definition movies. The technology is based on multi-layer DVD discs and red laser head. Each additional layer adds approximately up to 5 GB of memory over a standard DVD disc. VMD provides the ability to place up to 20 layers on a single disc with no quality loss in the content stored. This means capacity to record of 100 GB or more without major changes to DVD players, but the disc technology requires new manufacturing process and production lines. Currently the company can produce up to 30GB discs.

Separately, NME announced that it had sold of ten thousand of HD VMD players for Central Europe to FKH Electronic, who will be distributing its 1080p HD VMD Multilayer Players to retail outlets in Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia. This initial order is valued at $1.3 million. The order will complement the HD VMD film content currently available in Central Europe, the company said.

It is possible to pre-order HD VMD ML622S and ML777s players from NME for $199 and $209, respectively, through Amazon.com. At press time, neither standalone HD VMD players, nor HD VMD bundle boxes were available from Amazon.com.

Ageia Slashes PhysX Accelerator Pricing to $99

Despite of being the only dedicated physics processing unit (PPU) for consumers on the market, Ageia PhysX has not become popular so far, although it has been available for about one and a half years. One of the reasons for that is relatively high price of the device and another is the lack of games that take advantage of it. On Tuesday Ageia said it would cut price of its PhysX to $99 in time for holidays.

“Just for the holidays Ageia PhysX card price has dropped. Both NewEgg and TigerDirect are running specials on the card. You can now get it for $99,” a statement by Ageia reads.

Initially Ageia along with Asustek Computer and BFG Technologies sold PhysX add-in cards with 128MB 733MHz GDDR3 memory designed for PCI bus for $299, but late last year the manufacturer suggested retail price dropped to the range of $179 - $249 along with enrichment of product bundle. The move also did not help to drive Ageia PhysX sales to high levels and now Ageia slashes the pricing of its PhysX accelerator to $99.

In addition, Ageia promised to release a special mod-kit for Unreal Tournament 3 along with two levels that feature enhanced physics effects.

Ageia’s PhysX is the world’s first physics processing unit (PPU), which offloads software physics processing from central processing units and graphics processing units to it. The architecture of the PhysX PPU is tailored for multi-threaded processing of vertexes, which allows game creators to develop detailed, soft and precise animation and simulation of movements, hair, clothing, liquids, fluids and other.

To take advantage of advanced capabilities the PhysX has, game developers have to create games using Novodex SDK supplied by Ageia, which requires some additional effort from them. According to Ageia, more than one hundred games designed for and supporting the Ageia PhysX processor are in development from over 60 software creators and publishers. However, the vast majority of Ageia PhysX-enabled games provide negligible advantages of PhysX.

Asustek Aims 20% of the PC Market in 2010 with Eee PC

While many consider Asustek Computers’ Eee PC as just an alternative to quite expensive ultra-mobile personal computers as well as a system for emerging markets, the company itself claims that its Eee is much more than that and it could make it one of the top personal computer suppliers on the globe with 20% market share as early as in 2010.

“I think the chance of surpassing 20% in 2010 is very high because there will be further [Asus Eee] products in the future,” said Jonney Shih, chief executive of Asustek, in an interview with DigiTimes web-site.

Gartner Dataquest predicts that the market of personal computers will reach 268.1 million units in 2007, up 12% from 2006. Currently the world’s top PC maker is HP with 19.6% market share, whereas Asustek is not even among the top five PC vendors, hence, it commands less than 4.4% of the market. The way how the world’s largest maker of computer mainboards plans to become the globe’s largest supplier of computers is simple: creating PCs easy to use by novices and affordable to buy in emerging and existing markets. Maybe, high-performance systems are not really important, asks Asus.

“Traditional PCs are too powerful, no matter in the home or office; we are seeing quad-core rising with octo-core coming in the near future, and the more cores in a CPU, the more memory the system needs. Is all this really necessary? With the Eee PC we decided to go back to basics, to bring the focus to just functions and reasonable price levels,” said Mr. Shih.

Perhaps, Asustek just wants its Asus Eee PC to become Nintendo Wii of personal computers, but in that case it needs to invent something unique about it. For example, despite of low-performance graphics engine and microprocessor, Nintendo Wii has motion-sensitive game-controller, which is not available on other game machines. Meanwhile, all the Asus Eee PC has now is relatively low-performance hardware amid simplistic operating system and low-price.

Currently Asus Eee PC utilizes Linux operating system (OS) and will also be sold with pre-installed Windows XP a little later. Microsoft ceases to sell Windows XP in mid-2008 and either Asustek will have to continue only with Linux OS or install higher-performance components to make Windows Vista system work. Given that current configuration of Asus Eee PC will hardly be able to work with Windows Vista due to relatively slow microprocessor, limited amount of system memory, low-capacity solid state drive, low-resolution monitor and the lack of advanced graphics adapter, the manufacturer will have to substantially upgrade Eee PC before transiting to Vista. Using more advanced components will inevitably drive the price of Asus Eee PC upwards, which means that the company will not be able to position it as a truly affordable solution. If Asustek decides to go on only with Linux OS, its Eee PC will hardly become really popular due to tepid acceptance of Linux among general public.

Warner Shelves Total HD Disc Format Plans

Warner Home Video, a leading content maker, said that it does not make any sense for it to promote Total HD hybrid discs alone and for the moment the intention to put both Blu-ray and HD DVD layers onto the same optical disc is “on hold”. The decision effectively cancels plans to distribute both Blu-ray and HD DVD titles at the same time and also means that other studios are still confident in their current HD strategy.

“For the moment, the [Total HD] is on hold. We’re the only studio producing content in both formats. If we were to put out Total HD with just our titles, it wouldn’t really provide the solution to our retail partners that it was intended to provide. If anything, at this point, it would further complicate their life, because there would be another product looking for shelf space. Our job is not to further complicate the lives of our retailers,” explained Jim Noonan, senior vice president of strategic promotion and communication for Warner Home Entertainment Group, in an interview with High-Def Digest web-site.

Both Blu-ray and HD DVD use 405nm wavelength laser to read data from the recordable media of the discs. However, the data layer of the Blu-ray discs is located 0.1mm from the disk’s surface, whereas the HD-DVD data layer resides 0.6mm deep from the disk’s surface. Warner’s engineers planned to create a disc with a Blu-ray top layer that works like a two-way mirror: it should reflect just enough blue light for a Blu-ray player to read, but it should also let enough light through for HD-DVD players to ignore the Blu-ray recording and find a second HD-DVD layer beneath.

Even though the Total HD project sounds like a simplistic one, it involves pretty complex technologies on the optical disc side as well as custom-made replication equipment, which makes Total HD a pretty expensive initiative. Moreover, in addition to increased cost of the disc itself it involves increased cost of replication, which adds several dollars to already not really affordable Blu-ray or HD DVD, which cost $20 - $27 online. Moreover, Warner also has to standardize its Total HD with both Blu-ray disc association as well as DVD Forum. Keeping all the aforementioned facts in mind, Warner now believes that it is hard for it to push the new media standard alone.

“Total HD was something that we offered up to the industry as a solution that would address buyer hesitancy, and the concern a consumer might have about the possible obsolesce of the hardware they were buying. We have no proprietary interest in Total HD. There is no patent we’re involved in, and there is no monetary reward for us if another studio decides to put out titles on Total HD. It was offered purely as an industry solution – and it is still a good and viable solution that has no expiration date,” Mr. Noonan said.

Total HD would allow studios that are format agnostic to sell one disc instead of a Blu-ray and an HD DVD versions. However, as only Warner and, to some degree, New Line Cinema, are format-neutral, whereas other studios dedicate themselves to a high-definition format, it is unlikely that Total HD will be released massively in short-term future.