Backstage | iLounge

Backstage

Backstage at iLounge is the combined blog of our editors, featuring casual and often only loosely iPod-, iPhone- or iPad-related discussions that our readers may enjoy. Founded in July, 2004, Backstage has served as a launching pad for stories that later appear on the main site, and as a place to discuss portable phones, games, computers, and accessories. Visit Backstage Archives for past stories, and bookmark backstage.ilounge.com for new ones.

Backstage: Naming the new iPod [Updated]

By Jeremy Horwitz | 06.30.05 | 20 comments

[Editor’s Note: Following publication of this Backstage entry earlier today, iLounge’s editors received confirmation from Apple Computer that the new color-screened iPod is officially considered part of the fourth-generation iPod family, rather than the fifth. We thank Apple for this clarification, and now anxiously await versions 5 of both iTunes and the iPod. The article below has been modestly edited to reflect the new information.]

It’s the unfortunate result of preserving a single product name across five different products: controversy over how to differentiate one “iPod” from another. For years, iLounge has been labeling iPods by “generation,” starting with the second-generation (2G) iPod released in 2002. On visual inspection, the only things that changed from the first iPods to the second were a non-moving Scroll Wheel controller and a different top surface, featuring a built-in cover for the unit’s FireWire port. But as a differentiator between functionally separate iPod models, the naming convention stuck, and became widespread.

Click on Read More for the rest of the entry, including pictures of the iPod family.

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Backstage: StyleFi Music Sphere, revealed

By Jeremy Horwitz | 06.26.05 | 11 comments

Back a few weeks ago, we mentioned that Oregon Scientific was preparing a major music initiative called StyleFi, a collection of new audio accessories with sleek designs. One of those designs is iPod-bound, and not yet publicly revealed, but there’s something you might want to take a look at in the meanwhile.

It’s called Music Sphere. To underscore the point for speed readers, this is not Oregon Scientific’s iPod product, hence the lack of iPod-specific functionality - and our placement of it on Backstage instead of the main iLounge site. But the ideas and design cues incorporated within it are pretty interesting nonetheless.

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Click on Read More below for a ton of pictures and information, including an explanation of how those two balls work together in your home.

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Backstage: Where are the Summer iPod promos?

By Jeremy Horwitz | 06.12.05 | 17 comments

An iLounge reader asked me a great question this morning: it’s Summer here, so with students ending classes and families starting or about to start their vacations, where are Apple’s “it’s time to buy an iPod” promotions?

I had an answer, but not a good one. “Did you see the Coconuts 20% off deal?,” I asked. “That’s pretty aggressive these days for an iPod.” But his point was bigger than that. “It’s summertime, and all sorts of people are traveling and want to carry music around. Why isn’t Apple offering some sort of incentive to push them in that direction?”

The simplest response would be, “well, when you’re selling over four million iPods every three months, maybe you don’t (think you) need to offer incentives.” Yet obviously by the time a company reaches certain sales volumes, there are ways that it can increase those volumes even more - to five or six million, still with plenty of profit, and thereby create an installed base that’s just that much harder for any competitor to touch.

And yes, competitors are still trying to capture market share. A Dell newspaper advertisement today is promising free Pocket D.J. units with the purchase of certain Dell computers. Admittedly, it requires a $199 rebate that the shoddy company might never actually pay you (or might require you to call Bangalore, India five times to get processed), and it’s still a Dell Pocket D.J., but yeah, it’s theoretically free.

By comparison, the best iPod deals most stores are offering these days are freebie accessories with a purchase. CompUSA’s ad today offers a free Griffin AirClick with the purchase of any iPod photo, and a free belt clip with any iPod shuffle. Others are providing $20-30 discounts off of Altec speakers with the purchase of an iPod or iPod mini. These deals are better than nothing, and will likely maintain iPod sales at an enviable level, but they’re not the sort of promotions best tailored to capitalize on summer - a season when people are ready and willing to buy portable entertainment.

Backstage: Microsoft’s big, quiet music plans?

By Jeremy Horwitz | 06.11.05 | 10 comments

Is it plausible? If it was coming from someone we didn’t know, we would have a harder time believing it. But a well-connected iLounge reader reports that a huge order - in the millions “per month” - has just been placed by Microsoft with a leading Chinese manufacturer of headphones.

Given Microsoft’s varied business ventures, the order could conceivably be for anything from Xbox 360 accessories to pack-ins for a new MP3 player - or both, as we’d heard separate and not entirely accurate rumblings about months ago. But the reality is that the company sells very few hardware products under its own name, and far fewer still that would demand millions of headphones per month. We’d doubt, for example, that it expects to sell multiple millions of the optional Xbox 360 Headset for online gaming right away. But perhaps it does.

Or perhaps Microsoft’s making plans for a bigger push into the digital music market? As Engadget noted yesterday, the company’s apparently looking into sneaky ways to endgame the iTunes Music Store with Windows Media-compatible audio files. Of course, for that plan to work, it would help if millions of people actually owned devices compatible with Windows Media songs. A Microsoft-branded product might be easier for the company to control and sell than the jumble of disparate “Plays For Sure” offerings everyone else is offering right now. What do you think?

Backstage: Oregon Scientific Goes iPod (Updated)

By Jeremy Horwitz | 06.07.05 | 12 comments

imageOriginally posted 6-5-05, updated 6-7-05: New pictures of Oregon Scientific’s first StyleFi system, the Music Element, have just been added to the end of this article. Click on Read More for the shots and details.

Imagine that you’re running a successful company that’s in the business of selling fashionable and useful consumer electronics. Out of nowhere, the iPod shows up, grabs lots of attention, and basically redefines luxury technology because it’s both super fashionable and super useful. Suddenly your company has two choices: compete against the iPod, or make accessories for it. The stronger Apple becomes, the greater the chance that a given company will pick the latter option instead of the former.

Oregon Scientific is one such company. For sixteen years, it’s been selling the sorts of gadgets that wind up in Sharper Image catalogs - most notably, a series of stylish clock and weather devices that people have been buying for their homes. The last five years have seen it expand into a surprisingly robust array of different product categories: cameras, phones, watches, scales, and - wait for it - music players. Like the models below: a waterproof, flash memory-based MP3 player with packed-in waterproof headphones (“MP120”), and a credit-card sized player/recorder/radio with a completely transparent LCD screen (“MP210”). Both use mini-USB ports for charging and data transferring. The credit card one is so thin that it’s hard to believe headphones can plug into its top, but they can. And there’s a good chance you haven’t heard of either of them, or the company’s other three interesting MP3 players, either.

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With this expansion also came decisions to enhance the company’s branding and aesthetic designs, including the hiring of a top designer from Bose, and a smart reworking of the company’s logo and international web sites. Then there was the collaboration with Philippe Starck, one of the few tech product designers who actually seems to have a clue about making gadgets look cool. Remember that one good Microsoft mouse? That was his. He designed the clock below for Oregon Scientific, too.

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For more on the company and its plans for the iPod market, click on Read More below.

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Backstage: Apple switches to Intel; iPod impact, zero (for now)

By Jeremy Horwitz | 06.06.05 | 3 comments

imageIt’s over—the annual Apple Worldwide Developers Conference keynote speech, delivered by Steve Jobs. And the “news” for iPod fans is good: none. iTunes will support podcasting, a revelation made two weeks ago, while iPods and iTunes continue to steamroll their competitors in market share. No new iPods were announced, no new version of iTunes is shipping - it’s all quiet on the music front.

And the biggest announcement of the day, Apple’s switch to Intel chips for its Macintosh computers, appears set to have zero impact on current-generation iPod owners. Apple’s Mac applications—as well as third-party ones—won’t run any differently on the new Mac computers, and that process won’t begin until next year, anyway. iTunes will continue to be cross-platform, etc., etc.

The real issue is whether reports from Wired and the like regarding Apple’s interest in specific Intel chips, namely ones with advanced (and potentially consumer-unfriendly) digital rights management hardware, are accurate. If so, the next generation of Intel Macs could be perfectly poised to permit fair use transferring of, say, DVD content onto Apple-developed portable devices. But what about current PowerPC-based Macs? Surely Apple wouldn’t leave all of its current Mac customers behind? And owners of non-DRM equipped PCs, for that matter?

So the net effect for iPod music lovers appears to be basically nothing. Next-generation iPods, though? We’ll see.

Backstage: Nintendo DS as iPod games inspiration?

By Jeremy Horwitz | 06.03.05 | 16 comments

Six months ago, we passed on the chance to review Nintendo’s then-new DS handheld, primarily because we weren’t too excited about its features or the launch software. Since then, a few things have happened. Little compelling DS software has been released, Sony’s PSP has won plenty of mindshare, and Nintendo has re-affirmed its commitment to the popular Game Boy brand with the iPod mini-esque Game Boy Micro.

So where does that leave Nintendo DS? In our opinion, and despite the recent suggestion of game magazine editors that it’s making a comeback, it’s undeniably a novelty system - bound for a better future than the much-maligned Virtual Boy, yet still highly unlikely to approach Nintendo’s other portables in success. At least for now, that’s not stopping handfuls of programmers from experimenting with some of its novel features.

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When Nintendo sent a DS our way, the one title we were really interested in checking out was Electroplankton, a Japanese “not exactly a game” that’s planned for American release later this year. It was designed by Toshio Iwai, a renowned Japanese audiovisual artist who occasionally creates games, and had a role in the high-concept “future of play” exhibit at London’s now-defunct Millennium Dome (above). Along the same lines, Electroplankton is essentially musical art - not as much a game as a diversion or a creative playground. In Japan, the first production run is being sold as a special box set with a custom pair of headphones at a modest premium, though we’d be a little surprised if the same thing happens when it releases stateside.

There are ten different fish-like plankton, each with its own themed semi-game. You choose one of the ten fish from a menu, then wade in to a watery environment that you control with the DS’s buttons, joystick, stylus and touch screen. The point of each game is the same: make music. Click on Read More below for more on this interesting title, and some of the lessons Apple might take away from it for eventual iPod gaming.

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Backstage: Me, my dog, and my didgeridoo (aka The Explanation)

By Jeremy Horwitz | 05.31.05 | 3 comments

imageThe two biggest challenges when you move from one home to another come from your big, inanimate objects and any sized animate objects that aren’t fully grown people. This much I learned over the course of this three-day holiday weekend, when I moved myself, my dog, and my didgeridoo from one place to another. Once you own big things, you need a truck and family, friends or hired labor to help you move them. Thankfully, Dennis volunteered his skills - making the move tremendously easier.

But there was still the issue of the dog. Keep him with me all the time? Leave him at one place or another? Check him in at some facility for a few days? I opted for something between the first two choices, and prayed that he wouldn’t freak out over the move. Amazingly, he didn’t. And after it was mostly finished, I even had one of those awesome dog moments: sitting next to me, he rested his head on my leg and fell asleep. From a Siberian Husky who seems to like being independent, that little gesture of trust and companionship felt like the greatest reward I’d ever received.

Things have changed a lot in my personal life over the last few months. I recently ended a stormy, bad relationship - hence the move, and my personally slowed-down pace of updates - and am ‘back on the market,’ so to speak. My new place is a major source of joy; quiet and just about the right size for my current needs, still in sunny Irvine, California, and filled with other dog lovers. In this environment, I’m officially almost back at full speed, and consequently there are major, major plans afoot. More on that soon. For now, I’m off to pretend I can play the didg again.

Backstage: iGuy pretty much says it all

By Jeremy Horwitz | 05.26.05 | 2 comments

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Yeah, we think Speck’s new iGuy is going to be a lot of fun. This thing alone almost justifies the iPod photo’s color screen - and slideshow mode.

Backstage: One-click nav bar, featured reviews & articles return

By Jeremy Horwitz | 05.26.05 | 2 comments

Forgive me, father, for I have sinned; it has been several weeks since my last confession. I wanted to come here and talk with you before now, but I have been so busy that it has not been possible.

I wish to atone for a great wrong that has been done. We launched a new version of the iLounge page some time ago, but something important wasn’t working. One of my favorite things about the old iLounge site was the drop-down navigation bar at the top of every page. No matter where you were in the site, you could easily jump someplace else with a single button click. Now that feature is back - improved even, but still not finalized. Its absence has caused us, and many readers, pain. And for that, I apologize.

(The new navigation bar again allows one-click access to virtually every major section from the site. Today, there’s no drop-down: the choices for each site section appear on the gray bar as soon as you move your cursor over a section on the orange bar. We’re going to continue to tweak the new bar to get it looking exactly like we want it to look, and further easing access to portions of the site. Your suggestions, as always, are welcome.)

I wish to apologize for another wrong: my lack of communication. Many, many other positive changes are taking place right now at iLounge, both behind the scenes and publicly on the site’s pages. I have wanted to communicate them to everyone, but for various reasons have had to remain quiet while they’ve been in progress. Some of the things we have rolled out may surprise you if you look around.

(Have you tried to reload the site’s main page ([url=http://www.ilounge.com]http://www.ilounge.com[/url]) several times in a row? If you haven’t, you’ll notice that we now feature many more articles than ever before at the top of the page - typically three reviews, three features, and a collection of must-see information from the rest of the site. Some of these spotlit articles and reviews will change every time you reload the page. But if you don’t want to reload, you can always find everything that’s new on the left hand side of the page next to the news section, under Recent Reviews, Recent Articles, and so on. We’ve decided not to spotlight every single review we do, because there are way too many products - some of only moderate interest - to do so.

You may also have seen our new “Ratings” feature, but if not, choose “Accessories” on the orange navigation bar, then pick “Ratings.” With this feature, you can get a quick snapshot of our product ratings we’ve given in different categories of iPod accessories. After putting the Report Card into the Buyers’ Guide, we’d wanted to implement this on the site for a while, but we waited for the redesign to make it happen. There’s more in store on this, too.)

My lack of communication has also impacted Backstage, which was originally designed as an “editor’s blog” but quickly became more than that - a place for product sneak peeks (which we’ve now moved into First Looks on the site’s main page) and looks at items outside of the iPod world. There will definitely be more of the latter, and perhaps more traditional blog-like personal stuff here, too.

From my perspective, the greatest way I can make good is to continue generating as much quality content as possible for the site… and re-open my dialogue with all of you. I’ll look forward to hearing your comments in the thread below.

Backstage: Apple’s wise silence on Tiger and Macs

By Jeremy Horwitz | 05.10.05 | 18 comments

MacDailyNews? Snarky, yes, but it’s a fun read. And even when its editorial comments are over the top, I still enjoy the selection of stories. Today’s story (“Apple’s Biggest Blunder In Years: the Unconscionable Lack of Mac Advertising”) really caught my attention. The concept: “If Apple blows their current ‘Windows’ of opportunity by not educating the general public about Mac OS X Tiger’s capabilities, they have only themselves to blame for not grabbing new users. Apple’s continued silence on TV, in print, and elsewhere about their Mac products could rival some of the company’s biggest blunders. We have absolutely no idea why Apple is not advertising the Mac.

There’s a good reason for this, and one that true believers in the Mac community should be aware of: despite all its great new features, Tiger has some serious problems under the hood. Really serious ones - more serious than the ones noted by straight-shooter Anand over at AnandTech, and things that would turn away people who are attracted by Apple advertisements: complete system lockups, kernel panics, application crashes, and other highly un-Mac-like experiences have become a daily part of my life since a few days after installing Tiger, and many other Mac users are having the same issues. Here are just a few samples from Apple’s discussion forums:

Tiger killed my machine
“itunes will just sit there if you let it, spinning the beach ball of doom. You can’t log out, you can’t shut down. I’ve rebuilt my library. I have deleted all of my preferences, i have re installed Itunes. I am about to throw the thing through a window, and demand all of my money and then my data back. ... I have plenty of space, plenty of ram, adequate system resources, and serious experience with os X. This is baffling me, and its an affront to all of the things I come to expect from Apple.”

Support me Apple
“...I get the spinning beachball of death. Thinking maybe spotlight was indexing the machine I let it run for about 4 hours. Nothing happened. So now I have rebooted it like 10 times since. Twice it has worked and the other 8 it has just hung there. I talked to Apple Support for about an hour and a half and I think the guy gave up on me.”

Buy Tiger, just don’t install it
“As an Apple shareholder I would be happy if you bought Tiger, but as a frustrated upgrading user I would sadly recommend you wait until an update comes out before you install. I have a pretty standard system with no weird tweaks. Yet, EVERYTHING that I need on a daily basis, which worked in Panther, is now broken.”

There are many, many other posts like these, too. See MacFixIt for just a few more of them.

I’m a huge Mac fan, and was as thrilled as anyone to put Tiger on my machines. And I’m directly responsible for the purchase of 3 new Macs in the last week alone. But I’m strongly recommending that people follow the latter Apple poster’s advice; there’s no doubt in my mind that Tiger will be fixed, yet right now as I deal with the 20th or 30th kernel panic (and complete system lockup) I’ve experienced in the last 3 days, I honestly cannot believe that Apple shipped a product capable of causing this many problems. I’ve heard and tried all of Apple tech support’s suggestions - pull third-party RAM, pull the devices, try a new user account, try a clean install… None of them work. I’m fairly convinced that Tiger’s the problem - my brand-new dual G5 was working flawlessly for 2 months before it was installed, and so these suggestions are all just time-wasting stuff until 10.4.1 comes out.

My guess is that Apple’s not advertising the Mac and Tiger yet because it knows how many problems there are, and also knows that any new Windows “switcher” would sooner return a buggy Mac than keep it with a bunch of Windows-like hassles. I’ve heard that story before (“PC to Mac… and Back”), and it’s unpleasant to say the least. Once the problems are fixed, and 10.4.1 discs are inside retail boxes, the advertising will commence in force. As someone who’s already made the Tiger conversion, I’m just praying that Apple doesn’t take too long.

Updated Note to MDN Readers: Welcome and thanks for reading. I actually agree with MDN’s comment that Apple should have been touting Panther - but Tiger’s (currently) a step backwards in stability from my experiences. If 10.4.1 truly fixes the bugs we know are in there, there shall be much rejoicing, and I fully agree that the advertising should commence post-haste.

Update 2: A day after pulling Apple’s RAM and replacing it with Crucial’s, the system’s locking up again; the latest error message implicated the kernel. I’ve been running Temperature Monitor to see whether any of this has to do with escalating temperatures inside the G5, and all of the temperatures (including the CPUs and memory controller heatsink) appear to be within normal limits. My most recent Tiger crash came when the CPUs were each running at around 133 degrees F, give or take a degree.

Backstage: Xbox 360 and the iPod, part deux

By Jeremy Horwitz | 05.05.05 | 0 comments

imageWhen we last checked in with the Xbox 360 rumor mill, Microsoft was supposedly considering the platform as a potential challenger to Apple’s iPod: a game console with a portable storage device that also serves as a music player. If the latest whispers we’ve heard prove true, the company’s impending strategy is going to be even more Apple-influenced than we’d expected. You’ve probably already seen the shots of the console, which has widely been described as highly Applesque in person, but what’s coming next are the commercials and the spin. Apparently, the Xbox 360’s going to be pitched globally as the “must-have” gadget of the year (hear that, iPod and PSP?), and its music functionality is going to be a major emphasis of the campaign. Early shots of one side of the system suggest that a 40GB hard drive is in the offing, if nothing else.

The only hard part to swallow is what we’ve heard recently about the company’s earlier plan to sell two versions - one at $299, one at $399 with the portable drive - with 80% of the initial consoles being the more expensive one. Now we’re hearing that the company’s (wisely) skipping the spooky $399 price point, but - and here’s the part we’d call “impossible” - still planning to include the portable drive for the lower price. Sure, Microsoft’s accustomed to losing money on these things (billions of dollars, literally, on the first Xbox), but is it really ready to eat $100 or so per unit for a pocketable 40GB hard drive? It’s almost unimaginable, except for a company that’s looking to consolidate two second-place divisions (music and Xbox) under one line item for purposes of bleeding money (and desperately fighting for market share).

We’ll see. The debut is only a week away at this point, but we’re betting that the machine ships with a smaller drive - or none at all. Microsoft’s not dumb enough to get stuck fighting hard drive component prices twice in a row, is it?

Backstage: Tiger kills first day’s productivity, then raises it

By Jeremy Horwitz | 04.28.05 | 8 comments

When it first arrives (ordered direct from Apple) a day ahead of schedule, then installs smoothly onto all three of my computers, Mac OS X Tiger is 75% thrilling, 25% frightening. Within minutes of finishing each machine’s installation, it’s already making significant progress in indexing each of my hard disks, making metadata connections between files that I can’t quite believe. Search the files on my computer by the person who originally sent them to me? Yeah. Simultaneously pull up a flight tracker, dictionary, Japanese-to-English language translator, currency converter and the Yellow Pages with one press of the F12 button? Yup. Today is the day I can’t get anything done because I’m too busy learning how to work smarter for the next two years.

And then there’s the new iChat stuff. My old “microphone-enabled” icon now looks like a stack of three icons to indicate that I can have multi-person voice chats. The one chat I’ve tried this morning with an iLounger in France was clearer and better-sounding than any I’d had with the last Mac OS. And Mail just looks ten times better than before. All of my information, sorted however I like it, with video and audio that’s better than ever before coming from multiple directions at once.

That’s the scary part. This had better be every bit as secure as they’ve been promising. Because the last thing I want is to have my super hard drive indices accessible to random people - or not-so-random people - via the Internet. Tiger is about to enable an entirely amazing new level of simplified personal computing, but in the wrong hands, its tools could also make personal hacking and snooping far more dangerous than ever before. After seeing how Microsoft nosedived over the past 18 months, I’m trusting Apple not to let hackers find ways to abuse these tools - and certainly hoping that the company doesn’t do anything foolish like that, itself.

Backstage: The most important tech article you’ll read today

By Jeremy Horwitz | 04.19.05 | 0 comments

Kudos to the Wall Street Journal’s James Bandler for investigating and reporting upon this story, “How Companies Pay TV Experts For On-Air Product Mentions,” which we think is one of the most important topics in technology journalism today. A couple of sample quotes:

“One of the most coveted TV consumer experts is Corey Greenberg, the ‘Today’ show’s main tech-product reviewer. He came to NBC in 2000 with little television experience. Previously, he was a well-regarded editor and writer at a number of audio-equipment magazines. ...

Mr. Greenberg has charged companies $15,000 per tour to get their products on local news programs, according to a copy of one of his contracts. Mr. Greenberg says paying clients he has mentioned on local shows include: Sony Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., Seiko Epson Corp. and Energizer Holdings Inc.”

iLounge’s editors are firmly and strongly opposed to the pay-for-(positive-)editorial-coverage practices noted in this article, which have become far more common than readers realize. And they’re only the tip of the iceberg. Paid viral marketing is one of the other key ones that bugs us. Great work, Mr. Bandler. And thanks to Gizmodo for linking the article.

Backstage: The next iPod competitor is… Xbox 360?

By Jeremy Horwitz | 04.13.05 | 7 comments

imageOnce in a rare while, we use Backstage to talk about interesting rumors that are circulating in the industry, and today’s going to be one of those occasions. For the news purists out there, we’ll say up front: none of this is confirmed, and it may all just be idle gossip, so we’ll have to see for ourselves.

We’ve been hearing for months that Microsoft’s new game console (once known as Xenon, now dubbed Xbox 360) was going to come in two or more flavors, and that at least one of them is going to include a hard disk for storage. Last we heard, Microsoft was planning to manufacture around 80% of their machines with the hard disk, and 20% without. The 20% will be sold for the plausible price of $299, while the other 80% will sell for the “uh oh, that reminds me of Sega’s Saturn” price of $399. If your local store just happens to be sold out of the $299 model you saw in the newspaper, you can always buy the $399 one. In our book, that would be bait-and-switch, only taken to a new height.

But… what if the $399 model came with something you might actually not mind having? Like, a portable hard disk (or flash drive) that’s also a portable digital music player? Made by a company that’s increasingly desperate to get people interested in its mostly ignored MSN Music store. And the drive would also be sold separately, for say, $100-150, quite possibly in various capacities and at different price points.

And what if you sidestepped the media by debuting the whole digital music player thing on a worldwide MTV presentation on May 12 and 13? And convinced MTV to “provide ongoing in-depth coverage of the next-generation Xbox highlighting the latest news, product details and previews of hot next-generation games”? That would be pretty sneaky, and a good way to manuever your way around jaded video game journalists who aren’t as excited about the Xbox 360 as Microsoft is.

Again, this is a rumor. But it makes a lot of sense - unlike that picture above, which is supposed to be the Xbox 360’s new logo, and amply demonstrates the fallacy of using focus groups to make important decisions.

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