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Microsoft luring iPhone developers for Zune apps

Microsoft has quietly been recruiting iPhone developers to create applications to run on its upcoming Zune HD media player. John Gruber of Daring Fireball reports that following a brief note he posted on the new 16GB and 32GB touchscreen media players, he received an email from the developer of an iPhone Twitter client, saying that he had been contacted by Microsoft and offered “a bucket of money” to port his app to the Zune. The developer in question turned down Microsoft’s offer, but assumes the company was pursuing similar agreements with the developers of multiple popular iPhone apps. Due to the fact that the developer turned down the offer early on, he wasn’t privy to what OS or SDK the company might be using for Zune development, but was adamant in the fact that the apps would be for the Zune, and not Microsoft’s Windows Mobile platform.

Notably, Microsoft attempted a similar strategy in 2006 when it recruited leading iPod developers to create car, home, and portable accessories for the Zune. Despite support from a number of well-known companies, which brought over designs that were originally developed for the iPod, the Zune accessory program ultimately resulted in little traction for Microsoft, and the products substantially faded from store shelves.

Major labels plan new album format without Apple

The four largest music labels—Universal, Sony, Warner, and EMI—are reportedly planning a new digital album format called CMX. The Times reports that the new format will offers customers a digital version of the sleeve notes that accompany a physical album, including lyrics and artwork, as well as videos. According to the report, the labels approached Apple about the new bundle format around 18 months ago, but were turned down; Apple is reportedly working on a format of its own, code-named “Cocktail,” which is expected to launch in the next two months.

One senior record label insider told the Times, “Apple at first told us that they were not interested, but now they have decided to do their own, in case ours catches on. Ours will be a file that you click on, it opens and it would have a totally brand-new look, with a launch page and all the different options. When you click on it you’re not just going to get the ten tracks, you’re going to get the artwork, the video and mobile products.” CMX-formatted albums are expected to be rolled out slowly, with only a few releases available at first. “We are not going out in force,” the label source said. “What you are going to see is a couple of releases thrown out there to see what people like. We are working with the retailers now.”

RealPlayer SP rips YouTube, other videos to iPod, iPhone

RealNetworks has announced RealPlayer SP, the latest version of its media player application. Among its many features, RealPlayer SP adds the ability to download and convert Internet videos—including YouTube videos—to the iTunes-friendly h.264 format, allowing users to load the content onto their iPods, iPhones, or Apple TVs. Other features include support for custom device profiles that let the user easily change settings based on device, the ability to create audio-only files from videos for playback on audio-only devices, such as the iPod shuffle, the ability to share videos via Twitter and Facebook, and support for the latest versions of Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Google Chrome. RealPlayer SP Beta is available now as a free download; h.264 video conversion and DVD functionality is available only to those who upgrade to RealPlayer Plus SP for a one-time charge of $40.

Hulu releases streaming HD video viewer Hulu Desktop

Hulu, the TV network-supported streaming online video service that was started in response to the growing video section of the iTunes Store, has recently released a beta version of Hulu Desktop, a full-featured client application for the Hulu service that allows users to turn a 2.0GHz dual core Mac or Windows PC into a Hulu media center. Hulu Desktop is designed to work with standard keyboards, Windows Media Center remote controls, or Apple remote controls, and can easily be controlled with just six buttons, allowing users to navigate between menus, select content to watch, play and pause content, scan forward or back through the currently-playing video and adjust the volume. An iPhone app version is expected in the near future.

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Similar in concept to Apple’s Front Row and Microsoft’s Windows Media Center applications, the Hulu Desktop is designed to make Hulu’s entire library of content more readily available to Hulu users without having to rely on a web browser, enabling access to TV shows, movies, and short video clips with commercial sponsorship rather than download charges. The initial release of the Hulu Desktop is as a beta so that Hulu can gather user feedback to improve the service. Hulu Desktop is available as a free download from http://www.hulu.com/labs/hulu-desktop in both Mac and Windows versions, and requires an Intel Core Duo 2GHz CPU, 2GB of RAM and Flash 9 to be installed. It is presently available solely for U.S. users.

Sony CEO: Open tech could have beaten Apple

In a recent interview with Tech-On, Sony Chairman and CEO Howard Stringer made several comments about Apple’s products, including the suggestion that the Japanese electronics giant may have been able to best the iPod had it made different business decisions. When asked about the importance of open technology, Stringer pointed to Sony’s Connect music download service as failure, saying its proprietary DRM scheme “created a problem.” Stringer added, “customers couldn’t download music from any Websites except those that contracted with Sony. If we had gone with open technology from the start, I think we probably would have beaten Apple Inc of the US.” Stringer also said that Sony needed to “grab” the opportunity to offer device-agnostic files before Apple, presumably referencing Apple’s DRM-laden movie files, since the iTunes Store has since gone DRM-free. In addition, he briefly pointed to the Apple TV as an indicator of how users are beginning to change their TV viewing habits, saying the company is “evolving the PS3 into a platform for Web services. TV development is also in a period of transition; the fact that sales volume is growing for the Apple TV, a kind of set-top box, might be evidence of an emerging trend.” [via Engadget]

Amazon intros 9.7-inch Kindle DX for eBooks, newspapers

Amazon has announced its third Kindle product, the Kindle DX. Designed to handle larger, more complex documents than the company’s recently released Kindle 2, which has been compared with the smaller iPhone, the Kindle DX features a 9.7-inch, 1200 x 824 E-Ink electronic paper display that can display newspaper and magazine pages at closer to full size. Kindle DX adds automatic screen rotation to landscape orientation, a built-in PDF reader—prior Kindle models could only read PDF-formatted documents after they had been converted into a Kindle-friendly format—4GB of internal storage, and a battery that supports four days of use with wireless on, or 20 days of use with wireless off. Like the Kindle 2, it also sports built-in EVDO Whispernet wireless downloading that is included for free for the life of the device, stereo speakers, a 3.5mm audio jack, a built-in dictionary, and more. Amazon’s Kindle DX is available for pre-order now for $489 and will be released this summer.

Microsoft plans touch-based Zune HD

According to new images published by Engadget, Microsoft is preparing a third-generation Zune device, presently titled Zune HD. One of the images includes a direct look at the potential device, which appears to have a wide-aspect touchscreen and an Apple-like black and silver exterior, with the rest showing abstract illustrations. Microsoft has previously targeted both the iPod classic and iPod nano with its drive- and flash-based Zunes, respectively, but has yet to offer a model comparable in features to the iPod touch.

Amazon, Wal-Mart follow iTunes’ lead, raise prices

Both Amazon MP3 and Wal-Mart have raised prices on select digital songs following the iTunes Store’s move to variable pricing yesterday. Select tracks on Amazon’s MP3 store are now $1.29, matching iTunes’ top-tier pricing, while Wal-Mart has raised certain songs from $.94 to $1.24. Amazon’s decision to raise prices may seem unusual given that the service actually cut the price of many top-selling songs in its UK store ahead of the iTunes Store’s price hikes, cutting the minimum price on songs from 0.59 pounds to 0.29, or from roughly $.87 to $.43. CNet writer Matt Rosoff, however, suggests it wasn’t Amazon’s choice. “I can’t imagine Amazon’s excited about raising prices in a recession—they’re probably responding to price increases by the record labels, which were made possible by Apple’s capitulation,” Rosoff writes.

Blockbuster hopes to bring on-demand service to Apple lineup

In an interview with Reuters concerning its announcement that it will be bringing its On Demand Internet-based video rental service to TiVo users, a Blockbuster executive said the company plans to do the same for other media devices. “You will see us in a large number of other devices going forward,” said Kevin Lewis, senior vice president of digital entertainment at Blockbuster, adding that the company intends to make its system available to Apple’s products, saying, “We need to be in the normal places that consumers want to watch movies.” Despite the statement, the proliferation of Blockbuster’s service across Apple’s device lineup seems unlikely given the company’s current iTunes Movie Sales and Rentals, which were recently expanded to include more HD offerings. [via MDN]

AT&T planning 4G rollout for 2011

Kris Rinne, AT&T’s senior vice president of architecture and planning, said the company hopes to have its Long Term Evolution (LTE) fourth-generation network available by 2011. AT&T had previously said it stay with current HSPA technology for as long as possible, but Rinne, speaking at the Mobile World Congress, said the company is currently looking for LTE vendors. It plans LTE trials in 2010, and hopes to have services commercially available by mid-2011. Verizon is already conducting limited trials of LTE technology.

Multi-touch left out of Android by Apple’s request?

Google decided against implementing multi-touch in its mobile device operating system Android after Apple requested they refrain from using the technology, according to a new report. VentureBeat, citing a member of the Android team, says the search giant acquiesced to Apple’s request in order to avoid putting strain on the relationship between the two companies; it is unknown whether the threat of legal action relating to iPhone patents also played a role in the decision. Google has been a leading partner of Apple’s in recent iPhone and Mac software releases, providing the backend for the iPhone’s Maps application and the Places functionality of iPhoto ‘09, as well as releasing iPhone apps of its own, one of which openly violated App Store rules but has been allowed anyway. In addition, Google CEO Eric Schmidt is on Apple’s board of directors. Interestingly, recent demonstrations by Android developers have shown that the hardware of the T-Mobile G1, the first Android-based phone, is indeed capable of handling multi-touch, meaning the decision against implementation was made in software instead of hardware.

Amazon introduces Kindle 2 book reader

Amazon has introduced the Kindle 2, the second iteration of its E-Ink based portable book reader. The new device features a slimmer design with rounded edges and a tapered back, much like Apple’s iPhone 3G and second-generation iPod touch. It weighs 10.2 ounces, is .36 inches thick, and features 25 percent more battery life than the original, allowing for two weeks of reading on one charge. Additional storage gives it seven times the book capacity of the original—1,500 books, Amazon estimates—while an improved 6-inch display features 16 shades of grey, and other UI improvements have been made: a new five-way controller enables 20 percent faster page turning, the full QWERTY keyboard has been redesigned, audiobook support and a 3.5mm headphone jack have been added, a new Text-to-Speech feature is included to let printed books be read to users, along with basic web browsing and MP3 player capabilities, and the same Sprint-powered 3G wireless connectivity as the original. While not a direct competitor to Apple’s portable devices, the proliferation of book reading applications for the iPhone and iPod touch has made comparisons between them increasingly common. The Amazon Kindle 2 is available for pre-order now and will begin shipping on February 24 for $360.

YouTube offering iPod-ready video downloads

YouTube has begun to offer a click to download option on select videos. The downloaded mp4 videos are encoded in the iTunes-friendly H.264 format, and are sized with a maximum width of 480 pixels to maintain compatibility with most portable media players, such as the iPod and iPhone. The feature mirrors a prior download feature offered on Google Video, which had not been brought over to YouTube. Currently, the most obvious source of downloadable videos appears to be President-Elect Barack Obama’s Change.gov channel. It is unknown whether YouTube plans a more expansive rollout of the download option.

RIAA to change anti-piracy tactic, abandon lawsuits

The Recording Industry Association of America has announced that it is planning to end its tactics of suing individual users who are caught sharing music online. According to the Wall Street journal, the RIAA has opened legal proceedings against roughly 35,000 people since 2003, which has done little to stop the illegal downloading of music over the Internet. Instead of lawsuits, the group has instead made preliminary agreements with major ISPs under which users caught uploading music illegally will receive emails from the service provider asking them to stop, possibly accompanied by a degradation in connection speed. Should the user continue to illegally upload music, the ISP could eventually decide to cut off their access altogether. The ISPs with which the RIAA has already reached agreements have not yet been named.

Microsoft announces lower Zune pricing

Microsoft has announced that it will be dropping the prices of its Flash-based Zune players ahead of the holiday shopping season, increasing their competitiveness with Apple’s iPod nanos. The price cuts will see the company’s 4GB Zune drop to $99, the 8GB model cut from $149 to $139, and the 16GB model drop from $199 to $179. Despite the fact that these price cuts put the 8GB and 16GB models lower than their iPod nano counterparts, Zune marketing director Adam Sohn said the cuts were not meant as a direct challenge to Apple, but instead to “ensure hopefully we have a good holiday season.” The price cuts will take effect Wednesday in the U.S. and Friday in Canada.

Teen survey shows strong results for iPhone, iPod, iTunes

Piper Jaffray has released the results of its 16th bi-annual Teen Survey, which asks a sampling of high school students about their interest and buying patterns in the realms of MP3 players, online music stores, and music-playing cellphones. When asked about the iPhone 8 percent of the 769 participants said they already owned one, with another 22 percent saying they planned on purchasing an iPhone in the next 6 months. Those responses are up from Jaffray’s April survey, in which only 6 percent of students said they had an iPhone, and only 9 percent said they planned on purchasing one in the next half-year.

When asked about MP3 players, 87 percent of students said they owned at least one, with 84 percent of those owning an iPod — down from 86 percent in the April survey. Perhaps more interesting is the question of planned purchases; only 34% of respondents said they plan on purchasing a MP3 player in the next 12 months, and while 79 percent of those said they planned on purchasing an iPod (down from 80% in April), another 15 percent said they were planning to purchase a Microsoft Zune, the highest response for that player since its initial release.

Finally, when asked about online music stores, only 40 percent of students said they purchased music online, while 60 percent said they uses P2P file sharing networks to get their music. Out of the 40 percent who do purchase music online, however, 93 percent said they use iTunes, up from 81 percent in the April survey and 79 percent from a year ago. Interestingly, while 18 percent of respondents said they would consider paying $0.99 per song to purchase music, more than twice that many (37 percent) said they would consider paying $15 a month for a subscription service. According to Piper, the average age of students participating in the survey was 16.2 years old, with 53 percent males and 47 percent females.

Fox announces 20 upcoming Digital Copy releases

Twentieth Century Fox, the first studio to offer an iTunes Digital Copy on select DVD and Blu-Ray releases, has announced 20 upcoming Digital Copy releases. “Our research shows that when given the option, consumers recognize the incredible value proposition that Digital Copy provides as a simple, fast way to move content to a portable device,” noted Mary Daily, Executive Vice President, North America Marketing, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. “Digital Copy puts the disc at the center of the digital revolution happening in households nationwide and meets the entertainment needs of the entire family from the TV, to the computer to an iPod.” Fox titles Napoleon Dynamite, Office Space, The Girl Next Door, Grandma’s Boy, There’s Something About Mary, Dodgeball, Super Troopers, Behind Enemy Lines, The Day After Tomorrow, Die Hard, Fantastic Four, Hide & Seek, I, Robot, Independence Day, Speed, The Transporter, X-Men, X2: X-Men United, X3: The Last Stand, and Reno 911!: Miami - More Busted Than Ever Unrated Cut will all be released on September 23 for $20 each, with an iTunes Digital Copy included.

Japan to abandon push for iPod copyright fee

Japanese officials have said they will stop pushing for a tax that would have allowed about 1 percent to 3 percent of the price of portable media players such as the iPod to go to recording companies, songwriters and artists. Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs had hoped to submit legislation to Parliament as early as this fall, but recent talks of the panel studying the proposal failed to reach any agreement amid strong criticism from electronics companies. “At this point, there is virtually no hope for getting the legislation passed,” said agency official Masafumi Kiyota. Kiyota added that the panel has agreed to continue the discussion, although no date has been set.

Rhapsody launches DRM-free MP3 music store

RealNetworks has announced the launch of a new iPod-compatible, DRM-free MP3 version of its Rhapsody music store. With a catalog of more than five million songs from all four major music labels as well as a number of independents, the Rhapsody music store will offer most albums for $9.99 and tracks for $0.99, and will offer full-length previews of songs, compared to the 30-second samples found on competing services such as iTunes and Amazon MP3. As part of a promotion to raise awareness of the new music store, Rhapsody is giving away a free album to the first 100,000 people who sign up for the store. The Rhapsody music store can be accessed at rhapsody.com/mp3.

Napster launches DRM-free MP3 store

Napster has launched the world’s biggest DRM-free MP3 download store with a catalog of more than 6 million songs. Most of the songs available on the store sell for $0.99 each, with most albums selling for $9.95. “We’re now moving from under the DRM cloud,” said Chris Gorog, Napster chief executive. “Now consumers can use Napster with any device.” The move makes Napster the latest high-profile DRM-free music download store to have the blessing of the major labels, which Reuters says have been hoping to use the services to lessen Apple’s dominant position in the industry. Despite the success of the download-to-own model, Napster will still support its subscription service, which it believes will grow as people become more aware of it. Said Gorog, “We believe ultimately that consumers will be moving to an unlimited music model.”

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