A Tale of Two Demos: Innovation vs. Desperation

Over the last two weeks I attended two events: one organized by the Blu-ray folks and one by HP. Both PR teams did excellent jobs; however, one had a strong offering to work with, while the other was stuck with a toad of a product offering.

Both products look to add value to platforms that are struggling at the moment. Printing is dropping off in favor of an increasing number of electronic screens including TVs, monitors, e-books, smartphones, and enhanced MP3 players.

Blu-ray, despite a massive push to convince everyone otherwise, is still not a significant part of the DVD space and, according to a recent study, still lags HD-DVD in terms of dedicated players more than a year after HD-DVD was made obsolete. The purchase trend for Blu-ray has declined from 9 percent to 7 percent, even though HDTV sales are increasing.

After contrasting those two offerings, I’ll close with my product of the week: a notebook that came from the marriage of Lenovo’s most popular notebook, the T400, and its most desirable notebook, the MacBook-Air-like X301.

HP Doing the Web Right

Due later in the year, HP’s effort is in line with what has been going on with multimedia for some time now. Basically, HP’s Web-connected printer gets the PC out of the middle of activities where you didn’t really need the PC in the first place.

A few years ago, printers got flash memory readers that allowed you to print pictures by putting the card from your camera into the printer. This latest step allows the printer to go to the Web and pull down things you would like to print directly — like boarding passes, coupons and Fandango movie tickets. HP demonstrated printing Web pages, children’s games, and news articles without firing up a PC. There is no additional cost for the technology, and the screen size is similar to an iPod touch or iPhone. The user interface is similar to the HP TouchSmart (icon and touch-based). In use, it is like having a mini-TouchSmart built into a printer, and it’s actually rather cool.

Note that what HP did was take things people normally do with a PC and shift them so you would no longer have to fire up a PC to do them. Just walk up to a printer, which is generally left on, and print directly from the printer’s display. That saves time if you don’t leave a PC running — and most people don’t — all of the time. Like Apple did with the iPhone, HP is reaching out to developers to see what other things the display and printer can be used for without detracting from the printer’s core functions.

HP’s Photosmart Premium printer won’t ship until later in the year, but it showcases good analysis, and the result could revitalize desktop printing for awhile. It will be interesting to see what the competitive response is.

BD-Live: DOA

Remember what I said about HP not messing with the core functionality of the printer? Unfortunately, Sony read a different memo. At its event, it showcased a number of new BD-Live features — like being able to instant message while watching a movie, or email song titles to friends, or send information to your own email account. The problem is that doing this opens up an application that covers up much of the screen, shrinking the movie by about 60 percent and turning a 52-inch TV into a sub-25-inch TV, which, while nostalgic, probably won’t be very popular.

Two potentially compelling features are using Gracenotes to look up key information about actors in the scene you’re watching. That sounded cool until I found out it wouldn’t work on any existing Blu-ray movies — only on new ones set to be released in September. Publishers will have to remaster existing Blu-ray titles, so most Blu-ray disks actually won’t have this feature until a year later.

Sony’s Opportunity Cost

Now think of these same kinds of features in a TV. While it seems incredibly unlikely that you’d want to email or message out of a movie that only your household is watching, a TV program is a different matter. TV shows are simulcast, and calling people to alert them to turn on their set is a common thing.

There are commercials, providing nice breaks for sending messages — and they might even prompt a message, like “Let’s go grab dinner at [insert restaurant you just saw on TV here].” Other possibilities for messaging include reactions to public announcements, “OMG the President just announced he bought Mexico for a buck!” or sports, “Get on the TV, your team is winning for once!” or home shopping offerings, “You know that pink laptop you wanted? It’s on sale for 5 minutes!”

However, because Sony is so focused on Blu-ray, it’s forcing features into it that don’t make sense — even though it could make its TVs, and new TVs in general, vastly more popular.

Sad for Sony

One thing worth mentioning is that some premium Blu-ray disks will come with the ability to rip to PCs, iPhones/iPod touches, and PSPs but not create a regular DVD.

The problem is that DVD players are the most likely place you’d actually want to watch a movie, and there still isn’t a good portable or automotive Blu-ray solution. Sony’s own US$2,000 in-car entertainment system won’t even work well with this solution, making you wonder if Sony will ever cooperate with itself on something as important as compatibility.

Wrapping Up

HP focused on creating a connected experience that enhances its printers. Sony seemed to be going down a “throw crap against the wall” path, which makes Steve Jobs’ decision to stay away from this technology look even more like the right one.

Netting this out, HP analyzed people who used printers and gave them what they wanted. Sony, on the other hand, looked at things people were doing elsewhere and added them to BD-Live instead of putting them on TVs where they would be more useful. It specifically avoided things they wanted — like backward compatibility.

HP seems focused on winning, while Sony, which can’t blame Toshiba anymore, seems hell bent on losing. Given that I have something like six Blu-ray players myself now, that is unfortunate.

Product of the Week: The T400S

The Lenovo ThinkPad division has long been viewed as the premier notebook maker in the world. ThinkPads are what most analysts carry, and most of the executives I see at many of the firms I work with still favor the ThinkPad T series.

The workhorse of the ThinkPad line — a mainstay of business — is the T400, a slim product built to near mill-spec standards. However, the product folks really want in the ThinkPad line is the sexy X-301, which has MacBook Air measurements but makes tradeoffs for power and screen size.

Well, with the new T400S, you get the size and capabilities of a T400, and a weight and user experience similar to an X301. It’s kind of like having the utility of an SUV and the fun of a sports car, which is kind of what I drive, come to think of it.

This is a nice blend of features; at around $1,500, it isn’t cheap — but it won’t break the bank either. This well-executed product is a natural for my product of the week.

Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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