CES kicks off

The biggest technology and gadget show, CES, just kicked off in Las Vegas, and as usual much of the talk surrounds Apple:

Apple is the only company that consistently gets big buzz out of the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas — without even attending.

This year will be no different.

Connected TVs — TVs that connect to and can access content from the Internet — will be a big part of CES this year. And just about everyone in tech expects Apple at some point to launch such a television — an iTV — that easily consumes and shares with other Apple devices content served from the company’s media-storing iCloud.

Microsoft made news earlier by saying this was the last year they would attend CES/ Why attend if Apple gets all the buzz anyways? Maybe Microsoft should focus on new products instead of protecting its Windows/Office cash cow? Or maybe not . . .

GAME REVIEW: Gears of War 3 – RAAM’s Shadow DLC

Fans of third-person shooters have become accustomed with getting the same, stale DLC over the years – usually new maps, but every once in a while, an extra game mode or weapon is thrown in for good measure – which is why an add-on like “RAAM’s Shadow” is such a welcome surprise. A five-chapter campaign that takes about three hours to complete, the story shifts focus from Marcus Fenix and Delta Squad to follow the exploits of another group of COGs (Zeta Squad) as they attempt to evacuate Ilima City in anticipation of a Kryll storm being implemented by the Queen’s go-to badass, General RAAM. But wait — isn’t General RAAM dead? Yes, he is, but this takes place before the events of the original game, shortly after E-Day.

Though Zeta Squad doesn’t quite have the personality of Delta (although it’s probably unfair to compare the two considering you spend so little time with the former), it does feature several familiar faces like Lt. Minh Young Kim from the first “Gears of War,” Tai Kaliso from “Gears 2,” and cigar-chomping Michael Barrick from the “Gears” comic book series. Rounding out the quartet is female COG Alicia Valera, whose only real purpose in the story is connected to another “Gears” character from the latest installment.

While diehard fans will certainly enjoy the prequel-esque nature of the campaign due to how smartly it weaves into the fabric of the “Gears of War” universe, the highlight for a lot of people will be getting to play as General RAAM himself, who you take control of in corresponding missions throughout the campaign. But although RAAM offers a unique gameplay experience, it’s not very challenging. Sure, you’ll have fun charging at enemies with his oversized knife, or mincing them to pieces with his ever-present shield of Kryll, but because he’s near-invincible, you never feel the same sense of danger as you do while playing as a COG. Most people won’t mind, however, because “RAAM’s Shadow” is still good value for its price, with additional goodies like six multiplayer character skins and a new chocolate-themed weapon skin. If this is what fans can expect from future DLC, then you might want to think again about picking up a Season Pass.

The power behind Microsoft’s Kinect

Microsoft’s Kinect has some undoubtably cool technology, but cooler than its game applications could be the power behind the camera. This video shows what Kinect is capable of once it has been hacked to allow a little input. The results are astonishing.

Walt Mossberg writes a damning review of Windows Phone 7

A customer views a mobile phone with the new Windows 7 operating system after its arrival in British shops, in central London October 21, 2010. REUTERS/Toby Melville (BRITAIN - Tags: BUSINESS SCI TECH)

Let me start by saying this: I don’t think Walt Mossberg’s review of Windows Phone 7 will make or break the platform. The platform will break the platform, especially if, as Mossberg suggests, Windows Phone 7 fails to compete with Android and the iPhone.

Here’s the real hammer blow:

But I couldn’t find a killer innovation that would be likely to make iPhone or Android users envious, except possibly for dedicated Xbox users. Even the built-in Office can be replicated with third-party Office-compatible apps on competing platforms; and the iPhone and Android phones also can interoperate with Microsoft’s corporate Exchange email, calendar and contact system.

So for now, I see Windows Phone 7 as mostly getting Microsoft into the game, and replacing the stale, complicated Windows Mobile system that preceded it. It will get better. The company is already working on a copy and paste system, and said it is coming early next year. But, today, I see Windows Phone 7 as inferior to iPhone and Android for most average users. It’s simply not fully baked yet.

That was Microsoft’s whole schtick – that Windows Phone is different from old Windows Mobile, different from the iPhone, different from Android. The only difference, though, is that it’s months, even years behind its competitors in terms of tech. Without improving the tech behind the phone, how can Microsoft hope to compete?

The bottom line – they can’t. If anything, Microsoft should have looked into producing a killer set of apps for the current mobile marketplace. If Windows Phone 7 bombs, which seems very likely at this point, there goes millions upon millions of dollars in development and advertising. In a couple years, maybe even just one, Windows Phone could have a competitive offering, but my guess is that by then it will be way too late.

Verizon won’t be selling Windows Phone 7 at the onset

Windows Phone 7.Hoho, I can already hear Ballmer’s ears spewing steam as the entirety of the tech blogosphere compares Windows Phone 7 to the iPhone. Bloomberg reported today that Verizon would not be carrying Microsoft’s new phone any time this year, though there are plans to support the new platform at some point in 2011.

Of course, the world says “Hey, you don’t need Verizon to be successful. Just look at the iPhone.” Yeah guys, let’s do that. When the iPhone launched, there was nothing like it in the marketplace. Nothing. No one turned to Apple and said, ‘Just look at the…’ There was nothing to look at. Now, there is. There’s the iPhone, but more importantly, there’s Android, which has a far more attractive licensing structure (free) than Microsoft will for Windows Phone 7.

If I were Microsoft, I’d be really worried. I know they aren’t. I know we’ll get to hear about how strong the relationships are with other carriers and how widespread success on those carriers will bleed over into eventual success on Verizon. I doubt it, I really do. Microsoft is late to the party. The best thing Windows Phone 7 could have done was showing up at the door with the hottest chick in school.

The hyperbole of gadget marketing

Windows Phone 7 funeral.It’s no secret that gadget marketing is way over the top. There’s always this-killer and that-killer that everyone just has to have. It’s incredibly uninteresting, especially because none of the “killers” actually kill anything. They’re typically competitive in their respective markets, but that’s about all we can say.

That didn’t stop these Microsoft employees from throwing funerals for the iPhone and Blackberries to celebrate the release of Windows Phone 7 to manufacturing (maybe “throwing” isn’t the right word where funerals are involved). The group carried giant dead iPhone and Blackberry models down the street and threw a New Orleans-style wake, replete with a coordinated ‘Thriller’ dance.

This is all well and good, guys, but for these kinds of stunts, you better put out a kickass phone. The things I’ve heard are things like “underwhelming,” in which case I wish you would have put the Thriller energy into the phone. Congratulations on a finished product. I hope it lives up to the hype.

Microsoft dumping piles of money on Windows Phone 7

Windows Phone 7Just how much money does it take to elbow your way in between Apple and Google in the mobile market? Remember, you’ve also got to beat back RIM while you’re at it, and hope none of those three develop anything you didn’t expect. Got a number? Is it in the billions? That’s what Microsoft may be betting to make Windows Phone 7 work.

According to TechCrunch, Microsoft could spend into the billions on development and marketing for the new mobile platform. It’s a huge figure, made to look even larger by the estimated expense of marketing the Droid series of Android phones.

The $100 million Goldberg estimates that Verizon, Motorola and Google collectively spent on marketing helped turn the Droid line of phones into a serious stable of competitors against the iPhone. (Compare that to Google’s fizzled Nexus One launch, where the search giant pinched pennies on marketing.)

To spend 10 times that amount could be either a great idea or the world’s worst gamble. Microsoft has completely scorched consumer bridges with its previous mobile offerings, none of which will transition to the new system very smoothly. Even with a billion dollars behind it, Windows Phone 7 could be too late.

Microsoft can use gyroscopes and accelerometers too!

Image correction.Since the launch of the iPhone, it seems Apple has been the only company we hear about using the cheap little accelerometers and gyroscopes, despite the popularity of those little gizmos in just about every modern cell phone and some other burgeoning technologies. Microsoft, for one, wants in on the game, so the company is making a splash with some very cool photo stabilization tech.

Microsoft developed an image stabilization rig that uses accelerometers and gyroscopes to detect the little movements you make when taking a picture that turn it into a blurry mess. Software then corrects the image to look as it should have before the shake. From the initial before and after posted on the research website, I’d say this looks pretty good, and the tech is small enough that it could easily be built into most cameras.

Take a look at the full range of images on the research site. Don’t stare at it too hard, though – those overlays will make you sick.

J. Allard leaves Microsoft, the world will hardly notice

J. Allard and Bill Gates.This is the big story today. J. Allard, father of the Xbox, will be retiring from his position at Microsoft. I say “retiring” because there has been so much speculation about why he was leaving and whether he got fired and what he’s going to be starting and on and on and on. He’s just retiring – taking a leave to go explore the things he didn’t have time to explore when he was working a billion hours a week at Microsoft.

To me, though, this isn’t really news. Allard was involved in some great projects – projects that made Microsoft a ton of money – but none of it has really been incredible. In many cases, the Microsoft products Allard has worked on have succeeded not because of incredible innovation but because it was the only game (or one of very few games) in town.

Consider the original Xbox. We knew about it for years leading up to the launch, and the best thing about it wasn’t the controller or the processor or the original Live experience (which was terrible, by the way). The best thing about Xbox 1.0 was a game called Halo. To me, the Xbox was the natural evolution of consoles, and Live was just the maturation of the console form to keep up with multiplayer standards PC players had enjoyed for decades prior.

The Xbox 360 followed the same path as the original – the natural evolution of console gaming. The Live system is better, but still not great by any means, and I know very few people who use their 360 in the ways the commercials would have you believe every geek has his home connected. There are some neat features, like Netflix streaming for one, but there isn’t anything that is truly innovative about the 360. It didn’t change the way I see the entertainment world any more significantly than, say, an iPod video did when it was announced. It performed virtually the same function as the device before it, just a bit better.

My point in all of this is that the last decade or so of devices coming out of Microsoft have been pretty mundane. Anticipated. Expected. I haven’t seen much in the last decade that has made me say, “wow,” in that breathy, holy-shit-you-just-blew-my-mind kind of way. Allard was at the helm for some good stuff, but it was just that – good. Nothing great. Nothing spectacular. His decision to retire will have about as much impact on the gadgets we see as will his decision to pursue “adventure sports.” All the best to you, J., but I can’t say I’m going to miss you.

The mobile world is Google’s oyster

Android.

I’ve spent most of my tech reading time over the past few days reviewing the world’s reactions to Google I/O. Google announced some pretty cool stuff for Android, and the company clearly has Apple in its sights when it comes to market share. Even more interesting to me, though, was that the “Microsoft” didn’t seem to be on anyone’s mind. John Gruber put together a great read on the subject, so I’ll defer to him here.

As Gruber sees it, Google is taking its gigantic, Android-shaped bite out of Microsoft’s pie, not Apple’s. Google is the licensed OS player because it licenses Android for free, not on a fee-per-unit basis. That says nothing of Microsoft’s crazy volume requirements to turn a profit. The company currently charges something between $8 and $12 per handset. When you hold just 6.8 percent of the world market share, that license fee is a joke.

The volume game isn’t necessarily where you find the profits, either. Nokia sells a LOT more units than Apple, but Apple still makes a better profit. Microsoft is in an absolutely awful position to make a dent in the market. Hell, they still haven’t even launched a competitive platform. Microsoft was already too late when the iPhone launched three years ago. I have to thank John Gruber for this Ballmer quote about the iPhone launch, which I had never seen before:

“There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance. It’s a $500 subsidized item. They may make a lot of money. But if you actually take a look at the 1.3 billion phones that get sold, I’d prefer to have our software in 60 percent or 70 percent or 80 percent of them, than I would to have 2 percent or 3 percent, which is what Apple might get.”

Well, Steve, I have bad news. The iPhone OS was just reported at 15.2 percent of the global market share. That 80 percent market share you were hoping for? Yeah, that’s never going to happen.

Source: Daring Fireball