If it feels like your telephone company, cable company, cell phone provider, and ISP are all doing basically the same thing, you’re right, and Glenn Fleishman explores the ever-increasing telecommunications convergence this week. Andrew Laurence finds his bliss in some solitary jazz played through the elegantly designed Sonos Digital Music System. And Apple announces record quarterly profits, 60 percent of which come from the iPod and other music-related efforts. In the news, Apple announces a Mac OS X Universal logo developers can use to identify universal binaries.
Apple Introduces Mac OS X Universal Logo — With the Intel Core Duo-based iMac available and the MacBook Pro to follow shortly, Apple has announced a new logo program that developers can use to identify universal binary programs that contain both PowerPC and Intel code (most PowerPC-only programs will run on the Intel-based Macs thanks to Apple’s Rosetta technology, but performance will likely suffer somewhat). The Mac OS X Universal Logo Program comes with a license agreement and usage guidelines that are extremely specific, so I’m not going to risk Apple’s legal wrath to display the logo on the TidBITS Web site; instead, check it out on Apple’s site to see what you should look for in the months to come as more of the software we all use starts to come in universal binary versions. [ACE]
Disney/Pixar Merger? I don’t have any inside information on the possible Disney/Pixar merger currently circulating in the rumor mill, but since the Washington Post asked me to comment, I did. It’s a good article, and since Mike Musgrove gave my quote the last word, I had to pass it on:
"For Jobs, however, a prominent role at Disney could satisfy some of his ambitions, analysts said. Adam C. Engst, publisher of influential Mac news site TidBITS, said he could understand how access to Disney, one of the top brands on the globe, would appeal to Jobs.
"’Jobs is out to change the world – it’s not about money for him,’ Engst said. ‘The computer is not necessarily the means to change the world anymore… popular culture is how you change the world.’"
Well, it’s official: Apple is no longer a computer company.
Apple posted its first quarter 2006 financial results last week, with revenue of $5.75 billion and a profit of $565 million for the quarter. The results are a 65 percent increase in revenue over the same quarter a year ago, although the company’s gross margin was down to 27.2 percent from 28.5 percent a year ago. International sales accounted for 40 percent of the quarter’s revenue. The results are the highest quarterly earnings and revenue in the company’s history.
To be sure, Apple still makes Macs. The company shipped more than 1.2 million Macintosh computers, basically flat with Mac shipments during the fourth quarter of 2005, but a 20 percent improvement over the same quarter a year ago. Why the static quarter-to-quarter sales figures? Sales in the Americas and among portables were particularly weak, due to an aging notebook product line and the public knowledge that Apple is transitioning from PowerPC to Intel processors, no doubt causing some customers to defer purchases until details of new Intel-based products became available. (In case you missed it, Apple just announced Intel-powered iMacs and MacBook Pro portables at Macworld San Francisco.)
However, in revenue terms, the iPod success story is still unfolding. The company sold more than 14 million iPods during its first fiscal quarter amounting to $2.9 billion in revenue. This figure is significant because roughly half of Apple’s quarterly revenue came from iPod sales alone. Roll in money from other music products and services (e.g., the iTunes Music Store, etc.) and Apple’s iPod and music businesses accounted for roughly 60 percent of Apple’s revenue for the quarter. The quarter marks the first time Apple’s non-computer business has out-earned the company’s desktop, notebook, software, peripherals and services offerings.
Looking forward, Apple says it expects second quarter revenue to be around $4.3 billion, a conservative figure which sent Apple’s share price into a bit of an after-market tumble. The reasons for a cautious revenue figure include a possible slowdown in iPod sales after the holiday buying season, and a pause in Macintosh sales prior to the introduction of Intel-based models. Some analysts are also cautioning the company may not want to become too reliant on income from the turbulent digital music player market.
Let’s get this out of the way: the Sonos Digital Music System is expensive.
If you just want speakers for your iPod, I won’t hold it against you if you skip this article. However, if you’ve ever considered installing speakers out on the patio and in the dining room, all wired back to the hi-fi in the living room, maybe with those nifty wall-mounted volume controls, go freshen your coffee and set a spell.
At $500 for a does-it-really-need-so-many-features ZonePlayer ZP100 and $400 for the if-only-they-were-all-like-this wireless Controller CR100, Sonos probably costs more than you’ll spend on the computer hosting your digital music in the first place. Sonos delivers what is easily the most complete music streaming system on the market, one that tackles the problem as a complete solution instead of making assumptions about what you might already have or what format you store you digital music in. It just works, right away, with no wrangling of MAC addresses or WEP keys or IP addresses. I’ve looked at or written about a number of music streaming solutions, but this is the first that made me comment to my wife, "Wow, this is cool."
Hardware Extraordinaire — The ZonePlayer ZP100 is an impressive piece of engineering, and it’s amazing in its ambition. Put simply, the ZonePlayer is the device that plays music; it’s designed to be a standalone music system, and it also integrates with your existing devices. If you want one to be a room’s sole music source, just add a pair of 8 ohm speakers; the ZonePlayer has binding posts and a 50 watt Class D amplifier. If you want to supply digital music to the hi-fi, use the RCA variable-level output jacks (there’s a subwoofer pre-out if you need one). If you want to add an analog device to the Sonos distribution system, the ZP100 includes a set of line-level RCA inputs. Your first ZonePlayer attaches to the network via wired Ethernet; a four-port 10/100 Mbps switch is integrated into the unit. All Sonos devices participate in a closed, proprietary wireless mesh network called Sonosnet; each device is both a bridge and an access point in this network. (Sonosnet is based on 802.11g, and runs in the same wireless spectrum. It automatically selects the least-used channel in your area so as to not interfere with other devices. I noticed no impact on my 802.11g network, or 2.4 GHz cordless phone.)
The ZonePlayer has grey plastics and an aluminum housing – the combination reminds one of the Mac mini. It measures 10.2 by 8.2 by 4.4 inches (25.9 by 20.8 by 11.2 cm), weighs 10 pounds, and is completely silent. Three buttons on the front control the volume and mute; all other functions are controlled either from the handheld Controller or the software Desktop Controller. It is visually attractive and also subtle enough to disappear into the background. I wouldn’t hesitate to put one out in the open (where guests and spouse would see it), or nestled in a bookshelf or cabinet where lesser devices might have cooling issues; this thing is engineered so that you needn’t dwell on such details.
The handheld Controller CR100 is equally impressive in form and function. The graphical interface is displayed on a bright 3.5 inch (8.9 cm) 320 by 240-pixel color LCD screen, with gorgeous colors and icons, smooth animation, and a clean layout that inspires thoughts of what might happen if the iPod and TiVo were to mate. Nine backlit buttons (with a nifty PowerBook-style ambient light sensor) control music playback and menu navigation, supplemented by three "soft" buttons whose function varies according to the item on screen. An iPod-style scroll wheel with selector button offers speedy navigation through your music library. The Controller’s internal lithium-ion battery charges in a couple hours and lasts several days between charges. It charges with an included AC adapter, and a $50 charging cradle is also available. (In my testing it lasted long enough that I couldn’t quite recall when I last recharged it – a few days, not quite a week. Sonos claims two to five days, which seems about right.) The Controller goes to sleep after being left alone for a user-specified amount of time; it wakes instantly when you pick it up, thanks to an internal accelerometer. A deep sleep kicks in after a longer period; waking from this mode takes a few seconds, again triggered by the accelerometer.
Sonos says the Controller is water resistant, with all seams sealed with gaskets. I didn’t deliberately test this claim, but I didn’t hesitate to use it near running water; its hefty construction and rubber exterior instantly suggest that you don’t have to be timid. (However, I also didn’t leave it where the toddler might stumble across it. I would like to see a key-lock feature to protect against just this eventuality.) One nice touch is the slightly sticky rubber on its feet; when I tossed the Controller on the counter, I was surprised to see that it didn’t skitter across it like most remotes. It stuck, right where it landed.
Sonos supports most popular music formats: AAC, AIFF, FLAC, MP3, Ogg Vorbis, WAV, and WMA. Internet radio stations are supported as well, along with RealNetworks’s Rhapsody service. (I didn’t test the Rhapsody service for this review.) Like all the non-Apple streaming products, Sonos doesn’t support music purchased from the iTunes Music Store (unless you convert it to another format); Apple’s FairPlay digital rights management technology locks out all streaming solutions except the AirPort Express.
Music the Sonos Way — I tested a two-room starter system ($1,200) that includes two ZonePlayers and one Controller. I put one ZonePlayer in the living room, its RCA output jacks providing music to the stereo system and its RCA inputs pulling audio from my DirecTV receiver. The other ZonePlayer went into the dining room and powered a set of bookshelf speakers from atop a cabinet. To make my iTunes library available to Sonos, I installed the Sonos Desktop Controller application. The Desktop Controller asks you to identify your music folder (you can have several folders if you wish, even on several servers), and makes them available on your network via Windows Sharing in System Preferences. (Sonos accesses your music library via SMB file sharing. Pretty much any device that serves SMB will do, be it Mac, Windows, Linux, or a network-attached storage device.) Once the music is serving, you need to link your ZonePlayers together; to do so, just press two buttons on the ZonePlayer and select Add ZonePlayer in the Desktop Controller (you can also do this with the handheld Controller). When the ZonePlayers are available and labeled as music zones, it’s time to start the party.
Playing music and controlling the ZonePlayers are both easy with the handheld Controller. The interface is a model of clarity, the display is bright and crisp, and the buttons have excellent tactile feedback. The Mute, Play/Pause, Next, and Back buttons work as one expects. The scroll wheel efficiently navigates an extensive library (Sonos gets bonus points for Power Scroll, a soft button that lets you scroll through the alphabet), and the Select button, well, selects whatever item is currently highlighted.
The Zones button displays your list of music zones. So long as the Controller is within wireless range of one ZonePlayer, you can control any ZonePlayer on the Sonosnet. Each zone can play from independent music queues, or you can join zones together such that they play the same music. Party Mode joins all zones to a single queue, so that the entire house hears the same music.
Music sources can be the Music Library (which comes from your computer), Sonos Playlists (music queues which you have saved), Internet Radio, or a ZonePlayer’s line-in source. The Music button toggles between the current zone’s music queue and the Now Playing screen. Now Playing displays a song’s usual title/artist/album information and album art (if available); if a line-in source is being played, the source ZonePlayer’s name and icon are displayed.
The Sonos experience, frankly, is superb. Installation and setup are quick and painless, and the sound quality is excellent. Playing different music in each room, from the same library, controlled from anywhere in the house with the Controller, is a delight. Each zone playing together in sync is a pleasure not felt since my dad played ball games on in every radio in the house – only now the entire record collection is "broadcast" over Sonosnet.
My favorite Sonos trick is playing music from a line-in source. Midway through my test of the system, DirecTV switched to XM Radio as the provider for their music channels. Many evenings I had XM’s "Real Jazz" station playing in the kitchen (sourced from the living room ZonePlayer’s line-in inputs) as I made dinner, all while my wife and son were listening to his Sesame Street music in the living room (ripped from CD to MP3, stored on the Mac mini in the dining room, playing on the stereo via Sonos’s RCA analog outputs). Bliss.
More than the Sum of the (Displaced) Parts — I started this review wondering how in the world Sonos’s prices could be justified. As I lived with the system, however, I came to realize that it’s probably the cheapest music distribution solution, and certainly the easiest to comprehend.
I’ve considered putting in-wall speakers in the dining room, as well as hanging speakers for the patio and garage. I’ve tried to price out what it would take, from the very simple (speakers, wire, and a speaker switch box) to the very spiffy (individual amplifiers and volume controls). The options multiply in a hurry, and expense gets obscene. Amidst this mass of confusion, Sonos makes a great deal of sense – all you need is a ZonePlayer and a set of speakers. (Any 8 ohm speakers will do; Sonos also offers a set of bookshelf speakers for $180). Indeed, my local Best Buy considers Sonos a competitor in the music distribution space, and they display Sonos in the bourgeois home theater room, not out in the proletariat consumer gear. Sonos’s per-room cost of $500 seems expensive at first blush, but when I consider all the factors that suddenly disappear (wiring, amplifiers, volume controls, remote controls), it becomes very attractive.
Plus, each ZonePlayer ZP100 includes a four-port 10/100 switch, and Sonosnet tunnels your existing IP network to the switch. Each room suddenly has wired Ethernet, a truly handy bonus indeed.
A Bit of Hiss and Crackle — As with all solutions, Sonos is not without imperfections. I tested the system in November 2005 with version 1.2 of the firmware and Desktop Controller software. Analog line-in audio can be transmitted either uncompressed or compressed; the former plays on remote ZonePlayers with a very distracting half-second delay, while the latter shortens the delay to 75 milliseconds (only noticeable when standing in the doorway between rooms). In this version, you also can’t re-order items in a music queue. Lastly, the ZonePlayer ZP100 isn’t ideal for a room that already has a hi-fi stereo, with an amplifier that’s already hooked up to one’s speakers.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, however, Sonos announced new hardware and version 1.3 of their firmware and Desktop Controller software. The new ZonePlayer ZP80 (shipping this spring) is intended for playing music through a device with an amplifier. The ZP80 adds digital audio output, and lacks the ZP100’s amplifier and speaker jacks. It is physically smaller (5.4 by 5.5 by 2.9 inches, or 13.7 by 14 by 7.4 cm) and will sell for a more approachable $350. Version 1.3 adds an option for line-level analog output, along with full-screen album art and support for the Apple Lossless and Audible formats, and you can re-order items in a queue; it works on all ZonePlayer products.
Summing Up — Sonos products are available at their Web site, various online retailers, Tweeter, some Best Buy stores, and high-end stereo shops. Put simply, it’s the finest digital music system I’ve seen. To paraphrase Ferris Bueller, if you have the need and the means, I highly recommend you pick one up.
[Recently a father for the second time, Andrew Laurence appreciates any circumstance that affords Miles Davis instead of Big Bird.]
There was a day when telephone companies provided a dial tone, cable companies offered television stations and specialty channels, and Internet companies offered service over telephone line-based modems. Recent events make it clear that those days are long, long over.
You know, of course, that many different companies provide high-speed Internet access over cable lines, phone wire, and radio frequencies (Wi-Fi and many other standards). You may know that telcos are offering cable TV-like services in many parts of the world and are jumping through regulatory hoops to do so widely in the United States using very-high-speed DSL or fiber-to-the-home (FTTH). And you might even know that cable companies can sell you phone services in some parts of the U.S.
What’s probably unclear is how quickly all this will change.
Cable Firms Go for Voice — Several major cable operators (called MSOs for "multiple systems operators") recently penned a deal with Sprint Nextel, the merged number-three cellular operator in the U.S., to resell cell service to their customers. Any time you can put more services on a single bill, you cut as much as $20 in monthly service costs for maintaining a separate billing account. It’s easy for companies to find synergies that work because of that.
But it’s not just a single bill that’s in play. The cable firms will license TV programs they own to the Sprint PCS division to stream over third-generation (3G) cell networks to new cell phones on which you can watch programming on demand.
And it goes further: Sprint (among other cell companies) will likely start offering handsets that have Wi-Fi and cell standards built in to provide what’s known as unlicensed mobile access (UMA), a form of voice over IP and Internet telephony. With UMA, instead of a cell phone hooking up with a nearby cell tower, it senses a local (typically, an in-home) Wi-Fi network and connects, using a bit of the Internet to then transmit calls to the cellular operator’s gateway and off into the phone system.
UMA can offer better-quality indoor calls, still a plaguing problem for cell service, and enable operators to offer huge piles of minutes for calls placed using UMA, which in turn can preserve users who might otherwise switch to Internet telephony at home via Vonage or another provider. In Europe, some existing cell systems sense when a customer is using their home network versus another Internet network, and pulls minutes from a home pool instead of a roaming pool; this might also be the case with UMA, to help a UMA-based plan replace a wired phone line without increasing cost for calls made in the house.
The Broadband Wireless Picture — But wait, there’s more to wireless than just that! Cable giant Comcast recently invested in BelAir Networks via its capital development arm. BelAir makes outdoor wireless broadband equipment used to build metropolitan-scale networks for public and governmental access. BelAir announced the investment the same day that it revealed its latest products: wireless mesh access points that can be plugged directly into cable wiring and use the power that already traverses cable lines.
With BelAir gear, a cable company could add a Wi-Fi network to an entire city by connecting wireless access points into existing cable lines up on telephone poles. There are a lot of "ifs" about this: in the U.S., cable operators are governed by thousands of local franchise boards which tax and constrain the operators with specific requirements in return for rights of way on roads and poles. Some franchise agreements may allow adding Wi-Fi access points, some may restrict this, others are likely silent about it.
Many cities are already far along in their plans to have private firms build municipal-wide Wi-Fi networks, however, and cable companies may want to use their existing relationships and this new technology to offer these new networks instead of allowing a third player – after telcos and cable firms – to enter the local broadband market. Current municipal-scale networks will likely promise only about 1 Mbps each way, somewhat less the typical normal downstream speed of DSL and cable, but price the service at about the cost of dial-up today – $15 to $25 per month. (1 Mbps is from 30 percent to 300 percent higher than the typical upstream speed, incidentally.)
Metropolitan-scale networks will likely employ some or a lot of mesh networking, in which Wi-Fi access points aren’t individually connected to some form of backhaul to a central network. Instead, typically several access points are tuned to the same channel and serve both as conduits for individual users and for data to pass among each other. One of the access points is plugged into backhaul that carries data to and from the network. The disadvantage of most forms of mesh is that every hop across the mesh network until it hits backhaul repeats the same data. If user A connects to access point 1 which connects to access point 2 which connects to access point 3 which connects to the backhaul, every chunk of data from user A takes up air space for the entire cluster of mesh nodes three times. This is why mesh networks are typically used to extend a network and for redundancy and failover (when a node fails, access isn’t cut) but can’t span huge areas.
Two and a Half Billion Vibrations per Second Can’t Come Cheap – Here’s where Sprint Nextel comes into the picture again: the two companies didn’t just merge customers and operations, they merged their spectrum portfolio. The two firms controlled licenses for the 2.5 gigahertz (GHz) frequency band that covers 80 percent of the country. This band, with a starting frequency just above the tail end of the unlicensed band containing Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, was originally licensed for educational institutions and distance learning. It’s a large swath of beautiful and mostly unused space. (Licensed frequencies are reserved to the license holders to use; unlicensed frequencies can be used by anyone but only with equipment that’s passed certification by the FCC in most cases. Wi-Fi gear has been certified, but can be used by anyone, anywhere in the U.S.)
Several years ago, Congress allowed the academic and non-profit entities that controlled the regionally allocated frequencies to sublicense to commercial firms in the hopes of jump-starting more advanced telecommunications service. But many telecom firms were uninterested, and the licenses were quickly snapped up by Sprint PCS and WorldCom, with BellSouth and a fourth firm being lesser players. (All four companies together owned 90 percent of the licenses.)
Sprint and WorldCom nearly merged in 2000 partly to pool what were seen as valuable licenses. Nextel bought WorldCom’s 2.5 GHz licenses out of bankruptcy in 2003, and the Sprint Nextel merger was partly seen as a way to consolidate two smaller cell players and partly, again, as a tool to consolidate those licenses. The 2.5 GHz band is exciting to these carriers because it allows higher power to be used than is allowed in Wi-Fi, thus increasing range, and interference is impossible because the carriers own all use of selected frequencies in regions the licenses cover.
Before the merger, Sprint and Nextel, along with separately held Clearwire (a firm bought in 2004 by cellular pioneer Craig McCaw) had been experimenting with broadband wireless over 2.5 GHz in small markets around the U.S. Clearwire has started rolling out low-broadband-speed service in places like my hometown of Eugene, OR, and internationally in cities like Dublin, Ireland – areas with little broadband choice and small service areas from incumbents, but a good demographic to pay for their service.
Confusingly, the 2.5 GHz band is in the middle of a multi-year set of spectrum reform negotiations among the FCC, incumbent institutional holders who actually broadcast educational programming on it, sublicense holders like Sprint Nextel, and other interested companies. The 2.5 GHz band is inefficiently organized for the digital era, being a vestige of analog broadcasting and early data services. The new proposal would preserve some existing licenses by moving them around, but open up much more usage by other parties. This band might wind up being critical for the deployment of WiMax, a broadband point-to-multi-point wireless standard that’s just starting to move into the market.
WiMax is seen initially in urban areas as a replacement for leased digital lines used by businesses, known as T-1 lines which runs at 1.544 Mbps. With WiMax, a central base station at a high point can serve many receivers in an arc that can be fairly narrow. Some early pre-WiMax deployments – devices are just being certified as compliant with WiMax standards now – offer speeds higher than T-1s for much less money. Putting in two T-1s typically doubles capital and recurring costs with wired lines; putting in a broadband wireless connect of 3 Mbps each way might cost just 10 to 30 percent more each month than a single T-1 with less installation complexity, less capital outlay for hardware, and a quick install. In rural areas, WiMax may be used for basic broadband where a wired infrastructure doesn’t exist.
Your Television Is Ringing — You’re probably holding your head, thinking, "I just want to make phone calls and surf the Web!" Don’t worry. You’ll be able to, just in more ways, with potentially fewer bills, than ever before. Every time a set of companies promises that convergence will reduce costs, you start laughing, right? But this time, the number of different kinds of firms involved in competing with each other for your business might actually improve service and reduce overall costs.
For instance, my wife and I have shaved our combined local and long distance phone and cell phone plans over the last two years from about $300 per month (that includes all my business calling) down to about $160, while adding unlimited calling within the U.S. and to 22 countries at home, and a pool of minutes on our cell plans that we rarely exceed (and use rollover minutes from other months to avoid overages). To accomplish this, we switched long distance from per minute to an unlimited flat rate voice over IP calling plan, moved our cell phones from Verizon and AT&T Wireless to Cingular because of its rollover minutes feature (unused minutes are banked for up to 12 months), and got on the same plan to reduce the cell cost, which also means minutes used to each other aren’t counted.
The coming convergence will be weird, confusing, and overwhelming, but it’s likely to mean that most people in the U.S. and many people worldwide will see much higher downstream speeds for Internet access without increased costs – we’ve seen some of that already – and with cell calls and long distance all coalescing into one flat monthly rate substantially below what moderate users pay today. And that’s a good thing.
The first link for each thread description points to the traditional TidBITS Talk interface; the second link points to the same discussion on our Web Crossing server, which provides a different look and which may be faster.
Calendar widget behavior — Readers notice a change in the new Calendar Dashboard widget included with Mac OS X 10.4.4. (2 messages)
iLife ’06 comments — With the release of the latest version of Apple’s digital living suite of applications, readers report their first impressions. (7 messages)
Apple Adds 802.11a — One little-noticed improvement in the new Intel-based Macs is support for the 802.11a flavor of wireless networking. (2 messages)
Spotlight and iPhoto metadata? Does iPhoto make the metadata you assign to photos available to Spotlight? And if so, where is it stored? (12 messages)
Problems with iPhoto 6 — A few readers run into difficulty when converting libraries from older versions of iPhoto to the latest version. (3 messages)
Spotlight wildcards? Tiger’s Spotlight search technology can be improved by using special text strings to narrow results. (5 messages)
Postage on the Mac — Who uses stamps anymore? A variety of options are now available for printing your own postage. (4 messages)
Is MagSafe really original? The new magnetic power connector on the MacBook Pro is a novel change, but is it the first of its kind? Maybe not. (2 messages)
Selecting software vendors — How can you tell if a particular vendor is trustworthy, or even still developing the product you’re looking for? (2 messages)