iTunes Store boosts indie offerings while Hollywood still holds out

It's no secret that the iTunes Store's movie selection is lagging behind the soaring success of the music department. While the store has steadily risen up the top music retailer charts (currently holding the number 3 spot under Best Buy and Wal-Mart), the iTunes Store's best-selling movie list includes not much more than a few Disney/Pixar hits and classics like The Princess Bride and Zoolander. HangZhou Night Net

In other words: the movie shelves aren't exactly stocked with fresh goods. Obviously the iTunes Store can't simply wait around for Hollywood to pull its head out of its ass, so the store is looking to expand its horizons into an industry that we reported back in February was ripe for digital distribution: independent film.

The iTunes Store will now debut Purple Violets on November 20, a $4 million film from indie director Edward Burns. It will be the first time a feature film debuts exclusively on the iTunes Store, according to the New York Times, and the latest step towards injecting life into the store's struggling movie section. For now, it seems as though only indies are steadily hopping on board and singing the praises of the iTunes Store.

While the "little guys" (as they're called by Apple's iTunes VP Eddy Cue) are thrilled to gain the visibility the iTunes Store provides, the store still doesn't seem to be making headway on the larger challenge it faces: getting the major studios to stop quibbling over outlandish DRM and prices for digital content. Hollywood got spooked by the sudden and rampant spread of music piracy, but now it seems to have a hard time learning from the music industry's turnaround success with legitimate digital distribution outlets.

Ultimately, it looks like Hollywood and the iTunes Store are likely to be stuck in a stalemate for some time. Hollywood wants higher prices (despite making even more money per digital download than with DVDs) and crappier restrictions. In Apple's favor, however, most consumers typically don't jump ship after they've invested time and money in products like the iPod and iTunes Store—the current DRM that still exists on much of the store's music and all of its video will help keep those consumers in their seats for some time. Our best hope for now is that a growing indie film segment in the iTunes Store will drag the movie dinosaurs out of their self-imposed mothballs and into the 21st digital distribution century. We aren't quite ready to start holding our breath just yet, though.

Samsung SDI posts loss on weakening plasma prices

Up until the past few years, plasma screen technology dominated the 40"+ television market. Not only did plasma screens offer a larger picture than LCD's could produce, they were typically brighter, sported better contrast ratios, faster response times, and wider viewing angles than their LCD counterparts. Recently, however, LCD's have narrowed the gap significantly in many of these areas, and companies like Samsung SDI that specialize in producing plasma screens are feeling the pinch as a result. HangZhou Night Net

As ZDNet reports, Samsung SDI posted a net loss of $112.2 million for its July-September quarter, which actually beat the $125.4 million loss analysts predicted. Sales of plasma screens actually grew by 40 percent compared to the second quarter of this year, but the falling price of plasma screens has hurt Samsung SDI's efforts to re-enter the black. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that things will get better any time in the near future, although SDI does expect plasma prices to stabilize in the fourth quarter. Plasma television sales have continued to grow, from 750,000 sold in 2005 to one million sold in 2006, but LCD television sales grew from 2.6 million to 5.2 million over the same time period.

Now that LCD's have moved into the large display segment, it's clear that plasma has some significant deficiencies compared to LCD. Although the average cost of a plasma television dropped dramaticatically this year, from $2480 to $1664, that's still nearly double the cost of an LCD television, which dropped from $989 to $932. Plasma screens are also tremendous power hogs compared to LCD screens, and can draw up to 400W depending on the size of the screen and what's being watched.

Samsung SDI and other plasma manufacturers are collectively working to boost the both the power and luminous efficiency of their displays, while simultaneously working towards bringing OLED screens to the mass market. Realistically, however, OLED technology is years away from mass deployment. Sony has stated it intends to introduce an OLED television next year with a screen somewhere between 11 and 27 inches—and a price tag of $800-$1000. Without being able to count on OLED technology as a near-term revenue source, Samsung SDI and other plasma manufacturers are going to have to focus their efforts on building a better class of plasma screen. If not, they risk being eliminated from the consumer market.

Effects of chewing gum and fast food on diet

This week, the annual meeting of the North American Association for the Study of Obesity is being held in New Orleans, Louisiana. A pair of studies presented on Monday examined a contributing factor in obesity and a simple way to help control appetite. The first study reported results from a series of national surveys carried out over the past three years that examined American's eating out habits. The second looked at using chewing gum as an afternoon appetite suppressant. HangZhou Night Net

Researchers at Temple University carried out an analysis of people's view towards healthy foods in restaurants. The study found that "Americans are less willing to pay more for healthy dishes, less knowledgeable about healthy menu items, and more likely to consider healthy items bland tasting." According to the study's lead author,Kelley E. Borradaile, "the results underscore the importance of competitively pricing healthy foods."

Data for this study came from a series of three national phone interviews carried out in 2004, 2005, and 2006. Each survey reached at least 4,000 adults aged 18 to 98. In the 2006 survey, Americans reported eating out five times a week. Fast food was the most common choice for breakfast and lunch; for dinner, casual dining and fast food were the most common options. The survey found that those who ate fast food three to six times a week had a BMI that was "significantly greater" than those who ate less than one or two fast food meals a week. It was also found that an additional one, two, or three fast food meals correlated with an increased body mass of 0.63, 1.26, 1.86 kg, respectively. As obesity becomes a bigger and bigger health concern in the US, the series of surveys found that "Americans were less likely to pay more for healthier foods, less knowledgeable about healthy menu items and more likely to consider healthy items bland-tasting in 2006 than in 2004," according to Borradaile. Even with the increased public discourse, people are less informed about the effects of food on their daily diet.

A separate study, carried out by researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University and theWrigley Science Institute, found that chewing gum can be a good appetite suppressant. The study found that by chewing gum before an afternoon snack, one would consume 25 less snack calories. While that is not a high number, according to nutritionists, even a slight reduction in caloric intake can have significant effects in the long term. This study was comprised of 60 adults between the ages of 18 and 54. Each participant consumed a sweet and salty snack after either chewing sweet gum or not chewing gum at all. Hunger, appetite, and cravings were then monitored throughout the remainder of the day. Along with reducing caloric intake, participants reported feeling an improved mood due to reduced anxiety and stress, and increasing contentment and relaxation.

TiVo Series 3 and HD get bonus features, multi-room viewing

Just weeks after announcing its partnership with Rhapsody to offer music services, TiVo today announced a host of new features, as well as an eSATA storage product, that will be available for Series 3 and TiVo HD boxes. HangZhou Night Net

We're most excited about the arrival of TiVo's Multi-Room Viewing (MRV) which will allow users to view their stored TiVo shows across separate TiVo devices in different rooms. For example, if you've stored an episode of Golden Girls in your living room, you can also watch it on the TiVo in your bedroom as you doze off. For TiVo fanatics, this is the best way to record all your favorite shows, even when you might have 3 or even 4 shows on at once (recording 2 per DVR, for instance). MRV support will extend across Series 2, Series 3, and TiVo HD boxes, although recordings must be sent from a Series 3/HD box to the Series 2, and not vice versa, and the Series 2 cannot handle HD content.

The Series 3 and HD boxes also now support TiVoToGo, which will allow any downloaded content to be sent across your network to a laptop or desktop computer, where it can be either viewed using Desktop Plus, or burned to a DVD. If you're using Mac OS, instead of using TiVo's Desktop software, you'll be able to use Roxio Toast 8 or Popcorn 3.

In a joint venture with Western Digital, TiVo has released the first
TiVo-certified external storage device, dubbed the "My DVR Expander."
It's a 500GB eSATA drive which looks just like the MyBook line
of external drives currently offered from WD, albeit with an orange
drive light. The My DVR extender will work with the TiVo HD and Series
3 DVRs and will be available from Best Buy or the TiVo store for
$199.99. eSATA support is nice, but the added box, power requirements, and heat have us thinking that hardcore users are better off hacking their own storage expansions or turning to a Weaknees TiVo.

Finally, TiVo also announced a progressive download feature, which will allow users to begin watching downloaded content from Amazon UnBox as it's downloading instead of having to wait until the download completes to begin watching the media. Keep in mind that this feature is completely reliant on the network connection's ability to download at a quick pace: if the download is too slow, the software may limit playback to avoid any hiccups.

We have a pair of Weaknees TiVos in the lab for testing, so we'll be testing out a bunch of the new functionalities, including the Multi-Room Viewing support, in the near future.

Floating, Texas-sized garbage patch threatens Pacific marine sanctuary

A looming environmental threat the size of Texas should be hard to miss, but when that threat is floating in a rarely-visited section of the Pacific Ocean and composed of a diffuse mass of plastic, it's easy for it to avoid public attention. The recent establishment of a marine preserve north of the Hawaiian Islands has refocused attention on this floating refuse heap, which has picked up the moniker the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. HangZhou Night Net

The technical name for this area is the North Pacific subtropical gyre. It is bounded on all sides by a clockwise flow of currents around the Pacific basin and tends to have a high-pressure system sitting over it for much of the year. The net result of these conditions is that material that drifts into this area tends to stay there, as this portion of ocean doesn't mix much with the surrounding currents.

Up until recent years, much of this material has been biodegradable; the arrival of plastics, however, has changed that. A survey (PDF) of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that dates from 1999 suggested that, at the surface, plastic was present at five kilograms per square kilometer—that's nearly six times the plankton density in the same area. Most of the plastic was either thin films (such as trash and grocery bags) or monofilament line used in fishing.

Given that the Garbage Patch falls in a rarely-traveled area of ocean, the accumulation of plastic was unlikely to draw much public attention. But the region's obscurity actually helped it gain widespread attention. A chain of islands extending northwest from Hawaii that forms the Garbage Patch's western border have been largely untouched since their use as American bases during World War II. Last year, President Bush ordered that they remain undisturbed, creating the Papah?naumoku?kea Marine National Monument (the web site contains an MP3 of its proper pronunciation).

The sanctuary designation means that the government is now obliged to come up with a management plan and perform regular environmental assessments, both of which are likely to focus attention on those contents of the Garbage Patch that either wash ashore on these islands or interfere with the animal life within the preserve. Even prior to the reserve's formation, Congress had passed a law that directed NOAA and the US Coast Guard to begin tracking marine debris and participate in global efforts directed towards its reduction. Unfortunately, the money necessary for these agencies to implement the law did not appear in the subsequent budget.

Plastics are an essential part of modern life, so this problem is not going away in the near future. One possible way of cutting down on the accumulation of plastic there would be to shift to plastics with a shorter half-life in the environment. But until these plastics hit the market, the clearest way to prevent the Garbage Patch from growing and harming the United States' largest marine sanctuary is to prevent the plastic from getting there in the first place, either by limiting its use or aggressively recycling it.