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Week in review: TV's fuzzy future

The future of television is coming to a screen near you, and you may not like what you see.

The future of television is coming to a screen near you, and you may not like what you see.

With Tuesday's launch of two HD DVD players from Toshiba, the public got its chance to decide whether that format or its rival, Blu-ray, is the rightful heir to the DVD. In the public-relations battle between the warring technologies, HD DVD scored a victory by getting to market first. Toshiba's HD-A1 ($500) and higher-end HD-XA1 ($800) players hit store shelves this week, two months before the first Blu-ray player is scheduled to go on sale.

This is a high-stakes game, and not just for the movie studios, electronics manufacturers or software companies with a piece of the $24 billion home video market. Consumers could lose big by betting on the wrong technology.

Neither HD DVD nor Blu-ray can offer movie titles from all seven of the top movie studios. That means buyers of one disc player may be prevented from watching a movie from a studio that doesn't support the format.

For TV aficionados who like owning the top tube on the block, there are a few things to consider before buying. (Click here for CNET.com's comments on HD players and read a CNET.com review of the Toshiba machine.)

At least one TV technology is getting a quick dismissal from some consumers, who weren't very happy with an invention from Royal Philips Electronics that prevents TV viewers from switching the channel during commercials or fast-forwarding past commercials when watching DVR content.

Viewers would be released from the freeze only after paying a fee to the broadcaster. The freeze would be implemented on a program-by-program basis, giving viewers a choice at the start of each one.

According to Philips' recently published patent, the apparatus could work inside a set-top box. It would use the standard Multimedia Home Platform to receive a first control signal and then respond by taking control of the TV. The MHP would also be capable of sending the payment information that would lift the freeze, as it does when authorizing pay-per-view content.

Reaction to the invention was decidedly negative, with some CNET News.com readers calling for a boycott of Philips.

"What kind of sadistic person would ever think of such a horrible device?" . "That just hurts the viewer, and for me, puts any company using that off of my buy list."

Other TV news this week likely gave wallet-conscious consumers some hope. Competition in the cable TV market from phone companies could save consumers big bucks, according to a new study by an economist at the University of California at Berkeley. Professor Yale Braunstein analyzed data from the U.S. Government Accountability Office and the Federal Communications Commission, calculating that cable television subscription prices would drop 15 percent to 22 percent in California if cable companies competed directly with another wireline paid-TV provider, such as a telephone company.

Braunstein's report, which was commissioned and paid for by AT&T, is one of the first studies to quantify how much consumers could save if phone companies competed directly against cable operators in the video market. AT&T and Verizon Communications have already begun offering TV service in certain parts of the country.

Vista views, looking at Linux
As spring finally makes an appearance in Silicon Valley, we also get a few hints at what we can expect at tech harvest time.

Microsoft plans to jazz up its music player in Windows Vista, the company's next operating system. But at least some of the new features will debut much sooner. The software, which will be built into Vista, is designed to offer better synching with portable devices, make it easier to scroll through long libraries of music and be tightly integrated with Urge, a new subscription and download music service co-developed by Microsoft and MTV Networks.

But while most people won't be able to get their hands on Vista until next year, consumers will be able to get some of the media enhancements sooner. Microsoft is on track to release a Windows XP version of Windows Media Player 11 before the end of June.

With the new media player, consumers will be able to "reverse sync," meaning they can send content from a digital device to a PC. That will allow users to transfer pictures taken with their camera phone, or music purchased on a wireless device. Other options include synching a player to multiple PCs and filling a device with random tracks--a la Shuffle in iTunes--according to a Windows Vista product guide that was briefly made available on the Internet last week.

This spring looks like a good time to get a deal on a PC--if you're willing to invest in technology that will look pedestrian in eight months. This year, there are some particularly interesting carrots dangling off in the future.

New products from both Microsoft and Intel are within sight, with the Vista operating system scheduled--as of now--for early 2007, and chips based on Intel's new Core architecture expected to arrive soon. Apple Computer is also in the midst of a transition, with plans to shift its iBook and Power Mac products to new Intel chips before the end of the year, following the MacBook Pro, iMac and Mac Mini.

But in the months before these products are ready, loads of PCs with Windows XP and Pentium D processors, as well as some PowerPC-based Macs, have to go to make room for the new stuff. A surplus of inventory at Intel and other component manufacturers should lead to great deals on PCs in the coming weeks and months, according to PC analysts.

On the open-source front, efforts to bring glitzy new graphics to Linux are fueling an old conflict: Does proprietary software belong in open-source Linux? The issue involves software modules called drivers, which plug into the kernel at the heart of the open-source operating system. Drivers let software communicate with hardware such as network adapters, hard drives and video cards.

The use of such drivers is common with Linux, but it is all but necessary for the recent push to bring eye-catching graphics to the operating-system user interface. To deliver 3D effects and similar visuals for the desktop, the software taps into a computer's graphics chip. And although the Linux kernel is open-source software, drivers from dominant graphics chipmakers Nvidia and ATI Technologies are not.

Courting Apple
Apple Computer went to court this week to try to gain access to electronic records of Mac enthusiast sites that published leaked details of an unreleased product. Although a lower court ruled last year that Apple should be able to gain access to electronic records of the enthusiast sites, a three-judge appeals panel peppered Apple's lawyer with questions.

The judges wanted to know whether the information at issue represented a genuine trade secret, as well as whether journalists' right to protect their sources outweigh Apple's right to protect its trade secrets.

"You don't really claim this is a new technology?" the presiding judge, Conrad Rushing, asked Apple's lawyer. "This is plugging a guitar into a computer."

George Riley, the outside attorney representing Apple, said the company maintained that the details and diagrams of a product code-named "Asteroid," a music breakout box, which is used to plug a guitar into a computer, represented "a very serious theft."

The case could eventually answer an unsettled legal question: Should online journalists receive the same rights as traditional reporters?

Apple claims that they should not. Its lawyers say in court documents that Web scribes are not "legitimate members of the press" when they reveal details about forthcoming products that the company would prefer to keep confidential.

That argument has drawn stiff opposition from bloggers and traditional journalists. But it did seem to be sufficient to convince Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James Kleinberg, who ruled in March 2005 that Apple's attempt to subpoena the electronic records of an Apple news site could proceed.

Meanwhile, the Mac maker was on the receiving end of a lawsuit, with Burst.com filing a countersuit against Apple, claiming that the iTunes software, the iPod and the QuickTime streaming software all infringe on patents held by Burst. The company is asking for royalties as well as an injunction, it said in a press release.

Burst has developed software that helps companies speed up the delivery of audio and video files over a network. The company was involved in a similar patent infringement dispute with Microsoft last year that ended with a $60 million settlement and a Microsoft license to the Burst technology.

CNET special report: Seismic science
On the centennial of the massive quake that shook San Francisco on April 18, 1906, many people are asking how a repeat rupture might affect the Bay Area today. A CNET News.com special report focuses on the technologies that help scientists predict quakes and determine potential damage--both central topics this week at a seismology conference in San Francisco.

Also of note
PC shipments increased by 13.1 percent in the first quarter, thanks in part to sales in emerging markets and to consumers...An appeals court upheld a ruling that Microsoft can't be sued for antitrust violations under federal law by consumers and businesses who did not buy their software directly from the company...Cascade Investment Group, a venture and investment firm funded by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, has finalized an $84 million investment in Pacific Ethanol as the momentum for clean technology grows.