Google gets vocal

In many ways Google is the bad boy/bad girl celebrity of the Internet world – you can’t take your eyes off the company because everybody is watching to see what they do next. So far Google hasn’t disappointed.

In only a few short years the company has grown from a mere search engine into a leading news hub, an interactive mapping service, an image and video browsing service, a free blog host, a free web-based e-mail service, and a yellow pages-type directory.

Last week Google announced that they would be branching out into the Voice Over IP (VOIP) market through Google Talk, a text and voice message service that will essentially allow free long distance calling almost anywhere in the world.

Obviously Google is not the first company to offer this kind of service – Skype practically invented VOIP, and people have been able to video and voice conference through various Instant Messaging services for years. But Google has a way of making things simple and universally appealing.

You can put a Google Talk icon right on your taskbar (Windows only for now), and click on it at anytime to call up a window that lets you choose between text chat or phone. After that it’s as simple as checking your list of contacts to see who’s online, and clicking on the name of the person you want to talk you.

You’ll need to buy a headset to plug into your computer, but cheaper sets start around $20. Broadband Internet is also essential, otherwise calls will sound choppy and break up.

Google Talk is also compatible with other IM services, although it’s a much more basic service – no smiley face emoticons, one font only, and no file transfers. You also have to be a member of Gmail to use it, and those addresses are still only available by invite only. And unlike other VOIP services, Google Talk also doesn’t let you call or receive calls from landlines or cell phones, even if you have a VOIP subscription.

Despite these limitations Google Talk is exactly what the average person is looking for – a simple, no frills VOIP system to stay in contact with a handful of people of your choosing.

No compromise in HD war

I apologize for flogging the same dead horse week after week, but I have to do something to vent my frustration with Sony and Toshiba, their partners, and their inability to agree on a single, unified format for next generation DVDs capable of holding high definition movies.

Which means, starting this winter, there are going to be two different HD formats to choose from when buying players and purchasing movies. Within a year, every movie store is probably going to have to carry both formats. People who buy home media centers and video game consoles because of their dual use as movie players are also going to have to make a difficult, and potentially unfair choice.

And why? Because if the VHS vs. Betemax battle of the ’80s and the audio tape vs. eight-track battle of the ’70s is anything to go by, only one of the formats will survive. One will become the standard while the other fades away, possibly even within a few short years. A lot of people are going to be stuck with the wrong technology, and a bunch of movies and games they won’t be able to unload at garage sales.

Both sides of the issue have been in discussions for more than six months trying to avert this catastrophe, but last week those talks officially broke down without a compromise – with new systems on the way, they just ran out of time.

And now the sides are busy signing every movie studio and distributor they can find to agree to promote one format or another, but nobody knows what this will mean – will you need one type of player to watch high definition Disney movies, and another type of player to watch movies from Time Warner? Or will the studios release movies for both formats, maybe with lower prices or earlier releases for the formats they are backing?

Both sides of the battle acknowledge that having two different formats is going to cause confusion in the marketplace and will likely result in low sales at first – nobody wants to be the first on their block to buy a soon-to-be defunct system, especially when it hasn’t been all that long since they made the switch from VHS to DVD.

It’s going to hurt their business, alienate customers and cause disruptions in the entertainment industry and they still can’t resolve their differences?

Sony’s Blu-ray disc holds more information than Toshiba’s HD-DVD, but the HD-DVD disks and players are cheaper to manufacture. Players for both formats would also be backwards compatible with DVDs, CD-ROMS, CDs and other players.

You’d think Sony would have learned after Betamax tanked that price does matter to consumers, even when their product is of a slightly higher quality. Toshiba should probably also acknowledge that adopting the Blu-ray standard, while expensive at first, will result in cheaper players and disks down the road as the technology is mass-produced. Both of their arguments are weak when compared to the arguments for releasing just one format.

As a consumer who has seen high definition in action (it’s awesome) and is holding off buying certain favourite movies until the new format is released, it’s tough to take.

This is what I see happening – both companies will be faced by soft sales, and will decide to sell their systems at a loss in the hopes of making the money back down the road when they’ve crushed the competition. In order to sign exclusive deals with movie studios and distributors, they’ll also agree to lower licensing fees than they would normally see.

The customers lose, Sony loses and Toshiba loses. Advertising agencies, movie studios, electronics stores, and the company that perfects home media centre technology for downloading high definition movies win.

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