Tech roundup: Amazon-watching, Netflix-bashing, and a superstar's Internet surprise

Is Amazon looking to produce a tablet? Is Netflix going up, or down? And Kiefer Sutherland's new, provocative Internet series.

Is Amazon looking to produce a tablet? Is Netflix going up, or down? And Kiefer Sutherland's new, provocative Internet series.

Seattle-based is already one of the giants of the Internet age, but may they get even larger? One piece of real news, about the debut of the new App store for Android apps, and speculation about the possibility of Amazon producing a tablet drew some attention in that direction over the last several days.

Let’s start with the Amazon Appstore, downloadable from the Internet. If you have an Android smartphone or tablet, having access to more apps is always a good thing. While it’s not yet that competitive in sheer numbers with the Google Android store — the usual site to date for exploring new apps — Amazon’s clout will no doubt attract more users in the coming months.

Some of the inducements for consumers include a daily free app. As of Friday (March 25), the freebie was Shazam!, the well-respected cross-platform app that lets music fans identify music wherever they have their cell phone. (Open the Shazam app and the app “engine” will identify the music you’re hearing: the song name, artist, and album.) The normal price is $4.99.

The app store also lets you test-drive smartphones apps by downloading them on your PC, and trying them out. You can also return apps you’ve bought that you don't like if you return them within 15 minutes.

For people who haven’t tinkered with Android setup technology, installing the app can be a little daunting. But the documentation on the Amazon website is clearly written and easy to follow.

Is this Amazon's move into Google’s territory? Several industry observers think so. Here’s what writer Ryan Paul wrote in Ars Technica: “[T]he real significance of the Amazon Appstore is its potential for disrupting Google's control over the Android ecosystem . . . If Amazon makes the Appstore available to hardware vendors under suitably permissive terms, it could radically shift the balance of power away from Google and give the manufacturers and carriers more autonomy.”

And on another front, rumors keep cropping up about Amazon developing a tablet that could well rival Apple's iPad phenomenon. The tea leaves look like this, according to several sources. First, Amazon already has an extraordinarily successful consumer device: the Kindle book reader. Second, it has global distribution and easy, one-click purchasing in place. Third, it has good software developer relations (read: financially beneficial) with programmers starting to develop apps for the Android Appstore. Given all three, Amazon could build and sell high-quality tablets at less than the current market level (say, under $450) because Amazon already has all the right pieces working.

Does Amazon want to compete in the brutal tablet market? Would it cannibalize its own phenomenally successful Kindle reader line for something new and potentially even more profitable? Amazon is already the 800-pound gorilla, but does it want to be the 2-ton model? If you happen to stroll through Amazon’s new corridors of power in South Lake Union and hear something juicy, let us know.

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Netflix recently announced it had outbid HBO for the rights to “House of Cards,” an American version of a UK TV political drama series that will star Kevin Spacey. Spacey is the also an executive producer of the series, and the pilot will be directed by Hollywood “A” director David Fincher, late of “The Social Network.”

This is no small potatoes. With nearly $100 million in funding from Netflix, the series will get its first-run airing on Netflix sometime in late 2012, according to the Hollywood Reporter, and will stretch out over 26 hour episodes.

The Reporter also quoted market research company NPD that Netflix's share of movies downloaded or streamed over the Internet has reached 61 percent. No. 2, says NPD, is Comcast at 8 percent, while Apple's iTunes is further down the list at 4 percent.

Others are worried by Netflix’ astonishing success. This past week, CBS-owned Showtime said it would pull "Dexter," "Californication,"  and other first-run series from being streamed on Netflix. Showtime will use those episodes to retain existing Showtime subscribers on its soon-to-open site, “Showtime Anytime,” The Los Angeles Times reported. The paper also reported that the Starz cable channel is delaying new original series, such as its upcoming "Camelot," from running on Netflix until 90 days after its first-run Starz appearance.

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For a couple of generations, there has been a daily question: “What’s on TV tonight?”  For people raised on that thought, the idea of “What’s on the Internet tonight?” may not go down too easily. But with more than a few shows being shot specifically for the Internet and starring high-profile names, all that may be changing.

The latest example is “The Confession,” 10 short episodes, each 5 to 7 minutes in length, starring Kiefer Sutherland (of “24” fame) and Oscar-nominated actor John Hurt. Probably best described as a mini-miniseries, it tells the story of a priest (Hurt) who hears the confession (or confessions) of a hitman (Sutherland). The series will air for free starting Sunday (March 28) exclusively on the Hulu Internet service. Based on a viewing of the series’ trailer and the reputation of the stars, it seems to be an uncommonly well-produced series.

In a phone interview, Duke Nguyen, marketing director for Digital Broadcasting Group, which co-produced the series with Sutherland, said, “Eyeballs have shifted to the Internet.” The company’s website lists its shows, most or all of which are backed by advertisers: documentary-style shows financed by ad agencies or sponsors. “The Confession,” by contrast, appears to be straight drama and is being licensed directly to Hulu.


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