Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Pogie Awards 2009

David Pogue Lauds the best Tech Ideas of the Year
NY Times

Wow, what an opportunity! Imagine having a newspaper column published precisely on the last day of the year. What a chance to step back, look ahead, sum it all up.

Or else I could just trot out my usual end-of-year silliness, better known as the Pogie Awards.

These honors, now in their fifth consecutive year, aren’t meant to identify the best products of the year; that’s way too obvious. Instead, the Pogies celebrate the best ideas of the year — great, clever features that somehow made it past the obstacles of cost, engineering and lawyers.

Kindly turn off your cellphones and refrain from flash photography. All right, then, let’s begin.

The Motorola Droid, of course, is an app phone (that is, an iPhone wannabe with a black rectangular touch screen, etc.). It’s generally a very good one, with slide-out keyboard, excellent speed and the Verizon network.

The winner here isn’t the phone, though — it’s the docks. One $30 plastic dock suctions to your windshield. When you slip the phone into it, hidden magnetic sensors automatically fill the Droid’s screen with Google’s new GPS navigation software, complete with turn-by-turn driving directions, spoken street names, color coding to indicate traffic, map icons (for parking and so on), satellite view and more.

Or buy the $30 home dock. When you insert the Droid, the screen becomes a handsome, horizontal-layout alarm-clock/weather display, complete with buttons that let you access your music or even dim the screen for sleepy time. You have to charge your phone overnight anyway, so why shouldn’t it be doing something useful in the meantime?

ITYPE2GO In 2009, the risks of text messaging went mainstream. Statistics made it clear that texting while driving was shockingly common — and incredibly dangerous.

But what about texting while walking? You’re looking down as you flail away on your keyboard; next thing you know, you’ve crashed right into a person, a tree or a fence. Trust me: It’s hard to look cool when you’ve just face-planted on a No Parking sign.

Fortunately, iType2Go (a $1 iPhone app) is a funny idea that really works. It superimposes what you’re typing over a live camera view, so you can see where you’re going even while you’re focused on the screen.

With the touch of a button, you can also direct your typing output to an e-mail message, Facebook page or Twitter update. And you can rotate the phone to get the widescreen keyboard, if you prefer. (Similar for Android phones: Droid Text’n’Walk, $4.)

It’s not often a company invents an entire new category with one fell press release, but that’s what Novatel did. The MiFi ($100 from Verizon or Sprint; monthly fee required) is a tiny, credit card-size, personal, portable, powerful, password-protected wireless hot spot. That’s right: you now have a Wi-Fi hot spot in your pocket, purse or laptop bag.

In many ways, it’s better than those U.S.B. cellular modems that jack into your laptop. On the MiFi, five people can connect at once. There’s nothing to connect or disconnect and store. And the MiFi can handle more things than laptops; Wi-Fi netbooks, cameras, game gadgets, iPhones and iPod Touches can get online, too.

The front of Samsung’s DualView TL220/TL225 ($300/$350) looks completely shiny and black. But when you tap the empty spot next to the lens, a small screen lights up there on the front of the camera.

Having a front screen is great for framing self-portraits, for letting your subjects see what they are going to look like, for displaying a self-timer countdown, or for displaying a happy face as a “Smile!” cue when you’re taking a group photo. The screen can also display a choice of cartoon animations that keep younger subjects riveted, smiling and facing the camera.

The camera itself isn’t so great, photographically speaking. But what a great idea.

NIKON PROJECTOR CAM You can’t mention great camera feature ideas of 2009 without bringing up Nikon’s Coolpix S1000pj ($430). It’s another so-so pocket camera with a killer hidden feature: a built-in projector.

When you want to show your pictures or videos to friends, no longer must you crowd them around the camera’s little built-in screen. Now, with a single button press on the top of these cameras, you can turn on the projector. The image is beamed straight from the front of the camera onto a wall, a ceiling or a friend’s T-shirt. Nobody’s going to confuse the image (40 inches, max) with an Imax movie. But especially when the lights are low and the wall is nearby, the projected image is perfectly adequate and really something to see.

BING POP-UP PREVIEWS The actual search results from Microsoft’s new service may not be as good as Google’s. But Bing has a few incredibly juicy features, like the one that lets you point to any search result in the list without clicking. A popup balloon shows you the first few paragraphs of text on it. Without leaving the results list, you know if it’s going to be helpful. You really miss this trick when you return to Google, where you have to click a link to see what’s behind it.

Palm’s latest app phones, the Palm Pre and Palm Pixi, offer a software trick that’s satisfying both in concept and execution: it consolidates the different sources of your life’s information.

For example, you get to see the appointments from your online Google or Yahoo Calendar, your Outlook work calendar and your Facebook events, all on a single color-coded calendar. Ditto with your various online address books, your various e-mail accounts and your various chat program buddy lists. Simple is a good thing; we like simple.

. Your cellphone, obviously, knows where it is, especially if it’s a model that has built-in GPS functions. So why do we wind up losing our cellphones so often?

That’s the question that Apple answered with its Find My iPhone feature, an incredibly useful aspect of its $100-a-year MobileMe service. On the Web site, with one click, you can see where your iPhone is on a zoomable map.

If it’s just lying in your house somewhere, the Web site lets you make it beep loudly for two minutes, so you can hunt it down among the couch cushions. If the phone is in the hands of some stranger, you can make the phone display a message (say, “Return my phone! It’s covered with deadly germs!”) or even erase the thing completely by remote control, so at least your personal life is protected.

The only thing that could be better than Find My iPhone would be a free version. That’s what you get with certain Motorola phones, like the Droid and Cliq. May this one catch on with every phone company.

READABILITY The single best tech idea of 2009, though, the real life-changer, has got to be Readability. It’s a free button for your Web browser’s toolbar (get it at When you click it, Readability eliminates everything from the Web page you’re reading except the text and photos. No ads, blinking, links, banners, promos or anything else. Times Square just goes away.

You wind up with a simple, magazine-like layout, presented in a beautiful font and size (your choice) against a white or off-white background with none of this red-text-against-black business.

You occasionally run into a Web page that Readability doesn’t handle right — no big deal, just refresh the page to see the original. But most of the time, Readability makes the world online a calmer, cleaner, more beautiful place.

Go forth and install it.

Oh, yeah — and happy high-tech new year.

2010 Could Be The Year Of 3-D

BBC News

If 2009 was dominated by touch technology then 2010 looks set to be the year of 3D.

3D has been one of the biggest hits of the cinemas this year and it is likely to continue its stride into other mediums during 2010, experts agree.

TV manufacturer LG wants to sell nearly half a million 3D-ready TV sets next year as the World Cup kicks off in the format.

Meanwhile laptops and games consoles are also getting a 3D makeover.

Acer has already released what it is claiming is the world's first 3D-capable laptop, and most agree it will be the first of many.

One critic likened the screen of the Acer Inspire 5738DZG to that of a 1960's cinema "but in laptop form". Others have dismissed the 3D capability as a gimmick, but most agree that it will be the start of a glut of similar machines.

Acer has created its 3D effect by putting a polarising filter over the screen which splits images into separate streams.

When combined with a pair of polarising glasses (and the laptops come with a free pair) it allows users to view content in 3D.

Some movie trailers come preloaded on the laptop, while software called TriDef 3D can add a third dimension to PC games, DVDs and video footage with varying degrees of success.

Microsoft is watching developments in the field with interest. Julie Larson-Green, Microsoft's vice president of user experience believes the technology will play a major role over the next decade.

"A 3D spatial camera inside a computer will offer a new way to interact with content. It will allow people to spatially organise things with older things farther away," she said.

Trendy glasses

Gaming is the most obvious first stop for 3D and Sony committed in November to making all its PS3 consoles "upgradeable to 3D", suggesting games are on their way.

Meanwhile Microsoft continue to work on its own alternative to a gaming remote control called Project Natal, which uses an optical camera and 3D sensors to read body movements and facial expressions.

In order to view content, some form of eyewear is going to be essential although it is unlikely to have much in common with the cardboard spectacles of the 1970s.

Jeremy Fennell, head of marketing for Dixon Store Group, is betting on visitors to January's high-tech CES show spending a lot of their time on the conference floor wearing 3D glasses.

"An awful lot of money has been invested in 3D and there is a world of difference between cardboard glasses from the 1970s to designer 3D RayBans and aviators," he said.

He expects to have a range in store towards the end of next year.

In the world of TVs, HD-ready is rapidly being replaced by 3D-ready.

LG Electronics aims to sell 400,000 3D TVs in 2010 and 3.4 million in 2011.

One of the drivers for such sets will be the World Cup which Fifa has confirmed will be the first soccer event shot in 3D.

But 3D isn't the only thing changing TV. More sets will be available with built-in net access, making the viewing of content such as the iPlayer a whole lot simpler.

And Microsoft's UK managing director Ashley Highfield envisages an even more interactive future for the humble box in the corner.

"If TVs have some form of 2-way functionality, the TV recognises you and you can flick through too find a programme you want to watch," he said at a recent conference, although he did not offer a timeframe for such smart sets.

Headset patent

Apple has recently filed a patent suggesting that it is looking into create its own 3D display, possibly as an alternative to the mouse and keyboard.

The patent refers to "an electronic device for providing a display that changes based on the user's perspective".

MacRumours speculated that the maker of the Mac is planning to offer greater interactivity for users via an established technology known as head-tracking.

Using a camera, such a system would be able to detect a user's position and adjust a 3D display to create the illusion that an on-screen object is physically present, it said.

Such patents are not unusual though. In December 2008 Apple filed one seemingly aimed at created 3D desktops.

And back in 2007 university student Johnny Chung created his own head tracking device using a Nintendo Wii remote controller which became one of YouTube's most popular videos.

Interest in 3D is likely to continue unabated as 2010 begins to make it a reality for consumers.

The Year In Laptops: 2009


2009 was a bumper year in the laptop arena. Instead of the usual and expected platform refreshes, we saw some pretty interesting designs and changes in the competitive notebook market. For one, well-known Alienware gaming machines have started appearing in Asia, years after being bought over by Dell. Other surprises include the appearance of CULV thin-and-lights that brought together the portability of a MacBook Air with the affordability of a budget machine. Without further ado, here's are a list of laptops that deserve special mention for changing, if not breaking, the frontiers of portable computing.

Alienware enters Asia
Alienware has been around a long time as a US-only premium gaming brand. Despite being bought over by Dell in 2006, it took three years before Asia had a taste of its notebooks which almost rival the performance of a gaming desktop. The first model to grace our shores was the Alienware M17x, which offered some of the most powerful Intel processors along with its dual graphics card setup. A smaller sibling, the Alienware M15x made an appearance recently and surprised us with an affordable price tag for the basic configuration.

But, in this case, great computing power requires an equally impressive shoulder strength, as both Alienware laptops make a mockery of the term portable. Still, it beats having to lug a desktop CPU and monitor to a LAN party any day.

Samsung returns to Asia

Despite an initial rollout that included the ground-breaking Q30 model, the Korean chaebol's premium laptops simply could not compete with the low-cost machines churned out by the likes of Dell and Acer and had to bow out of the Asia market in 2007. After licking its chops for two years, Samsung returned with a vengeance in 2009 with a small but impressive range. Not only are the price now within mortal reach, the company even upped the ante by using LED-backlit screens on the affordable R series models. The Samsung N310 Netbook was also different from its competitors, with a design that grabs attention without looking too toy like.

Dell launches Adamo series

We should have seen the writing on the wall. When Dell started to add more premium machines such as the Studio, Studio XPS and XPS series, we should have suspected that the Round Rock company has its sights on the premium market. Its first high-end fashion portable, the Adamo, created a stir with its unibody design and sky-high S$4,499 (US$3,312.40) price tag, making it more expensive than the MacBook Air. These are definitely NOT low cost Dell laptops. The timing was also rather unfortunate, as it was launched in the middle of the economic recession.

The following model, the Dell Adamo XPS, entered the world during the financial recovery phase and was helped along by a more realistic S$3,299 (US$2,428.90) price tag. The heat-sensing switch to open the laptop, exceptional thinness and unique design makes a bold statement as well. Though it's still not a laptop for the rank-and-file, the Adamo series has certainly elevated Dell's design team to the level of premium brands such as Apple and Sony.

Sony gets ridiculously thin with Vaio P and X series
Choosing a Vaio laptop is not just about specifications. The Japanese maker has a reputation of producing beautiful machines that stand out from the crowd and, almost every year, create laptops that push the boundaries of notebook design. 2009 was an exceptional year for low cost Sony laptops as it produced not one, but two models that redefined the term sleek.

Despite its Atom internals, the Sony Vaio VGN-P15G was emphatically not a Netbook. Even though it had an unusually wide screen, the chassis was formulated to fit a keyboard which was actually usable. But what captured the public's eye was its unbelievably slim profile, which was carried over to the Sony Vaio X series. The latter has a larger 11-inch display with a more conventional footprint. The Vaio X was so slim that the company had to redesign the Ethernet port to fit the chassis.

Though both notebooks are certainly more expensive than your average Atom-based machine, they pushed the frontiers of portability and made impossibly thin, possible.

Apple laptops wave goodbye to replaceable batteries

It all started with the MacBook Air. Possibly the first laptop to sport a unibody body, the manufacturing process allows for a slim yet strong shell which was not possible with traditional methods. Apple then continued the trend by switching its MacBook Pro series to the unibody bandwagon and, with the latest version of the Apple MacBook White that sports a unibody plastic chassis, the transition was completed.

But there was one trade-off. The unibody design precludes user-replaceable batteries, which means consumers will have to send the machine to the service center if the power cells require replacement. This also means no more carrying extra cells when traveling on long-haul flights or remote locations. On the plus side, the internal batteries have significantly longer uptimes and no doubt consumers will continue to seek out low cost Apple MacBooks. So are unibody designs the way of the future, or a fad like the FireWire standard? Only time will tell.

ThinkPad goes dual-screen
There are some who feel that a 12-inch display is all they need, while others who think that even a 18.6-inch desktop replacement is still not big enough. Lenovo ThinkPads are legendary when it comes to toughness and reliability, but one rarely sees cutting-edge design for this range. When the Chinese maker showed off the ThinkPad W700ds, it broke new ground as the first to supplement its main 17.1-inch LCD with a slide-out 10.6-inch panel. The secondary display can be used for easy access to emails and IM chat windows while doing real work on the larger screen. Though this is unlikely to start a trend, this ThinkPad is one which we will not forget anytime soon.

CULV laptops breaks through price barriers
Netbooks were hot in 2008, but consumers soon found that the underpowered Atom processor was simply too limited even for Web surfing, especially when visiting Flash heavy sites. To bridge the gap between low-cost minilaptops and full-fledged notebooks, the Intel Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage (CULV) processor was born.

Priced lower than Intel's full-powered chips, the first CULV machines like the Acer Aspire Timeline 3810T and MSI X-Slim X340 were certainly costlier than Netbooks, but were several hundred dollars cheaper than traditional ultraportables. This new range of machines were not only sleek and sexy, the low power consumption of the platform and LED-backlit screens allowed for impressive battery lives. It's a pity that the optical drive was sacrificed in the process, but some vendors have overcome that obstacle by bundling external optical drives.

Later in the year, a new line of ultrathins came into the picture. While the first wave of CULV laptops sit squarely in the thin-and-light and midsized categories, the Acer Aspire AS1410, Dell Inspiron 11z and Gateway EC series sport 11.6-inch displays and are about as portable as similarly-size Netbooks. Though the battery life is significantly shorter, these new ultrathins give minilaptops a run for their money as they cost only a little more but offer much faster performance.

Will 2010 see even more upheavals in the laptop market considering this was a bumper year for the mobile computing industry? We'll leave that thought for another article.

China BAK Says Speculation of Google Order is Unfounded


China BAK Battery Inc. Chief Financial Officer Tony Shen said the unprofitable Chinese company hasn’t won any orders from Google Inc., denying speculation that drove the stock up 63 percent.

“I have checked with all sales heads in all product lines as well as the CEO and COO,” Shen said in a phone interview today. “We have no knowledge of any such deals.”

China BAK climbed to $3.64 as of 4 p.m. New York time in Nasdaq trading yesterday, its biggest advance since June 2004. The stock has more than doubled this year. Mark Tobin, an analyst with Roth Capital Partners LLC, said yesterday speculation circulated that the Shenzhen, China-based company was picked to supply a cellular phone battery for a Google smart phone.

Google may begin selling its own smart phone next year, the New York Times reported Dec. 13. The company invited reporters to an event on Jan. 5 to discuss its phone operating system, the newspaper said on its “Bits” blog yesterday. Katie Watson, a spokeswoman for Google, declined to comment.

Shen said China BAK announced last week it won a $1 million order to supply batteries for buses in China, the company’s first “major” order from the automotive industry. About 60 percent of the company’s revenue is derived from mobile phones and 30 percent from laptop computers, he said.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Nokia Extends Patent Dispute Beyond Apple iPhone

USA Today

NEW YORK — Nokia is broadening a legal dispute it already has with Apple over the iPhone, saying almost all of the company's other products also violate the Finnish phone maker's patents.

Nokia said Tuesday that it has filed a complaint against Apple with the U.S. International Trade Commission, alleging Apple's iPhone, iPods and computers all violate Nokia's intellectual property rights.

At issue are key features found in Apple products, including aspects of user interface, cameras, antenna and power management technologies, Nokia said. The company claims that the technologies in question help cut manufacturing costs, reduce gadget size and prolong battery life.

A household name in Asia and Europe, Nokia is a smaller player in the United States, where its smart phones face tough competition from Apple's iPhone and Research in Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry devices. Nokia, the world's largest cellphone maker, has cautioned that its own market share volume, currently at some 38%, would be flat next year.

The company, which is based in Espoo, Finland, has already sued Apple over the massively popular iPhone, claiming it infringes on 10 of its patents related to phone calls and Wi-Fi access.

Apple has denied the charges and this month countered with its own lawsuit, saying Nokia has copied aspects of the iPhone in its devices. Apple claims Nokia is violating its patent rights on technology for connecting phones to computers, teleconferencing and touch-screen menus, among other things.

Apple, which has its headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., did not immediately return messages seeking comment Tuesday.

Amazon Selling More E-Books Than Paper Books


After years of anemic sales, e-books are starting to take off. As evidence: for the first time ever, Christmas Day shoppers on bought more books for their Kindles than they did regular books.

Obviously, this was an unusual situation -- Christmas Day isn't typically a big day for shopping, but virtually everyone who received a new Kindle e-book reader as a gift that day needed to download at least one book to try out their new device.

An E-book Milestone
The e-book has been around for years, but until recently there were questions about whether it would ever become a main-stream product. That changed with the success of the Amazon Kindle, which allows users to wirelessly purchase books from almost everywhere, and then read them on a device with a good screen and long battery life.

This retailer says the Kindle is "the most gifted item in Amazon's history".

With the success of Amazon's e-book reader -- which is on its second generation -- Barnes and Noble entered the market late this year with the nook.

More about the Kindle

The Amazon Kindle 2 debuted earlier this year. It has a 6-inch, 600-by-800-pixel e-Ink display that offers 16 shades of gray.

This device also sports 2 GB of memory, allowing it to hold more than 1,500 books.

The Kindle Store now includes over 390,000 books, including New York Times Bestsellers and New Releases.

GSM Encryption Cracked

PC World

The unveiling of a GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) encryption codebook compiled by a German security researcher and his team of collaborators lowers the bar significantly for the amount of money and technical expertise required to listen in on a GSM-based mobile phone call. More importantly, it illustrates just how old the current GSM encryption is and demonstrates why it's time for an upgrade.

Law enforcement officials and well-financed cyber criminals have been able to crack GSM encryption for sometime, but the investment was so high that it didn't pose much of a threat. This new method lowers the price of entry to the point that it is more of an issue, but still not a high risk.

Karsten Nohl announced that he and his team have compiled 2 terabytes worth of GSM encryption data. PC World's Robert McMillan explains that the results are like "cracking tables that can be used as a kind of reverse phone-book to determine the encryption key used to secure a GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) telephone conversation or text message."

GSM is the most widely-used mobile phone technology in the world--accounting for over 80 percent of the world's 4.3 billion mobile phones. The encryption algorithm that protects GSM-based calls from being intercepted and eavesdropped is more than twenty years old, though.

Time is the enemy of encryption. When a new encryption algorithm is developed and claimed to be impenetrable, or that cracking it is so impractical as to not be plausible, those claims are based on current technology . As technology improves, the mainstream consumer computers of tomorrow eventually have the processing capacity of yesterday's mainframes and suddenly the processing power required to crack the encryption becomes trivial.

As an analogy, think of encryption like a jigsaw puzzle where you have to find one specific puzzle piece. If the puzzle only has 25 pieces, it won't take you too long to accomplish. That is like a weak encryption algorithm. However, if the puzzle has 10,000 pieces it will take significantly longer.

As time goes on, though, you gather more people to join in the process and develop new strategies to sift through the pieces faster and compress the time required to look through the 10,000 pieces. That is similar to the way difficult encryption algorithms eventually become simple to crack.

There is also always the possibility of a lucky guess. The encryption cracking estimates are based on the amount of time it would take to work through every possible combination and permutation of characters to determine the encryption key. But, you could theoretically find the right key on the eighth try rather than the ten thousandth.

The fact that the A5/1 algorithm used to encrypt GSM handsets is more than two decades old and still chugging along is a testament to the strength the algorithm had at its inception. The mobile phone industry should consider itself lucky that this is only now becoming an issue.

For now, the methods revealed at the Chaos Communication Conference in Berlin still require a fairly hefty investment in technology likely to discourage any casual GSM hacking. But, the mobile phone industry as a whole needs to address the weakness of the geriatric A5/1 encryption algorithm before breaking it becomes so trivial that the encryption is completely useless.

Monday, December 28, 2009

An Inconvenient Truth: Broadcast Spectrum Is A Finite Resource

Associated Press

Wireless devices such as Apple's iPhone are transforming the way we go online, making it possible to look up driving directions, find the nearest coffee shop and update Facebook on the go. All this has a price - in airwaves.

As mobile phones become more sophisticated, they transmit and receive more data over the airwaves. But the spectrum of wireless frequencies is finite - and devices like the iPhone are allowed to use only so much of it. TV and radio broadcasts, Wi-Fi networks and other communications services also use the airwaves. Each transmits on certain frequencies to avoid interference with others.

Now wireless phone companies fear they're in danger of running out of room, leaving congested networks that frustrate users and slow innovation. So the wireless companies want the government to give them bigger slices of airwaves - even if other users have to give up rights to theirs.

Julius Genachowski, chairman of the FCC, says finding more room for the wireless industry will be an important part of his agency's broadband plan.

"Spectrum is the equivalent of our highways," says Christopher Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association, an industry trade group. "That's how we move our traffic. And the volume of that traffic is increasing so dramatically that we need more lanes. We need more highways."

That won't happen without a fight. Wireless companies are eyeing some frequencies used by TV broadcasters, satellite-communications companies and federal agencies such as the Pentagon. Already, some of those groups are pushing back.

That means tough choices are ahead. But one way or another, Washington will keep up with the exploding growth of the wireless market, insists Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va. He is sponsoring a bill that would mandate a government inventory of the airwaves to identify unused or underused bands that could be reallocated.

"It's not a question of whether we can find more spectrum," says Boucher, chairman of the House Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet. "We have to find more spectrum."

CTIA, the industry group, is asking the government to make an additional 800 megahertz of the airwaves available for wireless companies to license over the next six years. That would be a huge expansion from the industry's current slice of roughly 500 megahertz. The Federal Communications Commission is preparing to make more frequencies available for commercial use, but has just 50 megahertz in the pipeline.

Two trends are driving the demand.

First, advanced new wireless applications - such as mobile video and online games - devour far more bandwidth than voice calls or basic text messages, says Neville Ray, senior vice president for engineering operations for T-Mobile USA Inc.

Second, consumers are flocking to wireless Internet connections, in some cases dropping landline accounts altogether. ABI Research projects U.S. mobile broadband subscriptions will climb to 150 million by 2014, up from 48 million this year and 5 million in 2007.

The predicament, says Jamie Hedlund, vice president of regulatory affairs for the Consumer Electronics Association, is that many users "assume the wireless experience should be the same as the wired experience, but the capacity is just not there for that."

The industry's concerns are finding a sympathetic ear in Washington.

Julius Genachowski, chairman of the FCC, says finding more room for the wireless industry will be an important part of his agency's broadband plan. That plan, mandated by the 2009 stimulus bill, is due in February and will propose using wireless systems to bring high-speed Internet connections to corners of the country that are too remote for landline networks.

"If we are going to have a world-leading broadband infrastructure for the nation, wireless is an indispensable ingredient," says Genachowski aide Colin Crowell.

Lawrence Strickling, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the arm of the Commerce Department that manages the federal government's use of the airwaves, says the agency is also hunting for more frequencies the wireless industry can use.

Some of the crunch can be addressed with technologies that make more efficient use of airwaves and new equipment that lets users share bands. The FCC also wants to promote greater use of frequencies that aren't licensed to anyone, such as the "white spaces" between the bands used by TV channels.

But such solutions alone won't solve the crisis, the wireless industry warns.

The FCC's attention for now is on TV broadcasters, which hold nearly 300 megahertz of airwaves that are mainly used to serve just 10 percent of American homes - those that still rely solely on over-the-air TV signals.

The FCC is exploring multiple options, most of which would leave broadcasters with enough capacity to deliver a high-definition signal over the air. One possibility, which might require congressional approval, is a voluntary program that would let broadcasters sell excess bandwidth through an auction, to either the government or directly to wireless companies. Although the FCC awarded spectrum licenses to broadcasters for free many years ago, those licenses are worth millions today.

"Fewer people are getting over-the-air TV and at the same time, more and more people are using mobile broadband," says Blair Levin, the official overseeing the FCC broadband plan. "So it only makes sense ... to get that asset into the hands of whomever can realize its greatest value."

The idea faces opposition from the powerful broadcast lobby. Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters, says the proposal would stunt the industry's plans to make innovative use of the airwaves that became free when it turned off analog broadcasts and went entirely digital in June. Broadcasters have already returned more than 100 megahertz of those airwaves to the government and plan to use the rest to transmit high-definition signals, "multicast" multiple channels and deliver mobile TV to phones, laptops and cars.

"The FCC proposal would kill many of our future business plans in the cradle," Wharton says.

Wireless carriers are also setting their sights on frequencies held by companies that deliver voice and data services through satellites.

Hedlund, of the Consumer Electronics Association, notes that some of these companies have a lot of bandwidth but not a lot of customers. TerreStar Corp., for one, launched its satellite in July and is just building a subscriber base. And ICO Global Communications, which is running tests on a satellite launched last year, has not announced when it will begin commercial service.

But TerreStar General Counsel Doug Brandon believes the company has a strong argument for keeping its airwaves: Satellites can provide a critical lifeline in emergencies when other communications links go down and in rural areas where other carriers don't offer service.

If anything, added ICO Vice President Christopher Doherty, satellite phone companies are ideal partners for cell phone companies that want to expand coverage. TerreStar, for one, has a deal for AT&T Inc. to resell the satellite service.

More potential sources of frequencies are federal agencies that handle everything from emergency communications to surveillance operations. The Defense Department, for instance, needs the airwaves for such critical equipment as radars, precision-guided weapons and drone planes.

The Pentagon has vacated some frequencies and is developing technology that can make more efficient use of airwaves. It also says it is committed to finding compromises that work for the government and commercial sector, so long as those don't jeopardize military capabilities.

Karl Nebbia, head of the NTIA's Office of Spectrum Management, points out that federal agencies may be open to moving to different bands because the government is "a huge user of commercial broadband services." But one challenge will be to ensure federal users get the resources to relocate - including new equipment, potentially paid for with spectrum auction proceeds.

For now, one thing everyone agrees is that there are no easy pickings in the airwaves.

"There is no open space anywhere," says Kathleen Ham, vice president of regulatory affairs for T-Mobile.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

GPS Shootout: Droid Vs iPhone

Washington Post

Getting lost ain't what it used to be. With most smartphones now sporting built-in GPS, we're running out of excuses for showing up late. And we wanted to find out which smartphone navigation application will get you to your destination fastest.

For this contest, we grabbed two of the most capable smartphones on the market: Apple's iPhone 3GS (AT&T) and the Motorola Droid (Verizon). Both feature large, touch-sensitive displays and robust processors that can handle serious computing tasks. More important for this test, both have GPS receivers that work with full-featured GPS navigation apps.

This is where the differences start: While the Droid comes with built-in Google Maps navigation for Android 2.0, the iPhone's top GPS tool is the TomTom for iPhone, a $100 download from the App Store. The features of these two products are so eerily similar that it's a no-brainer to make a head-to-head comparison.

For our test, we took the Droid and the iPhone 3GS on a wild, Bullitt-style ride through the streets of San Francisco. With the same destination entered on each device, we took wrong turns, changed directions, and made a generally erratic spectacle of ourselves that bordered on public menace.

As we drove, we kept a close eye on each unit, noting which updated routes faster, which provided the most effective directions, and which offered the most helpful turn-by-turn instructions.

TomTom for iPhone

TomTom's fully-loaded GPS app costs an eyebrow-raising $100, but it does give the iPhone enough navigation features to rival most stand-alone GPS devices.

The program supports the iPhone 3G and 3GS, and it can also be used on the iPod Touch in conjunction with the optional TomTom Car Kit ($120). The app takes up 1.3GB of the phone's built-in memory, which forced the owner of our 16GB test unit to delete a bunch of music files from the device before installing it.

TomTom for iPhone uses the iPhone's 480-by-320 touchscreen to full advantage, offering turn-by-turn, voice-guided navigation with both 2D and 3D maps. The home screen lets you choose between a few options: You can enter a destination address, select a recently-used destination, search for a point of interest, select a point on the map, or pull an address out of your contact list.

We particularly liked the intersection interface for entering addresses. The app narrows down the list of available cross streets to include only those that intersect with the primary street you've entered. In a big city, this greatly simplifies entering your destination; you don't have to scroll through a seemingly endless list of streets.

Out on the road, TomTom's 3D maps offer a clear view of your immediate route that make it easy to spot your next turn without taking your eyes off the road for very long.

Meanwhile, the voice guidance includes helpful information about the distance to the next turn, so you know whether you need to get over immediately to make that left turn in 300 yards, or whether you've got a half-mile to go. TomTom's voice guidance helpfully gives you the next two turns in advance, as in "Turn right on Fifth Street, then left turn."

We did encounter several GPS signal failures during our drive with the iPhone 3GS. These occurred mostly in narrow alleyways that obstructed our line-of-sight to the sky.

The Droid, however, made no corresponding complaints about loss of signal at such points, and kept on navigating without interruption throughout our test.

We don't know whether this difference in GPS continuity was due to hardware differences between the devices or to tolerances for signal loss in the apps. But for practical purposes, TomTom for iPhone was slightly less effective than the Droid's app at maintaining a seamless guidance experience through the city.

We should note that we tested both phones without any optional hardware, such as a mounting device or car kit. However, users who opt for the TomTom Car Kit should experience a better GPS experience with their iPhones, since the car kit comes equipped with its own GPS module, one that's superior to the iPhone's: It's similar to the receiver that TomTom integrates into its larger stand-alone GPS devices, and it features a more robust antenna design.

Google Maps Navigation for Android

While the TomTom iPhone app is a freestanding navigation program, Google's Android navigation software lives inside the phone's Google Maps app. Originally available only on the Android 2.0-based Motorola Droid, Google Maps navigation has now made its way to Android 1.6 devices as well. Android 1.6 users can download the app from the Android Market. We took it for a spin on a Verizon-connected Droid.

Rather than begin by picking a method of entering your destination, you're given a bird's-eye view of your current location from the start. To begin navigation, you hit the menu button in the Google Maps app and tap Directions. From there, you're presented with a field to enter your destination, and you select options to navigate by car, by public transit, or on foot.

The differences between pedestrian navigation and automotive navigation can be significant, particularly since pedestrians aren't restricted by one-way streets or footpaths that would be inaccessible by car. Having the option to toggle between these modes is a massive point in Google Maps' favor. Add to that the ability to automatically compile a list of bus, ferry, and train routes complete with schedule information, and you've already got the best navigation experience I've seen on any phone.

The navigation itself is great, too. As I've already mentioned, the Droid managed to maintain a GPS signal throughout our test, even at times when the iPhone lost communication with the satellites. What's more, the Droid established its connection more quickly than the iPhone at the time the app launched, and it refreshed its directions more quickly than the iPhone whenever we took a wrong turn or otherwise deviated from its instructions.

On a couple of occasions, the directions from the two devices varied. Though judging the efficiency of the directions is unavoidably subjective, my copilot and I both agreed that the Droid's choice of routes was a bit better than the iPhone's. Google Maps also includes real-time traffic information as a data layer, which adds value by letting you see which parts of your journey are likely to result in delays.

While both devices offer voice-guided turn-by-turn directions, we preferred the clarity of the Droid's voice directions to the iPhone's, but felt the iPhone gave us distance information more effectively. In our tests, the Droid did a much better job at pronouncing street names than did the iPhone.

When we arrived at our destination, Google Maps capped off its superior run on the course by presenting us with a Google Street View image of the address we were looking for.

We Have a Winner

Both TomTom for iPhone and Google Maps for Android are excellent GPS tools that should get their owners to their destinations with ample efficiency. However, it wasn't hard to choose a winner in this showdown.

The Droid's free, built-in software is so well integrated with its Maps app that it offers a seamless navigation experience the iPhone just can't rival at this time. Though we liked the simplicity of TomTom's 3D map images better than the slightly more complex images afforded by the Droid's higher-res display, the Droid beat the iPhone in quickly refreshing directions to compensate for wrong turns. In the end, the Android navigation tool was simply superior on most counts--including, obviously, the price.

Of course, these two apps are available only on totally separate platforms, and almost nobody is likely to switch handsets over the quality of the phone's GPS experience. If you haven't noticed, iPhone users have built a reputation for loyalty to that device.

However--assuming you're on the fence about your next smartphone purchase and are not locked in to a particular carrier--which phone will do a better job of getting you where you want to go? The answer to that question today is the Droid.

Kindle Now Most Popular Amazon Gift

cNet on Saturday released its annual post-Christmas statement on holiday sales and made one thing clear: the Kindle was king, perhaps fueled by continued shifts in plans for shipments of Barnes & Noble's competing Nook e-reader.

"We are grateful to our customers for making Kindle the most gifted item ever in our history," said Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.

In another milestone for the e-reader, the company noted that on Christmas Day, for the first time ever, Amazon customers bought more Kindle books than physical books. The company didn't offer specific numbers for either category.

The peak shopping day for the online retailer was December 14, when customers ordered more than 9.5 million items worldwide, "a record-breaking 110 items per second."

Among those items bought between November 15 and December 19, the top electronics, following the Kindle, were Apple's iPod Touch 8GB and the Garmin Nuvi 260W GPS.

 In the video game category, top sellers were the Wii Fit Plus with Balance Board; New Super Mario Bros., and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

Among software purchases, top items were Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007, Adobe Photoshop Elements 8, and Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac (Home and Student Edition).

Top wireless purchases included the Nokia 5800 XpressMusic (unlocked), Plantronics 510 Bluetooth Headset, and BlackBerry Bold 9700 Phone (AT&T).

Other top selling gadgets included Casio's Waveceptor Atomic Dual-Time Watch, Oster's Electric Wine-Bottle Opener, Omron's HJ-112 Digital Pocket Pedometer, and Bosch's Laser Distance Measuring Device.

We'll have more comprehensive coverage on what looks to be a strong online holiday sales season as the figures come in. In the meantime, here are a few more fun gadget sales factoids from Amazon:

• If all the computers customers purchased this holiday were stacked one on top of the other, they would be more than twice as high as Mount Everest.
• Amazon customers bought more than 50 times more light therapy devices this holiday season than there are sunny days in Seattle the entire year.
• For the holiday time period alone, Amazon customers purchased enough shoot-and-share camcorders to supply 50 years' worth of nonstop YouTube watching.

• Amazon customers purchased so many Blu-ray disc players, that if you lined them up side to side, they would stretch for more than 27 miles.
• During the 2009 holiday season, Amazon customers bought enough 8GB iPod Touches to play 442 years of continuous music.
• In 2009, Amazon customers purchased enough heart rate monitor watches to put one on the wrist of everyone who finished the New York City marathons in 2008 and 2009.
• The last Local Express Delivery order that was delivered in time for Christmas, was placed by a Prime member and went to Seattle. It was a Kindle that was ordered at 1:43 p.m. on Christmas Eve and delivered at 4:57 p.m. that evening.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Twitter Buys Mixer Labs

BBC News

The micro-blogging website Twitter is buying the location tracking start-up Mixer Labs for an undisclosed sum.

Mixer Labs, founded by two former Google employees, makes an application for Twitter called GeoAPI.

Twitter chief executive Evan Williams said the deal would allow Twitter users to show people where they are when they post updates to the site.

The application will also allow users to search where an event is happening, the firm said.

On the company's blog, a statement said: "We want to know what's happening, and more precisely, where is it happening.

"As a dramatic example, twittering 'Earthquake!' alone is not as informative as 'Earthquake!' coupled with your current location".

Twitter is a social networking site in which users write messages of no more than 140 characters.

An estimated 58 million people use Twitter around the world.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Acer Introduces New TravelMate Timeline Series Of Laptops

Information Week

The notebooks target mobile professionals by offering Windows 7 Professional, up to 8 hours of battery life, and support for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Acer introduced on Tuesday a business laptop line that the vendor says can deliver up to eight hours of battery life.

The latest TravelMate Timeline series comes with a choice of Intel Core 2 dual-core processors, which include the Intel GS45 Express chipset. However, the chips have clock speeds of only 1.3 GHz or 1.4 GHz. To help boost performance, the machines come with either 3GB or 4GB of system memory.

The new series have moderately sized displays of 13.3, 14.1 and 15.6 inches. In addition, the laptops have integrated Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 4500MHD, which is the predecessor to Intel's current HD Graphics technology that ship's with some of its latest laptop processors.

Acer is marketing its latest products as "ultra-thin mobile workhouse notebooks." At an inch thick and 3.5 pounds, the laptops are much thicker and a half-pound heavier than thin-and-light portables offered by Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Sony and Dell. However, those systems cost more.

The latest Acer products hope to appeal to business travelers by featuring up to eight hours of battery life and support for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless communications, which is standard for most mobile PCs. The systems also have an integrated Webcam for videoconferencing and a keyboard with wide keys for more comfortable typing on the road, Acer said. The series also include a multi-gesture touchpad.

The new TravelMate Timeline series include the 8571, 8471 and 8371, which ship with Windows 7 Professional pre-installed. Acer also ships the systems with Windows XP Professional on CD. Prices for the new products range from $899 to $999.

Acer in the third quarter surpassed Dell laptop computers in terms of PC shipments worldwide to rank number two in the market, according to researcher iSuppli. Acer's strong performance was due to its focus on cheap laptops and strong sales in Europe and the United States.

Panasonic Announces New Battery Technology For Laptop Computers


We all remember the massive battery recalls that happened in 2007. Batteries from several computer makers were recalled after several of the batteries in computers overheated and caught on fire. Panasonic has announced a new battery that is safer and has more capacity than previous battery types.

Panasonic Corp. has developed a lithium-ion battery that has 10 percent more capacity than its most recent model introduced last week, two people familiar with the product said.

Osaka-based Panasonic increased the lithium-ion battery’s capacity to at least 3.4 amperes per hour, the people said, asking not to be identified before the company announces the product on Dec. 25.

The consumer electronics maker said on Dec. 18 it began mass production of a 3.1 amperes per hour rechargeable lithium- ion battery suitable for laptops. Panasonic estimates the global market for such batteries will increase fivefold from this year to 3.2 trillion yen ($35 billion) in 2018, driven by expansion of low-emission vehicles and mobile electronics.

The company, which this month completed the takeover of Sanyo Electric Co., the world’s biggest maker of rechargeable batteries, plans to invest 123 billion yen to triple production of lithium-ion batteries for laptops and notebooks by October 2011 to maintain a lead over South Korea’s Samsung SDI Co. and other rivals.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Are Netbooks Bad For Business?

Atlantic Online

Intel will soon be introducing a new Atom processor chip, especially designed for netbooks. It's smaller, lighter and will provide better performance than previous versions of its Atom chips. Sounds great, right? I sure think so, but PC World reports otherwise. It indicates that the new chip may be bad news for computer makers because it may lessen the demand for pricier laptops. But I'm not sure how this harms, well, anyone.

Here's PC World explaining the situation:

The desirability of netbooks over pricier notebooks is a problem Intel has been wrestling with as the market for these mini-notebooks continues to blossom. The chip giant likes to put down its hot little product, encouraging small screens and meager specs in hope that more expensive processors won't be cannibalized.
It goes on to say that if the new chips urge more users to abandon pricier notebooks for netbooks, then Intel will have something "to fret about."

From an economic standpoint, I can't see why. I don't begin to doubt that the gross margin is higher on more expensive laptops than on netbooks or discount laptops. For example, does HP make more profit on a laptop or netbook? I would think it's a laptop. Even if they're making precisely the same profit margin, laptops have a higher price tag, which means more nominal profit.

Yet, at a lower price tag, there will be more consumer demand for netbooks. A lot more people can afford $300 for a netbook than $900 for laptops. So that higher sales volume should make up for some of the lost gross profit, selling more netbooks instead of fewer laptops.

Moreover, I also think people will find it easier to stomach replacing netbooks more quickly than they did laptops. For example, I paid an awful lot for my laptop several years ago from Dell, which was top-of-the-line then. As a result, I've reformatted the hard drive twice, replaced my battery once and upgraded my memory since then instead of just buying a new machine -- I intend to get my money's worth. But if I paid a mere few hundred dollars for a netbook, I might more easily part with it after two or three years. They're practically disposable at that price.

So I just don't see why makers of notebooks and PCs would fear cheaper, more functional computers, which is essentially what netbooks are becoming. When consumers get better products, they generally reward producers who make those items by buying more. This looks like a positive development to me.

Competitors Making Chinks In iPhone's Armor

Tech News World

A ComScore report indicates the Android operating system is on a tear, at least in terms of gaining consumer attention. Meanwhile, Mozilla says its Fennec browser will shake up the App Store status quo and spark a cross-platform mobile Web app renaissance. Are these threats to the iPhone's momentum, or are they mere blips on the radar?

Apple's iPhone may be one of the most popular devices ever to hit the consumer market, but whether it can sustain that success Download Free eBook - The Edge of Success: 9 Building Blocks to Double Your Sales is another question. A recent report from ComScore suggests it may be losing ground to Google's  Android platform, even as upcoming mobile browser innovations call into question the future of app stores like the one for the iPhone.

"With handsets on multiple carriers, from multiple manufacturers, and numerous Android device models expected to be in the U.S. market by January, the Android platform is rapidly shaking up the smartphone market," said Mark Donovan, comScore's senior vice president of mobile.

"While iPhone continues to set the bar with its App Store and passionate user base, and RIM remains the leader among the business set, Android is clearly gaining momentum among developers and consumers," Donovan added.

Rapid Growth

Consumer awareness of Google's Android is growing rapidly, ComScore found, due in large part to Verizon's Droid campaign.

In fact, Android phones are now almost neck-and-neck with iPhone in American consumers' purchase plans, with 17 percent of those in the market for a smartphone considering buying an Android device in the next three months, compared with 20 percent planning to purchase an iPhone, comScore reported.

Back in August, only 7 percent of survey respondents indicated an intent to purchase either the T-Mobile G1 or the T-Mobile MyTouch -- the only Android phones available in the U.S. at the time -- while 21 percent planned to purchase an iPhone.

Android's share of the smartphone market has quickly doubled in the past year to 3.5 percent in October 2009, comScore said.

One App for Everyone

Mozilla's upcoming Fennec, meanwhile -- the first mobile version of its Mobile Firefox browser -- will reportedly feature the fastest Javascript engine yet, the company says.

That, in turn, will make it possible for developers to create apps in just one version for the browser rather than separate versions for each mobile OS, Jay Sullivan, Mozilla's vice president of mobile, said in an interview with PC Pro.

The result, eventually, will be an end to the app store model, Sullivan predicted.

'Not a Zero-Sum Game'

Taken together, such developments could be viewed as a threat to the iPhone -- or not.

"Looking at blips of data in time and trying to draw conclusions just doesn't really indicate anything," Michael Gartenberg, vice president of strategy and analysis at Interpret, told MacNewsWorld. "We may be seeing some very skewed results."

Not only that, but "it also just doesn't matter," Gartenberg asserted. "We're not talking about a zero-sum game, where for one to do well the other has to lose."

Plenty of Room for Many

Indeed, it's still very early days for the industry, telecom analyst Jeff Kagan agreed.

There are multiple strong players, and all will likely carve out their own part of the market, he added.

"Over the next several years, we may see movement from one direction to another, but I don't think any one will put the others out of business," Kagan told MacNewsWorld.

'Subject to Change'

What's more interesting, Gartenberg asserted, is that three years ago, neither Apple nor Google was even part of the mobile picture.

"The velocity of change in the mobile space is what's really important here," he explained -- "how quickly one can go from being unknown to being a major force within the industry, and how subject to change all of that is."

At the end of the day, "the iPhone experience is still far more robust and mature than what the best Android devices offer," Gartenberg noted. "The question for Apple is, can it continue that into 2010?"

Toward the App Model

Meanwhile, the trend on mobile devices in many cases is actually leading away from browsing and toward delivering a connected experience through applications, he added.

"It's almost the inverse of the PC, where we're moving from rich apps to Web apps," he said. "On the phone, it's moving from the Web browser and into an app model that gives a rich and connected experience."

'Just the Beginning'

Looking ahead, it will likely be many years before a clear direction emerges among the key competitors, Kagan predicted.

"Apple will play a large role," he said. "That's not going to change because Apple customers are different -- Apple customers love Apple."

Google customers, meanwhile, "seem as rabid as Apple's, so far," he added.

"We're just in the beginning of the wave of change -- maybe the middle of the first tenth," he concluded. "There's still tons to come."

Legislature Considers Warning Labels For Cell Phones Sans Science

Ars Technica

According to an Associated Press report, a state legislator from Maine has introduced a bill that would attach a warning label to cell phones. The proposed warnings would feature bold red text warning of the danger of brain cancer, and feature an image of a small brain. There's one small problem with all of this: there's little evidence that cell phones increase the risk of brain cancer.

The AP story provides a convenient way to look at a whole series of relevant issues: nonscientific policy initiatives, scientific consensus, and press reporting on contentious scientific issues. We'll start with the science.

Cell phones emit radiation in an area of the spectrum that isn't capable of rearranging the chemical bonds of biological systems unless intensely focused (which they're not). The energy is able to heat water, and that heat may influence biological systems. But there's no obvious connection between mild heating and any obvious health issues, meaning there's no clear mechanism linking cell phones with health problems.

In the absence of a mechanism, epidemiological studies might be used to identify a risk. Here, the literature is a bit more confused, as a few small studies have suggested associations between cell phone use and specific cancers (or, in one case, the location of the cancer and the side of the head that an individual typically holds the phone). So, it's possible for someone to read the literature and conclude there's some risk; that reading, however, would have to be very selective, as large population studies argue against it.

In the most recent example, published just this month, the records of national health services in Nordic countries were combed for instances of brain cancer. Although rates of some cancers have risen over the last 30 years, there was no change in the rate of increase since the boom in cell phone use of the 1990s. Studies like this one have led the majority of the scientific community to reach a consensus: any influence of cell phones on brain cancer rates has to take decades to be apparent, and cell phones simply haven't been in general use long enough for us to evaluate that risk.

As with any scientific consensus, there are dissenters, and the AP article features them prominently. These include the retired director of a cancer research institute, who bases his claims on unpublished data, and a report from an organization called the BioInitiative Working Group, which includes scientists who research this topic. The AP reporter, however, didn't appear to have bothered to evaluate the Bioinitiative document; doing so would have revealed a selective and, in some cases, misleading view of the current biomedical literature. In short, the report doesn't appear to be a reliable guide to the scientific literature, making its conclusions suspect.

Although the National Cancer Institute is given the final say (no apparent risks at this time), the article highlights one of the weaknesses of traditional reporting. In attempting to provide a sense of balance, it uncritically provides space to those who dissent from the prevailing consensus, which is likely to confuse those who haven't dug into the scientific literature.

(Presumably in an attempt to humanize the report, it also presents the opinion of a Maine cell phone user, even though there's no indication that the individual is in any way especially informed about the topic.)

As for the legislation in question, the person who introduced it (Democrat Andrea Boland, for the curious) apparently claims that numerous studies have established a link between cell phones and cancer, and wants the warning to target children and pregnant women. It's clear that the legislation is spectacularly ill-informed, but that hasn't stopped it from being introduced and promoted. Unless the bill is made an issue in an upcoming campaign, however, Boland is unlikely to face any difficulty for introducing something that runs counter to the best available evidence.

Boland's bill gets lumped in with another potential law, one being pushed by San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom. In contrast to the Maine legislation, Newsom is promoting a law that would require cell phones sold in the city to carry an indication of the amount of radiation that their users are exposed to. Although that would almost certainly stoke unwarranted fears, it's actually a reasonable approach given the current state of the science. We can't currently know whether there are risks following decades of exposure; the bill would provide those who want to exercise caution with an opportunity to limit their exposure. Unfortunately, the AP terms that a "similar effort," despite the fact that its focus—informing cell phone buyers—is almost exactly the opposite of the Maine bill, which would misinform them.

At this point, neither of the efforts have passed. The Maine legislation is being introduced during the January session. Hopefully, other legislators will use the opportunity to educate its backers on understanding scientific evidence.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Gadget Review: The Nook E-Reader

The Wall Street Journal

Amazon's Kindle has been the king of the nascent, much-hyped, category of wireless e-readers since it came out in 2007. Now, numerous companies are determined to challenge the Kindle with dedicated, mass-market gadgets for reading digital books and periodicals. The latest, and potentially most important, of these is a contender called the Nook, produced by the giant bookstore chain Barnes & Noble Inc., which started shipping it this week.

The two devices look very similar, but have key differences in capabilities, user interface and polish. Overall, after testing the Nook for about a week, I don't think it's as good as the Kindle, at least not yet. At launch, the Nook has the feel of a product with great potential that was rushed to market before it was fully ready.

Like the latest standard-size Kindle, which came out earlier this year, the Nook is a roughly 8-inch by 5-inch, ivory-colored plastic tablet that costs $259 and connects wirelessly to an online store. The two devices have essentially identical reading screens, 6 inches when measured diagonally, that allow for only monochrome text and gray-scale graphics, not color. Both come with two gigabytes of internal memory, enough to hold about 1,500 digital books.

Nook's most obvious difference from Kindle is that it also boasts a second, smaller color screen beneath the main reading screen. This touch screen is used for navigating and for typing via an on-screen keyboard when performing searches or adding notes to books. Also, when the touch screen is dark, it can be swiped to turn pages instead of using the physical page-turning buttons at the sides of the main screen.

The competing Kindle (formerly called the Kindle 2, but now back to just Kindle) uses a joystick, Menu and Home buttons, and pop-up menus on the main screen for navigating. It has a physical keyboard below the screen for typing and can turn pages only using physical buttons.

Also, unlike the Kindle, the Nook lets you lend certain digital books to others for a limited period, an innovation that removes one of the most common complaints about buying books electronically instead of on paper.

Another big difference: Nook claims a catalog of just over one million digital books, versus 389,000 for the Kindle. But this is somewhat misleading, because over half of the Nook catalog is made up of free out-of-copyright titles published before 1923, the vast majority of which are likely to be of little interest to average readers. Barnes & Noble refuses to say how many modern commercial titles it offers, or even whether it has more or fewer of these than Amazon.

Amazon says it already has nearly 20,000 of the most popular such older books available and plans to add hundreds of thousands more in the coming months, to bring its total selection to more than one million.

Amazon also offers well over 100 newspapers and magazines and 7,500 blogs. Barnes & Noble says it will have about 45 periodicals in the coming weeks, but no blogs.

Both devices offer downloads of most best-sellers, but in a random, unscientific test I performed using print books from around my house, I found Amazon's commercial e-book catalog superior. Barnes & Noble lacked digital versions of two recent historical biographies I own, and had no digital editions of the works of one of my favorite contemporary mystery writers, Donna Leon. Amazon had all these books in Kindle editions. Barnes & Noble says titles like these are being added.

During my tests, I found the Nook slower, more cumbersome to use and less polished than the Kindle. I ran into various crashes and bugs. And, while the Kindle's navigation system isn't exactly world class, it ran circles around the Nook's, despite the great possibilities offered by the latter's use of the touch screen.

The Nook may be wonderful one day, but, as of today, it's no match for the Kindle, despite advantages such as lending, because it's more annoying to use.

For instance, the Nook constantly delayed taking me to books while the main screen displayed a message that said "formatting." Its standard practice is to open books you select not at the actual start of the book, but at a description of the book. Turning pages inside books was slower than on the Kindle. Looking up a word in the built-in dictionary, a quick process on the Kindle, was far harder on the Nook. Even swiping the touch screen to turn pages would suddenly stop working for periods of time.

The good news for those who have ordered a Nook, which is currently sold out, is that its software can be updated, and Barnes & Noble is promising to fix the problems, starting with a wirelessly delivered patch next week that it says will improve the speed a bit, get you closer to the start of the book, and repair some of the bugs.

Two things are worth noting here. First, I also criticized the design of the original Kindle and the original Sony e-reader, both of which have improved in subsequent iterations. (Sony, which was in this market early, is promising to release its first wireless e-reader later this month.)

Second, the entire e-reader market is still in its infancy. The lack of color in books and periodicals alone is a huge drawback. One day, I suspect both of these products will look like a 1996 Palm PDA does compared with an Apple iPhone.

The Nook is a bit shorter and narrower than the Kindle, but it is an ounce heavier and significantly thicker. It has a cleaner look, because the bezel around the screen is narrower and there is no physical keyboard. The touch screen adds a dash of color, though it often goes dark to save battery life.

Like the Kindle, the Nook has built-in cellular connectivity with no monthly charges. But it also adds Wi-Fi, which is free at Barnes & Noble stores, though mostly unusable at other commercial hotspots, because the Nook lacks a Web browser that would allow you to log in. The Kindle has a crude Web browser, but no Wi-Fi.

Speaking of battery life, the Nook's is worse than the Kindle's. It claims about 10 days of typical use with wireless off, and just two days with wireless on. In my week of tests, with wireless on constantly, I had to charge it three times. Amazon rates the Kindle at 14 days of typical use with wireless off and seven days with wireless on, which squares with my own Kindle experience.

The Nook beats the Kindle in a few areas. Lending is a key one, though only about half of the commercial titles are eligible for lending, you can lend each one only once to a given person, and loans expire after two weeks. In my tests, lending worked OK after a couple of false starts.

Another is that Barnes & Noble takes advantage of its stores. In addition to getting free Wi-Fi, Nook owners who enter a Barnes & Noble store can read books on their Nooks for free, and get help from staff members.

Unlike the Kindle, the Nook also has a slot for expandable memory cards and a replaceable battery. Barnes & Noble also has companion PC, Mac, iPhone and BlackBerry software for reading e-books, even if you don't own a Nook. Amazon has such software, so far, only for the iPhone and PC.

But, while Amazon will synchronize your last page read if you switch from reading a book on one device to using another, Barnes & Noble lacks that capability yet, though it says it will have it soon.

One more thing: The latest standard-size Kindle allows wireless book purchasing in multiple countries. The Nook does so only in the U.S.

My recommendation on the Nook is to wait, even if you prefer its features to the Kindle's. It's not fully baked yet.

Intel Sued For Muscling Out Rivals

BBC News

Intel, the world's biggest maker of computer chips, is being sued by a US competition authority.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has accused the company of using its market dominance to squash competitors and prevent innovation.

It said Intel had deliberately tried to "hamstring" its smaller competitors.

Intel said the FTC's case was "misguided". The FTC's move comes a month after the New York attorney general launched a similar lawsuit.

In that case, New York attorney general Andrew Cuomo accuses Intel of using "illegal threats" to dominate microchip sales.

Last month Intel also reached a $1.25bn (£770m) settlement with rival Advanced Micro Devices to end an anti-competition legal dispute between the two firms.

'Hamper competition'

Shares in AMD rose 5.2% on news of this latest action, while Intel dropped 0.7%.

"This is clearly a good day for Advanced Micro Devices, there's no question about it," said analyst Peter Kenny of Knight Equity Markets.

Intel is also appealing against a record $1.45bn anti-competition fine from European regulators.

The FTC said it is asking for an order that would bar Intel from using "threats, bundled prices, or other offers to encourage exclusive deals, hamper competition, or unfairly manipulate the prices of its" chips.

It accuses Intel of using both threats and rewards to keep some of the biggest computer makers from buying other companies' chips or marketing computers that carried them.

The complaint names Dell, Hewlett-Packard and IBM as Intel's targets.

Microsoft Ends Fight With Europe Over Browsers

BBC News

Microsoft has reached agreement with European Union anti-trust regulators to allow European users a choice of web browsers

The accord ends 10 years of dispute between the two sides.

Over that time, the EU imposed fines totalling 1.68bn euros ($2.44bn, £1.5bn).

The European Commission said Microsoft's legally binding agreement ended the dispute and averted a possible fine for the company.

The Commission's concern was that the US computer giant may have broken competition rules by bundling its Internet Explorer web browser with its dominant Windows operating system.

Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes said: "Millions of European consumers will benefit from this decision by having a free choice about which web browser they use."

Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith said the company was "embarking on a path that will require significant change".

"Nevertheless, we believe that these are important steps that resolve these competition law concerns," he added.

Better browsers

Ms Kroes said Microsoft's pledge was an incentive for web browser companies to innovate and offer better browsers in the future.

Internet Explorer is used by more than half of global internet users, with Mozilla's Firefox at about 32% and Norway's Opera with 2%.

It was the minnow operator, Opera, that brought the latest complaint about browsers in 2007.

The company's chief executive, Jon von Tetzchner, agreed the move would boost innovation.

"This is a victory for the future of the web. This decision is also a celebration of open web standards, as these shared guidelines are the necessary ingredients for innovation."

Nevertheless, we believe that these are important steps that resolve these competition law concerns."

Microsoft's commitments on web browsers will be valid in the European Economic Area for five years.

Dominant bundle

In preliminary findings released in January, the European Commission said Microsoft "may have infringed" a European Treaty by "abusing its dominant market position" by bundling the company's web browser with its Windows PC operating system.

In July, Microsoft proposed a consumer choice screen that allowed users to pick from a number of different browsers.

The Commission then asked Microsoft to improve the choice screen, which it has now done.

In 2004, the EU fined Microsoft and forced it to offer a version of its Windows operating system without Microsoft's own media player.

The company was also told to give rivals more information about how Windows works, so they could make their own software integrate better with the operating system.

Microsoft appealed against the decision but lost its case in 2007.

Outstanding concerns

There remain, though, unresolved areas of dispute between the two parties. Although here, too, progress has been made.

Microsoft has submitted an improved version of undertakings it made in July on interoperability.

These are designed to address EU concerns about improving the compatibility of third-party products with several Microsoft ones, such as Windows and Microsoft Office.

The Commission welcomed this move too, but said it would monitor its impact on the market. Any findings would be taken into account in a pending anti-trust investigation on interoperability, it said.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Smart Phone App Prevents Texting And Talking While Driving

LA Times

One in four American teens of driving age says he or she has texted while driving, and almost half of all youths ages 12 to 17 say they have been a passenger while a driver has texted behind the wheel, according to a survey released in November by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

So when Darcy Ahl's 16-year-old son tried to answer his phone while driving, she was rattled to the core. The car started swerving on a busy interstate, and Ahl frantically instructed her son to end the call.

"I wondered to myself what would have happened if I hadn't told him to hang the phone up," Ahl said. "I wondered what would have happened if I weren't there."

Immediately after that scare, Ahl, an executive recruiter, went back to her office to figure out a way to keep teenage drivers away from their phones. By the following morning, iZUP's concept was completely formulated in her head.

Ahl came up with an idea for a smart phone application that prevents drivers from talking on the phone and texting while driving. Illume Software is releasing the application iZUP today. Ahl co-founded Illume Software and is now the company's vice president of public affairs.

The application iZUP uses GPS technology to detect a car's speed. If a car is traveling over 5 miles per hour, the application sends incoming calls to voice mail and holds text messages. It also blocks outgoing text messages and calls, except emergency 911 calls.

Account holders have the option of entering authorized phone numbers, such as parents' cellphone numbers, that the driver can both call and receive calls from while en route.

The application is teenager tamper proof, according to Illume Software. It is difficult to improperly uninstall, and if it is successfully uninstalled, the account holder will immediately receive an e-mail alert.

I downloaded iZUP onto an Android G1 phone and tested it out. While the car was in motion, iZUP held my phone hostage. It didn't allow me to do anything but call authorized numbers.

The application prevented texts, phone calls, Internet use and denied me access to my contacts and music ... even when I was sitting in the passenger seat.

An Illume Software representative said that the account holder can enter a pin code that temporarily disables the application if, say, his or her teen will be a passenger on a long road trip and wants full phone access.

The application worked as intended, but there was about a minute-long delay before it recognized the car's speed and either worked or disabled. A few times the lag enabled me to make and receive phone calls while the car was in motion.

But as soon as the application recognized that the car was traveling over 5 miles per hour, it shut down all communication. When the application kicked in, I was not able to make outgoing calls, and when I tried to answer incoming calls, I'd hear music instead of the caller's voice.

The application is only available at the moment for Blackberry and handsets that run on Windows Mobile and Android operating software. It costs $4.95 for a monthly subscription and $49.95 for a year. The iZUP family plan, which allows three to five phones on an account, costs $9.95 per month and $79.95 for a year. The application can be found at

Monday, December 14, 2009

Forecast for 2010: The Coming Cloud 'Catastrophe'

Business Week

Mark Anderson predicts a big remote-computing service disaster, lost momentum for Microsoft, and growth in consumer payments for online news content

Cloud computing enthusiasts be warned. Next year, computing services handled remotely and delivered via the Internet may undergo some kind of "catastrophe" that alerts companies and consumers to the risks of relying on the so-called cloud, says Mark Anderson, chief executive of Strategic News Service, an industry newsletter circulated to senior executives at technology companies including Intel, Dell and Microsoft.

A growing number of businesses and individuals are handing storage and various other tasks to outside providers, from photographers archiving pictures with Yahoo!'s Flickr to companies turning over complicated computing operations to Amazon. Tech prognosticator Anderson suggests that the tendency could backfire in some high-profile way in the coming year. "It could either be a service-outage-type catastrophe or a security-based catastrophe," he says. "In either case, it will be big enough. It will be the kind of disaster that makes you say, if you're a [Chief Information Officer]: 'That's why I didn't get involved with the cloud.'"

The warning on cloud computing is one of a handful of predictions from Anderson, who in December makes forecasts for the coming year. He also says computing wars will intensify in hardware and operating systems, especially in the mobile arena. Growth in netbooks and smartphones and increased reliance on cloud computing will continue to transform personal computing from the market dominated by Microsoft's Windows and to a lesser extent Apple's Mac. "The desktop will seem like a calm island that is surrounded by chaos, where all these opportunities are with no clear winners," he says.

Anderson is particularly bearish when it comes to the cloud. "My hunch is that there will never really be a secure cloud," he says. Businesses will view cloud services more suspiciously and consumers will refuse to use them for anything important, he says.

Securosis: cloud will keep growing

Cloud computing experts note that high-profile security breaches have already occurred. "Clouds don't make applications fail-safe," says Chris Hoff, director of cloud and virtualization services at Cisco Systems (CSCO). He points to Magnolia, the social bookmarking service that crashed and lost all its data earlier this year. "There will be other events like these in 2010, as there were in 2009 and 2008," Hoff says.

Still, many companies will conclude that the benefits of network-delivered outweigh the risks. "Even if there is an outage, it won't affect adoptions," says Rich Mogull, an analyst at Securosis, a security research firm. "Providers who compete with the vendor [that] goes down will come around and tell everyone how they're different. There will be some pullback but no dramatic change in adoption of the cloud."

Also on the horizon for the coming year, Microsoft will face multiple operating system challenges, including competition from a resurgent Mac OS, Google's Chrome OS, mobile operating systems from Android, Nokia's Symbian mobile OS, and others. "Two years ago it would have seemed like Windows had this all locked up forever, and now tell me who will win on all those hardware platforms," Anderson says.

Netbooks will gain in popularity and within a couple years will become the biggest segment of the personal computing market, Anderson contends. As netbooks and smartphones and Web tablets take hold, content in all forms will continue to break free from long-held restrictions, becoming substantially more mobile-friendly than ever. First-run TV shows and movies will be as readily available on handheld phones as they have been elsewhere—for a price.

Apple's iTunes, which sells not only music and TV shows, but also mobile applications, has proven that people are willing to pay for content on their phones, Anderson says. "They'll pay a small amount of money, but they'll happily pay," he says. "Some things will be free, but increasingly they won't be."
online content will finally earn cash

The willingness to pay for mobile content, in turn, will drive adoption of small payments, or micropayments, for content, Anderson says. Those over 35 who perceive value to content will be willing to pay. Those under 35, who are accustomed to getting content for free, won't, he believes. As consumers age, Anderson predicts their attitudes will change.

News media will also become increasingly willing to charge for content online. In recent months, News Corp. (NWS) CEO Rupert Murdoch has said the company will start charging for content on its newspaper sites. "I hate to say it, but Rupert is right," Anderson says. "People who have things of value in the media business damn well better charge for them."

And while software giant Microsoft will continue to dominate on the desktop, Anderson believes the company will lose relevance in the consumer electronics and mobile markets—except in the gaming arena. "It's time to say it: Microsoft has lost its play for consumers," Anderson says. "This is mostly about the phone."

The most important mobile players will be Apple, Nokia's Symbian, and Google's Android. Microsoft is going to have difficulty finding new revenue streams, Anderson holds. "It doesn't mean its going to stop growing, but it does mean that its growth is going to be pretty moderate and then it may taper off," Anderson says.

How accurate are Anderson's prognostications? Last year he predicted that voice-activated applications would come to smart phones, harnessing computing in the cloud. He forecast that the wireless industry would settle on a technology standard known as LTE, or Long-Term Evolution, for its next-generation technology. And mobile applications such as those on Apple's iPhone, he said, would catch on like wildfire.