Friday, January 29, 2010

The Threat of iPad to PCs

Business Week

Apple's (AAPL) new iPad, a lightweight device that browses the Web and delivers media, may serve as an alternative to netbooks and pose a threat to PC makers.

While the iPad is not a full-fledged PC, it's capable of handling many of the tasks consumers deem important in netbooks, stripped-down notebooks that have surged in popularity in recent years. In a lightweight package, the iPad provides access to e-mail, the Internet, and digital media such as electronic books. The cheapest version of the iPad will sell for $499, compared with about $400 or less for many kinds of netbooks. "People who are looking at netbooks will also take a very serious look at the iPad," says Charles Smulders of market research firm Gartner (IT).

That could spell trouble for computer makers such as Hewlett-Packard, Acer and Dell, which relied on netbooks for growth in recent quarters as consumers and companies delayed purchases of more expensive machines. The number of PCs shipped rose 15.2% in the fourth quarter, compared with a decline of 0.4% a year earlier, according to research firm IDC. "A substantial portion" of that growth came from the sales of netbooks, says IDC analyst David Daoud.
Silver Lining: Margin Squeeze May End

If there's a silver lining in the iPad's introduction, it's that PC makers may need to boost their reliance on higher-priced devices, analysts say. Sales of netbooks can put pressure on average selling prices that if unchecked can lead to narrower margins. "The netbook market has created a race to zero margins," Forrester (FORR) analyst James McQuivey says. "It has created a market where higher-priced, higher-margin notebooks have a harder time selling because consumers think they can get essentially the same experience in a netbook with a lower price."

So if netbook growth slows, PC vendors may need to refocus their efforts on selling higher-margin traditional notebooks, says Daoud of IDC. "It will bring some needed sanity and new alternatives for the PC industry," Daoud says. "For so long, all they could do was drive down prices. Now they can think outside the box and bring out devices that will compete with Apple at prices they can live with."

Sumit Agnihotry, a vice-president at PC maker Acer, which sells several netbooks, says the smaller computers will probably keep their place in the PCs industry. "The industry has proven that the netbook is an important category," he says. "We think they're here to stay." Still he says Acer is working on a tablet product that will compete head-to-head with Apple's iPad. It's due to be announced in the second half of 2010.
iPad Will Tempt PC Tablet Users

Apple's iPad may also make a dent in sales of existing tablet-style computers, a category that has been available for the better part of a decade but failed to catch on with consumers. Only about 1.03 million tablets were sold in 2009, down from 1.3 million in 2008, according to Gartner. Tablets are generally aimed at businesses that have a specific need for a PC that accepts input from a pen-shaped stylus. Though the iPad doesn't use a stylus, there's a good chance that its thin, lightweight body could lure some business users away from their tablets.

Harry Labana is chief technology officer of Citrix Systems (CTXS), which makes software that gives mobile devices, including Apple's iPhone, the ability to access software and files on other computers remotely. He sees opportunity for sales of the iPad in areas such as medicine. For example, doctors who want to view patient records or X-ray images can do so from a device like the iPad that connects remotely to another computer where patient files are stored. "Not everyone who spends their work day walking around needs full-power laptops or a PCs to read certain data or to send mail," he says.

Hewlett-Packard introduced a tablet it calls the Slate at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in early January. "The slate category is exciting and will be the focus of multiple efforts on several platforms in the industry," says HP spokeswoman Marlene Somsak. "We'll have a number of products in this space this year and beyond." She declined to comment specifically on the iPad. A spokeswoman for Dell computers declined to comment.

Apple says it expects to start shipping the iPad computers by the end of March. The company may sell 3 million to 4 million in the first 12 months it's available, says Gene Munster, an analyst at Piper Jaffray (PJC). It may sell 8 million iPads in 2011, he says.

Holiday PC Sales, Windows 7 Boost Microsoft

The Wall Street Journal

Microsoft Corp. said consumer demand for Windows 7 propelled a 60% increase in profit during the holiday quarter, in another sign of hope for the battered technology sector.

The world's largest software maker's results, which included a 14% rise in sales, were a welcome change after three quarters where sales fell from a year earlier. The turnaround in Microsoft's business was almost entirely due to the October launch of Windows 7, which lured consumers back to stores for copies of the software and new computers running it, especially in markets like Asia and Latin America.

Microsoft executives cautioned they haven't yet seen a return to strong spending by businesses on Windows 7 and other products, though they reiterated earlier expectations of a recovery sometime this year. "This is the best launch of an operating system we've ever had," Peter Klein, chief financial officer, said in an interview.

The Redmond, Wash., company's results looked particularly good in comparison with the holiday quarter of 2008, when spending on technology ground to a halt.

For its second fiscal quarter ended Dec. 31, the company's Windows division saw revenue jump 70% to $6.9 billion. The results included $1.71 billion in deferred revenue from pre-sales of Windows 7 that occurred before it was released.

Sarah Friar, an analyst at Goldman Sachs, said Microsoft's results were "staggering" considering that the company gets less money on average from sales of consumer PCs, where selling prices for consumers are lower than they are in the business market.

Overall, Microsoft said second-quarter profit jumped to $6.66 billion, or 74 cents a share, from $4.17 billion, or 47 cents a share, a year ago. Revenue rose to $19.02 billion from $16.63 billion, despite weakness in its non-Windows businesses.

The strength of its results showed that, for now, one of the main profit engines at Microsoft has maintained its durability in the face of a new wave of threats, including Apple Inc.'s resurgent Macintosh. It also appears Microsoft has been able to rebound from technical shortcomings that hurt the perception of Windows Vista, its last major operating system.

Another potential threat to Windows seems to have abated as well: the inexpensive laptops known as netbooks that generally deliver lower Windows licensing revenue to Microsoft than other computers. Mr. Klein said netbooks have stabilized at about 11% of the PC market and that roughly 90% of them continue to be sold with Windows on them.

Outside its Windows franchise, most of Microsoft's other businesses continued to show weakness. Sales in the division that includes its Office software were flat, while its online services division's revenue declined 5% to $581 million from the prior year, despite the high-profile launch of the Bing search engine. Microsoft's Mr. Klein said he's still confident about the long-term prospects of Microsoft in the search business.

The company has continued to gain a bigger share of Internet searches since it launched Bing last June, rising to 10.7% of U.S. searches in December from 8.3% a year earlier. The company has said its online business could improve further if a proposed deal for Microsoft to handle the search operations for Yahoo Inc. receives regulatory approval in the coming months.

The company could experience a further boost in software sales when it releases a new version of its flagship suite of productivity applications, called Office 2010, due out in June.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Nebraska Man to Plead Guilty in Scientology Site Hack

USA Today

Federal prosecutors in California say a Nebraska man will plead guilty to participating in a cyber attack on Church of Scientology websites in January 2008.

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, says Brian Thomas Mettenbrink agreed to plead guilty Monday to the misdemeanor charge of unauthorized access of a protected computer. He faces a year in federal prison.

Court records say Mettenbrink attacked Scientology websites as part of Anonymous, an underground group that protests the Church of Scientology, accusing it of Internet censorship.

Prosecutors say hackers conducted a "denial of service" attack, in which computers flood a target website with malicious Internet traffic, making it unavailable to legitimate users.

Prosecutors say Mettenbrink, of Grand Island, Nebraska, is expected to enter his plea next week in Los Angeles, where the Church of Scientology is based.

Oracle CEO Interested in Buying NBA's Warriors


Oracle Corp. CEO Larry Ellison said Wednesday he is interested in buying the Golden State Warriors.

No surprise there.

Ellison told financial analysts he's trying to buy the team but, he said, "unfortunately you can't have a hostile takeover of a basketball team."

The line got laughs because the business software maker is a serial acquirer and won a hostile takeover fight in 2005 for rival PeopleSoft.

"I've been hearing this for years," team president Robert Rowell said. "At some point in time, the media speculation will become a reality. But right now, there's not much to this."

Ellison was responding to a question from a member of the audience during a conference to discuss Oracle's plans for its latest acquisition, struggling computer server maker Sun Microsystems.

When told of Ellison's remarks Wednesday, team ambassador and former star Al Attles said with a smile: "Oh, really? Very interesting."

Earlier this month, Ellison sat courtside to watch the Warriors play LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the building boasting his company's name. Ellison has expressed interest in buying an NBA franchise and there's talk he could be the owner-in-waiting if current top man Chris Cohan eventually decides to sell.

While Cohan has given no indication he plans to put the franchise up for sale any time soon, there's thinking that he would certainly listen if an incredible offer was made down the road.

At the Cavs-Warriors game, one fan in the upper area of the lower level held a sign reading, "Dear Larry Ellison, please buy this team. Thanks, the Warriors fans."

Oracle CEO: About 1,000 Layoffs Planned for Sun


Oracle Corp. CEO Larry Ellison cheered the closing of his company's $7.4 billion acquisition of Sun Microsystems on Wednesday, vowing that Sun will immediately add to Oracle's profits. He said layoffs won't be as severe as some industry analysts were predicting.

Analysts had expected Sun to suffer huge job cuts once Oracle closed the acquisition. But Ellison said Oracle wants to bulk up Sun's staff to improve its sales - a problem Sun has had trouble cracking since the dot-com meltdown a decade ago.

Oracle is hiring 2,000 people over the next few months for the Sun businesses, while layoffs from the acquisition will be about half that number, Ellison said.

"We're hiring, not firing. We're not cutting Sun to profitability," Ellison said at a conference with industry analysts at Oracle's headquarters here. "We think Sun's a growing business."

Ellison also confirmed that he's interested in buying the Golden State Warriors basketball team, a prospect that had been rumored.

"I'm trying," he said, in response to a question. "Unfortunately you can't have a hostile takeover of a basketball team." The line that got laughs because Oracle is a highly acquisitive company and won a bruising hostile takeover fight for rival PeopleSoft, a $10.3 billion deal Oracle closed in 2005.

Ellison had previously expressed interest in buying an NBA franchise and could take the Warriors if current top man Chris Cohan eventually decides to sell.

Oracle said Wednesday that it completed the Sun acquisition, one week after the European Union offered its long-awaited approval of the deal. European regulators determined the combined company would not harm competition in the database software markets, where Oracle dominates but a Sun division is a growing rival.

Sun was a dot-com highflyer that advanced the technology used to link computers, making them more useful as a network.

The deal with Oracle was announced last April. The U.S. Department Justice cleared it four months later.

With Sun, Oracle gets ownership of the Java programming language, which runs on more than a billion devices, and the Solaris operating system. Oracle also gets sophisticated server technology that it can bundle with its task management software. Sun is the world's No. 4 server maker.

One reason job losses may be limited is the fact Sun has already cut deeply because of its sagging finances.

In October, Sun revealed plans to cut up to 3,000 jobs as the antitrust scrutiny dragged on. Sun has already cut about 7,600 workers in three previous rounds of layoffs.

Sun had 27,596 employees at the end of September.

Previous Oracle acquisitions have been followed by deep job cuts.

Oracle fired some 5,000 workers after completing the PeopleSoft deal. Many of the layoffs came from PeopleSoft's 11,000-plus work force. The next year, Oracle cut about 2,000 jobs after absorbing Siebel Systems Inc., a company it bought for $5.85 billion and had 4,700 workers.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

NY Attorney General Alleges Online Fraud

The Wall Street Journal

New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo said Wednesday his office is investigating 22 online businesses for allegedly linking consumers with discount promotions that end up charging them illegal fees.

Online sites of retailers including Staples Inc. (SPLS), Barnes & Noble Inc. (BKS), Avon Products Inc. (AVP), GameStop Corp. (GME), Inc. (FLWS) and Orbitz Worldwide Inc. (OWW) "deceptively link" customers to fee-based membership programs, Cuomo said in a call with reporters.

The programs are run by third-party companies that charge unauthorized fees under the guise of discount offers and also receive consumers' credit card numbers, Cuomo said. His office also named the mortgage business of GMAC Financial Services as a participant by offering discounts on mortgage payments.

"Well-known companies are tricking customers into accepting offers from third-party vendors, which then siphon money from consumers' accounts," Cuomo said. "We need them to stop because this is consumer fraud" that extends nationwide.

The charges by the New York Attorney General are believed to be the first by a U.S. state and come as retailers have been adding all sorts of services and promotions to their Internet sites to try and attract business as the recession has caused massive spending pullbacks. Retailers run their Internet programs themselves or work with third-party companies for either parts or all of their Web efforts.

The subpoenas sent by Cuomo's office seek information about retailers' practices of sharing consumers' account information with membership program companies, their knowledge of any deceptive solicitations and what kind of compensation they may be receiving from the membership companies.

All told, Cuomo said his office has sent subpoenas to 22 merchants that have deals with the three major companies that offer these discount programs: Webloyalty, Affinion/Trilegiant and Vertrue.

Eileen Gibson, 66, of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, said she ordered a book for her son's birthday from Barnes & Noble and after completing her order, a Web page with Barnes & Noble's name appeared and asked if she wanted to receive a $20 "award," which she accepted.

Gibson said she subsequently found out that she was going to be enrolled in a discount membership club and charged $12 a month. She said Barnes & Noble and the membership club weren't responsive to her calls to cancel the arrangement so she contacted the Better Business Bureau.

In a statement, Barnes & Noble said it "does not and has not shared customer debit or credit card information" with the outside companies. "We seek to protect our customers from these types of practices," Barnes & Noble said.

All three of the online discount program companies said they already require customers to provide their full credit card numbers to enroll and that they are cooperating with Cuomo's office.

Calls to other companies named by Cuomo weren't returned.

The subpoenas started going out several months ago, said Richard Bamberger, a spokesman for Cuomo. The Attorney General's office has heard back from most of the companies, Bamberger said, but declined to provide their names.

Cuomo said when consumers shop online from familiar retailers, they are often presented with a discount or cash-back incentive offer as they complete their purchases. By clicking on the discount or incentive banner, they are unknowingly directed to a membership program seller's Web page that is separate from the online retailer's site and recurring charges begin to appear on consumers' credit or debit card bills from unfamiliar companies, Cuomo said. Because the charges are often small they can go unnoticed for some time.

The three membership program sellers being investigated bring in revenue of more than $1 billion per year, much of which is amassed through fraud, Cuomo said.

Many consumers have reported that the companies offering membership programs make it difficult for them to cancel memberships and obtain full refunds of the unauthorized charges.

Cuomo said his office reached an agreement with online movie ticket retailer Fandango to permanently end the practice of sharing customers' credit and debit card information with discount program sellers.

AppleIntroduces iPad Tablet

The Wall Street Journal

Apple Inc. unveiled on Wednesday its much-anticipated tablet computer, a multimedia, Internet-enabled slate that could fuel the next leg of growth at the consumer-electronics giant.

Dubbed the iPad, the tablet can be used to browse the Web, read email and books and play games. The device, which has a touchscreen keyboard, will also work with Apple's iTunes store.

Prices for the iPad start at $499 and rise as high as $829, depending on features and service. The device will be supported by service from AT&T Inc. which will charge $29.99 a month for unlimited data but won't require a contract.

The iPad draws heavily on Apple's mobile history, resembling the company's popular iPhone smartphone, though significantly larger with a 9.7-inch screen. The iPad--half an inch thick and 1.5 pounds--features a simple one-button design and a black screen set in a silver case.

The device is built with an Apple-made chip. The machine will come with 16, 32 or 64 gigabytes of flash storage. It also has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities. The company says it will start shipping the iPad in 60 days.

Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs made it clear the device targets the growing electronic book market, pioneered by Inc. and its Kindle e-reader. At the presentation, he acknowledged Amazon's effort but said his company would go further.

"We open the floodgates starting this afternoon," Jobs, a cancer survivor who had a liver transplant as part of his treatment, told the audience after introducing a new online bookstore and partnerships with five publishers. Earlier Jobs had introduced The New York Times Co. as a partner.

The iPad debuts after months of breathless speculation in the technology press and blogosphere. Photographs of supposed mock-ups appeared on popular blogs months ago and reporters followed every link in Apple's supply chain to uncover details about the machine. The product's launch--not confirmed by Apple until Wednesday's event--has been built into forecasts of the company's performance by Wall Street analysts since at least November.

The introduction comes just two days after Apple announced its best quarterly profits and revenue, though some of that performance came from an accounting change. Backed by the strength of its iPhone franchise and Macintosh computers, the Cupertino, Calif.-based company appears to be on track to reach $45 billion in annual sales when it closes out the current fiscal year.

Apple shares have more than doubled over the last year, hitting an all-time high of $215.59 on Jan. 5. In late afternoon trading on Wednesday, Apple shares reversed an earlier fall to rise 1.3% to $208.59 in recent trading. Some analysts see the company's shares rising as high as $285 over the next 12 months.

Analysts said the iPad's price point was one of its most compelling features. After speculation the machine would sell for as much as $1,000, Apple hit a sweet spot for everyday buyers, said Tim Bajarin, president of consultancy Creative Strategies.

"The iPad definitely has the potential to be the first tablet to tap consumers," Bajarin said.

Jobs, who sat in a chair as he demonstrated the device, said the iPad was a more intimate experience than a laptop. He demonstrated the device's video capability, showing a clip from the movie "Star Trek."

The iPad uses many of the same control functions as the iPhone. Owners can push items with their fingers or zoom in on a photo or map.

The device will be able to play existing iPhone apps, which now total 140,000. The New York Times Co., as well as game makers Gameloft SA and Electronic Arts Inc., are developing apps especially for the iPad.

"We're incredibly psyched to pioneer the next version of digital journalism," said Martin Nisenholtz, senior vice president of digital operations at The New York Times.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Apple Tablet Said to Lure Publishers With Features Kindle Lacks


Apple Inc.’s planned tablet computer is luring publishers with features that Inc.’s Kindle and Sony Corp.’s electronic readers lack, such as color photos, video and author interviews, analysts said.

Hearst Corp., McGraw-Hill Cos. and Hachette Book Group have held talks about featuring their content on Apple’s tablet, expected to be unveiled this week, according to people familiar with the matter. The device will allow publishers to create more interactive content, said James McQuivey, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Apple is in a killer position,” McQuivey said. “The majority of reading we do cannot be done on current e-readers. The Apple tablet will be first to make the claim that you can read everything from Sesame Street to Dan Brown to the Atlantic to the Denver Post, all on the same device.”’s Kindle and Sony’s e-readers, which dominate the market today, have black-and-white screens and can’t display video.

Apple’s device will let publishers tap new sources of revenue by offering premium features to an audience that is deserting print publications for the Internet, said Rich Maggiotto, chief executive officer of Zinio LLC, a San Francisco-based distributor of digital books and magazines.

Coming Tomorrow

Apple CEO Steve Jobs said yesterday that the company will introduce “a major new product that we’re really excited about.” The company is holding the event tomorrow in San Francisco.

Steve Dowling, a spokesman for Cupertino, California-based Apple, declined to discuss unannounced products, saying the company doesn’t comment on rumors and speculation.

Apple rose $5.33, or 2.7 percent, to $203.08 yesterday on the Nasdaq Stock Market. dropped $1.12 to $120.31.

Plastic Logic Ltd. and Skiff LLC, a startup backed by Hearst, plan to sell e-readers this year that are designed for newspapers, magazines and professional documents. So far, many devices on the market have fallen short of what those publishers want, Maggiotto said.

Newspapers lost an average 11 percent of daily circulation in the six months ended in September, according to data compiled by the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Advertising revenue for U.S. newspapers fell 28 percent in the third quarter, according to the Arlington, Virginia-based Newspaper Association of America.

Small Market

“One day there will be very little newsprint,” said Sandy Schwartz, president of Cox Enterprises Inc.’s Cox Media Group, which oversees the operations of four daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “My hope is that someday soon there will be a tablet that can do everything: GPS, telephone, advertising.”

While the e-reader market isn’t large enough yet to significantly boost publishers’ revenue, the Apple tablet may increase the popularity of e-readers over the longer term, said Randy Bennett, senior vice president of public policy for the Newspaper Association of America.

About 6 million e-readers will be sold this year, up from 3 million last year, Forrester estimates.’s Kindle has about 60 percent of the market, while Sony’s products have 35 percent, Forrester says.

Drew Herdener, a spokesman for Seattle-based, declined to comment, as did Kyle Austin, a spokesman for Tokyo- based Sony.

Reinventing Content

It’s unrealistic to think that new devices alone will transform the industry, Maggiotto said. Publishers will also have to invest in creating content that is unique for these devices, he said.

“It’s one thing to shovel print content onto a screen,” he said. “It’s another thing to think about how to reinvent your content for that medium. That’s the publisher’s responsibility.”

The Apple tablet will also have a back-lit screen, which will drain the battery more quickly than current electronic readers, and it may cost more, McQuivey said.

Still, Apple’s tablet is likely to boost demand for digital textbooks, said Frank Lyman, executive vice president at San Mateo, California-based CourseSmart LLC, an online marketplace started by five publishing companies to sell textbooks. By 2012, digital versions of textbooks may account for as much as 15 percent of total textbook sales, up from less than 3 percent today, according to data from members of the National Association of College Stores.

“Apple has a history of growing markets,” Lyman said. “They’ve grown the smartphone market. They’ve grown the personal-computer market. The tablet will capture that next group of students who haven’t yet had that light bulb go off.”

Older publishers are taking note. National Geographic Society said yesterday that its namesake magazine will be available on Zinio’s service. National Geographic, founded in 1888, plans to add audio and video to its digital magazine later this year.

“All the current e-reader devices will fall to the bottom of people’s Christmas lists this year when they see what a full- color reading device will do,” McQuivey said.

Monday, January 25, 2010

States Go After Texting Drivers

USA Today

The fight against distracted driving may be at a tipping point as 23 states debate legislation to ban texting while driving, a practice 19 states already prohibit.

"Legislators are looking to see if it (texting) is enough of a safety issue that they need to intervene," says Anne Teigen, a transportation specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures, who says 194 bills concerning various forms of distracted driving, including texting, are being debated in 34 states. "They often get involved because there's a high-profile accident that had to do with texting. Also, because everybody has a cellphone now."

Justin McNaull, auto club AAA's director of state relations, says he expects "a dozen or more" new texting bans to pass this year. "There's clear public disapproval of the behavior, and there's strong public support for a law," he says.

Wisconsin state Rep. Peter Barca says he got interested "primarily just from hearing from constituents within my district and then seeing news accounts of the dangers of this." Barca, a Democrat, says that last year he could get support only for banning texting for drivers under 18. Last week, a ban for all drivers passed the state Assembly 89-6. Gov. Jim Doyle is expected to sign it, Barca says.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood joined the National Safety Council to announce the launch of FocusDriven, a national non-profit organization modeled after Mothers Against Drunk Driving to combat distracted driving.

"I'm kind of at a loss as to why every state doesn't have a no-texting law," says Jennifer Smith, president of the new group. "That's a no-brainer."

The Department of Transportation says 5,870 people — 16% of all highway fatalities — died in distracted-driving crashes and 515,000 were injured in 2008.

Smith's mother, Linda Doyle, 61, was killed in 2008 in Oklahoma City by a driver who was using a phone, Smith says. "He admitted he was on the phone and never saw the light," she says.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has introduced federal legislation to ban texting or e-mailing while driving. States that didn't go along would risk losing 25% of their federal highway funds.

God Bless This Laptop: London Vicar Welcomes Techies

USA Today

A venerable British church has done what e-mail addicts and workaholics have been doing for years — invoking the Almighty's blessing on their high-tech gadgets.

The Rev. Canon David Parrott blessed a symbolic heap of laptops and smart phones on the altar of London's 17th-century St. Lawrence Jewry church Monday. An effort, he said, to remind the capital's busy office workers that God's grace can reach them in many ways - even through their PCs.

"It's the technology that is our daily working tool, and it's a technology we should bless," Parrott said.

The short blessing capped Monday's services at the Christopher Wren-designed building — the official church of the Corporation of the City of London, which runs the capital's bustling financial district.

Parishioners took out cellphones and laptops as Parrott recited a blessing over them and their electronic devices. A few held their phones up in the air as he ran through the prayer.

Parrott said the blessing ceremony was an update of a traditional back-to-work ceremony called "Plow Monday," in which villagers gathered to bless a symbolic farming implement dragged to the church's door. Parrott said that ceremony didn't have much relevance for his church, which was "nowhere near a field in the middle of London." This then was more of a "Computers Monday".

Parrott took up his post at St. Lawrence Jewry (so-called because it stands in what was once the capital's Jewish neighborhood) about seven months ago and said the updated ceremony was "a fresh idea for a fresh post."

He said he hoped the ceremony had made worship "lively and relevant to the people who work nearby, in the financial district."

Parrot said parishioners were welcome to leave their notebooks on during the service — so long as they kept them on silent.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Microsoft Makes IE More Secure

The Wall Street Journal

Microsoft Corp. on Thursday released a software patch for its Internet Explorer Web browser that it says will plug a security hole believed to have been exploited in cyberattacks on Google Inc. and other companies in China.

In a message posted to a Microsoft security Web site, the Redmond, Wash., company said the software patch fixes eight holes in Internet Explorer, including the "remote code execution" vulnerability that is believed to have played a role in the China hacking incidents. That vulnerability could allow hackers to take control of a personal computer after a user visits a Web site loaded with malicious code.

The security hole in Internet Explorer—the most commonly used Web browser and a perennial target for hacker attacks— had prompted warnings by governments around the world, including recommendations by agencies in France and Germany, for people to use alternative Web browsers until Microsoft could issue a fix. Competing browser providers such as Mozilla and Opera Software SA, said they experienced a spike in downloads in France and Germany in the days after the warnings in those countries.

"Beyond the normal update process, Microsoft has prepared a comprehensive patch that addresses the current security problems," said Matthias Gärtner, a spokesman for Germany's Federal Office for Information Security. "What's important now is that users take note."

Microsoft said on its security Web site that it has seen only "limited and targeted attacks" exploiting the vulnerability in an older version of its browser, Internet Explorer 6, but it still recommends that "customers deploy this security update as soon as possible to protect themselves against the known attacks."

The company said the other seven security vulnerabilities fixed by the software patch weren't previously disclosed publicly.

Amazon Adds Apps to Kindle


Amazon has announced that it will open up the Kindle e-reader to third party developers, allowing applications, or what Amazon calls “active content”, to run on the device.

What kind of apps could run in the low-fi Kindle? Well, you won’t be getting Monkey Ball, but interactive books, travel guides with locations data, RSS readers and anything that brings text to the device would be a good candidate. This could even include magazine and newspaper subscriptions.

The key is the revenue split. Right now Amazon takes a big chunk of the selling price of Kindle e-books. The terms of the new Kindle Development Kit (KDK) specify a 70:30 split, with the large part going to the developer. This is the same as the iTunes App Store, which is surely no coincidence — with an expected e-reading Apple tablet announcement next week, Amazon may be showing its hand now to pre-empt Apple.

It might appear that Amazon is going head-to-head with Apple on this, but we see it a little differently. Apple sells hardware, and while the App Store brings in a nice chunk of change, it is there primarily to sell more iPhones and iPods. Amazon sells books, and the Kindle is a way to make sure you buy Amazon’s e-books. That’s why there is a Kindle app for the iPhone, and why there will be a Kindle app on the tablet: it benefits both companies.

“Active content” will certainly make the Kindle more compelling, especially against other e-readers, although it will also make the Kindle more distracting. One of the nice things about an e-reader is that you can’t use it to check your email every five minutes. Or perhaps you can. The KDK allows the use of the wireless 3G connection. If the application uses less than 100KB per month, the bandwidth comes for free. If it uses more, there is a charge of $0.15 per MB which can (and surely will) be passed on to the customer as a monthly charge.

This model could, interestingly, also make its way into Apple’s tablet. Instead of trying to sell us yet another data plan, the tablet could have a Kindle-style free 3G connection used only for buying iTunes Store content, with the bandwidth price built in to the purchase. That is just speculation, however.

What we are sure of is that the next year will be an interesting one, and the e-book is set to take off in the same way that the MP3 took off before it. The question is, who will be making the iPod of e-books? Given its relatively low price, its appeal to an older, book buying demographic and its ascetic simplicity, the surprise winner might actually be the Kindle.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

IT Lessons From Howard Stern

Business Week 

Buy a "satellite ready" car radio and have it installed in 90 minutes? Even for Stern fans, tech projects require more time, money, and effort

I've listened to The Howard Stern Show on Sirius XM Radio (SIRI) for years. Howard Stern knows how to deliver an entertaining and interesting radio show. But I never thought he would teach me, a small business owner, something about technology projects. Here's now he did.

I recently traded in my beloved Jeep Wrangler for a great 2009 Nissan (NSANY) Murano. Unfortunately, the car didn't come with a satellite radio that would let me listen to my beloved Stern show. No problem, I thought. I found a nice Kenwood (6632:JP) "satellite ready" radio at Best Buy (BBY) for only $129.99. I'd be listening to Sal and Richard's prank phone calls in no time!

The next day, I visited a Best Buy store and spoke with Tim in the radio installation area. He said he could install the radio in less than 90 minutes—but he didn't have all the parts. So he wrote out a list of instructions for me and sent me on my way.

Off I went to another Best Buy to purchase a Sirius SCC1 Connect Vehicle Tuner ($59.95) because Tim's store was out of stock. Then, from home, I visited, to get the essential Metra Electronics Part #99-746, otherwise known as the Install Kit for the 2009 Nissan Murano. That cost another $22.99, plus shipping.

Phew! Howard, I'm almost there.

Learning Experience

With all parts now in hand, I set one of the next available appointments with Tim. But when I arrived, I learned I needed yet another part, the Kenwood KCA-SR50 Sirius Interface Box, for $40.99, and—you guessed it—they didn't have it in stock, either. Tim asked one of his techs to pick it up on his way into the store. He told me the guy was only 20 minutes away and it would be no big deal. I agreed, packed up, and settled down for the morning at a nearby Starbucks (SBUX).

Two hours passed. Tim's tech guy had gotten "held up." It took another hour for him to arrive and for Tim to get going on the installation—which set me back another $191.34. Sirius, not content with its monthly fee, got in on the action by billing me an additional $15 "transfer fee" to switch from my old unit. So, by the time I was back on the road, listening to Robin's news, my $129.99 Sirius radio cost more like $460.26 and at least five hours of my time.

But, hey, I love The Howard Stern Show. And in the end, the experience taught or reminded me of some valuable lessons about getting tech projects done.

• Materials on a technology project will almost always cost more than what I'm originally quoted. When someone selling me software says the price is going to be $5,000, I now know it's going to cost more. Software vendors sometimes "forget" those little add-on modules or third-party tools that make their software actually do close to what they promised it would do. And, just as the Kenwood KCA-SR50 Sirius Interface Box cost about a third of what the actual Kenwood radio costs, those additional items can bump up the cost of a software or hardware purchase by 30% or more.

• People will always take more time than promised to complete IT projects. Tim was very good. But he didn't know that his tech guy got into a fight with his girlfriend that morning, which is why he was late and we had to wait. And Tim's not perfect. He does dozens of car radio installations each week. He can't remember everything he told to every customer and sometimes he forgets a part, like the KCA-SR50 Sirius Interface Box. So more time, and expense, is incurred. He originally told me that the whole installation would take about 90 minutes. The actual time was several more hours. For a technology project, that's about par for the course.

• To get a project done right, I need to be significantly involved. My internal technology projects generally do not succeed unless I'm involved. It's not that I'm some kind of tech genius. But, because this is affecting my business, I need to get intimately familiar with the software (or in this case the parts needed). I need to understand what the techs are doing. I need to stick around in case I'm needed to approve any changes or be told that a tech had a fight with his girlfriend and would be late.

It's incredible that after 20-plus years in technology I can still suffer like this. Then again, I could have researched this better. There's plenty of documentation from Sirius, Best Buy, and consultants that would have explained the process for me well in advance. I could've saved a trip to the store and bought what I needed beforehand from the comfort of my own home. I could have picked up the phone and pushed Tim, no matter how "busy" or reluctant he may have been, to walk me through the process beforehand. And rather than drink coffee that morning, I could have had a shot or two of Jack Daniels. That would have helped, too.

All's well that ends well. The Sirius radio is great. Howard's yelling at Sal again. And this tech project, like all my tech projects, came in three times the cost and three times the effort. No surprises here. And to think, I learned it all from Howard Stern.

P.S. Get well soon, Artie!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

CES 2010: Picks And Pans

PC World
From 3D home-theater gear to tablets, tablets, everywhere, here's what we loved and hated at this year's show.

Our crack staff of editors hit Las Vegas this week to cover the annual Consumer Electronics Show. We braved bedbugs, bad PR people, long taxi lines, and greasy convention-center food, all to find the hottest new gadgets and gear. We saw 3D HDTVs, tiny iPhone accessories, and tablets, tablets, and more tablets.

Here's the best and the worst of our week at CES.

We've Seen the Future, and It's in 3D

The 3D Revolution Is Here--Bring It On! I don't think it's a false start this time: The 3D-product plans for the coming year represent the initial salvos of the coming 3D revolution. Panasonic's 3D demos were among the most convincing. But the best implementation I saw, unfortunately, is one that won't be coming to market anytime soon: Sony showed its 24.5-inch 3D OLED HDTV as a technology demo only.

Do We Have to Pay a Premium for 3D? 3D home-entertainment systems may promise an IMAX-at-home experience, but these brand-new 120-Hz TVs and Blu-ray players are sure to stretch many a budget. Imagine showing off your new 3D home theater to guests, or to your kids and all their friends--that's one pair of glasses for every member of the audience. Until 3D glasses improve (or become dirt cheap), or until someone develops a reasonably priced auto-stereoscopic display, consumers should think twice about jumping on the 3D bandwagon.

So When Do We Get Fashionable 3D Glasses?
Some 3D glasses are futuristic, others are plain-Jane. All are necessary for watching the new 3D HDTV models that are the talk of CES. But never mind how your coolness stock goes down wearing these things; the glasses on the whole did not seem solidly designed. And very few that I tried fit over my own glasses.

Going Mobile

Nexus One, Changing Travel Plans Everywhere: The Google Nexus One is a game-changing phone, so why am I panning it? The problem isn't the phone itself, but the timing of the launch. Why did Google schedule a press event the week of the biggest tech show in the United States, but not schedule it at the show? Disgruntled editors had to change their flight arrangements to cover this poorly timed announcement. It's just a phone, right? --Ginny Mies

C'mon, Palm, We Wanted More: My beef isn't so much with a product as it is with a company. Palm announced here at CES that its Pre and Pixi devices will double as mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, serving up to five devices with Internet connectivity from the phone (though it will need a special tethering plan). Palm needed a much larger announcement here at CES to keep its offerings competitive with the spate of cool Android phones that are (seemingly) being unveiled every day. Palm needs new phones with larger screens, better keyboards, better apps, and faster processors. Until that happens, Palm smartphones will continue to be outdone, and outsold, by Android phones and iPhones. --Mark Sullivan

Windows Mobile Impresses (Really!): Since the HTC HD2 launched in Europe and Asia, the blogosphere has been buzzing about whether it would launch stateside. What's so hot about this smartphone? It has a superslim design, a 4.3-inch display, and a powerful 1GHz Snapdragon processor. It is by far the best Windows Mobile phone we've ever seen, and one of the best of the show. The HD2 will land on T-Mobile this spring. --Ginny Mies

It's a Smartphone...No, a Netbook...Okay, It's a Smartbook: The Lenovo Skylight is the company's first entry into the emerging smartbook category, and the device looks promising. It weighs a mere 1.95 pounds, offers 10 hours of battery life, and has Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity. The 10-inch screen sports an HD-friendly 1280 by 720 resolution, and the keyboard is pure Lenovo: comfortable, responsive, full-size excellence. The Skylight will start shipping in April for $499; subsidized prices from carriers like AT&T have yet to be announced. --Nate Ralph

How Much Did You Say That Gizmo Cost? I'm not sure how you pronounce the word Zomm, but I can say that $80 is too much to pay for one. Due this summer, Zomm is a small disc that vibrates and flashes if you stray too far from a Bluetooth phone that you paired it with. Zomm's creators bill it as the first "wireless leash" for cell phones, designed to keep you from losing your handset. But at that price you might be better off simply buying cheaper phones and letting them stay lost. --Yardena Arar

A Really Hot Hotspot: Sprint's Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot by Sierra Wireless is the first dual-mode mobile hotspot. This elegant little device connects to either Sprint's 3G network or Clearwire's 4G WiMAX network (now in 27 cities; 80 by 2011), and then connects up to five other devices via Wi-Fi. These devices can include an iPod Touch running Skype for voice, or a laptop streaming video wirelessly from sites like Hulu. The Overdrive isn't the first mobile hotspot on the market (see the MiFi 2200 from Novatel), but it is the first one to connect to major 3G and 4G networks. The device is available January 10 for $100. Sprint's combo 3G/4G plan is $60 per month. --Mark Sullivan

Skip This Presentation: All over the CES show floor, mobile projectors were shining bright. Unlike most of those cool pico projectors (some of which attach to mobile phones), however, the BlackBerry Presenter has no built-in projector at all. Instead, this $199 box acts as a wireless bridge between your BlackBerry phone and a standard projector. We're hard-pressed to believe that this 3.4-by-2.4-by-0.9-inch device will appeal to people who need to give presentations from their phone, especially considering the selection of cool pico projectors entering the marketplace. --Robert Strohmeyer

Scene and Heard

CD Press Kits, Still? C'mon guys, we're out of the Noughties. CD-ROM press kits may be cheap to produce, but considering the volume of laptops--netbooks, all-day computing notebooks, and otherwise--that don't come with CD burners, it's fairly ludicrous for so many vendors to still hand out CDs, as opposed to USB flash memory drives. --Melissa J. Perenson

Is a Recycling Bin Too Much to Ask For? No wonder Greenpeace is ticked off. With all of the events and booths dedicated to green technologies, why couldn't the CEA provide more recycling stations? Garbage cans on the show floor were overflowing with Red Bull cans, soda bottles, and lots of paper plates that once held greasy convention food. --Ginny Mies

Stalking the Wild Gadget: One of the big press events (Digital Experience) went all out with a safari theme, including women in skimpy giraffe costumes and outrageous face and body makeup. Think Cats with spots and platform footwear. --Yardena Arar

Tablets, Slates, and E-Readers, Everywhere

Blame (or Thank) nVidia for the Tablet Craze: If you're already sick of hearing about tablets, you can blame nVidia's revamp of the Tegra Mobile processor technology. Tegra allows devices to be smaller and more power efficient by bundling multiple processor cores onto a single chip, and scaling their power consumption to fit the task at hand. There's a lot of promise here: 1080p content on a 3-pound device with all-day battery life will be sure to please any gadget-junkie. We'll just have to wait and see if the performance lives up to the hype. --Nate Ralph

E-Reader Done Right: I've seen a lot of e-readers lately, and in spending some quality time with Spring Designs' $349 Alex Reader, I came to appreciate much about the company's approach to e-readers. It doesn't have the biggest display, nor the most colorful one. But this Android-based device does have a highly usable and well-integrated LCD, and its ability to flow content browsed anywhere on the Web to the e-reader gives this model a unique edge over the competition. --Melissa J. Perenson

Actually, I Liked This One Better: E-readers were one of the hottest categories of the show this year, and the most compelling new model we've seen is the Plastic Logic Que. This 10.7-inch reader sports a capacitive-touch display that lets you gesture through page turns; it also downloads books from Barnes & Noble's e-book store. It will be available in April in a 4GB Wi-Fi version for $649, and an 8GB version with Wi-Fi and 3G for $799. --Robert Strohmeyer

Crushed by an Avalanche of E-Books: A slew of new e-book readers (including the much anticipated Plastic Logic Que and iRiver Story), plus Amazon's announcement of a global Kindle DX and the unveiling of Microsoft-centric Blio software for graphics-heavy content, were the major symptoms of e-book fever at CES. If the makers can get the prices down, e-books could really go mass market. --Yardena Arar

TV, Meet PC

Boxee Gets Boxed--and Better:
D-Link is the first vendor to come out with a dedicated piece of hardware for the lauded Boxee home media management software. The box is oddly shaped, but it won't take up much space when it sits next to a TV. It streams Internet video and connects wirelessly to your computer, so it can play back media files, such as music, photos, and video, on your TV. You get Boxee's cool user interface, as well as a long list of supported file formats; you can play virtually any kind of video on it. The Boxee Box will be available for $199 in the second quarter of this year.

Cutting the Cord Gets Easier Each CES: Intel's Wireless Display is exactly what it sounds like--a laptop equipped with the technology to connect to your TV at the push of a button, giving you much more screen real estate without the need to futz with wires. But there's no magic here, since the laptop is actually streaming to an adapter connected to your TV. One caveat: Streaming is unprotected, so it doesn't yet support protected content such as Blu-rays and DVDs. Dell, Sony, and Toshiba will be releasing laptops featuring the technology on January 17.

Cue the Jaws Soundtrack:
Imation's yet-unnamed Wireless USB shark fin plugs into your LCD television via HDMI, grabbing audio and video from your computer at 15MB per second. Just plug in the included USB dongle, and you'll be flying with 720p video from up to 30 feet away. The price will be less than $199 in March. I like it, but I'd like it a lot more if TV makers would bundle or integrate it.

A Media Streamer in Zen Clothing:
It's called the Pebble and it looks like a polished rock, but its heritage is pure geek. D-Link's newest media streamer lets you play video, still photos, and music from your home network or connected devices--and it can even show feeds from a networked security camera. It's due out by midyear, with a suggested retail price of $120.

A Set-top Box That Pops: Syabas, makers of the Popcorn Hour network video player, recently unveiled the Popbox. This new home media player features 20 media partners, including Blip.TV (for video content), Twitter (for social viewing), and Clicker (for locating premium video from all over the Internet). Lots of these network video players are showing up now, but Popbox seems to have perfected the interface: It's nice to look at, intuitive, and easily searchable, which is more than I can say for some other entrants in this market. Popbox is expected to be available in March for $129.

Moxi Deserves a Better Mate: Moxi's newly unveiled Moxi Mate is a small HD home media player that can work alone or in concert with the larger Moxi HD DVR. The Moxi Mate can connect directly to the Internet (via ethernet) and access Web video from a number of providers (including Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube) through the PlayOn software that's baked into the device. For what it is, the Moxi Mate seems a bit on the pricey side at $299--especially since the user interface isn't much to write home about, and the device has no video storage space. Also, the fact that the device requires a wired connection to connect with the Internet or to the HD DVR seems to be somewhat backward.

Big-Screen Skype: LG and Panasonic both announced Skype support for their connected HDTVs (equipped with Webcam accessories). We can look forward to video chat with our loved ones in big-screen 1080p, which could mean the end of calling in underwear and PJs.

Potent Portables

Putting the Lap Back in Laptops:  Logitech's Speaker Lapdesk N700 solves two common notebook problems--overheating and crappy audio. Just set a notebook on this heat-dissipating pad and connect the two via USB to power a fan that blows cool air through the pad's ventilated surface; the same cable also channels audio output to the N700's built-in speakers. It's due next month, priced at $80.

A Mighty Mini: The business-oriented HP Mini 5102 builds on the company's netbook lineup by adding a capacitive-multitouch display that makes flipping though documents or managing images more intuitive on such a small PC. It comes in AMD and Intel versions starting at $399, and offers options for 3G and WiMax connectivity as well.

Double Vision: Multitouch displays emerged on all sorts of devices at CES this year, but MSI raised the bar by putting multiple multitouch screens on one netbook. MSI's dual-display Windows 7-based netbook prototype isn't yet in production, and no possible release dates or prices have been announced. But with 7-inch and 10-inch versions letting you drag, swipe, and tap across two screens at once, these keyboardless folding tablets are a killer combination of compact portability and large-screen usability.

Pretty as a Picture

Is There Anything These Cameras Can't Do? Sony's 10X-optical-zoom Cyber-shot DSC-HX5V shoots 1080i video and offers GPS capabilities, a digital compass, a revamped Sweep Panorama mode, and wireless file sharing via TransferJet. Casio's 10X-optical-zoom EX-FH100 has a rapid-fire mode that snaps 40 shots per second and shoots RAW-format images. And Samsung's 7X-optical-zoom CL80 has an AMOLED touchscreen, Wi-Fi connectivity, and an innovative design.

An Impressive Pocket-Size Printer:
Slim and unobtrusive, Pandigital's Portable Printer is the first to use the Zink zero-ink technology to print images on 4-by-6-inch paper. I liked its size; but more important, the image quality appears to be a vast improvement over that of the early Zink printers that produced wallet-size photos. My test prints looked surprisingly good.

Sony (Finally!) Says Hello to SD Cards: Do you believe in miracles? Proprietary-format-happy Sony has finally adopted SD/SDHC cards as the storage in its point-and-shoot cameras. To be fair, Sony's Memory Stick format does predate the SD Card format, but SD/SDHC cards are practically an industry standard. And if you still have a bunch of Memory Stick cards lying around, don't worry: The new Cyber-shot cameras have a card slot that supports both SD/SDHC and Memory Stick.

Budget-Busting Camcorder: Panasonic's Twin-lens Full HD 3D camcorder is a professional-level 3D camcorder that records video from each of its lenses to SDHC cards. If you have $21,000 handy, you should definitely pick one up in the fall; for the price, Panasonic will custom-build the camcorder to your liking.

Gadgets, Games, and More

Internet Radio Never Looked So Good:
Internet radio has been around for a few years now, but British company Pure has put an innovative twist on it with the Sensia. With a colorful touch interface, a stylish design, and an endless library of stations from all over the world, the Sensia is one of the most entertaining gadgets I saw at the show. --Ginny Mies

Your Ears Will Revolt: Technocel's $20 Ear Vibe works as advertised, physically jolting along with the kick drum in rap and rock songs--but that's not a good thing. Even after removing the headphones, my ears were still twitching.

This Would Have Been Better as a Stress Ball: Jelfin says that, according to a recent survey, 74 percent of Americans want a more comfortable computer mouse. But the company's spherical, gel-covered anomaly isn't the answer. As comfy as it is to hold, you have to press your palm forward with every mouse click to prevent the Jelfin mouse from sliding backward.

Old-School Gaming, Anywhere:
Here's my nerdy secret: On long flights, I've been known to bust out a wired Xbox 360 controller and play classic video games on my laptop. Ion's $20 GoPad makes more sense; this NES-like controller folds into a palm-size cube and has a retractable USB cable.

Car Tech Gets an Upgrade: Ford's upcoming MyFord Touch dashboard has proven one thing: The auto giant has realized that cars needn't lag woefully behind the rest of the technology world. MyFord, which will appear in the 2011 Ford Edge, can connect to the Internet with a USB modem, play gobs of media, and, in the future, let you operate mobile apps from the dashboard or by voice. It could be the greatest in-car innovation since the auxiliary port.

Setting Standards

The Need for Speed:
For data speed demons, USB 3.0--announced by a slew of vendors--is shaping up as a promising connection interface. Our early tests of Western Digital's new My Book 3.0 revealed a desktop hard drive with plenty of performance mojo. While WD's first USB 3.0 product is a desktop 3.5-inch drive, I'm personally looking forward to Seagate's Black Armor PS110, a portable 2.5-inch drive; over an actual USB 3.0 port, such as that announced on some HP models, this drive can run, unpowered, at faster speeds than its USB 2.0 cousins.

Not Another Standards Battle, Please: Two competing high-bandwidth wireless technologies both picked up support at CES. Sibeam's WirelessHD, which promises up to 4GB of throughput in the 60GHz band, will power the wireless hookups between new Vizio sets and Blu-ray players. But LG, which last year introduced pricey WirelessHD sets, is switching to the Wireless Home Digital Interface (WHDI), which uses the 5GHz band and promises up to 3GB throughput. Just what we need: another standards war.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Study Guide For CA Bar is New $1000 iPhone App

PC World

The $1000 iPhone app is back, and unlike 2008's utterly worthless I Am Rich (which showed only an image of a jewel), this one could pay for itself over time.

BarMax: California Edition, available now in the iPhone's App Store for $999.99, is a study guide for the California Bar Exam. Harvard lawyers oversaw development of the app, which weighs in at 1 GB and includes outlines, lectures, a study calendar, and real questions and essays from previous exams. The only comparable app available now is from BarBri, but you must be enrolled in the company's $3000 to $4000 classes to use most of the features.

TechCrunch reports that Mike Ghaffary, a former law student and current director of business development at TrialPay, envisioned BarMax as an alternative to BarBri's pricey classes and digital offerings. Ghaffary partnered with successful app developers in Los Angeles, and enlisted some fellow Harvard Law alumni to guide development.

Ghaffary told TechCrunch that BarMax is indeed the most expensive app in the iPhone's App Store, edging out the $900 video surveillance monitor iRa Pro. But unlike that app, BarMax isn't eliminating the redundancy of more hardware, it's replacing a service that might otherwise require human interaction. It's more like the free Pizza Hut app than $80 GPS apps from TomTom and Magellan.

The funny thing about these service-oriented apps is that they're just portable versions of what you can already get online, though a computer. For instance, law students can sign up for MyBarPrep and get online studying materials for $250. You can even get a college education online -- fertile ground, surely, for the next iPhone app with a four-figure price tag.

Hey Google, Anybody Home?

NY Times

Google’s celebrated algorithms may power the Web’s most popular search engine, but they have not yet been programmed to answer a call when a customer has a problem.

New owners of the Nexus One, the latest touch-screen smartphone to run on Android, Google’s mobile operating system, have found themselves at a loss when it comes to resolving problems with the handset. They cannot call Google for help, and the company warns that it may take up to 48 hours to respond to e-mail messages.

Unlike other phones that run on Android, like the Motorola Droid or the T-Mobile G1, the Nexus One was developed and branded by Google and is sold directly by the company to customers.

But ever since the phone went on sale Jan. 5, customer forums have been filled with a cacophony of gripes about the Nexus One. And Google, more accustomed to providing minimal support for its free services, has been unprepared to deal with the higher service expectations of customers who are paying as much as $529 for its high-end smartphone.

Early buyers of the device, like Kiran Konathala, a 27-year-old database programmer in Long Branch, N.J., have complained of dropped calls, plodding download speeds and connectivity snags. “The hardware is great, but the software is a mess,” he said. “It’s not been a happy experience so far.”

The phone presents a puzzle for users like Mr. Konathala: Who do you call when you have a problem?

Most people use the phone on T-Mobile’s network, which offers a subsidy if a customer buys a contract, and the phone is made by HTC, a major Taiwanese manufacturer. But it is sold exclusively by Google through a special Web-based store.

Despite its central role in the process, Google does not appear to have built a significant infrastructure to provide customer support. There is no phone number for support, for example, and customers who send an e-mail message may wait for days to hear back.

“So far, I have yet to hear from an actual person,” said Mr. Konathala, who first contacted Google for help on Jan. 6. “All I’ve gotten are canned replies.”

Katie Watson, a Google spokeswoman, said no one was available to speak about the service problems. But in an e-mail statement, she said, “Solving customer support issues is extremely important to us.”

She added that Google was working to address problems quickly. “We’re flexible and prepared to make changes to our processes and tools, as necessary, for an optimal customer support experience,” she wrote.

Andy Rubin, Google vice president for engineering in charge of Android technology, acknowledged last week that the company needed to improve. “We have to get better at customer service,” Mr. Rubin said during an on-stage interview at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Instead of taking three days to respond to e-mail messages, he said, “We have to close that three-day gap to a couple of hours.” But Mr. Rubin said that the release of the Nexus One had gone smoothly.

Some analysts said that Google appeared to have misjudged the service demands that come with being in the business of selling sophisticated gadgets.

“They may have been clouded by their own personal experience and way of thinking about how they deal with technology,” said Charles S. Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research. “They’ve got a long way to go in terms of understanding all the components of the retail process — not just selling phones but the after-sales care — to be as skilled in this endeavor as they are in the rest of their endeavors.”

A spokesman for T-Mobile, David Henderson, said that although the Nexus One was not being sold through T-Mobile retail stores, sales representatives knew enough about the family of Android-powered devices to help customers with some questions.

T-Mobile, which addressed the connectivity problems in its support forums, said it was working with HTC and Google to determine the root cause of the problems some Nexus One users were reporting.

Google is not unfamiliar with the business of charging for products. More than a million businesses pay to place ads on Google’s search engine or on Google’s vast network for publishing partners.

But the Nexus One is Google’s first foray into selling hardware directly to consumers.

Relying heavily on automated responses and Internet forums to handle customer service queries may not be sufficient for that kind of device, said Soumen Ganguly, a principal at Altman Vilandrie & Company, a Boston consulting firm that specializes in the communications industry.

“Selling someone a piece of consumer electronics is a very different ballgame,” Mr. Ganguly said. “If you’re a cellphone user and this is your primary phone, waiting one to two days for a response is a long time.”

With the Nexus One, Google aims to extend the reach of its Android operating system for mobile phones. And it hopes to eventually change the retail model of the cellphone market in the United States by becoming a major seller of Android phones made by various manufacturers.

But if that is the goal, it will need to impose a better customer support strategy, Mr. Ganguly said. “Right now, they’re leaving troubleshooting up to the customer,” he said.

Some analysts said the early missteps were fixable. But a black eye from customer complaints could hurt Google’s longer-term goals.

“Having a consumer backlash because of their lack of customer support is not going to help its cause,” said Youssef Squali, an analyst with Jefferies & Company.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Cameras: Drop the Digital SLR and Get EVIL

There’s a new camera category in town. It’s EVIL, and it’s going to kick your DSLR’s ass. EVIL stands for Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens, and is our favorite acronym for cameras like the Olympus Pen, the Lumix GF1 and the Samsung NX10. These small, mirrorless, finderless cameras can fit in a pocket and outperform bulky DSLRs. Here’s why your next camera will probably be EVIL.

They’re Small

DSLRs are bulky. Their design comes from the film days when the only way to see the exact image that would hit the film was to divert the light coming through the lens with a mirror and send it to a viewfinder. This mirror meant the body needed to be deep, and the lenses — further away from the film than those in a mirrorless rangefinder — were also bigger.

Now we can see what the sensor sees either on a screen, or through an electronic finder. With the mirror gone, the body can be a lot smaller, just like a compact digicam. This means you can carry it with you everywhere, fit it in a jacket pocket and be ready for *that* picture, wherever you are.

They Take Great Pictures

The trick with the new EVIL cams is that they have large sensors. In the case of the Samsung NX10, this sensor is the same size as you’d find in a DSLR, and the others use the Micro Four Thirds format, a sensor which is half the size of a 35mm frame, but a lot bigger than the pinkie-nail-sized sensor in a typical compact. This gives the high image quality and low-light sensitivity of a DSLR. And because they have large sensors, the depth of field is shallower, and you can throw a distracting background out of focus.

For most people, that is more than good enough.

You Can Change Lenses

Let’s be honest. If you’re not a pro, you probably bought your fancy DSLR, fixed on the kit zoom  camera lens, and that was it. You probably spend 90 percent, if not all of your time, shooting with this on your camera.

With an EVIL camera, you can do this too. It’s more likely though, given the tiny pocket-sized lenses for these cameras, that you will actually carry them with you. Better still, with an adapter you can use all your current DSLR lenses on the newer, smaller body.

They’re Fast

Compacts have lost out to DSLRs by being slow. Slow to power up, slow to zoom and slow to actually respond to your trigger finger. EVIL cameras have fixed this, and are as responsive as any entry-level DSLR. Watch out which model you go for, though. The current generation still has some trouble focusing as fast as a bigger camera, although some models, like the Panasonic GF1, have this nailed.

They Don’t Scream “Look at Me”

With a smaller camera, you can blend in. With an EVIL camera, you can blend in and still get great shots. This combination of size and quality was the reason the Leica M series was the camera of choice for both street shooters and war reporters, from Henri Cartier Bresson to Sebastião Salgado. And because there is no mirror to flip, they’re quiet, too.

The Con

As a new category, the EVIL is still relatively expensive, and you’ll pay as much for a body and lens as you would for a prosumer level DSLR. For many, even pros, the size difference alone is enough to justify this. For everyone else, you could wait until the likes of Canon and Nikon inevitably enter this sector. Then prices will start to fall, and things will get really interesting.

Unless you have a specific use that these cameras can’t meet, or you need the very highest level of performance only a Canon 1D or Nikon D3 can bring, you have no reason to buy a DSLR. Instead, consider being EVIL. You might like it.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Product Review: Sony's 'Daily Edition' E-Reader

The Wall Street Journal

Sony, the Japanese electronics giant, was a pioneer in the current wave of electronic book readers, introducing its first Sony Reader model back in 2006. But, it has been overtaken by, whose Kindle e-book reader, introduced in 2007, has become almost synonymous with the category. Now, Sony is out with a much-improved model that could make it more competitive.

Unlike the Kindle, Sony's readers weren't wireless and their owners couldn't download books or newspapers directly to the device, instead of via a computer. Now, that problem has finally been solved with Sony's new Reader Daily Edition, a handsome $400 wireless model that I've been testing.

The Daily Edition can be bought at Sony's stores; at its Web site,; and at Best Buy's site, It was sold out for the holidays, but Sony says it expects new stock soon.

The Daily Edition isn't a mere clone of the Kindle. It has a different design philosophy and is stronger in some areas, weaker in others. In general, I enjoyed using it, once I mastered its user interface, which took several days. I especially liked the fact that it packs a larger screen into a comfortably small device, and mostly uses touch navigation instead of all physical controls. For instance, while the Sony does have a small page-turning button, you can more easily turn pages by just swiping your finger across the screen. It's also better at navigating digital newspapers, something I've never found very satisfying on the Kindle.

(Full disclosure: Sony has struck a special deal with Dow Jones, which owns The Wall Street Journal and this Web site. Under the deal, a special late-day edition of the Journal, containing updated news, will be available on the Daily Edition for an extra charge starting later in January.)

On the downside, the Daily Edition has three main flaws when compared with the Kindle. First, it's much more expensive—$400 versus just $259. Second, it has only about half of the commercial, copyrighted digital books that Amazon does—around 200,000 versus the Kindle's roughly 400,000. Sony also throws in a million out-of-copyright, old books, for a total of 1.2 million.

But many of these added million titles are obscure and of little interest to mainstream consumers. The Reader also has just eight newspapers, versus 92 for the Kindle, though Sony says 10 more are coming soon.

Third, the technology that makes the screen touch sensitive also dims it a bit, so the Daily Edition's screen is darker than the Kindle's. (Both are unlit monochrome screens with gray-scale graphics.) I found the Sony screen adequate, but it's tougher to read in lower light.

The Daily Edition is a slender device with a black metal body that contrasts sharply with the wider, white plastic body of the Kindle. While both products use the same basic screen technology, and the same screen width, the Daily Edition's screen is longer; it measures 7 inches versus 6 inches for the Kindle. In my tests, I found this a big advantage, because, when both devices were set for roughly comparable text sizes, the Sony could hold more text on a page, cutting down on the need for page turns, which interrupt reading.

In addition, the Daily Edition is narrower than the Kindle, because the borders around the screen are thinner, since they don't have to accommodate the Kindle's various large buttons or physical keyboard. (You can enter text for notes or searches on the Daily Edition using a stylus for handwriting or a virtual onscreen keyboard.) This longer, narrower shape gives the new Sony a nice feel in the hand.

I also preferred the Sony's method for presenting newspapers, which allowed more headlines to be viewed at once and required fewer steps to navigate through the paper.

The Sony also claims more battery life with wireless turned off, comes with a cover included—an extra-cost item on the Kindle—and can handle more book formats, including the free digital books offered by public libraries. Built-in memory is the same, but the Daily Edition's can be expanded while the Kindle's can't.

Like the Kindle, the new Sony also allows you to drag songs, pictures and some personal documents onto the device from your computer. I did this with no problems.

The Daily Edition has companion software for buying, reading and storing books on both PCs and Macs. But it has no app for a smart phone, and doesn't synchronize your last-read place in your book among the reader and the computer.

Also, I found the Daily Edition required a harder learning process than the Kindle. First, it takes awhile to get the hang of the touch gestures, partly because they require much more pressure than on, say, an iPhone. Second, using touch to bring up features and menus can be a mystery until you consult the manual. For instance, it took days to discover that you could set a bookmark by double-tapping on the upper right corner.

But, all in all, despite its higher price, the Daily Edition is a big leap for Sony and adds another good choice for consumers.

Friday, January 15, 2010

PC Sales Are Up. Will Prices Follow?

PC World

Rising sales hide what may be a profitless tech recession recovery for PC makers, as customers dive for low-end, low-margin "good enough" PCs.

Still, rising component prices could make now the best time to buy hardware this year.

Researchers IDC and Gartner are out today with PC sales estimates for the final quarter of 2009. The numbers look good, supporting the idea, floated earlier this week that the tech recession is "unofficially over."

Worldwide PC sales, which IDC said grew by 15.2 percent and Gartner by 22.1 percent during the fourth quarter of 2009. For the U.S., the numbers were even rosier, with year-over-year sales up 26.5 percent (Gartner) or 24 percent (IDC). (Here is a story that explains the numbers in more detail than I will here).

But, just as every silver lining must hide a cloud, one lurks behind these numbers, too.

Manufacturers of PCs slashed margins to offer powerful computers at low prices. While the tactic made sense for holding onto market share and encouraged the opening of wallets; it also set a higher expectation of value by customers. That is good news if you're buying, but could put sellers into a jam.

Another complication is the rising cost of PC components, which could sometime this year lead to higher prices, once manufacturers have absorbed all the added costs they are willing or able to.

That could make right now a good time to invest in new hardware, as prices may inch up later in the year.

"Good enough" computers may become the new norm for business purchases.

"Without an effective strategy to convey a clear usage model and feature set tied to each segment, the market will inevitably continue down the slippery slope of good-enough computing sold to the lowest bidder," said IDC analyst Jay Chou in a statement.

I have no research to prove it, but my bet is the Q4 sales surge was driven by consumer spending. Business purchases may lag a bit, but the idea of purchasing "good enough" computers is here to stay.

Many companies purchase more powerful computers than employees really need. If they take a close look at what users do all day, those high-end Dells, HPs, and Lenovos, likely don't justify the added cost.

Today's low-cost consumer PCs and laptops often work well as business computers while "real" business computers, which don't need the multimedia whiz-bang popular with consumers, should cost even less. Enterprise IT departments, of course, have different needs, but even they benefit from the tough economy.

It is a buyer's market for PC hardware, which coupled with the introduction of Windows 7 and forthcoming release of Office 2010, makes this is excellent time for businesses to invest in upgraded PC hardware, especially if their users are still on machines purchased with Windows XP.

I've been replacing my PCs; maybe it's time for your company to do so, too.

In What Direction Will Intel Point The U.S. ?

The Wall Street Journal

Intel's earnings growth last year helped power gains in the stock market and signaled recovery in the broader economy. The company's predictive power is worth keeping in mind should its fourth-quarter earnings report on Thursday disappoint.

The semiconductor company is expected to post earnings of 30 cents a share, up from four cents a share in the fourth quarter of 2008, according to analysts polled by Thomson Reuters. Intel's revenue is forecast to hit $10.2 billion, up 23%.

The chip maker has benefited from a stronger recovery in demand for servers and used PCs than initially expected. Consumer electronics were a bright spot of the holiday sales season, likely helping bolster Intel's fourth-quarter results.

The company's shares, which closed Wednesday at $20.96, up 35 cents, or 1.7%, have surged 67% since March, outpacing the Dow Jones Industrial Average's 63% gain during the same period. Even so, some say Intel has further to rise.

"The stock, in our opinion, hasn't reflected the earnings potential the company is likely to enjoy for the next year or two," says Doug Freedman, a senior analyst at Broadpoint AmTech, with a $29 price target on Intel. "Spending on electronics and used desktops looks far more resilient than expected."

Yet other semiconductor analysts, such as those at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, caution the optimism isn't justified. In a research note Wednesday, they cited weaker demand in Asia as one reason for "a potential disappointment" in Intel's fourth-quarter sales.

"We are hard-pressed to be positive ahead of Intel's results," they cautioned, given that expectations "have ratcheted steadily higher in recent weeks."

Meanwhile, another closely watched gauge, the company's gross margins, were projected by Intel in September to swell to 62.2% from 57.6% in the third quarter, on the high end of the company's historical range. Analysts say they are unlikely to hold up at such lofty levels next year.

"The old rule of thumb is to buy at 50% and sell at 60%," says Stacy Rasgon, a senior analyst with Sanford Bernstein. "People will be watching for that signal."

They also will be watching for how investors react, as a selloff on Intel's earnings could raise broader concerns about the vigor of the used notebooks market's rally.

MagicJack Harnesses Femtocell For VoIP

PC World

MagicJack is demonstrating a device near the International Consumer Electronics Show this week that it claims will let consumers make VoIP calls using any GSM phone.

The company already sells a MagicJack made for use with conventional, analog desk phones. In the new product, coming in the second quarter of this year, it will replace the phone jack with a miniature GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) base station, or femtocell. Any GSM phone from any carrier will be able to connect with the femtocell to make VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) calls to anyone in the U.S. and Canada, MagicJack founder Dan Borislow said.

Like other home or voip business services providers, MagicJack sends calls over an IP network instead of the standard public telephone network, so it can sell phone service for less. The company charges US$40 for the MagicJack and includes one free year of service, then charges $20 per year for subsequent years. That covers calls to other MagicJack users as well as to conventional phones. The pricing will remain the same for the new femtocell.

The current MagicJack is a device about the size of a matchbox with a USB connection and a phone jack. The USB connector plugs into the user's computer, loads software onto it, and uses the computer's power, processor and broadband connection. The femtocell will also use the PC, but it will let users make calls with their cell phones instead of wired phones.

Many carriers are already exploring the use of femtocells to improve coverage inside subscribers' homes and ease the strain on their own networks. A femtocell is designed to work like a cellular base station, but only within a home, and to carry calls over the subscriber's own broadband connection instead of the carrier's wired backhaul network.

MagicJack's femtocell lets users bypass mobile operators altogether. It can be used with any GSM  or VoIP phones on any band, including locked phones and the Apple iPhone, Borislow said. He expects most customers to make the calls with old phones that they haven't been using. The femtocell's range is wide enough to cover a 3,000-square-foot (278-square-meter) home, he said. Borislow said he didn't want to disclose how the femtocell can work with locked phones.

MagicJack, a subsidiary of a private company called YMax, launched its product two years ago and so far has sold 5 million MagicJack devices, Borislow said. The MagicJack is sold in retail stores including Best Buy, Walmart and RadioShack. He claims the service operates with 99.9 percent reliability and better call quality than Skype. Ymax, based in Palm Beach, Florida, had revenue of about $30 million in 2008 and $110 million in 2009 and is profitable, he said. Borislow said the service is so successful that the company doesn't have to charge for calls to phones on the public telephone network.

Also in the second quarter, the company plans to introduce a softphone application that will allow consumers to use the service through their PCs, without a MagicJack device. That service will also cost $20 per year, Borislow said.

The MagicJack is set to be demonstrated on Thursday night next to the ShowStoppers product showcase, which is being held on the sidelines of CES in Las Vegas.