Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Chinese Company vs. iPads

First appeared in Associated Press
A Chinese company said Tuesday it will ask customs officials to ban imports and exports of Apple's iPads due to a dispute over ownership of the trademark.

All of Apple's iPads are manufactured in China, meaning global sales of the popular tablet computers might be affected if authorities agreed to enforce such a request by Shenzhen Proview Technology.

The dispute with Proview, which won a court ruling that it owns the iPad name in China, has resulted in authorities seizing iPads from retailers in one city. Proview said it has asked for enforcement in 30 other cities.

"We are now working on a request to China Customs to ban and seize all the import and export of the iPad products that have violated the trademark," said Xie Xianghui, a Proview lawyer. He gave no indication when the request might be filed.

Apple, based in Cupertino, California, defended its ownership of the iPad name.

"We bought Proview's worldwide rights to the iPad trademark in 10 different countries several years ago. Proview refuses to honor their agreement with Apple in China," said an Apple Inc. spokeswoman in Beijing, Carolyn Wu.

Wu declined to comment on the possibility of Proview requesting a ban on iPad imports and exports.

China is Apple's fastest-growing market. Its iPads and iPhones are manufactured by a contractor, Taiwan-based Foxconn Technologies Group, at factories in southern China.

Shenzhen Proview Technology registered the iPad trademark in China in 2001. Apple bought rights to the name from a Taiwan company affiliated with Proview but the mainland company says it still owns the name in China. A Chinese court rejected Apple's claim to the name in China last year. Apple has appealed.

"Our case is still pending in mainland China," Wu said.

Chinese rules allow trademark owners to request seizure of goods that violate their rights, according to Stan Abrams, an American lawyer who teaches intellectual property law at Beijing's Central University of Finance and Economics.

The rules were enacted partly in response to foreign pressure for Beijing to stamp out rampant unlicensed copying of foreign movies, music and designer clothes. Abrams said exports can be seized under rules meant to prevent manufacturers in China from sending unlicensed copies to other markets.

"All of these things that Proview can do, whether it's going to court or Customs, these are the things that we want to see," Abrams said. "So it's definitely ironic."

Chinese news reports say Proview, which makes computer displays, is deep in debt and needs a big settlement from Apple.

Proview has yet to make an offer to settle, said Xie, the company's lawyer.

"We are now focusing our work on upholding rights and haven't made negotiation proposals to Apple yet," he said. "As for the reasons, you should ask Apple."

Shenzhen Proview Technology is a subsidiary of LCD screen maker Proview International Holdings Ltd., headquartered in Hong Kong.

Apple bought rights to the iPad name in 2009 from a Taiwan affiliate, Proview Taipei, that registered it in various countries as early as 2000.

A Chinese court ruled in December that Proview is not bound by that agreement. It rejected Apple's complaint that Proview was violating its rights.

Apple might be able to sue the Taiwan company on contract grounds for selling name rights it didn't own, Abrams said. But he said a victory in such a suit would not give Apple rights to the name on the mainland.

"This kind of thing happens, but it's a mistake and it's a really bad one in this case," Abrams said. "They're paying for it now."

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Turning Geeks Into Batteries

First appeared in the Wall Street Journal
Any geek can tell you that battery life hasn't kept up with gadget innovations. But not to worry: Inventors are figuring out how to turn geeks into batteries.

While most gadget lovers hunt for empty wall sockets to charge their devices, Kevin Bartholomew just plugs his cellphone into his hip. That is where he keeps a nine-inch device looped around his belt that converts the kinetic energy of his motion into enough power to keep his devices running.

Mr. Bartholomew's tube-shaped personal energy generator, called the nPower PEG, can turn 15 minutes of walking into a minute of phone talk time.

It is a good alternative to finding a plug, depending on how much exercise you get, says the 31-year-old electrical engineer from Logan, Utah.

The latest in body-powered technology includes gizmos that absorb excess energy produced by motion, like the jiggle of a backpack or bend of a knee. There are T-shirts that capture the electricity in sound waves, boots that convert walking into energy and solar panels that attach to everything from pants to bikes.

A tech truism called Moore's Law holds that computing power will grow exponentially, as transistors get smaller. But it doesn't apply to batteries. Apple Inc.'s latest iPhone 4S comes with eight hours of talking time—exactly as much as the original iPhone model that came out in 2007.

The battery deficit has created a market opportunity for companies like Goal Zero, of Salt Lake City. It first started making personal-size solar panels in 2007 for cellphones in Africa, but found a need among gadget addicts closer to home, says President Joe Atkin. Last year, he sold some 200,000 foldable 14-inch solar chargers. "It is about freedom," says Mr. Atkin.

Marc D. Latrique, a media liaison at the United Nations in New York, carries his personal solar panel with him every day "just in case, for any reason, I'm stuck in a situation where I won't have access to an outlet," he says.

While solar panel technology has been around for a long time, recent innovations have made the panels portable and efficient enough for folks to use as everyday personal power generators.

To keep the juice flowing, Mr. Latrique, 38, seeks out windows and sunny patches in the street. In pursuit of power, he has wrapped his panel around his jeans and clipped it to his backpack. In an clumsier episode, he accidentally set it afloat on a Hawaiian beach.

On a recent flight, he hooked his panel up to the plane window to charge his daughter's iPod. "My daughter said, 'Oh, Daddy, you are saving the planet.'" His response: "No, I'm just being convenient."

There is much more potential to energize humans, say inventors.

Last summer, for the Glastonbury music festival in Scotland, British phone carrier Orange produced T-shirts that used a so-called piezoelectric panel to convert sound pressure waves into electricity. The panel allowed those standing close enough to the speakers to charge a smartphone.

One finding: The "Sound Charge" shirts collected more energy with dance music than jazz or classical, says Mat Sears, a spokesman for Orange parent company Everything Everywhere. That is because bass notes—more common in dance tunes—carry more energy. "But it didn't seem to care who was singing," he says.
Zhong Lin Wang, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is tackling a new kind of power suit—made from fabric that uses nanotechnology to generate energy as the body moves around.

Any wrinkle in shirts, pants—even undergarments—made with the fabric produces a charge, he says. The trick involves super-slim wires, measuring one-thousandth the width of a strand of hair, that are woven into the fabric. When the specially treated plastic and zinc material moves, it creates mechanical energy that can be harvested by a capacitor, so nobody gets shocked.

Mr. Wang's self-powering clothes are at least two years away, he says.

Knees are another frontier. Max Donelan has been working for roughly a decade on a device that captures energy as people walk with a generator attached to their legs.

Knee muscles naturally push and pull upon one another to speed the body up and slow it down, he says. The device, which is being made by a company called Bionic Power Inc., captures energy by selectively turning on a generator at certain parts of the stride.

"As long as you're walking, you have access to energy," says Mr. Donelan, who is Bionic Power's chief science officer. The downside is comfort: His knee braces weigh roughly two pounds per leg, about the same as one worn by a professional basketball player.

The nPower PEG, used by Mr. Bartholomew, was one of the first commercial kinetic energy generators when it came out last year—and its maker, Tremont Electric Inc., is already sold out.

The idea came to inventor Aaron LeMieux, 37, when he was backpacking along the Appalachian Trail. "I was always stopping into towns to buy batteries to keep my electronics running," he says. "I was paying $10 or $12 for a pack of batteries that are heavy, expensive and didn't supply all the power I needed."

His solution is a metal rod that produces energy when a mechanism inside moves up and down with the motion of the person wearing it.

But it is not for the sedentary geek. "It won't take your iPhone off the power grid unless you're a long-distance backpacker," says Mr. LeMieux.

Victor Sherwood, 24, rarely goes out without the PEG sitting upright in his backpack to build up a charge, he says.

One time, though, the field IT engineer left his PEG unshaken in his car for several days exactly at a moment when he needed it: during a late-night job at a warehouse when his phone ran out of juice.

So Mr. Sherwood turned himself into a human power station, running around and shaking his PEG up and down like a jackhammer, to create more energy.

"I got enough of a charge that I could call the boss and tell him that my phone was dead," he says.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Sony CEO Warns of $2.9 Billion Loss

First appeared in Reuters
Ailing Japanese electronics giant Sony Corp warned it was heading for a bigger-than-expected $2.9 billion annual loss, presenting a daunting task for incoming CEO Kazuo Hirai, who vowed to move quickly to turn things around.

Overtaken by more innovative rivals such as Apple Inc and Samsung Electronics over the past decade, Sony posted a $2.1 billion net loss for October-December, normally a strong quarter boosted by year-end holiday sales, as it battled a strong yen, flooding in Thailand that ruptured supply chains, and a weak economy.

It also took a one-off charge for exiting a flat panel joint venture with Samsung, and said sales dropped 17 percent to 1.82 trillion yen.

The forecast for a 220 billion yen ($2.9 billion) net loss for the year to March, Sony's fourth straight year of red ink, was close to double what the market had expected, and revealed the task ahead for Hirai, who replaces Howard Stringer as CEO in April.

Hirai, a 51-year old Sony veteran known for reviving the PlayStation gaming operations through aggressive cost-cutting, said he would not hesitate to scale back or withdraw from businesses if they were not competitive.

"I have a very strong sense of crisis about the environment surrounding us," Hirai told a news conference. "We cannot be afraid to make painful choices for the future of Sony. Our rivals and the operating environment won't wait for us."

There is unlikely to be a honeymoon period for Hirai, who is under immediate pressure to sort out the ailing TV business after it fell behind South Korean rivals such as Samsung in a market where prices are tumbling.

Above all, Hirai will strive to recapture the innovative flair that led Sony to come up with the Walkman personal music-player in the 1980s and the PlayStation in the 1990s, and regain ground lost since then to Apple and Samsung whose iPhones, iPads and Galaxy gadgets are snapped up by consumers.

Some analysts believe Hirai -- 51, tall, urbane and a fluent English speaker -- can rekindle the flame, saying he has a good grasp of the overall business and is likely to know how to break down its silos and integrate its divisions.

Others are less optimistic about his chances.

"It won't be easy for Sony to regain its lost ground under new leadership, as its overall competitiveness has sharply weakened," said Kim Young-Chan, analyst at Shinhan Investment Corp in Seoul.

"It's got structural problems that will take years to fix.

"It's not just Sony, but Japanese IT firms have similar problems. They are failing to innovate and produce industry-leading products in almost every major area - from TVs to displays, tablets and smartphones."

Hisashi Kuroda, general manager of equity investment at Meiji Yasuda Asset Management in Tokyo said Sony had to take tough decisions.

"Unless they do radical reforms, like the ones that would put everything completely upside down, Sony may not be able even to make profits."


A chief concept in Hirai's strategy hinges on merging Sony's robust roster of entertainment properties - including singers Kelly Clarkson and Michael Jackson, and the "Spider-Man" and "Men in Black" film franchises - with its Vaio, Bravia and other electronics brands, in an effort to boost sales.

He said the TV business would be crucial to this "convergence" strategy, brushing aside suggestions it may need to pull out of the market even with the business set to lose 220-230 billion yen this financial year.

"There's still a chance in home electronics and I don't think Sony should quit TV's, but unfortunately I can imagine the day may come when they will pull the plug on the business," said a former engineer and executive at Sony.

"This is because when you keep making losses and you have no fresh ideas, that becomes the easy choice."

Chief Financial Officer Masaru Kato said Sony aimed to halve losses on flat TVs in the next financial year from April, when as a company it hopes to make an operating profit of about 200 billion yen.

Hirai singled out medical as a potential core business for the future, but he declined to comment on any possible investment in troubled endoscope maker Olympus Corp.


Welsh-born Stringer, a former journalist who ran U.S. broadcaster CBS, was brought in as a rare foreign CEO in Japan to shake things up, but many analysts see his major achievement as cost-cutting.
Sony's shares have lost nearly two-thirds of their value since Stringer, who turns 70 this month, took the helm as CEO and chairman in 2005.

Stringer sold off TV factories in Spain, Slovakia and Mexico and outsourced more than half of its production to other companies, including Hon Hai Precision Industry, the contract electronics maker whose key customer is Apple.

Recently, Sony exited an LCD panel venture with Samsung, enabling it to obtain screens for its TVs more cheaply. It also agreed to buy out Ericsson's half of their smartphone venture for $1.5 billion to shore up its position in a market where Apple and Samsung have become leaders.

Hirai was effectively anointed as Stringer's successor last March when he was promoted to head Sony's consumer products and services businesses, which produce the bulk of Sony's $85 billion in annual sales.
"They've been grooming him for a while," said Dan Ernst, Hudson Square analyst. "I think he will carry on the plan for Sony - as difficult as it is."

The last year has been brutal for many Japanese companies, hit by a strong yen that hurt exports, and two natural disasters - the March earthquake in Japan and the Thai floods.

Stringer said those disasters and the Lehman shock of 2008 had hit Sony hard and masked much of the progress made during his watch.

"If we hadn't reformed Sony as we did, can you imagine where we would be today," Stringer said. "I rest my case."

($1=76.13 yen)