Friday, August 31, 2007

NBC Universal will not renew iTunes distribution deal

NBC Universal is the number one supplier of digital video that is distributed on iTunes, with 40% of the downloads, yet it was unable to come to terms with Apple - over what else, money. Because of this, it will not be renewing its distribution contract with Apple.

The company’s contract to sell more than 1,500 hours of news, sports and entertainment programming on iTunes expires at the end of December. NBC was required to inform Apple by Friday if the contract would not renewed, said Amy Zelvin, spokeswoman for NBC Universal Digital. Source: Forbes

Note that non-NBC shows such as Battlestar Galactica (sob, this is the last season!) and Psych would also be affected. This is another example of the trouble many media companies are having with iTunes’ pricing policies. Many companies have been outspoken about wanted “more” in terms of pricing, as well as different tiers of pricing. Additionally, let’s not forget that NBC Universal will be launching a private beta of its own video service, Hulu, in October.

Update: iTunes upped the ante by saying they would drop Universal before their contract expires, just prior to the fall season.



Amazon.com to launch MP3-download service in September

In the spring Amazon.com said it would unveil a digital music store by year's-end. It looks like they are going to beat their timeline. Sources indicate that Amazon.com will launch an MP3-based music service in mid-September. However, it's also indicated that the date is somewhat fluid, as it has been pushed back several times already (shades of Microsoft and Windows Vista!).

Because of the DRM-free format, the services, although it will carry somewhere around 1 million tracks at launch, will be missing both Sony BMG and Warner Music Group, who have not joined the DRM-free revolution. It will, however, have music from Universal Music Group, EMI and a large number of independent labels.

Amazon is expected to have at least two prices for individual songs: 99¢ for new and popular MP3s, and 89¢ for music from emerging artists and back catalog tracks.

Albums are expected to cost between $7.99 and $9.99. This one-size-fits-all pricing strategy, which most online stores have, is still a major irritant to most labels.

Earlier this month Wal-Mart announced its own MP3-based music download store.



Thursday, August 30, 2007

Third lawsuit over iPhone battery filed

It's been nearly two weeks since the last Apple iPhone battery lawsuit. How time flies when lawyers are preparing briefs.

The suit was filed in Oakland, CA by
Zoltan and Ynez Stiener. The suit, filed as a class action complaint, charges that Apple and AT&T failed to tell iPhone purchasers of the cost involved in battery replacement.

Interestingly,
one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs is Oakland-based lawyer H. Tim Hoffman. He also represents Sydney Leung, who filed the second lawsuit against Apple and AT&T nearly two weeks ago.

Let's not forget the first lawsuit, filed in Illinois in July, by Jose Trujillo. Although it was public knowledge long before the iPhone was launched that the battery was not user-replaceable, the replacement plan was not revealed until after the device went on sale - and this is the crux of the lawsuits.

I'm still not convinced of the validity of these suits, although some experts say there is some legitimacy to them, at least if the purchases took place before the replacement plan was revealed. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if this ends up the same way the iPod battery lawsuit did, with Apple settling out of court.


EarthLink drops out of San Francisco Wi-Fi Plan

This actually comes as no surprise, based on EarthLink's announcement of a 50% reduction in force two days ago. At the same time as the RIF, EarthLink said that it needed to re-evaluate its municipal wi-fi plans, as CEO Rolla Huff indicated in a statement:
"I love the concept of citywide Wi-Fi. But a business model built around EarthLink fronting all the capital and then paying for subscribers one at a time is not viable. We'll continue to scale the networks where money is already spent, but we won't deploy new capital on this strategy under the old business model."
It appears the re-evaluation went very quickly, as EarthLink late yesterday announced they were dropping out of the San Francisco project. The contract had been approved in January, but the S.F. Board of Supervisors had dragged its feet over final approval.

The Board asked for faster speed and a shorter contract, for example. Mayor Gavin Newsome lay the blame on the Board, saying, "I'm disappointed because we had a chance to get it done, and it didn't happen. The board delayed it, and now EarthLink could not be more pleased."

The Board fired back, saying it was good that the contract was not finalized, as it would have been a questionable deal. Regardless of who is to blame, the deal is dead (at least for now), and places like Starbucks, who charge for wi-fi, can breathe easier.


Tivo Posts Loss, Loses Subscribers

When Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. won a controlling interest in DirecTV, I said it was going to be a major problem for Tivo, because Murdoch would want to use his own DVRs. And since then it's been rough going for Tivo (not that it was a cakewalk before). The latest results show a $17.7 million dollar loss, as well as a loss in subscribers, from 4.3 million to 4.2 million.

Tivo has blamed this on the fact that their HD DVR was priced, at $799, too high. In the second quarter report, released yesterday, Tivo said:
TiVo-Owned subscription gross additions for the second quarter were 41,000, compared to 74,000 gross additions for the year-ago period. As has been the case in recent quarters, gross subscription additions were impacted by the pace at which retailers moved to a high definition sales focus.
Additionally, in the report, CEO Tom Rogers was quoted as saying:
"Increased consumer demand for high definition products, which accelerated retailers’ movement toward high definition sales, resulted in a continuation of the tepid trend in standard definition sales. Consequently, we ended the quarter with higher than anticipated inventory levels of long-lead time components and parts related to our standard definition product."
While that is certainly some of it, I think the loss of DirecTV as a partner has hurt them, as I expected it would. Also, despite their two-year old deal to supply DVRs to Comcast, there have been no commercial rollouts of that DVR yet. They need to re-connect with DirecTV (recent report have indicated some movement in this direction since News Corp.'s exit) and complete the Comcast rollout if they truly want to recover.


Windows XP SP3 - nothing to get excited about

Poor Windows XP gets no attention anymore. The big news this week has been the formal announcement of Windows Vista SP1. But Windows XP will get a service pack, too - SP3. However, it'll just be a boring rollup of all the fixes since SP2, meaning all you'll be getting is a new "baseline" to start from. If you install a Windows XP system, or if an OEM builds one, it'll be SP3 instead of SP2.

In a way, this is nice because they'll be no more downloading of patches, or using Autopatcher - oh, wait, we can't do that any longer, can we?


Age is just a number, at least in online profiles

"Can I see your I.D.?" You probably ought to be asking that if you hook up using online services. Even if they say they are 18 - and even if the website has statements saying they are - if they're not, you can be charged, according to a judge.

In the case, an anonymous plaintiff, listed as John Doe in court records, joined SexSearch.com in order to search for ... well, sex. He eventually hooked up with someone anonymously listed as Jane Roe in the court documents. On the site, her birthdate was listed June 15, 1987, making her 18 at the time. One thing led to another. Months later, Doe was arrested - as Roe was actually a 14-year-old.

Facing a felony statutory rape charge, he sued SexSearch.com, saying that the statements on the site which indicated "all persons within this site are 18+" misled him and that SexSearch.com had been negligent.

However, Judge Jack Zouhary didn't buy that, saying in his 29-page ruling,
"He was aware the SexSearch membership registration process did not include an age-verification procedure. As noted above, Plaintiff specifically agreed to Terms and Conditions which stated that SexSearch did not guarantee or verify any information provided by users of the website, and nothing outside of the Terms and Conditions creates warranties."
Additionally, the judge said, SexSearch.com was shielded under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which states that "no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." In other words, if you publish something provided by others, and they misrepresent themselves, you are not liable.

Unfortunately for Doe, he could be facing 15 years in prison and sex offender status because of this. Ouch.


Windows Activation Server Outage: Human Error

Remember the WGA server outage of a few days ago, the one which basically resulted in everyone trying to activate - or patch - being labeled a pirate? It was caused by the one thing it's almost impossible to guard against: human error.

According to Microsoft, as they wrote on the WGA blog:

How did this happen in the first place?

Nothing more than human error started it all. Pre-production code was sent to production servers. The production servers had not yet been upgraded with a recent change to enable stronger encryption/decryption of product keys during the activation and validation processes. The result of this is that the production servers declined activation and validation requests that should have passed.

Why did it take so long to fix?

While the response to the activation issue was quick (less than thirty minutes) the effect on our validation service continued even after the rollback took place. We expected the rollback to fix both issues at the same time but we now realize that we didn't have the right monitoring in place to be sure the fixes had the intended effect.

And, some clarity on how things are supposed to work. If the servers are down, the system is designed so that all activations are defaulted to "genuine." In this case the servers returned an erroneous value, which answers my question in my earlier post about why the system couldn't simply recognize a server outage - it wasn't an outage.

While it's nice to get a how and why, it's doesn't necessarily assuage my issues with activated software in general. However, if I want to use Windows, I'm pretty much painted into a corner.


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Microsoft (Finally) Announces Windows Vista SP1 Beta

After much speculation, builds leaked to P2P networks, and closed beta testing - without specific public details about SP1 - Microsoft today posted an announcement on their official Windows Vista blog detailing SP1 and their plans for it.

Now is the time and the time is now: let’s talk about Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1). Much has been made of what will or will not be included in SP1 and when it will be released (some accurate, some otherwise). I’m here to set the story straight: we’re in the process of developing and deploying a Beta version of SP1. This post will describe for you what to expect from that effort and how you can be involved in the process.

What is SP1? What is it not?

In addition to updates we’ve previously released, SP1 will contain changes focused on addressing specific reliability and performance issues we’ve identified via customer feedback, supporting new types of hardware, and adding support for several emerging standards. SP1 also makes additional improvements to the IT administration experience. We didn’t design SP1 as a vehicle for releasing new features; however, some existing components do gain enhanced functionality in SP1. Source: Official Windows Vista blog

So, they say they are targeting SP1 for Q1 2008. Based on the delivery of Vista itself, that could mean anytime in 2008. Since many analysts are recommending corporations hold off on Vista until SP1 - much as analysts did with XP - it's in Microsoft's best interests to get SP1 out ASAP.


A Gift from Microsoft - Goodbye to the "AutoPatcher Project"

Some of you may never have heard of AutoPatcher. Well, how many of you have received a new computer with Windows XP SP2, and immediately hooked it up to the Internet to download all the post-SP2 hotfixes? What a pain, right? AutoPatcher was the fix for that. I say was - more on that later.

From their FAQ, which will probably go down soon:
Q: What is AutoPatcher?

A: AutoPatcher could be described as an offline Windows Update. AutoPatcher provides an interface to a large collection of updates, common applications and registry tweaks, that can be easily and quickly applied to your computer system.

Q: What are the advantages of AutoPatcher over Windows Update?

A: The main advantage is that you just have to do one download in order to have all the patches and add-ons, such as Sun Java, MSN Messenger 7.x and Windows Media Player 10. If you have many computers or if you format your computer frequently, it saves both time and bandwidth. With AutoPatcher, you can install critical patches offline, eliminating the risk of getting infected while using Windows Update. You can also come in handy when updating a friends PC, if he/she can't access the Internet (or uses a narrowband connection).
For IT admininstrators, or just John Q. Public, this was a great tool. AutoPatcher also reduced the number of reboots, and handled the "can't install X until Y is installed first" problems. They had flavors for XP, Vista, Windows 2003 Server. And it was free! Now it's gone.

According to the AutoPatcher project, posted today:

Today we received an e-mail from Microsoft, requesting the immediate take-down of the download page, which of course means that AutoPatcher is probably history. As much as we disagree, we can do very little, and although the download page is merely a collection of mirrors, we took the download page down.

We would like to thank you for your support. For the past 4 years, it has been a blast. Unfortunately, it seems like it's the end of AutoPatcher as we know it.

Comments are welcome...

Antonis Kaladis

neowin.net was a mirror, and they have this post:
I had a call from Microsoft Legal this morning and they have told me that we are no longer allowed to endorse AutoPatcher on Neowin.

Microsoft will only allow updates to be downloaded from its own servers.

AutoPatcher started in 2003 and has been redistributed in some of the worlds best computer magazine cover CD/DVD's. I have no explanation for why Microsoft allowed it to continue unchecked for 4 years before making this decision.

I asked the representative if Windows Genuine Advantage had anything to do with it and he categorically told me this was not the case, he added that Windows Update for pre-Vista versions of Windows can now be accessed using Firefox and that the concern at Microsoft had more to do with the possible malicious code that could be redistributed with certified Microsoft updates.

We have no grounds to challenge the decision by Microsoft.
Until this point, some representatives from Microsoft had even endorsed AutoPatcher! Why the change? All it takes is a little thought. These patches and updates don't require WGA in order to be installed. Thus, a hacked copy could get patches.

I can see that, but this just hurts the legitimate users. And with the WGA server outage last weekend, during which you couldn't get patches, this is a great time to do this, isn't it?
I recommended this tool to all my friends; I have been using it for years. It's sad to see it's gone.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Software Unlocking of Cell Phones: Legal and Illegal

Over the weekend I wrote about how Uniquephones.com was forced to halt distribution of its software unlocking product for the iPhone, after receiving a threatening phone call from AT&T lawyers. At the time, I believed the exemption in the DMCA, which I pointed out in the original article, would suffice to permit Uniquephones.com to sell this service - but I may have been wrong.

I was correct that the exemption exists. Apparently, however, it does not specifically protect those who were to distribute such tools, for profit. In other words, if Uniquephones.com were to release this as freeware or open source, all bets are off. If they try to profit from it, it's an iffy proposition.

Worse, I also learned this exemption has to be renewed every three years. Thus, you can expect in 2009 high-powered lawyers for corporations who have their (ahem) hands in politicians' pockets to be stringently as hard as possible to close this loophole.

Since the iPhone is not subsidized, unlike most other phones, it really makes no sense - to us, anyway. To AT&T it obviously makes a great deal of sense to hold a monopoly like this. Basically you pay hundreds of dollars for a gadget and are locked into one carrier. While this is the case with other devices, the subsidy usually makes it more palatable. One can only hope Congress continues to look at this issue.


Government-Sponsored Chinese Anti-Corruption Game Proves Too Popular

Well, I couldn't have played it anyway, seeing as it was all in Chinese. "Incorruptible Warrior Online," sponsored in part by the Communist Party Discipline Inspection Commission of Haishu District, Ningbo City, Zhejiang Province, is a game set in ancient China. The idea is to combat graft by killing corrupt officials, all the while avoiding attacks by their henchmen and bikini-clad mistresses.

Obviously, though this game is set in ancient times, corruption is a big problem today in China. Much as America's Army is designed to encourage people to - well, join the Army - this game is designed to promote anti-graft measures.

The problem is, it's been too popular. Servers were designed to handle up to 600 players, but in the first week alone the game attracted 10,000! As with any video game that has some manner of violence, there has been some criticism over using violence in a game that's supposed to teach a lesson. Let's be honest though - this game wouldn't get such a big following if there wasn't some violence - despite the bikinis.


Monday, August 27, 2007

Sony: Back to the Rootkit Biz

It's been nearly two years since since Sony got into the rootkit business. Not intentionally, but the DRM installed by Sony BMG CDs when you tried to play them on your PC had rootkit qualities. Not only that, but in a real-life example of the vulnerability, hackers used it to hack World of Warcraft.

Unfortunately, it seems Sony did not learn its lesson. Security company F-Secure charged Monday that the Sony MicroVault USM-F line of USB flash drives installs files in a hidden folder that can be accessed and used by hackers - once again, much as a rootkit.

The product installs a driver that hides in a hidden directory under "c:\windows". The reason the directory is cloaked is a good one - the drives include fingerprint security and the authentication files are hidden to prevent tampering.

While that's all fine, the fact that the folder can be used by a resourceful hacker is very similar to the earlier fiasco. In a post on F-Secure's blog, Mikko Hypponen, F-Secure's chief research officer, said:
The Sony MicroVault USM-F fingerprint reader software that comes with the USB stick installs a driver that is hiding a directory under "c:\windows\". So, when enumerating files and subdirectories in the Windows directory, the directory and files inside it are not visible through Windows API. If you know the name of the directory, it is e.g. possible to enter the hidden directory using Command Prompt and it is possible to create new hidden files. There are also ways to run files from this directory. Files in this directory are also hidden from some antivirus scanners (as with the Sony BMG DRM case) — depending on the techniques employed by the antivirus software. It is therefore technically possible for malware to use the hidden directory as a hiding place.
What's that old saying? "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Here we go again.


TorrentSpy Closes to U.S. Users

TorrentSpy has closed its doors to U.S. users. As you may know, last year the Motion Picture Association of America sued TorrentSpy, a BitTorrent search engine, for alleged copyright infringement by aiding users in trading pirated material. As part of the ruling against the site, a judge ordered TorrentSpy to begin tracking its users.

Rather than do that, the site has chosen to block U.S. users, in a sort of pyrrhic victory over the MPAA.

You can still visit the site, but if you try to search, you get the following message:
Torrentspy Acts to Protect Privacy

Sorry, but because you are located in the USA you cannot use the search features of the Torrentspy.com website.Torrentspy's decision to stop accepting US visitors was NOT compelled by any Court but rather an uncertain legal climate in the US regarding user privacy and an apparent tension between US and European Union privacy laws.
One more BitTorrent search engine down - but there are still plenty to choose from, so I doubt the MPAA will see much of an effect from this - and there's still the big favorite to contend with, The Pirate Bay.


Microsoft Launches "Hackers' Blog"

It's no secret that Microsoft employs hackers to test the security of its products - and as we all know, this is a good thing, based on the number of vulnerabilities in Microsoft software, as well as the ubiquitousness of their products.

Microsoft has even attended - and held - hacker conferences. Still, Microsoft has been pretty closed-mouthed about these activities. Times may be a-changing however, as over the weekend Microsoft quietly unveiled a Hackers' Blog, called hackers @ microsoft.

There's only one post there, a sort of "Hello, World" type of post by techjunkie. It says, in part:
Welcome to a new blog from Microsoft. The focus of this blog is likely to be a little different from most other blogs you'll see on blogs.msdn.com. Microsoft employs some of the best hackers in the world and actively recruits them and develops them. They work on all kinds of projects, whether it be in development, research, testing, management and of course security. Of course, there is controversy even in the word "hacker" but I don't think that should stop us from using it in the manner I think is the most appropriate. At his or her core, a true hacker is someone who is curious and wants to learn how systems work. This can and of course at Microsoft is done in an ethical, legal manner.
It'll be interesting to see what comes out of this blog.


Yahoo Adding SMS, IM Capabilities to Yahoo Mail

Yahoo Mail will be announcing today that it is adding the capability to write SMS messages directly from its web-based portal, as well as allowing users to instant message directly from the site. As with most feature rollouts of this sort, it will take a few weeks for all users to see the new functionality (including me). While this is certainly adds capabilities, to me it's a sort of "so what" list of new features.

For one thing, I can send a text message to my wife's cell phone by simply typing in the email address associated with her cell phone. Some carriers allow a friendly type of email address, such as xxx@carriername.com, or something like that. Even if they don't, it's usually something as easy as phonenumber@carriername.com. And my wife can text message back to me and it comes directly to my email address. So this feature does nothing for me.

Additionally, the instant messaging features are great if you use Yahoo Messenger. But I interface with a lot of people, who use all manner of different IM clients, so I use Trillian, so I can cross over into the different IM worlds. Once again, that feature doesn't wow me.

Not that there's anything wrong with adding their features. But what would really grab me is a cross-client IM solution directly in their web portal. Even then, I'd be hard pressed to switch from Gmail. I have all my mail, even my POP3 email, sent there - and I can reply directly with the different email addresses - so I really don't see a pressing need to switch.


Sunday, August 26, 2007

Blogger adds direct video upload support

Blogger has added support for video uploads to their site. Although you could easily add YouTube videos before, now you can upload your own videos without using a 3rd party service. The service went live on Friday.

To do so, click on the Add Video icon on the editor toolbar. You get a popup window which allows you to select the file you want to upload.

You select the file, add a title if you'd like, and upload. Naturally, on an asymmetric connection like DSL and cable modem in the U.S., you've got quite a wait. Once it's done, though you have a video player embedded in your post.

While it's uploading, you can continue to edit your post, but you can't publish until the uploading process is completed.

As the upload window itself says, Blogger " accepts AVI, MPEG, QuickTime, Real, and Windows Media, 100 MB maximum size."

I tried uploading a video, and it indeed worked, but I couldn't figure out how to center justify or right justify the video player on the screen.


Disconnected cell phones increasingly used for prank 911 calls

All cell phones have the ability to make a 911 call even if the service on the phone is disconnected. This is a requirement of the Federal Comunications Commission, and while this is an obvious safety measure, it's also being misused by some -particularly kids and teens - to make prank calls to 911.

Dispatchers are helpless because calls from emergency-call-only phones do not show a callback number or any location information. Smart pranksters know that, and know they can't be caught.

"Kids call us and swear at us because they know we can't do anything about it," said dispatch supervisor Wendy Brimhall.

I heard about this on NPR, and although I see the necessity for allowing the 911 calls - I have a few questions.

First, apparently some of this occurs when parents give their kids disconnected cell phones to play with. Why give them the phone with a battery included?

Secondly, why not donate the phones? There are plenty of ways to donate a cell phone for the underprivileged. And you get a tax break in the process.

Finally, how are these kids keeping the darn things charged? Do the parents give them the charger, too?


TEMPO Hard Drive Mimics Trash Bin, Stores Deleted Files

The folks at Cagina Design have come up with something cool - the TEMPO is an external hard drive, but it mimics the appearance of a trash can. The idea is that files are automatically copied to the drive when you delete them from your computer - thus the trash can imagery.

As the drive fills up, leds light the "can" from the bottom up. According to their site, you can use this for normal external storage as well. However, it uses Bluetooth as the transmission medium, and that only has a transmission rate of 1MBps, so I'd like to see how it works with large files.

I also hope it works better than the Bluetooth headsets I've tried, which are frequently hit-or-miss.

It's still just a concept for Cagina Design's client intech, so no pricing or release information is available yet.


Saturday, August 25, 2007

iPhone Software Unlocking Delayed by AT&T Threats

Yesterday I told you about the software unlocking of the iPhone performed by two different companies. One of them, Uniquephones.com, was to go live with its solution today on its www.iphoneunlocking.com site. However, John McLaughlin, founder of Uniquephones, said that he received a phone call about 3 AM Saturday local time (the firm is based in Belfast, Northern Ireland) from a man claiming to be from a law firm calling on behalf of AT&T.

"They said if we did release this, that they would be within their rights to go after us," McLaughlin said. "These are bullying tactics."

How solid is AT&T's case? Not solid, IMHO - though I am not a lawyer. There is an exemption to the DMCA that explicitly exempts unlocking of cell phones. In this .PDF, right on the U.S. Copyright Office website, which references a new set of exemptions as of November 2006, it specifically says and exempts:
Computer programs in the form of firmware that enable wireless telephone handsets to connect to a wireless telephone communication network, when circumvention is accomplished for the sole purpose of lawfully connecting to a wireless telephone communication network.
In English: as long as the locks are bypassed so that you can legally connect to a cellular network (i.e., you aren't doing it to get free service), it's fine.

Sounds like AT&T does not have a leg to stand on. However, what it does have is powerful lawyers and a load of cash. It's possible this lawsuit it meant to drain Uniquephones.com and the second unlocker, iPhoneSIMfree.com. And if that's the case, it's another example of corporate bullying and it's basically hurting us, consumers.


Server Outage Causes Worldwide Windows Activation Headaches

And this is reason #1 that I hate any software that’s activated and that, if I can avoid it, I won’t buy it. It seems, however, I have little choice when it comes to my OS (yes, yes, I know about Linux and OS X Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket). Users trying to activate both XP and Vista weren’t able to, as a Windows Genuine Advantage server outage shut down things worldwide …

Last night I decided to finally update my wife's laptop to Windows Vista. When I tried to activate, I couldn't. It made absolutely no sense as it was a perfectly legitimate copy of Vista Business.

It was easy to find the problem at the Microsoft Vista Validations Support Forum. There were postings galore. What I couldn't find was a solution. Basically, it was obvious there was a server outage, and all Microsoft could say was for users to "try again later." The outage apparently started last night.

According to a Microsoft post it's since been resolved - today at around 12:50PM PDT according o the post. But it just goes to show you what can happen with activated software when the activation servers go awry.

I since completed activation of my wife's system, but why do I expect this to show up in one of those funny Apple vs. PC ads? Oh, and someone explain to me why WGA can't be smart enough to figure out when a server outage occurs, and indicate that to the user, instead of telling him he has invalid software?


Headphones "tattle" if you crank the volume

There has been a lot of attention paid to hearing loss and MP3 players, especially ones that use earbud headsets. Although some vendors such as Apple have included updates to their software which allows parents to lock the volume level, most do not.

Here comes a set of headphones that, although they don't lock the volume level, readily lets you know if your kids have raised the volume to an unsafe level (most likely this product will go over like a lead balloon with teens). The Guardian HA-31 headphones, by Hamilton Electronics, has red and green LEDs on the earcup. If you can't guess, red means "too loud". Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

One thing I hadn't thought of, and that is noted in their press release, is that the headphones, while "tattling," might really be telling you your kid's hearing is already impaired, rather than that he is in danger of damaging it. Something to consider.

The MSRP for the headsets is $39.95. Hamilton Electronics has been selling electronics to schools since 1933. The full press release is here.


Swap your cell phone to avoid early termination fees

Do you really, really want to get your hands on an iPhone - but can't get out of your contract? Or something less iPhone-centric: maybe you moved and your service is horrible in your new location - yet, you don't want to get stuck with that early termination fee. There are websites, which most people don't know about, that will help you unload that contract to someone who wants it.

The big players are CellTradeUSA.com and Cellswapper.com. CellTradeUSA.com charges $19.99 and Cellswapper.com $18.95 for their basic services to the person wanting to "opt out"; for the person who wants to "opt in" to a contract it's free.

It's obvious why someone would want to get out, but why would someone want to get in? Actually, a little thought and it's equally as obvious. You assume someone else's plan, and you're not stuck with the normal length of contract. Additionally, there's no activation fee.

It's no problem in terms of getting the phone companies to do the transfer - they'll do it. And "buyers" must pass a credit check. FAQs for CellTradeUSA.com and Cellswapper.com are available, here and here.

Although this is an easy and cheap escape route for some, don't forget this: when phone companies change their terms, customers usually get a limited time to exit a contract without incurring a termination fee. Make sure you read notices from companies so you are aware of these opportunities - if you want out, that is.


Friday, August 24, 2007

iPhone software unlock now available

Just a day ago we wrote about the hardware unlocking of the iPhone done by geohot, AKA George Hotz. Naturally the mainstream press didn't pick it up until today. While that was great, everyone wants a software unlock, as you don't have to tear apart your iPhone to unlock it. And here it is - or at least will be, tomorrow.

Uniquephones, who we wrote about earlier, will be posting the software on their www.iphoneunlocking.com site between noon and 2 p.m. Eastern Time tomorrow. They have already had 450,000 users sign up. Uniquephones plans to charge between $25 and $50 for the software, but users who have already signed up will receive either a 25 or 50% discount.

Additionally, another group, which runs iPhoneSIMfree.com, has promised to release their software unlocking solution next week. There's no word on their pricing structure however.

Once these services start, a user will be able to use the iPhone on any GSM network worldwide - and without breaking a sweat, as with the prior hardware process.

iPhoneSIMfree.com claims their process is upgrade and restore-resistant. The process was shown to the guys at enGadget, and they have a video to prove it.

While Uniquephones didn't show their solution to anyone, I have no reason to doubt them, as they have provided plenty of other unlocking solutions for other phones.

So what does this mean? You might think this only affects AT&T, but you'd be wrong - since Apple gets a piece of AT&T revenues from iPhone voice / data calls, this affects them as well. Depending on how much the software unlock costs, you might see a large number of people suddenly carrying the iPhone in Europe.


Sony Develops "Bio Battery"

Sony has developed a battery that runs on sugars. Not only that, even the casing is environmentally-friendly, as it's made of vegetable-based plastic.

You pour sugar solution into the case, and enzymes break the sugar down to generate electricity. Test batteries can generate 50mW, enough to power flash-based MP3 players.

In a press release, Sony said:
Sugar is a naturally occurring energy source produced by plants through photosynthesis. It is therefore regenerative, and can be found in most areas of the earth, underlining the potential for sugar-based bio batteries as an ecologically-friendly energy device of the future.
Much like ethanol, though, this isn't as green as they would like us to think. After all, yes, sugar isn't like coal or oil ... but everyone forgets that fossil fuels are stored energy as opposed to things like ethanol and sugar, which are converted energy. You start with something, like sugar cane, and a) harvest it, b) convert it to sugar, and then use it in this battery. That all currently requires fossil fuels, right down to the fertilizer.


gPhone in Two Weeks: reports

What could get us, as well as every other site to stop talking about the iPhone (some would say, incessantly)? The gPhone, that’s what. According to reports, the gPhone will launch in two weeks, simultaneously in the U.S. and Europe. The reports come from India, where Google has reportedly started talks with service providers for an exclusive launch on one of their networks.

To the right is a concept from the site T3; who knows if it will look like this - or if it will even launch when they say. Naturally Google gave their standard answer:
"We don't comment on market rumour or speculation. However, Google is committed to providing users with access to the world's information, and mobile becomes more important to those efforts every day. We're collaborating with partners worldwide to bring Google search and applications to mobile users everywhere. However, we have nothing to announce at this time."
One other big obstacle to the gPhone: the name has already been applied for as a trademark, and not by Google. Micro-g LaCoste, Inc., a company in Lafayette, Colorado, applied back on March 5 for a gPhone trademark that would represent an accelerometer for use in monitoring earthquake and other tectonic movements. Shades of the battle Apple and Cisco had over the iPhone trademark.

Note that the trademark has not been awarded yet and that, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark office site, "final review prior to publication has been completed, application will be published for opposition." The date of publication will be 9/11/2007; perhaps Google will chime in then.


Software Pirate Given Harsh Sentence - Ordered to Use Windows

A man convicted of illegally unloading a movie to the Internet has been told he can no longer use Ubuntu Linux on his computer.

Scott McCausland, a former administrator of the EliteTorrents BitTorrent site which was shut down in 2005, plead guilty last year to 'conspiracy to commit copyright infringement' and 'criminal copyright infringement' by uploading Star Wars: Episode III illegally.

He served five months in prison and is now on five months probation, but with a couple of restrictions.

First, he is under home confinement, so he has an ankle bracelet. Monday to Friday 08:30 AM to 9:00 PM movement is unrestricted; weekends 08:30 AM to 5:00 PM. Otherwise he has to be at home.

Secondly, he will have to have monitoring software installed on his computer, and there is the rub. From his sk0t.com blog (he also uses the handle sk0t) - note that emphasis is his -

So, I am getting shafted by the Justice Department again ...

Here goes: I had a meeting with my probation officer today, and he told me that he has to install monitoring software onto my PC. No big deal to me, that is part of my sentence.

However, their software doesnt support GNU/Linux (Which is what I use). So, he told me that if I want to use a computer, I would have to use an OS that the software can be installed on.

Which basically means: MICROSOFT AND MONITORING SOFTWARE or NO COMPUTER. I use Ubuntu 7.04 now, and they are trying to force me to switch.

First they give me 2 felonys, then they throw me in prison, and now this ...
For a hardcore Linux user, this would be worse than the prison sentence. Since he's currently unemployed, he's started a donation program through his site. I'm unclear if the monitoring software is to be there foreever, or just for five months.


Thursday, August 23, 2007

Google to Remove Faces, License Plates from Street View When Notified

You may recall my earlier post about Google Street View. Privacy advocates had expressed concerns over it, and continue to do so. Unknown to many, including myself, Google has changed its earlier policy, in which only people who identified themselves could notify Google and get their faces removed. In fact, anyone who sees any identifiable face or license plate can inform Google - and they will zap it.
Originally, the company said only people who identified themselves could ask the company to remove their image.

But Google has quietly changed that policy, partly in response to criticism, and now anyone can alert the company and have an image of a license plate or a recognizable face removed, not just the owner of the face or car, says Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience at Google.

"It's a good policy for users and also clarifies the intent of the product," she said in an interview following her keynote at the Search Engine Strategies conference in San Jose, Calif., Wednesday. Source: News.com
They changed this policy 10 days after launch, but didn't make it public, for whatever reason. They still are not proactively removing images, but they will definitely remove anything that anyone notifies them about - and they have already zapped dozens.


Step-by-Step Hardware Unlocking of the iPhone Goes Live

geohot had originally promised the hardware unlocking steps for the iPhone would be published next week, but apparently, too many people had been bombarding him with requests - and he was off to college, so the step-by-step process has been posted to iPhone JTAG.

His first post this morning indicated he would run through the steps, one at a time, beginning here. It would have been nice if he'd linked the next post in the process in each post, but he didn't, so you'll have to follow along in the blog archive on the RHS of the page.

You'll need to take apart your iPhone for this (naturally, since this is a hardware unlock), so you'll be voiding your warranty. It's very detailed, and obviously the faint-of-heart or inexperienced shouldn't try this.


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

YouTube's New Ads Annoy Users

I knew it couldn't be true. YouTube yesterday started to roll out what it said were ads that would not be annoying. The ads are similar to those TV video blurbs that sometimes appears at the bottom of your TV screen advertising some upcoming show. Let me tell you, I don't know why YouTube thought those ads in YouTube videos would not be annoying, because I find them annoying during TV shows.

The ads appear at the bottom of a video, are mostly transparent, and disappear after 10 seconds. Here's an example. Note that it doesn't seem to work in Firefox. Also, some people indicated they had to watch the video twice; I didn't see that issue.

See the vertical yellow bar in the horizontal YouTube video progress bar? That shows you where the ad will start.

Once the ad starts, if you click on it, it brings up a "player within the player." You can see that scenario below. By the way, the two images have been cropped and reduced separately so don't try to estimate the image size of the "player in player" versus the original player based on that.

You can adjust setting within the player like volume, etc. At any rate, reaction to the new ad format has not been positive. As I figured, it's so similar to the TV style ads that they are indeed somewhat distracting. And as some have commented, why not put the ads outside the player, so they don't take up screen space (precisely the way I feel when one of these pops up on my TV screen!).

Although it's obviously somewhat obtrusive, Google has to figure a way to make money from its YouTube acquisition, and obviously ads are going to be used somehow. They've long said they were looking for a way to display ads without irking users; I just don't know if that's possible - ads are by nature annoying (especially in our go, go, go, don't distract me society).

And a C|Net poll on their website indicate 57% would leave YouTube over this. That's not a good sign, though I'm not sure just how serious people are.


Book-sized iPhone bills to be halted

After a flurry of stories, and even a YouTube video showing the huge iPhone bills some users were getting - not in terms of money, but in terms of pages - AT&T has put an end to them.

The original bills went into such detail, listing every phone call, text message, e-mail and Web page accessed, that some of them were hundreds of pages in length, and too large to fit into an envelope. After complaints and news items about the bills, AT&T sent a text message to all iPhone users today telling them of the new policy.
"We are simplifying your paper bill, removing itemized detail. To view all detail go to att.com/mywireless. Still need full paper bill? Call 611,” the message read. The new bills will be sent to all wireless customers starting September 28.
Well, you read the message right - you can, if you want to kill a load more trees - opt for the original detailed bill - for $1.99 extra. Somehow I doubt many will choose this option.


British man arrested for wi-fi theft

Huh, is that why my neighbor keeps going out to his car in the morning and sitting with his laptop? Tracking stock prices?

At any rate, that can't happen with my wi-fi, as I have wireless security turned on, and I've also changed the default password (which quite a few people forget to do). Today's case was in Britain, in west London to be exact, but it's happened in the United States as well.

In Britain, it's a crime. Fraudulently obtaining free internet access falls under the Communications Act 2003 and it's also a potential breach of the Computer Misuse Act. I'm not sure about the United States, but it's certainly not ethical, and readily preventable.

The unidentified 39-year-old man was arrested after he was noticed sitting outside a house with his laptop, and later posted bail.

Despite the fact that it's a crime, the screw-up here is that there was no security enabled on the wi-fi router. It's not that hard (OK, maybe it would be too hard for my mother-in-law), but even if it is there are tons of resources out there on the web on how to enable security - although the difficult part for some would likely be that the interface for controlling the router will be different from manufacturer to manufacturer, and often, from model to model within the same manufacturer.

Still, it's not that hard - and if your wi-fi signal is unprotected someone diligent enough could latch onto some sensitive data from your network - if he tried hard enough, anyway. So get with it folks! Enable your wi-fi security!

Cheap Hotels


Refurbished iPhones Now Available

Was $599 (or even $499) too much for you? The latest Apple must-have gadgets haven't been available for two months yet, and they've had two software updates - and Apple has started selling refurbished ones on their website.

The discount is only $100, so you still pay $399 for the 4GB version and $499 for the 8GB version.

As much as Apple would love to believe otherwise, not everyone has been entranced by the iPhone - and there have been returns, and these "are them." Many of these will likely have very little use, and despite being called "refurbished" will have had no need for repairs, so you wouldn't be taking much of a risk by buying one - unless, like you, you have trouble buying anything used.

Additionally, I'd be willing to bet some of these are among the phones that people tried to "flip" unsuccessfully on eBay - after the large supply of iPhones (at least at Apple stores) kept people from becoming desperate.


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Michael Bay quits "Transformers 2" over Paramount's HD-DVD decision, then wakes up

After yesterday's announcement by Viacom that its Paramount and Dreamworks subsidiaries would only be supporting HD-DVD going forward, Michael Bay wrote a message board posting at his official site which panned the decision, and more. The post seems to have disappeared (more on that later), but it was titled "Paramount pisses me off!" Bay wrote,
"I want people to see my movies in the best formats possible. For them to deny people who have Blu-ray sucks! They were progressive by having two formats. No Transformers 2 for me!"
Well, the reason the first post is gone is because he recanted today. In a post (that fortunately is still there) titled "Michael Bay HD Post" (a little more subtle), he wrote:
"Last night at dinner I was having dinner with three blu-ray owners, they were pissed about no Transformers Blu-ray and I drank the kool aid hook line and sinker. So at 1:30 in the morning I posted - nothing good ever comes out of early am posts mind you - I over reacted. I heard where Paramount is coming from and the future of HD and players that will be close to the $200 mark which is the magic number. I like what I heard.

As a director, I'm all about people seeing films in the best quality possible, and I saw and heard firsthand people upset about a corporate decision.

So today I saw 300 on HD, it rocks!

So I think I might be back on to do Transformers 2!"
So, a night's sleep and he woke up, or perhaps sobered up, depending on if the kool-aid he mentioned was spiked - and realized he was wrong. Glad he's willing to admit that - and also glad we likely will be seeing him direct Transformers 2.