Saturday, May 31, 2008

"Amazon Tax" Begins Tomorrow; Goodbye to the Sales Tax-Free Internet?

On Sunday, June 1st, the so-called "Amazon Tax" goes into effect in New York state. While formerly only retailers with brick-and-mortar stores in a state were required to collect sales tax, New York has enacted a law which forces etailers to collect tax on sales, if they have affiliates which redirect traffic to their sites (e.g., Amazon.com affiliates).

Of course, Amazon.com hasn't let this go unchallenged, and has filed suit against New York, saying that the affiliates are independent and simply advertise for Amazon.com. Additionally, Amazon.com indicates that the company can't always determine of its hundreds of thousands of affiliates are actually run by New Yorkers.

At the same time, Overstock.com has ceased operations with any New York affiliates to avoid the tax.

Although it's true that only four states to this point have required Amazon.com to collect sales tax (Washington - where its headquarters are located, Kentucky and Kansas -which have large distribution centers, and North Dakota - which has its customer relations operations), consumers in all states are supposed to pay any such sales tax on their state tax returns.

Many don't know this, and few pay it, if they do know.

Naturally, in this time of recession and budgetary crisis all around, states would love to get their hands on this extra revenue.

Will Amazon.com's legal challenge work? Well, in a 1992 Supreme Court decision, Quill vs. North Dakota, the Supreme Court ruled that out-of-state retailers cannot be required to collect sales tax on purchases sent to states where they did not have a physical presence.
The Supreme Court’s reasoning was at least partially based on the fact that, at the time the case was decided in 1992, there were over 6,000 separate sales and use tax jurisdictions in the United States (states, localities, special tax districts, etc.) and to impose a collection obligation on a remote seller would impose a crushing burden that would severely restrict interstate commerce.
Of course, there are now even more sales and use tax jurisdictions, but it would be hard to argue that Amazon.com could not handle such record-keeping. On the other hand, despite the fact that it's obvious which corporation this law targets, based on its nickname, which was coined by New York state legislators, this law would target all etailers doing more than $10,000 worth of business annually in the state.

That's a pretty small number, and those with that sort of income would have difficulty keeping up with all the tax codes around the country.

Still, you can bet other states are watching this closely, and will jump on the bandwagon if this is successful - and if it successfully overcomes any legal challeges.


Canadian Study Claims Facebook Violates Privacy Law

On Friday, the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC), based at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law, filed a privacy complaint against Facebook. I earlier wrote about CIPPIC's report which indicated that DRM violated Canadian privacy law.

It should be noted that Canadian privacy law is much more strict and protective that American privacy law, as evidenced by yet another privacy issue, in which it is thought that Google Street View may violate those same laws.

The 35-page complaint (.PDF), which CIPPIC sent to the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, alleges items ranging from sign-up requirements and advertising policies to third party applications and mobile access result in 22 violations of the Canadian Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA).

Of course, it's clear from the complaint above that most, if not all, of the same violations would exist for any social networking site. Facebook was selected as the study's focus because of its popularity in Canada.

In a press release (.PDF), Clinic Director Philippa Lawson said:
“Social networking online is growing phenomenon. It is proving to be a tremendous tool for community-building and social change, but at the same time, a minefield of privacy invasion. We chose to focus on Facebook because it is the most popular social networking site in Canada and because it appeals to young teens who may not appreciate the risks involved in exposing their personal details online.”
Facebook has more than seven million Canadian members, making Canada the third largest user base, after the U.S and the U.K.

The study was based on an analysis done by university law students, some of whom are quoted in the press release, during a winter course hosted by the clinic. CIPPIC indicated it may perform a similar study on MySpace this summer.


Comcast Hijackers Speak Out: Hack Was Unrelated to P2P Throttling

Thursday the Comcast site was hacked, or to be more precise, Comcast's complete portfolio of over 200 domain names was hijacked, enabling the perpetrators to redirect visitors to Comcast.net to a site they controlled.

In an interview allegedly with the pair involved, the two admitted not just their guilt, but also the reasons behind the attack and the means with which they did it.

According to the interview with Threat Level, the pair, the hackers known as "Defiant" and "EBK":
used a combination of social engineering and a technical hack to get into Comcast's domain management console at Network Solutions. They declined to detail their technique, but said it relied on a flaw at the Virginia-based domain registrar.

Network Solutions spokeswoman Susan Wade disputes the hackers' account. "We now know that it was nothing on our end," she says. "There was no breach in our system or social engineering situation on our end."
For those not in the know, social engineering means they talked their way past a Network Solutions rep, and into the account. It's basically the same method that HP used to gain access to board members’ private telephone records in their "pretexting scandal."

In the interview, Defiant, who's now 19 and whose first name is James, said "I wish I was a minor right now because this is going to be really bad."

Come on, you knew you would eventually be caught and that it would have to be bad. So a) why are you making it easier on authorities by having a MySpace page (pics reportedly from Defiant's MySpace profile) and doing interviews, b) why do it in the first place?

According to Defiant, it wasn't Comcast's P2P throttling that was at the heart of the attack. Rather, he just hates Comcast. Defiant said:
"I'm sure they hate us too. Comcast is just a huge corporation, and we wanted to take them out, and we did."
One other point: apparently the pair called a Comcast manager - the one who had been the original technical contact on Comcast's domain - and told him what they had done, but he scoffed at them. Until then they had just taken control of the domain. It was then they got royally ticked off and pulled the redirection stunt.

Lesson: don't scoff at hackers without checking things out first.


Friday, May 30, 2008

The Kindle Gets 5,000 More Titles, Thanks to Simon & Schuster

On Friday, Amazon.com's popular (it's hard to say just how popular since Amazon hasn't released specific sales info on it, but popular enough to sell out) Kindle wireless reading device received a boost in something every such media "player" needs: content.

Amazon.com and Simon & Schuster announced that the Kindle would be getting an additional 5,000 titles from Simon & Schuster's catalog. According to the press release, these additional titles, when added to those Simon & Shuster titles already available on the Kindle, "represent the vast majority of sales from the publisher's catalog." The influx of new titles will also more than double the number of Simon & Schuster titles available on the Kindle.

Carolyn Reidy, President and CEO, Simon & Schuster, Inc. said:
"At Simon & Schuster, we are excited by how many Kindle books we’re selling and the feedback from readers who want to read our titles on their Kindles. We have also learned that readers aren’t just looking for new or bestselling books, but also books that are older or hard to find. These are the books that have proven themselves to be of enduring interest, and we want readers to be able to find them anytime, anywhere. We are pleased to take another big step toward that goal by making this great percentage of our active backlist available on Kindle by the end of 2008."
Meanwhile Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com Founder and CEO said (and I'm sure there was a pun intended):
Kindle is re-igniting a love of reading — after purchasing a Kindle, customers purchase, on average, just as many physical books, and their total book purchases on Amazon increase by 2.6x. Kindle books are also becoming a meaningful portion of Amazon's overall book sales much sooner than we anticipated — of the 125,000 books available both as a physical book and on Kindle, Kindle books already account for over 6 percent of units sold. This commitment from Simon & Schuster moves us closer to our vision for Kindle, which is to make any book, ever printed, in any language available in less than 60 seconds."
Coupled with Amazon.com recent 10% Kindle price reduction (it's now "only" $359), does this make the device more attractive? Sure, but like I said earlier, for me to buy one of these, it's going to have to come down in price to a point where I wouldn't cry over leaving it on BART.


Steam Will Store Your Saved Games in the "Cloud"

Ever lose your saved games? Frustrating, right? On Thursday Valve Software announced a solution, the Steam Cloud. It will be an an upcoming update to their Steam download service and it will not only store saved games, but also graphics settings, and key binding in the "cloud," or server-side.

Even better than just the worry-free nature of this set-up for your saved games, it also means that you could go over to youre friend's house, logon to Steam, access your saved games and configuration from the cloud, and be playing right where you left off at home.

Additional new features for Steam will be automatic driver-updates for hardware and and integrated system requirements checker, as well as calendar functions and official communities.

Valve did not disclose a timeframe for these changes, but the sooner, the better, we say.


"Star Trek" Theme Composer Alexander Courage Dies

This isn't technically a story on tech, or even on science, but how could I not write about the death of Alexander Courage, composer of the theme of the original Star Trek series (ST:TOS)? He was 88.

Courage died May 15 at the Sunrise assisted-living facility in Pacific Palisades, according to his step-daughter, Renata Pompelli of Los Angeles, who announced his passing on Thursday. He had been in poor health for three years.

He was twice-nominated for an Academy Award, for Best Music, Scoring of Music, Adaptation or Treatment for: Doctor Dolittle (1967) and Best Music, Scoring of Music, Adaptation or Treatment for: The Pleasure Seekers (1964).

He was nominated for Emmys for Outstanding Achievement in Music Direction for: Liberty Weekend (1987) and Outstanding Achievement in Music Composition - For a Series or a Single Program of a Series (First Year of Music's Use Only) for: Medical Center (1973). He won an Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Music Direction for: Julie Andrews: The Sound of Christmas (1988).

In an interview for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation's Archive of American Television in 2000, Courage said:
"I have to confess to the world that I am not a science fiction fan. Never have been. I think it's just marvelous malarkey. ... So you write some, you hope, marvelous malarkey music that goes with it."
Courage said he also mouthed the "whooshing" sound heard frequently in the opening theme as the starship Enterprise zooms through the opening credits.

For those of you wondering, it's true: there were lyrics to the theme; these were written by Gene Roddenberry.
Beyond the rim of the starlight,
my love is wandering in star flight.
I know he'll find
In star clustered reaches
Love, strange love
A starwoman teaches.

I know his journey ends never.
His Star Trek will go on forever.
But tell him while
He wanders his starry sea,
Remember,
Remember me.
The problem, however, was that Roddenberry wrote the lyrics so that he could claim a 50% share of the music's performance royalties. Courage was understandably upset at this, and called the behavior unethical.

Roddenberry was quoted as responding, "Hey, I have to get some money somewhere. I'm sure not going to get it out of the profits of Star Trek."

Ah, well, one last time, let's listen to the theme ....



Dell "Shows Off" a Netbook at D6

Dell apparently didn't really mean to show off this ULCPC at D6, the Sixth D: All Things Digital conference, but when Michael Dell walks around with something un-sleeved, it's going to attract attention. Dell was caught at D6 walking around with this, and had to fess up.

Since it was already blasted around the world, Dell decided to post some vague information on it at their Direct2Dell blog. The pictures they posted give an idea of the size of the thing (read: small), but no technical details were given, nor was a release date mentioned - or even a name.

I did notice that the images they posted all said "Mini-Inspiron," for what it's worth. Click the images to enlarge.

However, based on (ahem) visual inspection, it appears the system has three USB ports, and a card reader as well as VGA out and wired Ethernet (and you have to assume wireless as well).

This is an obvious competitor to the Asus Eee PC and HP 2133 Mini-Note PC and fits into the extremely popular and multi-named UMPC / ULCPC / Netbook category. Dell says more details are forthcoming ... sometime soon.


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Google Earth Comes to Your Browser

Admit it: we're all spoiled by browser plug-ins and would much rather use an extension or browser add-in than a stand-alone application that we have to install separately. And that's been my big problem with Google Earth.

On Wednesday Google released an API and browser plug-in (sorry Mac users, Windows only) to eliminate the need to download and install the Google Earth app. From their blog post announcing the new plug-in:
Today, I'm happy to announce the release of the new Google Earth Browser Plug-in, which brings the full power of Google Earth to the web, embeddable within your own web site. Driven by an extensive JavaScript API, you can control the camera; create lines, markers, and polygons; import 3D models from the web and overlay them anywhere on the planet. In fact, you can even overlay your content over different planets, stars, and galaxies by toggling Sky mode, letting you build 3D Google Sky mashups. You can also enable 3D buildings with a single line of JavaScript, attach JavaScript callbacks to mouse events, fetch KML data from the web, and more. Our goal is to open up the entire core of Google Earth to developers in the hopes that you'll build the next great geo-based 3D application, and change (yet again) how we view the world.
Even cooler, if you already have a Google Maps-enabled site, you need only add a single line of JavaScript to add Google Earth functionality: add the new G_SATELLITE_3D_MAP map type to your MapsAPI initialization code, and your site will support Google Earth via a button in the maps view, with existing 2D map code now functioning in 3D as well.

The list of browsers supported includes:
  • IE 6.0+
  • IE 7.0+
  • Firefox 2.x or 2.0x (Firefox 3.0 support coming soon)
  • Netscape 7.1+
  • Mozilla 1.4+
  • Flock 1.0+
Of course, until people start downloading the plug-in and installing it, most people are going to see nothing more than the image above. But that will change.


VIA Launches the VIA Nano Processor Family

On Thursday VIA announced a new CPU family - the Nano family - based on the VIA Isaiah Architecture. Following closely the announcement of its reference UMPC a few days ago, VIA's new Nano family has the Intel Atom family right in its sights. The CPUs, built on a Fujitsu 65nm process arrive in both ultra-portable (U) and desktop / laptop (L) versions with a maximum power rating between 5 and 25W.

The Isaiah architecture had been announced in late January.

The Nano CPU is pin-for-pin compatible with any motherboard platform built for the VIA C7 processor; this makes it something easily added to the aforementioned UMPC design referred to earlier - or to any current design - which means adoption could be as swift as getting the CPUs to the OEMs.

Systems featuring VIA Nano processors are expected to hit the market in Q3 2008, according to VIA's press release.

And, despite speculation that Isaiah wouldn't get into UMPCs or sub-notebooks, VIA is clear in its press release that it will (emphasis mine):
The VIA Nano processor family leverages Fujitsu's advanced 65 nanometer process technology for enhanced power efficiency, and augments that with aggressive power and thermal management features within the compact 21mm x 21mm nanoBGA2 package for an idle power as low as 100mW (0.1W), extending the reach of power efficient green and silent PCs, thin and light notebooks and mini-notes around the world.
So readers, in light of VIA's announcement, opinions on the Nano vs. the Atom? Besides the obvious "oh, oh, Apple's not going to like that branding" statement.


Mozilla Shoots for the "Geekiest Record Ever" with Firefox 3

Time to start the PR engines, as Firefox 3's release is rapidly approaching. And what better way to ensure a lot of downloads than to try to set a record. On Wednesday Mozilla announced a campaign asking users to "pledge" to download Firefox 3 on the day of its release. The goal: set a Guinness World Record for the largest number of software downloads in 24 hours.

Mozilla is calling the day "Download Day" (how original!) and encourages users to hold Firefox 3 parties, place buttons on their site, as well as pledge to download.

And yes, I pledged, and yes, as you can see I added the appropriate "Download Day" button to this site.

Of course, one thing should be noted: there isn't a current world record for most software downloads on the day of a release. According to their FAQ, however, Mozilla will provide the following to the Guinness Book of World Records to try to get the record validated:
  • Signed statements of authentication from our judges showing that we've followed the rules and confirming our numbers.
  • Video footage and photographs of our community members hosting Download Fests. Take pictures!!
  • Download logs for a sample size of our downloads. We will internally host 10% of the downloads, retaining all of the logs for these downloads, and will use this as our sample set to extrapolate the actual download number and percentage of completed downloads.
It should take a week or so for the validation process to complete. Mozilla does ask that we all play nicely and download only one copy each. However, asking your friends to download as well is perfectly OK!


Orange Offering Upgrade Path to 3G to French iPhone Owners

We all want the latest gadget. And when we buy one, and it's rendered obsolete, or just surpassed in some way, some of us get really testy. The $200 price cut Apple gave iPhone buyers last year even led to a lawsuit by one of the original buyers. It seems that French carrier Orange might be trying to proactively prevent unhappy customers by offering an upgrade path to the 3G iPhone.

The info comes from my wife's aunt, who lives in France. Normally I wouldn't necessarily take anything my wife's aunt says as gospel, but it's also been confirmed by French site PC Inpact.

According to both sources, Orange is offering two different options:
  • iPhone owners can give their current devices back to Orange and buy a 3G iPhone for the low price of €50 (whoa!)
  • Keep their current iPhones and buy a 3G iPhone at a "generous" subsidized rate (although "generous" is undefined)
The note that the 3G iPhone in option 2 would be subsidized caught my eye. Until now iPhones have been unsubsidized, but there have been rumors that the 3G iPhone may have a $200 subsidy with a 2-year contract. This tends to solidify that rumor.

The incentives above also mean what I've contended for some time, despite the hopeful glances of some friends who have iPhones: even with the 2.0 firmware, original iPhone owners will be stuck on EDGE.


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Cell Phone Unlocking Suit OK'ed by Supreme Court

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court declined to hear arguments on a class-action lawsuit challenging the policies of T-Mobile and AT&T against unlocking cell phones. By declining to review an October decision by the California Supreme Court, they have cleared the way for a lawsuit that attorneys claim could represent "millions" of Californians.

As I have previously written, there is an exemption in the DMCA (.PDF) that explicitly exempts unlocking of cell phones. 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.
CDMA carriers Sprint and Verizon, in response to other lawsuits, have already agreed to unlock phones after customers nationwide have completed their original contract - a compromise taken to achieve a settlement, said California attorney Robert Bramson, one of the lawyers in the T-Mobile / AT&T lawsuit.

Additionally, other countries, for example, France, require carriers to provide unlocked versions of phones. In these cases, even the iPhone is unlocked, although the cost of such an unlocked iPhone is fairly exorbitant.

The iPhone may be the key to this suit. As GSM carriers, their phones are easy - if unlocked - to switch carriers, simply by switching your SIM. The premium associated with iPhone exclusivity is not one either AT&T or Apple - which gets a portion of AT&T's monthly iPhone service plan fees - will give up easily.

The case is T-Mobile v. Gatton.


Bye-Bye, Set-Top Boxes?

An agreement announced Tuesday between Sony Electronics and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) may mean the end of that ubiquitous TV appendage: the cable set-top box.

The agreement is between Sony and the nation's six largest cable companies: Comcast Corp., Time Warner Cable Inc., Cox Communications Inc., Charter Communications Inc., Cablevision Systems Corp. and Bright House Networks. Together those six companies service more than 82% of cable subscribers.

In a press release, the Edgar Tu, Sony Electronics’ Senior Vice President of TV Operations of America said:
"This marketplace agreement is good news for consumers. A national plug-and-play digital cable standard for interactive TV receivers, recorders and other products that is transferable and viable wherever you live is ideal for today’s mobile society."
To do this, Sony has committed to the tru2way cable platform introduced in January at CES by Comcast. Tru2way allows interactive cable services to be directly integrated into devices.

Sony isn’t the first TV manufacturer to sign onto tru2way. Samsung, Panasonic and LG have all signed licensing agreements to use the technology. However, the agreement signed between Sony and the cable companies involved commits everyone as follows:
As part of the agreement, the parties will adopt: the Java-based “tru2way” solution as the national interactive “plug-and-play” standard; new streamlined technology licenses; and new ways for content providers, consumer electronics manufacturers, information technology companies and cable operators to cooperate in evolving the tru2way technology at Cable Television Laboratories (CableLabs), the cable industry’s research and development consortium.
Even the government is happy. In the press release, Representative Rick Boucher (D-VA), a senior Member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and "one of the leading advocates in Congress for new technology and consumer freedoms" said:
"I congratulate Sony and the major cable operators for achieving consensus on a set of core principles that will speed the introduction of new two-way plug-and-play devices. With this groundbreaking compromise, these industry-leading companies and other major cable companies will ensure that consumers will have broader access to innovative competitive cable ready navigation devices from commercial retailers and will have expanded options to enjoy cable programming, including video on demand and other interactive programming options."
The scary part? The part of the release that says:
Key elements of the agreement relate to the deployment of a platform for “write once, run anywhere” applications, and to the incorporation of secure digital interfaces that protect consumers' home recording rights along with copyright owners' rights to secure their digital content.
There's that copyright owners' section that's always vague and scary.

Of course, set-top boxes aren't going anywhere anytime soon. This technology will, quite naturally, only be available on new, tru2way sets, and even those with sets with CableCARDs will be SOL. Yet another way to get us to upgrade our hardware, I guess.


Symantec Admits Fault in Windows XP SP3 Registry Corruption

You'll recall my earlier story on registry corruption for certain users upgrading to Windows XP SP3. The cases of registry corruption seemed to have a common thread: Symantec security products. Originally Symantec blamed Microsoft, but in a post on a Symantec support forum, a senior manager with Symantec indicated the fault may indeed lie with Symantec's products.

Reese Anschultz said users of Norton Internet Security, Norton AntiVirus and Norton 360 should switch off the "SymProtect" feature before trying to install XP SP3.
After a lot of testing, we’ve reproduced a number of different cases where applying the XP SP3 upgrade adds additional registry keys within already existing Symantec registry keys. The Symantec keys affected vary from machine to machine and the effects of these added keys vary as well. We are still trying to understand why the upgrade is adding these keys. We have determined that the SymProtect feature is involved, though this issue is not exclusive to Symantec customers. We’ve seen reports from various users who are not running Symantec products.

To help prevent this issue from occurring, you should disable SymProtect prior to installing the Windows XP SP3 upgrade. This setting, in Norton Internet Security 2008 and Norton AntiVirus 2008, can be found within the Options page as “Turn on protection for Norton products.” In this case you should uncheck the box prior to the upgrade. After the upgrade is complete, please remember to re-enable this feature.

It should be noted, however, that this workaround only addresses issues with Symantec products. You may still run into similar problems with other products affected by this XP SP3 upgrade issue. For Norton SystemWorks 2008 you have to go to the Advanced Options UI that is under Settings. Next, click on "Norton SystemWorks Options" and select the General tab. Lastly, uncheck the box that says, "Turn on protection for my Symantec product”.

For Norton SystemWorks 2008 Premier you can use either the previous instructions or the Norton AntiVirus instructions.

For Norton 360, disable the "SymProtect Tamper Protection" quick control within the settings page.

For those who have already applied the upgrade and are running into problems, we’re working on a stand-alone tool that would delete the extraneous registry keys. We’ll post that on this forum as soon as it’s available.
No post of a tool yet. Additionally, a later post on the same thread seemed to indicate a similar issue with the installation of Vista SP1, although that same Symantec manager noted they hadn't noted such reports previously.

Last week, Symantec blamed a Microsoft file named fixccs.exe, part of the XP SP3 upgrade package, for the extra registry entries. Now, however, it seems that it was a combination of fixccs.exe and SymProtect which caused the issue. SymProtect is technology designed to protect Symantec security software from being hacked by malware.

"Fixccs.exe adds registry keys during the SP3 update process and then attempts to delete them," said a Symantec spokeswoman. "SymProtect prevents changes to the registry keys. Thus, it prevents the deletion of the keys added by fixccs.exe."

Makes sense, right? Of course, as noted in the forum post, Symantec continues to contend that the registry problems are not exclusive to Symantec products.


Internet Explorer 8 Beta 2 Coming in Q3

You, yes you webmaster, you are warned, that Internet Explorer 8 will have its next public release, Beta 2, in Q3. Why the warning? Well, as you recall, Internet Explorer 8 will be standards-compliant, and will be released in that mode by default. Since many web sites are coded to IE's quirks, webmasters will have to add some code to force IE8 into IE7 emulation mode if they want it to render as IE7 did.

In a blog post, Nick Mackechnie, a senior Microsoft account manager in New Zealand gave the warning:
However, browsing with this default setting may cause content written for previous versions of Internet Explorer to display differently than intended. This creates a call to action for site owners to ensure their content will continue to display seamlessly in Internet Explorer 8. As such, we have provided a meta-tag usable on a per-page or per-site level to maintain backwards compatibility with Internet Explorer 7. Adding this tag instructs Internet Explorer 8 to render content like it did in Internet Explorer 7, without requiring any additional changes.

We are encouraging site administrators to get their sites ready now for broad adoption of Internet Explorer 8, as there will be a beta release in the third quarter of this year targeted for all consumers.
It's not like this is new news; it was stated when IE8 Beta 1 was released, and many broken sites should have already warned enough webmasters. Still, Microsoft is nothing if not cautious.

Site tips are here, and involves setting the X-UA-Compatible property to "IE=EmulateIE7." Of course, past builds of IE8 have included a prominent button, "Emulate IE7," that enables end users to switch modes. It's unclear if this button will still exist in Beta 2 (my guess is it will).


U.K. Theme Park Becomes a "PDA-Free" Zone

Let's be precise here: by PDA we don't mean "public display of affection." Nope, the Alton Towers Resort is banning personal digital assistants during May Half Term (May 25th - June 1st inclusive).

The new policy, a pilot program, was announced on Alton Towers Resort's web site. According to the site, the resort will have a set of "PDA Police" patrolling and asking adults to report to a "PDA Drop-Off" zone to eliminate the distraction and allow them to connect to their family.

The site is vague as to what constitutes a PDA, but my guess is that it includes smartphones and dedicated PDAs. It's also unclear as to what ramifications will occur if someone refuses to give up their Blackberry, but I'm sure the consequences won't be dire.

Russell Barnes, Divisional Director for the Alton Towers Resort explained on the site:
"What we have here is the ultimate short break location where every member of the family can unwind and have fun. We feel it's so important for parents and kids to focus on nothing more than having the best possible time, we are prepared to take drastic action to ensure that parents really leave their work behind!"
If the pilot program is successful, Alton Towers Resort expects to make the program permanent, although no timeline for a decision was given.


German Users Claim MacBook Airs "Edgy," in a "Slice-Yourself" Way

The design of the MacBook Air has been called sharp and edgy, but I don't think any users want it quite this edgy. Users at a German Apple forum (apfeltalk) have posted a thread on just how edgy the Air is.

Based on the thread (and the hard to understand translation), it seems as though the user managed to cut his elbow with the sharp edge of his MacBook Air (as pictured above). Of course, that cut could have been made in any number of ways, , so perhaps the post is just warming up the Web for a high-priced lawsuit.

Meanwhile, another post in the same forum shows another user reportedly cutting bread with his MacBook Air. Once again, I have my doubts. One could easily have simply used a regular knife and then inserted the edge of the air into the cut.

Of course, a good question would be why would anyone play with an "expensive toy" like this? I certainly wouldn't be using my pricey MacBook Air in this manner.

It's amazing what people will do when they have a lot of time on their hands. Hey guys, how about just using it as designed: as a computer?


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

VIA Releases "Open Source" UMPC Design

UMPCs or, as Intel calls them, ULCPCs or netbooks, are hot right now. What they are, either way, are ultra-portable notebooks in the Asus Eee PC or HP 2133 Mini-Note PC vein. And many of these notebooks are powered by low-power VIA CPUs.

While VIA has had the ultra-low-power CPU market to itself for a long time, Intel isn't one to ignore a burgeoning market, and its announcement and upcoming release of Atom CPUs is clearly targeted at VIA's product line.

That said, on Tuesday VIA introduced the new VIA OpenBook mini-note reference design targeted at the rapidly growing market, and they released it as "open source."

In an emailed press release, Richard Brown, Vice President of Corporate Marketing, VIA Technologies, Inc. said:
"The VIA OpenBook builds on the great success of the VIA NanoBook reference design launched last year, which has been widely adopted by numerous customers around the world. Our unique open approach to case design customization and wireless connectivity flexibility, coupled with the higher levels of performance, further extends VIA's leadership in the global mini-note market."
When they say "open approach" they mean it. The external panel CAD files for the VIA OpenBook Reference Design are being released under a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 license and they can be downloaded here.

Jon Phillips, Business and Community Manager for Creative Commons said,
“VIA is a forward thinking company that has realized that sharing enables a healthy ecosystem which helps them provide an innovative product which supports their core business. Making the actual raw CAD files available under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license is a brilliant first step that clearly and legally allows others to emergently build upon VIA's open innovation."
Of course, this is less about open source and more about selling CPUs and motherboards. Hardware-wise, nothing's really new; it's all already released VIA hardware. Full specs follow:
Processor: 1.6GHz VIA C7®-M ULV Processor
FSB: 800MHz
Chipset: VIA VX800 unified chipset

Memory
: DDR2 SO-DIMM up to 2GB
HDD: 80GB Hard-Disk or above

LCD Panel: 8.9" WVGA 1024X600 LED screen
Graphics: VIA Chrome9 HC3 DX9 3D engine with shared system memory up to 256MB
Video Decoding: MPEG-2, MPEG-4, VC1 and DiVX video decoding acceleration

Audio: Realtek HD Audio codec, 2 speakers

Networking
: 10/100/1000 Mb/s Broadcom Giga NIC Ethernet Solution

Wireless: Broadcom 802.11b/g or GCT 802.16e
-2in1 (WiFI+ Blue Tooth) default module
-3in1 (AGPS+WiFI+ Blue Tooth) upgrade module
-WiMAX secondary wireless module option
-EV-DO /W-CDMA secondary wireless module option
-HSPDA secondary wireless module option

I/O: 4 in 1 embedded card reader
1 D-Sub Port
3 x USB (Ver. 2.0 Type A Port)
1 Mic-in audio jack
1 Headphone out

Webcam: 2.01 megapixel dual headed rotary CCD camera

Dimension: 240(W)x175(D)mm
Thickness: 36.2(H)mm ( at battery)
Weight: Under 1kg

Operating System Support: Microsoft® Windows® XP, Windows Vista® and all popular Linux distributions

Status Indicators
Power on, battery and HDD LEDs

Battery: 4 Cells, 2600ma

Options: USB interface DVD Dual RW
Leather Cover

Still, who's going to use these designs? Doubtful that a large manufacturer such as HP or Dell would use them. It'll be interesting to see where this goes, if anywhere.


Wi-Fi "Allergies" Prompt Calls for Ban

There have been a number of studies on sensitivity to electromagnetic fields (EMF). Of course, the research has been controversial, but agencies including the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute have acknowledged the potential hazards of long-term exposure to strong EMF, and have done studies on the association of cancer risks with living near high-voltage utility lines.

It's even been posited that the EMF from a hybrid engine, such as in a Prius, could have health risks.

A group in Santa Fe, New Mexico has requested a ban on wi-fi in public buildings because they say they’re allergic --- or sensitive --- to wireless Internet signals.

While many may pooh-pooh this sort of thing, the research by the NIH and NCI indicate that there is evidence to support such sensitivity.

Arthur Firstenberg said he is highly sensitive to certain types of electric fields, including wi-fi and cellular phones. "I get chest pain and it doesn't go away right away."

Firstenberg and dozens of other EMF-sensitive people in Santa Fe claim that wi-fi in public places is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The city attorney is now looking into it and hopes to have a recommendation by the end of the month.

There is plenty of evidence, as I said, to support such sensitivity, but of course, it's all about progress, and John and Jane Q. Public be damned. City Councilor Ron Trujillo said:
"It's not 1692, it's 2008. Santa Fe needs to embrace this technology, it's not going away."


To Boost DVD Sales, Warner Hopes You "Watch the Watchmen" Spin-Off

Watchmen is arguably one of the greatest comic book mini-series ever written. Next March, Warner Bros. hopes to answer the question "Who watches the Watchmen" with millions of dollars worth of ticket sales. At the same time, Warner Bros. hopes to boost flagging DVD sales with a unique new idea.

A side-story in Watchmen is Tales of the Black Freighter, which is a comic book within the Watchmen universe. The comic is read by a teenage boy while he sits beside a newsstand. On March 10th, five days after the release of Watchmen, Warner Bros. will release a DVD with both Tales of the Black Freighter (animated) and Under the Hood, the memoirs of one of the characters in Watchmen, the Nite Owl (pictured left).

Both releases are being directed by Zack Snyder, director of the mega-hit 300.

The reason behind this approach are simple: money. According to Adams Media Research, in 2007 domestic DVD sales fell 3.2%, the first annual drop in the medium’s history. Blame has been laid on the shoulders of both piracy as well as streaming video.

By taking this tack, Warner Bros. can create a series out of one movie: Tales of the Black Freighter, followed about four months later by release of Watchmen itself on DVD, and then an “ultimate” edition in which the two are edited together into one megamovie.

In a statement, Ron Sanders, president of Warner Home Video said:
"There is a fear that if the DVD category declines over time that any well-run retailer is going to re-evaluate its commitment. We are offering retailers a meaningful opportunity to be involved with the theatrical event, to have a product that will generate foot traffic and sales."
Although I earlier indicated that Blu-ray has won the hi-def DVD battle, only to lose the war to streaming video. Of course, I don't believe that will happen for quite a long time. However, this seems somewhat of an admission by Warner Bros. that they see something to be concerned about as well, and is being proactive.


Monday, May 26, 2008

Samsung Announces Super-Fast 256GB SSD

Price, size, speed: that's what holds back solid-state drive (SSD) adoption. With the introduction of this new SSD, Samsung claims to eliminate the size and speed constraints as issues. Samsung claims this to be the fastest SSD in existence.

This 256GB drive reads sequential data at 200MB / second, twice the rate of Samsung's previous size leader, a 128GB model, while also providing an even greater increase in write speeds: 160MB / second vs. 70MB / second.

In a press release, Jim Elliott, vice president, memory marketing, Samsung Semiconductor, Inc. said:
"With development of the 256GB SSD, the notebook PC is on the brink of a second stage of evolution. This change is comparable to the evolution from the Sony Walkman to NAND memory-based MP3 players, representing an initial step in the shift to thinner, smaller SSD-based notebooks with significantly improved performance and more than ample storage."
Samsung also claims better reliability, with longevity as good or better than some rotating hard disks.

Samsung expecteds to begin mass producing the 2.5-inch, 256GB SSD by year end, with customer samples in September. A 1.8-inch version of the 256GB SSD is expected to be available in the fourth quarter of 2008.

What's not mentioned in the press release: price. Although it appears size and speed of SSDs is improving, cost is still way out of reach of most consumers. I don't expect this drive to be any different.


Potato - and Computer Chip - King Dies

Billionaire J.R. Simplot, whose wealth earned him the title of "spud king" of America, passed away Sunday at his Boise home (where else but Boise for the "spud king") at the age of 99.

Simplot and his family were ranked at No. 80 on Forbes magazine's 2006 list of richest Americans, with an estimated wealth of $3.2 billion.

His wealth also helped fund what became one of the world's largest computer chip companies, Micron Technology, which is based in --- you guessed it, Boise. In 1980 gave Ward and Joe Parkinson $1 million for 40% of the company. He added $20 million over the years to help Micron build its first manufacturing plant and to stay afloat. Micron Technology is among the Worldwide Top 20 Semiconductor Sales Leaders.

Although his business was successful prior to the war, it was his expansion into freezing and canning after the war which developed the product that would become his company's mainstay: the frozen french fry. He struck a deal with McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, and the rest is history.

At one time Simplot was a McDonald's board member, and later in life he could be seen driving his white Lincoln Town Car with "Mr. Spud" personalized plates to McDonald's for hash browns or french fries several times a week.


Sunday, May 25, 2008

Intel to Build New China Fab with Help of Feng Shui

Intel's Fab 68, scheduled to begin construction in 2010 in Dallan, China, is being built with the help of Chinese feng shui masters.

According to Intel’s 2007 Corporate Responsibility Report (.PDF),
We consulted Chinese feng shui masters to seek harmonious relationships with the wind, sun and interior spaces at Fab 68. As a result, the building uses the sun's seasonal path to optimize hating and cooling loads, and the facility is in alignment with the feng shui concept of "qi" ("ch'i"), or flow of energy.
As part of that same report, Intel reported that they reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 6% in 2007, and are on track toward their goal of a reduction of 30% from 2004 - 2010. According to the report, they've already reduced emissions 20% since 2004.

Meanwhile, Intel also plans to reduce water usage to 2005 levels by 2010, and that they have alreasdy surpassed their goal of recycling 70% of their chemical and solid waste by recycling 87% of their chemical waste and 80% of their solid waste.


Do 188 Mysteriously Labeled Shipping Containers = 3G iPhones?

Import Genius is a site that gives "you instant access to real-time information on all the goods entering the United States each day." The idea is that by tracking what your competitors ship, you can get the drop on them.

Of course, you do have to pay for all this goodness (or get a free trial).

At any rate, Import Genius seems to think that some mysteriously labeled containers may be the first evidence of shipments of the 3G iPhone into the U.S. According to Import Genius, it's seen a "major spike" since mid March in ocean containers marked with a mysterious new label: "electric computers."

I must admit that's strange terminology, and as Import Genius notes,
“They have never before reported this product on their customs declarations. The fact that they are importing millions of units, combined with dwindling stocks of the first generation of iPhones, clearly supports the Citi analysts predictions.”
Of course, it doesn't take a genius, import or not, to see the signs of a new product launch. Steve Jobs' keynote at WWDC on June 9th, current-gen iPhones in short supply, restrictions on AT&T vacations ... it seems pretty likely we're going to get the launch withing the June - July timeframe.

And, as Import Genius says, it's seen 188 containers labeled "electric computers" shipped to Apple from two Asian suppliers, Hon Hai Precision Corp. and Quanta Computer, since March 19th, with no corresponding drop-off in deliveries using standard labels (such as "desktop computers.")

Or this could be 188 containers of party favors for WWDC; you decide.


Saturday, May 24, 2008

SF's BART System in Talks for System-wide Wi-Fi Coverage

The San Francisco Bay Area's BART system (Bay Area Rapid Transit) is in talks with WiFi Rail, Inc., to provide system-wide wi-fi service after a successful trial program. Phase three of the demonstration program recently completed, and in a small blurb on WiFi Rail's home page, the company said:
BART Board of Directors greenlights WiFi Rail systemwide implementation.
In fact, an update on the initiative was presented on Thursday at a meeting of BART's board of directors.

Wi-Fi Rail is will build the network, for an estimated $20 million, at no cost to BART. BART plans to use the wi-fi system to enable its in-car security cameras for live viewing. BART would also receive a licensing fee from WiFi Rail.

How does WiFi Rail make a profit? Ads. Riders will be able to use the service free with ads that pop up every few minutes. Alternatively they can buy a monthly subscription. According to Michael Cromar, CFO of Wi-Fi Rail, subscription would be priced similar to other hot-spot services (about $20 and $30 per month). Speeds is between 15 and 22 Mbps (both up and down), and bandwidth is shared between the riders in each car.

Based on the trials so far, there was no degradation with up to eight riders in a car. Of course, being the SF Bay Area, there are likely to be more than eight users who want to grab bandwidth - if they can get seats that is. BART has become so crowded during peak commute hours that BART has removed six seats in some cars.

This will just make snagging a seat even more of a priority.

Although BART has greenlighted the system, negotiations have not yet completed. Once they complete, Cromar estimated commercial rollout could be completed in four months.

Looking at this from the perspective of a technophile, I like the idea. However, as a commuter, I'm not sure I want still more disruption to my ride. It's bad enough that people talk excessively loudly on their cell phones, and the cards are already crowded enough. People unfolding their notebooks in their laps are just going to make things worse.


Strange "Dual-Screen Folding Laptop" Auction Unfolds on eBay

"Weird" simply isn't sufficient to describe this laptop, now being auctioned at eBay.
I purchased this a few years back as a project but it just ended up sitting in my closet. This is a rare Xentex Dual Screen Laptop. Each screen is 13.3" and one pivots so that one can be facing you and the other one facing the person sitting on the other side of the laptop. This was a prototype and is missing some parts but does turn on so I have no doubt someone can make this work with the right skills.

This has to be the worlds largest laptop when unfolded which measures about 19.5" across when you unfold it. This company had a great idea on the hinging concept because the entire laptop folds twice making it very portable.

The keyboard is functional and it does type and you can enter the bios but I have not been able to go past that since I do not have a hard drive cable (which appears to be a custom cable with 1mm pitch) and I do not have a CD Rom for the unit. I have tried to getting it to boot of an external USB CD Rom but it would not detect that. The small plastic latches that hold the screen in place when it is all folded up are broken but does not effect it that much. Trackpoint is missing from the middle of the keyboard but the touch pad should work but have never booted to windows to confirm.

The touch pad also duals as some sort of signature pad and the pen is included.

NOTE: This is being sold AS-IS (read entire Ad!)
While the auction says this is a prototype, it should be noted that this monster was actually sold by Xentex in 2002, for about $5000. It was the Xentex Dual Screen Flip-Pad Voyager. This could in fact still be a prototype of that laptop.

Looking at the auction, it looks like it has an Athlon in it for you AMD fans. Nicely, the screen pivots so you can have one facing forward and the other backward. I'm not sure why you would do this, but it's still cool.

Bidding is up to $405 with 6 days to go.


Friday, May 23, 2008

GameStop to Drop "DoorStop", er Zune

It's no secret that Zune sales are a fraction of those of the iPod, and GameStop has seen enough. In its earnings call on Thursday, GameStop indicated it has exited the Zune marketplace.

David Carlson, Chief Financial Officer of GameStop, said on the call:

The hardware margin was down slightly from the prior year. That was mostly due to our exit from the Microsoft Zune category and to some extent our de-emphasis of warranties related to Microsoft’s manufacturing issue they had with the Xbox 360 which really began in the second quarter of last year.

Previously their exit wasn't publicly known. According to GameStop the decision was made about a month ago, and was due to both to poor demand as well as a poor fit with GameStop's mix of products. Of course, you can assume poor demand was probably the #1 reason for this decision.


Samsung Announces a 1TB "Green" Hard Drive

Everyone's into green, and companies are fighting to produce and promote green products. Enter Samsung, who on Thursday announce a one-terabyte hard drive that it said provides a 15% power savings compared to other low-powered 1TB hard drives and a 50% improvement over traditional 1TB hard drives.

The EcoGreen F1 hard drive has a 5400RPM rotational speed, 3.0Gbps SATA interface, native command queuing features and a 32MB buffer memory.

In a press release, T.J. Lee, vice president of sales & marketing for Samsung Electronics' Storage Division said:
"Since 2003, Samsung's hard disk drives have complied with the (RoHS) restriction of hazardous substances directive as well as the (TBBP-A) brominated flame retardant restriction. The EcoGreen product line is designed to meet consumer demand for eco-friendly, high-performance devices with an optimized cost of ownership advantage."
According to Samsung, it will sell for $199 and will release in Q2 2008. That doesn't give Samsung much time as we are close to June, right?


Fun With Email: 41% of Large U.S. Corporations Monitor Employee Email

As we become a less and less private society, helped (or hindered, depending on your point of view) by the web, data breaches, and the like, the question actually should be raised: is anything really private any longer? Certainly, based on Proofpoint's fifth annual report on Outbound Email Security and Data Loss Prevention, you shouldn't be expecting any privacy in your work email.

In fact, 41% of large corporations (20,000 or more employees) have employees whose who monitor and read employee email (including their own, I assume). And 22% of large corporations have employees whose sole or primary task is email monitoring.

Other interesting (or scary, depending on how you look at it) information from the study and a press release issued by Proofpoint:
  • 40% of companies surveyed investigated an email-based violation of privacy or data protection regulations in the past 12 months.
  • 26% of companies surveyed terminated an employee for violating email policies in the last 12 months.
  • 23% of U.S. companies surveyed said their business was impacted by the exposure of sensitive or embarrassing information in the last 12 months.
  • 34% of the largest companies (20,000 employees or more) reported that employee email was subpoenaed in the last 12 months.
Although the monitoring of email was what caught my eye, companies are also interested in other possible points of data leakage:
  • 27% of companies surveyed had investigated the exposure of confidential, sensitive or private information from lost or stolen mobile devices in the past 12 months.
  • 11% of U.S. companies surveyed disciplined employees for improper use of blogs/message boards in the past 12 months.
  • 13% of surveyed companies disciplined employees for social network violations and 14% for improper use of media sharing sites in the past 12 months.
  • 14% of publicly traded companies surveyed had investigated the exposure of material financial information (such as unannounced financial results) on blogs or message board postings in the last 12 months.
Proofpoint surveyed 301 email decision makers at U.S. companies with more than 1000 employees for this report.

Time to start using Gmail at work for your personal email? ... not that you should even be using company resources for personal email anyway, right? Photobucket


Thursday, May 22, 2008

Final Firefox 3 and 3.1 Get (Roughly) Dated

Mozilla has announced a rough date for final release of Firefox 3 as well as a date-driven release schedule for Firefox 3.1.

Firefox 3 is now slated for "sometime in June," while Firefox 3.1 is scheduled for the end of the year. The delay for 3 (besides Firefox's own bugs) is that Mozilla wants time for extensions to catch up. That's my pet peeve with trying out Firefox 3 RC1 (and past early releases) as well. I don't want to have to struggle without the extensions I've grown used to. Most of them aren't obscure, but rather well-known, like Roboform and Tab Mix Plus.

Naturally the best user-experience would be no impact on users; the ideal situation would be for extensions to update themselves with versions compatible with 2.0 as well as 3 prior to the Firefox release, and then after installing Firefox 3, everything just works seamlessly. So far my experience has been a lot of hunting for beta versions of extensions for 3, so I have just given up for now, though I may consider trying again on a spare system this weekend.

Meanwhile, in a post on the mozilla.dev.planning newsgroup, Mike Schroepfer, vice-president of engineering at Mozilla, indicated the plans for 3.1 (emphasis mine):
There were a number of features that we held back from Firefox 3 because they weren't quite ready - but they were nearly complete. These include things like XHR, native JSON DOM bindings, ongoing performance tuning, awesomebar++, better system integration, etc. This along with the overall quality of Gecko 1.9 as a basis for mobile and the desire to get new platform features out to web developers sooner has lead to us want to do a second release of Firefox this year. This release would be date-driven and targeted at the end of 2008. Any features not ready in time will move to the next major release. This is currently planned to be based on Gecko 1.9.1 - but if there are solid technical reasons for breaking frozen APIs we will bump the version number to Mozilla2.
Since it's date-driven, that's a pretty solid estimate for 3.1. Schroepfer also indicated that Firefox 4 has a tentative date of late 2009. Of course, that's waaaaay off in the future, so that's carved in butter, not stone.

In February Firefox passed 500 million downloads; it's now at over 557 million. It's made serious inroads into both corporation and personal use, vs. Internet Explorer; as long as I have my extensions, I personally won't go back.


Microsoft to "Open" Office to More Rival Formats

Microsoft has announced future editions of Microsoft Office, beginning with Office 2007 Service Pack 2, will enable users to choose OpenDocument support as an alternate default option. SP2 is scheduled for the first half of 2009, and will add support for Open Document Format (ODF) 1.1, XML Paper Specification (XPS), Portable Document Format (PDF) 1.5, PDF/A.

Microsoft had earlier released a converter that allowed users to open documents saved in ODF format as well as an add-on for Office that allowed users to save documents in PDF format.

However, with SP2, ODF and PDF support will be built directly into Office. Microsoft also said it will continue to collaborate in the ongoing development of the Open XML-ODF translator project on SourceForge.net to allow support for Office XP and Office 2003.

In a press release, Chris Capossela, senior vice president for the Microsoft Business Division, said:
“We are committed to providing Office users with greater choice among document formats and enhanced interoperability between those formats and the applications that implement them. By increasing the openness of our products and participating actively in the development and maintenance of document format standards, we believe we can help create opportunities for developers and competitors, including members of the open source communities, to innovate and deliver new value for customers.”
While Microsoft spent a lot of time applauding itself, it should be noted that Microsoft is under increasing pressure to support open file formats in Office. In fact, earlier this week, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) said that it has filed a complaint with the European Commission against Microsoft. The complaint alleged that Office 2007's lack of native ODF support will block the progress of educational initiatives.

This change, of course, would fix that problem, and prevent the European Commission from having another shot at them.


Google Earth Application Built to Show Climate Change Effects

On Monday, the Met Office Hadely Center, British Antarctic Survey, and the U.K. government released a Google Earth application that shows the effects of climate change over the next 100 years.

In their press release about the application, the Met Office Hadley Center describes the application as follows:
Once you click through to Google Earth, download the application and then download our layer, you will see a movie of global temperature changes for the next 100 years, produced by the Met Office Hadley Centre's climate model under a medium greenhouse gas emissions scenario. This shows where and how quickly we can expect the world to warm.
Too bad we can't adjust the greenhouse gas emission scenario and see how bad things could be under a high scenario. Check the differences between March 2008 above, and March 2058 below.

More information:
  • The temperature change animation shows global temperature changes from 2000 to 2100 from the Met Office Hadley Centre’s Global Environmental Model Version 1 (HadGEM1).
  • The world gets hotter (orange/red colours) as time goes by.
  • Some regions warm more than others.
Illustrative information on the impacts of climate change for different regions is provided as pushpin "pop-ups" as the animation runs.
  • Click the pushpins to find out more about the possible impacts of climate change around the world.
  • In pop-ups with the Met Office logo, click our logo to find out about the impacts and come back to the Met Office website.
The initiative was launched by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at the Google Zeitgeist conference on Monday.



Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Microsoft Resorts to Search Engine Bribery to Beat Google

Can't buy Yahoo! (at least for now)? Buy search users instead.

Microsoft has launched a service called "Live Search Cashback." The program is linked to Microsoft's acquisition of Jellyfish.com last year, a cashback site similar to eBates, where rebates of varying percentages are given for purchases clicked-through from the site. This probably explains why the cashback portion of Jellyfish has been down of late --- and is down again today.

The cashback program works the same as if you went directly to eBates or Jellyfish. You search for an item, and when you click through and buy, a certain percentage goes into your account. Typically the amount from one of these programs can range from less than a percent to 30% or more.

Essentially, Microsoft has turned Live Search into a combination Pricegrabber.com / eBates.

Microsoft labels this program as "The Search That Pays You Back." On their FAQ page, a few bullets:
Why are you paying me cashback?

We want to earn your loyalty and reward it with cashback savings for your everyday online shopping. We are "The Search That Pays You Back"!

Can I use an alternative payment method (i.e. PayPal, Google Checkout, etc.) when I purchase from the Store and still get my cashback savings?

We can't guarantee that your purchase will be reported to us correctly if you use an alternative payment method.
Payout methods are pretty much the standard for one of these services. The cashback amount goes into your account. Funds accumulate until they reach a $5 minimum amount, at which time you can request payment via direct deposit, PayPal, or check. Note there is a 60-day waiting period after purchase to account for possible returns.

How does Microsoft get merchants to sign on to this rebate program? Microsoft is using an alternative payment model called Cost Per Acquisition, in which the advertiser only pays when the ad results in a consumer purchase. This is a fairly typical model for this type of structure.

I'll say one thing: I'm assuming Microsoft will maintain the Jellyfish rebate structure. If so, the percentages offered are lower than a lot of other cashback sites (call me frugal), but the all-in-one search / rebate structure will probably still appeal to many.

The program, although already live on the Web, will be announced today at an annual event Microsoft holds for online advertisers.



Nearly 30% of Mobile Phone Users Text While Driving: Study

Anyone who's read my posts for a while knows that I'm in favor of bans of texting and emailing while driving, though I will admit to engaging in the activity myself.

On Wednesday Vlingo, a firm specializing in voice recognition technology, specifically for the mobile market, released a report called “Consumer Text Messaging Habits."

The report provides some interesting insights into the habits of Americans who text (defined as text messaging, instant messaging, or emailing) while driving.

In the emailed press release describing the report, Dave Grannan, CEO of vlingo said:
“In this data what we see is an approaching tidal wave of a public policy and safety issue. Text messaging has become an integral part of how younger generations communicate, and right now their behavior and attitudes suggest that 50 percent will be driving and texting. This problem is only going to get worse and we need to develop public policies and technologies to address this challenge.”
I'd agree, despite the fact I participate in the activity myself. Texting while driving has even been linked as a possible reason behind some fatal crashes. Interesting data from the report:
Overall, 55 percent of respondents send text messages, and 28 percent admit to driving while texting. Among respondents, 78 percent believe DWT should be illegal. The report also uncovered the following:
  • 85 percent of respondents say they would not DWT if it were illegal.
  • 78 percent of all surveyed think DWT should be illegal.
  • 85 percent of teens and young adults (those 13-29) send text messages, and just over 50 percent of those ages 16-29 admit to DWT.
In terms of states with the best and worst records for texting while driving:
The five states with the highest percentage of respondents who admit to DWT are:

1. South Carolina (worst record)
2. Tennessee
3. Georgia
4. Maryland
5. Louisiana

The five states with the lowest percentage of respondents who DWT are:

1. Arizona (best record)
2. Maine
3. Vermont
4. New Hampshire
5. Delaware
I'm totally shocked that California wasn't among the worst states, particularly when I see so many of them every day when I'm driving.

Right now vlingo has vlingo FIND, a free local search & maps application for your cell phone. It's also working on an application for the BlackBerry that will "enable users to search the mobile web, make a phone call, send a note to self, email or send an SMS all by using voice."

Whoa, get that on an iPhone and you've sold me.

The survey was conducted among 4,820 online opinion panel members aged 13 or older living in the continental United States. The sample was matched to U.S. Census proportions on gender, age and ethnicity and included approximately 100 respondents from each of the 48 contiguous U.S. states. Respondents were also screened for mobile phone ownership and usage. Margin of error was +/- 1.41%.

You can read the entire report here.


Windows XP SP3 Corrupting Registry Entries?

As if Microsoft needed to hear more Windows XP SP3 problems, right? You'd almost think they did this on purpose, as we know they'd rather all of us upgrade to Vista. Nah.

Only a day after reports that Windows XP SP3 was cutting off access for users of Microsoft's problematic Windows Home Server product, reports of SP3 corrupting the registry have surfaced.

The problem with Windows Home Server had a workaround as the problem is said to be that SP3 disables the Terminal Services ActiveX control. Instructions for enabling the control were posted to Microsoft's Windows Home Server forums by user ColinWH.

In the case of the registry corruption issues, a user named MRFREEZE61 reported that after installing SP3, he had issues with his Network Connections:
I was upgrading a well maintained XP PRO SP2 to SP3 on a Compaq Presario S5400NX. After the upgrade, while trying to open "My Computer" - it now takes much longer. But the real issue is that the Network Connections screen now does not show any of the NIC cards. I have three adapters that used to show up - the Onboard RealTek adapter was disabled prior to starting upgrade as was the Firewire Port. The working and enabled adpater was an INTEL MT1000/PCI. {Note however the network connection is working}. In an attempt to troubleshoot - I tried to bring up the Device Manager - and to my suprise - it is now empty.
Later, he posted that he had determined it to be invalid registry entries:
I'll be damned - it was indeed corruption introduced into the registry by the SP3 upgrade process itself. In my case it was located in:

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE \ SYSTEM \ CurrentControlSet \ Enum \ Root \ LEGACY_CCPROXY

All the invalid entries ( which for me all began with $%& ) had to be deleted.
Even more interesting was information in the post right after MRFREEZE61's "solution" post, a post by grfrost:
MRFREEZE61: I have found a similar corruption on my system.

I see parent keys that all seem to be Norton/Symantec product keys. These are throughout my registry and not limited to the location that you pointed out. These keys include:

LEGACY_LIVEUPDATE_NOTICE
Automatic LiveUpdate Scheduler
ccEvtMgr
ccSetMgr
CLTNetCnService
Instances
LiveUpdate
LiveUpdateNotice
NAVENG
NAVEX15
Symantec Core LC

Underneath EACH of these keys are over 180 corrupted keys FOR EACH ONE.
Aha, it makes me wonder if the SP3 install would have gone better if they had been running Windows Live OneCare rather than a Symantec security product.

As hard as the connection between Norton / Symantec and this problem may be to believe, a post by BandWidthJunlie who had a similar failure:

The only major differences between these machines were the following on the failed PC: -

Visual Studio 2003
Visual Studio 2005
SQL 2005
Norton 2008 (the other PC has Norton 2004)
Office 2008 (the other PC has Office 2003)
Then from jslynch78:
I too had this problem with NIS 2008. Looking at the forums, this problem has been showing up with all the SP3 RC's so it makes me wonder wy they released it instead of fixing it.
My answer to that would be that perhaps all those Microsoft computers in QA had OneCare installed. At any rate, Symantec denied any culpability in the issue (naturally), and some in the thread were asking for an automated registry cleaner.

I'm wondering if a tool like Registry Mechanic would correct the problem. There's probably a decent chance it would, but as I don't run Symantec products any longer, there's no way for me to confirm this.

Once again, as I've said before, if you're doing this major an upgrade, you should make an image of your hard drive (such as with Acronis True Image) before doing it. System Restore is just not that good. So, if something goes wrong, you have an image to go back to. You never know.


XOXO to the OLPC 2.0

Yep, hugs and kisses (XOXO) to the OLPC's XO-2 laptop, which was unveiled today by Nicolas Negroponte during the One Laptop Per Child Foundation’s day-long media event at the MIT Media Lab.

Not much detail was given regarding the new ULCPC's specs, but the new system has two touch-sensitive displays and no hard keyboard. Click the above image for a larger one. The emailed press release said:
... the primary goal of the "XO-2" will be to advance new concepts of learning as well as to further drive down the cost of the laptop so that it is affordable for volume purchase by developing nations.
The release also said that by the time the device launches in 2010, the OLPC Foundation wants its cost to be $75. More info from the press release:
Lower Power Consumption - While the first generation XO laptop already requires just one-tenth (2-4 watts versus 20-40 watts) of the electrical power necessary to run a standard laptop, the XO-2 will reduce power consumption even further to 1 watt. This is particularly important for children in remote and rural environments where electricity is scarce or non-existent. Lowering the power consumption will reduce the amount of time required for children to generate power themselves via a hand crank or other manual mechanisms.

Smaller Footprint - The XO-2 laptop will be about half the size of the first generation device and will approximate the size of a book. The new design will make the XO laptop lighter and easier for children to carry with them to and from school or wherever they go. The XO-2 will continue to be in a green and white case and sport the XO logo in a multitude of colors that allow children to personalize the laptop as their own possession.

Enhanced Book Experience - Dual-touch sensitive displays will be used to enhance the e-book experience, with a dual-mode display similar to the current XO laptop. The design provides a right and left page in vertical format, a hinged laptop in horizontal format, and a flat two-screen wide continuous surface that can be used in tablet mode. Younger children will be able to use simple keyboards to get going, and older children will be able to switch between keyboards customized for applications as well as for multiple languages. The dual-touch display is being designed by Pixel Qi, which was founded in early 2008 by Mary Lou Jepsen, former chief technology officer of One Laptop per Children and a leading expert on display technology.
I have to admit, the device looks really cool in pictures, but this is going to generate a generation of non-touch typists in emerging markets. There's no way I could type on one of these. Usability-wise, I give these new laptops a poor grade, simply because I'm a touch typist.

On the other hand, the good news is that the Foundation's successful "Give One, Get One" program from last year will return later this year, possibly in August or September.

And, XO-1.5 will be released in the spring of 2009 with the same design as the first generation but with fewer physical parts and at a lower cost than XO-1. This laptop could reach the original specs of $100 for the XO-1.