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Breaking News from The Globe and Mail

Mathew Ingram

Thursday, June 15, 2006

This blog has moved:
Okay, it hasn't really moved -- it's still here. But it has been superseded by a new and improved version of Geekwatch, which lives in a new location at http://www.globeandmail.com/blogs/geekwatch. It has a whole lot more blog-type features, including the ability to comment on each individual post (rather than having comments all in a big lump at the end of the entire blog) and "perma-links" or individual URLs for each post to make it easier for other bloggers and readers to link to. There's also an RSS feed, which you can import into one of a number of feed-readers -- either Web-based like Bloglines or downloadable like NewsGator -- so you can get your Geekwatch fix whenever there's a new item posted (there's more about our RSS feeds at http://www.globeandmail.com/rss). If you want to let me know what you think of the new Geekwatch, just post a comment.





Posted Friday, June 16 at 2:08 p.m.

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Turn those fans up to 11:
If you're a computer nerd -- or even just interested in the guts of what Google does and how it does it -- a story in the New York Times has some fascinating details on the new server farms the search engine company is constructing on the shores of the Columbia River in The Dalles, Oregon. Two are built already and a third has received a permit. They are as big as two football fields, and each one has giant cooling towers four stories high attached to the end, in order to keep the massive racks of servers from overheating.

Microsoft and Yahoo are apparently building their own giant server farms upstream in Wenatchee and Quincy, Wash., which means that the Oregon-Washington region will likely need a few extra nuclear plants or dams or something pretty soon. Entrepreneur Martin Varsavsky of FON says that when he asked Google founder Larry Page what the main factor limiting the company's growth was, the billionaire said electricity.

Just how big is the Googleplex? The Times says the number of servers the company is currently operating at its 25 locations around the world is in the 450,000 range. That figure has more than quadrupled since 2004, when Google's server operation was already estimated to be one of the world's most powerful distributed supercomputers - rivalling anything that NASA or the NSA have. Based on estimates of the power that half a million servers would consume, that means Google's electricity bill is likely somewhere between $50-million and $100-million every year -- and growing.





Posted Wednesday, June 14 at 10:57 a.m.

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And a big sticky mess:
By now, you've probably seen one of the "viral" videos that seem to regularly make their way around the Internet faster than the speed of light, most of them courtesy of video-sharing websites such as YouTube.com or Google Video or Revver.com. There's the teenager playing Pachelbel's Canon on the electric guitar (note for note) and the older gentleman known as Bus Uncle yelling at a younger man who criticized his cellphone manners -- and more recently, the visual sculpture created by two men wearing white lab coats, brandishing 101 litres of Diet Coke and about 500 Mentos mints.

Using a variety of equipment, the two men drop Mentos into the bottles of Coke, some of which are set swinging on ropes, at which point geysers of pop go spraying into the air up to 20 feet high. According to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, the two men from Maine -- a professional juggler named Fritz Grobe and a lawyer named Stephen Voltz -- said the exercise had no real purpose other than to have some fun with the properties of Mentos mints and Diet Coke. They posted it to their comedy website called Eepybird.com, and it has reportedly been viewed almost a million times.

What's interesting is that, according to the WSJ story, the company that makes Mentos -- a subsidiary of an Italian concern called Perfetti van Melle -- has embraced the video as "viral" marketing for its candies, and has said it may try to work out a deal with the two men to create further Mentos-related video artwork. According to a company spokesman, the word of mouth spread by the video is likely worth about half the company's U.S. ad budget, or about $10-million. Some other corporations have taken a dim view of people using their products in ways they weren't intended to be used, including FedEx. The shipping company sent a "cease and desist" letter to a man who had set up a website showing how he made furniture from FedEx boxes.





Posted Tuesday, June 13 at 12:07 p.m.

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Download at will:
Sweden's justice minister said recently that he would consider ripping up that country's recent law banning the downloading of copyrighted music and video over the Internet, and replacing it with a mandatory charge on all broadband Internet users. Those revenues would then be used to compensate artists for the unlicensed use of their work -- much as the Canadian copying levy, which gets tacked on to every blank CD and DVD sold in the country, is designed to help compensate artists whose music or video is shared over the Internet (it only covers private copying, however, and only applies to music).

Justice Minister Thomas Bodstrom told a Swedish newspaper that while he favoured the current legislation, he was willing to reopen the issue if the country's opposition parties wanted to look at a different method of handling illegal downloads. The Left Party has said that it wants to get rid of the current law because it hasn't done anything to stop illegal file-sharing, while the Moderate Party says the issue needs to be looked at again so that Sweden's copyright laws can be adapted to recent technological developments.

In other file-sharing related news, Sweden's crackdown on The Pirate Bay -- a popular website for movie and software downloaders that the government raided recently -- seems to have had little effect. Although the country's police force took most of the service's computers and closed its doors, the site was back up within three days using servers based in the Netherlands. In fact, according to another Swedish news report, The Pirate Bay's traffic has actually increased as a result of the publicity surrounding the raid.





Posted Monday, June 12 at 12:12 p.m.

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Google wants us to turn it up:
The co-founders of Google, gazillionaires Larry Page and Sergey Brin, have often said that their intention is to organize all of the world's information -- not just the stuff that is online, but everywhere. That includes TV, of course, and there have been hints that the search giant wants to become the new TV Guide of the digital information age, indexing and searching TV shows just like it does websites. Now a couple of Google Labs researchers have developed a system that would allow the company to bring up relevant information based on what show you're watching -- just by listening to the ambient audio coming from your television set.

The two researchers presented a paper at the Euro Interactive TV conference in Athens recently (and won best paper at the event), in which they described how their system could "sample the ambient sound emitted from a TV and automatically determine what is being watched... all with complete privacy and minuscule effort." According to the two, the system could easily keep up with users while they channel-surfed, "presenting them with a real-time forum about a live political debate one minute and an ad-hoc chat room for a sporting event in the next."

All of this could be done, they said "without users ever having to type or to even know the name of the program or channel being viewed." The paper they submitted (PDF document here) describes how interactive chat sessions could be brought up based on who else was watching the same content, or even maps and other information relating to a movie or documentary. The system would not be able to decipher conversations or record audio, they said -- all it would do is decipher enough audio to figure out what the program was. It would also have a "mute" button, they said, for users who didn't want the TV listening to them.





Posted Friday, June 9 at 1:42 p.m.

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Get your red-hot evil:
Google has been getting a lot of flak from the blogosphere -- and even the non-blogosphere -- for breaching its famous "Don't be evil" corporate mantra, by doing such things as acceding to the Chinese government's demands to censor its search results (although one of the company's co-founders seems to be rethinking that move). But at least one observer thinks the search behemoth needs to get more evil rather than less. Why? Because, says Lore Sjoberg, "the worldwide market for evil is stratospheric, and Google is uniquely positioned to take advantage of it."

Sjoberg, writing for Wired News, says that "economists -- many of whom are themselves evil -- estimate that if Google abandoned its inefficient policy completely, it could capture 38 percent of the evil market." That's more than Microsoft and Lindsay Lohan combined, notes the former writer for the Brunching Shuttlecocks satirical group.

Among the new business ventures Sjoberg suggests Google could get into are Google Torture, which he describes this way: "Google provides access to nearly all the public information on the web, but what about data people aren't willing to share? Google could enhance its core search engine by deploying goons and/or thugs to beat information out of people -- anything from the location of their valuables to interesting sports trivia." Other new business opportunities are "Google Murder" and "Google Blackmail," which would make better use of the search company's video-uploading service to extort money from unfaithful husbands.

Larry and Sergey, are you listening?





Posted Tuesday, June 6 at 1:52 p.m.

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Just sit down and watch it:
Television used to be something you pretty much had to watch, well... on your television. In one place. All at the same time. But the VCR changed that, and more recently the arrival of devices like the Slingbox have changed it even further. With one of the sleek units from Sling Media, you can stream recorded TV to anywhere you want over the Internet -- and that has made the entire broadcast industry very, very nervous.

Another example of just how nervous the industry has become came on Wednesday, when Major-League Baseball told Sling Media that it didn't particularly like the fact that viewers were moving games around and watching them in different places.

Why would baseball care? Because the league -- like other sporting leagues -- sells broadcast rights based on geographical location, which explains why some cities are "blacked out" during the playoffs. Slingbox threatens that whole structure, which in turn is the financial foundation for much of sport broadcasting. So MLB wants users to pay more for the right to move their programs around and watch them in different places.

As more than one person has pointed out, however, it's not like the viewers of those games are doing something illegal -- they have already paid their cable or phone company for the right to watch those shows. Why should they have to pay more just because they want to watch it on their laptop in the airport?

This conflict was reportedly the subject of much debate at the Digital Media conference in Los Angeles. George Kliavkoff of MLB said that users who moved their content around using Slingbox or Orb Networks were violating the user agreements they signed with their cable providers. Sling Media argued that they had every right to watch whatever they wanted wherever they wanted.

In many ways, the TV industry is currently fighting the same battle that the music industry is. Illegal downloading is just the tip of the iceberg -- for companies like Apple and record labels like Warner Music, the bigger issue is whether paying customers have the right to move their media to another location, or whether what they paid for was some kind of geographically-restricted (or format-restricted) use. Expect to see more battles on this one before the umpire finally rules.





Posted Tuesday, June 6 at 1:52 p.m.

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Office-like, but not Office:
So Google has a spreadsheet app (and yes, it's called Google Spreadsheets -- really creative name there, guys). Now let's start the countdown to the presentation app (called Google Presentation, no doubt): here it comes in 10, 9, 8... oh, why not just buy Thumbstacks.com and be done with it.

With the acquisition of Writely.com, the launch of Google Calendar, and now the spreadsheet, the search behemoth with the $130-billion market cap has put together many of the same pieces as the Microsoft Office suite, which more than one person has noted makes up about 25 per cent of the software company's revenue (it used to be about 40 per cent) and an even larger chunk of its profit as well.

The only question that remains unanswered is, so what? Don't get me wrong -- Writely.com is a great application. But you can't export as a Word document, which means that no one is going to be able to use it as a business application (ThinkFree Office makes more sense for that). Google Calendar is great too, and nicely integrated with Gmail, but I don't see businesses standardizing on either one of them.

So why is Google bothering -- just to show that it can muscle in on markets too, the same way Microsoft does? Or is it just jumping on its horse and riding madly off in all directions, as Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock put it? One thing is for sure, it's not a great day to be JotSpot, NumSum or iRows -- although someone pointed out that Yahoo might be looking to get into the game too. And maybe Google Spreadsheet will become something more than a kind of half-assed Web version of Excel. Let's hope so.





Posted Tuesday, June 6 at 1:52 p.m.

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Don't forget to bring the Ajax:
It was inevitable that someone would eventually take a bullet in the ongoing battle of the "portal" homepages (it's no Alamo, but we have to do the best we can on the new frontier). It turned out to be the fittingly named Fold.com which, well... folded. That leaves about a half-dozen Ajax-powered portals (Ajax being the technology that makes them fast and interactive), including Netvibes, Protopages, Pageflakes and Zoozio. Oh yes -- and there are a couple of little players named Google (with its google/ig) and Microsoft (with live.com).

Both Netvibes and Pageflakes have recently gotten venture-capital financing, so someone must see a future in the homepage frontier. Richard MacManus of Read/WriteWeb is one of those. In a recent post, he says that what now appear to be just cool interactive homepages could become the portals of the Web 2.0 future, with all kinds of widgets and tools built in. In a sense, they could become a virtual desktop -- the tool you use to gather all the bits and pieces of your online life together, all of them interacting and updating automatically.

I think Richard might be right. I'm a big fan of Netvibes.com, in part because it is fast -- a lot faster than Google's ig -- and because it is flexible, with dozens of different modules (such as Flickr, del.icio.us and Digg modules) and features including the ability to add new tabs, click once and mark all items in a feed read, and so on. Google's effort, much like its other tools such as Google Reader, verges on the lame. It seems slow and clunky, you only get three columns (Netvibes.com has four) and you can't add new tabs. Admittedly, those kinds of things aren't exactly a powerful barrier to entry.

Microsoft's entry in the portal sweepstakes has also gotten better. At first, Live.com was slow and buggy -- kind of like Windows 1.0. But it has gotten a lot faster and sleeker-looking, and is the closest to having a competitive offering compared with Netvibes. All are racing to add as many modules as they can, but so far Netvibes has the most useful ones, such as a window where you can track your Writely.com documents, and a connection to Box.net online storage. Pageflakes has added a "share this page" feature, and Netvibes now lets you add modules to the Netvibes "ecosystem."

One thing that Google has going for it is a mobile version of its portal that is fast and slick. In fact, when it comes to mobile RSS readers, it is right up there with the best. I've tried several, including one called conveyor.com for the BlackBerry, and they all leave something to be desired. This could be an important differentiator between the competitors going forward.





Posted Monday, June 5 at 10:47 a.m.

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Steve still has one though:
Remember the "halo effect?" That was the term some analysts came up with for the boost in Apple sales that was expected to result from the smash success of the company's iPod music and video players. The assumption was that all the love for the iPod would spill over onto the rest of Apple's business, and that people would be drawn to purchase more Macs and iBooks and so on. There were several articles and analyst reports last year that said the effect seemed to be working -- but now there are numbers from a PC-market research company that call those early reports into question.

According to the latest report from Gartner Group -- obtained (ironically) by a blog called Apple Insider -- Apple's worldwide market share actually dropped in the first quarter of this year, to 2 per cent from 2.2 per cent in the same quarter of 2005. Even in the U.S., the company's primary market, its share barely budged during the quarter, remaining more or less flat at 3.6 per cent (Gartner says the company's share rose by one-tenth of one per cent). Even if you assume that lots of people held off buying Apple laptops and desktops because they were waiting for the new models that use Intel chips, that's still not a great performance -- and certainly not much evidence of a halo.

Incidentally, one of the reasons why it's ironic that the Gartner report shows up on a blog called Apple Insider is that the blog was one of several that were sued by the computer company for leaking inside information about Apple products -- a lawsuit that Apple just recently lost. Could Apple Insider be feeling just a little bit of what the Germans call schadenfreude?





Posted Friday, June 2 at 12:15 p.m.

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How not to win friends:
The much-anticipated -- and much delayed, and much criticized -- Vonage IPO just keeps setting new records for how screwed up a public share offering can get. In what no doubt seemed like a Web 2.0-type gesture for a tech issue, the company offered its customers stock as part of the IPO, and that has turned into a gigantic boomerang that just clocked Vonage in the back of the skull. Since the stock tanked after it started trading, many of those eager investors are now saying they won't pay.

Former tech analyst Paul Kedrosky says the investors who grabbed those shares should have known what they were getting into, since skeptics on the Vonage IPO weren't exactly difficult to find. But the company is still caught between a rock and a hard place, or maybe two rocks and a hard place. It has now said it will reimburse the brokerage firms for any stock that disgruntled Vonage customers (see the Vonage forum here) don't pay for, but all that's going to do is irritate the ones who actually paid money for it.

So then you have a company that is already losing money at a prodigious rate of speed -- more last year than it made in revenue, which is no mean feat -- spending more money to soothe the egos of the customers it convinced to buy shares. The only other option is to sue those customers, and what kind of marketing would that be? It's a lose-lose-lose proposition, a rare money-losing hat-trick in hockey terms. So at least that's something to be proud of.

Update: Vonage now says that it will pursue legal action against those who don't pay for their stock, but as I pointed out above, that is just one of the three losing options available to the company (the third being to do nothing).

A report in the Wall Street Journal says that due to some procedural errors during the weeks leading up to its IPO (including sending out an email without a link to the prospectus), disgruntled Vonage investors may have some recourse to avoid paying for the stock. And Paul Kedrosky says that while retail investors may have gotten hammered by Vonage, venture capital investors did pretty well.





Updated Wednesday, May 31 at 6:23 p.m.

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Better pay attention:
Cellphone companies are all desperately trying to find ways of "monetizing" the eyeballs that look at their handsets every day, and charging for text-messaging and cam-phone pictures clearly isn't bringing in enough dosh. So Virgin Mobile USA -- a "mobile virtual network operator" or MVNO, which resells phone service from Sprint -- has come up with a novel way of charging users: under a new plan, it will give you free cellphone minutes if you agree to watch a video ad or receive a text-message ad on your phone.

The plan, called "SugarMama," is expected to launch in June and include ad campaigns from Microsoft (for the Xbox 360) and Pepsi, among others. Virgin has about four million mostly young customers, which many advertisers are eager to reach. The company says it will offer users as many as 75 minutes of talk time per month if they agree to watch a 30-second video ad or get a text message. But there's a catch: in order to get the time, the user has to answer a question based on the content of the ad, to ensure that they have been paying attention.

Virgin is clearly aiming to make some money from its "pre-paid" customers, who buy minutes up front and are seen as somewhat less valuable than dedicated monthly-plan holders. But will the plan work? The New York Times story has a great quote from Roger Entner of Ovum Research which might make one skeptical: "If you're too cheap to buy a minute of air time, how are you going to afford an Xbox?" he asked. Another analyst pointed out that the average cost of a cellphone minute is as low as 3.5 cents, which means that for watching Virgin's ads you are being paid up to $2.60. Does that sound like a good deal?





Updated Tuesday, May 30 at 1:50 p.m.

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Volunteer to be watched:
Having someone track your driving behaviour — how fast you go, how hard you jump on the brakes, and so on -- sounds like a Big Brother-type nightmare (unless you're the parent of a teenage driver, of course). But what if you monitored yourself and then sent the information to someone voluntarily? And what if it could save you money on your insurance rates? Easyway Insurance Brokers of Ontario, a large independent brokerage, has launched something it calls "Save As You Drive." All you do is install a device that tracks your driving behaviour, and then send the info it generates to Easyway.

"Good driving habits should be rewarded with lower car insurance rates," says John Belyea, the president of Easyway Insurance. "Unfortunately, the technology hasn't existed to allow drivers to prove their abilities - until now." The Easyway "smart meter" allows drivers to track their speed, the time of day, total mileage and whether they aggressively accelerate or brake. Drivers can review the data on their PC before submitting it and be eligible for a discount of up to 30% on their rates, and regardless of their driving, their rates won't go up.

Smart idea, right? Just think of how you could extend that to other things. How about health insurance that decreases if you agree to install cameras that record how long you sit on the couch eating chips and drinking beer? Or a chip in your fridge that records how many vegetables you eat -- or better yet, an implantable chip that monitors your blood pressure and immune system, and raises or lowers your insurance rates based on whether you eat a lot of fat or not? The possibilities are endless.




Updated Friday, May 26 at 12:07 p.m.

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The enemy of my enemy...:
There have been all kinds of rumblings about power shifts and prospective deals among the major Internet players over the past six months or so, with talk of takeovers and partnerships and other permutations and combinations -- including a recent 52-page report from J.P. Morgan about the most likely pairings among Yahoo, eBay, Microsoft and Google. The most likely coupling, according to the brokerage firm, was Yahoo and eBay. Whoever wrote that report must be feeling pretty pleased with themselves, because the two Internet giants announced a far-reaching and long-term partnership on Thursday that involves a whole series of offerings from both companies.

Among other things, including a shared browser-toolbar offering, Yahoo has agreed to use PayPal -- eBay's online payment system -- for all of its Yahoo services, and eBay has agreed to make Yahoo its exclusive provider of ads on its auction pages, and also for sponsored search throughout the eBay service. The two companies have also agreed to explore a partnership for so-called "click to call" ads that would use software from voice-over-Internet company Skype, which eBay acquired for $2.4-billion (U.S.) last fall.

As more than one analyst has pointed out, this type of deal falls into the category of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Both eBay and Yahoo are up against not just search leader Google -- which is edging into the auction arena with Google Base, and also becoming more of a portal the way Yahoo is -- but also fighting Microsoft's attempts to move in on their turf. By teaming up, J.P. Morgan and others say, the two get to combine their strengths and present a kind of united front in the search, auction and online portal wars.




Updated Thursday, May 25 at 12:46 p.m.

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Use VOIP to call your broker:
And so we return to our story, to find our hero -- the plucky little (or not so little) voice-over-Internet-protocol or VOIP company called Vonage -- finally going public, after much back-and-forthing over the past year about when to issue stock and for how much, or whether to try and convince someone to take the company over. And what happens? The stock tanks, dropping by as much as 15 per cent at one point on Wednesday. Needless to say, that's not what most IPOs are supposed to do, especially since underwriters of initial offerings usually try hard to underprice the issue so that they get a little "pop" on opening day.

Well, Vonage definitely got a pop, but it was more like the sound a balloon makes before it deflates. Why? Because while the term VOIP may be hot, industry watchers have been warning for some time that Vonage is caught between a rock and a hard place -- it has the name-brand value (courtesy of a very expensive marketing campaign) but it is being squeezed by free VOIP provider Skype on one hand and by cable providers on the other. While Vonage has features that set it apart from either one, including the ability to take a VOIP system on the road and still use the same phone number, that may not be enough to base a business on.

It's true that by selling shares at $17 (U.S.) each, Vonage managed to raise a little over $500-million, giving the entire company a combined market value of over $2.5-billion. So we shouldn't be holding any charity drives for CEO Jeffrey Citron, whose stake is likely worth about $1-billion or so. But at the same time, Vonage needs all that money to try and plug the gigantic hole in its balance sheet, which continues to drain money at a furious pace. Last year, the company lost $261-million, which was almost as much as it had in revenue. Not a great sign.

The worst part is that Vonage's costs are likely to remain roughly the same, or even increase, as the market gets more competitive -- and yet its chances of becoming profitable are likely to fall, as Skype and the cable companies both put pressure on prices. Sound like a good recipe for an investment to you? Then Vonage would like to hear from you.




Updated Wednesday, May 24 at 5:46 p.m.

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Share photos, no uploading:
One of the interesting things about the recent Web 2.0 conference in Toronto known as mesh (full disclosure: I was one of the organizers of the conference) was the chance to chat with some of the small Web-based startups across Canada, including two that recently announced that they had received financing from venture-capital groups. Pixpo, based in British Columbia, was one of those companies -- founder Colin How told the conference that his company had just gotten $6.5-million from a group of VCs.

Also involved in the financing round were Madrona Partners, a VC based in the Pacific Northwest that specializes in early-stage companies, a Canadian VC group called GrowthWorks, a Canadian fund called Yaletown Venture Partners that focuses on Western Canada, and a Calgary-based early-stage fund called Springbank TechVentures (started by one of the early investors in MetroNet, which was sold to AT&T in 1999 for $7-billion).

Pixpo's software -- a modified version of the kind of "peer-to-peer" network used by companies such as Kazaa for file-sharing -- allows computer users to share their photos, music, video and other media without having to upload it all to some external site such as YouTube or the photo-sharing site Flickr. Instead, the user just leaves the photos or music or videos where they are, and gives outside Web surfers access to those files on the PC, while keeping that access secure enough that the user doesn't have to worry about hackers messing around with other files or the operating system.

Hosting all the files on your home PC can pose its own problems, however, including the strain that gets put on both the PC and your home Internet connection if your video clip of your cat falling into the bathtub happens to get linked on BoingBoing and millions of people try to access it at the same time. Mr. How says that Pixpo uses a combination of a modified P2P network and a hosted-server network so that if certain files become particularly popular, they can be cached or hosted on Pixpo's own servers. He also said that in contrast to other streaming-media software such as Orb Networks, Pixpo is more flexible, faster and provides a better quality video feed.



Updated Friday, May 19 at 2:00 p.m.

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And in this corner...:
The bare-knuckle bout for VoIP supremacy is still in the opening round, but Skype has thrown what could be a haymaker punch. The voice-over-Internet pioneer that eBay acquired from founder Niklas Zennstrom last year for a mind-boggling $2.4-billion (U.S.) - and up to $4.1-billion if Skype meets certain performance targets - is now allowing users to make VoIP calls from their computers to any landline number for free.

The freebie for what the company calls "SkypeOut" calls is only a short-term offer, however. It expires at the end of the year, and is clearly designed to suck new users into the Skype vortex. But is it a smart move by eBay to build a customer base and take on Vonage, or a desperate move to justify that multibillion-dollar cheque it cut?

Skype said in its release that "completely free calling in the U.S. and Canada will expand Skype's increasing penetration in North America and solidify Skype's position as the Internet's voice communication tool of choice." And there are those who believe it will make the service - which is based on P2P or "peer-to-peer" technology originally developed for the Kazaa file-sharing network - a lot more appealing to non-geeks, since the previous free VoIP service only included PC-to-PC calls.

Phil Wolff of SkypeJournal.com wrote after the announcement was released that "in one stroke [it] simplifies the choice to try Skype. No need to whip out a credit card or think about minutes. Just download and call. No trying to understand SkypeOut rates." The move will "starve small competitors," he added, as well as forcing Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL and Google to match the free outbound call offer or fall behind.

The VoIP player it really puts pressure on, however, is Vonage. The company is currently the leader in what some call the "hardware-based" VOIP market, since it sells users a box (and/or a handset) that plugs into their Internet connection, rather than just software that runs on a computer. But selling those products and marketing its service as a replacement for traditional phone service costs a lot of money - much more than Vonage makes by charging for its VoIP service - and so it is currently hemorrhaging cash, even as its costs continue to grow. The company's marketing costs alone totalled more than $88-million (U.S.) in the first quarter of this year, contributing to a loss of more than $85-million on revenue of $118.9-million.

Skype's announcement couldn't come at a worse time for Vonage, since the company is trying to market a public share offering despite its money-losing ways. And yet more than one analyst has noted that the VoIP provider is being squeezed by Skype on the low end with its free services, and the cable companies on the higher end with their all-in-one VoIP services.

Andy Kessler, a former hedge-fund manager who now writes about technology and investing, said that the free SkypeOut announcement was a "classic, high-stakes, Wall Street sucker punch" to Vonage. He described the impetus behind the offer as a case of "why not play with the mouse before you kill it," and added that eBay must have been thinking: "What better way to do away with the Vonage IPO and raise their cost of capital then/ scare investors even more." (Telcos are likely feeling just as glum as Vonage, of course, since Skype continues to push the cost of phone calls down closer and closer to zero).

Over the past year, while Vonage's customer base has grown, the cable companies have grown faster in terms of VoIP adoption, to the point where some are wondering whether Vonage is likely to become the TiVo of VoIP - a pioneer that winds up struggling to turn itself into a lasting business. As of February, surveys from both UBS and TeleGeography showed that cable providers had taken more than 52 per cent of the voice-over-Internet market, while independents including Vonage only had about 37 per cent. Vonage was still the largest single provider, with 1.2 million customers, but Time Warner was close behind.

eBay, meanwhile, is obviously trying to boost market penetration for Skype to the point where it becomes the de facto standard for free or low-cost VoIP. The company has been adding services to keep its product the leader as AOL and Google add voice-calling features to their instant messenger offerings. It has also been doing deals with hardware companies to sell Skype-branded handsets such as the Netgear-Skype Wi-Fi phone, a cellphone-like device that allows users to make Skype calls from any wireless hotspot or Wi-Fi network.

Skype's news may be bad for Vonage, but it has its own battle to fight against Microsoft, AOL and Google, not to mention the cable companies, all of whom have very deep pockets. Call this the first punch in what could be a long slugfest over the VoIP market. The good part for consumers, of course, is that it means using the telephone continues to get cheaper.



Updated Wednesday, May 17 at 5:29 p.m.

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A toy for math geeks?:
At its recent Google Press Day event, the search giant's executives -- CEO Eric Schmidt and boy-wonder founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page -- took questions and launched a few new toys, including Google Trends and something called Google Co-op (the actual address is "coop" because hyphens don't work that well in Internet URLs). While the service may turn out to be a promising addition to the Googleplex, I would warn you not to delve into Google Co-op without either an advanced programming degree or a large supply of Excedrin.

Co-op makes the incredibly complicated and mind-bogglingly obtuse Google Base look like a Hallmark greeting card. I know that Google is all about algorithms -- not just because it's obvious, but because that's what Eric Schmidt said during the press conference. But Google Co-op is enough to make a non-math geek hold his head in his hands and weep. It seems simple enough. Google wants you to "Help other users find information more easily by creating "subscribed links" for your services and labeling webpages around the topics you know best." How hard could that be?

As it turns out, pretty hard. If you go looking for more detail, here's what Google tells you: "In order to use the API you need to define one or more ResultSpecs. A ResultSpec contains a Query and a Response. The Query gives a general trigger pattern of queries for which you want to trigger your result. The Response provides a template for the output you want to display when the trigger pattern is matched. The id attribute of the ResultSpec tag uniquely identifies the ResultSpec."

And that's just the introduction. It gets worse. You have to learn about structured queries and data objects and output methods, and that's just to put together a list that you then have to submit and get others to subscribe to. Obviously, this is for people who like programming in the same way kids like ice cream. And I know that like Google Base, it is meant for companies and services to set up their own databases and then feed them into the Googleplex.

But still. Couldn't it be just a little more user friendly for us non-programmer types? Cynthia Brumfield over at IP Democracy said that Google needs to remember the KISS rule. But how can you keep it simple when you're hiring 300 math geeks a month?



Updated Friday, May 12 at 11:28 a.m.

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Let us thank the Great Google:
The state of California usually takes in about $7.3-billion (U.S.) or so in tax revenue in April, or at least it did last year. And this year? The tax grab... er, haul... er, income worked out to $11.3-billion, which is almost 50 per cent higher than in 2005. So what changed? Among other things, a whole pile of insider selling by Google executives and employees, as the San Francisco Chronicle reports. To be specific, Google execs sold about $4.4-billion in stock last year, after the restrictions on the IPO expired -- and that would have accounted for almost $500-million in capital gains tax.

Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, in case you were wondering, each sold about $1.3-billion in stock -- and still have several billion dollars worth of stock left. And the $4.4-billion in sales is just the 14 insiders who have to report their sales by law. Plenty of non-insider Googlers no doubt took the opportunity to buy a new yacht or whatever with their shares as well over the past year. To put all those sales in perspective, a site with a name that we're not allowed to print in a family newspaper notes that Google's insider sales account for more than half of all the insider stock sales at the top 200 companies in Silicon Valley.

That means all the insider sales at all the other 199 top companies in California --including such little-known names as eBay, Yahoo, Cisco, Sun Microsystems and Oracle -- put together would still be less than the stock sold by Google executives. If you live in the Valley, better get a yacht while you can, because they're probably going fast.



Updated Wednesday, May 10 at 4:13 p.m.

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Geek translator needed in Aisle 2:
No one would deny that the Perimeter Institute for Advanced Physics in Waterloo, which Research In Motion co-CEO Mike Lazaridis helped finance, is full of a whole bunch of really smart people. So smart that they've probably forgotten more about advanced physics than the rest of us will ever know. But do they really need to rub it in? A recent press release from the institute has to rank right up there with the most incomprehensible ever issued -- and that's presumably after someone tried to "dumb it down" for us non-physicists.

According to the release, theorists at the Institute for Quantum Computing and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics "have presented an operational control method in quantum information processing extending up to 12 qubits." Don't feel shy about admitting that you don't know what a "qubit" is, or if you got it confused with the measurement that Noah used when building the ark (that was the "cubit" which is the distance from the tip of your finger to your elbow). Whatever a qubit is, the IQC and PI guys managed to get up to twelve of them.

The release goes on to say that "despite decoherence, the researchers reached a 12-coherence state and decoded it using liquid state nuclear magnetic resonance quantum information processors." Sounds like fun, doesn't it? In case you're keeping score at home, that's no less than seven modifiers (liquid, nuclear, resonance, etc.) before you get to the actual noun in that sentence, which is the word "processors." Now all they need is a steady supply of dilithium crystals.



Updated Wednesday, May 10 at 1:28 p.m.

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Just ignore the nasty DRM:
Last fall, BitTorrent creator Bram Cohen and the Motion Picture Association of America announced an odd agreement. Mr. Cohen said that he had reached an understanding with the movie studios, and would remove any links to copyrighted content from his website at bittorrent.com. The odd thing about this announcement, of course, was that hardly anyone goes to Mr. Cohen's website to find links to material they can download using BitTorrent -- they go to dozens of other websites such as thepiratebay.org and click on a link, and the BitTorrent app opens and starts simultaneously downloading and sharing the file at the same time (creating the "peer-to-peer" structure that is the key to BitTorrent's success as a distribution platform for large files).

So why bother agreeing to remove links that no one uses anyway, when the vast majority of BitTorrent downloads occur somewhere else? The thinking at the time was that Mr. Cohen was working with the major Hollywood movie studios on a deal for movie downloads via BitTorrent, and the announcement was part of a quid pro quo before they could get down to business. And now we have what appears to be the first fruits of that arrangement, with the news that Warner Brothers -- a unit of Time Warner -- will be offering some of its movies for download using Mr. Cohen's P2P technology, although it's not clear what they will cost or whether there will be DRM (digital rights management) incorporated so that they can only be used in certain ways, or for a certain period of time.

According to a comment on the blog BoingBoing.net, Warner already has a similar system in place in Germany, offering movies for download using a different P2P technology. The comment says the files are in Windows Media format and have DRM restrictions, are of inferior quality to a DVD but cost about the same, and yet have no additional features such as bonus scenes or commentary. Users get credits for sharing the movies once they download them, such that sharing a movie 40 times gets you enough credits for a new movie.

Doesn't that sound appealing, kids? Pay the same as a DVD (which you can rip and burn to your heart's content) for something of inferior quality that is all locked up with DRM. Nice try, WB.



Updated Tuesday, May 9 at 12:04 p.m.

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Steve Jobs, benign dictator: It's funny how our view of what is right changes depending on whether we like the person who is making the rules. Take Apple and iTunes for example. After months of negotiations -- and months before that filled with sniping back and forth -- the four major record labels have signed contracts with Apple that allow the company to continue offering songs at 99 cents apiece. This news has been greeted by cheering in most quarters, since it means that Uncle Steve managed to beat the record labels at their own game, and has kept songs cheap for music lovers everywhere.

But has he? Or has he kept some songs cheap and made others more expensive? And would we feel the same about a company with 80 per cent of the market for downloadable music controlling the price for music if it were Microsoft instead of Apple? It's true that if the record labels had won their fight for "variable pricing," they would have been able to raise prices for newer hits -- but they would also have been able to charge less for older songs that only a small group of people might want to download (although some industry critics have said that we would likely see a lot more of the former than the latter). Depending on whom you believe, keeping prices locked at 99 cents might actually benefit Apple more than it does music downloaders.

Obviously, it's difficult to get much sympathy up for the major record labels, which have not only spent the better part of the last three years suing as many of their customers as they can get their hands on, but have also been charged in the past with their own brand of price-fixing, for which they had to pay a rather large settlement. But still -- should we applaud price-fixing just because it's Apple doing it and not Microsoft or EMI?

Update:
Mike Masnick, who runs a tech-commentary blog called TechDirt, took issue with my comments in a recent post, saying price-fixing is something the labels would do (and have been accused of doing), not something a retailer such as Apple does. All it is doing, Mike says, is setting a price. As I mentioned in a comment on the post at TechDirt, it's true that retailers aren't normally the ones who engage in price-fixing -- so perhaps it's better (as one reader suggested) to call it monopoly pricing power.

Whatever you want to call it, however, Apple has it -- and my point is that it may or may not be good for consumers at the end of the day. TechDirt is right, however, to point out that the labels are largely to blame for the mess they find themselves in, since they were the ones who required Apple to use restrictive DRM or digital rights management -- which has locked users in -- and they were also the ones who spent all their time suing customers instead of developing their own viable alternatives to iTunes. The bed has been made, and now they have to lie in it.



Updated Thursday, May 4 at 2:54 p.m.

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How about virtual interest?:
The line between virtual worlds and the real world just got a little blurrier: Project Entropia, a "massively multiplayer online role-playing game" or MMORPG, is offering game players a bank-machine ATM card that they can use to convert money from the game -- Project Entropia dollars, or PEDs -- into real dollars. Project Entropia players use money within the game to buy tools and supplies, and these tools eventually expire and have to be replaced. In the game world, players are colonizing a planet called Calypso and have to avoid volcanoes, mutants and other dangers.

The game was designed from the start to have what the founders call a "Real World Economy," based on in-game currency. Users convert their real-world money into PEDs at the rate of 10 PEDs to the U.S. dollar. But as the blog Techdirt notes in a post on the topic, in the real world many countries (including Canada) have what is called a "floating" currency, in which the dollar fluctuates in value based on the perceived strengths of the economy, and it will be interesting to see how long Entropia can maintain its fixed currency rate.

As a comment on Techdirt mentions, it will also be interesting to see how long it takes before some "script kiddie" can hack a script that will generate billions in game dollars out of thin air. And what about other elements of the "real-world economy?" It might not take too long before a Project Entropia version of the mafia forms, or trade unions, or maybe even billionaire currency speculators.



Updated Tuesday, May 2 at 4:34 p.m.

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Share photos and screen calls:
It's been a busy couple of days for small Canadian tech companies: a photo and video-sharing service called Pixpo, which is based in Victoria and has been around for a while now, and Ottawa-based telecom startup Iotum. Pixpo has released a new version of its media-sharing software -- which has a couple of key differences compared with other similar services -- while Iotum has announced a partnership with PhoneGnome, a company that sells a voice-over-Internet appliance for consumers.

Pixpo, which was founded by Colin How, allows users to share their photos, music and video without having to upload it to an external website or server, as most services such as YouTube.com and Flickr.com do. Pixpo's software allows users to connect directly to the content on your PC, and provides a nice-looking interface so they can browse through thumbnails of your photos or watch video clips with the built-in media player. Mr. How said in an email that the service uses a modified "peer-to-peer" network with a series of servers that can cache or store popular content.

Iotum, meanwhile, has announced a deal to bundle its Relevance Engine software with VOIP devices sold by PhoneGnome. Iotum's product uses smart filtering to determine which phone calls should be put through to a user based on the time of the call and who it is coming from, and can also determine where to send the call based on previous behaviour patterns or rules set by the user. PhoneGnome -- which was started by one of the founders of Earthlink, an early Internet service provider in the U.S. -- sells a box that users can simply plug a regular phone into that provides VOIP calling, but allows them to keep their regular phone number.



Updated Tuesday, May 2 at 12:36 p.m.

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Upload photos while you wait:
The best part about having a digital camera is that you can take a gazillion photos and then edit out the bad ones later (assuming there are any bad ones, of course). But you have to carry around your camera's USB cable in order to upload them, or a card reader that your camera's data card can fit into. Now a company called Eye-Fi thinks it has an answer: an SD Secure Digital) data card that also has a built-in Wi-Fi wireless transmitter.

Memory card getting full? Eye-Fi says you will be able to upload your photos automatically wherever there is wireless access -- and the company (which hasn't officially launched yet) has said that it plans to have built-in support for photo-sharing sites such as Flickr, so that you can upload your shots to the service automatically right from the camera. There are cameras that have Wi-Fi built into them hitting the market now, including one of Kodak's EasyShare models and one from Nikon -- but they only allow photos to be uploaded to their proprietary storage services.



Updated Monday, May 1 at 3:04 p.m.

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Nice sales, shame about the growth:
It's tough being Microsoft, isn't it? Rack up sales of almost $11-billion (U.S.) in your latest quarter, up 13 per cent over the same period a year ago, and what does the market do? Drops your stock like a vial full of anthrax -- pushing it down by more than 10 per cent at last count, on about five times the normal trading volume. At one point, the shares fell by 13 per cent, the largest drop in six years. Why? The biggest reason was that the company's sales came in at the low end of its own previous estimates -- and not just the low end, but pretty much the bottom -- and its profit flat-out missed. Not only that, but the next quarter doesn't look so hot either.

That's not to say the quarter didn't have some bright spots. Helping to push revenue higher was sharply higher sales of Xbox 360 consoles -- Microsoft's home entertainment division saw its revenue jump by 80 per cent. Unfortunately for the software behemoth, it doesn't make any money on Xbox 360s, because it is still spending heavily to push as many of the little gizmos into people's homes as it possibly can. The MSN division also saw its sales drop, in part because dial-up users cancelled their accounts (which is known in some circles as "AOL disease").

But one of the biggest issues for investors was that Microsoft said its costs are likely going to rise by more than it expected, and therefore profits may be slimmer. Paul Kedrosky, a former investment analyst who writes a financial blog called Infectious Greed, says there are not many details about what Microsoft plans to spend all that money in the future, but he suspects it is aimed at competing with Google. Eugene Munster of Piper Jaffray thinks so too. "It looks like Microsoft is going to war with Google, and trying to get their product development back in track," he told the New York Times.



Updated Friday, April 28 at 1:02 p.m.

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One to beam up, Scotty:
We all know that the blog-o-sphere is renowned for misinformation, and that all manner of unsavoury rumours get tossed around willy-nilly (or higgledy-piggledy, depending on your preference). I don't want to contribute to that kind of scurrilous behaviour any more than I absolutely have to -- but I can't help but pass on the fact that certain sources are reporting that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a Star Trek fan. The rumours come from a blog run by Rondi Adamson, a freelance writer who has written for the Ottawa Citizen, the Toronto Star and the Christian Science Monitor and who writes regularly on conservative topics.

And the PM is reportedly not just a fan, but someone who actually competed in a Trek convention costume contest. That is hard-core, my friends. The blog-o-verse is now afire with speculation about who he dressed up as: Was it the usual choice of leaders, Captain James Tiberius Kirk? Was it the choice of thinkers, Lieutenant Spock? Or did he go for the engineer's favourite, Mr. Scott? A picture has already emerged of the PM in a Star Trek: The Next Generation uniform, pretending to be Commander Data the android, but alas, it is a Photoshop creation.

Obviously, this isn't exactly earth-shattering news. It isn't as though the PM was suddenly revealed as a fan of Desperate Housewives or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy or something salacious like that. Still, it's hard to imagine George Bush as a fan of Star Trek -- too cerebral. Oh, and one more thing: Mr. Harper is also reportedly a cat fancier, and a mean impressionist. Who knew.

Update:
Another source writes to say that the "Trek influence extends deeper into the PMO than just Prime Minister Harper." Someone who went to the University of Calgary with Mr. Harper's chief of staff Ian Brodie says that the "political and philosophical underpinnings" of the series were the subject of much discussion over beers after class. This reportedly culminated in Mr. Brodie presenting a paper on Captain Jean-Luc Picard before the Learned Societies, a prestigious conference of Canadian academics. Two to beam up!

Update 2:
Another reader writes in to point out that Prime Minister Harper isn't the only leader with a fondness for Star Trek -- Diane Duane notes that King Abdullah II of Jordan is also known to be a big fan, and even appeared in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager when he was still just a prince.



Updated Wednesday, April 26 at 4:00 p.m.

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Meedio becomes Yahoo Go for TV:
Well, that didn't take long. A little over a week after Yahoo bought a company called Meedio -- whose software turns any PC with a TV tuner card into a digital video recorder and competes with Microsoft's Windows Media Center -- the Internet portal is offering a software download similar to Meedio's called Yahoo Go for TV. And best of all, it's free.

Some of the early reviews from home media-centre fan sites aren't all that enthusiastic, however -- in fact, some are a lot closer to a thumbs down. The user interface is said to be clunky, especially when compared with Windows Media Center or Apple's new Front Row (Yahoo's software is Windows only so far), and Yahoo focuses more on its own online content such as the photo-sharing service Flickr rather than giving users easy access to their own stored content. There are some more screenshots here.

For anyone thinking about building their own DVR or media centre using a PC with a TV tuner card, a free download is definitely going to be attractive -- but as more than one observer has pointed out, there are plenty of free open-source downloads out there that are better, including MythTV and SageTV. Not only that, but PCs with Windows Media Center on them are fairly cheap already, and even Microsoft-bashers say the WMC interface is pretty well done. Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg says he doesn't understand why Yahoo is even bothering. But hey -- it's free!


Updated Wednesday, April 26 at 4:00 p.m.

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Wireless "cloud" not so cloudy:
It's a great idea -- cover an entire city with free Wi-Fi wireless Internet, so that residents can check their email or play online Sudoku until the cows come home. San Francisco is doing it, thanks to Earthlink and Google, and so is Philadelphia, as well as several other cities. But is it all that it's cracked up to be? Not if you live in St. Cloud, Florida apparently. According to a recent story from Associated Press, some residents aren't happy with the lack of reception in the free municipal Wi-Fi network, which is supposed to cover a 15-mile radius. "Some can see receivers from their homes and still can't sign on - even on the porch," the story says. "Others have tried to connect countless times."

St. Cloud started the project in 2004 and has been rolling it out since, with Hewlett-Packard building the network and providing customer support. About 3,500 people have registered to use the service and logged about 176,000 hours of use. HP says that there have been some problems with access, but that they are being worked on. Residents are also advised to buy a signal booster if they want to ensure a good connection -- it costs $170 from City Hall. Joe Lusardi says that he has given up, even though he can see a Wi-Fi receiver from his front porch. "It's just total frustration," he said. "I'm going to stay with the DSL and just forget it, because I don't think it's going to work."

Glenn Fleishman of the website Wi-Fi Networking News says that it's understandable there might be teething problems with a new wireless network, especially one that is trying to cover such a large area for free. He notes that the network has only really been operating for a little over a month, and that HP has reported only 842 support phone calls out of the first 50,000 user sessions in a 45-day period. Still, maybe it's just as well that Toronto's wireless network is going to be built by the electricity company, and that users will have to pay (after a six-month free trial period). As the old saying goes, you get what you pay for.


Updated Monday, April 24 at 11:22 a.m.

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I'll take an Apple to go:
More details have been leaking out about Apple's much-rumoured entry into the portable computer business. Back in February, there were patents filed that appeared to be describing a Tablet PC type of device with a touch screen. Now, the company has filed a new patent application that describes a virtual-keyboard type of interface for such a portable device, with drawings of a large PDA with a horizontal screen layout and an iPod-like scroll wheel.

Microsoft has dipped its toe into these waters already with a device code-named Origami, which is being marketed by several vendors as the UMPC or Universal Mobile PC -- a larger version of a PDA, with a horizontal screen and enough power to run a mobile version of Windows. The device hasn't been getting rave reviews, however, in part because it is big and heavy and kind of clunky. Hopefully if Apple decides to come up with one, it will involve a little of the Apple flair, and a little less of the "looks like a brick, weighs as much as a brick" school of product design.


Updated Thursday, April 20 at 5:21 p.m.

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This is your Google Travel agent:
For Google, being a search-engine company doesn't just mean helping people find websites. The little company Larry Page and Sergey Brin created in their spare time -- now a $130-billion (U.S.) colossus -- wants to help people find just about any kind of information, anywhere. Looking for books? Google Library is scanning them for you (amid a little controversy over copyright, mind you). Looking for real estate? Google wants to help you there too, using its Google Base indexing service. Google Music is also reportedly in the works -- and now comes word that the Googleplex might be getting into the travel business. Russell Shaw of ZDNet noticed a classified ad Google placed looking for an experienced travel executive.

Surprising? Not really, according to one former travel industry insider. He says the ad isn't really all that special -- Google advertises for such advertising types all the time -- but he also thinks it's only a matter of time before Google gets into the travel game. It is, he says, a classic example of a business in which timely information is the key to getting a good deal -- and one in which the travel agents and airlines used to control the information flow. Expedia and Travelocity helped "disintermediate" the industry, and in a sense the entry of Google would just extend that process even further. "A lot of the value that a reseller adds is shopping around for the best deal, which is to a large extent search -- and Google can search the pants off just about anybody," said this former travel exec.

Distribution through resellers is also a big expense for suppliers (i.e., airlines) and so they would love to cut out the middleman wherever possible -- the middleman being Expedia, etc. But Google has likely avoided the industry until now because it makes so much money from ads placed by Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz. Judging by the search giant's recent moves with Google Finance and Google's real estate features, it is only a matter of time before travel joins the list.


Updated Tuesday, April 18 at 5:17 p.m.

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Hands off the Internet, boys:
Call it an occupational hazard: being a regulator, the CRTC (the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission", in case you've forgotten) tends to like to... well, regulate things. Satellite TV and satellite radio are good examples. Why do you have to buy a Canadian XM satellite radio box when the U.S. one receives all the U.S. and Canadian channels? Because of the CRTC. As the office in charge of making sure you listen to enough Bryan Adams and watch enough episodes of Corner Gas, that's kind of its job.

With that in mind, it was refreshing to see the CRTC deciding not to regulate something, particularly something TV related like television on cellphones. Charles Dalfen, the chairman of the broadcast regulator, said in an interview that "It's too early stage to want to clamp a regulatory regime on it." He went on to suggest that since much of the content that Telus, Rogers and Bell Mobility are streaming to their phones is short clips, "At this stage, it's not even clear what a mobile program is."

Has someone been sneaking in to the CRTC offices and giving them reality lessons? First they decided not to try and regulate the Internet (another smart move) and now we can all watch clips of Paris Hilton's new video or whatever on our phones, safe in the knowledge that we won't have to watch a certain number of Avril Lavigne video clips at some point to compensate. Life is good.


Posted Thursday, April 13 at 11:00 a.m.

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The new digital theatre:
If online delivery of video - including streaming and downloadable TV content - is the current version of the great Internet gold rush (which many seem to feel it is), then Disney/ABC has just jumped into the lead by staking a major claim. The news about its free, ad-supported streaming TV show plans, which was broken by the Wall Street Journal, is a substantial move forward from a major network -- exploding the TV, as media consultant Jeff Jarvis calls it -- and has instantly become the standard by which all the other networks will be measured.

According to the WSJ report, ABC plans to unveil a revamped website on April 30 that will include a "theater" where people with broadband connections can watch free episodes of "Desperate Housewives," "Lost" and other hit shows. Episodes will be available the day after they are on television and will be archived so people can watch past episodes. A Disney Channel version is expected to launch in June, and an ABC Family version is also in the works. The Soapnet cable channel -- devoted to soap operas -- will also start offering programs free on its website on April 17.

Notice that it's not downloadable episodes, but streaming content that you have to watch in the online "theatre" on Disney/ABC's website (later in the article, someone from the network says that they are contemplating offering downloads at some point, for $1.99 without ads, or 99 cents with ads). The main reason ABC wants to keep you on the site is because the episodes have been specially formatted with three minute-long ads each, all from a single advertiser such as Ford or Proctor & Gamble. And while you can fast-forward the content, you can't fast-forward through the ads.

That's a smart move, and obviously crucial to the success this effort (which at the moment is a two-month trial) ultimately has with advertisers. But lots of questions remain, not the least of which is how many people will watch these streaming shows. And how will ABC's local affiliates react? They make a lot of money by being the exclusive providers of those hit shows in their regional markets. Retailers such as Wal-Mart make a fair bit of coin selling DVD versions of those episodes -- how are they going to react to what could be an incursion into that part of their business model?

While many have been applauding the move by Disney/ABC -- venture capitalist Fred "Microchunk your media" Wilson says it is "big, big, big" -- not everyone thinks the network has gotten it right. Media consultant Umair "Edge Strategies" Haque says he thinks that Disney/ABC has done it exactly wrong, by trying to tie viewers to content on its website when the real boom in online video is "viral" content like that found at Google Video and YouTube.


Posted Monday, April 10 at 2:37 p.m.

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Is that drone following us?
The U.S. Army regularly uses robot (or unmanned) planes to patrol sensitive areas in military zones like Afghanistan, but you don't see them a lot in civilian centres -- like, say, downtown Los Angeles. That could change now that the L.A. Sheriff's Department is looking at using small remote-controlled drones to track what it calls "persons of interest" after crimes have occurred (or are about to occur?).

Xeni Jardin, who does reporting for Wired magazine and National Public Radio and blogs at boingboing.net, got a look at some of the technology the Sheriff's Department is working with, which involves a flying device with about a six-foot wingspan called a SkySeer (made by Chang Industries), which can be fitted with video cameras that send a stream of video wirelessly to a remote location such as a control truck. The unit also has a GPS transmitter.

According to the report, the drones cost about $30,000 (U.S.) per unit, and therefore are much cheaper than helicopters, which can cost about 10 times that amount (not including operating costs for things such as fuel). And the SkySeer is much easier to get close to a hazardous area than a helicopter with people on board. And once they can figure out how to drop smoke bombs or tear gas (not to mention tiny Gatling guns on the wings), evil-doers had better watch out.


Posted Friday, April 7 at 3:00 p.m.

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Pretend you didn't find this page:
A blogger named Marah Marie has been playing a fun game with the powers that be over at America Online for awhile now -- a game called "Hide the 'cancel my account' page." Here's how it works, courtesy of Marah's webpage at Livejournal: After deciding to quit her AOL account, Marah decides to cancel it, but can't find the 'Cancel my account' page on the AOL website, or any way to determine what phone number to call or what to do. So she writes a post about it, and links to the page (once she finds it). And poof! The page disappears.

So Marah does some digging and finds the new page, and changes the link to that new 'Cancel my account' page. Before you know it, poof! The page disappears again. At one point, according to Marah -- who has filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau -- the page disappeared within hours of her posting a new link to it, implying that there is a small team of people at AOL devoting their time to finding such links and defeating them. The service (part of Time Warner) also removed the word "cancel" from the list of keywords that AOL users can type in to get help with something.

Gee, do you think AOL wants to make it hard for you to cancel your account? Other reports describe having to answer a variety of questions -- once you find the "secret" phone number that is -- and then listen to a recorded announcement (for legal reasons) before being given a cancellation confirmation code. As Marah notes, this kind of thing brushes right up against the terms of a legal settlement between AOL and the state of Washington, which required the company to make it easy for consumers to cancel their accounts.


Posted Thursday, April 6 at 2:08 p.m.

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Just a moment while I type this in:
If you like to comparison shop, you can do a little of that with your cellphone and fast fingers, thanks to University of California at Irvine researcher Bill Tomlinson, who developed something called GreenScanner. It's designed to be a public database of product information and opinions that can be accessed using mobile devices such as cell phones and PDAs.

Consumers can type in a product's UPC (Universal Product Code) number and get information about it posted by others. GreenScanner will say which company makes a product, as well as other items produced by that manufacturer -- and Tomlinson says it also "provides the framework for consumers to evaluate and share their own information about products." He wants it to become a forum for shoppers to read comments on whether products are environmentally friendly, whether they work and even how they taste.

The project is based on a publicly available database of more than 600,000 products, each with its own UPC code. Because it's new there aren't many consumer reviews, but ones that have been include Horizon Organic 1% Milk, (UPC number 742365264108), and Poland Spring bottled water, (UPC number 075720008513).

Update:
Sharp-eyed reader Eric Rosenwald noted that you can also send SMS text messages to Froogle, the shopping comparison site run by search giant Google, and get information about various products and services.


Posted Thursday, April 6 at 1:45 p.m.

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Vonage: Please buy us:
Anyone who has been following the Vonage IPO story likely won't be surprised that the voice-over-Internet pioneer is rumoured to be shopping itself around. The prospectus for its initial public offering, which was on and then off, then back on again, has been out there for months with little or no interest, or at least not enough to make it happen. That's not a great sign.

As has been discussed here before Vonage's IPO smacked of more than a little desperation to raise some cash while the iron was even slightly warm, and the story at CNN/Money fits with that. Whether an IPO or a takeover, Vonage needs money big-time. Its marketing costs have exploded, thanks in part to those Woo hoo! commercials, and it needs a river of cash flow to pay for the expansion it needs to remain relevant.

As Om Malik has pointed out, research shows that cable VOIP services are taking share away from standalones such as Vonage - and doing so at an increasing rate. That means the window is rapidly closing, and the risk for Vonage is that it could become the next TiVo, a pioneer that winds up winning the early battle but losing the war.

As someone told me once, the pioneers get the arrows and the settlers get the land. Alec Saunders says buying either Vonage itself or the stock would be the "ultimate triumph of greed and stupidity over common sense." Of course, as we all know, that doesn't mean it won't happen (yes, Skype, we're talking about you).


Posted Friday, March 31 at 5:10 p.m.

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Jiffy Lube, ahead 5 miles:
If you're like me, you probably already feel like you're snowed under by email. But General Motors, the car company with the ever-helpful OnStar vehicle service -- which can locate your car via GPS and send out tow trucks or unlock your doors if you lose your keys -- thinks you need just a little bit more, in this case from your car's diagnostic computer.

OnStar's new Vehicle Diagnostics service scans your car's engine and other systems -- including your air bags and antilock brakes -- and then compiles a report and emails it to you once a month, with a breakdown of whether various elements passed their tests or require more assistance. Kind of like Norton Antivirus does for your PC.

But why did GM stop there? One wonders why it wouldn't just program a voice response system to tell you (again, using GPS) that you're driving past a Jiffy Lube or a Mr. Muffler, ahead on the left in 300 metres, etc. And can I get one that records the average speed my 16-year-old daughter is driving at, or the G-forces recorded when she takes a hairpin corner at high speed? Now that would really be something useful.


Posted Wednesday, March 29 at 12:44 p.m.

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Mark Zuckerberg is 22:
Move over, Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis. Sure, you guys likely got a few hundred million each for Skype, the voice-over-Internet provider you sold to auction giant eBay for somewhere between $2-billion (U.S.) and $4-billion. But at 30, Friis is almost over the hill in dot-com terms, and Zennstrom is almost 40, which makes him officially a geezer. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of the wildly popular university social network called Facebook.com is 22, and his company is reportedly on the block for as much as $2-billion, according to an article at Businessweek.com.

Facebook was set up by Zuckerberg as a way for friends at Harvard University to meet each other and network about social events, in much the same way that Shawn Fanning set up the original peer-to-peer filesharing network known as Napster to help friends at university swap music. But while Shawn got tied up in lawsuits from the recording industry and his company went bankrupt, Mark and his college pals -- who dropped out to work on Facebook from a rooming house in Silicon Valley, according to this great piece in the Harvard Crimson -- stand to become extremely wealthy if they are bought for the asking price Businessweek mentions. Although it is a private company, Facebook appears to only have about five major stakeholders, including Zuckerberg.

And who would pay a ridiculous sum of money like that for a university social network? Well, media giant News Corp. paid close to $600-million for MySpace.com, which is a similar social networking site populated largely by teens sharing information on which bands they like. According to comScore MediaMetrix, Facebook.com is the seventh-most heavily trafficked site on the Internet, with more than 5 billion page views in February -- more than Amazon.com, Ask.com or Disney.

It's reasonable to assume, as the article does, that Facebook would likely interest any media giant that wants to compete with News Corp. -- and that includes Viacom, another media conglomerate run by an 80-year-old billionaire (Sumner Redstone). Young consumers are living online, and big media companies want to reach them where they live. And Mark Zuckerberg might soon be able to live pretty much wherever he wants to, instead of sharing a flat with a bunch of college buddies.


Posted Tuesday, March 28 at 12:24 p.m.

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P2P competitors, now court opponents:
According to Andy Abramson, who does marketing and PR for telecom companies, the company behind the Morpheus music downloading service -- known as Streamcast Networks -- has filed a lawsuit against the founders of Skype, the voice-over-Internet software company that was bought by eBay earlier this year for somewhere between $2-billion (U.S.) and $4-billion. Andy says he was sent the documents by an anonymous source, and that eBay is not named.

It could still turn into a rather large headache for the auction company, however, depending on how it gets resolved. Streamcast -- whose software competed with Kazaa, the P2P application that Skype founder Niklas Zennstrom developed before he got into the VOIP business -- is suing for violations under the RICO Act, the U.S. legislation that is aimed at racketeering and mob-influenced corruption. The act, which some shareholders tried to use (without success) in their lawsuit against former newspaper magnate Conrad Black, provides for greatly increased financial damages compared with non-RICO lawsuits.

As described by the website Techdirt, the case goes back to when Kazaa and Streamcast (or Morpheus) used the same server software for both their networks -- software that was developed by a third party (also named in the suit). Then Kazaa sold the software to Sharman Networks, and shut Morpheus out so that it no longer worked with Kazaa's servers. In effect, Morpheus is claiming that these actions were an attempt to put it out of business (although of course the Recording Industry Association of America would likely have done that anyway by now with its lawsuits over copyright infringement). Skype is involved because it uses P2P technology similar to that developed for Kazaa.

No response from eBay so far, but this can't be the kind of thing they were hoping to get when they paid all those billions for Skype.


Posted Monday, March 27 at 3:48 p.m.

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Oh, and just one more thing:
The marketing tagline for the 1970's shark-attack movie Jaws 2 was "Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water." If you replaced the word "water" with the name "Nortel," you'd probably have a fitting tagline for what's going on at Canada's favourite love-it-or-hate-it networking-equipment company, Nortel Networks (or "No-tell" Networks, as one wag dubbed it). Except, of course, that for Nortel the latest financial restatement isn't just the sequel to its previous financial troubles -- it's the third in a series of such restatements, each of which affected several years worth of results.

In case you need a refresher course in how not to run a giant telecom supplier, Nortel has spent the better part of the past three years restating its results, changing chief executive officers and otherwise reorganizing itself. Not long after John Roth left the company and was replaced by former chief financial officer Frank Dunn, the company announced that its results were not reliable. That produced the first restatement, which altered revenues and profits for several years, and led to an internal review that eventually produced a second restatement to correct errors in the first one, which delayed the company's official filings for more than a year. As a result of the review, Mr. Dunn and half a dozen other executives were fired.

Former U.S. Navy officer Bill Owens came on board to straighten things up and get customers back on board, but after an acquisition that didn't get many cheers and a failed succession plan that got a lot of boos, he left and was replaced by former Motorola executive Mike Zafirovski. And a new CEO seems to require yet another restatement, this time for various contracts that were signed in 2003, 2004 and part of 2005. Why? Mike Z says it's because the company is now applying more stringent rules to how it accounts for contracts. And guess what? He said he can't say for sure that there won't be more restatements or "adjustments" as they go through the rest of the deals from last year.

To continue with the horror-movie analogy -- one that some Nortel investors might see as appropriate -- let's hope the company isn't trying to create a 10-movie legacy like the Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street franchises. Investors have suffered enough already.


Posted Friday, March 10 at 11:57 a.m.

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Next stop -- spreadsheets:
What started with a rumour has become fact: Google has acquired Writely.com, which provides something approaching an online version of Microsoft Word. Needless to say, this has revived talk about the much-rumoured Google "Web Office," with Web apps that take the place of the different parts of Microsoft's Office suite - the one that accounts for a fairly substantial proportion of the software giant's revenue and profits, in case you're keeping score at home.

Om Malik has a nice graph that puts the issues into perspective, with Google's Web-based versions of Word, Excel, mail and so on -- all of which Microsoft charges almost $400 for. Google's price? Zero. Free applications may be difficult to scale if they're based entirely on advertising, but Writely doesn't really have to scale all that much before it becomes a threat to Microsoft. In effect, there is nowhere for the software behemoth to go but down in terms of market share.

Yes, it's true that not everyone wants to use Web-based apps, and there are issues with the reliability of free services such as Gmail.com. But at the same time, Writely and JotSpot Tracker (an Excel-style spreadsheet app) and presentation tools such as Thumbstacks.com are likely to be good enough for many people, and perhaps even small businesses - and it isn't always the people or services that are better than you that should concern you, it's those that are good enough to draw your customers away.

Speaking from experience, Writely is definitely good enough. And if you combine it with something like Gdrive, then the relevance of Microsoft's Office becomes less and less compelling.


Posted Thursday, March 9 at 3:50 p.m.

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A little inadvertent "guidance":
Maybe Google, which has become notorious for not providing Wall Street analysts with forward-looking financial "guidance," was trying to give some surreptitiously. Or maybe someone just... what's the term? Oh yes -- screwed up. The search giant managed to inadvertently let some financial data loose on its website, which quick-thinking Google-watchers naturally archived before it could disappear, and as a result the company had to file a financial statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission or risk running afoul of disclosure laws. The gaffe caused the high-flying stock to stumble on Wednesday.

"I've seen a few bizarre things on the street, especially in the past year, and this would be close to the top of the list,'" Pacific Growth Equities analyst Derek Brown told the San Jose Mercury News. Not only was the financial data somewhat less appealing than many analysts had been expecting -- both in terms of revenue growth and also what it says about pressure on profit margins for Google's Internet ad business -- but the slip-up didn't exactly restore anyone's confidence in the search giant's ability to handle itself as a public company with a $100-billion market value.

Just a week or so ago, the company's chief financial officer made some comments about slowing growth that hit the stock as well -- comments the company later tried to distance itself from. And when it comes to non-financial matters, Google seems to have difficulty keeping its trap shut as well: in addition to the forecasts for revenue, slides used for a presentation to analysts included details about hitherto unknown Google projects such as the "Gdrive" or Web-based universal file storage.

As one analyst said after Google's initial stock offering, during which the founders gave an interview to Playboy magazine (which was also technically against disclosure rules): "Sounds like they could do with some adult supervision over there."


Posted Wednesday, March 8 at 2:21 p.m.

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You like cool? This is cool:
At CeBIT 2006, PC component maker Asetek, memory giant Kingston Technology and hard-drive maker Western Digital are showing what they say is one of the fastest PCs in the world, with a top speed of 5.46 gigaherz. It uses Asetek's "VapoChill" CPU-cooling technology and various other freezer-type gizmos to cool the processor down to around -33 Celsius. But do you have to defrost it?


Posted Wednesday, March 8 at 3:37 p.m.

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Pay your VOIP taxes now:
Continuing on the theme of "network neutrality" (see the item below on AT&T and BellSouth), U.S.-based voice-over-Internet provider Vonage raises the spectre of a "tiered" approach to the Internet in a filing with the Canadian broadcast regulator -- the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission or CRTC, the agency whose name is almost as long as some of its meetings. According to a press release from Vonage, it is protesting the $10 a month "VOIP tax" that Shaw Communications of Calgary charges customers to "improve" their voice-over-Internet service (the filing was actually made in December, but not publicized until now).

Shaw, one of the country's largest cable concerns -- which is controlled by the Shaw family -- doesn't charge extra if you want to use Shaw's own VOIP service. But if you use Vonage or Babytel or one of the other services out there, you will be offered the $10 extra charge to "improve" the quality of your phone calls. You don't have to pay it, of course. You're free to use VOIP without paying extra, but the clear implication is that the service might be of poor quality, and that Shaw isn't likely to be interested in your complaints about said quality unless you paid your $10 fee.

Maybe it's just me, but this seems a little like the bad old days in Chicago or some other corruption-riddled city, where you were free to run your business without paying "protection" money to certain parties, but if you didn't then you were likely to find your store burning to the ground some evening with the police and fire department standing around watching. It's no big stretch from what Shaw is doing -- or other ISPs -- to a multi-tiered Internet that charges extra for things like peer-to-peer music downloading, but doesn't charge extra if you use the music service marketed by your Internet provider.

Is that what the Internet is supposed to be like? Not according to Vinton Cerf, who helped invent the darn thing in the first place. Whether the CRTC will take any action remains to be seen.


Posted Tuesday, March 7 at 4:33 p.m.

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Next stop -- the end of network neutrality:
Boy, it seems like only yesterday that U.S. regulators busted up AT&T, the telecommunications behemoth, creating the seven regional Bell operating companies or RBOCs, also known as the "Baby Bells" -- including Southwestern Bell, Nynex, USWest and BellSouth. And how many big telephone companies are there now? Well, there are four: AT&T, BellSouth, Qwest and Verizon. And it looks like soon there will be three, if AT&T gets approval for its $67-billion (U.S.) takeover of BellSouth. The company that is now calling itself AT&T is actually Southwestern Bell or SBC, which bought AT&T last year for $16-billion and assumed the name.

Over the past decade or so, AT&T had acquired Pacific Telesis and Ameritech (two other Baby Bells), while Verizon bought Nynex and Bell Atlantic, and USWest merged with Qwest. Of course, there was also that whole sordid mess involving Bernie Ebbers and WorldCom (the shell of which became MCI), but let's not get into that. If it feels a little like AT&T has been putting itself back together again, that's not surprising, since in many ways it is -- or at least creating a duopoly where there was once a septopoly. As Mike Masnick at Techdirt.com put it recently, Ma Bell is "getting the band back together" for a reunion tour.

And how is the company going to make this mega-deal fly, especially when it will create the single largest telephone company since AT&T was broken up? Get ready to hear a lot about how the telecom market is hyper-competitive and local phone service just doesn't make money any more, how voice-over-Internet is killing the industry and carriers need more volume to be able to compete, and how the idea of "network neutrality" just doesn't pay the bills any more, and therefore AT&T needs to be able to charge Google and Yahoo and others extra to get their digital info to users on time. That's a tune Ed Whitacre of the new AT&T has been singing for some time now, and this is only going to make him boost the volume. But will regulators buy it, or will it sound a little off-key when it comes from one of the world's largest phone companies?


Posted Monday, March 6 at 11:40 a.m.

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Variable pricing could be here soon:
Ever wondered why digital music -- the legal kind, that is -- costs so much? After all, at 99 cents a song, you wind up paying the same amount for all the songs on a compact disc as if you had bought the CD in a regular store. You might have blamed iTunes for that, since it was the first to make a big splash in the market, and is now the undisputed leader. But Apple CEO Steve Jobs has actually been doing his best to keep prices low, since the the major record labels (there used to be five but now there are only four) want to crank them up. That position seems to have set off some alarm bells in anti-trust circles, since it smacks of collusion.

Crusading New York attorney and gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer started looking into the practice late last year, and now the U.S. Department of Justice has said it is investigating too. "The Antitrust Division is looking at the possibility of anti-competitive practices in the music download industry," Justice Department spokeswoman Gina Talamona said, without providing any further details. Several of the major labels have already reportedly received subpoenas.

This isn't the first time the major record labels have been investigated for collusion or price-fixing. The Federal Trade Commission looked into similar allegations involving old-fashioned CD sales, and the case was eventually settled with a financial payment from the record companies. According to the complaint, the labels kept prices high by preventing Wal-Mart and other retailers from lowering prices, and by doing so they overcharged music buyers by almost $500-million (U.S.). As part of the settlement, the labels paid $67-million in cash and gave $76-million worth of CDs to the states that filed suit for use in schools and libraries.


Posted Friday, March 3 at 1:24 p.m.

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An exercise of market power?:
Earlier this month, the popular voice-over-Internet software provider Skype announced that it had signed a deal with Intel Corp. the computer processor giant. The partnership, which is designed to promote Intel's new line of "dual-core" computer chips, gives users of those new chips added features when they make calls with Skype. Specifically, it allows them to engage in conference calls with as many as 10 people, compared with only five for the non-Intel version, and promises additional features such as video calling in the future.

This deal struck some observers as a little odd at the time, since Skype software works with virtually any kind of PC hardware, and voice-over-Internet services aren't the type of thing that uses huge amounts of computing power, the way graphical rendering and so on do. As it turns out, one of the observers who found the partnership more than a little odd was Advanced Micro Devices, Intel's main (but much smaller) competitor in the processor business. AMD just happens to be suing Intel for anti-trust violations resulting from its dominant market share, and it has now asked Skype for documents relating to its deal with Intel to see if there's any ammunition there.

Skype has denied that it arranged to limit the features of its software on anything but an Intel platform. According to the company, the 10-way calling feature requires a lot of processor strength, which only the Intel dual-core can provide. Not surprisingly, AMD disagrees. And some tech industry observers say the argument that a voice-over-Internet service requires extra horsepower stretches the limits of believability just a little bit -- what most VOIP services rely on is bandwidth or Internet connection speed. Others wonder whether Skype, which was bought by eBay in a controversial deal worth up to $4-billion, is getting nervous about growth and looking for some help in that department.

Update:
For anyone who's interested, a clever programmer has managed to crack the Skype restriction on conference calls to allow a computer with any old processor to host a 10-way call.



Posted Wednesday, March 1 at 3:51 p.m.

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What does "organic" mean anyway:
Those Google guys -- they're a nice bunch, and smart as all get out, but when it comes to dealing with investors they could probably use a few tips. For example, when your stock is selling for more than 80 times earnings, and you have a market value of over $110-billion (U.S.), don't use the words "growth is slowing." Ever. Why? Because then your share price will get creamed, as Google's did on Tuesday, when chief financial officer George Reyes did exactly that at a Merrill Lynch conference on Internet advertising (which accounts for about 90 per cent of Google's revenue).

Specifically, the Google executive was quoted by CNBC as saying: "Growth is slowing and now largely organic... the search monetization gains have now been largely realized." Did he say that the company was going down the tubes? No. But when you're growing as quickly as Google has been -- and your stock is predicated on that growth continuing -- admitting that growth is slowing down even a little is tantamount to yelling "Sell!" Which is what investors did: Google was down by more than $50 or about 13 per cent in early trading, which wiped about $14.5-billion off the company's market capitalization in a matter of hours.

By mid-afternoon, the stock had rebounded to trade at $373, which meant it was only down by about 4.5 per cent from Monday's close -- but clearly some investors were rattled. It's been a tough couple of months for the search kingpin: although Google's stock price has come back from its lows of a couple of weeks ago, it is still down by more than 20 per cent from its peak of $475 earlier this year. And Mr. Reyes' comments didn't help the rest of the Internet sector either -- shares of Amazon, Yahoo and eBay were all down as well on Tuesday. While the Google exec's comments may not have been news (at least not to anyone who looked at the company's financial results from the most recent quarter) they seem to have come as a surprise to some investors. And they could make them increasingly nervous about the stock going forward.


Posted Tuesday, February 28 at 1:36 p.m.

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Origami, but without paper:
Have you ever noticed how leading up to Macworld there's a blizzard of rumour and speculation about what kind of cool new products Apple will release? The rumours are invariably wrong (remember the big-screen TV with a computer in it that one site figured was a shoo-in?), but it makes for fun reading. It looks as though Microsoft may be taking some lessons from Steve Jobs, the king of buzz-building, with a new portable device that is said to be in the works -- code-named "Origami."

According to several different reports, including one from respected tech site Ars Technica, Origami is a small portable device with a detachable keyboard and a Tablet PC-style screen -- a device that might allow you to take the screen with you and watch movies or listen to music, or perhaps surf the Web, with a keyboard for entering large amounts of data if necessary. There's a "viral marketing" website with few details, other than a note that more info will be forthcoming on March 2nd. Coincidentally, Apple is also set to announce something mysterious a few days before that.

Some sites have been having fun with the idea of Origami, but it seems obvious that something is coming. One of Microsoft's most famous bloggers, Robert Scoble, has effectively confirmed the existence of such a device or project, which seems to be more like a mini-Tablet than a video iPod type of device. Even the New York Times has picked up on the buzz, with a piece about the speculation, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has something too.

Whether the reality of Origami lives up to the buzz, of course, remains to be seen.


Posted Monday, February 27 at 3:17 p.m.

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Make a decision - any decision:
By now, everyone involved in the legal battle between Research In Motion and NTP — from the lowliest BlackBerry user to RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie, and even Judge Spencer himself — probably wishes the whole affair would just go away. But while many observers, including many in the mainstream media, had convinced themselves the case would finally come to a head today, it is far from over. Not only has Judge Spencer reserved his decision for some future date, but RIM has said that it intends to proceed with its software "workaround," which the company has said avoids the patent infringement issues at the centre of the lawsuit. And NTP, meanwhile, says it is still open to a settlement, but RIM won't negotiate.

In other words, not much has changed.

What happens now is still a giant question mark, and there are as many opinions on the future outcome as there are patent lawyers (and that's a lot). However, there are a few indicators that send a fairly strong signal; an injunction from Judge Spencer is almost a certainty.

Whether it will be a complete injunction, which prevents BlackBerrys from being sold or operated in the U.S., or a partial injunction that merely stops the company from selling new ones, remains to be seen. But most patent law experts say injunctions in such cases are commonplace, and Judge Spencer has already indicated he isn't sympathetic to the government's arguments against such a decision, especially since NTP said it would allow a workaround for government users.

As for the decisions by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which has rejected almost all of NTP's patents as invalid — meaning they should never have been issued — it's important to remember that Judge Spencer has to base his decision on what the reality is right now, that those patents are in full force until NTP has exhausted its appeals to both the patent office appeal board and the U.S. Court of Appeal. Some patent lawyers point out that the pressure that has been exerted on the patent office by the U.S. government will provide ammunition for those appeals. And it's also important to keep in mind that the U.S. Court of Appeal has already heard many of the arguments about the validity of the patents, and has found in favour of NTP.

While the delay will give RIM more time to hammer out a deal — something the judge may be counting on — it's unclear whether Mr. Balsillie wants to settle or not. While comments he made Thursday seemed to indicate he was more open to the idea, statements he made after the Friday hearing suggested the opposite. And so the RIM saga continues.


Posted Friday, February 24 at 3:08 p.m.

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Don't even say the word "Office":
Not content with controlling a majority of the market for online search and search-related advertising, Google has been rolling out add-ons to its online hegemony over the past year or so, including GTalk (an instant messaging application), Google Base (an open database), Google Analytics (website traffic-analysis tool) and so on. And the most recent was the addition of a hosted email and domain service, which allows small companies to have Google handle their internal email from the search company's servers.

But there's more. Garett Rogers, the ZDNet columnist who first spotted evidence of the hosted email solution -- hidden inside the Javascript code that underlies Google's Gmail webmail service -- has found something else in the entrails of Google's programming. It appears to be the precursor of a voicemail offering Google plans to roll out, which would make sense considering that voice-over-Internet calling is part of its GTalk service. What would make more sense than bundling instant messaging, voice calling and voice messaging into one web-based application?

So let's think about that for a minute. Email, contact manager, voicemail, instant messaging all integrated into one app. What is it missing? If it were Microsoft's Outlook, it would be missing a calendar, so you could schedule things with all your business or social contacts. So where's the calendar, Google? It has been much rumoured in the past, and rumours have sprung to life again more recently.

Will Google do it? It seems like a natural fit in many ways, and it could be one of the last links in the chain -- apart from the word processor and spreadsheet part, of course -- creating a Google hosted-Office suite of some kind. One thing is for sure: many people seem to want them to do it. And the customer is always right.


Posted Thursday, February 23 at 3:14 p.m.

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No more thumbs, no more nails:
Reproducing copyrighted images without permission is an infringement of copyright law -- everybody knows that. But what about a search engine that shows you thumbnailed versions of those images? Is that infringement too? According to U.S. District Court Judge Howard Matz, yes it is. The judge just ruled [pdf link] in a case involving Perfect 10, a provider of "adult" images, that Google's image search effectively infringed on the company's copyright over those images, just by displaying the tiny thumbnail versions of those photos.

There were actually a couple of different issues being considered in the case. One was whether the displaying of thumbnails represented infringement, and another was whether displaying the entire image on a third-party website (which had acquired the image illegally) constituted "secondary" infringement. The judge found that there wasn't enough evidence to conclude that Google infringed in a secondary way -- although he did say that he found it interesting that Google ran ads on many of the infringing sites, which he said changed the nature of the relationship with these "third-party" infringers.

However, he did find that Google had infringed on the company's copyright simply by generating thumbnails, in part because Perfect 10 sells thumbnail-sized photos to cellphone users, and therefore Google's behaviour might potentially eat into this market. That, among other things, disqualified the search company in the judge's mind from being excused of copyright infringement by the "fair use" principle, which allows other parties to make use of copyrighted content in a limited way, provided they don't either make money from it or cause the copyright holder to lose money.

How this will affect Google's image search remains to be seen. But the courts are clearly interested in how the search company's business affects copyright, and this decision could be the first of many -- given the unfavourable attention that Google has already gotten from book publishers and newspaper owners.


Posted Wednesday, February 22 at 4:15 p.m.

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Wow -- look at that packaging!:
I'm as excited as the next guy about the introduction of Apple computers running on Intel chips, if only because it raises the possibility that I could someday have a PC that runs both Windows and Mac OS. And I know that the new MacBook laptops are supposed to be ultra-sweet -- but does that mean we have to bow down and worship even the box that the new laptops arrive in? A recent post at tech site ZDNet does exactly that, in an entry that is entitled "Exclusive: MacBook Pro unboxing pics," in the kind of breathless tone that tabloids reserve for photos of Brad and Angelina on a beach somewhere.

What the post gives you is 28 -- yes, 28 -- close-up shots of the box with the MacBook Pro inside it, then a shot of the box after it has been opened, and then a shot of the styrofoam insert that protects the MacBook, and so on. After the picture of the styrofoam insert, there is a caption that says "The Styrofoam inside the case has a cool circular cutout pattern." (Note: I am not making this up). In order to see the coolness of the styrofoam up close, there is a second shot from a different angle. Then there are shots of the MacBook in its anti-static bag, then another foam insert, then shots of the power supply (up close) and so on. And they're not the only ones.

If there's one thing that gives geeks -- particularly Apple geeks -- a bad name, it's the kind of obsessive and lavish attention paid to every tiny detail of a new product, from the finish on the aluminum to the packaging. A blog called I Kew makes another point, which is that there has been little said about Apple's decision to send "cease and desist" letters to websites devoted to hacking OS X so that it can run on any Intel box, but everyone wants to talk about the cool new products and the boxes they came in.

Freedom of speech? Who cares. But cool boxes and styrofoam inserts with circular cutouts? Now that's something worth talking about.


Posted Tuesday, February 21 at 2:50 p.m.

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Hey NBC -- grab a clue:
As an example of the kind of "viral marketing" that the Internet can achieve with very little effort, the so-called "Lazy Sunday" video from Saturday Night Live is about as good as it gets. In the clip, which was aired on December 17, comedians and show writers Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg perform a rap about how much they love cupcakes, and take a trip to see the movie The Chronicles of Narnia. The combination of the subject matter and the gangster-style rap made the video a huge hit over the Christmas holidays, to the point where it was downloaded more than three million times in just a couple of days.

What great advertising for NBC and the show Saturday Night Live, right? After all, the success of the video led to stories being written in the New York Times and elsewhere about both the writers and the show itself. So what did NBC do -- send a cheque and a big thank-you to YouTube and other sites that helped to drive this Internet phenomenon? Er, no. They sent a letter from their solicitors, telling the site to remove the video or face legal action.

NBC's argument, of course, is that this is a blatant copyright violation, and that viewers should be forced to go to NBC's website to see the clip (where it can be watched free of charge) or to download it from iTunes for $1.99 (U.S.). Why? So that NBC can make money from it, obviously. What seems to have escaped the network's mind is the fact that the video already aired on the program, and therefore has made as much revenue as any episode of the show normally does, not to mention the fact that the attention the video got could drive thousands more people to watch future shows. As usual, the network seems prepared to sacrifice all that free marketing for a little short-term profit. And that's why it's called "old" media.


Posted Monday, February 20 at 11:32 a.m.

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After email, then what?:
Last week, a short item appeared on a blog written by Garrett Rogers of ZDNet about something interesting he found while poking around in the Javascript source code for Google's popular web-based mail service Gmail: the word "domain." Putting two and two together, he theorized that Gmail would soon be offering a hosted email solution for anyone with a domain of their own - such as a corporation, for example, or a university. In other words, Google would be your email administrator, but the email would look like it came from your domain.

As it turned out, that's exactly what Google had in mind. The first glimpse was a note on Google's blog about the company providing hosted-email service for San Jose City College. A little while later, Google put up its hosted service "beta" test. In a nutshell, Google is offering a seamless email service to companies, with two gigabytes of storage space for each individual email inbox - and a webmail interface with their company's logo. For some companies, this could replace Microsoft's exchange server and Outlook email service.

That idea hasn't escaped Microsoft. The software giant has also been testing a hosted email solution as part of its Windows Live beta program, which gives companies up to 60 email inboxes (with 250 megabytes of space each). According to one report from a Microsoft insider, the company has a trial going with about 20 universities and has plans to add more. Some industry watchers have wondered, however, (and rightly so) just how committed to this venture Microsoft is likely to be, given that hosted email is almost certain to cannibalize its existing Outlook business.


Posted Monday, February 13 at 4:22 p.m.

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Getty Images gets into Web photos:
Who says there's no Web-buyout action going on in the Great White North? It may not compare with Yahoo buying Flickr or del.icio.us in terms of visibility, but in the world of downloadable stock photography, iStockPhoto.com - based in my former home town of Calgary, Alberta - has been one of the early stars, and so it's interesting to find out that they have been acquired by stock photo giant Getty Images for about $50-million (U.S.).

Along with Corbis (owned by Bill Gates), Getty is one of the largest players in the industry. If you see a classic or iconic shot in a newspaper or magazine or on a website, there are good odds it belongs to Getty. There's more information on the buyout at an online photo magazine called Photo District News Online, and more discussion at StockPhotoTalk, run by Andy Goetze, who mentioned a rumour that Getty would buy iStockPhoto in a post three weeks ago.

According to the reports, Getty will continue to operate iStockPhoto.com as a separate unit, run by iStockPhoto CEO Bruce Livingstone and about 30 employees (a nice payout for them). As far as I can tell, this is one of the first signs that the world of big, expensive, global stock-photo companies such as Getty and Corbis has started to pay attention to the small, inexpensive, Web-distributed model being pursued by iStockPhoto, Fotolia.com and others.

As Thomas Hawk mentions in his post, imagine what Yahoo could do if it started trying to monetize some of the photos in Flickr.


Posted Friday, February 10 at 4:50 p.m.

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Your own ads, on your own site:
In addition to running the influential Web 2.0 site TechCrunch.com, and writing a blog called CrunchNotes.com, Mike Arrington has been working on a startup of his own called Edgeio - which Rob Hof of BusinessWeek got a demo of recently. Some might wonder why another kind of classified service is worth getting excited about, but the Edgeio model has an interesting and potentially disruptive twist. In a nutshell, listings of things for sale don't have to be posted to a service such as eBay or Craigslist - they can live on your own blog or website, or anywhere. If they are tagged with the keyword "listing," Edgeio simply grabs them and indexes them.

This is the kind of extension of the "tagging" idea that really starts you thinking about what could be accomplished by simply tagging different items in a certain way and then indexing them. In a sense, it's the ultimate expression of the "microchunking" idea, as venture capitalist Fred Wilson calls it -- let people find what they want wherever it is. Tag a post on your blog "music review" and have it aggregrated; tag it with any number of other tags, and have them sorted and aggregated.

It's a powerful idea, and in a way it accomplishes what the "structured blogging" crowd have been trying to get at, without all the coding and formatting. There is also the "microformats" project, which is discussed here and an example of which can be seen here.

On a somewhat related note, it will be interesting to see what kinds of conflicts of interest get declared when Mike Arrington launches Edgeio, given the recent story in the WSJ about conflicts of interest among bloggers.


Posted Thursday, February 9 at 4:44 p.m.

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Vonage pulls the IPO trigger:
So voice-over-Internet company Vonage has finally pulled the trigger on its much-rumoured IPO, hoping to raise up to $250-million. Over the past year there has been repeated whispering that the company was planning a stock offering - but then the rumours changed their tone, and Vonage was reported to be in talks about being acquired. Then everything went quiet. As VOIP blogger Andy Abramson noted almost exactly a year ago, the company has been burning through money at a tremendous rate.

As my Canadian tech-blogging colleague Mark Evans notes in his take on the news the SEC filing from Vonage states the company had revenues of about $174-million (U.S.) in the nine months ended in September, and racked up losses of $189-million or so in that same period . The vast majority of those costs were for marketing, which isn't surprising given that Vonage has been blanketing the Web and the airwaves over the last year.

Needless to say, that's not a terribly attractive business model - which implies that founder Jeffrey Citron (who also founded online stock-trading firm Datek Online, which he later sold) - has gotten a little desperate about his ability to cash out his significant investment in the company. And he might be right to feel a little desperate, considering the fact that VOIP from cable companies, Skype and other forces - including a possible Google VOIP offering - is turning up the heat.

According to a recent survey by Sandvine, the share of VOIP minutes that broadband providers control has gone from 18 per cent last year to 53 per cent, while Vonage has 22 per cent. Good luck with that IPO, Vonage. At least co-founder and VOIP pioneer Jeff Pulver might get a little something out of it.


Posted Wednesday, February 8 at 3:26 p.m.

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Share your Wi-Fi with other "foneros":

It's nice to hear that FON, the share-your-Wi-Fi network founded by entrepreneur Martin Varsavsky, has gotten an investment from Google, along with Skype founders Niklas Zenstrom and Janus Friis - but while that is a huge vote of confidence, it doesn't remove some of the uncertainties surrounding the FON business model. For one thing, as more than one person has mentioned (including in the comments on this blog post) almost every major ISP specifies in their contracts that this kind of wide-open sharing isn't allowed.

According to comments that Mr. Varsavsky sent to Business 2.0 writer Om Malik over the weekend, the company is trying to bring ISPs on-side, but has so far only managed to strike a deal with Speakeasy - which, coincidentally enough, is the only U.S. Internet provider that officially lets you share your connection - and one European provider. Alec Saunders of Iotum says that most ISPs don't enforce these agreements, and that's true - but they might decide to change their minds about that if they find widespread sharing of the type FON has in mind.


Posted Monday, February 6 at 1:23 p.m.

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Update (02/07):
Speakeasy has since said that it has no agreement with FON, contrary to what the company suggested when it announced the funding.

Glenn Fleishmann of Wi-Fi Networking News, who has been a major skeptic on FON since the idea was first floated about six months ago, says that the investment by Google and the Skype gang (as well as Index Partners, which made a bundle on its investment in Skype) makes him a little less skeptical, but he still has concerns - including the difficulty of getting ISPs on-side, but also the difficulty of building out a robust enough wireless network to make what the company has in mind actually feasible.

Not only that, but how many people are going to feel the same concerns over security that the commenter on this post feels? FON has a response here, but that might not satisfy enough people to open up their networks - especially after everyone has been telling them to lock them down so no one piggy-backs on them. FON has a response to the ISP question too, but that amounts to trying to convince the ISPs they will share revenue with them (assuming there is any). I think they are likely to be skeptical at best.

Posted Monday, February 6 at 1:23 p.m.

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How do they type with those claws?

It sometimes seems as though everyone has a blog -- after all, Technorati.com tracks more than 20 million of them. And now the blogosphere isn't even restricted to humanoids any more: New Scientist magazine says that a flock of pigeons will soon be posting information to their blog via miniature cell-phone transmitters carried in tiny backpacks, along with a GPS transmitter to broadcast their exact location. But they won't be blogging about their favourite boy-bands or high-school crushes -- they will be relaying pollution-related information from sensors that are also included in their backpacks. Thanks to digital cameras carried around their necks, they will also be able to post photos to their blog. What, no Mp3 files to download?

Posted Thursday, February 2 at 1:24 p.m.

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Look up "tax rate" in Google:

Just when everyone was getting used to the company growing by triple digits without fail, Google goes and misses Wall Street's estimates for both sales and profit for the latest quarter. The stock dropped by as much as 19 per cent in after-hours trading and on Wednesday was down about seven per cent.

Does that matter to the company's long-term future? Probably not. But it will likely take some of the shine off for the momentum traders, of whom there are a lot. And there were some troubling signs in the numbers -- even if you assume that the analysts' estimates were inflated (which they likely were). For one thing, the company's tax rate was substantially higher than expected - 41 per cent instead of about 26 per cent - and costs were also higher than anticipated.

While it is difficult for analysts to analyze a company that is not only growing at an incredible rate, but which refuses to provide much guidance on future results, it's also true -- as Paul Kedrosky notes on his blog -- that Google did give some guidance on its tax rate, and got it wrong. That's likely to make investors just a little more nervous in the future.

Some of that nervousness is probably wise. The profit miss -- and the resulting stock reaction -- is a welcome sign that Google hasn't repealed the laws of stock-market physics after all, and that a little more caution might be worthwhile. As the old saying goes, bulls make money and bears make money, but pigs often get slaughtered.

Posted Wednesday, February 1 at 5:01 p.m.

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Hey guys, let's buy Qatar:

Ever get the feeling that giant multinational corporations like Exxon Mobil and General Electric are getting so immense that it's almost impossible to wrap your head around how big they are? Then Exxon's latest results probably aren't going to help any: The oil behemoth just reported the largest quarterly profit of any U.S. company since capitalism was invented -- $10.7-billion (U.S.). Not surprisingly, it also reported the largest annual net income of any company as well: $36-billion. And the previous record? Also set by Exxon, last year, at $25-billion.

If that was the company's profit, you can probably imagine how big its revenues were. To be exact, they were almost $100-billion for the quarter (just a little shy of last year, which was... you guessed it, a record) and sales for the full year came in at $371-billion. According to the CIA's World Fact Book, the entire gross domestic product of Saudi Arabia last year was just a little over $340-billion, while the estimated U.S. budget deficit is somewhere around $300-billion.

As it turns out, Exxon is also the world's largest company by market capitalization (the number of shares outstanding multiplied by the share price), with a value of $380-billion. Interestingly enough, three out of the top five largest companies by market capitalization are oil companies -- Exxon, BP and Royal Dutch Shell (the other two in the top five are Microsoft and General Electric).

And what about Wal-Mart -- it's a big company too, isn't it? It sure is. Its revenues aren't that far behind Exxon, at about $300-billion over the past 12 months. Microsoft had sales of just $40-billion over the same period, and yet its stock price is far ahead of Wal-Mart's. And that all has to do with profitability. Wal-Mart's profit margins are about 3 per cent, while Exxon's are about 10 per cent. And Microsoft's? Almost 32 per cent, or about 10 times that of Wal-Mart. Not even Google's margins are that high.

Posted Monday, January 30 at 2:58 p.m.

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A podcast for those late nights?:

Toronto resident Dave Delaney and his wife were expecting a baby last fall, so what did Dave decide to do? Why, start a "podcast," of course. Dave and his wife Heather (who is from Jackson, Tennessee) have a website and a podcast -- a downloadable audio program -- devoted to the lives of new parents. As they describe it on their site, "This is our first attempt at being parents [and] it is also our first attempt at a podcast -- what could go wrong?" According to Dave, a little over three months after starting their podcast, Two Boobs and a Baby have had over 4,000 downloads of one of the couple's four episodes. Dave descrbes the show as "a free, PG-rated program about becoming new parents. It's a comedy, but we hope to share our stories with other new parents who may be seeking advice, or who wish to share their stories." The website also has a forum for parents and would-be parents to post messages or ask for advice.

Posted Thursday, January 26 at 4:45 p.m.

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"Don't be more evil than necessary:"

As many expected, Google has launched a Chinese version of its search engine (NYT link) in an attempt to grow in that massive market, and to compete with local search providers such as Baidu.com, and it has agreed to filter its results to comply with government restrictions -- or what several wags have referred to as the "great firewall of China." The service will also not have Google e-mail or blogs.

This isn't terribly surprising, given some of the activity by Google and other tech giants when it comes to China -- such as the shutting down of a noted dissident's blog by Microsoft's MSN, and the identification of another dissident (who was later arrested) by Yahoo. And Google has been accused of at least helping to filter results before, including in this Harvard study.

It's obvious that companies such as Google see such activity as part of the cost of doing business in a country like China, and no doubt they would make the argument that if they didn't comply then someone else would. It's still a sad development, however, and it certainly throws into sharp relief how the search company's "don't be evil" mantra can be modified when necessary to fit the needs of the business.

John Battelle says Sergey Brin told him on balance Google figures it's better to be in China than not. I'm not sure I agree. Danny Sullivan says it's more complicated than that, and Philipp Lenssen says Google should come clean about what they censor and where. Good Morning Silicon Valley says it's like "watching little Anakin grow up into Darth Vader," and the Mercury News says Google should change its motto to "Don't be more evil than necessary" (thanks to IPDemocracy.com for pointing me to that one).



Posted Wednesday, January 25 at 11:44 a.m.

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Click here to email/call/message me:

Reading about the launch of Tello, a software application aimed at the idea of "presence" -- in other words, helping people figure out where you are and then helping them reach you with the appropriate device -- reminded me that I wanted to blog about a chat I recently had with one of the co-founders of another "presence" company, Ottawa-based Iotum.

Howard Thaw, a serial entrepeneur who started the company with former Microsoftie Alec Saunders (one of a small group of CEOs who blog), told me a bit about the company and its solution, which Iotum calls a "relevance engine." Essentially, it is a kind of personal assistant that learns through heuristics, which Howard knows well from a previous venture, Thunderbyte anti-virus software. In effect, it is designed to learn what phone calls or voice messages or IM pings or VOIP calls to put through to where, based on your past behaviour and a set of rules it develops.

Iotum has just recently come out of "stealth" mode, and has been selected to present at the DEMO conference in February, a fairly exclusive conference run by Chris Shipley and aimed primarily at startups and early-stage venture capital. As Howard described it, the API for the Iotum engine will be open for developers to add functionality, and so that other companies and applications can "plug in" to the software and add features -- something Alec says would apply to a product such as Tello. Coincidentally enough (or not), VOIP pioneer Jeff Pulver, who is one of the founders of Tello along with John Sculley of IBM and Apple fame, is on the Iotum board of advisors.

Will such "presence"-oriented apps catch on with a time-pressed and increasingly fragmented consumer? Mike at TechDirt remains skeptical, as do VOIP blogger Tom Keating, Oliver over at MobileCrunch and Stowe Boyd, but Iotum and Tello -- and some high-profile finance types, in the latter case -- are banking on it.



Posted Tuesday, January 24 at 2:45 p.m.

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Google wants your radio too:

Google hasn't made many billion-dollar bets, except for the recent one on AOL (which was more of a hedge) so the deal announced for dMarc Broadcasting is notable if only for the potential price tag. Up-front costs are only $100-million, but the potential outlay for Google if certain performance targets are met is $1.1-billion over three years (eBay's acquistion of Skype has similar terms).

Although Google has been reaching its tendrils into "offline" for a little while now, including a deal to run ads for its AdSense partners in print publications, I think it's safe to say that for many people, saying the word Google does not make one instinctively think "radio." After all, how do you click an ad that's on the radio? However, some -- including former Merrill Lynch analyst Henry Blodget -- think this could be the beginning of a big business for Google: namely, replacing big ad-buying agencies who place ads in all kinds of media.

The web magazine Search Engine Roundtable says if we have AdWords and AdPrint, and now AdRadio, it's likely only a matter of time before we get AdTV, and Google starts running ads on television. And Danny Sullivan says any dispute about whether Google is a media company or not can be put to rest.

Ross Rader of Tucows seems to agree, while Eric Schoenfeld of the Business 2.0 blog says there is potential for serving ads based on tracking your digital radio listening habits. As usual, Good Morning Silicon Valley has a great headline: "Sorry officer -- the last thing I remember is trying to click on an interactive radio ad."



Posted Thursday, January 19 at 12:05 p.m.

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How to be a good neighbour:

Wireless networks are becoming so commonplace -- at least in urban centres -- that it is becoming possible to do without an Internet connection altogether, provided your neighbours are nice enough to let you use theirs (or fail to lock their network down -- but that's a topic for another column). According to the New York Times, two companies are planning to offer tools that would make it easier to set up such a neighbourhood Wi-Fi network: Mushroom Networks of San Diego and WiBoost of Seattle. Both are aimed at allowing users to share their network connections to improve download speeds.

Meanwhile, some neighbours are already doing this: technology consultant and writer Thomas Evslin writes on his blog about how he set up a Wi-Fi antenna on his roof that provides 25 of his rural neighbours with wireless Internet access, and how he sees such efforts as a response to the power of the regional Bell companies and cable conglomerates. In some parts of the United States, ad-hoc networks have been set up, including one in Manhattan called "Neighbornode," which features a local homepage and directory of services.

There is even a movement afoot to gather together wireless networks and create a wireless phone service using voice-over-Internet or VOIP. The project, known as FON, is being organized by entrepeneur Martin Varsavsky, who has reportedly even met with billionaire Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Unfortunately, this kind of sharing is against the terms of service that most Internet service providers require their customers to sign. One of the few national ISPs that actually promotes network sharing is Speakeasy.



Posted Monday, January 16 at 3:13 p.m.

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How about some speakers too?:
Levi's, the legendary jean-maker, started out making pants for cowboys and now it has decided it wants to make pants for digital cowboys. The San Francisco-based company says it is launching a line of "iPod-compatible" jeans called RedWire, which will feature a built-in iPod "dock" or cradle in one pocket, a thumb joystick built into the watch pocket, and a retractable device for keeping control over your iPod headphones. Levi Strauss & Co. says they should be available in the fall of this year, with no price available. But if they're doing the iPod and joystick, why not go all the way and build some speakers into the back pockets? That one's a freebie, Levi's -- from me to you, no charge.



Posted Wednesday, January 11 at 3:06 p.m.

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Analysts "one-up" each other on Google:

Just as people were getting over the fact that Safa Rashtchy of Piper Jaffray boosted his target for Google's share price to $600 (U.S.), along comes Mark Stahlman of Caris & Co., saying in a report that the search company could go as high as $2,000 a share. Mr. Stahlman, who according to his bio was one of the people who helped take America Online public, takes pains to point out that this is not a "target," per se -- merely speculation about how high Google might go someday.

And where does Mr. Stahlman get this number? First, he assumes that Google will continue growing to the point where it has $100-billion in annual revenue. It now has sales of about $5-billion, but is growing at about 90 per cent year over year -- so it would have to continue doing that for at least four years. Then, he applies the same multiple of enterprise value to sales per share that Microsoft trades at, which happens to be 6.2 -- and presto! $2,000 a share.

This, of course, sounds a lot like the kind of math that analysts used to use back in the bad old days of the later 1990s, when a guy named Henry Blodget made his name by putting a $400 target on Amazon.com -- a target that was eclipsed within a matter of weeks. Fittingly enough, Mr. Blodget now has a blog called Internet Outsider, and recently wrote about the price target brouhaha. For what it's worth, his take is that forecasting stock prices and valuing companies is an arcane science -- the clear implication being that we should take such targets with a rather large grain of salt. If only Mr. Blodget and others had provided similar advice in 1999.



Posted Monday, January 9 at 3:05 p.m.

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Give up on the IM "lock-in":

It may be something of a footnote to the $1-billion (U.S.) deal between Google and AOL, but to me (and others like Stowe Boyd at Corante and Gary Price at SearchEngineWatch) the proposal to blend Google's GTalk messaging service and AOL's AIM sounds like a great idea -- and possibly the beginning of something more.

It may take some technical voodoo to accomplish, but at least allowing GTalk and AIM to talk to each other takes us down to two main instant messaging networks, since Microsoft and Yahoo have said they plan to make theirs interoperable. I've been using Trillianand Gaim (both of which let you connect to multiple networks), because I know so many people on other networks, and I haven't used GTalk because I know most of them won't switch applications just to talk to me.

And why should they? It's like asking people to get a new cellphone because your phone can't call theirs. It's absurd -- and that means it has to change. Will Microsoft or Yahoo ever agree to make their networks compatible with GTalk? It seems pretty unlikely right now, since all the big companies seem to see IM as a kind of Trojan horse that can bring voice-over-Internet and a host of other services to users, and thereby help achieve customer "lock-in."

I think they are wrong. Lock-in is something that very few companies achieve (operating systems being one of the main exceptions) and it's particularly unlikely to happen when -- as with IM -- the whole point of the software is to be more connected and communicate with others. Anyone who facilitates that, whether it's Trillian or Gaim or Meebo and other Web-based IM clients, will benefit.

Update:

Julian Bond at Voidstar has some interesting thoughts on the IM front as it relates to VOIP, and the Googletalk blog has some more info if you're interested in that angle and how it relates to Libjingle, an attempt to join Google's voice-over-Internet with an open VOIP standard called Jingle.



Posted Thursday, December 22 at 2:33 p.m.

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Tunatic -- a search engine for radio:

Sylvain Demongeot, a French programmer, has released a piece of software called Tunatic that he says can identify songs played on the radio or any other music source. If the sound makes it into a microphone attached to your computer, the developer says Tunatic will be able to identify the title, name of the artists and any other useful information within seconds -- including links to download sites, music stores, lyrics and so on. Tunatic is free and available for both Windows and Mac OS X platforms.



Posted Thursday, December 22 at 4:28 p.m.

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From Web 2.0 startup to...:

If you've experimented with "social bookmark" sites such as digg.com or del.icio.us as a way of filtering the web, you may have come across reddit.com. When I mentioned it in a recent column for the Globe and Mail about Yahoo's acquisition of del.icio.us, I got an email from one of Reddit's co-founders, Alexis Ohanian, so I asked him some questions about the deal and about Reddit's business model.

Alexis said that he felt Yahoo's purchase had "validated the 'business model without a business model' approach of del.icio.us," but that he was "curious to know how whether or not it's an anomaly," adding that "one look at reddit and you can guess what we're hoping for." I asked whether reddit.com was modelled on del.icio.us, and he said it was -- but that Reddit wants to do something different as well. "We were actually inspired by del.icio.us/popular," Alexis said. "We found ourselves most interested in this page because it was a sort of zeitgeist for what people were busy bookmarking -- but we wanted to take it further."

The Reddit co-founder, who was part of a "summer camp for startups" along with his college roommate Steve Huffman -- and was in a movie called Aardvark'd -- said that while there are "aesthetic similarities in the minimalist designs of our sites," reddit.com is "trying to build a very different site." As a Guardian article on the site pointed out, Reddit users can vote an article up or down in popularity (in much the same way Slashdot users vote on comments) and they get "karma points" if something they linked to is voted onto the front page (Solution Watch has a nice overview).

As for a business model, Alexis didn't give me much to go on, but he said that the two friends "started on reddit with the hope of being acquired one day, but as the project evolved we started exploring a model that could (hopefully) be sustainable." He said there have been "overtures," but that he and his partner are "loving this ride and we want to see how far it will take us." As for venture capital, the company has met with a few but hasn't taken any money. "We secured angel funding in August," Alexis said, "that should, given our bare bones lifestyle (2 guys in a Cambridge apartment), last us until the thaw of summer."



Posted Monday, December 19 at 3:38 p.m.

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Is Google about to land AOL?:

The Wall Street Journal and others have reported that Google is close to deal to take a five-per-cent stake in America Online for $1-billion (U.S.). This, of course, is only the latest in a series of rumours about what's going to happen to AOL -- first Microsoft was close to a deal to buy the whole enchilada, then Google's's name was brought up, then Microsoft was seen as being back on top.

At one point, the speculation was that Time Warner CEO Dick Parsons was trying to get the takeover rumours going so that he could cut a better deal with Google, which AOL uses to power its search results. Then AOL founder Steve Case came out with his impassioned plea to split up the company -- the same thing Carl Icahn seems to want to do -- in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, which was hilariously satirized in a commentary piece here.

Most analysts seem to think that Google taking a piece of AOL -- if only so that Microsoft or Yahoo don't get it -- makes sense. The former online wasteland is estimated to account for about 11 per cent of Google's annual search revenue, and that wouldn't be a good thing to give up. And it's only a billion, right? Pocket change for a company with a market value of almost $130-billion.



Posted Friday, December 16 at 4:51 p.m.

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Get your Google PC:

Mitch Shapiro at IPDemocracy.com noticed something I did too in the rather long New York Times piece on Ray Ozzie recently -- namely, word that Google is working with Wyse Technologies on a $200 "thin-client"-type PC.

According to someone at Wyse, the search company is looking at a Google-branded machine that would be marketed by telecom companies in places like China and India. Wyse CEO John Kish said that Google is "on a path to developing a stack of software in competition with the Microsoft desktop, and one that is much more network-centric, more an Internet service -- and this fits right into that."

Is it any wonder that Microsoft has started talking very publicly about Web-enabled versions of Office and rolling out things like Windows Live? Dave Farber at ZDNet notes that this idea is just the latest in a long line of "network is the computer" visions, most notably from Sun, which could never seem to make it fly.

Oracle also tried it -- and Wyse CEO John Kish happens to be an ex-Oracle executive. David Berlind at ZDNet has also speculated that the time has come for a networked PC, and Google is the one to bring it to us. But others remain skeptical. Is a Google PC the way to go? Let me know what you think.



Posted Wednesday, December 14 at 2:08 p.m.

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Hey, Skype -- can we play?:

I don't want to make it look like I'm on some kind of a Skype-bashing campaign, but the voice-over-Internet company's world (or that of its new parent, eBay) seems to get more complicated by the day. First there were the rumblings -- mentioned in an item below -- about the company losing its cool, about internal friction with eBay managers, and about "power sellers" being cool to the whole Skype revolution. Now, Yahoo has joined the party by adding new VOIP features to its instant messaging software.

Yahoo already allows PC users to call other PC users for free -- as Microsoft's MSN and Google Talk do -- but now it is adding the ability to call regular phones for as little as 1 cent per minute, and to receive calls from regular phones for as little as $2.99 a month. Both prices are lower than what Skype charges. Susan Mernit notes that this could be just the beginning. And it seems obvious that Microsoft and Google are likely to add features similar to Skype's for next to nothing -- or perhaps (in Google's case at least) even for free.

This may not be terribly creative, as some critics have noted, but that isn't really the point. The point is to win market share, and the "first mover" doesn't always have an advantage (Exhibit A: TiVo). As lawyer and tech blogger Rob Hyndman observed recently, getting displaced in such a way is even easier in a world where technology changes rapidly, is either cheap or even free, and users are constantly looking for the next greatest thing. Is that good or bad? That's difficult to say. But it does seem to be the new reality.

P.S. At least one reader has pointed out that Skype does have some proprietary differences from other VOIP products, since it uses a "peer-to-peer" model developed by Kazaa founder Niklas Zennstrom. That makes it easier to use in some cases, because it can find its its way through corporate firewalls more easily. That's also why some companies block the software, however -- whereas "open source" solutions such as the Gizmo Project have the benefit of being, well... open. And that can mean a lot.

Update:
Now Microsoft is wedging its rather large foot into the voice-over-Internet door, with an announcement recently about a deal with MCI. Still think Skype was worth $4.1-billion, eBay?

Posted Thursday, December 8 at 1:33 p.m.

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Google vs. publishers, part 2:

You might think that what Google does is simple -- it indexes Web pages and other content, including news stories from various sources (such as globeandmail.com) -- and then it lets people search for things. That's not what European publishers and news agencies think it does, however. As far as they're concerned, Google steals their content and then -- to make things even worse -- sells advertising that runs alongside it, thereby depriving them of revenue and stealing food out of their childrens' mouths (Note: I made up that last part).

According to the Associated Press, Francisco Pinto Balsemao of the European Publishers Council said (or planned to say) at a conference in Brussels that "The new models of Google and others reverse the traditional permission-based copyright model of content trading that we have built up over the years." Such companies, he said, "help themselves to copyright-protected material, build up their own business models around what they have collected, and parasitically, earn advertising revenue off the back of other people's content," which is "unlikely to be sustainable for publishers in the longer term."

Just one question springs to mind: What planet is Mr. Balsemao from? Google and Yahoo don't "help themselves" to copyright-protected content -- they index it so that people can find it, and then they show them where to go to get more of it. That's why searches return a bunch of links, rather than just a pile of other people's content. Google News, which is the subject of a similarly narrow-minded lawsuit by Agence France-Presse, shows small portions of news stories and then links to the original site. If people don't want to follow the link, that's not Google's fault.

Maybe Mr. Balsemao and his group will take their fight to the libraries and bookstores next -- after all, they display copyrighted content and sell services related to it. How dare they?



Posted Wednesday, December 7 at 2:44 p.m.
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