Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Cell phones for the holidays

No longer is the cellular phone selection limited to the RAZR, a $500 Treo and hundreds of look-alikes and act-alikes. Recent months have brought a wave of new devices that stand apart from the pack in terms of looks and next-generation features.
Dominating the new crop is a widening array of BlackBerry-like "smart" phones designed to be more consumer-friendly in function and price. As compared with the $300 to $500 traditional price tag for higher-end devices, these handsets are debuting at $200 with a two-year contract.

More than ever, thin is also in, with the carriers offering a growing number of slenderized clamshell and candy-bar phones. Yet despite the shrinking size, phones are coming with more built-in bells and whistles: external memory slots for storing music and photos, higher-resolution cameras and high-speed Internet capabilities.

A sampling of notable new handsets:

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BlackBerry Pearl from T-Mobile and Cingular Wireless

The first BlackBerry targeting the consumer market, the Pearl is the first with a digital camera (1.3 megapixels), an MP3 music player and a memory slot. Just 2-inches wide and weighing 3.2 ounces, the Pearl's narrow QWERTY keyboard features two letters per key, relying on predictive software to suggest and choose the desired letter. A glowing navigational trackball — dubbed the Pearl — on the front replaces the signature side track wheel on other BlackBerry models. ($349.99 to $399.99 list price, depending on carrier, $199.99 with contract commitments and rebates)

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LG "enV" from Verizon Wireless

The enV, also called the VX 9900, is a slimmer and lighter upgrade to the "V," a clamshell that opens to reveal a spacious QWERTY keyboard and dual speakers on the sides of a wide screen. Though a smidge longer and wider than the V, the enV is almost a quarter-inch thinner at 0.78 inch deep and half an ounce lighter at 4.6 ounces. The enV also features GPS satellite navigation and a higher-resolution 2 megapixel camera. ($319.99 list price, $129.99 with two-year agreement and $50 rebate)


Nokia E62 from Cingular Wireless

The E62 is the first mass-market smart phone based on the Symbian operating system offered in the United States. There's a heavy focus on e-mail through multiple applications. It also features a full-QWERTY keyboard and an external memory slot, but no camera. The E62 is "quad-band" compatible with four common wireless frequencies for overseas roaming. ($349.99 list price, $99.99 with two-year contract and rebate)

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Motorola KRZR K1m from Verizon Wireless, Sprint and Alltel

An offshoot of the sleek RAZR line, the KRZR is a third of an inch smaller from side to side compared with its famous cousin, though a tad thicker, taller and heavier. Unlike the RAZR, the KRZR features external music controls. The version of this handset currently available in the United States also features a 1.3 megapixel camera, a memory slot and GPS location tracking. A version sold overseas and expected to be offered by other U.S. carriers next year has a 2 megapixel camera. ($349.99 to $399.99 list price, depending on the carrier, $199.99 to $249.99 with contract commitments and rebates)


Motorola ic502 from Nextel

The first dual-network phone since the merger of Sprint and Nextel, the ic502 offers Nextel subscribers decent wireless Internet speeds for the first time using Sprint's network. It also provides access to Nextel's hugely popular walkie-talkie services. The GPS-enabled handset is built to military specifications to withstand rugged conditions. While it doesn't sport a camera and other consumer-ish features, the higher data bandwidth is a major upgrade from the sub-dialup speed of other Nextel phones. ($249.99 list price, $59.99 with mail-in rebate and two-year contract)


Palm Treo 680 from Cingular Wireless

The first Treo targeting the consumer market, the 680 is slightly slimmer in size and far more slender in price than its predecessors. This QWERTY-keyboard device runs on the Palm platform and features a new 5-button "quick launch" toolbar on the touch screen. An ounce lighter than the pricier Treo 700, other physical distinctions include an internal antenna and a memory slot on the side. On the downside, the 680 has a lower-resolution camera and doesn't connect with Cingular's speedier data network. ($449.99 list price, $199.99 with two-year contract and rebate)


Samsung BlackJack from Cingular Wireless

A small and sleek handset packed with high-end features, the Windows-based BlackJack is less than half an inch thick and weighs 3.5 ounces. Features include high-speed "3G" Internet access and a choice of navigation with either a front four-way key or a thumb wheel on the side. There's also a full-QWERTY keyboard,1.3 megapixel camera and external memory slot. It's quad-band compatible with four common wireless frequencies for overseas roaming. ($449.99 list price, $199.99 with two-year contract and rebate)


Samsung M610 from Sprint

Billed as the thinnest clamshell phone in the United States, the M610 is just 0.47 inch thick, or about a tenth of an inch thinner than the RAZR. It's also about a fifth of an ounce lighter at 3.28 ounces. Perhaps more importantly, it connects with Sprint's broadband-speed Power Vision network. Other features include a 2 megapixel camera, external memory slot and GPS location tracking. ($329.99 list price, $179.99 with two-year contract)


Samsung Trace from T-Mobile

At just 0.3 inch thick, the Trace is a new slimness champ among "candy bar" (non-flip) phones. Despite the small size and weight — 2.5 ounces — the phone offers an unusually large screen and multimedia features: 1.3 megapixel camera, MP3 music player and external memory slot for storing pictures and music. ($199.99 list price, $99.99 with two-year contract)


Sidekick 3 from T-Mobile

The newest addition to the popular Sidekick family is about 20 percent smaller than its predecessor and features a new trackball for one-handed navigation. Other improvements on the SideKick 2 include the addition of an MP3 player, external memory slot, and a removable battery. ($479.99 list price, $249.99 with two-year contract)


T-Mobile Dash

A cellular and Wi-Fi smart phone running on Windows Mobile. Features include a full-QWERTY keyboard, 1.3 megapixel camera, external memory slot, Windows Media Player Mobile. The phone also offers quad-band compatibility with four common wireless frequencies for overseas roaming, and an internal Wi-Fi antenna to connect to the Internet over a home or public wireless network (such as T-Mobile Hotspots at Starbucks and other retail locations). ($349.99 list price, $199 with a two-year contract)

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Watch cable TV on your cell phone? Soon

NEW YORK - Embracing a technology that has unnerved media and telecommunications companies, a major European wireless provider will let customers watch their home cable TV on a cell phone if they also have a device called the Slingbox back at the house.

3 Group will launch the new service in Britain first, starting Dec. 1, followed by three more of its 11 markets in early 2007, the wireless company announced Thursday.

Two new handsets running on 3's next-generation wireless network will feature the Sling application, which customers can use to watch any channel available on their cable TV at home. The phones also can be used to control a digital video recorder at home, pausing and rewinding live television, playing previously recorded shows, or setting up the DVR to record a program.

The partnership with 3 is a watershed for Sling Media Inc., the first sign of official recognition from the industry "establishment" for a renegade device that the California-based company began selling a year ago. The Slingbox, hooked up simultaneously to a set-top cable box and a broadband connection, can stream live and recorded video over the Internet to any laptop or handheld equipped with SlingPlayer software.

The gadget is the latest in a line of devices that have reshaped the way people watch television over the past few decades.

Before the VCR, catching a TV show required viewers to conform to a schedule set by networks. More recently, digital video recorders such as the TiVo made it possible to skip commercials and even rewind a live program. Now devices and software like the Sling not only make it possible to watch TV anytime but also anywhere.

But much as TV networks and movie companies initially questioned the rights of viewers to record their content on a TiVo, they also have objected to the notion that monthly cable fees paid by subscribers entitle them to view cable programming in more than one location.

In the case of TiVo, however, cable companies quickly moved past their objections and began offering DVRs of their own to customers, generating new revenue.

Slingbox presents a potential problem not only for the media companies that own the content, but for phone and cable companies worried that streaming video and other high-bandwidth uses may clog their networks — while generating no extra revenue for them.

In the United States, for example, Verizon Wireless and other cellular companies put clauses in their contracts restricting the way subscribers can use their wireless Internet connections on phones and laptops.

3, a unit of Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., plans to offer Sling access as part of a premium service called X-Services, though usage will not be unlimited. Details of the pricing and additional fees for extra bandwidth use were not immediately available.

The British version of the Slingbox sells for 180 pounds ($340). The first two 3 handsets loaded with the SlingPlayer software will be the Nokia N73 and the Sony Ericsson w950i. Prices weren't disclosed.

3 also didn't say where it would offer Sling next. It has upgraded its wireless network with the required broadband technology in Italy, Australia, Austria, Sweden, Denmark, Hong Kong, Israel and Ireland.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Thai crown princess launches royal blog

BANGKOK, Thailand - In a country where the royal family rarely communicates directly with the public, Thai Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn could be considered a trailblazer.
The 51-year-old princess launched on Saturday the country's first royal blog, which she says is aimed at persuading her fellow citizens to embrace English.

"We have witnessed in this past century that English has become a global language without much understanding of the process," she wrote. "Nor can we say that we really know the extent of its influence and status as the global language. But we can be sure of one thing: English can be used as a key to better understanding."

The blog appears on the British Council's Web site.

The only other royal in Asia known to have a Web log is Cambodia's former King Norodom Sihanouk. His blog contains thousands of commentaries on anything from Hollywood stars to the rough-and-tumble of Cambodian politics, along with historical documents and exchanges with diplomats or Cambodian politicians.

The princess is admired in Thailand for her charity work and her common touch.

Royal watchers said the Thai princess's blog was not that surprising, given that she is known to be tech-savvy and routinely e-mails intellectuals in the region.

Her blog is a continuation of the British Council's efforts to improve the teaching of English in Thailand. Earlier this week she presided over a two-day conference titled "Policy for Global Transition" jointly hosted by the British Council and the Thai Ministry of Education.

It wasn't clear if the princess would be updating her blog, and the British Council could not be reached for additional comment.

Prof. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, said that by adding her voice to the campaign, the princess had greatly bolstered the council's efforts.

"Her patronage has given the project a lot more prestige. Her avid pursuit of the arts is a great inspiration to young people in Thailand," he said.


On the Net:

Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn's blog:

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

GM Warns It May Not Be Able to Sell Stake

DETROIT - General Motors Corp. warned it may be unable to sell a majority stake in its finance division, in an annual report Tuesday that highlighted the myriad risks and financial woes confronting the world's largest automaker

GM has been counting on the sale of a 51 percent stake in General Motors Acceptance Corp. as a way to separate the division's debt rating from GM's own junk rating and raise as much as $15 billion in badly needed cash for the struggling automaker. But GM warned anew Tuesday that a deal may not happen.

"We are uncertain at this time if any transaction with respect to GMAC ... will occur or, if any transaction were to occur, on what terms," GM said. GM added that even if a transaction is completed, it's possible GMAC's credit rating could still hinge on GM's.

GM had hoped a new parent for GMAC would bring investment-grade credit ratings to the finance business, which was slashed to junk status last year alongside its sliding automotive parent. It was those ratings that caused GM to consider the planned sale, which was announced in October.

In the filing, GM also discussed the threat of a strike at supplier Delphi Corp. that could cripple GM.

The automaker also restated financial results from 2000 through 2004 because of a litany of accounting errors. GM had said March 16 that it was delaying filing its annual report because of an internal investigation into those errors.

Also Tuesday, GM said it is restating financial results for GMAC from 2003 through the third quarter of 2005. The restatement relates to the improper classification and presentation of cash flows for certain mortgage loans.

GM said it had concluded an internal investigation into Residential Capital Corp., GMAC's mortgage subsidiary, and determined that cash flow relating to certain mortgage activities was inappropriately classified.

The changes reduced operating cash flows but increased investing cash flows between 2002 and the first three quarters of 2005, the automaker said. GM said the restatement doesn't affect the income statements or net cash flows of GM, GMAC or ResCap.

GM also said it began investigating errors in the way it booked credits from suppliers, including Delphi, last April after getting a subpoena from the Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC, which was seeking information on retroactive price adjustments GM had received from Delphi, is continuing to investigate GM and its suppliers.

GM said it erroneously booked supplier credits as a reduction of cost to sales between 2000 and 2004. After restatement, a deferred credit of approximately $548 million existed as of December 2004, which will be recognized as a cost of sales in future periods, the automaker said.

Burnham Securities analyst David Healy said GM's restatements were largely housekeeping measures that will have no effect on GM or GMAC's cash flow.

"If it wasn't GM in crisis mode and the whole feeding frenzy going on in the media, a small restatement like this wouldn't get any attention," Healy said.

But Healy said it was important for GM to get its finances straightened out in preparation for the possible GMAC sale. The filing "removes a minor burden" to the sale, Healy said.

Credit ratings agencies have said that they would probably lower GMAC's ratings closer to those of GM if the stake in the finance division isn't sold. Those lower ratings would dramatically raise the cost of funding for GMAC, as well as severely impede its access to capital.

If no sale occurs, GM said, "GMAC's access to capital may be seriously constrained, as most unsecured funding sources may decline, including bank funding."

The cost of secured funding may also rise without the sale.

A higher cost of funding would "significantly lower earnings and dividends," the filing said. "GMAC may need to consider divesting certain businesses in order to maintain adequate liquidity," the filing continued.

GM lost $10.6 billion in 2005, largely due to declining U.S. sales and rising costs. The company is in the midst of a restructuring plan and on Tuesday announced it was laying off several hundred salaried workers. GM also has offered buyouts to all of its 113,000 U.S. hourly workers in the hopes of cutting its hourly work force by 30,000 by 2008.

GM shares fell 1.7 percent in late-session trading on the news. Earlier, the stock dropped 18 cents to close at $22.75 on the New York Stock Exchange.

Friday, March 24, 2006

'The Simpsons' to Show Live-Action Opening

NEW YORK - Ever wonder what Bart Simpson would look like in human form? The longrunning animated Fox series "The Simpsons" is about to show you. The series will unveil a live-action opening sequence Sunday, 8 p.m. EST, a Fox spokeswoman announced Thursday.

In it, the dysfunctional cartoon family — Bart, Homer, Marge, Lisa and Maggie — will be seen as they would appear in real life, played by lookalike actors.

"I'm just amazed there are people who want to be known for looking like the Simpsons," said Al Jean, the show's executive producer, in a statement.

A team from British network Sky One created and commissioned the live sequence, which apes the long-running series' memorable opening shots: Bart writing on the chalkboard, Homer pulling the nuclear rod out of his shirt and Maggie and Marge at the supermarket, a Fox spokeswoman said.

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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Comcast Said in Talks on E! Networks

PHILADELPHIA - Comcast Corp., the nation's largest cable operator, is in talks with The Walt Disney Co. to buy the remaining 40 percent of E! Networks it doesn't already own, according to a person familiar with the companies' plans.

E! Networks, which is comprised of the E! celebrity channel and the Style fashion channel, is valued at around $3 billion, the person said Monday, declining to be identified because the deal has not been finalized.

Disney officials did not immediately return calls for comment Monday evening.

It's unclear how much Philadelphia-based Comcast would pay to acquire the rest of the network from Disney, which is based in Burbank, Calif., or how long it might take to strike any agreement.

The discussions were reported Monday by Broadcasting & Cable, a trade publication.

The talks are part of an expanded collaboration with Disney over carriage rights and making Disney content more available to Comcast's video on demand service.

In 1997, Comcast and Disney joined forces to buy E! Entertainment. Seven years later, the nation's largest cable operator made a bid to buy Disney itself for $66 billion, but the entertainment company's board rebuffed that effort.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Google Agrees to Settle 'Click Fraud' Case

SAN FRANCISCO - Google Inc. has agreed to pay up to $90 million to settle a lawsuit alleging the online search engine leader overcharged thousands of advertisers who paid for bogus sales referrals generated through a ruse known as "click fraud."

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The proposed settlement, announced by the company Wednesday, would apply to all advertisers in Google's network during the past four years. Any Web site showing improper charges dating back to 2002 will be eligible for an account credit that could be used toward future ads distributed by Google.

The total value of the credits available to advertisers will be lower than $90 million because part of that amount will be used to cover the fees of lawyers who filed the case last year in Arkansas state court. The proposed settlement still requires final court approval.

The lawsuit, filed by Lane's Gifts and Collectibles on behalf of all Google advertisers, revolves around one of the most sensitive subjects facing Google and Yahoo Inc. (Nasdaq:YHOO - news), which runs the Internet's second largest marketing network.

Yahoo, which is also named in the suit, said Wednesday that it intends to fight the lawsuit's allegations.

Mountain View, Calif.-based Google makes virtually all of its money from text-based advertising links that trigger commissions each time they are clicked on. Besides enriching Google, the system has been a boon for advertisers, whose sales have been boosted by an increased traffic from prospective buyers.

But sometimes mischief makers and scam artists repeatedly click on specific advertising links even though they have no intentions of buying anything. The motives for the malicious activity known as click fraud vary widely, but the net effect is the same: advertisers end up paying for fruitless Web traffic.

The lawsuit alleged Google had conspired with its advertising partners to conceal the magnitude of click fraud to avoid making refunds.


The frequency of click fraud hasn't been quantified, causing some stock market analysts to worry Google's profits will falter if it turns out to be a huge problem.

Google executives have repeatedly said the level of click fraud on its ad network is minuscule — a contention that the proposed settlement amount seems to support.

The $90 million translates into less than 1 percent of Google's $11.2 billion in revenue during the past four years.

Google disclosed the settlement after the stock market closed. The company's shares fell $10.57 to close at $353.88 on the Nasdaq Stock Market, then shed another $2.11 in extended trading.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Japanese Cars Score Highest in Magazine

DETROIT - For the first time, all the top picks in Consumer Reports' annual vehicle guide are made by Japanese automakers.

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The Honda Civic is the magazine's top small sedan, while the Toyota Highlander Hybrid is the top mid-sized sport utility vehicle, according to results released Wednesday. Vehicles from Nissan Motor Co. and Subaru, a division of Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., round out the top picks in 10 categories.

Asian brands also fared best in the magazine's survey of vehicle reliability. Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus brand was first, while Honda was second and the Toyota brand was third. Ford Motor Co.'s Mercury brand was the only domestic nameplate to crack the top ten.

Consumer Reports' rankings are important to automakers, even though companies can't use the ratings in their advertising. Consumer Reports spokeswoman Lauren Hackett said the April auto issue is consistently the magazine's most popular, selling more than 300,000 copies at newsstands. That's twice as many copies as its second-most popular issue, the November electronics issue.

Consumer Reports began its top picks list in 1997. It is based on road and track tests, evaluations of comfort, convenience and fuel economy, crash protection ratings from the government and insurance industry and readers' reliability rankings. The magazine said it recently tested more than 200 vehicles to come up with its top picks.

Honda had the most winners, snagging top picks in five of the ten categories. Besides the redesigned Civic, the Honda Accord was the top family sedan between $20,000 and $30,000 and the Acura TL was the top upscale sedan between $30,000 and $40,000. The Honda Odyssey was the top minivan and the Honda Ridgeline, which is Honda's first entry in the pickup market, was the top pickup.

Toyota and Subaru each had two winners, including the Subaru Forester for small SUV and the Toyota Prius for "green car." Nissan had one, the M35 luxury sedan, which the magazine called "an excellent balance of performance, comfort and handling."

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Reliability rankings are based on a survey of Consumer Reports subscribers who are asked if they have had serious problems with their vehicles in the past 12 months. The survey questions readers about 17 different trouble spots. For this year's survey, readers rated their experience with 810,000 vehicles from the 1998 through 2005 model years.

Consumer Reports said Japanese and Korean brands had 12 problems per 100 vehicles, while U.S. automakers had 18 problems and European makers had 21 problems. Asian and U.S. automakers have been improving their scores but appeared to stall in 2005, the magazine said. European automakers' ratings haven't changed substantially in the last four years, the magazine said.

After Lexus, Honda and Toyota, the brands rounding out the top ten for reliability were Mitsubishi, Subaru, Acura, Scion, Mercury, Mazda and Suzuki. The ten lowest-rated brands were Audi, Infiniti, Saturn, Lincoln, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Land Rover, Hummer and Porsche.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Microsoft Updates Web Search Offering

SEATTLE - Microsoft Corp. unveiled several new online technologies Tuesday, including early versions of an Internet classified service and a local search function that provides extremely detailed pictures of local streets.

Microsoft also said it plans to begin testing a desktop e-mail product designed to work with the company's online e-mail accounts, similar to Microsoft Outlook Express.

The spate of online efforts are part of the Redmond, Wash.-based software maker's broader goal of improving its Internet-based offerings, to better compete with rivals such as Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc. (Nasdaq:YHOO - news)

The new search function, dubbed "street view," aims to give people a driver's view of downtown Seattle and San Francisco, using pictures detailed enough to make out cars and people. Available in test form, it's similar to Inc.'s A9 search engine, which provides detailed street-level views of certain cities.

Microsoft had previously announced plans to start the U.S. online classified service, called Windows Live Expo, in the hopes of competing with the likes of Craigslist.

The test version launched Tuesday distinguishes itself from competitors by giving people the option to narrowly define who sees their listings. For example, sellers could make their goods available only to people who work at their company, based on e-mail addresses. Or they could limit their offerings only to people on their instant messenger "buddy list."

It also hopes to be more geographically personalized by asking sellers to provide a ZIP code for searching purposes.

Microsoft shares lost 18 cents to close at $26.87 Tuesday on the Nasdaq Stock Market.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Google Denies Report on China Operation

BEIJING - Google Inc. denied a report Monday that its Chinese-language search engine, which has been criticized for blocking searches for politically sensitive material, is operating without a required government license.

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The newspaper Beijing News reported that the ICP — or Internet content provider — license listed by on its Web site belongs to a Chinese company, It said the situation has "attracted the attention" of Chinese regulators.

"Google has a partnership with through which Google has the required license to operate," said Google spokeswoman Debbie Frost in a written response to questions about the report.

A spokesman for China's Ministry of Information Industry, which regulates Internet use, said it was aware that didn't have its own license. The spokesman, Wang Lijian, wouldn't say whether that was permitted by Chinese rules or give any other information.

Some other foreign Internet companies such as eBay Inc. also operate in China using the licenses of their local partners.

Google and other foreign competitors are eager to gain a share of China's fast-growing online industry, the world's second-largest after the United States, with more than 100 million people online.

Google launched last year in an effort to increase its appeal to Chinese Web surfers. The company has a Chinese-language search site based abroad, but users complain that Chinese government filters slow access to it.

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The Chinese government operates what is widely regarded as the world's most sweeping effort to monitor and limit Internet use, with all online traffic passing through state-controlled gateways and filters block access to foreign sites deemed subversive or pornographic.

Web sites in China are required to remove banned content.

Google and other U.S. Internet companies are under criticism from American lawmakers and free-speech advocates for cooperating with such controls. blocks searches for material on human rights, Tibet and other topics banned by the government. Yahoo Inc. (Nasdaq:YHOO - news) has been accused of providing Chinese authorities with information that led to the jailing of two Chinese e-mail users, and Microsoft Corp. shut down the Web log of a Chinese user at the government's request. Network equipment maker Cisco Systems Inc. also has been accused of cooperating with Beijing.

At a hearing last week in Washington, Rep. Tom Lantos (news, bio, voting record) complained to executives of those companies that their actions were a "disgrace."

Technology companies have defended their actions in China, saying they have to obey Chinese law.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Google has no license for China service: newspaper

BEIJING (Reuters) - Internet search giant Google Inc.'s controversial expansion into China now faces possible trouble with regulators after a Beijing newspaper said its new Chinese-language platform does not have a license.

The Beijing News reported on Tuesday that, the company's recently launched service that accommodates the China's censorship demands, "has not obtained the ICP (Internet content provider) license needed to operate Internet content services in China."

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The Ministry of Information Industry, which regulates China's Internet, was "concerned" and investigating the problem, the paper said.

Google has weathered criticism from United States lawmakers, international free speech advocates and Chinese dissidents for abiding by Chinese censors' demands that searches on its new Chinese service block links about sensitive topics, such as Tibet and the 1989 anti-government protests in Tiananmen Square.

A spokesperson for Google told the paper that it shared an ICP license with another, local company, -- a practice followed by many international companies in China, including Yahoo Inc. (Nasdaq:YHOO - news) and eBay Inc..

Usually, foreign investors in Chinese internet services must hand over operation of the service itself to a Chinese partner, with the foreign investor receiving payment for technical support.

The paper said's operations appeared to be different and the name Ganji does not appear in reports about the U.S. company's China activities.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Philippines Landslide Death Toll at 1,800

GUINSAUGON, Philippines - Rescue workers held little hope Saturday of finding more survivors from a devastating landslide that killed an estimated 1,800 people, saying this farming village in the eastern Philippines was swallowed whole by a wall of mud and boulders.

Survivors and others blamed persistent rains and illegal logging for Friday's disaster.

The logging "stopped around 10 years ago," Roger Mercado, a member of Congress who represents the area, told Manila radio station DZBB. "But this is the effect of the logging in the past."

Soldiers were being shuttled to the disaster zone in the shovels of bulldozers that carried them across a shallow stream. With the mud estimated to be 30 feet deep at some points, they were given sketches of the village so they could figure out approximately where the houses used to be.

Lt. Col. Raul Farnacio, the highest-ranking military officer at the scene, estimated the death toll at about 1,800 — nearly every man, woman and child who lived in Guinsaugon, about 400 miles east of the capital, Manila.

"Out of a population of 1,857, we have 57 survivors and 19 bodies," a grim Farnacio said as search efforts resumed Saturday in a drenching rain and high winds that made the task even more miserable. "We presume that more or less that 1,800 are feared dead."

Farnacio said the troops were digging only where they saw clear evidence of bodies because of the danger that the soft, unstable mud could shift and claim new victims.

"We can only focus on the surface," he said. "We cannot go too deep."

Low clouds hung over the area, obscuring the mountain that disintegrated Friday morning after two weeks of heavy rains, covering the village's 375 homes and elementary school. Rescue workers trudged slowly through the sludge, stretchers and ambulances waiting for survivors or the bodies of victims.

The landslide left Guinsaugon, which is on the southern part of Leyte island, looking like a giant patch of newly plowed land. Only a few jumbles of corrugated steel sheeting indicate Guinsaugon ever existed.

"Our village is gone, everything was buried in mud," survivor Eugene Pilo, who lost his family, told local media on Friday. "All the people are gone."

"It sounded like the mountain exploded, and the whole thing crumbled," fellow survivor Dario Libatan, who lost his wife and three children, told DZMM. "I could not see any house standing anymore."

A helicopter pilot, Leo Dimaala, estimated that half the mountain had collapsed Friday morning.

Education officials said 250 pupils and teachers were believed to have been at the elementary school at the time. Only one girl and a woman were rescued alive nearby.

Two other villages also were affected, and about 3,000 evacuees huddled at a municipal hall.

"We did not find injured people," said Ricky Estela, a crewman on a helicopter that flew a politician to the scene. "Most of them are dead and beneath the mud."

Aerial TV footage showed a wide swath of mud alongside stretches of green rice paddies at the foothills of the scarred mountain.

Pat Vendetti, a London-based campaigner with the Greenpeace environmental action group, said that that although logging is illegal in the Philippines, a combination of poor governance and corruption has hampered enforcement of the law.

"There were similar landslides at the end of 2004 and the end of 2003, both directly linked to illegal logging on land above villages, and both in the Philippines," said Vendetti.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies blamed a combination of the weather and the type of trees prevalent in the area.

"The remote coastal area of southern Leyte ... is heavily forested with coconut trees," the Red Cross said from Geneva. "They have shallow roots, which can be easily dislodged after heavy rains, causing the land to become unstable."

Southern Leyte province Gov. Rosette Lerias said many residents evacuated the area last week because of the threat of landslides or flooding, but had started returning home during increasingly sunny days, with the rains limited to evening downpours.

Even before the landslide, "trees were sliding down upright with the mud," Lerias said.

On Friday, rescue workers put a child on a stretcher, with little more than the girl's eyes showing through a covering of mud.

Army Capt. Edmund Abella said he and about 30 soldiers were wading through waist-deep mud.

"It's very difficult, we're digging by hand, the place is so vast and the mud is so thick," Abella told The Associated Press by cell phone. "When we try to walk, we get stuck in the mud."

He said the troops had just rescued a 43-year-old woman.

"She was crying and looking for her three nephews, but they were nowhere to be found," Abella said.

"Help is on the way," President
Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said in televised remarks. "It will come from land, sea and air."

The Philippine Red Cross had 14 people on the ground dealing with rescue efforts and the recovery of bodies. More staff and trained volunteers were being sent to the region, along with dog rescue teams.

A relief plane was flying from Manila carrying 1,000 body bags, emergency trauma kits to help 1,000 people, rubber boots, ropes, clothing, flashlights and medicine.

The international Red Cross launched an emergency appeal for $1.5 million for relief operations. The funds will be used for buying temporary shelter materials and other emergency health and cooking items.

The U.S. military dispatched at least two warships and other forces to the scene to provide medical assistance and other relief.

Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Brian Maka, said that in response to a Philippine government request, the U.S. military was dispatching the USS Essex and the USS Harper's Ferry, and possibly other ships. He said Army and Marine Corps ground forces that happened to be in the Philippines also were available to help.

The United States also is sending money requested by the Philippine government to help pay for search and rescue operations, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said. He did not say how much would be sent.

"We will continue to coordinate our response efforts with the government of the Philippines and look for ways to best support them in this hour of need," Duffy told reporters traveling on Air Force One to Florida with
President Bush.

Last weekend, seven road construction workers died in a landslide after falling into a 150-foot deep ravine in the mountain town of Sogod on Leyte.

In 1991, about 6,000 people were killed on Leyte in floods and landslides triggered by a tropical storm. Another 133 people died in floods and mudslides there in 2003.

In 1944, the waters off Leyte island became the scene of the biggest naval battle in history, when U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur fulfilled his famed vow "I shall return" and routed Japanese forces occupying the Philippines.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Vodafone and Google to work on mobile searches

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's Vodafone Group Plc said on Tuesday it and Internet company Google Inc were to develop mobile search services for the mobile phone company's customers.

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Vodafone said in a statement it would integrate Google's search capability into its consumer service, Vodafone live!.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Google, Skype in Startup to Link Hotspots

NEW YORK - Google Inc. and eBay Inc.'s Skype are investing in a startup that plans to help hotspot owners charge for Wi-Fi access, a plan that could face significant opposition from Internet service providers.

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The Internet heavyweights were joined by venture capital firms Index Ventures and Sequoia Capital in making a $22 million investment in FON, the Spanish startup. In its announcement Sunday, FON did not say how much each investor was contributing.

FON's idea, floated just three months ago in a Web posting by founder Martin Varsavsky, is to sign up people who have Wi-Fi hotspots in one of two ways.

"Linus" members, named after
Linus Torvalds, who created the freely distributed
Linux software, will share their hotspot with other Linus members for free.

"Bill" members, named after Microsoft Corp. founder
Bill Gates, will charge for access to their hotspot. FON will get some of that revenue, and share it with Internet service providers, or ISPs.

The network has gained 3,000 Linus members since going live in November. There is no software yet for Bill members, but Varsavsky expects it to be ready within four months. Linus software is so far only available for Wi-Fi routers from Linksys, a division of Cisco Systems Inc.

FON faces a hurdle in that most ISPs prohibit subscribers from sharing internet access with people outside their household. Many broadband subscribers share their access now for free, though, and it's hard for Internet service providers to stop them.

Traffic from a FON-connected hotspot would be easy for an ISP to identify, said Glen Fleishman, editor of the Wi-Fi Networking News site, because users have to authenticate themselves at a FON server.

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Varsavsky wants to partner with ISPs to get them to allow their subscribers to set up FON hotspots. It has signed up a Swedish ISP, Glocalnet, and is in discussions with U.S. companies.

To win over the ISPs, Varsavsky points out that Linus members need Internet service to be Linus members.

"So in fact, FON is an incentive to become a customer of an ISP," he said.

Mark Harrad, a spokesman at Time Warner Cable, said the company was not aware of FON's plans. Its terms of service prohibit its 4.8 million residential broadband subscribers from sharing their connection outside the household.

Representatives at Google did not return messages seeking comment on the search engine's investment in FON.

Skype's Internet telephone service works over wireless connections, and a cell-phone-like device is in the works to take advantage of that fact.

"FON has a great idea to help people share Wi-Fi with one another to build a global unified broadband network, and were happy to lend support," Skype Chief Executive Niklas Zennstrom said in a statement.

FON's idea is not entirely novel — in fact, several companies and associations have tried to tie together free Wi-Fi hotspots into networks, but none has succeeded on a large scale.

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"The problem with all these free projects is that they fail because everybody wants to be a freeloader and nobody wants to provide Wi-Fi," said Varsavsky. FON, on the other hand, demands reciprocal sharing from its Linus users.

There are also commercial Wi-Fi networks built by T-Mobile USA and Boingo Wireless Inc. with hotspots in more than 50,000 locations. Varsavsky hopes to have a much larger network by the end of the year because FON doesn't have to create the hotspots by itself.

Fleishman said FON has a chance to reach a critical mass of users, but it will be competing with free or low-cost municipal Wi-Fi networks in several cities. Google has itself offered to build a free Wi-Fi network to cover San Francisco.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Review: Google Store Rough Around Edges

When a high-tech company slaps the word "beta" on a product, it's usually a sign the product isn't quite ready for prime time yet is far enough to get a good sense of what it will become.

Google Inc. regularly releases fairly advanced services that it dubs beta. So when it opened its highly anticipated Google Video Store last week, expectations were high.

But this time, Google really means beta.

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In the first days of its release, the online store is unusually rough around the edges. So far, it doesn't have much premium content, the quality is hit or miss and the interface could be better.

That said, there are some promising elements, including an architecture that has the potential to allow anyone with a video camera to post a creation and choose whether to make it available for free, a one-time charge or a one-day rental fee. Rates are determined by the content owner, not Google.

Though only a select few can do this right now, the implications could be huge once more people have access to the feature, which Google expects to be available in a few weeks.

Think of a vast online bazaar for video where an aspiring videographer or filmmaker could easily get a feel for what the market thinks of his or her talent. Google charges nothing for storage or bandwidth, though it takes 30 percent of any sales.

That, however, is for the future.

As it stands, the service at has a way to go before it will come close to its potential.

The problem is particularly striking when compared to Apple Computer Inc.'s well designed iTunes store, which last year kicked off Silicon Valley's latest sport of signing up networks, studios and other content providers for paid, Internet-based entertainment services.

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Apple also suffers from a dearth of content, though it's added a smattering of NBC shows to its previous handful of ABC programming that can be viewed on a video-capable iPod, a
Macintosh or PC. It's also got thousands of music videos and an endless supply of free video podcasts.

Google lets users browse through videos within their Web browsers, displaying brief previews that are often, annoyingly, no more than a show's opening tune.

Purchased video that's locked down by the provider can be viewed only on an Internet-connected Windows PC using Google software, not a portable player or a Mac.

(If the provider opts not to protect the video or gives it away for free, it can be moved — easily, as a matter of fact — to a portable and played on a Mac.)

Another drawback at this early stage is the content itself.

During the unveiling of the store earlier this month, Google co-founder Larry Page highlighted deals the company struck for premium content with CBS, the National Basketball Association and others.

CBS' prime time offerings on Google currently include one episode of "CSI," one episode of "NCIS" and 15 episodes of "Survivor: Guatemala." Each show is $1.99.

Classic episodes of seven CBS-controlled series also are available. "I Love Lucy" has 16 shows, "Star Trek: Voyager" has five and "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" has twice that many. "The Brady Bunch" has 16 — all from before Greg Brady's hair got curly.

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The selection will surely grow, but there's also the issue of finding what you're looking for.

Unlike Google's other sites, the search box isn't terribly useful. That's likely because whoever uploaded the video didn't provide the right text for the search engine to index.

Far more reliable is a dropdown menu that lists a number of categories, including popular CBS shows, movies, music videos and NBA games. Trouble is, that handy menu only appears on the front page. The service would be a lot easier to use if it appeared on every page.

There's also a link to view random selections. It returns 15 thumbnails at a time, but for some reason the price doesn't appear in the grid.

I decided to purchase an early "Brady Bunch" episode that highlighted the awkwardness of joining the two families. It wasn't the only awkwardness on my PC that evening.

I clicked on the link to purchase the show and typed in my credit card number. At one point, the "submit" button was hidden because the scroll bars failed to appear in my Web browser. After hitting refresh a few times, it finally showed up.

The next step required to me to sign into my Google account, which I was already logged into. I retyped my information but the system said the password was invalid. It finally worked after a dozen tries and I was finally invited to download the Google Video Player.

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In its default size, the video quality wasn't bad for a 30-something-year-old TV show. But when I blew it up to full screen, the video was noticeably blotchy — much more so than videos that I have played from Apple's iTunes.

A few days later, I bought and downloaded the movie "Teenagers from Outer Space" without a problem, though the audio was marred by a high-pitched whine from start to finish and the video quality was as disappointing as the plot and the acting.

In the world of the Google Video Store, it's up to the content providers to assure quality. As for the user interface and purchasing problems, well, it's still a beta.

This one probably should have stayed in the lab a bit longer.