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.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Apple Presents New Macs Using Intel Chips

SAN FRANCISCO - Apple Computer Inc.'s historic shift to Intel microprocessors came months earlier than expected as CEO Steve Jobs debuted personal computers based on new two-brained chips from the world's largest semiconductor company.

The company's stock shot to a 52-week high as Tuesday's news coincided with word on impressive holiday sales numbers for Apple's hugely popular iPod music players.

The first Macs to deploy Intel Corp.'s Core Duo processors will be the latest iMac desktop, whose circuitry is all built into the slim display, and the all-new MacBook Pro laptop.

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When it announced the massive switch in June, Apple said it expected to begin making the transition by mid-2006. On Tuesday, Jobs was joined at the Macworld Expo by Intel chief executive Paul Otellini to unveil the new jointly designed computers.

The shift comes as Apple is on a tear with its iPod players and iTunes Music Store. The company had a record $5.7 billion in sales during the holiday quarter as it sold 14 million iPods — nearly three times as many as it did in the same period a year ago. Apple to date has sold more than 850 million songs and 8 million videos at its online store.

But Tuesday's focus was on Apple's Macintosh computers, and the repercussions could be enormous for other major industry players including Microsoft Corp.

For one, Apple erased concerns that its Macs lag behind Windows-based PCs in performance. Jobs said Apple's entire Mac line will be converted to Intel by the end of this calendar year — a move analysts say could boost Apple's computer sales, which cracked 4 percent of the U.S. market last year after hovering around 3 percent.

"Companies don't typically under promise and over deliver, and that's exactly what Apple has done," Sam Bhavnani, analyst with Current Analysis, said of the early launch.

For years, Apple shunned Intel, which has provided chips that power a majority of the world's PCs along with Microsoft's Windows. In the late 1990s, Apple even ran TV ads with a Pentium II glued to a snail.

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But Apple, looking for faster, more energy-efficient chips, became increasingly frustrated in recent years as its chip suppliers, IBM Corp. and Motorola Corp.'s spinoff, Freescale Semiconductor Inc., failed to meet its needs.

Of particular concern was IBM's apparent inability to develop a G5 chip that would work well in notebook computers.

Intel, on the other hand, has been focusing on developing chips specifically tailored for notebooks. In 2003, it launched its Centrino notebook technology with a processor that boosted battery life by minimizing its power demand without hurting performance much.

During last week's International Consumer Electronics Show, Intel unveiled the latest generation, the Core Duo, which features two computing engines on a single piece of silicon.

It was that chip that the Apple decided to fit into the new iMacs and MacBooks.

Though the change to Intel has occurred faster than expected, it still poses some risks.

Besides potentially alienating a fan base that's accustomed to doing things differently, Apple's move opens up the issue of backward compatibility and the possibility that PC users might run pirated versions of Mac OS X, Apple's critically acclaimed operating system, on their generally cheaper non-Apple computers.

Jobs demonstrated new software, called Rosetta, that will let owners of the new Intel-based Macs run older applications. But he did not comment on how the company will lock its operating system to its hardware.

With Intel processors inside the new Macs, their owners could choose to run Windows and software designed for it at full speed.

Though Windows sales could benefit, Microsoft risks losing ground unless its operating systems keep up with the Mac OS X. Windows Vista, the next major update, won't be available until later this year — and its promised features copy many of those already in Mac OS X.

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The change does not, however, appear to have alienated Microsoft, which offers a Mac version of its popular Office productivity suite.

"We're formalizing our commitment to this platform," said Roz Ho, general manager of the Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit. "We'll continue shipping Office (for the) Mac for a minimum of five years."

The new iMacs will have the same all-in-one design and screen sizes as the previous models, with prices ranging remaining steady at $1,299 for the 17-inch model and $1,699 for the 20-inch computer. Jobs claimed the new models are two to three times faster than the iMac G5, based on an IBM chip.

"With Mac OS X plus Intel's latest dual-core processor under the hood, the new iMac delivers performance that will knock our customers' socks off," said Jobs.

The MacBook Pros — with 15.4-inch displays — start at $1,999. Jobs touted it as the thinnest and fastest operating laptop in Apple's portfolio.

All the new computers will include Apple's Front Row software and a remote control, which lets users watch videos, listen to music or browse photos from across a room.

The machines also will be bundled with Apple's newly announced iLife '06 suite of digital lifestyle programs. In one of the updates, the latest version of iPhoto will let Mac shutterbugs share pictures much like bloggers, and podcasters share content.

"This is podcasting for photos," Jobs said.

With a few clicks, users can post an online feed to which others — including Windows users — can subscribe. As changes are made to the album, subscribers automatically receive the updates.

The iLife suite also will enable the one-click export of video to iPods as well as a simple, drag-and-drop method of creating DVDs. The program also will support third-party DVD burners. Another iLife program, iWeb, helps users build Web sites.

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Shares of Apple closed at $80.86, up $4.81, or 6.3 percent, on the Nasdaq Stock Market. Shares of Intel fell 35 cents, to $26.12.

Monday, January 09, 2006

'Hostel' Terrorizes Box Office Rivals

LOS ANGELES - The weekend box office was sheer torture as the bloody "Hostel," a tale of buddies who stumble into a den of violent depravity, debuted at No. 1 with $20.1 million.

Lionsgate's "Hostel" bumped off the previous weekend's No. 1 film, Disney's "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," which came in second with $15.4 million to lift its domestic total to $247.6 million, according to studio estimates Sunday.

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Universal's "King Kong" was third with $12.5 million, raising its domestic total to $192.5 million.

The weekend's only other new wide release, 20th Century Fox's "Grandma's Boy," flopped with just $2.9 million. The comedy from Adam Sandler's production company stars Allen Covert as a video-game tester forced to move in with his grandmother.

After a slump that saw movie attendance fall 7 percent in 2005, Hollywood was off to a good start this year. The top 12 movies grossed $106.7 million, up 9 percent from the same weekend a year ago.

"Hostel" follows two Americans ( Jay Hernandez and Derek Richardson) whose European pleasure jaunt turns nightmarish when they end up captives in a chamber of torture after a brothel visit.

"The track record of horror films tells you maybe Hollywood should just release horror movies to be successful. I can't think of a more consistently performing genre at the box office," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations.

Though it was approaching the $200 million mark domestically, "King Kong" continued to perform below industry expectations. Hollywood had pegged the epic remake from "The Lord of the Rings" mastermind Peter Jackson as a potential billion-dollar smash worldwide.

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Still, "King Kong" was climbing steadily internationally, its worldwide total hitting $464.5 million. "King Kong" is expected to top out in the $600 million range worldwide.

Expanding to more theaters in anticipation of Academy Awards season, Focus Features' acclaimed "Brokeback Mountain" finished at No. 9 with $5.75 million, raising its total to $22.5 million.

Playing in 484 theaters, up about 200 from the previous weekend, "Brokeback Mountain" averaged a healthy $11,881 a cinema, compared to $9,157 in 2,195 theaters for "Hostel."

"Brokeback Mountain" seems to be dashing speculation that its subject matter — a homosexual romance between two old sheepherding pals — would turn off audiences outside of urban markets.

"We're very squarely in middle America, all the way to Duluth, Minn., Portland, Maine, El Paso, Tulsa, Wichita. We're in the heartland," said Jack Foley, head of distribution for Focus Features. "I think that's no longer the real issue. The real issue is how much the film is being seen by people all over the country."

"Brokeback Mountain" star Heath Ledger had a second film expanding to wider release, Disney's "Casanova," in which he plays the legendary womanizer. "Casanova" went into 1,004 theaters, up from 37, and took in $4 million for an average of $3,998 a cinema.

Also doing well as it expanded to wider release was DreamWorks' "Match Point," Woody Allen's tale of infidelity that stars Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Scarlett Johannson and Emily Mortimer.

"Match Point" widened to 304 theaters, up from eight the previous weekend, and took in $2.8 million for an average of $9,243 a cinema.

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. Final figures will be released Monday.

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1. "Hostel," $20.1 million.

2. "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," $15.4 million.

3. "King Kong," $12.5 million.

4. "Fun With Dick and Jane," $12.2 million.

5. "Cheaper by the Dozen 2," $8.3 million.

6. "Munich," $7.5 million.

7. "Memoirs of a Geisha," $6 million.

8. "Rumor Has It," $5.9 million

9. "Brokeback Mountain," $5.75 million.

10. "The Family Stone," $4.6 million.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Windows-Based Treo Smartphone Arrives

LAS VEGAS - Palm Inc.'s newest Treo smartphone is its first based on Microsoft Corp.'s Windows, but the pioneering handheld maker adds plenty of distinct touches of its own.

The Treo 700w, available on the Verizon Wireless cellular service starting Thursday, also integrates access to Verizon's high-speed EV-DO data network.

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While the original Treos — based on the Palm operating system — helped define the smartphone category, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Palm hopes the new Windows-based model will expand its reach into the lucrative market of corporate users.

"IT managers in big corporations were saying they've standardized their platforms on Microsoft, and no matter what we did on the Palm OS, they just weren't going to use them," said Ken Wirt, Palm's senior vice president of worldwide marketing. "By doing one on Windows, we're addressing a bigger market."

Features such as accessing e-mail or phone contacts, for instance, becomes a smoother process because the Treo 700w now could work directly with businesses' servers that use Microsoft's Outlook mail program.

That also poses an increasing challenge to Research in Motion Ltd., the maker of the BlackBerry wireless e-mail device and gadgets that add phone functionality to wireless messaging.

Smartphones, which combine voice, data and wireless messaging capabilities, have been gaining in popularity and are seen as the wave of the future as they become more powerful and better equipped to handle functions previously reserved for laptops.

Microsoft's Windows platform for mobile devices, which analysts say does a better job than the Palm operating system when it comes to handling multimedia and intensive data applications, has steadily seized market share away from the once-dominant PalmOS provider PalmSource Inc.

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In 2000, Microsoft had only about 11 percent of the handheld market. Now the Redmond, Wash.-based company has overtaken PalmSource, according to Gartner Inc. market research firm.

In the second quarter of 2005, about 560,000 smartphones equipped with Windows were shipped worldwide. Phones featuring PalmOS numbered 480,000.

Palm was careful to not make the Treo 700w simply a clone of other Microsoft-based handhelds, however.

Though Palm's groundbreaking deal to use Windows was announced in September, the two companies had been collaborating for more than two years, in part to negotiate how much leeway Palm would have to incorporate its own features on top of the Microsoft platform.

"We said we didn't want it unless we can make modifications," Wirt said.

For one, Palm made Microsoft's rival Google the default engine for Web searches on the Treo 700w.

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Some of the distinguishing features are entirely new to the Treo line, while some are enhancements of features already found on the regular Treo, a device touted for its one-handed ease-of-use.

Those features include the ability to "dial by name" with just a few button clicks; one-touch dialing with personalized photo speed-dial icons; accessing voicemail with quick VCR-like icons to fast forward or delete; and the ability to store and quickly send preprogrammed short text messages, such as "Can't talk right now," when you're ignoring a phone call.

Business customers have sought a Windows-based Treo for years but Palm rightfully had to reach a decision of how they could add value on their own, said Creative Strategies analyst Tim Bajarin. "Once they got the OK to innovate, that's when they thought they could create a product that was compelling."

The new Treo "will be good for Palm's entire business," Bajarin predicted.

The Treo 700w costs $399.99 after a $100 instant rebate with a two-year service agreement.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Annual Gadget Show Is Biggest Ever

Do you want to catch "Saturday Night Live" on Sunday, or "Nightline" in the morning? Would you like to watch the football game in a doctor's waiting room or 2,000 miles from home?


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Or, what if you're suddenly in the mood for an old episode of "Dragnet" or one of last year's hit films?

Technology makes all this "time-shifting" possible now, usually with a few button clicks. There's just a question of who will prevail in delivering the products and services that will win over consumers and their changing couch-potato propensities with new standards of convenience and mobility.

That battle for consumer dollars and eyeballs will hit a feverish pitch at the International Consumer Electronics Show, which kicks off Wednesday.

The five-day annual event in Las Vegas, the mother of all tech trade shows, is bigger than ever before. It will consume 28 football fields of space as 2,500 exhibitors ranging from Internet powerhouses like Yahoo Inc. (Nasdaq:YHOO - news) to little-known gizmo makers cast their bets on what they hope will be the next big trends in electronics.

Judging from the latest jockeying, video is one of them.

Yahoo and rival Google Inc. will make their CES debuts with keynote speeches, muscling their way into the high-stakes battle already begun by computing stalwarts, consumer electronics giants and telecommunications companies to push digital media deeper into homes.

With the Web poised to become an increasingly dominant distribution method for movies and television, the Internet giants, along with Microsoft Corp.'s MSN, could very well be the ABC, NBC and CBS networks of the digital age, said Tim Bajarin, an industry analyst with Creative Strategies.

"If they get it right," Bajarin said, "Google, Yahoo and MSN will be the digital portals for video content."

Hollywood, which is now experimenting with more online delivery services, is taking notice.

In fact, nearly 40 percent of TV network executives surveyed recently by IBM Corp.'s business consulting service said they feared major competition from Internet portals in the next five to seven years.

"The power of the Internet players, and the investments they're making in video, is a threat in and of itself," said Saul Berman, author of an upcoming report based on that survey and a partner in IBM's media and entertainment consultancy.

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Yahoo officials refused to disclose details about the company's announcements at CES, but it's no secret the company has been aiming to strengthen its position as a provider of all kinds of Internet-related services.

The newest challenge is, "how do we now expand Yahoo's reach beyond the browser into other devices?" said Marco Boerries, senior vice president of the company's "Connected Life" division.

TVs, a longtime anchor of the consumer electronics industry, will undoubtedly be part of the equation. The sets themselves and related video products such as VCRs and DVD players accounted for almost a fifth of the record-high $126 billion in electronics sales estimated in 2005 in the United States by the Consumer Electronics Association.

What's more important, TVs are a ubiquitous household item: the cherished conduit for broadcast, cable or satellite programming, movies and video games. And if all goes as many tech companies want, they will also one day become popular vehicles for accessing photos, videos and music stored on a home computer network, or other online content.

Tech titans like Microsoft and Intel Corp. are banking on it.

At CES, Intel will showcase its newest dual-core chip technologies designed to make playing digital media — whether from a computer laptop or a newfangled set-top-box — as easy as possible for users.

Microsoft is expected to provide further details on how it is making its Windows software a convenient platform for digital media on not only computers, but also media servers, mobile phones, portable players and its new Xbox 360 game console.

TV isn't confined to the latest and greatest big screens, either — even though flashy flat-panels will be heavily showcased at the electronics extravaganza. Nowadays, cell phones, laptops and portable media players could all serve as television screens as well.

Plenty of new portable products designed to capitalize on the video trend will be highlighted at CES. Startup Sling Media Inc., which makes a machine that lets users watch their own TV — cable, satellite, or even recorded TiVo shows — on Internet-connected gadgets, will show how its service will soon be able to stream live TV to cell phones, handheld organizers or portable players powered by Microsoft's mobile software.

Meanwhile, telecom giant AT&T Inc. will highlight a new set-top-box that will deliver video-on-demand programming from a satellite source, caller ID, as well as Yahoo-based Internet content — all via a television and a remote control.

"We'll see a lot of new ways to get content to the consumer at CES," Berman said. "Everyone is trying to find ways of reaching that huge, segmented audience."