Saturday, January 31, 2009

When you watch these ads, the ads check you

Watch an advertisement on a video screen in a mall, health club or grocery store and there's a slim — but growing — chance the ad is watching you too.


Small cameras can now be embedded in the screen or hidden around it, tracking who looks at the screen and for how long. The makers of the tracking systems say the software can determine the viewer's gender, approximate age range and, in some cases, ethnicity — and can change the ads accordingly.

That could mean razor ads for men, cosmetics ads for women and video-game ads for teens.

And even if the ads don't shift based on which people are watching, the technology's ability to determine the viewers' demographics is golden for advertisers who want to know how effectively they're reaching their target audience.

While the technology remains in limited use for now, advertising industry analysts say it is finally beginning to live up to its promise. The manufacturers say their systems can accurately determine gender 85 to 90 percent of the time, while accuracy for the other measures continues to be refined.

The concept is reminiscent of the science-fiction movie "Minority Report," in which Tom Cruise's character enters a mall and finds that retinal scanners identify him and prompt personalized ads that greet him by name.

But this technology doesn't go nearly that far. It doesn't identify people individually — it simply categorizes them by outward appearances.

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So a video screen might show a motorcycle ad for a group of men, but switch to a minivan ad when women and children join them, said Vicki Rabenou, the chief measurement officer of Tampa, Fla.-based TruMedia Technologies Inc., one of the leaders in developing the technology.

"This is proactive merchandising," Rabenou said. "You're targeting people with smart ads."

Because the tracking industry is still in its infancy, there isn't yet consensus on how to refer to the technology. Some call it face reading, face counting, gaze tracking or, more generally, face-based audience measurement.

Whatever it's called, advertisers are finally ready to try it, said advertising consultant Jack Sullivan, a senior vice president of Starcom USA in Chicago. "I think you're going to see a lot of movement toward it by the end of this year in the top 10 markets," he said.

Because face tracking might feel reminiscent of Big Brother, manufacturers are racing to offer reassurances. When the systems capture an image of who's watching the screen, a computer instantly analyzes it. The systems' manufacturers insist, however, that nothing is ever stored and no identifying information is ever associated with the pictures. That makes the system less intrusive than a surveillance camera that records what it sees, the developers say.

The idea still worries Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil-liberties group in San Francisco. Tien said it's not enough to say some system is "not as bad as some other technology," and argues that cameras that study people contribute to an erosion of privacy.

In general, the tracking systems work like this: A sensor or camera in or near the screen identifies viewers' faces by picking up shapes, colors and the relative speed of movement. The concept is similar to the way consumer cameras now can automatically make sure faces are in focus.

When the ad system pinpoints a face, it compares shapes and patterns to faces that are already identified in a database as male or female. That lets the system predict the person's gender almost immediately.

"The most important features seem to be cheekbones, fullness of lips and the gap between the eyebrows," said Paolo Prandoni, chief scientific officer of Quividi, a French company that is another player in face-tracking technology. Others include Studio IMC Inc. in New York.

The companies say their systems have become adept at determining a viewer's gender, but age is trickier: The software can categorize age only in broad ranges — teens, younger to middle-aged folks and seniors. There's moderate demand for ads based on ethnic information, but the companies acknowledge that determining ethnicity is more challenging than figuring out gender and age range.

Prandoni provided The Associated Press a limited version of Quividi's software, which uses an ordinary webcam to stream video to a computer. The trial version tracked gender only, using color-coded circles to distinguish male and female faces.

The sample size was too small to be statistically significant, but it was accurate about 80 to 90 percent of the time.

That might be as precise as the systems ever get, said Deborah Mitchell, a professor of consumer psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Even the human brain can't always determine gender, age or ethnicity.

Still, "even if it gets to 70 percent accuracy, that's still giving you a wealth of information," said Mitchell, who teaches in the Wisconsin School of Business.

That information is certainly valuable to Bill Ketcham, the chief marketing officer of Adspace Networks Inc. His New York company sells video advertising on 1,400 video screens at 105 malls around the nation.

Adspace is testing six TruMedia systems at malls in Winston-Salem, N.C., Pittsburgh and St. Louis. The kiosks display a daily list of top 10 sales at the mall, as well as paid advertising that comes largely from movie studios and TV networks.

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A 15-second video ad that replays across Adspace's national network can cost as much as $765,000 per month. So advertisers expect rigorous information about who sees the spots — information that face tracking can now provide, Ketcham said.

For now, at least, Adspace isn't changing the ads based on who's watching — Ketcham said the kiosks' audiences are so large that it wouldn't be practical to personalize ads to individuals.

While advertisers like the face-tracking technology, another privacy advocate, Harley Geiger, questions whether it should be used on consumers without their knowledge. Geiger, staff counsel for the Center for Democracy & Technology in Washington, D.C., said advertisers should be telling consumers what details about them are being collected and for what purpose.

"With the technology proliferating, now or the short-term is the time to consider privacy protections," he said. "If you don't build it in at an early stage it becomes very difficult to build it into an already established system."

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

IE8 Release Candidate 1 Has New Security Features

Even as the tech world continues to test Windows 7 beta -- and compare it to Vista -- Microsoft has released Internet Explorer 8 Release Candidate 1 (RC1).

Much has changed since the second beta version of Microsoft's Internet browser. The browser is complete with reliability, performance and compatibility improvements, and there are new security features.

Microsoft said the technical community should expect the final IE8 release to behave as RC1 does. That means IE8 is effectively complete, but the company will continue to review feedback on critical issues.

Reviewing the Changes

On the reliability, performance and compatibility front, Microsoft studied feedback and addressed several issues. The company also worked closely with the security community on clickjacking protection.

According to Dean Hachamovitch, a general manager at Microsoft, Web sites can now protect themselves and their users from clickjacking attacks "out of the box," without impacting compatibility or requiring browser add-ons.

Microsoft also made some changes to the InPrivate feature and the user experience based on feedback. For example, based on data about how people use actually the browser, Microsoft made fitting more items on the Favorites bar easier.

"IE8 focused on how people really use the Web. Consumers want a browser that makes the tasks they do every day faster and easier. The activities people spend their time on define real-world performance: Navigating to Web sites, working with tabs, searching, keeping track of changing information (like traffic or an auction), and using the information from one site with another (as in getting a map)," Hachamovitch said.

"Everyone wants a trustworthy browser that keeps them in control and protects their safety," he said. "Developers want great developer tools, great interoperability, and a powerful platform that enables them to innovate. For some people, accessibility is crucial; for some organizations, policy, administration and deployment are essential."

A Focus on Privacy

Two privacy features -- InPrivate Filtering and InPrivate Browsing -- stand out most to Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT. InPrivate Filtering prevents content providers from gathering information to create a three-dimensional view of users' browsing habits. Private Browsing is a security feature that prevents somebody who has physical access to a PC from seeing what sites users have visited.

"Where you visit on the Web is as much your business as the books you pull off the shelf at the public library. Is it appropriate for someone to be looking over your shoulder? There would be people who say it is. I've spoken with business owners who believe the online browsing habits of their employees are their business," King said. "But it's a fine line, and I think it's notable that Microsoft has addressed that."

InPrivate Filtering, he added, enlarges the user's circle of privacy. It's a subject that King feels is going to become more important over time because search engines are "not particularly open" about the length of time they keep user data or what they do with it.

"Microsoft deserves a pat on the back," King said. "The InPrivate features really do relate to issues that many consumers think about and are concerned about, but in some cases those concerns have been ignored or pooh-poohed by other vendors."

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Others could follow Google's move to reset options

Google Inc. is showing its love for its employees by giving them a second chance to profit from their wilting stock options. But the move irked shareholders still stuck with agonizing losses on their investments.

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Nevertheless, Google's willingness to reset more than 8 million stock options at lower prices is likely to spur similar gestures by companies hoping to motivate their employees during a demoralizing recession.

"There is a lot of momentum building" to reprice stock options, said Alexander Cwirko-Godycki, a research manager for executive compensation specialist Equilar. "Everyone has just been sort of waiting for a big name to do it."

Google already has been joined by coffee chain Starbucks Corp., which unveiled a proposal to allow its employees to swap their existing stock options for new ones that will be more likely to put cash in their pockets.

But Google's repricing program made a bigger splash because it's far more generous to the employees — much to the dismay of the shareholders who have seen their holdings in the Internet search leader plunge by 57 percent, or a collective $130 billion, since the stock peaked at $747 per share in 2007.

Google shares surged $18.20, or nearly 6 percent, to close Friday at $324.70 as investors cheered the company's fourth-quarter earnings report. But analysts said the rally probably would have been even more robust if not for the decision to reprice the stock options.

"A lot of people just hate it," said Broadpoint AmTech analyst Rob Sanderson. "I had one money manager tell me, `The next time you talk to Google's management, tell them I want all the stock I bought at $400 a few months ago to be repriced at $285.'"

Understanding the angst triggered by option repricing requires an explanation on how the perquisites work.

Employees at thousands of companies generally receive a bundle of stock options when they are hired, and frequently receive additional grants in subsequent years.

The options are assigned what is known as an "exercise price" — the employee's cost for cashing in the reward. This price typically equals the stock's price at the time of the grant.

The more a company's stock price rises above the option price, the higher the profit for employees. The idea is to inspire workers to put in longer hours and come up with better ideas — to increase the company's value and the employees' potential windfall.

But if a stock price plunges below the option price — a phenomenon known as being "underwater" — employees can become dejected, distracted and perhaps even tempted to entertain other job offers, especially if a large portion of the compensation comes in the form of options.

The problem of underwater options faces 72 percent of the companies in the Fortune 500, based on Equilar's analysis of average exercise prices in mid-December.

Google's work force is awash in underwater options: Nearly 17,000 employees are holding more than 8 million stock options with an exercise price of at least $400.

Those are the options likely to be exchanged in a program running from Jan. 29 through March 3. The new options are expected to have an exercise price tied to the market value of Google's stock in early March.

Even though the repricing will result in $460 million in accounting charges, Google reasoned the cost is acceptable, to avoid morale and retention problems among its 20,222 workers. Since its inception in 1998, Google has given options to virtually all of its employees, turning thousands of them into multimillionaires.

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"We think it's a good deal for shareholders and for our employees as well," Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt said Thursday.

Even though it has been cutting back on some perks, Google is still renowned for pampering employees — a trait that isn't widely shared. That's why Sanderson isn't convinced Google's repricing will cause other companies to follow suit.

"Google gives away free lunches to employees, but that didn't compel everyone else to do it," he said.

Did Google even need to be so magnanimous at a time when many people are simply happy to have a job?

"While we agree with management that it is in shareholders' interests to keep Google employees motivated and retain the company's focus on growth, we question the necessity of the (repricing) program given the current employment environment," ThinkEquity analyst William Morrison wrote in a research report.

On the flip side, it could still be smart business to feel make workers feel wanted — even as millions of other people are unemployed.

"The reality is that talented people will always be able to find another job in any market," Sanderson said. "And if you lose your intellectual capital, you could be losing the future of the company."

Hoping to hold on to its employees, Google is extending the vesting period for each swapped option by a full year. Vesting refers to the time that must lapse before an option can be exercised. So a Google employee with an underwater option that vests in June 2010 would have to wait until June 2011 to exercise a repriced option.

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Sanderson and Morrison both agree that Google could have lessened the backlash against its repricing by coming up with a program that didn't sting its shareholders as much.

Besides raising issues of fairness, Google's program threatens to lower future earnings per share by creating the need to issue more outstanding stock when the options are cashed in.

Google could have lessened the dilution experienced by its shareholders if it required employees to exchange anywhere from four to 10 of their current options for a repriced option. Or they could have traded for a share of restricted stock that would vest over several years.

It will probably take a few years before any definitive conclusions can be made about the wisdom of Google's repricing, said Collins Stewart analyst Sandeep Aggarwal.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Samsung Electronics reports first quarterly loss

SEOUL, South Korea - Samsung Electronics, the world's largest manufacturer of flat screen televisions, memory chips and liquid crystal displays, posted its first ever quarterly loss Friday as the global economic slump hit prices and demand for mainstay products.

Samsung lost 20 billion won ($14.4 million) in the three months ended Dec. 31, the company said. Samsung posted 2.21 trillion won in net profit a year earlier.

The net loss — Samsung's first since the company began reporting results on a quarterly basis in the third quarter of 2000 — underlines the challenges facing electronics companies worldwide as major economies flounder in recession.

The Suwon, South Korea-based company has struggled with falling prices for chips and flat screens, as well as the waning consumer appetite that has hit other Asian electronics manufacturers including Japanese giant Sony Corp.

On Thursday, Sony projected its first annual loss in 14 years, while South Korea's LG Electronics Inc. reported a record quarterly net loss. Japan's Panasonic Corp. said earlier this month it would slash about $1.5 billion from its planned investment in two new flat-screen TV plants and shut down unprofitable businesses.

Samsung's results showed that "our company could not escape the rapid decline in the global economy," Robert Yi, vice president for investor relations, told a conference call.

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The result was not as bad as the net loss of 92.93 billion won forecast by an Associated Press survey of 10 analysts. But on an operating basis, the company racked up red ink to the tune of 940 billion won, much worse than the forecast of a loss of 319 billion won. That loss was also a first.

Operating earnings are seen as a direct indicator of core business performance while net profit or loss also reflects taxes, dividends, asset sales and other items.

"The global economic slowdown had an adverse effect on consumer purchases of electronics goods in the fourth quarter, traditionally a strong period for electronics companies," Samsung said in the release.

Fourth quarter sales rose to 18.45 trillion won from 17.48 trillion won the year before, but less than the 20 trillion won expected by analysts.

Samsung shares fell 4.1 percent to close at 442,000 won.

On the bright side, Samsung said mobile phone sales rose to a record during the quarter despite a 5 percent contraction in the global market for handsets. The company, the world's No. 2 mobile phone manufacturer, sold about 200 million handsets in 2008, an increase of 22 percent from 2007.

The handset market in developed economies such as the United States and Europe will decline by 10 percent or more in 2009 to about what it was in 2004, Chi Young-cho, senior vice president of strategic planning, told the conference call. Emerging markets are expected to slow, he said.

"We expect 2009 to be quite challenging compared to any previous years," he said.

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Samsung announced a major restructuring last week, consolidating business operations into two divisions. This week the company said it had replaced most of the heads of its overseas regional headquarters.

It also announced the redeployment of more than 80 percent of the almost 1,400 employees at its Seoul headquarters.

For all of 2008, Samsung said that net profit fell 25.6 percent to 5.53 trillion won from the year before, while sales rose 15.5 percent to 72.95 trillion won.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Obama's whirlwind first day: economy, war and more

In a first-day whirlwind, President Barack Obama showcased efforts to revive the economy on Wednesday, summoned top military officials to the White House to chart a new course in Iraq and eased into the daunting thicket of Middle East diplomacy. "What an opportunity we have to change this country," said the 47-year-old chief executive, who also issued new ethics rules for his administration and hosted a reception at the presidential mansion for 200 inauguration volunteers and guests selected by an Internet lottery.

After dancing at inaugural balls with first lady Michelle Obama past midnight, Obama entered the Oval Office for the first time as president in early morning. He read a good luck note left behind by President George W. Bush, then began breaking cleanly with his predecessor's policies.

Aides circulated a draft of an executive order that would close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within a year and halt all war crimes trials in the meantime.

Closing the site "would further the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and the interests of justice," read the draft prepared for the new president's signature. A copy was obtained by The Associated Press, and an aide said privately that Obama would sign a formal order on Thursday.

Some of the 245 detainees currently held at Guantanamo would be released, while others would be transferred elsewhere and later put on trial under terms to be determined.

Obama's Cabinet was moving closer to completion.

At the Capitol, the Senate confirmed Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state after a one-day delay forced by Republicans. The vote was 94-2, and spectators seated in the galleries erupted in applause when it was announced.

Treasury-designate Timothy Geithner emerged unscathed from his confirmation hearing, apologizing for having failed to pay $34,000 in taxes earlier in the decade.

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To the evident anger of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Republicans on the panel invoked longstanding rules to postpone a vote on Eric Holder's appointment as attorney general.

Counting Clinton, seven Cabinet members have been confirmed so far, as have the two top officials at the Office of Management and Budget.

Obama's schedule for the day included separate sessions on the economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The new president has pledged to take bold steps to revive the economy, which is struggling through the worst recession since the Great Depression. Last week, he won approval to use $350 billion in leftover financial industry bailout funds.

He presided over the White House meeting on the economy as the House Appropriations Committee moved toward approval of $358 billion in new spending, part of the economic stimulus package making its way to his desk.

The new commander in chief held his first meeting in the Situation Room, where he, Vice President Joe Biden and senior military and foreign policy officials discussed war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama campaigned on a pledge to withdraw U.S. combat forces from Iraq within 16 months, and to beef up the commitment in Afghanistan.

The new White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said Obama's phone calls to leaders in the Middle East were meant to convey his "commitment to active engagement in pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace from the beginning of his term."

Gibbs also that in conversations with Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian leaders, the president emphasized he would work to consolidate the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

Obama intends to name former Senate Majority leader George Mitchell as a special envoy to the region.

Not everything was new at the White House.

In the Oval Office, Obama worked at a desk built from the timbers of a British naval vessel, the HMS Resolute, and used off-and-on by presidents since the 1870s, including Bush. It also appeared that the carpet that Bush used in his second term, a yellow sunbeam design, was still in place.

If some of the furnishings remained in place, there was no doubt that the new president meant to fulfill his campaign promise of change.

"As of today, lobbyists will be subject to stricter limits than under any ... other administration in history," Obama told reporters as he signed the new rules. The restrictions included a ban on gifts by lobbyists to anyone serving in the administration.

He also imposed a pay freeze for about 100 White House aides who earn $100,000 or more. Its implementation was unclear, since none of them was on the payroll before Tuesday's noontime inauguration.

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On Tuesday, within hours of Obama's inauguration, his administration froze last-minute Bush administration regulations before they could take effect.

Among them was an Interior Department proposal to remove gray wolves from Endangered Species protections in much of the northern Rocky Mountains, and a Labor Department recommendation that would allow companies that manage employee retirement plans to market investment products to plan participants.

Obama and his wife began their day at a prayer service that is traditional for the first business day of a new administration. They were joined in front-pew seats by Biden and his wife, Jill, as well as former President Bill Clinton and his wife, hours away from confirmation as the nation's top diplomat.

"Grant to Barack Obama, president of the United States, and to all in authority your grace and good will. Bless them with your heavenly gifts, give them wisdom and strength to know and to do your will," prayed the Rev. Andy Stanley, one of numerous clerics from several religions to speak.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Inauguration video draws record online traffic

The inauguration ceremony of President Barack Obama made for a busy day at the two leading companies that deliver Internet video.

Justify FullAkamai Technologies Inc. said 7.7 million people watched video streams carried by Akamai at the same time on Tuesday, a record for the company, which is hired by many news sites to handle video delivery. On ordinary days, the number of simultaneous viewers rarely goes over 2 million.

All told, tens of millions watched video streams from Akamai at some point during the day, said Jeff Young, a spokesman for the Cambridge, Mass.-based company.

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Akamai competitor Limelight Networks Inc. of Tempe, Ariz., said 2.5 million people watched the inauguration on sites that use Limelight for delivery, with most of the viewers staying for Obama's entire speech.

Not all Web sites were able to keep up with the flood of traffic: had to place some viewers on a "wait list" for a while before they could view the live stream. The Associated Press had issues as well — from a bit after noon until shortly before 1 p.m., new viewers could not access its video streams on various Web sites. Akamai streams video for both companies.

The huge number of video viewers appears to have slowed the Internet as a whole. Keynote Systems Inc., which tracks Web site performance, said the Internet's top 40 sites slowed by as much as 60 percent when the ceremony started at 11 a.m., and many news sites saw even sharper declines in performance. was almost completely unavailable around noon.

People also kept accessing to see when it would be updated with the new president's portrait, at one time making the site take 15 times longer than normal to load, according to Shawn White, director of external operations at Keynote. Obama's picture was posted at 12:07 p.m.
In terms of the number of news Web site pages perused, Tuesday was not a record day. Akamai's global index of news consumption put the top usage at 5.4 million visitors per minute, below the 8.6 million registered on Election Day.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Technology to stop phone use in cars

Many parents would love to be able to give their teenagers a cell phone that couldn't be used while driving. Now some inventors say they have come up with ways to make that possible, but they appear to be relying on wishful thinking.

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One product to hit the market, $10-a-month software by Dallas-based WQN Inc., can disable a cell phone while its owner is driving. It uses GPS technology, which can tell how fast a person is traveling. But it can't know whether the person is driving — and therefore it can needlessly lock a phone. WQN, which sells cell phone and Internet security software under the name WebSafety, says it signed up about 50 customers for its first month of service.

Aegis Mobility, a Canadian software company, plans to release a similar Global Positioning System-based product this fall, known as DriveAssistT. Aegis is in talks with big U.S. wireless phone carriers, which would have to support the software and charge families a fee of probably $10 to $20 a month, said David Teater, the company's vice president.

The DriveAssistT system will disable a phone at driving speeds and send a message to callers or texters saying the person they are trying to reach is too busy driving. But because that person could be a non-driving passenger, the approach is a blunt tool.

Other product concepts that don't involve GPS systems have their own flaws. As a result, Parry Aftab, who advises families on technology and safety, suggests worried parents find another way to stop their kids from calling or texting while driving. Parents are better off taking away a child's cell phone if it is used improperly, she said.

"More and more, we see any solution is, in large part, education and awareness, parents getting involved," said Aftab, executive director of Driving and cell phone use can be a bad combination, "but so is putting on makeup and eating a three-course meal," Aftab said. "I wish technology providers would look hard at the problems before coming up with a knee-jerk solution."

Concerns are mounting that driving while gabbing or text-messaging on a cell phone, even if it is not handheld, is unacceptably dangerous. The National Safety Council said this month that there should be a total ban on cell phone use while driving, citing the higher risk of accidents and deaths.

At least 18 states restrict cell phone use — talking or texting — for some or all drivers, according to the insurance industry-funded Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Yet even in those states, motorists and especially young drivers are hardly deterred.

One of the worst accidents occurred last year in New York, when five teens were killed when their 17-year-old driver, carrying on a text conversation, collided with a tractor-trailer rig.

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B. Michael Adler, chief executive of WQN, said his 18-year-old son came to mind as he was developing the company's software to disable a cell phone while driving.

"He's texting messages with two hands and driving with his legs," Adler said. "You flip him the keys to the family car, you might as well be flipping him a six-pack of beer."

WQN's surveillance service promises more than just disabling the phone in cars. It can monitor a person's whereabouts, notifying parents by text messaging when their children step out of designated zones or return home. It also can turn off a cell phone at school, preventing cheating by text messaging during classroom tests, based on a reading of the school's location.

The question parents would have to ask themselves is whether they'd want to prohibit their children's activities this way. That kid you're trying to control might not be driving, but rather sitting on a train or a city bus or in the passenger seat of a buddy's car.

Michael Hensley has thought about this very dilemma. The 52-year-old manager for a defense contractor worries that his 23-year-old daughter is a "thumb Olympian" inclined to send text messages while driving.

But he doesn't expect technology to provide an answer. Savvy kids "will always find a way to defeat" a technological product, Hensley said. "It's human nature to defeat the system." Instead, Hensley said, he's tried to educate his daughter about the dangers of mixing phones with driving.

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The inventors of the GPS-based software systems acknowledge their systems aren't perfect for disabling cell phones and are hard at work on improvements. Meanwhile, a separate, hardware-based solution appears to have its own flaws.

A pair of inventors affiliated with the University of Utah have developed a prototype of a key fob device that communicates with a cell phone over Bluetooth wireless signals. The key fob wraps around an ignition key; when the key is flipped or slid open, the device disables the cell phone paired with it.

This turns out to be easy to beat. A kid could remove or run down the key fob's batteries, or duplicate the key — without the fob. So in response to questions from The Associated Press and critics on the Internet, the Utah inventors, Wally Curry and Xuesong Zhou, have dropped their original concept for something different.

Zhou considered transforming the key fob into a device that prevents nothing. Instead, it would let a driver hit a "quit" button and talk or text at will, but with a consequence: parents get notified by text messaging, and a monthly "driving score" could go to an insurer, which might jack up the teenager's premiums for bad driving.

Even that, Zhou acknowledged, wouldn't solve the tampering problem. So in his latest brainstorming he produced an elaborate scheme: Parents should estimate how many hours a child drives each month and report that to a Web site. If the key fob system reported the teenager appears to be driving substantially less than the prescribed time, it might indicate he's defeating the system, and the Web site could send a report to the parent.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Virus spreads quickly, but may be a dud

A computer virus that may leave Microsoft Windows users vulnerable to digital hijacking is spreading through companies in the U.S., Europe and Asia, already infecting close to 9 million machines, according to a private online security firm.
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Fortunately, however, it may be a dud.

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Though computer bugs have become a common affliction, Finland-based F-Secure says a virus it has been tracking for the past several weeks has surged more rapidly through corporate networks than anything they've seen in years.

But the virus doesn't appear to be working as its designers intended. F-Secure's chief security adviser, Patrik Runald, said the virus's coding suggests a type of bug that alerts computer users to bogus infections on their machines and offers to help by selling them antivirus software.

Instead, the virus is simply spreading to little effect, though it may still pose a threat to infected computers.

"The gang behind this worm haven't used it yet," F-Secure's chief research officer, Nikko Hypponen said by phone. "But they could do anything they like with any of these machines at any time."

Microsoft issued a security update Tuesday to deal with the so-called "Downadup" or "Conficker" virus, which appears to be a new version of a bug that popped up in October.

"Over the last couple of weeks, a new variant of this worm has been affecting customers," the company acknowledged in a blog post. Microsoft said the virus is spreading by gaining access to one computer and then guessing at passwords of other users in the same network: "If the password is weak, it may succeed."

A company representative couldn't immediately be reached Saturday to comment on F-Secure's estimate of infected machines.

Most computers with Windows will automatically download Microsoft's security update, but Hypponen said the virus disables updates on infected machines.

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While the origin of the virus is a mystery, F-Secure's best guess is it came from Ukraine. Hypponen said it is coded to avoid computers there, which may indicate whoever wrote the virus was trying to avoid drawing attention from local authorities.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Google hopes to take on Microsoft using resellers

Web search leader Google Inc took another step on Wednesday toward direct competition with Microsoft Corp by recruiting IT resellers to market its Web-based applications to business clients.

From the end of March, authorized resellers will be able to sell, customize and support premium versions of Google Apps, which includes word processing, spreadsheets, calendars and email.

Google Apps is broadly similar to Microsoft's top-selling Office package except that Apps is completely Web-based and is part of Google's push into so called 'cloud computing' or software-as-a-service. Microsoft said in October it is also looking at adding Web-based features for its Office applications.

Since it launched Google Apps in February 2007, Google has only sold directly to business users over the Web. Analysts said the move to work with third parties is necessary if Google hopes to compete seriously with Microsoft or IBM.

Microsoft, which is the world's largest software company, sells more than 95 percent of its software through more than 440,000 third party resellers, according to Gartner Research, and intends to spend around $3 billion on managing those sales channels in 2009.

By comparison Google has so far only dipped its toe in the water, but sees a great opportunity after running trials with more than 50 resellers in 25 countries. It also has a 9-month old relationship with Inc.

"We feel that Google has had limited success in winning customers with a singular sales channel," said Tiffani Bova, an analyst at Gartner Research, who estimates Google has around 200,000 Premier customers.

IT resellers typically sell services such as Web hosting, setting up servers and backing up data, as well as software to hundreds of thousands of end user businesses of all sizes.

"This is a chance for those types of companies to get into the cloud computing revolution," said Dave Girouard, president of enterprise at Google.

To win over new resellers, Google said partners will buy the Premier Edition at a 20 percent discount and keep the recurring revenue for the lifetime of their customer relationship.

The search leader already offers a basic package of Google Apps for free to consumers, prompting some industry watchers to see it as a major threat to Microsoft's profitable "Office" business.

But Rebecca Wettemann, an analyst at Nucleus Research, said Google is a long way from hurting Microsoft.

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"We've seen in the applications space that Google is a strong email competitor, but so far it is only a complement to Office -- not yet a replacement," she said.

Google's move to offer applications is part of a wider drive to diversify its revenue base, which has been completely dominated by hugely profitable search advertising technology.

As the advertising market comes under pressure from a slowing global economy, investors will likely be paying more attention to Google's small but growing businesses.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

`American Idol' back with new tune for season 8

Dave Della Terza enjoys kicking "American Idol" around on his Web site that encourages viewers to vote for the most awful contestant. VDS Web Hosting

But even Della Terza is rooting for television's top-rated show when it returns for its eighth season Tuesday. The two-hour debut airs at 8 p.m. EST on Fox.

"Last year really bored me. The show seemed really desperate. I want it to go back to being the good, cheesy fun it was," said Della Terza.

The singing contest remained TV's No. 1 program last season but saw a dip in viewership, averaging about 28 million weekly viewers vs. the previous year's nearly 31 million weekly average.

That represents a smaller loss than suffered by many other shows in what proved to be a lackluster 2007-08 season, one disrupted by a writers guild strike. It's also impressive stability for a veteran series.

Those behind "American Idol" express confidence that its drawing power remains intact, but they're tweaking the formula to freshen it and keep the downward trend to a minimum.

Executive producer Ken Warwick concedes the ratings probably will "drop a bit" again this season. But a major overhaul was not considered, he told a teleconference.

"There were no panic changes," Warwick said. "It wasn't, `Oh, my God, we've dropped 7 percent. What are we going to do to change the whole show?' This wouldn't have been on TV for eight years if it wasn't doing it right."

Fox is banking on the show, which last year helped make it TV's most popular broadcast network for the first time with a strong finale in which David Cook bested runner-up David Archuleta.

Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., also is betting on the show's continued popularity: The theme park is opening an American Idol Experience attraction next month, allowing visitors to sample the show.

Loyal viewers who tune in this season will easily spot differences in the formula and faces — most notably with a new judge, Grammy-nominated songwriter-producer Kara DioGuardi, joining the original trio of Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul.

Cowell, the show's acerbic driving force, takes the role of tiebreaker when the panel locks on whether to keep or dump a contestant. He's both singing DioGuardi's praises but reserving judgment on how her addition will pan out.

"She's written hit songs. She has an opinion, which is very, very important. She talks a lot," Cowell said — and he means as a compliment.

That said, "the panel has a unique chemistry," Cowell added. "I genuinely don't know until I watch the show ... whether this is a good thing or a bad thing."

Della Terza regards DioGuardi with a skeptical eye, and ear.

"She's a really prolific songwriter ... but she's written some terrible songs," he said, singling out former "Idol" contestant Katherine McPhee's "Open Toes," a paean to open-toe shoes, and tunes for Paris Hilton and Ashlee Simpson.

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Other changes afoot on "American Idol" include the return of wild-card selections by the judges, allowing them to give contestants snubbed by viewers a second chance, extended Hollywood auditions with singers who survive the early cuts, and behind-the-scenes peeks.

Cowell is looking forward to more contestant backbone, which he says is on display in the taped audition episodes that open the season.

"Where I think we got a little bit stuck last year (was) it was kind of like battle of the blondes, and they all looked the same. ... This year, there seems to be more personality. They're definitely standing up for themselves more, which I like," he said.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Google developer site being used to distribute malware

Google's free code-hosting Web site for developers is being used to distribute malware, a security researcher said on Friday.

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Google Code is a place where programmers can host projects and code. Along with the legitimate code are links to fake videos that direct users to download a missing codec, said Dave Marcus, director of security research for McAfee Avert Labs. The codecs turn out instead to be password-stealing Trojan horses and programs geared toward stealing financial information for identity fraud, he said.

"They're using it as a way to send out links or as a place to house their links and redirects because it's Google and obviously it gets highly ranked in the index," he said. "The bad guys look for services like this as a way to push out code."

A Google spokesman said the company has removed malware-distributing projects from Google Code and search results.

"Google works hard to protect our users from malware. Using Project Hosting on Google Code, or any Google product, to serve or host malware is a violation of our product policies," the spokesman said in a statement. "Using automated tools, we actively work to detect and remove sites that serve malware from our network. We have removed many of these projects from Google Code and from our search results. Additionally, we'll continue to explore new ways to identify and eliminate such content."

The problem is similar to one that was found to be plaguing Microsoft's MSN Spaces site a year ago and continues to occur there, according to a McAfee Avert Labs blog posting.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Broadcasts to mobile devices to start in 22 cities

TV stations in 22 U.S. cities announced Thursday that they will start broadcasting their signals this year in a format designed to be received by mobile devices like cell phones, MP3 players, GPS units and in-car entertainment systems. Ranked Best of the Bunch -LA Times

Unlike current mobile TV services, the broadcasts would most likely be free, and would provide access to local news, weather and traffic updates. The broadcasts could also fill an important role in emergencies like hurricanes, since they can be received by portable devices and don't jam up under load like cell-phone networks.

But will there be any gadgets on the market that can receive those signals? That's less clear, since there are no firm launch dates for compatible products.

As with other launches of new broadcasting services, there's a "chicken-and-egg" conundrum, said Mark Aitken, director of advanced technology for the Sinclair Broadcasting Group Inc. Without broadcasts, there is no market for devices. Without devices, there is no one to broadcast to.

"Broadcasters have come together and said 'We'll be the chicken,'" Aitken said. "We'll put services out there without devices."

Though their marketing plans are not firm, manufacturers did show off prototype devices at the International Consumer Electronics Show here on Thursday that were able to receive trial broadcasts from two local stations. LG Electronics Inc. of Korea, a major partner in developing the broadcast technology, showed off two prototype cell phones and a portable DVD player. Kenwood Corp., Delphi Corp. and Visteon Corp. are developing car-based receivers.

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In getting cell phones with TV receivers into the hands of consumers, broadcasters face a substantial obstacle: the cellular carriers. The largest, AT&T Inc. and Verizon Wireless, sell phones that are compatible with a rival mobile broadcasting system run by Qualcomm Inc. It provides 10 channels for $15 per month.

The Open Mobile Video Coalition, the mobile TV broadcaster group, said it has had discussions with the carriers, and expects there to be deals with at least some of them.

The 22 markets where "Mobile Digital TV" will be rolled out this year cover 35 percent of U.S. households, the OMVC said. New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Washington and Atlanta are the largest participating markets. In total, 54 commercial network affiliates have committed to launching broadcasts. Another nine PBS affiliates are considering joining them, the OMVC said.

Mobile devices are unable to receive conventional digital TV broadcasts, which are designed for stationary antennas. But the OMVC is far from alone in tackling this problem, particularly when it comes to reception in cars.

Audiovox Corp. announced at the show that it will make an in-car receiver for Qualcomm's MediaFLO service. The receiver that will work with existing in-car entertainment screens will be available in eight to 10 months for less than $500, the company said.

There are 20 million U.S. cars with such screens, according to Hauppauge, N.Y.-based Audiovox.

AT&T and RaySat Broadcasting Corp. said they will start marketing a satellite TV system called CruiseCast for cars this spring, providing 22 TV channels and 20 radio stations for about $28 per month. It requires a bowl-shaped antenna with a suggested retail price of $1,300.

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Lastly, Alcatel-Lucent and ICO Global Communications Ltd. were at the show to talk about their hybrid satellite-terrestrial broadcasting system, which can broadcast up to 15 channels to somewhat smaller antennas. They're hoping for a commercial launch next year, said Olivier Coste, head of Alcatel-Lucent's mobile broadcast division.

The satellite-based systems have the advantage of nationwide coverage, which terrestrial systems can't match. On the other hand, satellite systems won't have local channels that are useful to drivers.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Polaroid camera is back, in digital

A strange little ritual used to go along with Polaroid cameras. The shooter would grab the print as it came out of the camera and wave it in the air, as if that would stimulate the chemicals and make the picture appear faster. It didn't. Yet it felt dumb to just stand there, waiting for the picture to develop.

Polaroid stopped making film packs last year, so this little piece of tech culture will soon be just a memory. But just as the film-based Polaroid camera is fading away, along comes its digital replacement.

That's right: Polaroid was set to announce Thursday at the International Consumer Electronics Show that it is introducing a digital camera that produces prints right on the spot. You can even call them "instant" prints, but they take nearly a minute to appear, so they're only as "instant" as the old film prints.

Essentially, the $200 PoGo is a camera that contains a built-in color printer. It produces 2-by-3 inch photos by selectively heating spots on specially treated paper. It has nothing to do with the old chemical Polaroid process, but the prints convey some of the same Pop Art charm: They're grainy and the colors are slightly off, with faces tending toward a deathly blue-green.

The camera is a successor to a standalone printer Polaroid put out last summer, designed to connect to camera phones and digital cameras. When I reviewed it, I noted that if Polaroid combined the printer with an image sensor and an LCD screen, it would be a resurrection of the instant camera. It turns out that's exactly what Polaroid was working on.

Unfortunately, you'll have to wait to get your hands on the camera: Polaroid says it will go on sale in late March or early April.

The camera is a fun product, and people who have been lamenting the death of the Polaroid will find solace in it. Its prints can be peeled apart to reveal a sticky back, which makes them easy to paste on fridges, doors, books, computers, cell phones and other surfaces you want to personalize. For a colleague's going-away party, I took a photo of him, printed out a couple of copies and pasted them on soda cans for an instant "commemorative edition."

The PoGo also has crucial advantages over the old film cameras. You can look at what you shot on the LCD screen, then choose whether you want to print it. You can produce multiple prints of an image, or print something you shot some time ago.

The standalone printer and the new camera use the same paper, which costs $5 for a 10-pack, or $13 for a 30-pack. It's expensive compared to inkjet paper, but about a third of the price of Polaroid film (there are still stocks in stores). No ink or toner is needed.

Despite its high points, The PoGo has the feel of a first-generation product, with noteworthy shortcomings. - Affordable Web Hosting

As a camera, it's primitive. It doesn't have auto-focus, just a switch for infinity or close-up shots. The resolution is five megapixels, far below that of cheaper compact cameras. Neither of these things matter much for the quality of the prints, which are small and of low resolution anyway, but they do matter if you want to use the digital captures for other purposes.

Like some other cheap digital cameras, there's a substantial lag from the time you press the shutter to when the picture actually is taken, making it nearly impossible to capture action or fleeting expressions.

The prints are narrower than the image captured by the sensor, so you can't print the exact image you see on the screen. Substantial slices are trimmed from the top and bottom of the image to produce the print. In the default shooting mode, the camera doesn't warn you about this effect. You can crop images you've shot, zooming in on parts of them, but there is no way to reduce the size of the image to fit it all on the print.

The life of the rechargeable battery is limited, because of the energy needed to heat up the prints. You can get a bit more than 20 prints on one charge if you do them in one sitting. If you make a print only now and then, you'll get fewer on a charge, because the camera will need to heat up the print head every time. (The old Polaroid cameras didn't have battery problems, because most of them had batteries built into the film packs — a brilliant design. But enough nostalgia.)

None of these flaws are fatal. If you don't like the way the PoGo works as a camera, you can shoot pictures with another camera that uses an SD memory card, then move the card over to the PoGo and print the pictures. But if that's what you plan to use the camera for, you might as well buy the $100 PoGo Instant Mobile Printer, which is slightly smaller. It doesn't take memory cards, but will connect to other cameras with a USB cable.

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The camera is much simpler to use than the printer, and it fits the bill for those who want to recapture the simple, spontaneous spirit of Polaroid shooting. Sadly, Polaroid declared bankruptcy in December because of troubles at its parent company. That puts the future supply of PoGo printer paper in question, but Polaroid is still operating, and it appears it will continue for the foreseeable future. In any case, it's likely the portable printing technology will live on, because what it does is unique.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Apple cuts copy protection and prices on iTunes

Apple Inc. is cutting the price of some songs in its market-leading iTunes online store to as little as 69 cents and plans to make every track available without copy protection.

In Apple's final appearance at the Macworld trade show, Apple's top marketing executive, Philip Schiller, said Tuesday that iTunes song prices will come in three tiers: 69 cents, 99 cents and $1.29. Record companies will choose the prices, which marks a significant change, since Apple previously made all songs sell for 99 cents.

Apple gave the record labels that flexibility on pricing as it got them to agree to sell all songs free of "digital rights management," or DRM, technology that limits people's ability to copy songs or move them to multiple computers. Apple had been offering a limited selection of songs without DRM, but by the end of this quarter, the company said, all 10 million songs in its library will be available that way.

While iTunes is the most popular digital music store, others have been faster to offer more songs without copy protection. Inc. started selling DRM-free music downloads in 2007 and swayed all the major labels to sign on in less than a year.

Schiller also announced that iPhone 3G users will be able to buy songs from the iTunes store using the cellular data network. Previously, iPhone users could shop for tunes when connected to a Wi-Fi hot spot.

The iTunes changes marked the highlights of Schiller's run as a stand-in for CEO Steve Jobs, who used to make Macworld the site for some of Apple's biggest product unveilings, such as the iPhone. Apple said last month that Jobs would not address the throngs this time because the company plans to pull out of Macworld next year.

Apple shares slipped $1.18, 1.3 percent, to $93.40 in afternoon trading.

Schiller got a warm welcome from the attendees — who packed the convention hall despite the pall cast over the industry by the economic downturn — especially at the start of his talk, when he thanked them for showing up despite Jobs' notable absence. He ran seamlessly through his 90-minute presentation, getting applause and oohs from the audience, varying little from the format of slides and demos established by Jobs. And like Jobs, he gushed about Apple's products being the best in the world.

"Phil did an exceptionally good job in representing Apple," said Tim Bajarin, president of technology analyst group Creative Strategies Inc.

Lower iTunes prices were Apple's only nod to the recession — and an oblique one at that, as record labels have been asking for years to set varying song prices. Rather than an inexpensive new Mac to lure budget-conscious buyers, Schiller unveiled a new $2,800 Macbook Pro laptop with a 17-inch screen and the sleek aluminum casing the company debuted with the super-thin Macbook Air.

He also unwrapped new versions of two software packages for Macs, including the iLife multimedia programs. For instance, iPhoto '09 can recognize faces and sort photos based on who's in them. GarageBand '09 includes videotaped, interactive music lessons given by Sting and other musicians. Apple added more professional video editing features to iMovie '09.

Apple's answer to Microsoft Corp.'s Office productivity suite, called iWork, also got a makeover, including zippy new ways to add animation between slides in the Keynote presentation software. And Apple unveiled a "beta" test version of a Web site for sharing documents, Unlike Google Inc.'s online documents program, however, Apple's version does not allow people to edit documents in a Web browser.

Apple said the thin new 17-inch aluminum-cased Macbook Pro, which joins an existing 15-inch model, will start shipping at the end of January. Perhaps the biggest twist is the laptop's battery, which is designed to last longer on each charge — up to seven or eight hours — and work after more charges than older batteries. But like Apple's iPod and the super-slim Macbook Air, the battery will be sealed inside and the owners won't be able to remove and replace it themselves. Instead, they'll have to spend $179 to have an Apple store expert swap in a new one.

Jobs' decision not to attend Macworld sparked a new round of fears that the CEO, a survivor of pancreatic cancer who has seemed gaunt in recent appearances, was in worsening health. To put the questions to rest, Jobs said Monday he is getting treatment for a hormone imbalance that caused him to lose weight, and urged Macworld attendees to relax and enjoy the show.

And after the Tuesday keynote, in which nothing purely new was disclosed, the company's decision to substitute veteran salesman Schiller for master showman Jobs seemed even less questionable.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Malaysia mulls 'cyber court' to handle Internet crimes

Malaysia is considering establishing a "cyber court" to deal with the increasing number of crimes related to the Internet and blogging, a report said Tuesday.

Communications Minister Shaziman Abu Mansor said more than 30 Internet-linked cases had been submitted to the country's attorney general in the past three years.
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"If in future if we cannot cope any more due to too many cases, we may need to have a cyber court," he said, according to the official news agency Bernama.

Shaziman said police were investigating one case of a blog that allegedly published offensive content on Islam and the Prophet Mohammed, under the name of a Muslim Malay woman who has denied her involvement.

Malaysia's mainstream media is tightly controlled by the government, which has expressed frustration over its inability to rein in blogs and Internet portals, which have become popular alternative news sources.

Since last year it has taken action against several online figures, including detaining the nation's most popular blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin under a tough security law that allows for detention without trial.

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders has ranked Malaysia 124 out of 169 on its worldwide press freedom index.