Sunday, June 28, 2009

Facebook, Twitter and peers for sale - privately

Scott Painter makes his living betting on startup companies, having played a role in launching 29 of them over the years. But with the bad economy choking initial public offerings and acquisitions, Painter is now backing an idea that makes it easier for insiders like him to sell shares in their companies even before they go public.

SharesPost, which was founded by Painter's business partner, Greg Brogger, launched publicly in June. Through SharesPost's Web site, Painter is trying to sell shares in several companies he helped found, including car pricing startup He also wants to buy shares in companies that are far from an IPO, like short-messaging site Twitter and business-networking site LinkedIn.

SharesPost is one of a few private stock exchanges that are emerging to fight what venture capitalists call a liquidity crisis. These exchanges give stakeholders an alternative way to trade their shares in hot startups like Facebook for cold, hard cash — without having to wait years for an IPO.

Employees at startup employees often put in long hours but get salaries that can be 20 percent less than their peers at public companies. In return, they get stock or options that they hope will be a path to sports cars and summer homes after their company goes public or is bought out.

Given this, services like SharesPost could help startup workers get some cash while awaiting a distant IPO that might never even get off the ground. Most people won't be in on the action, though, since these exchanges are only open to a small pool of buyers.

And it's not clear how much — or how little — stock has changed hands through them. In its short life, Santa Monica, Calif.-based SharesPost said it has executed one $25,000 transaction, while another service, New York-based SecondMarket, said it has completed about 40 transactions in the past year worth about $150 million.

Still, if they manage to thrive, these exchanges could help the economy. By selling shares on a private exchange, an investor can free up funds to put into other startups. And institutional investors could use these services to broaden their holdings to include fast-growing companies that have yet to go public.

The methods of these private exchanges vary. SharesPost uses an online bulletin board to introduce buyers and sellers. SecondMarket links the parties and lets companies set up their own mini-markets that they control, while Redwood City, Calif.-based XChange is rolling out an online system that will allow buyers and sellers to connect and directly trade shares for cash.

All are open just to institutional investors — organizations like venture capital firms or pension funds that manage at least $100 million in assets — and individual accredited investors. That category includes people with a net worth of at least $1 million, or salary of at least $200,000 for the last two years.

The concept is not entirely new. Nyppex, formed in 1998, facilitates private-company stock trades, and a few companies with similar offerings emerged during the last economic downturn but failed to gather much steam. Among the problems: Determining a fair price for a private company's stock is tough without much public information.

This time, however, employees and investors are more aggressively looking for a way to get a return on their dedication and funding. More than a dozen companies have priced IPOs in the U.S. this year, down from 35 in the first half of 2008, according to research firm Renaissance Capital. In the same period of dot-com-crazy 2000, there were 219 IPOs in the U.S.

Besides the economy, startup investors say the high costs and regulatory requirements associated with going public have also stymied many smaller, younger companies. According to the National Venture Capital Association, the median span from a company's founding to its IPO was 9.6 years in 2008. In 1998 it was 4.5 years.

One factor is compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley anti-fraud law, which was enacted in 2002 after accounting scandals at companies like Enron Corp. and WorldCom Inc. A key part of this law requires public companies to file reports on the strength of internal financial controls and fix any problems — steps that can be costly for a startup.

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Issues like this have "just made it more and more difficult for companies to make it to that next step," said Thomas Foley, chief executive of XChange, which he developed with venture capitalist Tim Draper.

SharesPost founder Greg Brogger believes his site has one solution to the slowdown in IPOs: Bulletin boards for more than 100 startups that allow buyers and sellers to post the price and number of shares they want to purchase or unload, and the ability to e-mail one another directly.

Parties wishing to make a deal can find the relevant contracts on the site to sign, and an escrow company completes the transaction, charging both sides $2,500. So far, a $25,000 deal — the site's minimum transaction size — has been completed for 2,500 shares of electric car startup Tesla Motors at $10 apiece.

That reflects a great deal of optimism for a company that has only sold roughly 500 cars and had to get additional funding from the U.S. Energy Department. A report from one of SharesPost's research providers, NeXt Up Research, valued Tesla at $1 billion, or $9 per share. The car company had no comment.

Anyone can sign up for free to see startups listed on SharesPost. Only qualified investors can buy shares, and SharesPost makes money by charging buyers and sellers $34 a month.

XChange, meanwhile, enables buyers and sellers to share confidential information necessary for making informed purchases, and it has a platform for users to trade shares. When it is fully launched later this year, XChange will be an automated online exchange, much like E-Trade, where users can instantly trade shares for cash.

But while these services may be able to speed up dealmaking, users must still grapple with another key issue: how to determine a fair price for stock in a company that isn't required to regularly disclose its financial information and doesn't have that many potential buyers or sellers.

At SharesPost, Brogger wants to solve the problem by offering as much information as possible about companies it lists, from analysts at Next Up Research and VC Experts. SecondMarket CEO and founder Barry Silbert said companies can decide to share some details with investors and potential bidders on his site.

SharesPost doesn't believe the research on its site will cause any problems should the company file for an IPO with the Securities and Exchange Commission, as these types of analyses are published by investment banks during the IPO process.

Still, the lack of public disclosure and limited number of traders on these services makes Kathy Smith bristle. A market with limited transparency, participation and disclosures "is not a solution to the markets we have now," said Smith, a principal at Greenwich, Conn.-based Renaissance Capital.

And trading is not always as simple as posting a sales opportunity and an asking price. Startups often restrict what their employees can do with their shares and stock options — commonly imposing the "right of first refusal." That generally means employees who find buyers for their shares have to let the company decide if it wants to buy the stock back instead, for the same price. Companies can use this stipulation to keep competitors from snagging a stake.

Even if these services help startup employees and investors, they're not likely to eliminate the need to someday go public.

For one thing, this kind of market can only get so big. Private companies with more than $10 million in assets are required to file annual reports with the SEC if they have more than 500 shareholders of record. This rule prodded Google Inc. into filing for its IPO in 2004, and it could happen to others as these exchanges distribute shares among more shareholders.

Several of the private exchanges say it's up to companies to keep track of their total shareholder count. Foley said XChange helps companies keep tabs by revealing who their shareholders are at any given time.

Another reason IPOs won't vanish: Companies usually go public first to raise cash for their operations, and then to set a price that will eventually let insiders turn their holdings into cash. While some of the private exchanges do let startups themselves — and not just their employees and investors — sell stock, it's not likely to be lucrative without a large base of potential buyers.

Still, some buyers, sellers and startups may see trading through these services as the way to go until the IPO market improves.

"At the very least, it's going to be spring training for companies before they go public," SecondMarket's Silbert said.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Apple fans are prepared for a part-time Jobs

Five and a half months ago, word that Steve Jobs would only work part-time as he recovered from a liver transplant would have sent investors into a selling frenzy, so closely linked was Apple's charismatic co-founder and CEO to the company's success.

But now, with Jobs' return to Apple just days away that prospect is a lot less daunting.

Wall Street has grappled with the implications of Jobs' illness since August 2004, when investors learned the CEO had kept a cancer diagnosis secret until after he underwent surgery. Investors feared a half-year absence would leave one of the oldest computer makers adrift, because Jobs had become the essence of the company he co-founded in 1976. But in the last few months, the company released must-have gadgets and software improvements with nary a public hiccup. Its shares have almost doubled, raising the question of how central Jobs is to Apple today?

The company's past silence on matters of Jobs' health made shareholders jittery when Jobs appeared increasingly, even alarmingly, thin last year. Easily spooked, investors sent the stock tumbling 5 percent to its lowest point in a year on a rumor last October that Jobs had suffered a heart attack.

Then shares slipped 2 percent in December when Apple said that Jobs would not speak as usual the next month at the annual Macworld conference, then bounced up 4 percent on Jan. 5 when Jobs explained his weight loss as a treatable hormone imbalance. They sank 7 percent a week later after Apple said he would be taking six months off because his medical problems were more complex than he initially thought.

Since then, Wall Street's whiplash has had time to heal, especially because Apple's stock has weathered the recession better than those of most of its competitors. Shares have improved 76 percent since the dark day in January when Jobs announced his leave, closing Friday at $139.48.

It is not yet clear how investors will take the latest word, that Jobs had a liver transplant two months ago in Tennessee, according to The Wall Street Journal, and that he will likely work part-time, at least at first.

Apple has not confirmed the report, and has said only that Jobs is looking forward to returning to Apple at the end of the month. Spokesman Steve Dowling had no further comment Sunday.

Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple put its chief operating officer at the helm during Jobs' absence. Tim Cook had been tested in the role during Jobs' first bout with cancer and shared the stage with the CEO during key product announcements last fall. He brimmed with confidence in the early days of Jobs' medical leave, assuring analysts that the show would go on even without its frontman. - Spring 09 Coupon

"The values of our company are extremely well entrenched," Cook said in the company's fiscal first-quarter earnings call in January. "We believe that we're on the face of the Earth to make great products, and that's not changing."

Indeed, Apple has produced in the last six months: updated laptops with lower entry-level prices, updated Mac software and a faster iPhone with many requested features. Apple's cult-like followers remain avid, some camping overnight at Apple stores last week to be one of the first to snatch up the new iPhone 3G S, despite a pre-order option offered for the first time by Apple and wireless carriers.

Tim Bajarin, an analyst for Creative Strategies who has been following Apple for more than 25 years, said things ran smoothly in Jobs' absence because he had already relinquished much of his control over the company.

"Jobs hasn't been running day to day operations for almost two years, well before he got sick," Bajarin said. Cook was de facto in charge, and the people in charge of each of Apple's gadgets and programs were, for the most part, working without a net.

"They only went to Jobs on big issues and questions and making sure their programs where in line with Jobs' overall vision," he said, which the CEO scopes out in 10-year increments.

While Jobs has taken much of the credit for Apple's turnaround in the last decade, Cook has played an import role behind the scenes, says Roger Kay, an industry analyst and president of Endpoint Technologies Associates.

"If you want to look at Apple's history and see where they made execution errors and when those ceased, you can time it almost exactly to the arrival of Tim Cook," Kay said, pointing to several product launches around the late 1990s where Apple would create demand for a new product, and then have problems delivering enough of it. "He, as the operations guy, has really made the trains run on time."

While Jobs has reportedly recovered well from his transplant and Apple has said repeatedly that the CEO will be back at the end of June, the company will eventually have to confront the fact of its leader's mortality. And no matter how many accolades Cook and the Apple product teams garner, it will be near-impossible to find someone like Jobs to replace him.

Kay is skeptical Apple will be able to continue its success simply by asking itself, "What would Steve do?" After all, the message that Apple's bench is deep and capable is coming from Apple itself.

"You can always do product extensions, it doesn't take a genius," Kay said. "Who's going to come up with a new product category that's going to do what the iPhone and the iPod have done?"

Jobs' health problems could push him to groom a successor, a task Kay said the CEO has not likely undertaken.

"You don't have a little Steve somewhere waiting in the wings," Kay said. "An autocrat like Steve would not allow somebody like Steve anywhere near himself."

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Apple CEO Steve Jobs had liver transplant

Apple Inc. co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs, whose recovery from pancreatic cancer appeared less certain when he had to take medical leave in January, received a liver transplant two months ago but is recovering well, The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday.

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The newspaper didn't reveal a source for the report, which comes as Jobs, 54, is expected back in his day-to-day duties at the company shortly. CNBC said later that it had confirmed the Journal's account, which said Jobs had the transplant performed in Tennessee.

Apple spokesman Steve Dowling told The Associated Press he had no comment. Dowling reiterated what has become Apple's standard line about the CEO's health, that "Steve continues to look forward to returning to Apple at the end of June and there is nothing further to say."

Few CEOs are considered as instrumental to their companies as Jobs has been to Apple since he returned in 1997 after a 12-year hiatus. With Jobs serving as head showman and demanding elegance in product design, Apple has expanded from a niche computer maker to become the dominant producer of portable music players and a huge player in the cell phone business. News and rumors about his health send Apple stock soaring or plunging.

Jobs disclosed in August 2004 that he had been diagnosed with — and cured of — a rare form of pancreatic cancer called an islet cell neuroendocrine tumor.

According to the National Institutes of Health, treatment for that form of pancreatic cancer can include the removal of a portion of the liver if the cancer spreads. The cancer is curable if the tumors are removed before they spread to other organs.

It's likely that Jobs had part or all of his pancreas removed to "cure" his cancer in 2004, said Dr. Lewis Teperman, vice chair of surgery and director of transplantation at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.

Patients who have part or all of their pancreas removed usually get diabetes, which is treated with medication. Patients often lose weight as a result as well.

After the pancreas, the liver is the "next stop" for a tumor since blood drains from the one organ to the other, said Teperman, who did not treat Jobs.

Since the type of pancreatic cancer Jobs had is "slow growing," it's likely microscopic cells went undetected and traveled to the liver, Teperman said. Tumors often "stop" at the liver, he said, although it's possible they can spread beyond it.

The risk for liver cancer patients who get transplants is that the cancer will return in the new liver.

This can happen if undetected cancer cells are hiding out elsewhere in the body, Teperman said. He said there's no way to predict the likelihood of this occurring without knowing the extent of the initial cancer.

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The five-year survival rate for organ transplants is around 75 percent, but falls among older recipients, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, which manages transplants in the U.S.

Transplant patients must take medications for the rest of their lives to prevent rejection.

Since there is no residency requirement for transplants, Jobs might have traveled to Tennessee to shorten his wait for a liver. According to the organ network, there were 295 newly listed patients in Tennessee last year and 1,615 in California.

Wait times for transplants depend on the urgency of the patient's condition. Those in most critical need generally get transplanted within 10 days regardless of geography, said Joel Newman, a UNOS spokesman.

For less urgent cases, however, he said there's a greater variance in wait times, depending on a person's location.

Shorter waiting lists aren't the only reason to travel for a transplant, however.

"A lot of people who travel for a transplant will look at the center's survival rate or whether it specializes in certain conditions," Newman said.

Jobs' gaunt appearance last year fueled speculation that his health was worsening.

On Jan. 5 of this year, he said he had a treatable hormone imbalance and that he would continue to run the company. The following week, however, Jobs went on leave and said his medical problems were "more complex" than he had thought. Apple's chief operating officer, Tim Cook, took over daily duties.

Speculation about Jobs' health has been fueled by the Cupertino, Calif.-based company's practice of keeping such information under wraps.

Apple waited until after Jobs underwent his cancer surgery in 2004 before alerting investors. Last summer, the company insisted his thinner appearance was due to a common bug.

After Apple announced Jobs' medical leave in January, the company's shares slid 7 percent to $79.15, near a 52-week low. Since then, however, as Apple's business has remained sturdy even in the recession, and investors have become comfortable with Cook leading the daily operations, Apple shares have been among the best performers in the technology sector. The stock closed Friday at $139.48.

Jobs earned his status as a computing pioneer in 1976, when he and Steve Wozniak founded Apple in the Silicon Valley garage of Jobs' parents. Their first product, the Apple I, was a computer for hobbyists — it lacked a keyboard or monitor. But the next year they produced the Apple II for everyday consumers, and the personal-computer era was born.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

RIM 1Q profit tops view, shares wobble on outlook

BlackBerry maker Research in Motion Ltd. on Thursday reported a better-than-expected 33 percent jump in first-quarter profit as the company continues to boost market share among non-corporate customers.

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RIM's second-quarter outlook, however, sent shares tumbling almost 7 percent in aftermarket activity, but the stock regained most of its losses during the company's conference call as executives assuaged analysts' concerns.

The Waterloo, Ontario-based company earned $643 million, or $1.12 per share, in the quarter that ended May 30. That's up from $482.5 million, or 84 cents, in the year-ago period.

Excluding a $175.1 million tax benefit and other one-time items, RIM earned $564.4 million, or 98 cents per share, in the latest period — easily beating the average 94-cent estimate of analysts polled by Thomson Reuters.

Revenue rose 53 percent to $3.42 billion. RIM added 3.8 million net subscribers during the quarter — a bit less than the 3.9 million subscribers who joined up during the fiscal fourth quarter holiday season — bringing total accounts to 28.5 million.

Co-CEO Jim Balsillie said RIM's market share of the U.S. smart phone market has grown to 55 percent from 40 percent in the past two quarters. Balsillie said the BlackBerry Curve is the No. 1 selling smart phone in North America. RIM's competition includes Apple's new iPhone and $99 version, the new Palm Pre and the Google Android.

Eighty percent of new BlackBerry subscribers are non-corporate consumers, he said. The Canadian company has been targeting the consumer market after enjoying success in the corporate market for years.

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In the second quarter, RIM forecast earnings of 94 cents to $1.03 per share on revenue of $3.45 billion to $3.7 billion. Analysts expected profit of 97 cents per share and $3.61 billion in revenue. RIM also said it expects to sell between 8.1 million and 8.7 million new units, compared with the range of 8.5 million to 8.9 million that some analysts expected.

That outlook drove the company's shares down more than 6 percent in aftermarket trading immediately after the earnings report was released, but the stock came back to trade down just 21 cents from the stock's $76.55 close. RIM's stock has more than doubled since bottoming at $35.05 in March.

Peter Misek, an analyst with Canaccord Adams, said the stock rallied after it became clear on the conference call that the guidance was a little better that initially thought.

"The average selling price wasn't discussed in the release and that's why the stock ripped after it," Misek said. "The guidance is a little better than initially thought from the report, but still others thought the numbers would be higher, so it's going to be a volatile name."

Genuity Capital Markets analyst Deepak Chopra also said the stock declined initially on higher expectations.

"They continue to do phenomenally well. There was obviously increased expectations. There was chatter that the numbers could even be bigger," Chopra said.

Balsillie said the summer season can mean slower sales, but believes the release of new devices and the public's growing adoption of smart phones will cause a surge in sales.

"The lineup for the next 14, 15 months is spectacular," Balsillie said. "We've got sector winds at our sails."

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Family time eroding as Internet use soars

Whether it's around the dinner table or just in front of the TV, U.S. families say they are spending less time together.

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The decline in family time coincides with a rise in Internet use and the popularity of social networks, though a new study stopped just short of assigning blame.

The Annenberg Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California is reporting this week that 28 percent of Americans it interviewed last year said they have been spending less time with members of their households. That's nearly triple the 11 percent who said that in 2006.

These people did not report spending less time with their friends, however.

Michael Gilbert, a senior fellow at the center, said people report spending less time with family members just as social networks like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace are booming, along with the importance people place on them.

Five-year-old Facebook's active user base, for example, has surged to more than 200 million active users, up from 100 million last August.

Meanwhile, more people say they are worried about how much time kids and teenagers spend online. In 2000, when the center began its annual surveys on Americans and the Internet, only 11 percent of respondents said that family members under 18 were spending too much time online. By 2008, that grew to 28 percent.

"Most people think of the Internet and (our) digital future as boundless, and I do too," Gilbert said.

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But, he added, "it can't be a good thing that families are spending less face-to-face time together. Ultimately it leads to less cohesive and less communicative families."

In the first half of the decade, people reported spending an average of 26 hours per month with their families. By 2008, however, that shared time had dropped by more than 30 percent, to about 18 hours.

The advent of new technologies has, in some ways, always changed the way family members interact.

Cell phones make it easier for parents to keep track of where their children are, while giving kids the kind of privacy they wouldn't have had in the days of landlines.

Television has cut into dinner time, and as TV sets became cheaper, they also multiplied, so that kids and parents no longer have to congregate in the living room to watch it.

But Gilbert said the Internet is so engrossing, and demands so much more attention than other technologies, that it can disrupt personal boundaries in ways other technologies wouldn't have.

"It's not like television, where you can sit around with your family and watch," he said. The Internet, he noted, is mostly one-on-one.

Likely because they can afford more Web-connected gadgets, higher-income families reported greater loss of family time than those who make less money. And more women than men said they felt ignored by a family member using the Internet.

The center's latest survey was a random poll of 2,030 people ages 12 and up was conducted April 9 to June 30, 2008, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Monday, June 15, 2009

AP IMPACT: Weak security enables credit card hacks

Every time you swipe your credit card and wait for the transaction to be approved, sensitive data including your name and account number are ferried from store to bank through computer networks, each step a potential opening for hackers.

And while you may take steps to protect yourself against identity theft, an Associated Press investigation has found the banks and other companies that handle your information are not being nearly as cautious as they could.

The government leaves it to card companies to design security rules that protect the nation's 50 billion annual transactions. Yet an examination of those industry requirements explains why so many breaches occur: The rules are cursory at best and all but meaningless at worst, according to the AP's analysis of data breaches dating to 2005.

It means every time you pay with plastic, companies are gambling with your personal data. If hackers intercept your numbers, you'll spend weeks straightening your mangled credit, though you can't be held liable for unauthorized charges. Even if your transaction isn't hacked, you still lose: Merchants pass to all their customers the costs they incur from fraud.

More than 70 retailers and payment processors have disclosed breaches since 2006, involving tens of millions of credit and debit card numbers, according to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Meanwhile, many others likely have been breached and didn't detect it. Even the companies that had the payment industry's top rating for computer security, a seal of approval known as PCI compliance, have fallen victim to huge heists.

Companies that are not compliant with the PCI standards — including one in 10 of the medium-sized and large retailers in the United States — face fines but are left free to process credit and debit card payments. Most retailers don't have to endure security audits, but can evaluate themselves.

Credit card providers don't appear to be in a rush to tighten the rules. They see fraud as a cost of doing business and say stricter security would throw sand into the gears of the payment system, which is built on speed, convenience and low cost.

That is of little consolation to consumers who bet on the industry's payment security and lost.

It took four months for Pamela LaMotte, 46, of Colchester, Vt., to fix the damage after two of her credit card accounts were tapped by hackers in a breach traced to a Hannaford Bros. grocery store.

LaMotte, who was unemployed at the time, says she had to borrow money from her mother and boyfriend to pay $500 in overdraft and late fees — which were eventually refunded — while the banks investigated.

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It all happened at a supermarket chain that met the PCI standards. Someone installed malicious software on Hannaford's servers that snatched customer data while it was being sent to the banks for approval.

Since then, hackers plundered two companies that process payments and had PCI certification. Heartland Payment Systems lost card numbers, expiration dates and other data for potentially hundreds of millions of shoppers. RBS WorldPay Inc. got taken for more than 1 million Social Security numbers — a golden ticket to hackers that enables all kinds of fraud.

In the past, each credit card company had its own security rules, a system that was chaotic for stores.

In 2006, the big card brands — Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover and JCB International — formed the Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council and created uniform security rules for merchants.

Avivah Litan, a Gartner Inc. analyst, says retailers and payment processors have spent more than $2 billion on security upgrades to comply with PCI. And the payment industry touts the fact that 93 percent of big retailers in the U.S., and 88 percent of medium-sized ones, are compliant with the PCI rules.

That leaves plenty of merchants out, of course, but the main threat against them is a fine: $25,000 for big retailers for each month they are not compliant, $5,000 for medium-sized ones.

Computer security experts say the PCI guidelines are superficial, including requirements that stores run antivirus software and install computer firewalls. Those steps are designed to keep hackers out and customer data in. Yet tests that simulate hacker attacks are required just once a year, and businesses can run the tests themselves.

"It's like going to a doctor and getting your blood pressure read, and if your blood pressure's good you get a clean bill of health," said Tom Kellermann, a former senior member of the World Bank's Treasury security team and now vice president of security awareness for Core Security Technologies, which audited Google's Internet payment processing system.

Merchants that decide to hire an outside auditor to check for compliance with the PCI rules need not spend much. Though some firms generally charge about $60,000 and take months to complete their inspections, others are far cheaper and faster.

"PCI compliance can cost just a couple hundred bucks," said Jeremiah Grossman, founder of WhiteHat Security Inc., a Web security firm. "If that's the case, all the incentives are in the wrong direction. The merchants are inclined to go with the cheapest certification they need."

For some inspectors, the certification course takes just one weekend and ends in an open-book exam. Applicants must have five years of computer security experience, but once they are let loose, there's little oversight of their work. Larger stores take it on themselves to provide evidence to auditors that they comply with the rules, leaving the door open for mistakes or fraud.

And retailers with fewer than 6 million annual card transactions — a group comprising more than 99 percent of all retailers — do not even need auditors. They can test and evaluate themselves.

At the same time, the card companies themselves are increasingly hands-off.

Two years ago, Visa scaled back its review of inspection records for the payment processors it works with. It now examines records only for payment processors with computer networks directly connected to Visa's.

In the U.S., that means fewer than 100 payment processors out of the 700 that Visa works with are PCI-compliant.

Visa's head of global data security, Eduardo Perez, said the company scaled back its records review because it took too much work and because the PCI standards have improved the industry's security "considerably."

"I think we've made a lot of progress," he said. "While there have been a few large compromises, there are many more compromises we feel we've helped prevent by driving these minimum requirements."

Representatives for MasterCard, American Express, Discover and JCB — which, along with Visa, steer PCI policy — either didn't return messages from the AP or directed questions to the PCI security council.

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PCI's general manager, Bob Russo, said inspector certification is "rigorous." Yet he also acknowledged that inconsistent audits are a problem — and that merchants and payment processors who suffered data breaches possibly shouldn't have been PCI-certified. Those companies also might have easily fallen out of compliance after their inspection, by not installing the proper security updates, and nobody noticed.

The council is trying to crack down on shoddy work by requiring annual audits for the dozen companies that do the bulk of the PCI inspections. Smaller firms will be examined once every three years.

Those reviews merely scratch the surface, though. Only three full-time staffers are assigned to the task, and they can't visit retailers themselves. They are left to review the paperwork from the examinations.

The AP contacted eight of the biggest "acquiring banks" — the banks that retailers use as middlemen between the stores and consumers' banks. Those banks are responsible for ensuring that retailers are PCI compliant. Most didn't return calls or wouldn't comment for this story.

Mike Herman, compliance managing director for Chase Paymentech, a division of JPMorgan Chase, said his bank has five workers reviewing compliance reports from retailers. Most of the work is done by phone or e-mail.

"We have faith in the certification process, and we really haven't doubted the assessors' work," Herman said. "It's really the merchants that don't engage assessors; those get a little more scrutiny."

He defended the system: "Can you imagine how many breaches we'd have and how severe they'd be if we didn't have PCI?"

Supporters of PCI point out nearly all big and medium-sized retailers governed by the standard now say they no longer store sensitive cardholder data. Just a few years ago they did — leaving credit card numbers in databases that were vulnerable to hackers.

So why are breaches still happening? Because criminals have sharpened their attacks and are now capturing more data as it makes its way from store to bank, when breaches are harder to stop.

Security experts say there are several steps the payment industry could take to make sure customer information doesn't leak out of networks.

Banks could scramble the data that travels over payment networks, so it would be meaningless to anyone not authorized to see it.

For example, TJX Cos., the chain that owns T.J. Maxx and Marshalls and was victimized by a breach that exposed as many as 100 million accounts, the most on record, has tightened its security but says many banks won't accept data in encrypted form.

PCI requires data transmitted across "open, public networks" to be encrypted, but that means hackers with access to a company's internal network still can get at it. Requiring encryption all the time would be expensive and slow transactions.

Another possibility: Some security professionals think the banks and credit card companies should start their own PCI inspection arms to make sure the audits are done properly. Banks say they have stepped up oversight of the inspections, doing their own checks of questionable PCI assessment jobs. But taking control of the whole process is far-fetched: nobody wants the liability.

PCI could also be optional. In its place, some experts suggest setting fines for each piece of sensitive data a retailer loses.

The U.S. might also try a system like Europe's, where shoppers need a secret PIN code and card with a chip inside to complete purchases. The system, called Chip and PIN, has cut down on fraud there (because it's harder to use counterfeit cards), but transferred it elsewhere — to places like the U.S. that don't have as many safeguards.

A key reason PCI exists is that the banks and card brands don't want the government regulating credit card security. These companies also want to be sure transactions keep humming through the system — which is why banks and card companies are willing to put up with some fraud.

"If they did mind, they have immense resources and could really change things," said Ed Skoudis, co-founder of security consultancy InGuardians Inc. and an instructor with the SANS Institute, a computer-security training organization. Skoudis investigates retail breaches in support of government investigations. "But they don't want to strangle the goose that laid the golden egg by making it too hard to accept credit cards, because that's bad for everybody."

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Final DTV transition is relief for some businesses

It's not just TV viewers who will be relieved when analog broadcast signals are shut down Friday, sparing them from incessant reminders about converter boxes. Some business are eagerly awaiting the end of a process that began in 1987, when the shift to digital broadcasts was proposed.

"We're really excited that this is finally behind us," said Bill Stone, president of Qualcomm Inc.'s FLO TV service.

FLO TV, which broadcasts digital TV to specially equipped cell phones, spent $558 million one year ago for the rights to use UHF Channel 56 around the country. Qualcomm counted on being able to use that frequency right after Feb. 17, when U.S. full-power TV stations were originally slated to end their analog broadcasts.

The delay of the analog shutdown to Friday forced Qualcomm to postpone the launch of FLO TV service in new markets, costing the company tens of millions of dollars, Stone said.

Qualcomm will activate FLO TV service in 15 markets this weekend, including Boston, Houston, Miami and San Francisco. More markets will launch later this year, bringing FLO closer to its goal of nationwide coverage.

Cellular carriers Verizon Wireless and AT&T Inc. paid a combined $16 billion for spectrum to be vacated by TV broadcasters, but the delay has had little effect on them, since the wireless broadband equipment they plan to deploy is still in development. Verizon Wireless plans to turn it on next year.

The analog shutdown also helps TV broadcasters, which have suffered greatly because of declining advertising rates in the economic downturn. Several are in bankruptcy protection. After Friday, broadcasters will be freed from having to maintain expensive analog antennas. The vast majority of them are already broadcasting digitally, so there is no new cost coming for replacement broadcasts.

Best Buy Co.'s chief executive, Brad Anderson, said last year he was "very nervous" about being able to get and distribute adequate stocks of digital TV converter boxes ahead of the shutdown.

"I think it's one of the biggest risks our industry has," he said.

But manufacturers and electronics retailers have met the challenge of supplying converter boxes, which generally cost $40 to $60. And sales of digital TVs — which don't need the converters — have been strong even as other consumer spending has declined.

Other businesses have also gotten a one-time bonanza out of the transition.

A St. Louis-based manufacturer of TV antennas, Antennas Direct, said sales for the first quarter of the year more than tripled from the same period last year, to $2 million.

The cable industry has tried to sign up new customers who would rather not deal with the challenge of getting set up to receive digital TV broadcasts.

Joel Kelsey, policy analyst at Consumers Union, testified before the Federal Communications Commission last week that cable TV operators have run ads that say viewers have to act to not lose TV service, without mentioning that consumers can buy a converter box for which a $40 government coupon is available.

The ads "take advantage of the confusion around the digital transition," Kelsey told The Associated Press. Moreover, when consumers have called cable companies to sign up for a low-cost plan that was advertised, they have been pressured to buy more expensive services, Kelsey said.

While some customers might not have had a good experience when they called to sign up for service, National Cable and Telecommunications Association spokesman Brian Dietz said, cable has "gone beyond the call of duty" to educate consumers. The association said cable companies have spent $250 million on ad campaigns that promoted only the digital TV converter boxes and coupons.

Cable companies have said the transition netted them some new customers in the first quarter, but it wasn't a mass migration. Time Warner Cable Inc. told investors Thursday that it had a spike of new customers in February, around the time of the original deadline, and call center activity has picked up this week as well, as the last procrastinators start dealing with the transition.

The beneficiary of the greatest windfall from the transition is undoubtedly the U.S. government. It has pocketed $19.6 billion from the auction of freed-up airwaves.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

New Intel chips power skinny laptops

Tiny, cheap laptops known as netbooks have been a big success. But not everyone likes their small screens and keyboards, and their processors aren't powerful enough for some common tasks, like playing high-quality Internet video. Web Hosting $6.95

Now, Intel Corp. is pushing slightly more powerful chips for slightly larger computers that still have key netbook qualities such as a light weight and long battery life. Could this be a Goldilocks moment for laptops — when we get machines that are just right?

I tested two new models with the new processors, Acer's Timeline 3810T and MSI's X-Slim X340. Acer's model achieves a great balance of weight, features and power. The second ... well, Goldilocks would have moved on after trying that bowl of porridge.

The disappointing thing about both models is that they list at $900, twice the price of a netbook, and 50 percent more than a low-end laptop. The good news is that just a few years ago, capable laptops in same weight class — around 3 pounds — cost at least twice as much.

Both computers have 13.3-inch screens that match the proportions of an HDTV screen and run Windows Vista Home Premium. Neither has a DVD drive. Otherwise, they're quite different.

The X-Slim is an eye-catching, sleek design that, to be blunt, copies a lot from Apple Inc.'s ultra-slim MacBook Air. The X-Slim is just as thick as the thickest point on the Air, though the Air tapers off from a bulge under the hinge while the X-Slim keeps an even thickness. At 2.9 pounds, it's a hair lighter than the Air and lighter than some netbooks.

How does MSI do it? Plastic. The Air's chassis is machined out of a big piece of aluminum, giving it rigidity. The X-Slim is all plastic, and its wrist rest and keyboard flex under your fingers in a way that doesn't inspire confidence.

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Acer's Timeline has a more conventional design that wouldn't look out of place in a boardroom. It has a brushed-metal cover that resists fingerprints and has a pleasant keyboard. It weighs 3.5 pounds — heavier than the X-Slim but about 2 pounds lighter than a typical 14-inch laptop.

Inside, these computers sport Intel's ultra-low voltage processors, or ULVs. Similar processors have been on the market for some time at high prices, but Intel is now bringing them down so they could go into a $600-$700 laptop, positioning them as a step up from the Atom processors that run netbooks.

Atoms are adequate for Web surfing and e-mail, the primary uses for a small laptop. It doesn't matter so much that the Atom chokes on video editing or 3-D gaming, and most netbook owners are happy with them.

But there are two things I'd like to do with a small laptop that the Atom does not do well. One is to watch high-resolution Internet video in the Flash format, used by YouTube, Hulu and several other sites. This is very taxing on the processor and will make an Atom-powered netbook stutter badly.

The other challenge for the Atom is videoconferencing. Laptops today come with built-in webcams, but the Atom has a hard time producing and decoding high-quality video.

So how do the ULVs handle this? The Timeline does it with aplomb, smoothly playing high-resolution video from Hulu and producing images with Google Video Chat.

The X-Slim, meanwhile, was only slightly better than a late-model Atom-powered netbook. Action scenes in "Prison Break" on Hulu were jittery, and videoconferencing suffered too.

The difference, I believe, is mainly in the specific processors they use. The Timeline has a dual-core ULV, meaning there are two computing engines, while the X-Slim has a single core. The single-core ULV appears to be only a slight step up from the Atom — something to keep in mind when looking at other models that are sure to come out with these processors. (There's a confounding factor here: The Timeline runs the 64-bit version of Windows Vista, which processes data in larger chunks, while the X-Slim runs the somewhat slower 32-bit. But the differences I observed were too large to be attributed to the software.)

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The Timeline slays the X-Slim in battery life too. I made each computer play high-definition video from the hard drive while running a Twitter application that accessed the Internet over Wi-Fi. That ran the X-Slim down in one hour and 42 minutes, while the Timeline lasted three hours and 40 minutes. That lends credence to Acer's claim that under a typical workload, the Timeline will last more than eight hours.

For comparison, the Asus Eee PC 1000HE, an outstanding netbook, lasted four hours and 45 minutes. (All screens were set to the same midlevel brightness, measured with a light meter.)

So I have a mixed verdict on ULVs. The Timeline at least shows that the processors can be used in laptops that are reasonably powerful.

Advanced Micro Devices Inc., Intel's main competitor, has launched a set of chips it calls "Neo" this year, for computers in a similar price range and size. The first computer with these chips, the Hewlett-Packard dv2, is heavier than the ones I tested and has a battery life more in line with the X-Slim than the Timeline. But AMD plans better processors soon, and they could provide an interesting alternative.

The Timeline has a couple of knocks against it: Its cooling fan is quite loud, and the screen doesn't bend back very far, which can be a problem if you like to use it while curled up on the couch. Also, it's still a bit expensive at $900. But overall, it's a light, long-lasting computer that avoids the unnecessary design flourishes that compromise the X-Slim.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Apple drops entry iPhone to $99, unveils new model

Apple Inc. slashed the entry price for an iPhone in half and lowered some laptops by $300 Monday, the company's first dramatic price cuts since the recession began a year and a half ago.

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With co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs absent until his medical leave is over at the end of June, Apple's biggest unveiling at its annual conference for software developers was a new model of the iPhone, the 3G S. It looks the same but sports a faster processor, longer battery life, an internal compass, a video camera and a photo camera with better resolution and auto-focus.

A 16-gigabyte version of the 3G S will cost $199 and a 32-gigabyte version will be $299.

The 8-gigabyte iPhone 3G, which came out last year, now costs $99, instead of $199. When the iPhone debuted two years ago, eager Apple fans had to shell out $499 for a 4-gigabyte version and $599 for 8 gigs.

Apple is known for ending events with a last-minute surprise, leading to some anticipation that Jobs might make a cameo in Monday's two-hour presentation. But he did not take the stage, and Apple's top marketing executive, Philip Schiller, exited without uttering the company's signature line that there would be "one more thing."

The latest iPhones go on sale June 19, just as two-year contracts for the buyers of the original models are expiring and Apple faces tougher competition from the likes of Research in Motion Ltd. and Palm Inc. On Saturday Palm came out with a well-regarded iPhone rival, the $200 Pre.

Industry analyst Michael Gartenberg, with the Interpret market-research firm, said the new iPhone pricing breaks through an important barrier for consumers. It will likely cause other smart phone makers to offer something similar, he said.

"Every $100 you move down in consumer electronics brings in a lot more customers," he said. "Ninety-nine dollars is a psychological price point, so that's a real barrier to move through. It becomes something people can afford — it becomes an affordable luxury."

Shares of Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple slipped 82 cents to close at $143.85.

Schiller said in an interview that $99 iPhone will reach people just joining the smart phone market. But lowering the price could be risky for Apple unless its new versions have enough appealing features to keep them selling briskly at higher prices. AT&T Inc., the exclusive carrier of the iPhone in the U.S., said Monday it's confident its wireless profit margins will hold steady overall. AT&T shares fell 16 cents to $24.40. Webhosting – 1000MB Webbhotell endast 12 kr/mån. Läs mer på

Apple might also be banking on expanding the profits it reaps from taking 30 percent of the revenue from downloadable applications on the iPhone and the iPod Touch. A new version of the iPhone operating software, available for download June 17, lets software developers sell additional content, like electronic books or extra levels to a video game, within applications.

Among other upgrades, the new iPhone software will let people download movies and TV shows using the device's cellular connection. It will let users send photos and videos the same way they send text messages, bringing the iPhone in line with other smart phones. (AT&T won't offer this feature until late in the summer.) And the new software will let parents limit the kinds of applications kids can download.

Apple had already announced other new features in the new software — such as the ability to cut, copy and paste text — and the ability for "tethering," which means using the iPhone to connect a computer to the Internet. Twenty-two wireless carriers will enable tethering. AT&T says it will also have tethering some time in the future.

For its MacBook line, Apple showed off new laptops that boast longer battery life and faster processors. The company rolled out a new 13-inch MacBook Pro that starts at $1,200, or $100 lower than an existing similar notebook, and a 15-inch Macbook Pro that starts at $1,700, $300 less than the current model.

It also lowered the price on the ultra-thin MacBook Air to $1,500 from $1,800. The 17-inch MacBook Pro, unveiled in January, costs $2,500 and up, though it now has a faster processor at the same price.

Apple also is trying to steal share in the computer market by enhancing its Mac operating system. The next version, Snow Leopard, comes out in September, before Microsoft Corp.'s next edition of Windows hits PCs Oct. 22. Among Snow Leopard's improvements is built-in support for Microsoft's Exchange Server software, so Apple programs for e-mail, calendars and contacts could become more useful in corporate settings.

One thing looming over Apple is the growing popularity of cheaper, stripped- down laptops sometimes called "netbooks." They are one of the few segments of the overall PC business that has been growing in the recession, while Apple's Mac revenue dropped 16 percent in the most recent quarter.

Jobs has said Apple doesn't know how to build a sub-$500 computer "that's not a piece of junk." That doesn't mean Apple won't someday try to enter that market, but on Monday at least, Schiller sounded similar themes. He said in the interview that netbooks are merely "very underpowered, poorly designed cheap notebooks."

"They have poor keyboards, poor screens, and none of the features and capabilities to do what a MacBook, for example, can," he said. "We think those products are below the quality standards of something Apple would like to make."

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Windows 7 confirmed for holiday season PCs

Microsoft Corp. said Tuesday that Windows 7, the next version of its computer operating software, will go on sale Oct. 22, in time to possibly give the slumping PC industry a lift in the holiday season.

Windows 7, which will replace the much-complained-about Windows Vista, will be available then on new PCs. Microsoft, the world's largest software maker, will also sell versions that people can install on existing PCs.

PC makers and resellers will offer free upgrades to Windows 7 for people who buy a new computer running the Home Premium, Business or Ultimate version of Windows Vista shortly before Windows 7 arrives. However, Microsoft did not say whether the upgrade program will begin in time for back-to-school shopping, another crucial period for the PC industry.

Industry analyst Roger Kay of Endpoint Technologies said it's reasonable to think Microsoft would offer upgrades two months in advance of Windows 7's launch — late August, in other words.

"The industry must be careful not to kill sales leading up to the introduction, and back-to-school is the first possibility of some relief in this market," Kay said.

Monday, June 01, 2009

short-messaging service Twitter

On the short-messaging service Twitter, space is at a premium: You've got 140 characters to make your point, and you probably don't want to waste half of it on a super-sized link to your latest Justify Full YouTube obsession.

There's an increasingly popular quick fix: a free URL shortener. On one of these Web sites, you can plug in a long Internet address, known as a URL, and it will assign you a much shorter one that is easier to post in e-mails, on Twitter, Facebook or anywhere else. Some link-shrinkers let you personalize the new address with a unique phrase such as your name, or show you how many people click the link after you've posted it.

This convenience may come at a cost, though. The tools add another layer to the process of navigating the Web, potentially leaving a trail of broken links if a service suddenly closes shop. They can also make it harder to tell what you're really clicking on, which may make these Lilliputian links attractive to spammers and scammers.

URL shorteners have been around for several years to offer alternatives to long Web links that were too unwieldy to paste into e-mails. Perhaps the oldest and most popular is TinyURL, a free service started in 2002 by Kevin Gilbertson, a unicycle enthusiast from Blaine, Minn., who was tired of seeing URLs get split up in e-mails related to his online unicycle forum.

Now the rise of Twitter and other social Web sites that encourage users to share small bursts of information has spawned several TinyURL followers, whose names run the gamut from the very short — — to the not long —

Link compression is just the beginning. More and more of these allow users to see all sorts of details like where a link is showing up around the Web and where the people clicking on it are located.

And while several of them started out as side projects, some of their creators believe they can make money off little links. At least one claims its users can profit, too.

Twitter has directly contributed to the prominence of two services in particular: TinyURL and, which began in July as a project at New York-based Web media incubator and Twitter stakeholder Betaworks.

Until recently, Twitter automatically shrank lengthy links by running them through TinyURL. But this spring Twitter switched its default link shortener to after finding TinyURL unreliable, said Alex Payne, one of Twitter's lead engineers. (Gilbertson said Twitter didn't contact him about the issues or the change.) is seeing growth that Betaworks Chief Executive John Borthwick called "pretty amazing." About 100 million URLs are clicked on per week.

Betaworks has spun off as its own company, bolstered by $2 million from investors that included O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures. is looking into three different ways to make money, Chief Operating Officer Andrew Weissman said. might create an advertising-supported site that tracks the most popular online trends, which it can spot by analyzing what people are using its link-shortening service for. Or it might sell that data to search engines and media companies that want to know what's hot. Or it could offer a paid service to companies and major individual users.

URL shrinker LinkBee, which was created in July by Toronto-based Web media company Jolt Media Group, believes it already has a business model that will work: It shows people an advertisement before taking them to a Web site behind a shrunken link, or it puts an ad at the top of the page being linked to.

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Generally, LinkBee splits the resulting advertising revenue 50-50 with people who use it to shrink links. Users who refer others can get a cut of LinkBee's portion of that new user's ad revenue. If you just want to abridge a URL without including ads, LinkBee lets you do that, too.

For now there's no tie between the ad LinkBee shows and the underlying Web link. Eventually, though, founder Chris Pavlovski hopes to make that connection. So if a user posted a link on Twitter to a page about golf, for example, LinkBee might first show an ad for golf clubs to someone clicking on that link.

LinkBee could encounter resistance from Web sites to its method of placing ads on top of pages it is linking to. News publishers sued a small referral site, TotalNews, over this sort of technique in the mid-'90s. But Pavlovski said nobody has complained about LinkBee's use of the practice.

"If anything, they're happy to receive the traffic," he said. Pavlovski said his service creates about 35,000 URLs each day, with about 70 percent attached to an advertisement.

But popularity and convenience don't eliminate the potential risks of these link loppers. If so many services are springing up, chances are some will just as quickly disappear. And if a URL shortening service goes down, the links created with it could lead nowhere.

Another worry is that you're not likely to know exactly where a truncated link will take you. So you could be directed to unsavory or illegal content or something malicious like a computer worm. This means URL shortening services need to keep an eye on the kinds of sites their users are linking to, said Ivan Arce, chief technology officer for Boston-based Core Security Technologies.

Several URL reducers said they do protect against spam. And some services — SafeURL, for example — let you preview a shrunken link's destination page, but this is not usually done automatically. There are also solutions like LongURL, which lets you plug in short addresses and see where they really point.

If you're not into the whole brevity thing, there are URL lengtheners, too. DickensURL will convert Web addresses into Charles Dickens passages. Of course, quotes from "Great Expectations" tend to be longer than 140 characters, so DickensURL also offers a compact link, which leaves plenty of room for tweeting.