Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Lala.com gets in tune with Facebook gift shop

Facebook on Monday continued phasing Lala.com music service into its online shop, providing US users a way to buy music at the leading social networking service.

"You will now be able to purchase songs as gifts for your friends," Facebook engineer Will Chen said in a blog post announcing enhancements to the website's gift shop.

The Lala-powered music service boasts a playlist of more than eight million tunes, which can be bought as a "Web songs" at a cost of one Facebook credit each.

Facebook credits are a currency for purchases at the social networking service, and a single credit costs about ten cents (US).

Web songs can be played as often as desired using a Lala mini-application, or widget, at Facebook or at the Lala.com website.

Facebook members can buy songs as MP3 downloads for 90 cents worth of credits. The music downloads can be listened to on an array of devices.

Lala hosts people's digital music collections onto the Internet, allowing access from varied locations, in what it describes as "music in the clouds."

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Lala also provides an application that scans people's music iTunes music collections and then stocks their LaLa account libraries with the same songs on the premise that they have already been purchased.

"Basically, we turn any songs you have at home into Web songs," said John Kuch of Lala.

"That is free. If you already own it, it is already your track."

Lala has content deals with all the major record studios as well as independent labels and artists, according to Kuch.

"Work, home, or wherever, music should be a part of that experience," Kuch said.

"In Lala we are really bringing music into the cloud. LaLa is putting itself at a lot of different points where people want to access music."

Kuch declined to comment on a "Discover Music" press conference planned for Wednesday which is expected to focus on Google teaming with Lala and MySpace-owned iLike to launch a search service devoted to music.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

IPhone helps Apple profit rise 47 pct; stock leaps

Apple Inc. increased its net income 47 percent in the most recent quarter as more people bought Mac computers and gave in to the iPhone craze. The results sent Apple shares surging in extended trading Monday to an all-time high.

Apple unveiled a faster iPhone in June and cut the price of the previous generation of the phone to $99. Those moves boosted iPhone sales from July through September to 7.4 million devices, half a million more than in the same period of 2008.

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Apple weathered the economic meltdown better than other computer companies, giving it a running start when PC sales grew in the quarter. Apple had also updated its Mac operating system and refreshed its Macbook Pro line. Apple sold 3.1 million Macs, a 19 percent rise from the same period a year ago.

As Apple's iPhone, which has iPod features built in, has grown in popularity, Apple's regular iPod music player business has suffered. The company sold 10.2 million iPods in the quarter, 8 percent fewer than last year, even though Apple unveiled a new iPod Nano with a video camera in September.

The iPod Touch was the bright spot in the media player lineup. Revenue for the gadget, which is like an iPhone without the phone, doubled from a year ago, Apple Chief Financial Officer Peter Oppenheimer said in an interview.

Apple is rumored to be working on a tablet-style computer that's a cross between a laptop and an iPhone or iPod Touch, but the company is notoriously secretive about new products. On a conference call, Apple executives boasted vaguely about the company's "amazing" future offerings and dropped one tantalizing indication something new might be coming in time for holiday shopping.

Apple typically spends more on air freight in the current quarter in order to make sure stores are stocked with iPods and other gadgets for the holidays, but this year, the increase is more than usual.

"I'm sorry I can't be specific on the product, but it's, it's, it's an abnormal sequential increase," Apple's chief operating officer, Tim Cook, said in response to a question from an analyst.

Apple said it earned $1.7 billion, $1.82 per share, in its fiscal fourth quarter, which ended Sept. 26. Revenue jumped 25 percent to $9.9 billion.

For all of fiscal 2009, Apple said its profit rose 18 percent to $5.7 billion, or $5.36 per share. Revenue climbed 13 percent to $36.5 billion.

For the current quarter, Apple, which is based in Cupertino, Calif., said it expects to earn $1.70 to $1.78 per share, well below the $1.91 that analysts are expecting, though the company traditionally gives extremely conservative guidance. Apple predicted revenue of $11.3 billion to $11.6 billion, while analysts are looking for $11.4 billion, according to a Thomson Reuters poll.

Wall Street shrugged off the profit guidance and sent the company's shares up $10.79, 5.7 percent, to $200.65 in extended trading. At one point in the after-hours trading the stock climbed past $203. Adjusted for splits, Apple's highest price had been $202.96, reached Dec. 27, 2007.

Investors also are anticipating even more growth for the iPhone. Apple is set to officially begin selling iPhones in China on Oct. 30 and has plans to launch in South Korea during this quarter as well.
But Apple could hit snags in those countries in the first few months. The company struggled to supply enough of the newest iPhone 3GS to store shelves around the world over the summer. Cook said most of the shortages had eased, but he added that he wishes more iPhones were ready for the China launch.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Google's growth accelerates as 3Q profit rises

Google Inc. shifted into a higher gear in the third quarter and began to leave the recession behind as the 11-year-old Internet search leader recorded its biggest profit yet.

Revenue growth also accelerated for the first time since the U.S. recession began in December 2007.

The results released Thursday are the strongest indication yet that the Internet advertising market is bouncing back from its worst funk since the dot-com bust at the start of the decade.

Google is considered a good barometer for the state of online commerce because its search engine serves as the hub of the Web's largest advertising network.

"The worst of the recession is clearly behind us and because of what we have seen, we now have the confidence to be optimistic about our future," Eric Schmidt, Google's chief executive, told analysts in a conference call.

Schmidt's optimism echoed his public remarks leading up to the earnings release. That sentiment has helped propel Google to a succession of new 52-week highs this week, a rally that continued after the company put out its third-quarter numbers.

Google's shares rose $17.13, or 3.2 percent, to $547.04 in extended trading. In regular trading earlier, its shares fell $5.41, or 1 percent, to close at $529.91. The stock remains well below its peak of nearly $750 reached almost two years ago, but has more than doubled from its 52-week low of $247.30.

Google earned $1.64 billion, or $5.13 per share, in the three months ended in September. That represented a 27 percent increase from $1.29 billion, or $4.06 per share, at the same time last year.

Excluding expenses for employee stock compensation, Google said it would have made $5.89 per share — above the average estimate of $5.42 per share among analysts polled by Thomson Reuters.

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Revenue for the three months ending in September climbed 7 percent to $5.94 billion. That is Google's fastest growth rate so far this year.

In a telling sign that things are picking up again, Google's third-quarter revenue rose 8 percent from the second quarter. That's the biggest sequential quarterly increase since the end of 2007.

After subtracting commissions paid to Google's advertising partners, the company's revenue totaled $4.38 billion — about $140 million above analyst estimates.

Schmidt and other Google executives left no doubt that they believe the Mountain View-based company is poised to scale even greater financial heights in the next year or two. Among other things, they said the company's popular video service, YouTube, is getting closer to making money three years after Google bought it for $1.76 billion.

Feeling more emboldened, Schmidt said Google will start spending more liberally again after skimping on its expenses for the past year. The commitment includes hiring more employees after Google pruned its payroll for the past two quarters, paring its work force to 19,665 people at the end of September.

Google could be further along the comeback trail than other companies that depend on Internet advertising.

Part of the reason is because Google is such a dominant force; it process nearly two-thirds of the Internet search requests in the U.S. Advertisers are more likely to invest in search marketing because it only costs them when Web surfers click on their commercial messages.

Spending on online billboards — the kind of visual advertising that's Yahoo Inc.'s specialty — isn't expected to pick up until the economy gets even healthier.

Yahoo is scheduled to report its third-quarter earnings next week.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Intel stokes hopes for PC recovery

Intel Corp. has been asserting for months that the personal computer business is rebounding from its deepest slump in nearly a decade. Its stock jumped late Tuesday on signs things are picking up faster than expected, despite a few lingering trouble spots.

Intel reported after the market closed that its profit and sales both dipped 8 percent in the July-September period as spending by corporations remained weak, a trend that has dragged on throughout the recession and probably won't ease until next year.

The price for Intel's chips also fell. One reason is that "netbooks," little laptops that cost a few hundred dollars and have limited functions beyond surfing the Internet, have caught on but aren't big moneymakers. Another is that PC makers have slashed their prices on full-sized computers, and aren't willing to pay as much for the chips that go into them.

The results easily surpassed Wall Street's forecasts, however, and Intel's guidance for the October-December quarter of $9.7 billion to $10.5 billion in sales also topped projections.

As the first major technology company to report third-quarter earnings, Intel's numbers lend insight into the strength or weakness of PC makers' demand for new chips. What the figures don't necessarily show, though, is whether PC companies are stocking up on chips to replenish low supplies, or whether they expect especially brisk sales of computers. That will begin to play out in the coming weeks, as the holiday season gets under way and a new edition of Windows is released Oct. 22.

Intel had bumped up Wall Street's expectations twice ahead of Tuesday's report.

In August, the company raised its guidance, and last month CEO Paul Otellini predicted that PC sales could defy predictions by growing in 2009, which would avert the first year-over-year sales decline since 2001. Intel has been more optimistic than even some of its biggest customers. Hewlett-Packard Co. and Dell Inc., the top PC makers, have been reluctant to call a bottom in the PC market, as Otellini did in April.

Intel's net income was $1.9 billion, or 33 cents per share, down from $2.0 billion, or 35 cents a share, a year ago. Sales totaled $9.4 billion. Analysts had expected profit of 28 cents per share on sales of $9.0 billion, according to a poll by Thomson Reuters.

Another important number was Intel's gross profit margin, which was 57.6 percent of revenue. In the second quarter, the figure was 50.8 percent. The boost shows Intel is making its microprocessors cheaper to produce, a technological feat that comes from pouring billions of dollars into research and upgrading factories.

Intel shares jumped 99 cents, or 4.8 percent, to $21.48 in extended trading Tuesday. Before the earnings report the stock had closed at $20.49, up 9 cents on the day.

Friday, October 09, 2009

FCC launches probe of Google Voice service

Federal regulators will look into complaints by AT&T Inc. that Google Inc.'s free messaging and calling service, Google Voice, blocks calls to rural communities where local phone companies charge high connection fees.

The Federal Communications Commission on Friday sent a letter to Google requesting information about its Voice service, which lets people sign up for one number that can route incoming calls to cell, office or home phones. The service also lets users place calls, including international calls, at low rates.

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As part of a broader quarrel with Google, AT&T has complained that Google Voice blocks calls to phone numbers in some rural communities to reduce the access charges it must pay. So-called "common carrier" regulations prevent AT&T and other big phone companies from blocking those same calls.

Google Voice "has claimed for itself a significant advantage over providers offering competing services," AT&T said in a letter to the FCC last month. Those concerns were echoed in a letter sent to the FCC this week by 20 members of Congress who represent rural districts.

Among other things, the FCC is asking Google to explain how its Voice service works, whether it blocks calls to certain numbers and whether it informs users that it does so.

In a blog post Friday, Richard Whitt, Google's Washington telecom and media counsel, explained that Google Voice restricts calls to phone numbers held by companies that "charge exorbitant termination rates for calls" and "partner with adult sex chat lines and `free' conference calling centers to drive high volumes of traffic."

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He said Google could not afford to offer the service "if we paid these ludicrously high charges." Google also maintains that its Voice service should not be subject to common carrier laws because it is a free, Web-based software application, not a replacement for traditional phone service.

AT&T's complaint comes as the FCC prepares to vote Oct. 22 on "network neutrality" rules that would prohibit the big phone and cable companies from favoring or discriminating against Internet traffic flowing over their broadband networks.

That proposal has pitted Google and other Internet companies that support net neutrality against the big phone and cable companies, including AT&T, that want to be free of restrictions on what they can do with their networks.

AT&T's complaint to the FCC on Google Voice was an attempt to turn the tables on Google: AT&T claimed that Google Voice flouts net neutrality principles by blocking certain calling traffic.


But in his blog post on Friday, Google's Whitt said that "despite AT&T's lobbying efforts, this issue has nothing to do with network neutrality or rural America."

This is not the first time the FCC has looked at Google Voice. The agency has been investigating why Apple Inc. does not allow a Google Voice application to run on the iPhone — which is carried exclusively in the U.S. by AT&T.

That inquiry is ongoing, but it did prompt AT&T to reveal that under its agreement with Apple, Apple cannot enable any Internet calling applications that use AT&T's 3G network without AT&T's permission. AT&T reversed course on that rule this week.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Online ads: Big Brother or customer service?

U.S. marketers and consumer advocates are preparing for battle over the rules governing online advertising tailored to individual browsing habits,often tracked and collected without notice or permission.

The U.S. Congress is due to intervene in the issue in the coming weeks, with a bill in the House of Representatives that would oblige websites to state explicitly how they use the information and allow those using the site to opt out.

A billion-dollar industry and consumer privacy are at stake.

Advertisers and popular websites say visitors prefer ads that are targeted to their interests and must accept advertising as a necessary condition to obtain free content.

But 75 percent of Americans said in a recent survey they were opposed to tailored advertising if it meant their behavior surfing the Internet was being tracked.

"People want the benefits of the Web but don't know about the surveillance aspect," said Stephen Baker, author of "The Numerati," about the extent of online data collection. "And when they hear about it, they get the heebie-jeebies."

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Pennsylvania who surveyed 1,000 Americans from June 18 to July 2 concluded there was a deep concern that tracking Internet habits for tailoring ads was wrong.

The survey came at a time when the debate in Washington over privacy and online advertising is at a "roiling boil," said Mike Zaneis, vice president of public policy at the Interactive Advertising Bureau, an industry trade association.


"There's a battle for the online policy marketplace," Zaneis said, leading to "a paternalistic effort to restrict information online, even if it's anonymous."

Targeted ads account for $1.1 billion -- up from $500 million in 2007 -- or 4.5 percent of the overall $24.5 billion dollars projected for online advertising in 2009, according to eMarketer estimates.

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In Washington, Democratic Representative Rick Boucher and other House members are introducing bipartisan legislation later this year aimed at helping consumers better understand what information is collected about them and how it is used.

Boucher, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, told Reuters: "We want to enhance the sense of security and privacy protection,"

The bill would oblige websites to display a privacy policy and explain to users how their information was collected and how it would be used. It would also require sites to allow visitors to opt out of having their data used to create an advertisers' profile.

Last winter the Federal Trade Commission published guidelines for advertisers, which prompted the ad industry to put out its own set of self-regulatory principles in July.

Government agencies and consumer advocates argue that some form of regulation is needed to inform and protect consumers when they go online.

"The privacy implications of new technology are vast," said David Vladeck, head of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission.


Each time a consumer points his or her browser to a website, it creates what are called "cookies," essentially chunks of code that marketers can read and interpret to determine how to target their ads.

Consumers can avoid some of this tracking by either deleting cookies on their browser or by instructing the browser not to accept cookies. But this can also disrupt web surfing as many websites will not function properly with the cookie function turned off.

Consumers have been tracked and followed by advertisers in the offline world for generations, often through credit card information, or supermarket cards.

But the Internet raises the stakes because "people are living their lives online, for essential transactions," said Jeff Chester, of the consumer protection group Center for Digital Democracy.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

cellphone technology nowaday

You're walking down the street, looking for a good place to eat. You hold up your cell phone and use it like the viewfinder on a camera, so the screen shows what's in front of you. But it also shows things you couldn't see before: Brightly colored markers indicating nearby restaurants and bars.

Turn a corner, and the markers reflect the new scene. Click a marker for a restaurant, and you can see customer reviews and price information. Decide you'd rather be sightseeing? The indicators are easily changed to give information about the buildings you're passing.

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This computer-enhanced view of the world is not just available to cyborgs in science-fiction movies. Increasingly it can be found on cell phones, for free or on the cheap, through programs that provide "augmented reality." These applications take advantage of the phones' GPS and compass features
and access to high-speed wireless networks to mash up super-local Web content with the world that surrounds you.

That means you can see available apartments on the block you're moseying down. You can view photos other people have taken at the park you're passing, or find the nearest bus stop or hotel room — all by just holding your phone up and peering at its screen.

The possibilities for melding the virtual and actual worlds have just started to become apparent. The first phones with Google's Android operating system, which enables augmented reality, have come out in the past year. The iPhone became augmented-reality-friendly with the compass that debuted in June on the iPhone 3GS. Apple also recently joined Google in making it possible for software developers to overlay images on the phone's camera view.

As cell phones get even smarter and GPS and wireless networks improve, we may soon be spending more time in a virtually enhanced world, using information gathered from the Internet to inform everything from eating to playing video games.


One company working to make this happen is Amsterdam-based Layar, which recently released an augmented reality browser by the same name for Android phones. Layar lets you search for things on Google, but delivers the results based on your location, which it determines from the GPS readout. So you can search for, say, a bike shop or a pet store close to where you happen to be. If you don't feel like actively searching, you can sign up to have certain kinds of information automatically appear on your phone screen. For instance, Layar lets other companies build on its system to overlay information about such places as skateboarding spots and local landmarks. A startup called Brightkite uses Layar to let people post virtual tags, with their locations and activities, that other people can see if they use the same app.

Layar's goal is to create a "serendipitous experience" that lets you can discover new things about your surroundings, says co-creator Maarten Lens-Fitzgerald.

The company is working on a 3-D function, too, that it hopes to release in November. That will allow virtual objects to be placed "on" actual locations. A guy might be able to put a virtual heart in front of his girlfriend's house for Valentine's Day — and she would see it if she used the Layar app on her phone.

For a year, Yelp, a Web site with business reviews written by customers, had an iPhone app that used the device's GPS and wireless Internet connectivity to deliver local search results. But when the iPhone got a compass, bloggers wondered whether Yelp would go further and make its app overlay information onto a real-time view of the world. After noticing the speculation, Yelp quietly created such an app this summer, spokesman Vince Sollitto said.

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The augmented-reality program, known as Monocle, was built for Yelp by an industrious intern and originally hidden in Yelp's app. (It was activated if you shook the iPhone three times.) Monocle is now a formal feature that combines the iPhone's camera view with tiny tags indicating the names, distances and user ratings of proximate bars, restaurants and more. Poke a floating tag on the screen with your finger and up pops detailed information about the business.

Among the other augmented reality programs that recently have hit Apple's App Store is Robotvision, a 99-cent program built by Portland, Ore.-based developer Tim Sears.

If you hold your phone parallel to the ground, Robotvision displays a map of your surroundings. Hold the phone up, however, and it goes into augmented-reality mode, highlighting places like coffee shops and bars. Robotvision also can search for other kinds of businesses with Microsoft's Bing search engine.

You can view pictures that people took nearby and posted to Flickr with a "geotag" of the shot's physical location. Or you can see Twitter postings composed in the area.

Next Sears plans to update the application with local content from Wikipedia. "Looking at the world around you is something everyone can get. That, to me, is what makes it so fascinating," he said.

Consumers may feel that way initially, too. But Blair MacIntyre, an associate professor who runs the Augmented Environments Lab at Georgia Tech, worries that the technological limitations these applications currently face will keep them from living up to what people imagine they can do. Similar
disappointments followed early hype for virtual reality, a cousin of augmented reality in which the landscape is entirely computer generated.

Indeed, there are issues hindering augmented reality applications. Cell phones need to be more powerful, with improved cameras and graphics capabilities and more accurate GPS. The technology can generally pinpoint location to within 30 feet if a user is outdoors.

The limitations mean businesses you see on the screen are often not actually in front of you, though they are nearby. And often tags sometimes just kind of dart around on the screen, seemingly untethered to a physical place. Another problem: Using GPS for extended periods quickly sucks up the battery life on most phones.

Developers and industry watchers are optimistic, though, that in the next fewyears we might see everything from augmented reality video games to museum guide services that recognize paintings and can pull up videos showing the artist at work.

"Things are pretty cool right now," Sears says, "but they're definitely going to get better."

Monday, October 05, 2009

Web TV could come with a price tag after Comcast-NBC

Free TV shows on the Internet could be harder to find if Comcast Corp succeeds in acquiring a majority stake in NBC Universal.

Comcast would become a partner in Hulu, the video website which allows viewers to watch TV shows on the Web for free, a business potentially worth billions of dollars if consumers had to pay to watch the shows.

The video website is jointly owned by NBC Universal, News Corp and Walt Disney Co. Hulu is the most popular site in the United States for watching TV shows, according to comScore.

Comcast is in talks with General Electric Co, to buy 51 percent of NBC Universal, which would allow the cable operator to combine its cable assets with NBC's cable networks, movie studio and theme parks, according to people familiar with the talks.

Cable operators have downplayed investor fears that customers will drop cable for free TV on the Web. But privately they've warned TV networks they may stop paying affiliate fees if free TV shows keep cropping up on the Web.

Hulu had nearly 40 million unique viewers in August, web measurement company comScore said. That is more than Comcast's 24 million paying subscribers, which account for about $5 billion a quarter in revenue.

"We suspect Comcast believes it needs content to protect its landline distribution platform," Richard Greenfield, analyst at Pali Research, wrote in a note to investors on Friday. "It wants to mitigate the risk of becoming that scary 'dumb' pipe."

Comcast, the largest U.S. cable operator, has approached the Web's free TV threat by getting behind a service called TV Everywhere with Time Warner Inc. The idea behind TV Everywhere is to allow consumers to watch shows on the web -- so long as they are paying cable subscribers.

"This deal (Comcast-NBC) has major implications on the success of TV Everywhere," said Thomas Eagan, an analyst at Collins Stewart. "Comcast may decide to change Hulu to some degree to facilitate a premium Hulu service much faster."

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Comcast has even tried to match Hulu with its own free TV website, Fancast. But while Hulu has come from nowhere to become the sixth most visited video site in the U.S. in just 18 months, Fancast hasn't even cracked the Top 10.

"Hulu was started by NBC and Fox so they could compete with Comcast. So this is a defensive move to some extent by Comcast," said Kaufman Bros. analyst Todd Mitchell. "Hulu will just become another choice of Comcast's pay-TV buffet."

If Comcast has a stake in Hulu's future, as Mitchell suggests, it effectively reduces competition to the cable sector.

Since web video is still a fledgling sector, however, it is unlikely to raise the hackles of U.S. regulators, said analysts.

Indeed, the Federal Communications Commission is likely to focus on other concerns if General Electric Co, which controls NBC Universal, decides to sell a 51 percent stake to Comcast, as sources have said the two sides are talking about.

Namely, the FCC may be concerned about combining NBC Universal's national broadcast network, NBC, and its huge range of cable networks, like Bravo and USA, with the largest cable operator in the country.

Paul Gallant, a telecom regulation analyst with Washington-based Concept Capital, said the deal would likely be approved by antitrust regulators and the FCC.

"The primary reason is that the two companies do not have a great deal of product overlap, and thus the competitive concerns appear to be fairly limited," Gallant said.

Gallant said the FCC already has program access rules that ensure that cable operators who own programming sell it to competitors at reasonable rates.

TV operators such as DirecTV Group, DISH Network, Verizon, AT&T may ask the FCC for a more effective enforcement process.

"Should the FCC pursue this angle, it could potentially hinder Comcast from realizing the full value of NBCU's programming," Gallant said.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Bing vs. Google: Is Microsoft Losing Its Mojo?

Don't look now, but Microsoft's search engine may be starting to lose its momentum. Following a few months of modest growth, the search-engine-formerly-known-as-Live seems to be reverting toward its pre-Bing levels. According to some new data, Bing's market share slipped downward in September, marking the first blip in what had been a very slow but consistent climb for the recently rebranded site.

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Now, it's certainly too early to sing "ding dong, the Bing is dead" -- though if you really want a Bing-related song, don't let me stop you -- but the shift is an interesting change in the closely followed game of search engine smackdown.

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The new numbers, compiled by online metrics firm StatCounter, show Bing dropping to 8.47 percent of the U.S. market in September. That's a fall of 1.17 percent from its position in August.

Before Bing, Microsoft struggled to crack the 8 percent mark. But since its early June debut, the company has consistently ridden a wave of excitement upward each month, reaching 8.13 percent in June, 9.41 percent in July, and 9.64 percent in August. September's slip, then, is most noteworthy for being the end of Bing's initial growth trend.

Also of interest: Bing's lost customers, gauging from StatCounter's data, appear to have gone to Google. Google shot up from 77.83 percent of the U.S. search market in August to 80.12 percent in September. That's even higher than it sat before Bing's birth: This past May,prior to Bing's introduction, Google was holding only 78.72 percent of the American market.

Not that anyone's keeping count.

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So is Bing's honeymoon truly over? It's really too soon to say. The September slide could just be an anomaly; Bing may suddenly skyrocket to new heights in October.

Realistically, though, Bing's growth wasn't terribly gigantic even at the peak of Microsoft's marketing push. If all the promotion and news/blog coverage only managed to squeak Bing up by less than two percent, a significant growth spurt now seems unlikely.

Of course, there's still that whole Microsoft-Yahoo deal that could shake things up, at least behind the scenes. But it's still far from being approved: The U.S. Department of Justice is now said to be reviewing the partnership proposal, as are antitrust regulators in Europe. The Microsoft-Yahoo romance may or may not ever make it to the altar.

If all else fails, there's always the possibility of some good old-fashioned Microsoft-style bribery to bring the deal to fruition. Or the two companies could turn to Yahoo's latest strategy and start haphazardly tossing around exclamation points to see what falls where. Hey, you never know.

For now, though, we'll just have to stick a question mark at the end of this saga. Sorry, Yahoo.