Monday, February 28, 2011

Google tweaks search to punish 'low-quality' sites

Google has tweaked the formulas steering its Internet search engine to take the rubbish out of its results. The overhaul is designed to lower the rankings of what Google deems "low-quality" sites.
That could be a veiled reference to such sites as Demand Media's, which critics call online "content farms" — that is, sites producing cheap, abundant, mostly useless content that ranks high in search results.

Sites that produce original content or information that Google considers valuable are supposed to rank higher under the new system.

The change announced late Thursday affects about 12 percent, or nearly one in every eight, search requests in the U.S. Google Inc. said the new ranking rules eventually will be introduced in other parts of the world, too. The company tweaks its search algorithms, or formulas, hundreds of times a year, but most of the changes are so subtle that few people notice them. This latest change will be more difficult to miss, according to Google engineers.

"Google depends on the high-quality content created by wonderful websites around the world, and we do have a responsibility to encourage a healthy web ecosystem," Google fellow Amit Singhal and principal engineer Matt Cutts wrote in a blog post. "Therefore, it is important for high-quality sites to be rewarded, and that's exactly what this change does."

Google makes significant adjustments to its search formula on the same scale as the latest change four or five times a year, Singhal said in a statement Friday.
What makes the new revisions so notable is that Google spent about a year trying to come up with a way to judge the quality of the content posted on the site.

That focus could hurt Demand Media, which depends on search engines for about 41 percent of the traffic to its websites, with most of those referrals coming from Google, according to documents filed last month after the company completed an initial public offering of stock.

Demand Media, based in Santa Monica, assigns roughly 13,000 freelance writers to produce stories about frequently searched topics and then sells ads alongside the content at its own websites, including and, and about 375 Internet other destinations operated by its partners. Articles range from the likes of "How to Tie Shoelaces" to "How to Bake a Potato" and more.

Many of the ads appearing alongside those articles are sold by Google, which accounts for about one-fourth of Demand Media's revenue of $253 million last year.

Demand Media said it doesn't consider itself a "content farm" or "content mill," but rather as a more responsive approach to addressing topics on people's minds.
"We believe that our platform for satisfying today's consumer demand is the most comprehensive and effective of any online publisher," Demand Media CEO Richard Rosenblatt told analysts earlier this week after the company announced the first quarterly profit in its four-year history. "The standards we put in place, the process that we follow, and most important, the qualified professionals we rely on to create and copy at the solution are unprecedented in traditional and new media.definition."

In a Friday blog post, another Demand Media executive said the company applauds search engine changes that "improve the consumer experience." Google's revisions caused some of Demand Media's articles to rank higher and other to rank lower in search results, wrote Larry Fitzgibbon, Demand Media's executive vice president of media and operations.

"It's impossible to speculate how these or any changes made by Google impact any online business in the long term — but at this point in time, we haven't seen a material net impact," Fitzgibbon wrote.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Inside Motorola's Xoom: Plenty of horsepower

Motorola's new Xoom tablet computer has enough power under the hood to challenge Apple Inc.'s iPad, according to analysis by market researchers IHS iSuppli, but buyers might be disappointed to find that it will need new hardware to work on new, high-speed networks.
The Xoom is seen as the first real competition for the iPad — or at least for the first generation of Apple's wildly popular device, which launched a year ago. Other gadget makers have tried to mimic Apple's success with the keyboardless, touch-screen computer, but the iPad remains the nascent market's clear leader, and Apple is expected to unveil the second-generation iPad next week.

Motorola's Xoom, which went on sale Thursday, may have the best shot yet at winning a slice of the tablet business from Apple. Motorola's tablet has a 10.1-inch screen, slightly larger than the iPad's, and dual cameras for video chatting and recording high-definition video.

The original iPad didn't come with a camera, though the second generation is rumored to also have front and back cameras. The Xoom is the first tablet running a new version of Google Inc.'s Android software designed specifically for tablets, rather than earlier versions that were meant to work on much smaller smart phones.

While Apple's iPad costs $499 to $829, depending on storage space and Internet configuration, the Xoom comes in one model with one price — $800, or $600 with a two-year contract with Verizon Wireless.

When IHS iSuppli opened up the Xoom, it spotted two components that should make for a speedy device. One is a dual-core processor from Nvidia, which controls how fast the gadget runs its software. In theory at least, this should be about twice as speedy as Apple's own chip.
The Xoom also packs more of the type of memory that helps applications run faster.

"On paper, Motorola's Xoom should be running laps around the iPad," said iSuppli analyst Wayne Lam said. In practice, however, he said it also depends on how well Google's software takes advantage of the powerful hardware.

Motorola appears to have skimped a bit on the quality of the display, at least compared with what Apple was willing to spend. Lam said the Xoom has a more limited range of colors. The iPad will also do a better job of showing people what's on the screen even if they're not looking at the device head-on, whereas on the Xoom, the image will appear to fade out when the tablet is held at an angle.

The parts of the Xoom that control how touch-sensitive the screen is, however, are on par with what's inside the iPad, Lam said.

In terms of battery life, the iPad, which runs for about 10 hours, may still have an edge, though this, too, depends on software and other factors. The iPad has two batteries that are each twice as big as the single battery in the Xoom, Lam said.
One of the Xoom's distinguishing features is that the tablet can be upgraded in the future to work on Verizon's speedy new "4G," or fourth-generation, network, which is expected to be available in nearly 40 cities by the end of this year. Lam said he was surprised to find out that Motorola didn't build the necessary 4G radios into the Xoom — instead, people will need to hand over their tablet for a hardware upgrade.

In addition to GPS, an accelerometer, a gyroscope and other sensors also found in Apple's newer gadgets, the Xoom has a built-in atmospheric pressure monitor that Lam thinks could be used to help people navigate large indoor spaces, because that could help figure out whether the user is on the first floor or the fifth, for example.

"What happened here is a perfect storm. Google came up with Android 3.0," Lam said, "and Motorola seized the moment to come up with high-end hardware."

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Motorola's Xoom: The iPad Gets Some Serious Competition

When Steve Jobs strode onstage and unveiled the iPad in January of 2010, he should have ended his presentation by firing a starting pistol. The news left nearly every other big computer and consumer-electronics maker racing to get into the tablet market that Jobs' iPad had suddenly created.
As it happens, the competition turned out to be a marathon. More than a year later, we're still talking about tablets that are huffing and puffing their way towards the showroom floor. There's RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook, slated to arrive by the end of March. HP's Web OS-based TouchPad is due this summer. And dozens of other models are on their way. The pace has been so plodding that Apple's second-generation iPad - which it will announce next week - will apparently beat most other companies' first-generation models to market. (See the latest geek culture stories at

Then there's Motorola's Xoom, which goes on sale at Verizon retail locations this Thursday. (I've been testing a pre-release unit provided by Motorola and Verizon for the past few days.) It's the first honest-to-goodness, no-qualifications-necessary iPad rival from a major manufacturer to hit stores. That's in large part because it's also the first to pack Android 3.0 Honeycomb, the operating system that Google designed specifically with tablets in mind. The Xoom has its fair share of raw edges, but it's a great leap beyond earlier Android-based tablets such as Samsung's Galaxy Tab, which took the unsatisfying shortcut of using earlier versions of Android that were meant for smartphones.

Verizon will sell the Xoom for $799.99, a hefty $300.99 premium over the current iPad's starting price of $499; you can get a $200 discount if you commit to two years' worth of data service. The pricing disparity between Motorola and Apple isn't as alarming as it looks at first blush, though. With its built-in Verizon wireless connection and 32GB of storage, the Xoom is most directly comparable to the $729 AT&T version of the iPad. And it has far beefier specs than any Apple tablet, including a dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 processor, 1GB of RAM, and two cameras - a 2-megapixel model up front for Google Talk video calls and a 5-megapixel one in back for taking snapshots and capturing HD video. (The first-gen iPad has a single-core processor, a quarter of the Xoom's RAM, and zero cameras.)

Unlike the current iPad, the Xoom will also be a 4G wireless device, thanks to Verizon's zippy LTE network - but not until the second quarter of this year, according to Motorola. For now, it comes with 3G and the promise of a free upgrade. That's one of several telltale signs that it was rushed out the door. Adobe's Flash Player software, which will let Xoom owners get at Flash Web videos and games that don't work on the iPad, won't be ready for a few weeks. And there's a dormant slot for MicroSD memory cards that Motorola plans to enable it in an upcoming software update.
Even if the Xoom is a work in progress, it already does many things well. The tablet is sheathed in a plastic case rather than the iPad's aluminum, but it's pleasing to the eye and touch; slightly thinner than the iPad, the Xoom tips the scales at an identical 1.6 pounds. It also out-iPads the iPad by doing away with even that tablet's single physical button on the front. (Curiously, however, there's a button on the back - the power switch, which sits next to the right-hand speakers.) (See the best netbooks and netbook accessories.)

The display measures 10.1" diagonally, giving it a skosh more elbow room (and more pixels) than the iPad's 9.7" screen. When you meet a Xoom in person, though, the most striking difference is aspect ratio, not size. Apple's tablet has a 4:3 display that's reminiscent of a book or magazine; Motorola's has a 16:10 widescreen that makes it look more like a miniature HDTV.

Of course, wider isn't always better: The iPad's less exaggerated dimensions are superior for reading e-books and other text-centric tasks. But in landscape orientation, the Xoom's extra space makes for comfier typing on the on-screen keyboard. It's also well-proportioned for HD movies.

You may have noticed that I didn't unequivocally say that the Xoom's screen beats the iPad for movies. That's because it doesn't. I found videos, photos and other graphics to be blockier, blurrier, and/or duller than on the iPad and the Galaxy Tab. Video calls in Google Chat, which you can make over both 3G and Wi-Fi connections, also looked murky. The display looked better when I manually cranked up the brightness - it may err on the dim side to conserve battery juice - but it was still no knockout.

(Speaking of battery life, I haven't had the tablet long enough to render any definitive verdicts about its endurance; Motorola claims ten hours of video playback on a charge, which seems plausible based on my limited experiences so far.) (See "Laptop Battery Life Has Officially Reached Insane Levels.")

On the software side, the Xoom brings major benefits in the form of Honeycomb, an operating system which upsizes Android for bigger screens and also solves some long-standing flaws. It's slicker and less nerdy than earlier versions of the OS as seen on phones such as Samsung's Nexus S and Motorola's Atrix, and no longer reliant on physical buttons and menus that tend to obscure features rather than reveal them.
Instead of using an excess of buttons, Honeycomb puts options such as the ability to step backwards through apps on a control strip that lives at the bottom of the screen no matter how you hold the tablet - a much more elegant and approachable solution than previously used. There are still menus, but they're at the top of the screen where they're easier to spot, and they feel less like they've had a kitchen sink's worth of features jammed into them.

Honeycomb also smartly reworks the standard Android apps, including a browser, Google Maps, Google Talk, YouTube, a music player, a photo album, a calendar, and more to take advantage of a spacious tablet display. YouTube, for instance, incorporates both a video viewer and thumbnail images of clips on a single screen. Like the iPad's Mail program, the Gmail and Email clients show folders on the left and the contents of your inbox on the right. (Yes, there are still separate email apps for Gmail and for everything else, continuing a lingering Android mystery.)

Several more-powerful-than-the-iPad features which feel cramped or overcomplicated on Android phones realize their full potential on the Xoom. A status panel in the lower right-hand corner is a slicker version of Windows' System Tray, tracking incoming mail, downloads in progress, and the like. Widgets - itty-bitty applets that sit directly on the desktop - benefit greatly from the roomier display.
All in all, the Honeycomb-powered Xoom feels like Motorola and Google took a powerful subnotebook computer, sheared off the keyboard, and replaced it with a nicely-designed touch interface. That's a very different experience than the ultra-streamlined, push-button world of the iPad, but it's a legitimate one in its own right. (Can you be in love with your gadgets? Study says yes.)

As with other aspects of the Xoom, parts of Honeycomb do have a not-quite-finished quality. Both the browser and the photo viewer have crashed on me - one time apiece - and I've encountered a few odd freezes that were likely the result of glitchy software rather than underpowered hardware. Otherwise, the tablet's high-end innards delivered an experience at least as fluid as the iPad, even when I had a bunch of programs open.
The fact that the Xoom will be joined by Honeycomb devices from Dell, Lenovo, LG, Toshiba, and other manufacturers should encourage third-party developers to build apps that take advantage of this Android upgrade. Honeycomb is compatible with existing apps in Google's Android market (most of them, anyhow - I had trouble with Facebook and Twitter). But they tend to wind up with vast amounts of unused screen space, as if they were wearing an XXL user interface when they'd really fit into a Small. Like iPhone apps on the iPad, phone-sized Android programs are really just stopgaps until a critical mass of true tablet apps come along. (The iPad got over that hump quickly - there are now 60,000+ apps designed just for it.)

At a recent Google press event, developers demoed some attractive upcoming Honeycomb programs, such as a version of TIME's sister mag Sports Illustrated; I was also able to try a few promising ones on the Xoom, including the Pulse news reader. Apps for streaming or downloading music and movies will be particularly essential: There are rumors of an imminent Google Music service, but the Xoom I tried doesn't incorporate anything that competes with Apple's iTunes Store.

So, what's the best buying strategy for would-be tablet buyers now that the Xoom is here? That's easy: Wait! At the very least, you want to see what Apple has to say about the new iPad next Wednesday. Bide your time a bit longer, and you'll have even more tablets to choose from. Chances are that the Xoom will remain a contender no matter what the next few months bring. And the Xoom of the near future - with 4G wireless, Flash, a working SD slot, more tablet apps, and, with any luck, a less crash-prone version of Honeycomb - will be that much better equipped to compete.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Honeycomb-powered Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 on deck

While Samsung has yet to officially announce a follow-up to its seven-inch, Android 2.2-powered tablet from late last year, there's little doubt that the mobile giant will soon have a souped-up, Android 3.0 "Honeycomb"-powered sequel to show off.
Now comes word that a second-generation Samsung Galaxy Tab may take the spotlight Sunday, a day before the curtain rises on Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Pocket-lint claims to have the scoop on the new Tab, which (according to various unnamed sources) will arrive with a 10.1-inch display, an eight-megapixel camera, and a dual-core Qualcomm processor under the hood (pretty much de rigueur for the latest and greatest tablets and smartphones).

The revamped Tab will also boast Honeycomb, Google's tablet-focused version of the Android OS, says Pocket-lint. The current Tab runs on Android 2.2, an older version of Android that lacks Honeycomb's sleek new multitasking and notification features.

Pocket-lint's spies add that while the Tab 2's 10.1-inch display will dwarf the seven-inch screen on the current model, the new Tab will actually be "thinner and lighter" than the original—and indeed, the revamped Tab may end up being "physically smaller" than the first iPad, which has a 9.7-inch screen.

The original Galaxy Tab has only been on the market since November, and it marked the first major Android-based tablet to go on sale through a big U.S. carrier.

The Tab was joined last month by the Dell Streak 7, another seven-inch, Android 2.2-based tablet.

But both the Galaxy Tab and the Streak will soon face competition from such dual-core, Honeycomb-enabled competitors as the Motorola Xoom and the LG G-Slate, not to mention the widely-expected iPad 2.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Wireless advances could mean no more cell towers

As cell phones have spread, so have large cell towers — those unsightly stalks of steel topped by transmitters and other electronics that sprouted across the country over the last decade.
Now the wireless industry is planning a future without them, or at least without many more of them. Instead, it's looking at much smaller antennas, some tiny enough to hold in a hand. These could be placed on lampposts, utility poles and buildings — virtually anywhere with electrical and network connections.

If the technology overcomes some hurdles, it could upend the wireless industry and offer seamless service, with fewer dead spots and faster data speeds.

Some big names in the wireless world are set to demonstrate "small cell" technologies at the Mobile World Congress, the world's largest cell phone trade show, which starts Monday in Barcelona, Spain.

"We see more and more towers that become bigger and bigger, with more and bigger antennas that come to obstruct our view and clutter our landscape and are simply ugly," said Wim Sweldens, president of the wireless division of Alcatel-Lucent, the French-U.S. maker of telecommunications equipment.

"What we have realized is that we, as one of the major mobile equipment vendors, are partially if not mostly to blame for this."

Alcatel-Lucent will be at the show to demonstrate its "lightRadio cube," a cellular antenna about the size and shape of a Rubik's cube, vastly smaller than the ironing-board-sized antennas that now decorate cell towers. The cube was developed at the famous Bell Labs in New Jersey, birthplace of many other inventions when it was AT&T's research center.

In Alcatel-Lucent's vision, these little cubes could soon begin replacing conventional cell towers. Single cubes or clusters of them could be placed indoors or out and be easily hidden from view. All they need is electrical power and an optical fiber connecting them to the phone company's network.

The cube, Sweldens said, can make the notion of a conventional cell tower "go away." Alcatel-Lucent will start trials of the cube with carriers in September. The company hopes to make it commercially available next year.

For cell phone companies, the benefits of dividing their networks into smaller "cells," each one served by something like the cube antenna, go far beyond esthetics. Smaller cells mean vastly higher capacity for calls and data traffic.

Instead of having all phones within a mile or two connect to the same cell tower, the traffic could be divided between several smaller cells, so there's less competition for the cell tower's attention.

"If it is what they claim, lightRadio could be a highly disruptive force within the wireless industry," said Dan Hays, who focuses on telecommunications at consulting firm PRTM.

Rasmus Hellberg, director of technical marketing at wireless technology developer Qualcomm Inc., said smaller cells can boost a network's capacity tenfold, far more than can be achieved by other upgrades to wireless technology that are also in the works.

That's sure to draw the interest of phone companies. They've already been deploying older generations of small-cell technology in areas where a lot of people gather, like airports, train stations and sports stadiums, but these are expensive and complicated to install.

In New York City, AT&T Inc. has started creating a network of outdoor Wi-Fi hotspots, starting in Times Square and now spreading through the midtown tourist and shopping districts. Its network has been hammered by an onslaught of data-hungry iPhone users, and this is one way of moving that traffic off the cellular network.

Smaller cells could do the same job, but for all phones, not just Wi-Fi enabled ones like the iPhone. They could also carry calls as well as data.

San Diego-based Qualcomm will be at the Barcelona show with a live demonstration of how "heterogeneous networks" — ones that mix big and small cells, can work. A key issue is minimizing radio interference between the two types of cells. Another hurdle is connecting the smaller cells to the bigger network through optical fiber or other high-capacity connections.

"That's an impediment that we're seeing many operators struggling with right now as data volumes have increased," Hays said.

LM Ericsson AB, the Swedish company that's the largest maker of wireless network equipment in the world, is also introducing a more compact antenna at the show, one it calls "the first stepping stone towards a heterogeneous network."

Small cellular base stations have already penetrated hundreds of thousands of U.S. homes. Phone companies like AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel Corp. have for several years been selling "femtocells," which are about the size of a Wi-Fi router and connect to the phone company's network through a home broadband connection.

The cells project radio signals that cover a room or two, providing five bars of coverage where there might otherwise be none.

British femtocell maker Ubiquisys Ltd. will be in Barcelona to demonstrate the smallest cell yet. It's the size of a thumb and plugs into a computer's USB drive. According to Ubiquisys, the idea is that overseas travellers will plug it into their Internet-connected laptops to make calls as if they were on their home network, but there are potential problems with interference if used that way.

According to Rupert Baines, marketing head of Picochip Ltd., a more realistic application for a tiny plug-in cell is to make it work with cable boxes or Internet routers, to convert them into femtocells.

A key part of the "small cell" idea is to take femtocells outside the home, into larger buildings and even outdoors.

Picochip, a British company that's the dominant maker of chips for femtocells, will be in Barcelona to talk about its chips for "public-access" femtocells, designed to serve up to 64 phone calls at a time, with a range of more than a mile. They could be used not just to ease wireless congestion in urban areas, but to fill in dead spots on the map, Baines said.

For instance, a single femtocell could provide wireless service to a remote village, as long as there's some way to connect it to the wider network, perhaps via satellite.

Analyst Francis Sideco of research firm iSuppli pointed out a surprising consumer benefit of smaller cells: better battery life in phones.

When a lot of phones talk to the same tower, they all have to "shout" to make themselves heard, using more energy. With a smaller cell, phones can lower their "voices," much like group of people moving from a noisy ballroom to a smaller, quieter room.

"Ultimately, what you end up with is a cleaner signal, with less power," Sideco said.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Dual-display Echo smartphone: double the touchscreen, double the fun?

Armed with a pair of 3.5-inch touchscreens, the Kyocera Echo will let you surf on one display while checking e-mail on the other—or you can combine both screens into a single, 4.7-inch panel, so long as you don't mind the gap in the middle.
Slated to arrive on Sprint this spring for $200 with a two-year contract, the Android 2.2-powered Echo comes with a 1GHz Snapdragon under the hood, along with those twin 3.5-inch, 800-by-480 LCD displays.
Using a special "pivot hinge," you can slide the phone closed for a standard single-display view or open it up to expose both screens, which together measure 4.7 inches diagonally. As you might expect, the dual-display design makes for a relatively thick, hefty handset, with the Echo measuring (according to Sprint's specs) 0.68 inches thick and tipping the scales at 6.8 ounces.
So, how will two 3.5-inch displays be better than one, exactly? According to Sprint and Kyocera, the Echo will arrive with four distinct modes: a regular single-screen mode for when the handset is closed; a "tablet" mode that lets you spread an app across both screens (with a space in the middle for the hinge, of course); an "optimized" mode that, for example, lets you view photos on one display and a thumbnailed gallery index on the other; and a "simultask" mode for running separate applications on each screen. Interesting.
Apps for messaging, Web browsing, photo viewing, watching YouTube videos, and contacts/calling have been tweaked for use with the Echo's "simultask" mode, says Sprint, while developers will be able to optimize their apps for the Echo's twin screens with an upcoming SDK.
The Echo will also boast a 5-megapixel camera with 720p video capture, according to Sprint—nice, but no sign of a front-facing lens for video chat.
And while the Echo supports Sprint's 3G network and lets you share its connection with up to five nearby Wi-Fi devices, the handset won't work with the carrier's speedy 4G WiMax network.
Also on board: 1GB of RAM and a slot for microSD memory expansion (an 8GB microSD card ships with the phone), stereo Bluetooth, GPS, a digital compass/accelerometer combo, and two removable 1370mAh batteries (a main battery plus a spare).
So, what do you think of the Echo—innovative? Gimmicky? Not sure 'till you try it? (Personally, I'm reserving judgement until I see the Echo in person.) Fire away below.