Monday, 5 March 2012

REVIEW: Microsoft unveils Windows 8 for consumer testing

REVIEW: Microsoft unveils Windows 8 for consumer testing
Windows 8

BARCELONA, SPAIN — Microsoft is for the first time letting consumers try out its upcoming Windows 8 operating system, which it hopes will be used to power a new wave of computer tablets and traditional PCs.

The test "beta" version of the revamped system was introduced at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the planet's largest cell phone trade show.

Microsoft Corp. on Wednesday offered it up free for download, along with free applications in a new "Windows Store."

Windows 8 doesn't have the traditional "Start" menu and applications are spread across a mosaic of tiles in a design Microsoft calls "Metro."

The tiles, which resemble road signs, can be navigated with a finger swipe on the screen or with a keyboard and mouse.

REVIEW: Brand-name deals to mix with Facebook friend posts

REVIEW: Brand-name deals to mix with Facebook friend posts

 Brand-name deals to mix with Facebook friend posts

NEW YORK -- Messages from brands such as Walmart and Starbucks may soon be mixed in with your Facebook status updates and baby photos from friends and family.

Facebook unveiled new advertising opportunities Wednesday to help the world's biggest brands spread their messages on the world's largest online social network.

Brands you've endorsed by hitting the "like" button will now be able to push deals and other updates right into the news feeds that show your friends' updates, photos and links. These marketing messages could also show up if one of your friends has interacted with a brand, such as by liking it or commenting on a photo.

The new approach also means that advertisers will be able to reach users on mobile devices for the first time, giving Facebook a new and lucrative source of revenue.

The changes come ahead of Facebook's initial public offering of stock, expected this spring. The IPO could value the company at as much as $100 billion. That means Facebook has to prove it can bring in real advertising revenue from Target, Procter & Gamble and other massive brands.

"Facebook is making serious money from ads right now, but they are not making serious money from major brand advertisers. That's where the ad money is," said Rebecca Lieb, an analyst with the Altimeter Group. "They currently have rather low-rent, shoddy ads on Facebook."

That could change as Facebook starts integrating brands' messages into the news feeds of its 845 million users as part of a long-term vision of moving from ads to stories about brands.

Facebook made the announcement at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in a rare East Coast appearance for a Silicon Valley company that is now seriously courting Madison Avenue.

Rather than bombarding people with flashy ads, Facebook is urging companies to integrate themselves into what people are already doing on the site - talking to their friends and family, commenting on photos or posting news links.

"The definition of the word 'advertise' is to draw attention to," said Chris Cox, Facebook's vice president of product. "The definition of a story is narration, which you'd think is what people prefer."

Facebook has a vast trove of information about its users' lives, hobbies, likes and dislikes, yet the company has kept advertising fairly unobtrusive to date. Ads for teeth-whitening, wineries and laundry detergent and the like are relegated to the right side of users' Facebook pages. Over time, Web-savvy users have grown used to ads and many are tuning them out.

Those ads are not going away, but brands will now be able to push updates - or as Facebook likes to call, "stories" - right into the news feeds. Facebook's challenge will be to keep these ads as unobtrusive as possible so that users are not alienated or driven to "unlike" brands.

"I think they understand that people value authenticity," said Clara Shih, CEO of Hearsay Social, a marketing software company for businesses. "The new page format and the new ad format encourage authenticity and storytelling."

1-800-Flowers tested the new format through Valentine's Day this year. President Chris McCann said he saw a marked improvement in customer response to ads, and he looks forward to expanding the brand's reach.

"A typical page post reaches 16 percent of our fans," he said. "Now we have the opportunity to boost that to 70 to 75 percent."

Companies can continue to set up Facebook pages on their brands for free. They'd pay to insert updates into news feeds and elsewhere based on the number of fans they have. In other words, posting the message will remain free, but getting more people to see it will cost money.

REVIEW: Google to dig deeper into users' lives

REVIEW: Google to dig deeper into users' lives

If you're amazed - and maybe a little alarmed - about how much Google Inc. seems to know about you, brace yourself. Beginning today, March 1, Google will operate under a streamlined privacy policy that enables it to dig even deeper into the lives of its more than one billion users.

Google says the changes make it easier for consumers to understand how it collects personal information, and allow the company to create more helpful and compelling services. Critics, including most of the country's state attorneys general and a top regulator in Europe, argue that Google is trampling on privacy rights in a relentless drive to sell more ads - the main source of its $38 billion in annual revenue.

REVIEW: Smartphones have led, and Desktops will follow

REVIEW: Smartphones have led, and Desktops will follow
 Smartphones have led, and Desktops 

BARCELONA, Spain — These days much of the action in the world of gadgets is happening in smartphones — like their sophisticated design and the apps that run on them. That has left desktop and laptop computers looking a little dull in comparison.

Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg News
Steven Sinofsky of Microsoft described Windows 8 as a “generational change” in how the company viewed its suite of products.
So computers are suddenly getting more phonelike.

Microsoft and Apple are leading the charge in this area. On Wednesday, Microsoft took the wraps off its latest operating system for computers and tablets, Windows 8, which mimics the look and feel of the company’s new software for phones. And Apple recently offered a preview of its next operating system for Macs, incorporating familiar elements from the iPhone and iPad.

“All of the major innovation for PCs is coming from the mobile phone,” said Tim Coulling, an analyst at the research firm Canalys.

The companies hope this strategy will give them added leverage in the market for tablets and smartphones, which is growing to rival the market for personal computers. And it could also help them sell more computers or, in Microsoft’s case, software for computers.

People who buy an iPad or iPhone, for example, might be more inclined to also buy a Mac computer if they work together seamlessly and have features that operate the same way on both devices. For Apple, which still has only a small share of the computer business, that could be a big advantage.

In Microsoft’s case, it needs to defend its traditional dominance of the PC operating system business with software that is versatile enough to also run on tablet computers.

This idea of a “continuum of computing” across various devices has long been “a promise of the future,” said Carolina Milanesi, a research analyst who covers the mobile industry for Gartner. “But now it is critical for success among consumers.”

Apple and Microsoft share an enemy in Google, which has the most popular cellphone operating system in Android but does not have a strong presence in software for computers. Part of Google’s strategy is to make up for that by offering sites and services on the Web that tie in with Android devices. This week the company unveiled a version of its Web browser, Chrome, that lets users synchronize their Web searches between their mobile devices and computers.

In the case of Apple’s next version of its computer operating system, called Mountain Lion, Apple has added several features that were previously mobile-only. It has revamped the Mac’s iChat software to be called Messages and made it work with the iMessage texting software in iPads and iPhones.

Mountain Lion, which is due out this summer, will also include Notification Center, a mobile feature that consolidates the cacophony of incoming e-mail messages, chat messages and online friend requests into a single window pane.

With Windows 8, which became available in a preview version on Wednesday, the inspiration Microsoft is drawing from its Windows Phone software for smartphones is striking. Windows 8 uses the same touch-friendly interface that Microsoft uses in Windows Phone. The interface, known as Metro, features a mosaic of tiles that can be tapped to start up applications, and that often spring to life with photos, e-mails and other new content from the Internet.

Windows 8 is intended to run both on tablet devices operated exclusively through a touchscreen and on more traditional computers controlled mainly by a keyboard and mouse. Microsoft executives have promised that the software works equally well either way.

And Windows 8 users will be able to switch from the Metro interface to a more traditional-looking Windows desktop if they wish. Bill Flora, a former Microsoft designer who was involved in creating Metro, said Microsoft needed to give users both options because it does not want to alienate the vast numbers of people who are used to the traditional Windows appearance.

“It’s such a huge aircraft carrier they are trying to move,” Mr. Flora said. “They want to carry people along rather than make a clean break.”

At Microsoft’s event at a mountaintop hotel here, Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows division, described Windows 8 as a “generational change” in how the company views its suite of products because of the way it creates a “unified OS experience across devices.”

REVIEW: AMD to buy Seamicro for $334 mln to serve more

REVIEW: AMD to buy Seamicro for $334 mln to serve more

SUNNYVALE, Calif. -- Advanced Micro Devices  is buying low-power server vendor SeaMicro, a surprise move that puts AMD in the systems business and disrupts Intel Copr. by acquiring one of its close partners.

AMD said Wednesday it will pay US$334 million in cash and stock for SeaMicro, an 80-employee Silicon Valley startup that has gained attention for building highly dense and power-efficient servers for use in large-scale cloud computing environments. SeaMicro CEO Andrew Feldman will become general manager of a new division at AMD, the data centre server solutions group.

AMD plans to sell SeaMicro-branded servers directly to customers, but it bought the company primarily for its technology, which it hopes to license to other server vendors to build their own low-power systems, AMD officials said.

"SeaMicro has a proven technology that has been benchmarked in key customer sites to show improvements in power consumption and total cost of ownership. That [intellectual property] was very attractive to us," said Lisa Su, senior vice-president and general manager for AMD's products division.

The move will be seen as a setback to Intel, which had formed a tight partnership with SeaMicro. All the servers SeaMicro currently sells are based on low-power Intel Atom processors, and just a few weeks ago the companies held a joint press conference where Intel sang SeaMicro's praises.

AMD [NYSE: AMD] will continue to sell SeaMicro servers based on Intel processors "for the foreseeable future," Lu said. By the end of this year, she said, it will release the first SeaMicro servers based on AMD Opteron processors.

Feldman wouldn't say when SeaMicro and AMD began talks but said the deal came about "unbelievably quickly." He said there were other suitors for the company, including non-chip vendors.

Jason Waxman, general manager of Intel's data centre business unit, said Intel would be happy to keep providing its processors for SeaMicro servers. If AMD chooses not to use them, other server vendors, including Dell, are also using Intel [Nasdaq: INTC] chips in low-power, scale-out servers, he noted.

Working closely with startups always presents risks, Waxman said. "We wouldn't be doing our job if we didn't anticipate these things," he said in an interview. He suggested Intel might develop its own equivalent of SeaMicro's technology if its customers demand it.

SeaMicro developed an interconnect technology that allows it to eliminate all but three of the chips on a standard server motherboard. That allowed it to develop servers that it claims consume one quarter the power and one sixth the space of standard x86 servers.

Its products are geared primarily towards high volume, Web-based transaction workloads that don't require the computing muscle of a traditional Xeon or Opteron server processor. Mozilla uses SeaMicro servers, for instance, to deliver software updates to users.

It's not clear which AMD processor SeaMicro will use as an alternative to Intel's Atom chip, though AMD has several low-power offerings and plans to release a new, low-power chip for tablets, code named Hondo, later this year.

However, SeaMicro has said its technology can also benefit servers based on more powerful processors. A server based on an Opteron chip would be efficient for running MySQL and MondoDB database workloads, Feldman said, as well as PHP applications used by many online services. It could also be used to build efficient supercomputers, he said.

It's a new direction for AMD, one it hopes will allow it to expand its server business and capitalize on the fast-growing cloud computing market. Spending on servers for such "scale out data centers" is expected to grow 33 percent a year on average for the next several years, AMD said, faster than the server market as a whole.

The move puts AMD in the difficult position of competing with some of its customers, though Lu insisted that will not be a problem. The scale of SeaMicro's business today is much smaller than that of  Hewlett-Packard Co. or Dell, she said, and AMD thinks the value of SeaMicro's technology to server vendors will outweigh their competitive concerns.

REVIEW: Super-human brain technology sparks ethics debate

REVIEW: Super-human brain technology sparks ethics debate
Super-human brain technology sparks ethics debate

LONDON (Reuters) - A British ethics group has launched a debate on the ethical dilemmas posed by new technologies that tap into the brain and could bring super-human strength, highly enhanced concentration or thought-controlled weaponry.

With the prospect of future conflicts between armies controlling weapons with their minds, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics launched a consultation on Thursday to consider the risks of blurring the lines between humans and machines.

Factbox: Neurotechnologies in spotlight of UK ethics review

"Intervening in the brain has always raised both hopes and fears in equal measure. Hopes of curing terrible diseases, and fears about the consequences of trying to enhance human capability beyond what is normally possible," said Thomas Baldwin, a professor of philosophy at Britain's York University who is leading the study.

"These challenge us to think carefully about fundamental questions to do with the brain: What makes us human? What makes us an individual? And how and why do we think and behave in the way we do?."

The Council, an independent body which looks at ethical issues raised by new developments in biology and medicine, wants to focus on three main areas of neurotechnologies that change the brain: brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), neurostimulation techniques such as deep brain stimulation (DBS) or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), and neural stem cell therapy.

These technologies are already at various stages of development for use in the treatment of medical conditions including Parkinson's disease, depression and stroke, and experts think they could bring significant benefits, especially for patients with severe brain disease or damage.


But they also have huge potential outside the health context. In military applications, BCIs are being used to develop weapons or vehicles controlled remotely by brain signals, and there is big commercial scope in the gaming industry with the development of computer games controlled by people's thoughts.

Speaking at a briefing to launch the consultation, Baldwin said the estimated total global market for all neurotechnologies - including pharmaceuticals for the treatment of brain disorders - is around $150 billion.

"Setting pharmaceuticals aside, the value of the market for the devices and technologies we are dealing with is something in the region of $8 billion, and growing fast," he said.

Kevin Warwick, a professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading and a supporter of more neurotechnology research, said some experimental brain technologies had great potential in medicine.

"From the brain signals, a brain computer interface could translate a person's desire to move ... and then use those signals to operate a wheelchair or other piece of technology," he said. "For someone who has locked-in syndrome, for example, and cannot communicate, a BCI could be life-changing."

But he and Baldwin also stressed there are concerns about safety of some experimental techniques that involve implants in the brain, and about the ethics of using such technology in other medicine and other fields.

Sony reviewed and says it has sold 1.2M units of the handheld PlayStation Vita

Sony reviewed and says it has sold 1.2M units of the handheld PlayStation Vita

Sony says it has sold 1.2 million PlayStation Vitas worldwide, exceeding the company's expectations amid stiff competition from mobile devices and Nintendo.

The handheld game system launched last week in North America, Latin America, Europe and elsewhere. It went on sale in December in Japan and other parts of Asia.

Sony Corp. did not break out figures by region, so it's not known how many of the sales came from last week's launch. The sales figures were through Sunday.

More than 2 million games have been sold for the device. The Vita costs $250 or $300 in the U.S. depending on what type of wireless connection you want. It has touch controllers both on the front screen and in the back and two traditional analog controllers to use for shooters and a bevy of other games.

The Vita launch comes at a difficult time for dedicated handheld video game machines. Many people now play "Angry Birds," "Words with Friends" and other games on their smartphones and tablet computers. Getting them to spend several hundred dollars on a system that does games and not much else is a challenge.

Nintendo Co.'s 3DS hasn't sold as well as expected, though a recent price cut has helped some. As of December, the latest available figure, Nintendo said it had sold more than 15 million units of the 3DS. The gadget went on sale last March in the U.S. and a month earlier in Japan.

Microsoft, the third major maker of video gaming systems, does not have a handheld gaming machine and has instead focused on the Xbox 360 console.