Archive for October 7, 2011

As Facial Recognition Improves, New Privacy Controversies Await

If you think recently-unveiled products like the Facebook Timeline and Amazon’s cloud-powered Silk Web browser have raised privacy issues, an innovation that lies just around the corner could blow them both out of the water.

Facial recognition technology has been around for decades, but until recently it’s been slow, inefficient and largely limited to proprietary implementations, such as databases used by law enforcement. That could all be about to change, and the results are bound to send shivers down the spines of digital privacy advocates.

Utopic.me launches new design and visual bookmarking to help discovery

Curating and sharing links on the web is a hot space. Delicious has relaunched, and services we’ve written about like Snip.it are trying to get you to share all of your links on its service.

Utopic goes a step further in helping you discover and share links, videos, music, and pictures that are relevant to you with its brand new gorgeous design and visual bookmarking launch.

Utopic had this to say about its new visual bookmarking feature:

With one click you can now save, tag, share and later quickly recover anything on the internet that you find interesting. The same goes for your favourites and links already shared on social networks. Utopic allows you to automatically import and publish those links in a beautiful visual profile. Topic-based content discovery through other people sharing your interests is still there as well, albeit with a new design and navigation.

Discovery

When you sign-up for Utopic, you can connect your Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google reader accounts. The service will then import all of your shared links and media and save them as bookmarks within the site for automatic tagging. This gives Utopic an idea of what type of content you’d be interested in. The results are pretty spot-on.

Convofy 63 520x261 Utopic.me launches new design and visual bookmarking to help discovery

Once you’ve connected your accounts, Utopic takes about a half hour to go through your links. Once that process takes place, the home page starts giving you content based on your tastes. The service also displays topic tags and suggested friends to follow on the right hand side as well.

Convofy 73 520x209 Utopic.me launches new design and visual bookmarking to help discovery

The design is visually stunning, and doesn’t make you feel like there are too many options, something other bookmark sharing sites suffer from. The focus is clearly on the content, which changes as you refresh the page.

Sharing is caring

Sharing content can be done in two ways. Once you discover something on the Utopic site, you can share it to any of your connected accounts with a click of a button. Of course, the fact that you shared something will factor back into Utopic finding more relevant stories for you, so it pays to share what you like using the service.

Convofy 65 520x277 Utopic.me launches new design and visual bookmarking to help discovery

The second way to share using Utopic is its new visual bookmarking feature, which is actually really nice. When you visit a site or piece of content that you like and want to share or save for yourself, you can simply use their bookmarklet, click “

Steve Jobs Has Died The Next Web 1 11 520x397 Utopic.me launches new design and visual bookmarking to help discovery

The only limitation of the service is that Utopic doesn’t tell you exactly how or why it’s showing you content. I would personally like to know the context of why a certain video or picture is shown. Right now, you’re only told who originally shared it. That’s something, but not enough to make me really trust what Utopic is showing me. The results were very very relevant for me, so I’m not complaining, but as I use the service more I’d like to see a bit more insight into why things are described as “hot topics” for me.

Clearwire reeling as Sprint forges its own LTE plans

Wireless network provider Clearwire’s stock fell 32 percent to $1.39 Friday following an announcement by Sprint Friday that it was launching an LTE network without the help of Clearwire, throwing into doubt its role in Sprint’s 4G future. Sprint addressed investors and analysts at a strategy update meeting Friday, and outlined its plans to aggressively launch an LTE network that will build on its existing 1900 MHz and 800 MHz spectrum.

Sprint, whose shares fell 18 percent Friday down to $2.44, currently offers customers access to a WiMAX-based 4G network through Clearwire, in which it owns about 50 percent stake. But Sprint is readying a multi-billion dollar plan to launch an LTE network that will cover 250 million people by the end of 2013, and the plan doesn’t appear to have a role for Cleawire. Sprint’s Dan Hesse said the carrier will continue to sell WiMAX devices through the end of next year, but then said Sprint will be able to run its own 4G LTE network on its existing spectrum and will turn to LightSquared in 2015, provided LightSquared gets approval from the FCC to run its 4G network.

For now, Hesse pointed to Sprint’s existing deal with Clearwire that runs through 2012 and said Sprint is looking to extend that. Sprint may just want to continue supporting existing Clearwire WiMAX users which Hesse said will own devices that need network access beyond 2012. But Sprint would not comment on any intentions to incorporate Clearwire into its LTE plans. When pressed, Hesse, declined to say if Sprint would invest more in Clearwire to prevent it from going bankrupt, saying only that Sprint would participate in any bankruptcy proceedings and would ensure that existing Sprint WiMAX customers were unaffected.

Sprint’s reticence on the matter of Clearwire has apparently panicked investors who are already nervous about Clearwire’s prospects. The stock has already been battered after Sprint inked a deal with LightSquared to use its 4G spectrum — which pales in comparison to the quality and amount of Clearwire’s airwaves. Clearwire has struggled to expand its network and raise capital, prompting concerns that it might go bankrupt.

The fact that Sprint is not better articulating a position for Clearwire would seem puzzling. But Sprint’s Steve Elfman, president of network operations and wholesale, may have shed some light on the matter when he said at the investor meeting that Sprint has no control over Clearwire, “and we’ve suffered accordingly.” That makes it sound like Sprint has not been happy with the choices Clearwire has made and is content to forge ahead with its own plans.

A more sinister reading might be that Sprint knows that by withholding its public support, it can drive Clearwire into bankruptcy, where it might be able to buy out the company for less than it would have to pay now.

Clearwire, however, put on a strong face Friday, saying in a statement that it is pursuing a TDD- LTE network and that Sprint is still dependent on Clearwire to fulfill its long-term 4G plans.

“As the largest wholesaler of 4G capacity, with unmatched spectrum, Clearwire is uniquely positioned to offer capacity to Sprint, and other carriers, particularly in urban areas where demand is high and their 4G spectrum will be inadequate. Sprint remains dependent on Clearwire for 4G and nothing about today’s announcement changes that,” Clearwire said.

But Clearwire said it needs $600 million to switch over, on top of its $4 billion in debt and its existing upgrade demands for its WiMAX network. Elfman said the $600 million only covers the cost to convert 120 million subscribers from WiMAX to LTE but doesn’t pay for a national build out or ongoing costs of ownership.

Without a public vote of confidence from Sprint, it’s going to be even tougher for Clearwire to make a go of it. It seems like both companies are walking a tight rope here and Sprint seems more confident that it can get through it on its own. We’ll have to see if Sprint is making the right bet.

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Dell Bails On Windows Phone — For Now (DELL, MSFT)

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Image: AP

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Dell has canceled plans to make a new Windows Phone running version 7.5, or Mango.

A leaked roadmap earlier this year showed a Windows Phone codenamed “Wrigley” scheduled for release last this year. But as WPCentral reports, Dell has been missing on the list of Windows Phone partners since May, and sources at the company have confirmed that there will be no Wrigley phone.

Dell is focusing a lot of its attention on tablets, including both Windows and Android tablets.

Microsoft has hinted that with Windows 8, its mobile and desktop platforms will merge. So Dell may be opting to skip the current version of Windows Phone and wait until it can consolidate all development on the single unified platform.

Could OnLive be the app that kills bandwidth caps?

Perhaps Netflix has found a friend in its lonely battle against broadband caps, as a U.K. site is reporting that gamers playing the OnLive service can use up to 20 GB in six hours. Cable.co.uk, a broadband comparison shopping site, also reports that some folks using the service have run afoul of British ISP Talk Talk’s network management policies, which meant players were unable to connect to the service at peak times. From the story:

Amid concerns that taking advantage of the service could lead broadband customers to consume substantial amounts of data, Techbeast.net conducted a trial to discover how much would be used during a typical gaming session. Playing Just Cause 2 through OnLive for around five minutes used around 200MB of data, meaning gamers can expect to get through around 20GB in as little as six hours.

Before you dismiss the plight of a few gamers across the pond, consider that now that ATT has implemented broadband caps joining Comcast, more than 50 percent of U.S. homes have some kind of limit on their broadband connection in place. And this week, Suddenlink confirmed it, too, has started implementing caps that range from 150 GB to 350 GB per month depending on the level of service customers subscribe to. Comcast doesn’t use speed tiers to differentiate between its cap, which is set at 250 GB per month, but ATT has a lower cap of 150 GB per month for DSL users and 250 GB per month for its faster U-verse offering.

So what we have are more ISPs setting caps as well as a sense of what kinds of caps they are planning to set in the U.S. It appears that at the slowest tier, we’ll see caps of about 150 GB, and those willing to pay up for faster speeds will also get higher caps. It’s unlikely we’ll see ISPs raise these caps anytime soon, especially if they can milk $10 per GB overage fees out of users.

But by adding gamers now to the groups of those affected by broadband caps, are we getting to a critical mass of consumers affected, so when an ISP says that less than 1 percent of their users hit those caps, folks will look around and realize that while they may not be in that 1 percent they’re getting a little too close for comfort? The outraged gaming community can join consumers who cut the cord, remote workers, confused folks trying to back up content to the cloud and BitTorrent users in the ranks of those who have bumped up against broadband caps and found it painful.

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The New Yorker’s Steve Jobs Cover Goes With ‘The iPad At The Pearly Gates’

(h/t @erikmal)

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RIM Spends $100 Million On Irish Startup NewBay To Catch Up To Apple And iCloud (RIMM)

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Research in Motion is buying Dublin-based mobile software company NewBay for a reported $100 million.

The deal, which was first reported by the Irish Times, will help RIM build the kind of cloud-based services that competing mobile platform providers Apple, Google, and Microsoft have all built over the years.

NewBay currently provides a software platform for phone carriers, including ATT, T-Mobile, and Verizon. The carriers use this software to provide services such as online photo albums, automatic updating of social network status, and online address books. All the services are branded by the carriers. NewBay’s pitch is that carriers can make customers happy, and increase the amount of data they consume, by providing these kinds of services.

Apple’s iBookstore Is Looking Like A Rare Flop (AAPL)

NEW YORK (AP) — Blockbuster sales are expected for Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of Steve Jobs when it comes out later this month, with independents and chains alike expecting it to be the biggest nonfiction release of the year.

But one seller, announced with great publicity a year and a half ago and very close to Jobs’ own story, is unlikely to have a major impact in e-book sales: Apple’s iBookstore.

Isaacson’s book, which debuts Oct. 24 from Simon Schuster, jumped to No. 1 on Amazon and to the top 5 on Barnes Noble.com within hours of Apple’s announcement Wednesday that Jobs had died. “Steve Jobs” also went to No. 1 on the iBookstore, but the number of sales will be comparatively small for the iBookstore. Publishers had hoped that the iPad and the Apple store would counter the power of Amazon.com, which had dominated the growing e-market through its Kindle device. But Apple’s effect on books so far has not approached its force in the music business.

Amazon’s share has been cut, less by Apple than by Barnes Noble’s Nook, widely believed to have more than 20 percent of e-sales despite initially poor reviews. Amazon still has some 50 percent to 60 percent of the market, while Apple is generally believed to have from 10 percent to 15 percent. Publishers and analysts say the iBookstore is still relatively unknown to the general public, especially compared to all the other apps on an Apple screen. Apple was also slowed because Random House Inc., publisher of Stieg Larsson and John Grisham, did not initially sell through the iBookstore.

“A year ago, if I had to have guessed, I would have said that Apple would be where the Nook is and the Nook would be where Apple is,” says Brian Murray, CEO of HarperCollins Publishers. “They’re growing at the same rate everybody else has been growing, but that first year, with a partial catalogue, was a challenge.”

“Our surveys have shown that only 49 percent of iPad owners read e-books on them, which suggests that although the iPad is a blockbuster device, it doesn’t necessarily lead to book reading for even a majority of its owners,” says James McQuivey, an analyst at Forrester Research. “And even when it does, what we know about the success of the Kindle store and app suggests that more Kindle books are being read on iPads than iBookstore books. And why not? If you’re a book lover and are predisposed to reading e-books, you are almost guaranteed to already be an Amazon customer and you are likely to continue that Amazon relationship on your iPad.”

Apple spokesman Jason Roth declined comment.

Apple’s influence has been less on sales so far than on cost and the kinds of books that can be downloaded. The “agency” pricing model did enable publishers to start charging more than $9.99 on new and popular releases on Amazon, a shift that the online seller bitterly opposed. And the iPad helped make illustrated books more widely available in electronic format, a market Amazon hopes to reach when it begins selling its own color device, the Kindle Fire.

Maja Thomas, senior vice president for digital publishing at the Hachette Book Group, believes Apple is looking beyond the U.S.

“It’s a long-term game for them,” she says. “It’s all about the international market and all the Apple stores around the world. Apple can compete internationally with Amazon in a way that it hasn’t in the U.S. because its footprint is already so huge overseas. You could have a player in the U.S. with modest success compared to the big boys making a huge impact internationally.”

From the start, Isaacson’s book project was an almost certain success. Jobs was not only an iconic businessman, but had revealed little about his private life and was offering full cooperation and access to family and colleagues. He had battled cancer for years and was aware his book would stand as a last testament. And Isaacson is a proven best-seller as a biographer, with popular books on Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein.

The book was announced this spring, although Isaacson had been working on it for a couple of years. In an essay published this week on Time.com, Isaacson wrote that he was first approached by Jobs in 2004, when Isaacson was starting his Einstein book. Isaacson said he was initially surprised Jobs suggested the project, assuming he wasn’t going to retire for a long time. He later realized that Jobs knew he was sick and didn’t know how long he would live.

They last met a few weeks ago, at Jobs’ home in Palo Alto, Calif. The Apple executive was in obvious pain, Isaacson recalled, but his spirit was strong as he talked about his childhood and showed the biographer some family pictures. Before leaving, Isaacson had a final question.

“Why had he been so eager, during close to 50 interviews and conversations over the course of two years, to open up so much for a book when he was usually so private?” Isaacson wrote “‘I wanted my kids to know me,’ he said. ‘I wasn’t always there for them, and I wanted them to know why and to understand what I did.’”

Comcast’s MyTV Choice: Is this the future of pay TV bundling?

Comcast is testing out a new type of pay TV bundling that gives users the ability to pick and choose which types of content they want to pay for month after month. The MyTV Choice trial, which was just introduced in Comcast’s Charleston, S.C. market, isn’t true a la carte offering, as some folks like to think of it, but it’s a step toward more personalized programming choices becoming available to customers.

For eligible customers, MyTV Choice works like this: You choose from one of two ‘Get Started’ packages, which include the major broadcast networks and some additional basic cable networks. The choice basically comes down to whether or not you want to pay for sports networks like ESPN, which cost an additional $20 a month.

  • Get Started. This tier features approximately 55-60 channels, including local broadcast networks and popular cable networks such as AE, Comedy Central, E!, FX and more. Priced at $24.95.
  • Get Started Plus. This includes all the same content as the Get Started tier, as well as an additional 12-15 entertainment and sports channels, including regional sports networks, ESPN, ESPN2, Golf Channel, Versus, BBC America and Military Channel. Priced at $44.95.

Users can then customize their channels, with bundles of content organized into themes. Each channel pack costs an additional $10 on top of the Get Started package. Video-on-demand options would contain content from the networks people have chosen to subscribe to. Additional channel packs are as follows:

  • Kids. Includes networks such as ABC Family, Disney, Nickelodeon, PBS Sprout and TeenNick.
  • News Info. Provides news channels, including Bloomberg, CNN, Fox Business, MSNBC and National Geographic.
  • Entertainment Lifestyle. Has entertainment networks such as Bravo, CMT, MTV, Style and VH1.
  • Movie. Includes networks like Encore, Flix, IFC, Lifetime Movies and MoviePlex.

The Charleston trial isn’t the first test of the MyTV Choice offering; it’s also available to customers in Comcast’s Seattle and Western New England markets. But in those other markets, MyTV Choice is available only as part of a larger, triple-play package that includes broadband and digital voice service. Charleston’s offering starts as video-only package, but a Comcast spokesperson told us by phone that pricing for triple-play or additional services would be similar to pricing in the other trial markets, which starts at $92.95 for the Get Started package and $109.95 for Get Started Plus.

We’ve written about the Great Cable Unbundling before, and this is the latest evidence that operators are thinking seriously about moving away from giant, one-size-fits-all packages of programming to more flexible and more affordable packages of content. That’s becoming increasingly important, particularly as fewer and fewer Americans have the discretionary income to pay upwards of $100 a month for a TV subscription.

It’s too early to say if the package will catch on, or if MyTV Choice will become generally available in other markets. A Comcast spokesperson said the cable provider plans to monitor the results of the trial to determine how effective the service offering is, or if it’s worth rolling out more broadly.

My gut feeling, though, is that there are plenty of people who would love to save $20 a month, even if it means not having access to ESPN, or who would rather opt-in to having access to a channel for $10 a month rather than paying for a bundle of programming they never watch. That could not only save subscribers some money, but could help Comcast to fight back against the threat of users abandoning its service because it’s too expensive or doesn’t provide enough value.

Photo of Comcast Tower courtesy of Flickr/Kevin Burkett.

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Google Must Be Feeling Burned For Investing In Intellectual Ventures (GOOG)

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Intellectual Ventures founder and former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold.

Image: Colbert Report

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Yesterday, gigantic patent troll Intellectual Ventures sued Motorola for patent infringement over Android.

Google is in the process of buying Motorola in part to provide patent protection for Android. Ironically, Google is also an investor in Intellectual Ventures.

So in some sense, Google just sued itself.

But it’s not quite so simple.

As Florian Mueller explains on his blog, which tracks patent issues in the mobile space, Intellectual Ventures actually operates as a group of investment funds.

Google invested in something called Defendant Invention Investment Fund I.

Motorola is being sued by Intellectual Ventures Fund I and Fund II.

So who are the investors in those funds?

Not surprisingly, the names include Microsoft (Fund I), Apple (Fund II), and Nokia (both). Microsoft and Apple have already sued Motorola, and Nokia and Apple settled a conflict over patents earlier this year.

Other tech firms invested are Sony (both) Cisco (Fund II) and Verizon (Fund II).

The rest of the investors are more typical of the limited partners who might invest in a venture fund — banks, universities, wealthy individuals, and foundations.

There’s no reason to believe that investors are involved in the day to day decision-making at Intellectual Ventures.

But even so, Google must be feeling pretty burned right now for having put any money into the company.

Then again, maybe that investment was the only way Google could avoid patent lawsuits over other technology it uses.

The list of Intellectual Ventures investors came out in a court filing earlier this year and was helpfully published by Intellectual Asset Magazine.

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