A Wireless Revolution in India

A Wireless Revolution in India With young people and others using their phones for texting, e-mail, and Web surfing, it's an increasingly wireless way of life on the Subcontinent
Mumbai college student Deepanjali Singh was so heartbroken after losing her Motorola (MOT) handset in early October that she took an almost $200 loan from her mother to get a replacement—fast. She uses her cell phone not only to talk to friends but to check e-mail, send text messages with MSN Messenger, and log onto her Facebook profile. When she couldn't get on a college PC to do research for a paper recently, she simply used Google via cell phone. "With a touch screen on my mobile, I access the Net anywhere, anytime, and [do] not depend on my PC," Singh says. "I've got so used to the mobile Internet that I feel lost without it."
So do more and more people in India. The number of Indian consumers connecting to the Internet via cell phones more than doubled, to 38 million from 16 million just last year, according to a report by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). "Mobile Internet is increasingly becoming a popular feature in India today," says Diptarup Chakraborti, principal analyst at Gartner Research (IT). And it's got a long way to go in the world's fastest-growing mobile-phone market, where more than 200 million people use mobile phones and 7 million are added to the rolls each month.
While wireless Web use in India has been climbing for some time, the gains are becoming so pronounced that they're exposing anew the frailties of India's traditional Internet networks and fueling a race for customers and sales among wireless carriers and handset makers.
More Attractive Internet OptionsFor the first time the number of Internet connections via the PC declined, from 9.27 million in the first quarter to 9.22 million in the second quarter, according to TRAI. In the same period, state-run telecom-service providers Bharat Sanchar Nigam (BSNL) and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam (MTNL), which account for about 54% of the country's total Internet customers, lost almost 3% of their subscribers. BSNL divisional general manager Suresh Kumar attributes the "so-called decline" to the company's efforts to terminate the "unused dial-up connections" of subscribers who migrated to broadband. MTNL employees concede that service was degraded as demand surges crashed servers.
Whatever the cause, it's clear that choppy service won't do for India's fickle yet Internet-addicted consumers. And wireless Internet service providers (ISPs) are happy to woo subscribers dissatisfied with their existing services. Bharti Airtel and Tata Indicom offer wireless as well as fixed-line connections to the Web, while local cable operators provide cable modem Internet hookups. Such options are especially attractive, considering the wait of as long as a month for a dial-up or broadband connection from BSNL or MTNL. Wireless phones can be bought right off store shelves, with Web connections set up instantly.
The appeal of the wireless Web can be particularly strong for rural residents who have little access to the Internet via PCs. P. S. Parasuram, head of new product development and content at Bharti Airtel, says "the mobile is the first Internet experience for rural folks." Outside India's big cities, providers entice subscribers with services that let farmers use a handset to call up such information as land records, feed prices, and weather reports. Nokia (NOK), Samsung Electronics (SSNLF), and Motorola sell mobile phones in villages for as little as $63. Vodafone (VOD) entered the Indian market through its $11.1 billion purchase of Li Ka-Shing's 67% stake in Hutchison Essar, and in a partnership with China's ZTE (ZTE) for handsets. "Relevant mobile content and aggressive marketing by companies is boosting mobile Internet usage," says Pankaj Mohindroo, president of the Indian Cellular Assn.
New Phones for New ServicesExperts attribute the surge in wireless Web use to a combination of falling handset prices, network upgrades, and an economic expansion that's leaving many young people flush with disposable income. India's economy is growing at over 9%, and younger consumers, especially those working in call centers, can now afford the personal digital assistants and Research In Motion (RIMM) BlackBerrys that, as recently as a year ago, seemed out of reach to everyone but wealthy businesspeople and other professionals.
Handset prices have dropped almost by half in the past two years, says Gartner's Chakraborti. And for fees of $2.50 to $12.50 a month, consumers can get all manner of information—market quotes, headlines, cricket scores, even the net asset value of a mutual fund investment—in the palm of their hands. Of course, hip Indian youngsters, like their peers in Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere in Asia, use mobile Web access to check e-mail, download music and games, and vote for their favorite performers on reality TV shows. Internet bigwigs Google (GOOG), Yahoo! (YHOO), and Microsoft (MSFT) are forging partnerships to get their messaging, search, and other services into users' hands, too.
Such services are of little use on outmoded phones and networks. But now, almost 90% of phones being sold in India operate on the General Packet Radio Service, or GPRS, system, which provides wireless Internet access. Today more than half of Nokia's handsets carry GPRS features, compared with 20% a year ago.
Slower Download TimesAs features proliferate, the potential financial returns for service providers multiply. Whereas a standard text message typically costs 2.5¢, the cost of calling up mutual fund information is closer to 15¢ a message. Downloadable ringtones are already a $45 million annual business in India and are expected to grow at a double-digit rate through 2010. For top telecom players such as Bharti, Reliance Communications, Tata, and Vodafone, ringtones account for nearly half of all nonvoice revenue.
For all the increased reliance on cell phones to connect to the Internet, there's little danger handsets will replace PCs soon. Mobile connectivity in India is still uneven and is far slower than in other parts of the world. "GPRS is a largely dysfunctional way of accessing the Internet," says Shubham Majumdar, associate director of research at Macquarie Securities, a division of Macquarie Bank (MBL). Manoj Mehra, 25, who works at a bank in Mumbai, says downloading anything from the mobile Internet takes him a "frustrating" one to two minutes.
What's more, mobile Internet access is expensive. "I use it only when there is no landline connectivity at hand," says Singh, which translates to about 10 minutes a day.
Those struggles notwithstanding, demand for wireless Internet access is likely to keep skyrocketing. The Indian Cellular Assn. expects 200 million people to sign on to the Internet with their mobile phones by 2010. Even a couple of minutes a day multiplied by that many people spells continued headaches for state-run telcos, swelling coffers for handset makers and mobile carriers targeting the Indian market, and a greater dependence on wireless Web access for people like Singh.

All Those Touch-Screens

All Those Touch-Screens: iPhone Envy?Are the similarities a coincidence, or are cell-phone makers trying to steal the limelight from Apple's wonder phone? Here's how the pretenders stack up.By Bruce Meyerson
Though it's an oversimplification to view every new cell phone hitting the market as a response to the Apple AAPL iPhone, there sure do seem to be a whole lot of handsets with touch screens out there all of a sudden. Heck, there's even a new device named Touch. Already a hot seller overseas, that HTC phone also happens to be the one new handset that delivers many of the iPhone's bells and whistles (one omission is Wi-Fi, but Touch compensates with a speedier cellular Internet connection). And as with Touch, there's another common theme among this year's holiday crop of spotlight phones: short, too-cool-for-school names like Voyager, Shadow, Tilt, Venus, and Juke. Check out our profiles of 10 additions to the post-iPhone world, including the latest Sidekicks and a new Palm.

Custom Display

Mac software developer Craig Hockenberry has never been very interested in creating applications for cell phones. "It's a lot of politics, and less money" to be made compared with creating software for computers, he says, explaining that programmers have always been forced to bow to a litany of requirements set by wireless carriers, handset makers, and other software companies.
With billions of people carrying cell phones, software makers large and small have long eyed the wireless market hungrily as the next big growth opportunity. Instead, they've found that the bountiful profit margins they've enjoyed creating software for computers and the Web don't exist in the mobile realm. While they rarely need to pay a computer maker or an Internet service provider when their wares are used on those machines and networks, software firms find palms extended at every turn in the wireless industry.
A developer who creates a mobile ringtone from a song may only receive 5% of the revenue from the sale of that application, with cellular providers grabbing a healthy cut of the proceeds on top of those that go to musicians and studios. If it's not the carrier, then it's the handset maker or the creator of a phone's software operating system. Or sometimes several of them extract an extra fee from application developers. "The ecosystem is not healthy," says Daren Tsui, CEO of mspt, a mobile software firm that has chosen to partner with carriers to get its mobile music and video applications on cell phones. Those deals with six North American carriers have produced 2 million monthly subscribers. Yet despite his firm's success, Tsui says, "You've got the developing community basically starving."

Killer Mobile Apps

Here's Handango's list of its most downloaded applications for smartphone users

More than ever, consumers are exerting greater control over the tools and games used on their cell phones. If users can't get the new Black Eyed Peas ringtone in one place, they'll find it somewhere else. The same goes for software that lets customers watch mobile TV or use voice commands to dial a number. So which are the most popular? Handango, the largest provider of applications for the advanced handsets known as smartphones, compiled a list of its most downloaded applications for BusinessWeek.com. The results show that smartphone users crave mobile TV, ringtones, and a host of ways to customize their calling experience. All are featured in this BusinessWeek.com slide show.

AOL and CBS Put Online HD Video

By David Kaplan,

While HD maybe catching on with TV audiences, when it comes to online, some viewers just can’t be bothered. At least that’s what AOL (NYSE: TWX) and CBS (NYSE: CBS) have concluded for now. NewTeeVee reports that both AOL and CBS are giving up on their respective attempts at delivering HD quality video online. Fred McIntyre, SVP of AOL Video, said that viewership for its two-year-old Hi-Q service was so low, the company didn’t even track it. As an online activity, the opportunity to watch HD video tends to take a back seat to searching for interesting entertainment and having it run quickly. In the case of CBS Interactive, Quincy Smith, the interactive unit’s president, said that users found two things wrong with it: the HD player required a special download and it wasn’t compatible with all computers and browsers.
Some of the companies that still have faith in internet users warming up to HD including ABC.com (which is using tech from Move Networks, which just raised a big round) and DivX’s Stage6, both of which run an in-browser plug-in player, while Vimeo has unveiled its own in-browser HD tool. In addition, VeohTV and Vuze, are betting that viewers will consider the downloading extra software as a fair price to pay for better looking video.

AMD believes in ATI

No confusion over Fusion, AMD believes in ATI deal A year after Advanced Micro Devices' acquisition of ATI, the Canadian graphics chipmaker, the merits of the takeover are still unclear to AMD shareholders.
The company has suffered four consecutive quarters of losses, its shares are down 39 per cent on their closing price on October 25 2006, the day the ATI acquisition was finalised. Gross margins are down 10 percentage points, key personnel have left the company and AMD has seen Intel move ahead of it in technological advances.
At a price of $5.4bn, the acquisition was one of the biggest ever takeovers in the semiconductor industry. It burdened AMD with debt and restructuring charges and represented its biggest gamble.
In a conversation with us this week, Dirk Meyer, AMD president, said he never saw it that way.
"Gambling implies we didn't have another choice. But we really believed that the only good choice was to expand our product portfolio.
"We are an x86 CPU [microprocessor] company and, while the PC industry has been driven for years by it being the premium component in the box, looking forward, that's wrong for our customers and for what users care about."
AMD needed a more complete platform for the consumer market focused around video, media and graphics performance not CPU performance, he said. "One year on, we feel this even more so."
Mr Meyer said the timing of the acquisition was unfortunate - the microprocessor and graphics businesses took a downturn for reasons that existed independent of the acquisition. AMD had problems in its supply chain with its CPUs and became embroiled in a price war with Intel, while ATI's next-generation chips were late and it was beaten to the punch by its rival Nvidia.
He said the departure in the summer of Dave Orton, ATI's chief executive, was pretty much as planned at the time of the acquisition.
New customers are being won already, he argued. Toshiba had begun using its chips for the first time in its notebooks because AMD could offer a better integrated platform with ATI's graphics chips.
"Fusion" - the full realisation of the benefits of the merger - is expected in 2009, said Mr Meyer. This new class of processor that integrates the CPU and the graphics processing unit (GPU) will combine AMD's CPU skills with the graphics smarts of ATI's engineers. By that time, he hopes PCs will be sold not on the strength of their dual core, quad core or octo-core CPU capabilities, but on the benefits they offer users in performing different tasks.

Squaring up to Wikipedia Posted

Squaring up to Wikipedia Posted by Richard Waters on October 30, 2007 in Internet Larry Sanger is still predicting big things for Citizendium, the expert-moderated alternative to the "open" encyclopedia Wikipedia that he launched a year ago (we wrote about the launch here, and the implications of the Citizendium v Wikipedia battle here.)Given the scale of his ambition, the results so far are decidedly modest: 3,300 articles, growing at the rate of 14 a day, compared to more than 2m on the English-language version of Wikipedia. Still, Sanger, who was in at the beginning of Wikipedia, is unabashed, as his update today demonstrates:At some point, possibly very soon, the Citizendium will grow explosively--say, quadruple the number of its active contributors, or even grow by an order of magnitude. And it will experience that growth over the course of a month or two, and its growth will continue to accelerate from that higher rate.Comments like that make it sound like Sanger is succumbing to wishful thinking in his efforts to hit back at old nemesis Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia. Still, he has a point in one regard. Projects like this are deeply viral, and many of the experts he wants to attract will only jump in once they feel a tipping point has been reached.As Wikipedia's extraordinary expansion continues, I for one hope Sanger gets the formula right. It's way too early in the development of the internet to hand so much influence over what passes for human knowledge to a single, still largely experimental website like Wikipedia.

Microsoft Adds Free 411 to Windows Live

Microsoft's new 1-800-CALL-411 service allows users to access local business information for free. The software giant has also unveiled voice-activated mobile search and mobile maps with real-time traffic data. The upgrades are part of Microsoft's effort to have its Live services become synonymous with search on any device, said Erik Jorgenson, general manager of Live Search Maps.

Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) will begin offering consumers free 411 information, mobile maps containing real-time traffic information and voice-activated mobile search as part of a major upgrade of its Internet services that goes live this morning.
The free services echo offerings rolled out by Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) earlier this year. Microsoft said its new Live products are better and more comprehensive.
The new 1-800-CALL-411 service is based on voice-recognition technology developed by Tellme, which was acquired by Microsoft in March. Google Labs in April released a free 1-800-GOOG-411 service.

Searching for Businesses
Anyone with a phone can use these services to request the telephone number, address and driving directions for a local business. Microsoft said it will eventually offer residential lookups as well.
People whose phones have mobile browsers will be able to get real-time traffic information by going to m.live.com. Previously, this kind of information was available only for those who downloaded mobile mapping applications from Google, Yahoo (Nasdaq: YHOO) or Microsoft.
Erik Jorgenson, general manager of Live Search Maps, said Microsoft wants its Live services to become synonymous with search on any device.
Trying to Close the Gap
Microsoft, the No. 3 provider of Internet search after Google and Yahoo, has been steadily improving its search services in an effort to close the large gap between it and Google.
According to Nielsen/NetRatings, Google conducted more than 53 percent of all U.S. Internet searches in August, compared with about 20 percent for Yahoo and about 13 percent for Microsoft. Those measurements represent a 3 percent improvement for Microsoft compared with August 2006.
Microsoft also is unveiling improvements to its mobile search software and online mapping product today. People who download an update to the search software for mobile phones will be able to begin using voice-activated search. (For a list of compatible devices, go to http://www.livesearchmobile.com/.)
Microsoft will also begin offering a free, three-dimensional online modeling tool developed in partnership with Dassault Systemes. The tool, which will let people place their own 3-D building models on Live maps, is similar to Google SketchUp. It's available at http://www.3dvia.com/.

Free Plug-Ins Heat Up Firefox

Originally designed for Firefox but now available for IE as well, FoxyTunes allows users to control music players from the browser. It supports most of the popular music players -- iTunes, Winamp, Musicmatch, Real Player, Amarok, etc. -- with basic controls: play, stop, next and previous tracks. It also allows users to find lyrics, bios and videos.

Web browsers such as Firefox and Internet Explorer have become among the most important pieces of software on any computer. They provide a literal window into the vast information available online.
Both programs, by far the most popular browsers, can do a lot of things on their own, but also allow for plug-ins, small programs that let the browser do more helpful, informative and fun stuff.
Here are a few you might find helpful. All are free and available through the browser companies' Web sites: for Internet Explorer, visit Windows Marketplace, then click on "IE Add-Ons;" for Firefox, visit Mozilla, then click on "Firefox Add-ons."
Available for both StumbleUpon -- This toolbar requires users to sign up and identify areas of interest, choosing from more than 500 topics. More than 2 million users rank pages, and once you install the toolbar, all you have to do is hit the stumble button to visit a Web site in one of your areas of interest.
FoxyTunes -- Originally designed for Firefox but now available for IE as well, this add-on allows users to control music players from the browser. It supports most of the popular music players -- iTunes, Winamp, Musicmatch, Real Player, Amarok, etc. -- with basic controls: play, stop, next and previous tracks. It also allows users to find lyrics, bios and videos.
Weather -- There are several add-ons that offer current temperatures, forecasts and severe weather alerts from a variety of sources, AccuWeather and Weather.com among them. They generally reside in the bottom bar of the browser window.
Trailfire -- This program allows you to leave a trail of electronic notes on Web sites you visit, linking them together to form a trail of your surfing. You can make the notes, called "marks," viewable by others as well.
For Firefox Adblock Plus -- The name is pretty self-explanatory: this program blocks ads. It's customizable, allowing you to set how much you want to block, but it does a good job of eliminating many of the annoying pop-up ads that plague surfers.
Greasemonkey -- This program is a bit more advanced than the other listed here. By using a small bit of script programming, it can greatly alter the way you see Web pages. For those reluctant to start writing codes, hundreds of such scripts are written and freely available for download from sites such as userscripts. Among the most popular are scripts that help organize GMail accounts, remove useless Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN) search results and allow you to download YouTube videos.
For IE IE7 Pro -- The program adds a lot of useful utilities, including spell checking, ad blocking and crash recovery . Among the more technical offerings are mouse gestures, which tie actions to mouse movements, and advanced options for controlling tabs.

Robot-Car Finalists Rev Up for DARPA's Urban Road Rally

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has narrowed down the number of robotic vehicles competing in its Urban Challenge Event to 11 finalists. The teams behind each vehicle are competing for a first-place prize of $2 million; second and third place will garner $1 million and $500,000, respectively.
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Eleven robotic vehicles will compete in the final race Saturday of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Urban Challenge event, the group announced Thursday.
Selected from a group of 35 that participated in qualifying events over the past week or so, the 11 finalists will now have to successfully complete a complex, 60-mile urban course with live traffic in less than six hours. They will operate on the course roads alongside approximately 50 traffic vehicles driven by professionally trained volunteer drivers.
The winning robotic vehicle will be chosen on the basis of not just speed, but also safety: They must meet the same standards required to pass the California DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) road test. The first-place prize is US$2 million; second and third place will garner $1 million and $500,000, respectively.
Just Like Real Life The teams named as finalists were the Ben Franklin Racing Team, of Philadelphia; CarOLO, of Caroline, N.Y.; Honeywell/Intelligent Vehicle Solutions, of Troy, Mich.; MIT, of Cambridge, Mass.; the Stanford Racing Team, of Stanford, Calif.; Tartan Racing, of Pittsburgh; Team Cornell, of Ithaca, N.Y.; Victor Tango, of Blacksburg, Va.; Team AnnieWay, of Palo Alto, Calif.; Team Oshkosh Truck, of Oshkosh, Wis.; and Team UCF, of Orlando, Fla.
"TeamUCF is thrilled to be in the finals of the DARPA Urban Challenge," team leader Benjamin Patz told TechNewsWorld. "It's the culmination of 18 months of hard work by six dedicated individuals on a shoestring budget. The car has performed excellently and we keep our fingers crossed that the 1996 Subaru Legacy will hold together for one more race."
All participating vehicles must be entirely autonomous ground vehicles, which navigate and drive entirely on their own with no human driver and no remote control. They must be completely under the control of their onboard mission computers as soon as the race begins -- human observers may intervene only for safety purposes.
'Split-Second Decisions' Saturday's event is set at the former George Air Force Base in Victorville, Calif., and the driving challenges on the course will include traffic circles, merges, four-way intersections, blocked roads, parking, passing slower moving vehicles, and merging safely with traffic on two- and four-lane roads.
"Vehicles competing in the Urban Challenge will have to think like human drivers and continually make split-second decisions to avoid moving vehicles, including robotic vehicles without drivers, and operate safely on the course," said Urban Challenge Program Manager Norman Whitaker. "The urban setting adds considerable complexity to the challenge faced by the robotic vehicles and replicates the environments where many of today's military missions are conducted."
Continental Automotive Systems is a key sponsor of Carnegie Mellon University's Tartan Racing team, which has developed the vehicle known as "Boss." The global supplier provided an array of active safety sensors for the school's robotic vehicle entry and an embedded engineer with expertise in sensor data fusion that enables Boss to recognize the total traffic environment.
'It's Been Amazing' "It's been amazing," Dean McConnell, director of occupant safety and driver assistance systems with Continental, told TechNewsWorld.
Five radar sensors installed on the outside of the vehicle use a combination of long- and short-range sensing to help the vehicle identify objects around it, McConnell explained. Infrared sensors and cameras are also used to provide input, and all that data must be synthesized to help the vehicle's onboard computer decide what action to take: pause, steer, brake or accelerate, he added.
Continental also supplied Tartan Racing with custom-made General brand Grabber UHP tires with ContiSeal technology that protects against penetration by nails and screws.
Market Potential DARPA, which does research in support of military missions for the Department of Defense (DoD), has sponsored two previous autonomous robotic ground vehicle competitions that were known as the "DARPA Grand Challenge."
The 2004 competition featured 15 vehicles attempting to complete a 142-mile desert course for a $1 million cash prize, but none of the vehicles finished. In the 2005 Grand Challenge, four autonomous vehicles successfully completed a 132-mile desert route under the required 10-hour limit, and DARPA awarded a $2 million prize to the vehicle known as "Stanley" from Stanford University.
Whichever entrant ends up winning this year's race, the technology that comes out of it has the potential to find its way to market -- someday.
'Holy Grail' "Autonomous vehicles are the Holy Grail of the auto industry, but right now it's still very early days -- they probably won't happen commercially in our lifetime," Mark Fitzgerald, an analyst of automotive technologies at Strategy Analytics, told TechNewsWorld.
More than 90 percent of car wrecks are due to human error, Fitzgerald said, so robotic operation would go a long way towards making the roads safer. It would also allow for car "pontooning," whereby cars on the highway can be separated by just a small space for more efficient use of the roads and alleviation of many traffic issues, he said.
In the meantime, though, races like the DARPA Urban Challenge "come down to processing power," he added. "It's a question of how to integrate the sensor input into a cohesive vehicle where everything works together.

HD DVD Takes Holiday Jab at Blu-ray With Sub-$100 Players

This holiday season will likely see fierce competition in the HD DVD vs. Blu-ray format war, and it appears HD DVD has launched a new attack. Two nationwide retailers -- Wal-Mart and Best Buy -- have offered limited numbers of HD DVD players for just under $100. The price could be a short-term promotion, but it adds pressure on the Blu-ray camp, which offers players with generally higher prices.
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Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT) stores across the U.S. held a special promotional HD DVD player sale this week, offering Toshiba's HD-A2 DVD player for a mere US$98.87. The sale was part of Wal-Mart's Secret In-Store Specials promotion designed to jump-start the holiday buying season.
Wal-Mart's promotional materials noted that the specially-priced unit wasn't available in all stores in all states, but a Wal-Mart in northern Idaho serving a community of less than 80,000 people sold out its 25 units in less than an hour Friday morning.
The Toshiba players have also been reportedly sold at Best Buy (NYSE: BBY) stores for less than a $100 this week, where they've come with five to seven free HD DVD movies (by mail), depending on the deals and rebates available at the time of purchase.
Big Blow in the High-Definition DVD War The two current formats for high definition video content are HD DVD and Blu-ray, both backed by their own associations and hardware developers and content providers. Like the battle between VHS and Beta years ago, only one format will likely survive as consumers around the world enter the high definition era of entertainment.
A favorable price point of entry for a new technology is critical to the adoption of that technology, particularly in the mass consumer-driven world of DVD sales and rentals. While both HD DVD and Blu-ray players have been available for a couple of years, the prices of both types of units have typically been several hundred dollars on the low end. With high price entry points, consumers have been slow to pick a player, concerned that they make the "wrong" choice.
"Price can make a huge difference in a technology area like this. The HD DVD players at $100 are actually a good value for their DVD content and have competitive -- to regular DVD players with up-conversion -- performance," Rob Enderle, principal analyst for the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld.
"This effectively gives you the HD stuff for free, and when you include the free HD DVD disks this creates a huge value. I would expect these machines to sell through by Monday, causing the HD installed base to spike," Enderle noted. "So ... if the quantity is great enough, this could heavily favor HD DVD much like the initial, and as yet unmet, projections for the PS3-favored Blu-ray."
Promo Pricing Only? The $99 price point is promotional and unlikely to become a permanent price point in the near future, J.P. Gownder, principal analyst for Forrester Research, told TechNewsWorld.
"But it's clear that Blu-ray needs a sub-$250 player -- better yet, a $175 player," Gownder said. "The Blu-ray camp can't cede this much ground on hardware prices and still expect to become the dominant standard."
Price Points for the Holidays If these promotional prices don't last, what might happen this holiday buying season?
"Two hundred dollars is the first truly magic price break point -- the second is $100 -- where you expect sales to go vertical, [because] this is the price where a husband doesn't have to ask permission from the wife to make a purchase," Enderle noted. "So I expect, unless there is a major pricing action, for Blu-ray players to be selling around $300 to $400 and HD DVD players around $150 to $200 and drifting down but maintaining about a [double price] gap throughout the quarter."
BestBuy.com, however, is currently offering the newer model Toshiba HD-A3 DVD player for $199.99 in the shopping cart -- down from the regular $299.99 price. The least expensive Blu-ray player offered by Best Buy is a Samsung model offered at $449

Hackers Resurrect 'Manhunt 2's Gory Glory

When the ESRB first laid eyes on the Take-Two game "Manhunt 2," it was so disgusted it gave the game an "Adults Only" rating, making it virtually impossible to sell in the U.S. So Take-Two obscured some especially violent content and successfully resubmitted it for a "Mature" rating. Now, however, hackers have found a way to restore much of the graphic content the creators had originally designed.
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Hackers were able to make their copies of the PlayStation Portable (PSP) and PlayStation 2 (PS2) versions of the game "Manhunt 2" even more violent less than one day after the game was released Oct. 31.
The discovery could put Take-Two Interactive and its subsidiary Rockstar Games on the defensive once again, handling another round of bad press about "Manhunt 2."
The unauthorized hack does not fully restore the content deemed unacceptable in the "Adults Only" rated version of "Manhunt 2" ("MH2") which was shunned by major platforms in June in the U.S., and banned outright in the U.K. and Ireland. The operation does restore content that was obfuscated by Rockstar with the approval of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) in North America.
"What parents, and indeed all consumers, need to be aware of is that computer software and hardware devices are susceptible to unauthorized modification. Parents should be cognizant of whether or not their children are engaging in unauthorized modification of their games, consoles or handhelds, as those modifications can change game content in ways that may be inconsistent with the assigned ESRB rating," the ESRB stated.
"That be being said, the vast majority of consumers have not made the unauthorized modifications to their hardware necessary to view the content at issue," the group continued.
Making the Rating Rockstar had to make multiple edits in order to meet the ESRB's standards and bring "MH2" down to a "Mature" rating, Take-Two said. It is from one of those edits that hackers were able to create the modified version for the PSP.
Extraneous content -- scenes that did not advance the plot of the game -- was completely removed. However, violent content in scenes deemed crucial to the video game's storyline was merely concealed. The hackers were able to remove special effects filters the developer put in place to obscure the violence in those scenes. Those changes were made under the guidance of the ESRB and were fully disclosed by Rockstar, the ESRB said.
It likely took a person with a relatively high level of technical skills and coding know-how, as well as a modified PSP, to produce the unauthorized version of the game. However, the altered version has been released on the Internet with instructions on modifying the code to remove the concealing special effects, according to the ESRB.
Once the changes to the game's code have been made and other unauthorized software programs have been downloaded to the hardware device to circumvent security controls, gamers can clearly view the hidden violent acts, the ratings organization warned.
"Rockstar did completely remove scenes that were not necessary for the plot line or game play," Michael Pachter, a Wedbush analyst, told TechNewsWorld. "It's unreasonable to expect that they would go back to square one and re-create the entire game. I think with hindsight, that they would have developed a different game had they realized that this one would be so controversial, but it's not reasonable to expect them to do so after the fact, and it would not have been economically feasible."
Another Hot Coffee? The unauthorized hack of "MH2" recalled another controversy involving Rockstar and modified game content. The so-called Hot Coffee mod from 2004 involved a supposedly inaccessible minigame included in Rockstar's top-selling "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" video game. In the unmodified version of the game, players at one point in the story line are able to only hear muffled voices of Carl, the main protagonist, and his girlfriend having sex. The Hot Coffee modification enables players to actually see the two characters as they engage in sexual intercourse as well as control the protagonists actions during the act. Although developers had disabled this portion of the game, the release of a modified version for the PC led to the discovery of the minigame on versions for the PS2 and Xbox.
"The difference between Hot Coffee and this [case] is this required some serious hacking skills to get at," said Mike Goodman, an analyst at Yankee Group. "Hot Coffee was something no one knew was in the game, but this was known to be in the game."
Known or not, the exposed content could bring more damage to Take-Two's public image.
"It's bad for Take-Two insofar as it brings more unwanted negative publicity. No, it's not nearly as bad as hidden sex scenes, which were gratuitous and added nothing to the game or story in 'Grand Theft Auto.' At least in the case of 'Manhunt 2,' the object of the game is murder and mayhem, so graphical depiction of murder was appropriate. The objection was the extent of that graphical depiction and Take-Two took reasonable steps to modify [that]," Pachter stated.
This time around could be worse for Take-Two, according to Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.
"It's worse because the general media has picked this up and it's an election window," he told TechNewsWorld. "This is an easy topic to talk about if you don't want to talk about Iraq, and it particularly appeals to conservatives."

Developers Key to Winning Soc Net Throwdown

Google may be changing the face of social networking with its new open platform for third-party applications, and the news that MySpace is joining the effort may be giving Facebook an even bigger reason to sweat. The ultimate question, though, is whether anything the companies or the developers do will prod social networkers to change their habits accordingly.
For the moment, interest in the OpenSocial rollout is highest among developers -- and, of course, competitors. The former will likely have some effect on the latter.
"Ultimately, what is happening is that power will move toward developers, and social networks will be competing to get the best developers to their platform," said Michael Witz, CEO of Ncursion, a company that develops games for the Facebook platform.
"For us, this is about as good news as you can get," he told TechNewsWorld.
"It is a brave new world for us," echoed Andy Halliday, CEO and founder of Tribbit.com, a group social media platform.
"[OpenSocial is] making it possible for individual coding engineers to become entrepreneurs at low cost," he told TechNewsWorld.
The Facebook Shadow The social network most at risk -- or, put another way, most threatening to Google -- appears to be the 50 million strong Facebook.
"This is first time we have seen Google feel threatened about anything," remarked Witz. "[OpenSocial] is a direct response to the success that Facebook has had."
Facebook will now be feeling the heat, he speculated. "The audience is the biggest incentive for a developer -- and Google's name recognition and partner lineup guarantee that almost all of the developers for Facebook will take a close look at the opportunity here."
Ncursion, for instance, is currently looking at how its games can be ported to OpenSocial's application programming interfaces, or APIs. "We are starting to put the resources together to prepare for development," Witz said.
Open vs. Proprietary A principal consideration for developers is that Facebook's platform is a proprietary one.
Facebook should get credit for introducing social apps, according to John McCrea, vice president of marketing for Plaxo.
"Their model, though -- a walled garden approach -- is one we think is fundamentally flawed," he told TechNewsWorld. "Basically, what they are saying to developers is, 'Forget about the Web -- all the action is here in Facebook.' They are saying, 'Think of us as a new [operating system] for the social Web, and write all your apps to our proprietary extension.'"
OpenSocial is the industry's response to that. "The platform of the social Web -- the OS for the social Web -- should be open," McCrea emphasized. "Dozens of companies are jumping on this now, but over time it will be hundreds of thousands if the social Web is as open as the wider Web."
One of OpenSocial's first supporters to implement the OpenSocial code, Plaxo is embedding the code this week into its social network, Pulse.
Big Book Still, surpassing Facebook's audience -- a constituency that is growing as more adults gravitate to the Web site -- will take some doing.
Google will get a big boost with MySpace signing on with OpenSocial, said Tribbit.com's Halliday.
Without the giant network behind it, "OpenSocial would at best be a way for developers to tap into secondary social networks."
One reason developers may stick with Facebook -- or at least make it their top priority -- is the fact that it is still a private company, said Joe Pensa, founder of FreeTicketExchange.com.
"There is far less pressure to meet shareholders' expectations," he told TechNewsWorld. "There is more freedom of creativity, which developers always value."
That said, Google has immense resources to sway developers as well as networks, Patrick McKenna, CEO of DMi Partners, pointed out.
"One thing Google has over all social networks is its unparalleled ability to monetize traffic," he told TechNewsWorld. "Social networks are not for profit, and they need to make money. Google does that better than anyone."
Will Social Networkers Flock? In the midst of all this speculation, it is easy to overlook one giant unknown: How will social networkers react?
One important element in Google's plans that is missing -- so far -- is mobile functionality, pointed out Victor Donselaar, president of Movial, a provider of mobile applications and tools.
"[Mobile tech] will be the default access point for accessing social networks," he maintained.
Another question mark is the security issue. "Building applications for the mobile phone must be secure, and this is not addressed at all," said Donselaar.
"Mobile applications and devices do not have the same security capabilities as PCs," Lorcan Burke, CEO of AdaptiveMobile, told TechNewsWorld. "Accessing social networking sites or downloading applications in the mobile environment leaves the user open to viruses, malware and other threats that can render their device unusable. Because of the ubiquity and reach of Google, consumers may assume they are safe, given the Google brand, but they should not take this safety for granted."
Even if a mobile component is developed, it is unlikely users will jump from one network to another just to take advantage of a fancy new tool, Halliday said.
"The only way that huge numbers of users would switch from networks where all their friends are is if Google identifies a killer app that might draw an audience -- much like 'Halo' has done for Xbox," he speculated.