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Ballmer to Skype Fans: You Can Trust Us

SAN FRANCISCO — Trust us. We’re not going to screw up Skype.

That was the message Microsoft delivered Tuesday, hours after formally announcing that it was buying the internet telephony pioneer for a staggering $8.5 billion — staggering because it’s more than the Redmond giant has ever paid for anything, and because Skype doesn’t exactly print money.

But in an early morning press conference, as Google strutted for its Android developers in another part of town, an increasingly mobile-minded Microsoft made the Skype acquisition seem like the most logical thing ever. And, it said, it has no intention of messing with the brand which has become a consumer favorite and synonymous with the disruption of the telephone business.

We know what we’re doing, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said on a noticeably small stage he shared with Skype CEO Tony Bates to explain why the merger of their two companies makes sense.

“We’re irrepressible,” said Ballmer. “This Skype acquisition is completely consistent with our ambitious, forward-looking, irrepressible nature. Microsoft and Skype will bring together hundreds of millions — or as Tony said, billions! — of consumers and empower them to connect in new and interesting ways. It’s core to our mission, and it’s core to our technology direction.”

Microsoft’s acquisition of the Luxembourg-based Skype will close this year, assuming it passes regulatory muster, the executives said.

Skype is the poster child for voice-over-internet-protocol — or VOIP — services, which allow customers to place telephone calls using the internet’s infrastructure instead of the phone company’s. Most people use Skype to place free calls to other Skype users. After its founding in 2003, eBay paid $3.1 billion for Skype in 2005, then sold the majority of it to an investment group in 2009 for $1.9 billion.

Skype is popular, especially among people who use its services to place international calls cheaply or for free. But it hasn’t exactly captialized on the social networking revolution and has faced carrier resistance in its efforts to create fully featured mobile clients. Meanwhile, Google acquired a competing service, Grand Central, for a reported $50 million in 2007, eventually launching it as Google Voice in 2009. Google recently struck a deal with Sprint, enabling Sprint customers to integrate their phone numbers with Google Voice.

Microsoft’s purchase of Skype is arguably as much about defense as offense. It denies Skype to, say, Facebook and Google, both of which were reported just days ago to be interested in in partnering with, and possibly buying it. As carriers de-emphasize what are becoming commoditized calling minutes in favor of pricier data bytes, Microsoft’s strategic alliance with Nokia also gives it huge reach in the distribution of Skype-integrated handsets.

However, that seems like a rich price tag for a company that only generated $860 million in revenue in the most recent year and $264 million in operating profit — yet no net profit at all. Microsoft is paying about $50 for each of Skype’s 170 million users, or about $1,000 for each of its 8 million paying customers.

Ballmer seemed optimistic about Skype’s ability to integrate into Microsoft’s current businesses, such as Windows Live Messenger and the corporate-oriented Lync. He said he expected to apply “classic” business metrics to evaluate the success or failure of the new Skype division.

Charles Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research, said that while Skype probably wouldn’t generate much revenue for Microsoft directly, it could be a valuable addition to other internet-based services, in which e-mail, voice and video are all becoming part of the same stream of data.

“Part of the bet that Microsoft is placing is that this technology helps them do a better job of delivering to that river of communications,” Golvin said.

For instance, Golvin suggested, the company could integrate Skype into Xbox and Xbox Live, which — with the addition of Kinect — have become more voice-centric products in the last year.

Both executives sought to reassure Skype customers who might be worried about Microsoft’s ability and willingness to support the multiplatform software, which is available for Windows, OS X and Linux PCs; Android, BlackBerry and iOS smartphones; and even televisions.

“We’re one of the few companies that has actually has a track record of doing this,” said Ballmer, pointing to the company’s Mac support over the years. “Fundamental to the value proposition of communications is being able to reach everybody, whether they happen to be on your devices or not.”

“The commitment from Microsoft to support multiplatform clients is absolutely critical,” Bates said, indicating that Skype got assurances from Microsoft that it would continue to support all of Skype’s platforms.

Finally, Ballmer indicated no intention to take on the carriers in an aggressive attempt to bring VOIP services into Windows Phone 7. Indeed, Ballmer said, “the partnership and collaboration that we have today [with carriers] is fundamental.”

Bates pointed to Skype’s track record of striking deals with carriers to offer Skype services as a differentiating feature.

In other words, expect Microsoft to try to sell Skype to carriers, not use it to bash them about the head with VOIP services that reduce their billable minutes.

 

Story originally published on Wired.com: Ballmer to Skype Fans: You Can Trust Us | Epicenter | Wired.com.

Sony Touts Console-Like Power of Upcoming NGP

SAN FRANCISCO — Sony is blurring the line between portable game consoles and larger consoles currently trapped inside TV cabinets.

With a high-resolution screen, a powerful processor and graphics card, and massive amounts of memory, the upcoming Sony NGP will be closer to the capabilities of a PC or PS3 than it is to Sony’s current portable, the PSP, according to a Sony executive speaking at the Game Developers Conference Wednesday.

The NGP’s 5-inch screen is substantially bigger than the PSP’s 4.3-inch screen, and has 4 times the resolution, or 960×544 pixels. That’s about midway between the PSP and the PS3, according to David Coombes, a platform designer for Sony Computer Entertainment America.

“People get choked up, they get tears in their eyes when they see that screen,” said Coombes.

Inside, there’s a 4-core, 32-bit ARM9 processor.

There’s also a PowerVR SGX543MP4+ GPU inside, which should deliver impressive video rendering. This is also a multi-core chip with the ability to dynamically load balance between its cores.

The NGP also includes some dedicated chips for media playback.

“It’s very similar to a modern PC” in terms of its processing power, said Coombes. And while Coombes wouldn’t state specifics about memory, he said it’s closer to the PS3 than to the PSP in terms of available RAM.

Games can be loaded via game cards with a capacity of either 2GB or 4GB, giving developers lots of room to create huge, complicated software and datasets.

A big NGP game will take about 4GB, compared to around 9GB for a PS3 game. By contrast, Coombes said, a typical iPhone game occupies only 10MB. The point is that an NGP game can include a lot more data, making it potentially far more complicated, with richer graphics, more detailed and larger worlds, and so forth.

For big games, developers will be able to reuse a lot of assets from existing Xbox or PS3 games, Coombes said, although naturally models, shaders and textures will have to be simplified for the NGP.

A demo of Uncharted for the NGP showed a rich, complicated environment and a variety of ways to control the little man on the screen, from using the analog controls and buttons to swiping on-screen to make him climb from handhold to handhold or to throw enemies into the abysses below. (See below for video.)

Other features included in the NGP include a second analog stick, plus a 3-axis accelerometer and a 3-axis gyroscope, for 6 axes of motion sensitivity.

There’s a touchscreen on the front and also on the back, which you can manipulate with the fingers you’re using to hold the NGP. Both touchscreens support multitouch, and can register how hard you are pressing them as well. A quick demo with a developer from BigBig studios showed the rear touchscreen being used to deform a cartoon landscape to roll a ball around, while touching the front touchscreen changed the camera angle and position.

Like nearly every other portable device hitting the market this year, the NGP has a camera on the front and one on the back. The cameras are meant for game play, said Coombes.

“We need high frame rate, so we can get sharper images” for fast-moving game play. So the cameras are optimized for high-speed, low-light video, not for taking pictures.

Wi-Fi-only and 3G/Wi-Fi models will be available, although the final configurations are not yet settled. The 3G models will also include GPS support, although the Wi-Fi models can also do positioning via Skyhook Wireless, which uses data about Wi-Fi hotspot locations to get relatively accurate location information.

Originally published on Wired: Sony Touts Console-Like Power of Upcoming NGP | GameLife | Wired.com.

Reports: Verizon iPhone Likely Coming Jan. 11

U.S. iPhone users frustrated with AT&T’s frequently dropped callslimited geographic coveragedelayed delivery of iPhone tetheringelimination of unlimited data planspoor customer service, and alleged cooperation with warrantless wiretapping by the NSA may soon have an alternative.*

Verizon yesterday sent out invitations to a Tuesday, Jan. 11 press event in New York.

Many believe that this event will be the debut of the iPhone on Verizon.

Full story:

Reports: Verizon iPhone Likely Coming Jan. 11 | Gadget Lab | Wired.com.

Steve Ballmer. photo by Jon Snyder/Wired.com

‘Windows Will Be Everywhere,’ Ballmer Promises

Steve Ballmer. photo by Jon Snyder/Wired.com

LAS VEGAS — Microsoft unveiled its vision of the future, where everything from phones and tablets to big-ass tables runs Windows.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer delivered a somnolescent and nearly news-free keynote presentation on the eve of the Consumer Electronics Show here, laying out his company’s strategy for home entertainment, mobile content, PCs and tablets.

“Whatever device you use, now or in the future, Windows will be there,” Ballmer said.

Full story: ‘Windows Will Be Everywhere,’ Ballmer Promises | Gadget Lab | Wired.com.

Intel Beefs Up CPUs With Graphics Power — and Content Protection

LAS VEGAS — Intel is preparing a new line of processing, graphics and wireless technologies aimed in part at bringing video to consumers — and preventing them from copying it.

The content protection scheme, known as “Intel Insider,” is a feature built into its second-generation Core processors, which Intel unveiled Wednesday at the Consumer Electronics Show here.

The feature will prevent playback or copying of HD video content through insecure channels within a PC. For example, video can be delivered to a secured HDMI port, but not over an unsecured PCI bus. It also provides a mechanism for online content providers to recognize Intel Insider computers, and deliver copy-protected content only to them.

“It’s like an armored truck, if you will,” Intel marketing director Josh Newman told Wired.com. “It’s a way of securing the content once it’s inside the PC.”

Full story: Intel Beefs Up CPUs With Graphics Power — and Content Protection | Gadget Lab | Wired.com.

Photo of Steve Jobs by Jonathan Snyder / Wired.com

What We Wish Apple Would Do With iTunes

Apple is planning an announcement Tuesday morning regarding iTunes.

Count us among the cautiously optimistic. ITunes is one of the most successful software packages in history, installed on more than 125 million computers worldwide and used for about 70 percent of all digital-music purchases. (Exact numbers are hard to find, but it’s huge.) Its reach would seem to make iTunes a terrific platform for transforming the media landscape — if it weren’t such a bloated, hard-to-use, overloaded mess.

We don’t know what Apple will be announcing Tuesday morning (7 a.m. Pacific/10 a.m. Eastern). The Wall Street Journal, citing “people familiar with the situation,” says it will include the long-awaited coming of the Beatles catalog to the iTunes Music Store. It could be the addition of a streaming-media subscription service to iTunes. It might be an overhaul of Apple’s abortive attempt at a social network, Ping. Or it could be something completely different.

Regardless of what Apple does announce, here’s what we’re hoping for.

Full story: What We Wish Apple Would Do With iTunes | Gadget Lab | Wired.com.

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Journalism in the Age of Online Collaboration

Painting of Basho meeting two travelers, from the Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2008660384/

Savvy journalists have adapted (or have been forced to adapt) to a new, more collaborative publishing model online. Here are my notes from a keynote presentation I delivered on this topic at the OCLC Collaboration Forum, held at the Smithsonian, on September 21.

Matsuo Kinsaku was born around 1644 in Japan. As a young man, he became a master of a form of collaborative poetry.

It was a kind of party game: A poetry master would kick things off with a pithy short verse, and then other people in the group would collaborate (and compete) to come up with subsequent verses, each one subtly or cleverly linked to the one before.

He was very successful and popular, but around 1682 Matsuo became dissatisfied and started traveling around Japan.

As he went, he wrote compressed travelogues interspersed with very short poems. They were kind of like those kick-off verses, except they stood on their own.

Over time, his new approach gained popularity, power and subtlety. He took on the poetic name of Basho, and his artform is known today as haiku.

Since the 17th century it’s been primarily an individual activity, like other poetry.

But in my work over the past decade publishing an online journal of haiku, tinywords, I’ve seen haiku come full circle. On tinywords.com, haiku are published as poems, like on any other literary journal. But like many websites, we also allow readers to post comments, or as I like to call them, “responses.”

In some cases, those responses are simply comments like “great work” or “beautiful imagery.” But sometimes, people post their own haiku in response. On occasion, that’s sparked a whole chain of linked verses, each one responding to the one that came before.

Sound familiar?

A similar thing, I think, is happening in journalism.

Continue reading

Apple TV photo by Jonathan Snyder

Apple Takes Aim at Cable With Tiny New Apple TV

SAN FRANCISCO — In a sign that its television “hobby” has turned into serious business, Apple announced an aggressively-priced new set-top box that takes aim at the heart of the cable TV and DVD rental industries.

The new Apple TV, which will go on sale at the end of September for $100, is a puny box just 1/4 the size of the previous model. It has an HDMI port, a power supply built in it, an optical audio port, an Ethernet jack, and built-in Wi-Fi.

“It’s silent, cool and tiny,” said Apple CEO Steve Jobs, showing off the diminutive metallic box.

Despite rumors, the product was not re-branded as “iTV.” Jobs did not state whether it was running a version of iOS, although the Apple TV’s new interface includes some very iOS-like touches, such as icons that jiggle when you are rearranging them in your Netflix queue.

Apple joins an increasingly crowded and risky scrum of companies trying to reinvent television for the internet age. Netflix and Hulu both have been offering streaming video playback of movies and TV shows, with some success, for over a year. Google is working on a set-top box that would blur the line between TV and internet fare, YouTube is said to be planning mainstream film rentals and Amazon is rumored to be planning its own Netflix-like video streaming service. But the real threat are the cable companies and TV networks, which have a lock on the shows that people want to watch — and so far, there’s been little incentive for them to open up their tightly-controlled ecosystems to internet upstarts.

Apple’s play is for convenience, but it’s not the cross-platform strategy needed for dominance, wrote Andrew Eisner, a director at online electronics retailer Retrevo.com.

“A TV OS vacuum exists at the moment and unfortunately for consumers, TV manufacturers appear to be filling it with their own proprietary offerings,” Eisner wrote recently. “Apple needs to gain control of the third screen or TV screen, after smartphone screens and computer screens, and the TV industry needs to move away from closed environments and let their connected TVs work with all the apps and streaming content that consumers are finding so appealing.”

The company will also be providing a feature within iOS 4.2 that customers can use to share videos wirelessly from their iPhones, iPod Touches or iPads. Called “AirPlay,” the feature will let customers display a video from their mobile device, on an Apple TV-connected TV screen, with a single tap. IOS 4.2 won’t be available until November.

AirPlay “puts iPhones and iPads in the driver’s seat and makes the TV just an output device for the Apple ecosystem,” said Forrester analyst James McQuivey. “Expect Apple to gradually push more and more in that direction.”

“But,” McQuivey added, “as of this moment in 2010, Apple has not yet made a significant play for control of the TV.”

In an implicit acknowledgment of Apple TV’s poor sales to date, Jobs again referred to the product as the company’s “hobby.” He showed the new Apple TV at a press conference here on Wednesday.

But Jobs was careful to cast the company’s previous product as a learning experience, and indicated his intention of throwing more of the company’s weight behind the upgraded Apple TV.

Apple TV customers will be able to rent first-run HD movies for $5, at the same time as they’re released on DVD. That’s a substantial improvement from the past, when there were significant time lags before movies were available through iTunes.

Customers will also be able to rent HD TV shows from ABC and Fox for $1, a discount from the previous price of $3. The shows will run without commercial interruption.

Netflix customers will also be able to stream video from Netflix via Apple TV, and can also use the device to browse and view YouTube videos and content uploaded to Apple’s MobileMe service.

Customers can also stream content from their computers, including photos, videos and music, with no syncing required.

Apple is already accepting pre-orders for the new Apple TV on its site.

For full coverage of Apple’s press conference, see Wired.com’s live blog of the event.

Photos: Jon Snyder/Wired.com
Originally published on Wired, September 1, 2010.

ok-go-start

How OK Go’s Amazing Rube Goldberg Machine Was Built | Gadget Lab | Wired.com

In music, timing is everything. When you’re dancing with an enormous machine, it’s even more important to get the timing correct, down to the microsecond.

For its latest video, released on YouTube Monday night, pop band OK Go recruited a gang of very talented engineers to build a huge, elaborate Rube Goldberg machine whose action perfectly meshes with the band’s song, “This Too Shall Pass,” from the band’s new album, Of the Blue Color of the Sky.

For nearly four minutes — captured in a single, unbroken camera shot — the machine rolls metal balls down tracks, swings sledgehammers, pours water, unfurls flags and drops a flock of umbrellas from the second story, all perfectly synchronized with the song. A few gasp-inducing, grin-producing moments when the machine’s action lines up so perfectly, you can only shake your head in admiration at the creativity and precision of the builders.

Those builders were Syyn Labs, a Los Angeles-based arts and technology collective that has a history of doing surprising, entertaining science and tech projects that involve crowds of people, at a monthly gathering called Mindshare LA.

OK Go developed a reputation for making catchy, viral videos four years ago with the homemade video for “Here It Goes Again,” which features the band members dancing around on treadmills. The company ran afoul of music label EMI’s restrictive licensing rules, which required YouTube to disable embedding, cutting views to 1/10 of their previous level. Now, the new video is up — and it’s embeddable, so the band seems to have won this round with its label — and is already generating buzz on YouTube and on Twitter.

Planning for the video began in November, when Syyn Labs secured a warehouse in the Echo Park area of L.A. But it wasn’t until January that work really got going. The video was shot on Feb. 11 and 12.

“A Rube Goldberg machine is in its essence a trial-and-error thing,” Adam Sadowsky, the president of Syyn Labs, told Wired.

Sadowsky explained how many tiny details needed to be just right for the machine’s timing to work out.

For example, the wooden tracks used to guide metal balls at the beginning of the video had to be cleaned and waxed to keep dust from slowing down the balls and making them stick. And the angle of that board was set at a precise 3.4 degrees of incline, which was perfect for the timing but sometimes led the balls to jump the track.

Given that each of the machine’s dozens of stages need comparably precise adjustments, it all adds up to a lot of labor by a lot of people.

“It took about a month and a half of very intense work, with people on-site all the time,” Sadowsky said.

Sadowsky estimates that 55 to 60 people worked on the project in all. That includes eight “core builders” who did the bulk of the design and building, along with another 12 or so builders who helped part-time. In addition, Syyn Labs recruited 30 or more people to help reset the machine after each run.

Because of the machine’s size and complexity, “We needed to bring in every resource we could to help reset,” said Sadowsky.

Even with all those people helping, resetting the whole machine took close to an hour.

The video was shot by a single Steadicam, but it took more than 60 takes, over the course of two days, to get it right. Many of those takes lasted about 30 seconds, Sadowsky said, getting no further than the spot in the video where the car tire rolls down a ramp.

“The most fiddly stuff, you always want to put that at the front, because you don’t want to be resetting the whole thing.”

OK Go hired Syyn Labs to produce the contraption according to certain specifications. One example: The machine couldn’t use any magic.

“That was really important,” said Sadowsky, “because we are all engineers, and we love magic. We love computers, and servomotors, and fire, and all of that stuff.” All those “magic” tricks — basically anything your mom can’t understand — couldn’t be in the machine.

The band was also heavily involved in the project for the final two weeks of its construction, and the band members are right inside the machine during the video, of course.

“We wanted to make a video where we have essentially a giant machine that we dance with,” said the band’s Damian Kulash, Jr., in a short “making-of” video posted on YouTube.

Otherwise, Synn Labs’ engineers went to town, dreaming up the most outlandish and elaborate mechanisms they could to “dance” along with the music. The results are impressive.

Oh, and OK Go’s treadmill video from last year? It makes a cameo appearance in the machine too.

“It really was a labor of love,” said Sadowsky.

See below for more videos about the making of “This Too Shall Pass.”

How OK Go’s Amazing Rube Goldberg Machine Was Built | Gadget Lab | Wired.com.