Thursday, September 27, 2007

Is Google preparing Second Life rival?

The high-tech rumour mill has thrown up an astonishing new rumour: Google is preparing a rival to Second Life.

The story began with a post on the Mac Rumors web forum. A student from Arizona State University posted screenshots from an invitation sent to students at the college.

Headed "Redefine your world", it says: "ASU has been uniquely chosen by a major internet company to be a beta-tester school for a new product that will be publicly launched later this year."

A 3d character on the site asks in a speech bubble: "Are you into 3d modelling, videogaming, etc? Do you have a virtual avatar?"

The invitation includes a questionnaire which asks whether they use social networking sites such as Friendster, Facebook and MySpace, or have been "living in a cave".

The combination of 3d video and a social networking suggests that the service being tested could resemble Second Life in some way.

And two pieces of evidence suggest that the "major internet company" may be Google - the questionnaire goes on to ask if potential testers have an account with Google's Gmail service.

ASU also has a close relationship with Google: the search engine giant has an office the University's Tempe campus.

However, there have many completely false rumours of new services coming from Google - only Apple beats Google for vigour of the rumour mill that obsesses over every hint of a possible new release.

Among the most persistent rumours is talk of the "Google OS" - a full computer operating system which would rival Microsoft Windows. But despite the appearance of many fake pictures of the OS, nothing real has ever emerged.

Google representatives in London did not return calls for comment on this story.

Group urges Google probe

An ethics group is urging Congress to scrutinize Google's copyright controls after finding hundreds of apparently pirated movies available on the Internet search leader's Web site.

In letters sent to several lawmakers Wednesday, the National Legal and Policy Center excoriated Mountain View-based Google for allowing its video-hosting service to become an online theater for showing and promoting illegally copied movies.

The non-profit group, which says it has no financial ties to the movie industry, is best known for helping to expose a 2003 corruption scandal involving the Air Force and Boeing that landed two executives in jail.

The grievances made to Congress focused exclusively on content found on Google's Web site rather than the company's more popular YouTube subsidiary that is being sued by Viacom for alleged copyright infringement.

The harsh critique echoes similar complaints that have asserted Google is more interested in boosting its audience - and potential profit - than protecting the intellectual property of Hollywood studios, record labels, authors and publishers.

Google says it adheres to federal law by removing unauthorized content whenever asked by copyright owners.

Microsoft rolls out enhanced search

Microsoft said Wednesday that it has more than quadrupled the amount of material it scours on the Web and will be rolling out a series of other improvements to its search engine over the next month, as the world's biggest software company continued its bid to narrow Google's large lead in Internet search and advertising.

Calling search "a killer app," Satya Nadella, corporate vice president, search and advertising platform, said Microsoft has made substantial improvements in understanding what people want when they type a few words into Microsoft's search engine,, and in delivering more relevant responses.

But will it be enough?

Google conducted 56 percent of all U.S. Internet searches in August, followed by Yahoo, which conducted 23 percent and Microsoft, which conducted 11 percent, according to comScore, a research firm that tracks Internet traffic.

Karsten Weide, an analyst with IDC, said the new features could help Microsoft increase its market share, but he said it would be hard to make much headway against Google.

"If a company wants to change users' habits, they need to prove they are a world better than the incumbent," he said. "This is not going to turn the tables."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

First look at Windows Vista SP1

Earlier today I downloaded the standalone installer for Windows Vista SP1 build 6001.16659 and installed it on a few systems to see what it was like - and I thought you might like to take a look at it.Don’t expect huge UI changes after installing SP1 - the changes are small and subtle. In fact, if you’re not familiar with Windows Vista, you might miss the SP1 changes. I’ve put together an image gallery showing some of the most significant changes.

Here are some of the changes:

Other points worth noting:

  • The install process took about 40 minutes on my system
  • The system rebooted 4 times
  • So far, I’ve not come across any SP1 related issues

A scanner the size of a pen

When I heard about the Docupen RC800, I thought it was a no-brainer. Trade in my flatbed scanner for one the size of a small cigar? Gladly! As the owner of American Roof Preservers (, a firm that cleans and preserves cedar-shake roofs in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, I could see using the DocuPen to scan documents or collect helpful news articles on the go.

Manufacturer PLANon Systems Solutions ( advertises the RC800 as a full-color scanner capable of recording 100 pages, each in as little as four seconds. I was excited to test it.

I removed the DocuPen from the box, loaded the bundled software CD onto my computer, and charged the pen for 50 minutes. Then I set DocuPen to scan at its highest resolution with full color, figuring that even though I was scanning a black-and-white document, I wanted the best possible quality. I set the scanner on the page, pushed the power button and rolled the pen toward the bottom.

About three-quarters of the way down the page, all the lights on the scanner began flashing, and it shut off. I repeated the test, but each time the results were the same. Oddly, the software help menu offered only technical specs on the software itself. (Later I realized that there was a second help menu in the separate Paperport document viewer - all a bit too complicated for my taste.)

A better alternative to One Laptop per Child?

For those interested in bridging the digital divide, two seemingly-unrelated headlines in today’s news together tell a fascinating story. The first headline topped the tech news: Nicholas Negraponte’s One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative will start selling their laptops to buyers in rich countries. But there’s a wrinkle: Rich-country buyers must buy their machines in lots of two, one they get to keep, while the other goes to a needy child overseas. Why the 2-for-1 charity promo?

“I have to some degree underestimated the difference between shaking the hand of a head of state and having a cheque written,” said Negraponte to the New York Times recently. In short, weak demand.

The second item appeared on the front of a special section in today’s Wall Street Journal: N-Computing, a Redwood City-based start-up, has won the Journal’s 7th annual technology innovation award in the category “Computing Systems.” What’s the connection? Well, N-Computing essentially brings “thin client computing” from the Western enterprise to the developing world. That is, the company makes low cost hardware devices that turn regular PCs into servers. (Think VMWare (VMW) or Citrix (CTXS) for poor people.)

Equipped with the $11 N-Computing device, a garden-variety PC can host up to seven simultaneous users. Each user requires only a screen, keyboard, and a mouse, but they get a full Windows (MSFT) desktop experience.

While Negraponte and OLPC have generated most of the buzz in recent years, N-Computing and its CEO Stephen Dukker represent a different approach to solving the same problem: how to get computing power into the hands of the world’s neediest students. And while not-for-profit OLPC has faced nothing but headwinds, for profit N-Computing appears to be getting real market traction. Last week, for example, the company closed a deal to outfit most of the school children in Macedonia with “desktops.” Yes, it’s Macedonia, but that’s upwards of 100,000 “seats.” And, the reseller that is doing the installation is China’s Haier Group, which clearly expects to make a buck on the deal. So there’s a real business model here, beneath the altruism.

Dukker, who was the founder of eMachines, stopped by the office recently and made a compelling argument for his case. “Even today’s lowest cost laptop has become a supercomputer,” he said. By sharing a single high cost processor and memory, Dukker says he can deliver “desktops” to kids at a “fully-loaded” cost of just $70 $220. (Ed. Note: $70 is the unloaded, per seat cost.) By comparison, he argues that the “fully loaded”cost of an OLPC, each of which comes with its own processor and memory, is actually over $800.

The architectural logic would seem to make sense, and Dukker says he’s sold 400,000 devices in just the last year. My favorite example: an entrepreneur in Mexico has used NComputing devices to outfit a mobile home with a dozen or so Windows terminals. Apparently, the man drives his home from one village to the next, parks, and opens up a temporary Internet cafe. That’s called grassroots demand, and it’s the sort of story that makes it easy to be bullish on Dukker’s thin-computing model, and increasingly skeptical about Negraponte’s costly laptop in every pot crusade.

Google comes calling

A few weeks ago, we wrote about plans by Google and other Silicon Valley companies to make the next generation of wireless networks more Internet-like: Customers would be able to use any mobile device on any network, and access all online content on their cell phones.

But Google (Charts, Fortune 500) and others apparently are not satisfied with simply pushing new services for cell phones or trying to get their content on mobile devices. It and others increasingly are getting into the guts of the wireless business - making phones and perhaps even building wireless networks.