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Posted: December 9, 2010 in Software

Google wakes up to new photo reality

commentary Google is showing some signs it understands how photography is changing on the Net.

In the olden days, people posted batches of digital photos on the Web in photo albums their friends would look at occasionally. Often half the point of uploading the shots was getting them to a place like Snapfish or Shutterfly that could create prints.

Picasa Web Albums, Google’s photo-sharing site, was born in this era. Now, though, photos are becoming an in-the-moment part of people’s online social lives, notably with Net-connected smartphones and Facebook sharing with friends. Picasa Web Albums–never a product that advanced at blazing speed–is beginning to adapt to this era. Perhaps Google’s success with its Android operating system has made the company more aware of just how far the world has moved from the shoebox-of-prints-in-the-closet days.

First up is a more social interface to Picasa Web Albums that shows what your contacts on the site are up to. Google has struggled for a couple years now to build social connections into its products, nevertheless falling ever further behind Facebook in the area, but this change could help people branch out.

Yahoo’s Flickr, of course, has had social connections built in from the start with groups, comments, and sharing, and Yahoo has been trying to promote those aspects by spotlighting this activity at log-in. But here, too, Facebook’s key asset–the active participation of many of your social connections–is a more powerful draw when it comes to using photos to stay in the loop. Also, Facebook can share text, but Picasa and Flickr really don’t do well for sharing anything besides photos or videos.

Second for Picasa Web Albums is a photo and video price break. The site previously was free to use for up to 1GB of data, but that amount of space could quickly be gobbled up, especially with videos.

The new pricing means photos smaller than 800 pixels on a side or videos shorter than 15 minutes don’t count toward the 1GB freebie limit. Given the dropping cost of storage, it’s a reasonable way to lower a barrier that might keep people from using Picasa. (Buying more storage space costs US$5 a year for 20GB, but other sizes are available too–US$50 annually for 200GB or US$4,096 for 16 terabytes, for example.)

Most new smartphones take shots more than 800 pixels on an edge, though, so until “share a smaller version” becomes a common option, people might still be reluctant to build Picasa into their online daily lives.

Last is the addition of Picasa Web Albums photos to people’s Google Profile. People often care how they appear and don’t care to express that with just a little thumbnail; but more to the point, this change makes the Profiles page a more fleshed-out hub for whatever online social activity Google plans to launch next.

Business intelligence going mobile

SINGAPORE–Enterprise adoption of mobile devices is opening up a new front for business intelligence (BI), which is no longer a tool restricted to middle-management executives, according to Shankar Ganapathy, global vice president for MicroStrategy Asia-Pacific.

He told ZDNet Asia at a briefing here Thursday that as more executives and sales professionals use tablets for work and to access corporate data, an increasing number will request for additional tools compatible with the mobile platforms to help push decision-making.

The evolving trend in mobility has transformed the BI market, Ganapathy said. “One of the impact of mobile BI is that with the advent of the Apple iPad, in particular, many of our larger customers arm their senior executives with the device, which means they need to interact with the analytics that the departments are pushing.”

Hence, upper or c-level management is now able to have BI visibility, which traditionally was provided by mid-level management, he explained.

Customer-facing executives are also looking at ways to collate data more quickly.

Ganapathy noted: “Take the insurance vertical, for example, where agents need to gather information about customer preferences and products before a customer meeting, and currently there is little opportunity for them to do so. Mobile solutions will enable this process.”

In the long-term, BI tools will also be increasingly integrated with near-field communications (NFC), he said.

Ganapathy explained:”NFC-enabled mobile phones will be able to pick up information from a NFC chip, and this will allow us to capture real-time information on customer loyalty, item performance and so on, to benefit retail businesses.”

This data can then be broken down and analyzed quickly, giving retailers a clearer picture on customer profiles and preferences, he added.

While NFC development is still moving at a snail’s pace, Ganapathy believes the convergence of NFC and BI offers much opportunity that MicroStrategy can front. He added that the company is looking to work with “the very few [NFC] devices in the market” such as Google’s Nexus.

The growing adoption of mobile devices has opened up enterprises to a slew of unstructured data which he said MicroStrategy’s offerings are capable of analyzing. “With the advent of mobile technology, the source of unstructured data is going to be more significant,” he said, noting that companies will be looking at best-of-breed products to filter and capture data from such platforms.

Advantages of pure-play BI
MicroStrategy is betting on its position as the “only pure-play provider of BI” left in the market as its competitive advantage.

Ganapathy said: “BI has gone from being a business-critical element to becoming mission-critical, as it’s increasingly used to determine how a company looks at business outline, bottomline and revenue streams based on cost and efficiencies.”

With these requirements from the enterprise community, he said it is important that a market player, which is still focused purely on the business of data analytics, is able to provide the right tools for enterprises. “That is why pure-play and best-of-breed for BI is very significant in the market today,” he added.

MicroStrategy’s competitors in today’s BI market are formed through acquisitions, where IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and SAP account for two-thirds of the US$6 billion industry.

Nasdaq-listed MicroStrategy’s US$460 million business is built on direct and partner channels. Ganapathy revealed that at least 30 percent of their business in this region is served through partners. In Singapore, partners–which include SingTel’s NCS (previously known as National Computer Systems)–make up half the pie.

iOS 4.3 arrives ahead of schedule

Apple Thursday released its iOS 4.3 software ahead of schedule.

The software, which was originally set to be released on Friday to coincide with the launch of the iPad 2, went out to users as an update from within Apple’s iTunes software this morning.

Among the new features are support for Wi-Fi hot spots on GSM iPhones, video streaming through Apple’s AirPlay technology, iTunes Home Sharing, and improved JavaScript performance in Safari. iPad users also get a new option within the settings menu that lets them turn the iPad’s side switch into either a mute switch or a screen orientation lock–functionality the company had changed with the release of iOS 4.2.

iOS 4.3 was unveiled during the iPad 2 press briefing earlier this month, though developers got their hands on the first beta of the software in January. Apple released a Gold Master copy of the software just last week.

The new software is the first iOS update to leave out the iPhone 3G from the list of devices that Apple will support. Joining the 3G in devices that won’t be eligible for the update include the original iPhone, as well as the first- and second-generation iPod Touch.

Along with iOS 4.3 for iOS devices, the Apple TV received a software update today that adds Major League Baseball’s MLB.TV streaming service, as well as the National Basketball Association’s League Pass. Both subscription services work in a similar fashion to Netflix, with users entering in their existing account credentials to gain access. That update only goes out to users with the latest version of Apple TV.

Microsoft’s mobile fortunes tied to app developers

PopCap Games doesn’t usually race to be among the first to develop for a new platform of any sort, be it a console or a mobile operating system. But the company is breaking from its tradition and working hard on porting its popular Plants vs. Zombies game to Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 platform.

“With Microsoft and Windows Phone 7 we saw a strategic opportunity,” said Garth Chouteau, vice president of public relations for PopCap.

Before you scoff, don’t think the developers at Popcap have blown a gasket. Chouteau said that even though there isn’t yet a large installed base of Windows Phone 7 devices on the market, he expects that there will be…in time. Microsoft has good relationships with developers, has historically worked well with them, and it’s built a gaming ecosystem for its Xbox games, which could be important for Popcap’s gaming audience.

What’s more, Microsoft has recently struck a deal with Nokia, the leading handset maker in the world, to put its operating system on all future smartphones designed by Nokia. All this gives Popcap and other developers plenty of reason to view Microsoft as an important mobile operating system platform.

“We think it will be a popular mobile platform,” he said. “And we like to have our games available in every appropriate place where our customers prefer to play.”

When Microsoft decided to scrap its earlier mobile operating system to develop its revamped Windows Phone 7 platform, released in October, the software giant’s goal was modest: simply getting back in the game. And if mobile developer interest is any indication, Microsoft has achieved that.

The company is already signing up big names to the platform, such as Rovio, which developed the popular game Angry Birds. Getting A-list apps is akin to scoring a Nordstrom or Macy’s as an anchor store at a mall. It gives people a reason to come to that particular mobile platform, because they know they can get apps they’ve heard of or tried on other platforms.

There’s other evidence that Windows Phone 7 is gaining traction among developers. The company Urban Airship, which helps develops mobile applications for some 7,000 brands, surveyed its customers early in 2011 to get a sense of their priorities in the coming year. According to that survey, which was done in January before Microsoft announced it would partner with Nokia, nearly 25 percent of its brand customers said they were planning to develop mobile applications for Windows Phone 7 in 2011. This is up from only 5.9 percent who actually said they developed apps for Windows Phone 7 in 2010.

But even though Windows Phone 7 is on the radar screen for many brands and developers, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android development continue to dominate–by far–the world of mobile developers. According to Urban Airship’s survey, 99.5 percent of brands last year developed apps for Apple’s iOS and about 44 percent developed apps for Google’s Android platform. In 2011, 90.5 percent of brands surveyed said they had plans to develop for iOS and about 74 percent said they planned to develop apps for Android.

Still, for a company that was all but forgotten in the mobile market a little over a year ago, growing interest from developers has to be taken as some glimmer of good news. And indeed it is at Microsoft.

“We have already had a lot of success so far,” said Brandon Watson, director of developer experience for Windows Phone 7 at Microsoft. “Developers are making money. Some people may try to compare us to existing platforms. But you have to consider where we’ve come from in just a few short months.”

Indeed, Microsoft only has about 9,000 apps in its Marketplace compared with Apple’s 350,000 plus apps in the Apple App Store. But Watson said that Microsoft is adding at least 100 new apps a day, and it has already registered more than 32,000 app developers to create applications for its platform.

Quality vs. Quantity
The number and quality of mobile apps on any smartphone platform is absolutely critical in terms of attracting customers for devices. Smartphones today are less about voice communications and almost entirely all about apps and what people can do with these devices.

“Whether you’re an operating system developer or you make mobile handsets or tablets or you’re a connected-car manufacturer, what differentiates your product from someone else’s are the apps and software,” said Andrew Ianni, founder and president of AppNation, a conference and event company focused on the business app economy. “That is why all these companies are courting developers. It’s why a thriving app marketplace is so critical. If these companies don’t have that, then they’re out of the conversation.”

Microsoft understands the importance of the developer community in terms of the overall success of Windows Phone 7. And the company has devoted a significant amount of resources to getting developers on board with the platform.

“Honestly, it’s the only thing that matters,” Watson said. “That means we must give developers what they need to develop for our platform. And if we don’t, we lose.”

Many large to medium-size app developers are putting Windows Phone 7 on their roadmaps because they see the potential in the platform.

Todd Berman, CTO and vice president of engineering for the streaming media company Rdio, said that his company felt compelled to be a Windows Phone 7 launch partner because based on Microsoft’s history of working with developers and pushing into markets it feels are important, it will eventually have a sizable customer base.

“Our customers need to be able to use our service on whatever device they want whether that’s a phone or a desktop or a tablet,” Berman said. “So it’s important for us to be on those devices. Microsoft is one of the more interesting players because of its ability to be in a lot of spaces.”

But some developers are not ready to take the plunge into WP7 development just yet. For many, it’s a chicken and egg problem. App developers have a finite amount of resources, and it’s more lucrative for them target the platforms with the most users, which to date has been Apple’s iOS platform.

“Collectively, I think app developers are taking a wait and see approach,” Ianni said. “The developer community is impressed with the OS. It’s reasonably easy to develop for, but there hasn’t been a mass movement to develop for it yet because developers are still waiting for the tipping point in terms of device sales.”

This is where Microsoft’s deal with Nokia could help. Nokia announced last month that it will scrap its existing Symbian OS and base all future Nokia phones on Windows Phone 7. Even though Nokia has been losing market share over the past several quarters, the Finnish device maker still sells more mobile handsets than any other manufacturer.

“The deal between Microsoft and Nokia validated our original decision to support the WP7 platform,” Berman said. “Nokia is still synonymous with cell phones. And they are the pre-eminent mobile hardware maker out there.”

But it will take time for Microsoft to see the fruits of the Nokia deal. The first Nokia Windows Phone 7 device isn’t expected to hit the market until late this year. And handsets won’t ship in volume until sometime in 2012.

For smaller developers, this time line is too long to make Windows Phone 7 a priority. For example, FlatPack Interactive, which currently holds the No. 8 spot for paid apps in Apple’s App Store with its game BallFallDown Deluxe, is not yet considering developing for Windows Phone 7. Currently, BallFallDown Deluxe is only available for the iPad. Paul Zimmer, founder of FlatPack Interactive, hopes to port the company’s existing game to Android tablets soon. And he said the company also plans to develop new games for Apple’s iPhone and Android smartphones as soon as it can free up resources.

“Given where we are in our business right now, Windows Phone 7 isn’t even on our radar,” Zimmer said. “Honestly, for something that won’t have a reasonable installed base for a year, it’s just not realistic for us. We could be out of business by then.”

The race for third place
While it’s clear now that developers must develop apps for iOS and Android, the decision of which platform to address next is still up in the air for many. Research In Motion‘s BlackBerry platform still has a large installed base. But developers complain that it’s a difficult platform to develop for. Meanwhile, Hewlett-Packard’s WebOS, which the company bought from Palm, is great software to develop for, but has a very small installed base.

To ensure that its platform is the “third OS”, Microsoft has offered developers incentives to build apps for Windows Phone 7.

“There are rumors going around that Microsoft is throwing big bags of money at developers,” he said. “I’m not sure if this rumor originated from the same place as leprechauns sitting at the end of the rainbow with a big pot of gold. But that’s not really how it works.”

Watson said there are deals that have been struck that involve monetary assistance for developers, but there are also marketing incentives that will help promote the apps in the Microsoft Marketplace. There is also technical assistance and help in merchandising apps in the Marketplace. And there will even be times when Microsoft seeks an exclusive for an app.

“We are figuring out what works and how to engage with developers so that they can be successful,” he said. “We want to make them rich and famous. Microsoft can only be a success if our partners make money.”

Watson wouldn’t talk about specific deals struck with particular app developers, but he said the depth of engagement with developers varies. For example, the most successful app developers will get one-on-one interaction with Microsoft. The company will ensure there are sufficient monetary and technical resources to build the app. Because this is such an intensive process, Microsoft can’t do this with every app developer. But he said that Rovio, the developer of Angry Birds, would likely fall into this category.

To scale the incentive program globally to include thousands and tens of thousands of app developers, Microsoft offers events for technical training. It also help developers better merchandise and market their apps. Microsoft carves out spots in the Marketplace to promote certain apps, which is huge especially for lesser name apps.

Google’s Android platform, which is now the No. 1 mobile OS in the U.S., according to ComScore, had similar problems attracting new developers in its early days. But once big carriers, such as Verizon Wireless started pushing the platform as an alternative to AT&T’s exclusive iPhone in the U.S., the Android platform gained steam. And as more Android devices were sold, more app developers created applications for these devices.

“It’s hard sometimes to get the snowball rolling,” said Ianni. “But once it gets going, then it’s a virtuous circle that keeps building and feeding off each other. Android is in the middle of it now. Apple was there two years ago. And Microsoft could find itself there as well down the road.”

Microsoft tweaks Windows Phone policy, touts trials

Microsoft announced Tuesday a handful of tweaks and changes to its Windows Phone Marketplace, many of which promise to make it easier for developers to publish in the now five-month-old digital storefront. The company also provided a look into the purchasing behavior of users, saying that nearly 1 in 10 downloads of a trial for an app or a game results in a sale.

One of the biggest changes centers around application distribution and publishing. Microsoft announced plans to launch a new Global Publisher Program, aimed at helping developers get their games in more markets.

“This program will enable developers worldwide to work with a Global Publisher to submit apps to the Windows Phone Marketplace,” Todd Brix, Microsoft’s senior director of mobile said in a post on the Windows Phone Developer blog. “Developers from countries and regions all over the world can now submit apps and games to the Windows Phone Marketplace.”

That system, Brix explained, would have developers providing publishers with their applications, who would then submit them to the Marketplace and set the price. These publishers would also be responsible for ensuring the applications made it through Microsoft’s certification process.

The Global Publisher program is joined by a handful of policy changes, one being an acknowledgement and clarification of developers’ use of open-source licensed tools in their games and applications.

“The Marketplace Application Provider Agreement (APA) already permits applications under the BSD, MIT, Apache Software License 2.0, and Microsoft Public License,” Brix said. “We plan to update the APA shortly to clarify that we also permit applications under the Eclipse Public License, the Mozilla Public License, and other, similar licenses, and we continue to explore the possibility of accommodating additional OSS licenses.”

Last month a clause in the APA had come under fire for promising to ban any apps licensed under the GNU GPL v3, GNU Affero GPL v3, and GNU Lesser General Public License v3. Microsoft had responded by saying that the policy document was continuously being revised, and that the company would be “exploring the possibility of modifying it to accommodate additional open-source-based applications in upcoming revisions.”

Other policy changes include a move to raise the limit of complementary app certifications that are offered for nonpaid applications from 5 to 100, as well as a change that makes leaving contact information for application support an optional affair. Brix explained that the mandatory inclusion option had slowed down the certification process.

Along with the update on the license, Brix said the company has seen great success with the implementation of trials for games and applications. These let users download and use a paid application before buying it, and have resulted in both higher total download numbers than applications without the feature, and higher sales.

“Nearly 1 out of 10 trial apps downloaded convert to a purchase and generate 10 times more revenue, on average, than paid apps that don’t include trial functionality,” Brix said. Those who make the jump from trial to a sale also do it in short order. “More than half of trial downloads that convert to a sale do so within one day, and most of those within 2 hours,” Brix continued.

The trial feature has proved to be one of the big differentiators among the mobile app marketplaces. Google offers refunds for applications on the Android Market, but there is currently no mechanism to download a paid app without first plunking down a payment. Apple’s approach thus far has been to allow free applications to offer full functionality through in-app purchase.

Brix also shared some preliminary results from developers using the company’s Ad Control platform, which lets developers stick advertising in their applications. Brix says 95 percent of apps with ads on the Windows Phone Marketplace are using Ad Control, and that ad impressions have gone up 400 percent in less than three months.

The Windows Phone marketplace now sits at 9,000 applications, and 32,000 registered developers who just began getting payments for their applications at the end of January. Microsoft has not yet disclosed the total amount of those payments. As a refresher on the platform’s momentum, below is our graph of the number of developers and applications, as announced by the company since launch. Worth taking into account are that both numbers are likely to shoot up as Microsoft’s strategic partnership with Nokia progresses.

Adobe continues the Flash fight with 10.3 beta

Revving the Flash Player development engine as fast as possible, Adobe Systems has issued a beta of version 10.3 that lets programmers use a variety of new audio tools.

Those audio possibilities could be very useful for those writing Net-based voice communication software. Features include canceling noise and echoes, detecting when a person has started or stopped speaking, and correcting microphone volume levels to even out speech loudness, Flash product manager Thibault Imbert said in a blog post.

More broadly, though, the software embodies Adobe’s push to keep Flash competitive. The browser plug-in is, if not fighting for its life, in a much less secure position than in years past when programmers could safely assume virtually all browsers had the plug-in installed.

Even as Adobe seeks to make Flash–and a close relative, AIR–a foundation for software that runs on a wide variety of computing devices, the technology faces two big challenges. First are mobile devices, which can lack the processing horsepower and memory to handle Flash and which in the case of Apple’s iOS bans Flash altogether. Second is a maturing suite of Web standards that increasingly can handle many programming tasks that previously required Flash–including on those mobile devices that lack Flash.

Adobe tries Web standards, too
Adobe is hedging its Flash bets by embracing those Web standards. Perhaps the best example is Adobe Wallaby, which rewrites Flash elements to use Web standards including HTML (Hypertext Markup Language, the language to describe Web pages), CSS (Cascading Style Sheets, used for formatting and increasingly advanced animations), and JavaScript (the language of Web-based programs that’s a cousin to Flash’s ActionScript). Adobe is billing the technology in part as a way for Flash programmers to reach iOS devices.

“Adobe’s job is to help you solve problems, not to get hung up on one technology vs. another,” said John Nack, a principal product manager at Adobe who focuses on mobile-device apps, in a blog post today.

But Adobe continues to push Flash hard, too.

Flash Player 10.3 is the third significant point release to Flash Player 10, and its arrival reflects a growing trend in online software development toward smaller, more frequent releases. Google’s Chrome browser, with a six-week cycle, is perhaps the fastest, but Mozilla is moving to a quarterly release cycle with Firefox. The general idea is that online software distribution lets software developers get new features into users’ hands sooner rather than waiting for large updates with a long list of changes.

Version 10.1 was a long time in the making; its most notable feature was that it ran on higher-end Android phones and not just personal computers. With the mobile transition under way, Adobe now seems to be working through a backlog of smaller but significant features it wanted to add. Flash Player 10.2 brought more efficient video through a feature called Stage Video that uses hardware acceleration.

With the arrival of HTML5’s built-in video abilities, online video is a particular competitive battleground for Flash, which for years had the market largely to itself. Here, Adobe is continuing its sales pitch of offering higher-level features useful to those in the business–in this case by building in some online analytics features of Adobe’s Omniture acquisition.

“Media Measurement for Flash allows companies to get real-time, aggregated reporting of how their video content is distributed, what the audience reach is, and how much video is played,” Imbert said of the analytics technology.

Flash 11: 3D and 64-bit
Meanwhile, for Flash programmers in the avant garde, Adobe last week issued preview version of Flash 11 with 3D graphics called Molehill. The Molehill interface is a big deal for Flash, which has a stronghold in online gaming but which faces competition from an emerging Web standard called WebGL.

Developers are starting to kick the Molehill tires. Lee Brimelow, an Adobe Flash platform evangelist, shared a list of Molehill demos yesterday.

Also coming with Flash Player 11 will be 64-bit support, an update that follows the release of several 64-bit browsers–notably Apple’s Safari.

“Now, you may be thinking, what! No 64-bit version!” said Imbert in a personal blog post. “64-bit is coming for the next major version of the Flash Player, so please wait a little more time, I know it is painful, but this is for the good! Next major version will be killer.”

64-bit software can handle vastly larger tracts of memory than 32-bit software, which is limited to 4GB, and 64-bit operating systems have become ordinary when it comes to Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows. The large memory address space isn’t terribly important for browsers today, though, so 64-bit Flash isn’t at the top of Adobe’s priority list.

Adobe can’t wait forever, though. 64-bit computing can improve some performance–Safari’s Nitro JavaScript engine, for example–and it’s difficult at best to use a 32-bit plug-in with a 64-bit browser.

Closer to the here and now, though, is Flash Player 10.3. Along with the audio controls, it comes with a control panel that runs on a person’s machine. It’s integrated with the regular Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux control panel rather than the present mechanism that uses a Web site. The control panel brings “streamlined controls for managing [users’] Flash Player privacy, security, and storage settings,” Imbert said.

And in a separate control panel change, Flash Player can integrate with a browser’s control panel to let people control settings there, too. That can help address the “evercookie” problem, in which a person tries to delete a browser’s regular cookies but fails because duplicates can be stored using Flash.

Finally, the new version integrates with Mac OS X’s built-in notification system when it comes time for a software update.

The Flash Player 10.3 beta will is designed for mobile phones as well as personal computers, Imbert said. Programmers who want to try the new features of 10.3 should note that they’re available in the Flash Player 11 preview version, too.

Faster JavaScript gets Google Chrome 10 spotlight

Google released Chrome 10 today, endowing its browser with faster JavaScript, password synchronization, a revamped preferences system–but no new Chrome logo. Chrome is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Google announced Chrome 10‘s stable release on its blog but refrained from mentioning its product number. That’s in line with the company’s effort to focus on features rather than version numbers, which it calls mere milestones. Google tries to get new versions into users’ hands as rapidly as possible and currently passes a new milestone about once every six weeks.

JavaScript is the programming language used to write Web-based programs, and it’s steadily gaining in importance. That’s because programmers are now using it to write full-featured Web applications such as Gmail and Google Docs, not just Web pages, and faster JavaScript enables more features and a faster interface.

Chrome 10 comes with the “Crankshaft” version of the V8 browser engine that Google pegs as 66 percent faster than the unnamed version in Chrome 9 as measured with Google’s V8 Benchmark suite. That’s a major speed boost, but be aware there are many other attributes of browser performance, and one of the biggest–hardware acceleration–will hit prime time with the imminent release of Mozilla’s Firefox 4 and Microsoft’s IE9.

Chrome 10 gets some hardware acceleration, though, when it comes to playing videos, said Chrome team member Jason Kersey in a blog post.

Browsers usually get new features, but, unusually, Chrome had one removed: H.264 video is gone. Google said Chrome 10 would support Google’s own VP8 video encoding, which it offers royalty-free in an attempt to unencumber Web video from patent licensing barriers that come with the widely used H.264. For those who are attached to the codec, Microsoft offers an H.264 Chrome plug-in for Windows 7 users.

Chrome already had Adobe’s Flash Player built in, but Chrome 10 also puts Flash in a protective sandbox to confine security problems to a walled-off area of memory. Also in the security department are 23 security fixes discovered through Google’s Chrome bounty program and ranging in severity from low to high.

One seemingly minor but actually pretty useful change in Chrome 10 is a revamped configuration system. Instead of a pop-up dialog box that must be dealt with then closed, the new settings show in a browser tab.

The first advantage of the approach is that there’s more room to show what’s going on. The second is that you can leave the settings open while using other tabs–for example while reading Web sites that are offering advice on what to do. A third is that you can save specific Web addresses for a configuration setting, which Google believes could make remote tech support easier because you can simply e-mail somebody a URL rather than tell them how to drill down through a number of settings. Finally, a feature that comes along for the ride is that the configuration page comes with a search box to locate particular features directly.

‘Social biz’ uprising drives big data analytics

SINGAPORE–The inevitable shift by businesses to become more social is fueling demand for big data analytics, say IBM executives, who note that the phenomenon is significant in Southeast Asia where social media consumption is growing rapidly.

According to Nigel Beck, vice president of business development for social software at IBM, business processes are undergoing a pervasive change today with the rise of “social business”. This calls for organizations to “find customers with problems instead of customers finding [them] with problems”, Beck said.

Such social businesses create the means for people and information to “find each other”, are transparent or provide open access to information, and are nimble as they are able to quickly adjust course, he added. The IBMer was speaking to ZDNet Asia on the sidelines of the IBM LotusSphere and Information on Demand event here Tuesday.

To equip social businesses, Big Blue has embedded social capabilities in analytics tools as well as included predictive analytics into social collaboration products, said John Mullins, Asean business unit executive for collaboration solutions at IBM Software Group, who sat in on the same interview.

That would enable, for example, an airline to identify a customer who has blogged about a negative experience with its service, and correct that unpleasant encounter via its contact center, said Singapore-based Mullins.

Bernard Spang, director of strategy and marketing for database software systems at IBM’s software group, noted that the explosion in both structured and unstructured data has driven organizations to look at business analytics as a strategic focus area. He said companies are trying to achieve better business outcomes with the rising amounts of machine- and human-generated data including information from sensors, blogs and tweets.

To that end, IBM has brought together capabilities under big data analytics that address the volume, variety and velocity of information, Spang said, adding that the vendor is combining various analytic technologies instead of offering analytic silos.

“The more info you can bring together and analyze, the better you see the market situation, the better you can understand your customers to grow the business,” he said.

SEA a social media hotbed
According to Mullins, Southeast Asia is leading the world in terms of social networking with Indonesia ranked as the second-largest Facebook market globally and the Philippines boasting the biggest year-on-year growth of Facebook users.

A comScore report in August also revealed that Indonesia had the world’s highest Twitter penetration, while a TNS survey in October pointed to Malaysians as the world’s heaviest users of social networking sites.

Consumers in the region, Mullins said, are “already sold on the social message” and it is only a matter of time before enterprises become more social. In Singapore, which is seen as a technology leader in the region, a broader set of organizations, beyond just early adopters, have already embraced the use of social media, he added.

At the end of the day, insights from social networking sites can provide a more complete picture of a consumer, noted Mullins. In some parts of the world, the information available on these sites may be more accurate than citizen data held by governments, he pointed out.

Opera launches mobile appstore

Opera Software has launched its own mobile appstore which stocks apps that run on various mobile platforms including Android and BlackBerry devices. The company also unveils a new portal to help developers publish apps on the new storefront.

In a press statement Tuesday, the Web browser maker said its Opera Mobile Store is accessible to users of its mobile browsers–Opera Mini and Opera Mobile–as well as mobile browsers from other makers.

Built and delivered using Appia’s storefront commerce technology, the appstore carries apps that run on various mobile platforms in more than 200 countries, including Google Android, Research in Motion’s (RIM) BlackBerry, Nokia Symbian and Java.

Opera added that the appstore can be customized according to a user’s device, operating system, local language and currency. In addition, Opera Mini and Opera Mobile users will be able to access the appstore via a speed-dial link in their respective browsers.

During its soft launch last month, the appstore was visited by more than 15 million users from 200 countries and saw over 700,000 downloads per day.

In conjunction with the launch, Opera also unveiled the Opera Publisher Portal to help developers publish their apps on the new appstore.

“The launch of the Opera Mobile Store supports Opera’s core belief in an open, cross-platform mobile Internet experience by providing Opera users with an integrated storefront of mobile applications” Mahi de Silva, Opera’s executive vice president of consumer mobile, said in the statement.

Today’s launch puts Opera in a growing list of third-party appstore operators including Taiwanese handset maker HTC, e-commerce giant Amazon as well as mobile operators such as M1 and SingTel in Singapore.

Researcher finds serious Android Market bug

Google has fixed a bug in the Android Market that could have allowed attackers to distribute malicious apps to gain control of devices.

“Since the Android Web market was launched earlier this year, it was possible to remotely install arbitrary applications with arbitrary permissions onto a victim’s phone simply by tricking them into clicking a malicious link (either on their desktop or phone),” Jon Oberheide, co-founder and chief technology officer at Duo Security (formerly Scio Security), wrote in a blog post on Monday. “The exploit works universally across all Android devices, versions, and architectures.”

Oberheide described the XSS vulnerability as “low-hanging fruit” and said he was surprised no one had discovered it before. Such bugs are very common in Web sites.

The Android Market allows people to remotely install new apps on to their Android smartphones while browsing the site on their desktop computers.

“While being able to browse the Android market via your browser on your desktop and push apps to your device is a great win for user experience, it opens up a dangerous attack vector. Any XSS vulnerabilities in the Web market allow an attacker to force your browser into making a ‘Post’ request that triggers an app installation to your phone,” Oberheide wrote. “Since there is no on-device prompt or confirmation for these ‘Install_Asset’ requests pushed to your phone, an attacker can silently trigger a malicious app install simply by tricking a victim into clicking a link while logged in to their Google account on their desktop or on their phone. The malicious app delivered to the victim’s phone can use any and all Android permissions, allowing for all sorts of evil behavior.”

Google should include a feature that prompts the owner of the phone to confirm via the device the download of any app rather than just allowing them to be remotely installed, Oberheide said in a phone interview with CNET. The Android Market is “not inherently insecure but there is a danger when you start pairing up your desktop computer to your Google account and your mobile device,” he said.

Oberheide said he informed Google about the bug in mid-February and that it fixed it a week or so ago.

He bemoaned the fact that after he had reported the bug to Google and been paid US$1,337 as reward, he learned that he could have made US$15,000 if he had entered it and won in the Zero-Day Initiative’s Pwn2Own contest at the CanSecWest security conference this week.

Asked to comment on the matter, a Google representative said: “We enjoy rewarding high-quality Web application security research via our vulnerability reward program. More information can be found here.”

The news of the XSS bug comes on the heels of Google announcing last weekend that it had pulled about 58 malicious apps from the Android Market and would remotely wipe them from the approximately 260,000 Android devices that had downloaded them.

Researchers at mobile security provider Lookout also released more details on the malware, dubbed DroidDream, because a string of code that used that term in the software. The malware was configured only to run between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m., when a device owner would likely be asleep or have the phone off, Lookout said in a blog post.

The post describes the malware as a “zombie agent” that gains root permissions and then waits and silently installs a second app that sends information about the device to an outside server.

“When the malware gets on your phone it basically issues a blank check for additional apps to be downloaded,” Lookout Chief Technology Officer Kevin Mahaffey said in an interview today. “The sky is the limit in terms of what it could have done because the malware had (complete system administrator) root access.”

The free version of Lookout can be used to scan the device to see if it has been infected with the malware. Lookout advises people not to do a factory reset on the device as that may not rid it entirely of the malware. Google’s remote “kill switch” will take care of that.

Rumors of Apple retail nixing boxed software persist

Building on reports from a month ago that Apple was planning to drastically scale back on boxed software at its retail stores, a new report claims that such a plan will include other computer peripherals as well.

The reasoning behind the move, as explained by ZDNet Asia’s sister site CNET contributor Jim Dalrymple on his personal blog The Loop, is that Apple plans to expand its personalized in-store setup service. This is the one that has Apple Retail Store employees helping new Mac, iPad, and iPod buyers get their new hardware up and running following their purchases.

To make room for these one-on-one sessions, something’s got to go, which is where the removal of software boxes from the storefront comes into place. Echoing a report by MacRumors from February, Dalrymple says that boxed software–mainly games–will get the boot from some Apple store shelves and stockrooms. Things like printers, scanners, and hard drives are also likely to be stricken from store floors and demo spaces, though they could end up staying in store stock rooms to be made available for an on-the-spot purchase, the report claims.

These changes are said to be affecting “about 80 percent” of Apple’s retail stores once they go into place, leaving the other 20 percent (likely the large stores with plenty of space) unaffected. The changes could also play into making extra room for support and training that make up a part of Apple’s recently announced Joint Venture support service that will serve small-business customers with two-hour training workshops.

Adobe releases tablet publishing tool

Adobe Systems on Monday released the Enterprise Edition of its Digital Publishing Suite, a tool for creating interactive publications on tablets–and for making Adobe more relevant in an age of new computing devices.

The software integrates with Adobe’s existing Creative Suite applications such as InDesign to let designers produce digital publications for Apple’s iPad, RIM’s PlayBook, Motorola’s Xoom, and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab lines of Android-based tablets. It also dovetails with digital distribution systems, including Apple’s App Store Subscriptions and Google One Pass. And it comes with analytics services from Adobe’s Omniture acquisition so that publishers can track details about how people use the digital publications.

Among 150 titles using Adobe’s technology are National Geographic, Vogue, Consumer Reports, Marines Magazine, Backpacker, Autotrends, The New Yorker, Outside, and Wired. Publishers include Bonnier, Conde Nast, Globo Media Group, and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.

Adobe is a major power when it comes to selling software for personal computers, but it’s working to adapt to the new era of smaller, more-mobile devices. It has basic Photoshop versions for iPhone and Android phones and offers the Adobe Ideas app for sketching on iPads. The company is also working on more elaborate software for tablets, including an Adobe Journal technology demonstration app for drawing and sketching on Android devices.

Journal includes a variety of drawing devices, Photoshop-like features for adding graphical elements to a drawing, and tools for panning, zooming, and moving among different pages. It’s based on Adobe’s cross-platform AIR software foundation, meaning that Journal could likely be ported to other operating systems–even iPads, using an Adobe packaging system that turns AIR apps into native apps.

In contrast, the Digital Publishing Suite isn’t for ordinary consumers with tablets, but rather for businesses trying to reach those consumers. The version released today is for large publishers; for smaller outfits, Adobe’s Professional Edition is due to ship late in the second quarter, Adobe said.

Also at that time, Adobe plans to release the Folio Producer Service, which will let publishers directly upload content from InDesign, Adobe’s software for design and layout.

Pricing of the Enterprise Edition depends on a custom quote from Adobe based on access to services for creating and distributing publications, Adobe said in a blog post.

CRM players should tap social demand

Customer relationship management (CRM) services providers will find a lucrative market in offering social media components to companies in the telecommunications, travel and tourism, and public sector industries, says Ovum.

In its report released last week, the analyst firm noted that 57 percent of telcos, 54 percent of travel and tourism companies, and 45 percent of public sector organizations are demanding social media elements in their CRM strategies. This indicates “much promise” for CRM outsourcing service providers.

“There is certainly demand for social media CRM services that outsourcers can take advantage of, particularly in the travel and tourism and telecoms sectors,” Ovum’s analyst, Peter Ryan, said in the report.

Social media monitoring, customer service and business development were identified as the top functions CRM outsourcers should provide to help grow their business and revenue.

Ryan said these CRM services providers should reinforce their relationships with existing clients by offering a new service, adding that they face a challenge of creating a profitable business model from offering social media services.

There is currently a lot of “confusion among vendors on how to charge for these services”, he explained, with most choosing to deliver their services on a per time-unit or per transaction model. The Ovum analyst noted that as the social CRM market matures, pricing models will need to evolve to ensure the highest possible margins.

Social media use among consumers has experienced an exponential growth, where companies and marketers are choosing to engage consumers through Facebook and other social media platforms, according to a February research conducted by Firefly Millward Brown.

A previous ZDNet Asia report also revealed that contact centers are increasingly looking to monitor social chatter to track customer feedback and improve customer service.

Google issues Android anti-fragmentation tool

Google has made good on a promise to release technology it hopes will curtail Android’s fragmentation problem, a complication for programmers who want their software to run on diverse devices.

Last week, the company released a “Fragment” library for older versions of Android. The library is built into the Honeycomb version of Android, offering new tools to sidestep issues like different screen sizes more easily for those using the brand-new Android 3.0. That version of the OS appears on Motorola’s new Android-based Xoom tablet and will arriving on other tablets.

Now, though, the Fragment interface will be useful for older Android devices that currently dominate the market. The library can be built into applications so that programmers can use the Fragment application programming interface (API) even if it’s not in the operating system directly.

“Today we’ve released a static library that exposes the same Fragments API (as well as the new LoaderManager and a few other classes) so that applications compatible with Android 1.6 or later can use fragments to create tablet-compatible user interfaces,” said Xavier Ducrohet, technical leader for the Android software developer kit, in a blog post last week.

Google announced the Fragment API in February.

“For developers starting work on tablet-oriented applications designed for Android 3.0, the new Fragment API is useful for many design situations that arise from the larger screen. Reasonable use of fragments should also make it easier to adjust the resulting application’s UI to new devices in the future as needed–for phones, TVs, or wherever Android appears,” Dianne Hackborn, a Google Android programmer, said in a blog post about the interface.

Rise of the 99-cent Kindle e-book

commentary Not long ago I did a story about how e-book piracy was accelerating and that publishers should be concerned. But while piracy is certainly an issue, there’s something else lurking out there that may be a bigger problem: e-book price erosion. Or put another way, the blogification of the book industry.

Now, I know what you’re saying: that’s great news. These publishers have been gouging us with ridiculous pricing for digital files that cost next to nothing to produce (in terms of material costs) and finally we’re starting to see lots of deals out there. But it’s a bit more complicated than that.

How we got here
First, a little history. Just last year, the magic price point for a lot of indie (self-published) authors was US$2.99. Why US$2.99? Well, if you price your e-book at US$2.99 or higher, you get a 70 percent royalty from Amazon when using its Kindle Direct system, or 65 percent from Barnes & Noble when using its PubIt self-publishing platform. That means that if you set your price to US$2.99, you make around US$2 on each copy you sell, which is damn good, especially if you sell a lot of copies, which certain indie authors do.

But if you drop below US$2.99, you end up with a 35 percent royalty. That’s a big difference, but it’s still better than what you get on an e-book from a traditional publisher (25 percent of the net sale, which comes out to around 17.5 percent of the price of the book). Still, you’d think that most people would choose to go for the 70 percent royalty.

Most of them used to. But then something happened on the the way to the check-out cart. Some authors started saying, “Screw it, I’m not selling that much at US$2.99, I’ll just go to 99 cents and see what happens.” And bam, some of these books took off. And some really took off.

Case study: “Fifth Avenue”
Christopher Smith, who wrote the novel “Fifth Avenue,” priced his novel at US$2.99 when he launched it last October. He says that with some social media outreach–he did an iPad and a Kindle giveaway for those who tweeted about the book–and little else, the book quickly reached the Amazon Top 100 and peaked at No. 4. After the initial rise, Smith then decided to drop the price of the book to 99 cents to maintain his ranking in the top 100, which is key to generating sales.

Thanks to some controversy over gay sex scenes in the book that touched off heated discussions in Amazon’s Kindle message boards, Smith says “Fifth Avenue” remained in the Top 100 for three months and also has done well on Amazon’s U.K. Kindle Store. His sales, he says, are in the “six figures”, and he’s now represented by an “A-list” agent, Matt Bialer at Sanford J. Greenburger.

“When I went to 99 cents, I was going for longevity,” Smith says. Later, when he was firmly planted in the Top 100, he started playing with pricing and listed the book back at US$2.99. For every US$2.99 book he sold on the Kindle, he needed to sell six books at 99 cents to make the same amount of money. While he drifted downward on the best-seller list, if he priced at US$2.99, he says he was making significantly more money.

“To keep the book on the list as long as possible, I’d just switch it back to 99 cents and it would quickly climb the list again,” Smith says. “Rinse and repeat. This went on for months.”

The App Store effect: Price drops
In some sense, what’s happening in the Kindle Store is what’s already happened in Apple’s iPhone App Store, where developers have been forced to lower their prices to 99 cents to compete (recently, Angry Birds’ maker Rovio told fellow developers to get used to pricing their apps at 99 cents). The price erosion isn’t that great yet on the Kindle; there are still plenty of US$9.99 and higher e-books out there from traditional publishers. And many of them still sell very, very well. But with so many more e-readers and iPads out there, the market has grown large enough–like the iPhone market did–that you can actually make decent money at 99 cents, particularly if you crack the Top 100.

You’d think that even at a low price, people might have some reservations about buying a self-published e-book with no “professional” reviews on them and reader reviews that aren’t exactly screened (it’s no secret that many authors get friends to seed their books with user reviews). But apparently not. Arguably, then, like apps, e-books have turned a lot of people into cheapskates or, to put it more politely, serial bargain hunters.

Whether people ultimately end up reading these cheap books–or just collecting them–is open to debate (some argue that because people have invested a reasonable sum of money in buying a book, there’s less urgency to read it). But Smith says his experience contradicts that notion. He says he’s received a “massive amount of fan mail,” as well as “hate mail from conservative groups” who want a warning label put on his book for those aforementioned gay sex scenes.

The new pricing sweet spot
Just how many 99-cent e-books are in the Kindle Store’s Top 100 on Amazon? Well, at the time of this writing, I counted 17 e-books priced at a dollar or less on the list. If you take away the game titles, newspapers, and magazines that are on the list, you’re looking at the 99-cent e-book making up slightly more than 20 percent of the list. In some cases, authors like John Locke have multiple 99-cent best sellers (read one and think it’s good, you buy the rest, right?) and other extraordinarily successful indie authors like Amanda Hocking have a mix of 99-cent and US$2.99 best sellers. In fact, these cheap indie titles may be even more popular than they appear, since they often aren’t included in mainstream best-seller lists like that of The New York Times.

As for the Nook, Barnes & Noble is somewhat new to the self-publishing game with its PubIt platform, but more indie authors are starting to bring their books to the Nook, which has a 25 percent share of the e-book market in the U.S., according to Barnes & Noble CEO William Lynch. (Sites like Smashwords allow you to publish to multiple e-book platforms, including Apple’s iBookstore, in one shot and only take a tiny cut of your profits). In a recent e-mail to the press, Barnes & Noble noted that 35 titles in its top 200 were from indie authors.

Whither publishers?
None of this bodes well for the publishing industry. Why? Well, 99 cents and US$2.99 works for self-published authors, but it’s probably not going to cut it for traditional publishers or the authors who sign on with them. The exodus won’t happen right away, but you’re seeing such established authors as Seth Godin hiring their own editors and graphic designers and creating what are essentially their own “imprints” or publishing companies through Amazon’s newly launched Powered by Amazon program.

Amazon also has its Amazon Encore program that identifies breakout self-published books and helps market those books and authors to readers. To take advantage of much higher royalty rates and Amazon’s incredibly powerful promotional tools, more authors will undoubtedly take this route, as Amazon’s book selling continues to grow as more bookstores go out of business. The speed with which Amazon can bring books to market is also appealing. The gestation period for an Amazon Encore book (yes, Amazon, too, has hired its own editors and graphic designers) can be much shorter than a traditionally published book, which usually takes around a year to come to market after a manuscript is turned in.

As someone who’s gone from self-publishing to traditional publishing, I’m in the unusual position of wanting to defend both. While many of these 99-cent books simply can’t find an audience if priced higher and won’t attract the interest of traditional publishers no matter how many copies are sold (because traditional publishers know they can’t sell those books at higher prices), I certainly appreciate the more democratic, free-market nature of the Kindle, which has provided a way for overlooked, talented writers to get noticed and be evaluated directly by readers rather than a phalanx of gatekeepers who are looking at excuses to say no rather than yes.

Of course, there are plenty of e-books priced at 99 cents that don’t get any traction at all and Smith, like others (JA Konrath, for example), maintains that an e-book has to be really good to sell. Not only does that mean it has to be well written and offer a compelling story (or subject in the case of a nonfiction book), but it should be professionally edited and copy edited. It’s also crucial for the author to hire a graphic designer who’s well versed in designing book covers.

While there’s certainly a lot of truth to that, I’d argue that if you have a good cover and are able to come up with just a bit of creative marketing, at 99 cents–and lowered reader expectations–you can get away with your book being “good enough.” And in fact, like the rise of blogging, volume and speed may end up being more important than top-notch quality (so much the better if your books happen to be spectacularly written page-turners).

Smith likes to mention that his success helped lead to a blurb from Stephen King, who is his neighbor in Maine. That’s a nice marketing tool to put on your Amazon page, but it’s interesting to note that King didn’t actually make a comment about the book.

“Put me down as an enthusiastic Christopher Smith fan,” King said. “Smith is a cultural genius.”

Stephen King is smart enough to know the writing is on the wall. Will publishers?

WebGL 1.0 is done. Where’s Microsoft?

Brace yourself for the 3D Web. At least, if you use Firefox, Chrome, Opera, or Safari. Those are the browsers that support–though sometimes only in developer-preview editions–a technology called WebGL. And today, the Khronos Group standardizing the graphics interface announced that WebGL 1.0 is finished.

Although WebGL has significant momentum, its prospects are significantly hampered by Microsoft’s lack of enthusiasm. When I’ve asked Microsoft its feelings about it, the company expressed a preference for “using existing standards to build 3D today”, pointing as an example to the Sky Beautiful demo site.

Granted, Microsoft has bit off a lot trying to modernize Internet Explorer with IE9, but WebGL is arguably a pretty important piece of the Web technology platform. Perhaps some reluctance can be explained by the fact that WebGL is based on the OpenGL graphics interface used on Mac OS X, Windows, iOS, and Android and that competes with Microsoft’s DirectX.

If there’s enough interest among Web developers, though–and those developers long have shown a fondness for IE alternatives–Microsoft could conclude that WebGL support is as important as other Web technologies such as Scalable Vector Graphics that only now are top priorities. WebGL is one of a suite of developing Web technologies that are gaining clout as a foundation for Web-based applications.

Jay Sullivan, Mozilla’s vice president of products, thinks there’s enough browser support already to attract programmers. “Between Firefox and Chrome, people will build stuff,” he said in an interview.

And WebGL has some compelling possibilities. Microsoft’s own Fish IE Tank demo, used to show off IE9’s hardware acceleration, runs vastly faster in a Jeff Muizelaar’s Fish IE demo rewritten to use WebGL–although not using its 3D features.

And Facebook sees WebGL’s performance advantages for its nascent JSGameBench speed test. “Implement WebGL!” pleads Facebook’s Bruce Rogers in a blog post about WebGL’s benefits. “WebGL powerfully expands the design space available to Web developers and is not just for 3D content. Don’t force developers and users to abandon their browser of choice in order to experience great Web content.”

WebGL no doubt will enable Web developers to put annoying rotating cubes on their sites. But there are plenty of serious uses for the interface as well.

For example, the hardware-accelerated 3D graphics of WebGL are well suited to many games–not necessarily top-end first-person shooters, but certainly for maze exploration, rollercoaster rides, and races. Also, WebGL is good for bringing a 3D element to Google or Bing maps.

WebGL, though, is a very low-level interface many programmers can’t be expected to master, especially in the sometimes lightweight world of casual online gaming. Happily, libraries are sprouting up to automate its usage.

“There is already a thriving middleware ecosystem around WebGL to provide a wide diversity of Web developers the ability to easily create compelling 3D content for WebGL-enabled browsers,” Khronos said. “These tools include: C3DL, CopperLicht , EnergizeGL, GammaJS, GLGE, GTW, O3D, OSG.JS, SceneJS, SpiderGL, TDL, Three.js and X3DOM.”

Some big competition for WebGL comes from Adobe Systems’ Flash, which already is a major force in online gaming. Flash has lacked true 3D support, but that’s changing. In the last week, Adobe released a preview version of Molehill, its 3D programming interface, in a Flash Player 11 “incubator build.”

And like WebGL, Molehill is accompanied by higher-level libraries and is useful for more than just 3D.

“The power of Molehill does not stop [at] 3D,” said Thibault Imbert, a product manager for Flash runtimes, on the Molehill announcement. “You should think about it as a new rendering engine tied to the GPU [graphics processing unit]. If you architect your application, Web site, or game correctly (by using classic techniques to leverage the GPU) you will be able to use Molehill in many situations, [including] 2D on GPU.”

Another challenge will be reaching mobile browsers. It’s coming though, as shown with work in the mobile version of Firefox, for example. With Android and iOS also supporting OpenGL ES 2.0, it should be mostly a matter of time before those influential operating systems’ mobile browsers add the feature.

With WebGL version 1.0 released, though, and companies like mobile-phone chipmaker Qualcomm endorsing it, WebGL comes with a greater assurance of stability and support. Now it’s up to allies and developers to build WebGL a full-fledged programming ecosystem.

E-book companies raided over EU antitrust concerns

European authorities have raided the offices of e-book companies over antitrust suspicions.

The unannounced inspections were carried out on Tuesday in “several member states”, the European Commission said in a brief statement on Wednesday. The Commission would not say who was inspected or where in the EU the inspections took place.

It did say, however, that it had “reason to believe that the e-book companies concerned may have violated EU antitrust rules that prohibit cartels and other restrictive business practices”.

Read more of “E-book companies raided over EU antitrust concerns” at ZDNet UK.

Coca Cola fizzes on DB2 savings

Coca-Cola Bottling Consolidated (CCBC) was not only able to realize cost savings when it moved from Oracle to IBM DB2 database, it also saw further savings in storage and improvements in lead time, according to company executives.

In an interview with ZDNet Asia, Thomas DeJuneas, manager of enterprise systems, information systems and services at the U.S.-based bottling company, said cost saving was the primary reason the company switched to DB2. It predicted savings of US$750,000 over five years based on estimates from not having to purchase Oracle’s new licenses and maintenance, he added.

CCBC produces, distributes and markets bottled and canned beverage products sold under The Coca-Cola Company.

The company also saw savings from lower storage requirements. Andrew Juarex, CCBC’s lead systems specialist of information systems and services, said its DB2 deployment yielded an immediate 40 percent reduction in storage space. “The initial compression brought our database from about 1TB to about 650GB,” he said, adding that with DB2 compression, the company’s data volume growth decelerated.

“With this compression, we were able to slow down how fast our database was growing. Before, with Oracle, we were growing at 35GB per month. After the move, our growth was 15Gb per month,” Juarex added.

After going live with the new system, he said administrators who were on night shift noticed a speedy change to batch jobs related to the company’s supply chain processes. This, DeJuneas added, helped improve lead times as DB2 shortened the batch job process from 90 minutes to 30 minutes.

The Charlotte-based executives were in Singapore last week on IBM’s invitation as a customer reference to local companies.

DB2 move prompted by SAP upgrade
CCBC’s journey to DB2 began in 2008 when the company needed to upgrade its SAP R/3 Enterprise system to SAP ERP 6.0 which, DeJuneas revealed, would have required the company to upgrade its existing Oracle database and purchase new Oracle licenses.

Juarex noted that SAP applications run only on selected database, namely, Oracle, Microsoft SQL server and DB2. He added that The Coca-Cola Company inks licensing deals on behalf of its subsidiaries but was unable to renegotiate a new agreement with Oracle based on the previous contract terms.

DeJuneas said The Coca-Cola Company had signed a deal with SAP and IBM to acquire DB2 licenses which was more attractive in terms of cost, compared to Oracle licensing fees. “Even though we didn’t have DB2 experience in-house, the dollar savings [from the IBM deal] was something to look at,” he said.

With few customer references to check with, Juarex said the company did its own research and used Oracle as a benchmark to assess the feasibility of moving to DB2. “We already know what Oracle can do for us. So we wanted to know if IBM-DB2 could match up,” he said.

After a two-month test period, he found that DB2 was able to offer the same functionality as an Oracle system. With the cost savings in mind, the company made the switch, he added.

Prior to the migration, Juarex revealed that his knowledge of Oracle databases spanned 12 years and he had no skills in DB2. However, IBM offered two-class training that was designed specifically for administrators schooled in Oracle database, he said. This, alongside a five-day training class with SAP and the two-month testing period, were “enough” for CCBC to get through the deployment, he said.

The migration to DB2 took eight months, said DeJuneas.

Juarex noted that all SAP applications are optimized to run on DB2. In comparison, DeJuneas said it would take about two months for new SAP applications to be optimized for Oracle database.

Juarex added that Oracle’s move into the ERP space through various acquisitions has put the software vendor in direct competition with SAP. While the latter cannot afford to ignore support for Oracle databases, it has been beefing up its partnership with other database companies, specifically by optimizing its products on IBM systems, he said.

Google Apps plug-in injects the cloud into Office

The cloud is coming to Microsoft Office–and it’s powered by Google.

Google’s latest effort to lure business customers away from Microsoft Office to Google Apps comes in the form of a plug-in for Word, Excel and PowerPoint. The plug-in essentially syncs Office files with an online counterpart that lives in Google Docs, which allows users to always see the most recent version of a file, whether they’re viewing it in a browser, in an Office app or even on a mobile device.

That means no more e-mailing a Word document between multiple people, only to be confused about which is the most recent. It means being able to see, in real time, as your colleague updates the sales figures in your spreadsheet–while you’re working on it. It means being able to literally drop an image into your colleague’s PowerPoint presentation.

Read more of “Google Apps plug-in injects the cloud into Office, slow venom into Microsoft” at ZDNet.

40 percent of new Angry Birds buyers doing in-app purchase

SAN FRANCISCO–It’s no secret Rovio has made a small fortune off its sales of Angry Birds on the App Store (and other platforms), but there had been some question about the success of its dabbling in the in-app purchase market.

That question was answered this afternoon by Rovio’s “mighty eagle” Peter Vesterbacka at the Game Developers Conference here. In a talk outlining the company’s efforts to build the Angry Birds franchise beyond its humble beginnings, Vesterbacka announced that 40 percent of new Angry Birds buyers had purchased the 99-cent “mighty eagle” add-on, which lets users skip a level they’re stuck on by unleashing a powered-up bird.

Vesterbacka did not go into detail on how those numbers trickled down to users that had purchased the game since its release, but suffice to say that the company has been pleased. That success, he said, hinged on making add-on game content that had a wide appeal. “It’s bad if you make products that 2 [percent] to 3 percent of your mobile fans want to buy,” Vesterbacka said.

Other tidbits revealed during the talk were that Rovio had sold more than 2 million of its plush toys. Vesterbacka described that as “a good start”, while saying that it was only the beginning of the company’s plans to expand the franchise.

Vesterbacka also talked up the upcoming sequel to Angry Birds, which is a tie-in with the upcoming Fox film Rio. “We didn’t want to sell out,” Vesterbacka said of the partnership. In the lead up to that choice, Vesterbacka had described some of the offers from other studios as “weird”.

“We got approached by different Hollywood studios, and they wanted to do all kinds of weird promotions, and lots of them were not very…let’s say they didn’t jive with the brand,” Vesterbacka said.

Being a developers conference, Vesterbacka also urged game makers not to give up in the face of not having a smash out success, citing that Angry Birds had actually been Rovio’s 52nd game. “The previous 51 games, those were also great games for the devices at that time, but of course the devices at that time were pretty limited,” Vesterbacka said. “If you look at the early J2ME/Brew games, the experiences were not amazing.”

There was also a particularly awkward moment in the question-and-answer part of the presentation when Vesterbacka was asked what physics engine Rovio had used. “Box2D,” Vesterbacka replied. The question asker turned out to be the creator of the open-source physics engine and asked whether the company would be giving him credit in Angry Birds. Vesterbacka encouraged the gentleman to come see him after the talk, as well as for other attendees to introduce themselves before asking their question.

How Microsoft made Kinect work around the globe

SAN FRANCISCO–The wave is one of the most universal ways of saying hello or drawing attention, but how do you create an entire language of gestures that people know, make sure they work with your specialized camera system, then make it work around the world?

Microsoft faced that problem while developing the Kinect, which the company discussed today during a session here at this year’s Game Developers Conference, which kicks off in earnest on Wednesday.

On hand was Kate Edwards, who is a geocultural content strategist for Englobe, a company that specializes in geopolitical and cartographic consultation. Edwards briefly outlined how Microsoft had been challenged with trying to make sure Kinect games were not going to offend other cultures where those games might end up.

Edwards said that while there were many ways to express the same thing, there were specific nuances for each culture that could get game makers in hot water if they accidentally crossed a line. To make sure that didn’t happen, the company analyzed image captures of game movements that users were supposed to emulate, and spotted such problematic items based on where the game would be shipping.

Once identified, the company would find a suitable replacement for such gestures, as had to be done for the launch title Dance Central, which has users stringing together lines of dance moves. Edwards said one of the easiest changes to make was with the hands, whereas the more difficult ones had to do with full body movements, which often played into a particular dance, or flow of the dance movements.

Also discussed during the session was localizing games for various languages, which was no small undertaking. As Microsoft international program manager Yumiko Murphy explained during the same session, the company had to come up with alternate words for each voice command, then code them into the game so that users would not have to go out of their way to learn new commands. This proved to be considerably extensive with Kinectimals, a game that has users training virtual jungle cats with hand gestures and their voice.

To train the system for that game, Microsoft gathered 10 boys and 10 girls ages 6 to 12, as well as five men and five women from ages 18 to 50 to speak each command two to three times. After that, Microsoft would go through the lexicon of commands to make sure no two commands were too similar, then set four males and four females to run through them to make sure they could be identified by the system. Keep in mind this would be repeated in each of the various localized markets where the title was being launched.

Two other problems in localizing games during the run up to Kinect’s release were secrecy and space. Microsoft localization program manager Lief Thompson described that time as a dramatic challenge for the company. Microsoft had originally set out to let third parties do testing of the platform for their game localization, but ran into problems trying to make sure they could keep the development units in a secured location that was out of public view. Since Kinect wasn’t out, Microsoft needed to make sure that facilities where it was being tested were not just under lock and key, but under 24-7 watch by security personnel, and safe from photography.

Microsoft also ran into trouble with space. Kinect just took up too much play space at 40 to 50 square feet. The solution for both issues was to keep the test units on Microsoft’s campuses both in Redmond, Wash., and in the company’s offices in Dublin and Tokyo. Tokyo in particular had to create three new test bays so that it could localize five of the launch titles to Japanese, Korean, and traditional Chinese.

“We were running short on time, and well into June of last year we were digging into every nook and cranny Microsoft had,” Thompson said.

China Unicom to take on Apple, Google with OS

China Unicom, one of China’s three largest wireless operators, plans to introduce its own mobile operating system to compete head-to-head with Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android OS in China.

The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the wireless operator, which is building a third-generation wireless network that competes with China Mobile and China Telecom, is developing a new mobile OS brand known as “WoPhone”.

The new operating system is based on Linux, and it’s geared toward mobile handsets and tablets. Companies that plan to build devices using the new OS include China’s ZTE, Huawei Technologies, and TCL. South Korea’s Samsung Electronics, U.S.-based Motorola, and Taiwan’s HTC are also building devices using the new OS, China Unicom’s parent company, China United Network Communications Group, said in a statement.

The company said in its statement that it hopes the new software will help the company develop 3G wireless devices more rapidly, thus getting them into the market more quickly. This is important because the Chinese 3G wireless market is just heating up with the major carriers battling for new 3G subscribers.

China Unicom has a long way to go in terms of winning new customers and trails behind larger players, such as China Mobile. As of January, China Unicom had 169.7 million mobile subscribers, including 15.5 million 3G customers. Meanwhile China Mobile had 589.3 million subscribers, including 22.6 million 3G customers.

Late last year, China Unicom launched WoStore, a mobile-application storefront that it said would support “all open smartphone platforms.”

Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems are starting to gain market share in China. But they are not as prevalent as they are in other markets, such as the U.S. or Europe.

In China, Nokia’s Symbian platform still garners the greatest market share in the smartphone market with 60.1 percent of all smartphones, according to Analysys International, a Beijing-based market research firm. Windows Mobile has the second highest market share with 13.1 percent. Google Android is third with 10.7 percent of the market. And Apple’s iOS has about 5.4 percent.

Other wireless operators in China have also said they’d build their own operating systems for wireless devices. China Mobile launched its Android-based OS called “Ophone” in 2009, but the platform hasn’t been a hit with customers.

A China Unicom spokesman told The Wall Street Journal that the China Unicom WoPhone platform will not be based on Android. But he declined to comment on whether that is because of Google’s dispute with China’s government last year. Google moved its search servers to Hong Kong from mainland China because it was worried about hacking and censorship.

E-mail innovator pitches self-deleting e-mails

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.–Joshua Baer, CEO of the e-mail company OtherInBox, agitated for a new addition to e-mail standards at the Inbox Love e-mail conference last week. He’s proposing a standard that would let e-mail messages carry with them the date of their own irrelevance.

E-mails could use the the “x-expires” header to tell the receiving in-box that they become outdated after a certain absolute date, or a certain time relative to when they’re sent or received. Baer says this idea has been “bouncing around” for 10 years, but he’s learned, “the best way to get a standard adopted is to work with individual companies first, and make it a de facto standard.” That’s what he’s trying to do here.

This concept could help keep users’ e-mail boxes cleaner and more relevant. Offers for discounts on Valentines’ Day flowers could automatically vanish on Feb. 15. Companies that blast out time-limited coupons (Groupon, LivingSocial) could serve users better by removing expired offers from in-boxes.

Other messages that become unnecessary after a period of time, such as notifications of activity in groups, shipping notices from online retailers, or system alerts (like mailbox-full alerts, one hopes), that often clutter up in-boxes could clean themselves out.

Baer hopes that the audience members at this conference, all of whom are in the e-mail business, start supporting his proposal. In the meantime, he says, his own e-mail organizing service (which I use and recommend) will start watching for and honoring expiration flags in e-mails it processes.

Microsoft Answers to rework look, reputation tools

Microsoft plans to roll out a redesign of its Answers site, which gives users a place to seek unofficial tech support on Microsoft products and services.

As part of the redesign, Microsoft says it’s now easier to find answers through both an improved search tool and a new layout that puts its various product directories in a clearer order.

Along with the new look, Microsoft is also overhauling the site’s reputation system, which is how its members are rewarded for answering other users’ questions. The new one awards authoring answers, as well as marking other people’s answers as helpful. Microsoft says the existing user reputation system, which had made use of points that went towards an aggregate rating (in the form of medals), will be no more.

Even though that point and medal system is going away, other existing ratings information about the posts is not, according to a Microsoft representative with whom ZDNet Asia’s sister site CNET spoke. “To ensure a smooth transition, we will be migrating existing users and the existing information about their posts (those marked as answered and helpful posts) to the new reputation system so that users who have provided helpful posts in the past will already have some reputation in the new system,” the representative said.

In other words, some longtime users with a high rating may be chagrined to find their insignia gone, but their answers will continue to get highlighted on pages, and their profiles will reflect that information.

Fujitsu’s global cloud launches in Aus

Fujitsu announced the Australian and New Zealand launch of its global cloud last week, the first region outside of Japan to be turned on for the worldwide service.

The global cloud will run in Tier III data centers around the world on Fujitsu kit and a Fujitsu version of the Xen hypervisor, and provides multinationals with a global standardised ICT infrastructure. It will also allow local companies to take advantage of international cloud resources if they so choose.

Only one Australian data center will be hosting the Fujitsu cloud, so although the service offers backup and data replication, it won’t offer a local failover service, according to Fujitsu general executive director solutions and cloud services, Cameron McNaught. However, there’s the option to failover to Singapore if desired and if the right customer came along, Fujitsu would consider putting a second global hub in Australia, he said. The service was built on 16 storage area networks, McNaught said, so that multiple storage area networks could be lost and the cloud would still be available.

Fujitsu had already been offering a local cloud service via a partnership with VMware, CA, Cisco, Symantec and Microsoft in two Sydney data centers, catering to concerns about data sovereignty from sectors such as finance and government.

“Local cloud meets the needs of our customers today,” McNaught said. “The global cloud sets the foundation for the next two to three years.”

The global cloud will be the focus of most of Fujitsu’s research and development, according to McNaught.

The company also plans to provide the Azure platform in Australia via a partnership with Microsoft sometime this year, he said.

According to McNaught, the different platforms were necessary to give customers what they needed.

“One platform was never going to [cover] it all,” he said.

The Australian roll-out of the global cloud will be followed by launches in Singapore, USA, UK and Germany.

When asked about why Australia was second in line for the global cloud roll-out, McNaught said it was due partly to where Australia was and partly to its market.

“The time zone’s a great benefit for a pilot,” he said, adding that the “depth and breadth” of Fujitsu’s client portfolio in the country was also responsible.

McNaught said it had spent 14 months in-house building and testing the platforms from the ground up. The global cloud service uses a portal that allows users to adjust their cloud services via drag and drop, changing capacity and usage in real time.

He said that Fujitsu would never compete with Amazon on brand for cloud services, but that it would be on par for price and would add extra features and functionality.

It will be the “same underlying tech” with “better service”, he said.

Another Sydney data center is planned for Western Sydney, according to McNaught. It will be 9000 square meters, with a possible 6000-square-metre expansion–the biggest in NSW, the executive said.

Firefox 4’s last beta?

Mozilla has begun to wind down work on the next generation of its Firefox browser.

The latest release of Firefox 4 beta 12 has a few improvements to how Firefox 4 handles Flash and more stable overall performance.

One visual change has been to move hover-over links to the bottom of the window, rather than place them in the location bar as was done in the previous beta. Along with the changes to Flash handling and stability, Mozilla said in its release notes for Firefox 4 beta 12 that the browser now has better integration of add-ons with hardware acceleration support.

The company hopes that this beta will be the last, according to an updated roadmap. The release of the twelfth beta indicates that all the hard-blocker bugs, the highest-priority problems with the in-development browser, have been fixed. Barring major problems with the remaining bugs, users can expect a release candidate soon.

Google Apps plug-in injects the cloud into Office

The cloud is coming to Microsoft Office–and it’s powered by Google.

Google’s latest effort to lure business customers away from Microsoft Office to Google Apps comes in the form of a plug-in for Word, Excel and PowerPoint. The plug-in essentially syncs Office files with an online counterpart that lives in Google Docs, which allows users to always see the most recent version of a file, whether they’re viewing it in a browser, in an Office app or even on a mobile device.

That means no more e-mailing a Word document between multiple people, only to be confused about which is the most recent. It means being able to see, in real time, as your colleague updates the sales figures in your spreadsheet–while you’re working on it. It means being able to literally drop an image into your colleague’s PowerPoint presentation.

Read more of “Google Apps plug-in injects the cloud into Office, slow venom into Microsoft” at ZDNet.

Cisco axes corporate cloud e-mail

Cisco has decided to discontinue its Cisco Mail software-as-a-service product, saying customers are now interested in social collaboration and stand-alone e-mail.

Cisco Mail, which was originally launched as WebEx Mail, will be phased out to allow customers to move to alternatives, Debra Chrapaty, the company’s collaboration software general manager, said in a blog post on Tuesday.

“The product has been well received, but we’ve since learned that customers have come to view their e-mail as a mature and commoditized tool versus a long-term differentiated element of their collaboration strategy,” Chrapaty said. “We’ve also heard that customers are eager to embrace emerging collaboration tools such as social software and video.”

Read more of “Cisco axes corporate cloud email” at ZDNet UK.

Firefox 4 inches closer to release despite delays

The release candidate of Firefox 4 could be just days away despite widespread reports of delays, according to the community manager for Firefox.

The release, which had originally been scheduled for October last year but was subsequently delayed until February 2011, could be just around the corner according to a post on Twitter from Asa Dotzler, head of community for Firefox marketing projects. “From what I can tell, there are only 7 unwritten patches standing between Firefox 4 and hundreds of millions of users,” he wrote.

Last week, Christian Legnitto, the Firefox release manager at Mozilla, confirmed that the release schedule had slipped as beta 11 still had outstanding bugs. Developers have delayed building the twelfth beta until bugs that remained in the eleventh had been resolved.

Read more of “Firefox 4 inches closer to release despite delays” at ZDNet UK.

Microsoft announces plans for Kinect SDK

Microsoft announced plans to release a software development kit for its Kinect game motion controller later this spring.

In a move that was widely rumored, Microsoft said the Kinect for Windows SDK will allow third-party developers to create software titles that use a Kinect motion sensor plugged directly into a Windows PC. This noncommercial “starter version” SDK will give users access to deep Kinect system information such as audio, system application-programming interfaces, and direct control of the Kinect sensor, Microsoft said. The company also plans to release a commercial version at a later date.

“Microsoft’s investments in natural user interfaces are vital to our long-term vision of creating computers that are intuitive to use and able to do far more for us,” Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer, said in the company’s announcement. “The fruits of these research investments are manifesting across many of our products, Kinect for Xbox 360 among them.”

Since its official launch last November, hackers have found all sorts of creative ways to put the sensor bar’s 3D imaging capabilities to good use. Among them: tweaks that turn the sensor bar into a 3D camera, allow for multitouch photo manipulation without the need for a touch screen, and make it possible to create midair 3D doodles.

Microsoft initially reacted negatively to these “hacks,” but then it seemed to warm up to the idea, explaining that the Kinect was designed to be an open platform. In response to a US$3,000 challenge last year by the open source hardware outfit Adafruit Industries to come up with a hardware hack of the Kinect, Microsoft had said it did not “condone” such behavior.

When asked at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show whether Microsoft would allow the ability to plug a Kinect into a PC, CEO Steve Ballmer said the company would formally support it at the right time, although his timing was a little vague.

Sony’s Qriocity aims to put Connect, iTunes behind

Sony wants to take back digital music from Apple.

The creator of the Walkman says it is ready to challenge iTunes, forge ahead into music streaming, and also put its doomed prior attempts to build iTunes-killers behind it.

Today, Sony unveiled a new cloud music service in the United States that will play songs on a mix of Sony devices, such as the PlayStation3, Bravia TVs and Blu-ray Disc Home Theater system, as well as a range of Sony’s portable devices. The service is called “Music Unlimited powered by Qriocity”, and hopefully the service is less clunky than the name.

For US$10 a month, Qriocity subscribers get access to music from fall four record labels and 6 million tracks. Music will be streamed from Sony’s servers to devices so users don’t have to worry about clogging hard drives and Sony won’t have to worry about building any complicated software platforms (we’ll get back to that). Qriocity scans a user’s hard drive and then provides access to songs from their media libraries, including Apple’s iTunes.

Qriocity, which Sony first touted at the IFA electronics show last September, has all the standard bells and whistles for music services today, such as a song recommendation engine. What it doesn’t have is the ability to enable users to listen while unconnected from the Web. How could the maker of the Walkman, one of the great portable music devices of all time, disregard mobile like that?

Sony’s answer to that is “wait and see”. Qriocity is just the start. This time around, Sony’s strategy to taking on iTunes is to first focus on the home. When it comes to music, that is an underserved area, Tim Schaaff, president of Sony Network entertainment told ZDNet Asia’s sister site CNET.

In addition to relying on a streaming service, a feature that Apple hasn’t offered yet but is expected to get into, Sony has built Qriocity on the PlayStation Network, an established digital marketplace.

“The PlayStation Network has been in the marketplace since 2006,” Schaaff said,” and has been growing customers for four years. There are 70 million accounts worldwide… It is has gaming, music, movies and all kinds of e-commerce. It is a stable business, and rather than starting from scratch, we decided to leverage that.”

Is iTunes vulnerable?
That’s a much different direction than the one Sony chose for the doomed music service, Connect. In that case, Sony tried to go toe-to-toe with Apple by creating an iTunes-like media hub, and Connect became one of digital music’s all-time great Titanic stories. The effort was marked by internal bickering and turf battles, the kind of dysfunction between Sony’s content, hardware and software divisions that the company has been noted for in the Internet age.

Connect was stillborn on release, brought down by software glitches.

Sony tried to save face by keeping the service around a couple more years, before finally shutting it down.How will Sony fare better this time against iTunes? Apple’s music service now has an almost decade-long record of thumping challengers, including MTV, Virgin, Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL and MySpace. 

For starters, Qriocity is a service closely linked to Sony’s hardware, and the company has 350 million Internet-connected devices out in the wild now, Schaaff said. That means the company can enlist a legion of merchants, who sell Sony products, to help Qriocity “tell its story”, he said.

Another important factor is Sony’s timing, which, Schaaff argues, is spot on. iTunes has never appeared more vulnerable than now, said Schaaff, who once ran Apple’s QuickTime division.

The iTunes software has become an almost unbearable drain on computer power. More importantly, the public seems to have lost interest in buying downloads. Schaaff also thinks Sony is a different company than it was in 2005 when the Connect program was begun.

“I think the conditions here today are extremely different,” said Schaaff who wasn’t at Sony during the Connect debacle. “We all have the same goal and we have the full support of [Sony CEO Howard Stringer], who has given us the resources we need.”

“Maybe,” Schaaff added, “Connect taught us some important lessons.”

EU common patent system gets green light

The European Parliament has given its consent to an EU-wide patent system to be set up under “enhanced cooperation” rules, despite previous objections from Italy and Spain.

The decision means that patents filed under the single system will apply in all participating EU countries. This frees businesses from the need to file individual patents in each country, which significantly increases the cost of filing patents in the European Union.

“Currently, national patents can co-exist alongside a European patent–issued by the European Patent Office, a non-EU body–but the system is complex and expensive: a European patent can be 10 times more expensive than a comparable US patent,” the European Parliament said in a statement on Tuesday.

Read more of “MEPs give green light to common patent system” at ZDNet UK.

‘Hurt Locker’ lawyers launch US-wide copyright fight

After several setbacks, Dunlap, Grubb & Weaver, the law firm that last year filed copyright suits against thousands of accused illegal file sharers on behalf of independent filmmakers, has made good on promises to push on with the cases.

Dunlap has begun to refile lawsuits across the United States against people accused last year of pirating movies via peer-to-peer networks. To do that, Dunlap established a network of lawyers who are licensed to operate in different federal districts.

Dunlap, which also works under the name U.S. Copyright Group, made headlines last year by suing thousands in a federal court in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the makers of such films as “Far Cry” and “The Hurt Locker”, last year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture. The Washington court, however, appeared hostile to Dunlap’s strategy of filing against thousands of people from outside that jurisdiction. That’s when Dunlap changed strategy.

In the case of “Far Cry”, a film based on the popular video game, Dunlap told ZDNet ASia’s sister site CNET that lawyers working with the firm have filed complaints on behalf of the filmmakers in Massachusetts, Colorado, Minnesota and West Virginia.

“Filing in Florida in about 10 minutes,” Thomas Dunlap, one of the firm’s founders, e-mailed today. “I am driving to courthouse now, should have cases already in Illinois. We will file in California, Texas, Washington, and Oregon in the next two weeks.”

Dunlap has also begun filing lawsuits against named individuals. Records show that he filed suits in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia against Linaka Stein and Gina Morrison, residents of West Virginia, and Richard Ball of Virginia.

Dunlap typically offers an accused person a chance to settle out of court for a sum between US$1,500 and US$3,000. Dunlap has always said he would file lawsuits against those who refused to settle. But there were those who had their doubts. Dunlap appeared to drag his feet about starting the potentially expensive and years-long process of winning a copyright judgment against someone.

The case of Jammie Thomas-Rasset, the Minnesota mother accused by the music industry of illegal file sharing, is an example of how hard a process it can be to pursue a copyright judgment. The Thomas-Rasset case has cost the major labels millions of dollars in legal fees and the case continues to drag on.

Dunlap doesn’t appear to be bluffing anymore. His firm shows no signs of letting up.

A half-dozen people have contacted CNET since Tuesday about receiving notices from their Internet service providers informing them that Dunlap had subpoenaed their names and other information about them. Before filing a suit against someone, copyright owners must first acquire a person’s identity from his or her ISP.

Dunlap’s lawsuits gave rise to a wave of antipiracy litigation last year. Attorneys in West Virginia, Texas and California began using Dunlap’s legal strategy as a template. The porn sector was the most passionate in pursuing these cases. But the adult-filmmakers have run into trouble. A federal judge in Texas recently “severed” thousands of defendants from copyright suits filed by attorney Evan Stone on behalf of 11 copyright owners, most of them porn studios, according to a report in Ars Technica.

In 13 of Stone’s 16 suits, only a single defendant remains.

The judge in the case ruled that there wasn’t enough binding the defendants together to name them in one suit. Stone argues that the defendants “were improperly severed”. He said that to use BitTorrent, people must work together to share files.

“This isn’t over,” Stone told CNET. “There are numerous other tools for obtaining the names and addresses of pirates and we’re not going to stop until justice is served.”

In West Virginia, a federal court came to a similar conclusion as the Texas judge. Attorney Ken Ford had filed against thousands of people on behalf of adult-film studios but most of the defendants were also severed from those suits. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has led the opposition against these suits, say that they rob defendants of the ability to defend themselves? How can a individual tell their story when they’re lumped together with so many people?

Motorola Mobility buys 3LM to spur enterprise uptake

Motorola Mobility–the mobile arm of Motorola–has announced that it completed a deal at the end of last year to acquire Three Laws Mobility for an undisclosed sum, the company said on Monday.

Motorola hopes that the purchase of Three Laws Mobility, better known as 3LM–which makes enterprise security software and device management products for Android handsets–will help speed up the deployment of Android devices in enterprise and governmental environments.

“The 3LM technology addresses ease-of-use, cost-of-management and security concerns for IT managers and chief information officers by making Android devices more manageable within corporate environments,” Motorola Mobility said in a statement.

Read more of “Motorola Mobility buys 3LM to spur enterprise uptake” at ZDNet UK.

At Yahoo, contextual content key for mobile devices

BARCELONA, Spain–In a mobile world, size shouldn’t matter, but context should.

That was the message from Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz as she demoed the company’s new Livestand service at the Mobile World Congress 2011 here Wednesday.

Livestand, announced last week, aggregates and personalizes all types of content for users and optimizes it for every type of device. Dubbed a “digital newsstand”, it serves up stories, information and ads based on a person’s interest and eliminates the need for publishers to create multiple versions of content for different devices.

For mobile devices, where small screen size spoils the display of content created for the PC, relevance is particularly important, Bartz said.

“The screen sizes are going to be all over the place,” she said. “The whole concept is publish once and have it available on any device.”

She demonstrated Livestand on an iPad. In contrast to Yahoo’s regular Web site which is cluttered with text, images and ads, the Livestand interface looked clean and simple. Tailored to a specific Yahoo employee helping with the demo, the site showed modules that included a surfing magazine, surf and weather forecasts, a surfboard buyer’s guide and news about sports.

Livestand automatically personalizes the content based on machine learning and human editorial oversight, which Bartz called the “secret sauce”.

Friends can share content with each other on Livestand and exchange comments on it via Facebook and Twitter.

“We at Yahoo consider that advertising is also great content,” Bartz said as the demo showed a Nike video and a sports watch ad. Later in the demo a friend’s comment popped up in real time related to the ad.

In a question-and-answer session after Bartz and three other technology CEOs gave their vision of the future of mobile computer, Intel’s Paul Otellini said there would be Intel-powered smartphones out later this year.

Meanwhile, Cisco’s John Chambers said video would be a focus for mobile in the near future, requiring service providers to beef up their network performance and management capabilities.

And SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son proudly discussed how his company’s US$20 billion purchase of Vodafone Japan in 2006 is paying off now, fueled by data demand over smartphones. But at the time he was called crazy for the move, the share price dropped, and the company lost US$1 billion every year for four years, he said. Since then mobile data traffic has grown 30 times, he said.

“People started saying mobile is no longer profitable and so on,” he said. “It was a risky bet…[but] sometimes craziness gives a good return.”

“Mobile carriers are becoming dumb pipes,” he added. “That’s the depressing reality.”

Microsoft’s on-demand CRM tool lacking but still competitive

Given that the on-demand customer relationship management (CRM) market is still evolving and nascent, Microsoft’s recently launched Dynamics CRM 2011 Online offering is expected to face competition from existing players such as Salesforce.com and Oracle.

Phil Hassey, founder of research firm CapioIT, said the market for on-demand CRM is “far from being saturated and mature” and there is “definitely an opportunity” for vendors such as Microsoft to compete strongly in this space.

The analyst said in an e-mail that while Redmond’s CRM product is “slightly lagging in key areas” compared with existing offerings from rivals such as Salesforce.com and Oracle, its differentiator is in the integration with Microsoft’s other products and deployment options.

Hassey said: “For loyal Microsoft customers, the use of Microsoft software rather than Salesforce.com, for example, is a significant step for them. The one significant differentiation for Microsoft, compared with Salesforce.com, is the opportunity for an on-premise [deployment].”

“Microsoft still bases its CRM on PCs and laptops, with the Outlook client model that’s older than the Web.” 

— Peter Coffee
Salesforce.com

Sam Higgins, research director at ICT research and advisory firm Longhaus, agreed.

In an e-mail interview, he noted that Dynamics CRM’s integration with Office 365, formerly branded as Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS), will continue to ensure Microsoft a place in customers’ vendor selection process.

“This latest release [of Dynamics CRM] from Microsoft will keep organizations that want to adopt a lean vendor approach to solutions very happy,” said Higgins.

Dynamics CRM 2011 Online was launched on Jan. 18 but only the SaaS product hosted by Microsoft was made available. The on-premise and third-party hosted versions will only be commercially available on Feb. 28, according to Microsoft, which said the time gap was needed to conduct extra tests to ensure the new offerings will work outside of the company’s data centers.

The option to deploy the CRM product on-premise, on-demand or via third-party hosting sites will be a key advantage for the software vendor, said Adrian Johnston, Microsoft’s Dynamics Asia general manager.

He told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview that while Salesforce.com offers its CRM suite only as a third-party hosted option, Microsoft is able to offer its product on a hosted platform as well as through on-premise, internal deployments and software-as-a-service (SaaS).

Elaborating on rival Oracle’s Siebel CRM offering, which mirrors Redmond’s deployment options, Johnston noted that the competing product runs on different code bases when deployed on-premise and over a cloud, putting Oracle in a disadvantage.

Thus, customers that want to pilot the software on-premise or through SaaS within a specific market, before deploying it across multiple markets, for example, cannot do so “easily” using Oracle’s products compared to Microsoft’s, he said.

Oracle was unable to reply to ZDNet Asia’s questions at time of post.

Higgins said price will also be a key sway factor, pointing to Microsoft’s “aggressive approach to cloud pricing”. The analyst noted that customers that may have found the pricing of both Salesforce.com and Oracle to be out of their reach, Redmond’s offering will be “highly attractive”.

As part of Dynamics CRM 2011 Online’s initial launch, Microsoft said it cut the software price-tag from US$44 to US34 per user per month. Last December, it also announced that companies–with 15 to 250 employees–migrating from rival platforms will be given US$200 for every user involved in the move.

“We expect that not only will this increase the adoption of Dynamics CRM but, in some cases, we’ll see migration away from Salesforce.com,” Higgins noted. He added that some customers see the SaaS vendor as “over-complicating” its business model by moving from a CRM vendor to a platform-as-a-service operator.

Quizzed on this, Peter Coffee, vice president and head of platform research at Salesforce.com, disagreed. He told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail that its customers “love the power” they get from the Force.com platform, which is at the heart of all its applications.

The ease-of-use on the platform to tailor “rich applications” according to customers’ needs, mostly with “clicks rather than code”, also brings in more employees onto the platform and encourages company-wide collaboration, Coffee added. “The proven, trusted Force.com platform lets ‘citizen developers’ in business units create and deploy collaborative custom apps quickly without buying hardware or installing software. Our PaaS offering is the ultimate Salesforce CRM feature.”

He also dismissed Microsoft’s first foray into cloud-based CRM, saying that it is a “snapshot of history”.

“Microsoft still bases its CRM on PCs and laptops, with the Outlook client model that’s older than the Web. Microsoft is giving its customers a snapshot of history, not a real-time app for today’s social, mobile and open world,” he said.

Microsoft can fend off mobile, cloud competition

Competing vendors have been intensifying their efforts to claim a portion of the enterprise software pie long dominated by Microsoft, with Google and Oracle betting on mobile and cloud computing to advance their cause. Analysts reckon Redmond is doing well to defend its turf but say the software giant will need to find ways to better monetize its existing Windows and Office products.

Duncan Jones, principal analyst of sourcing and vendor management at Forrester Research, noted that because of its long-term dominance over the PC market, Microsoft was unable to react quickly to “real competition” from cloud-based vendors. As such, he said rivals Google and Oracle have been touting their Web-based office productivity tools and operating systems (OSes) to try and wrest market share from the market leader.

Google, for instance, announced in October last year that it is riding on telco partnerships to better penetrate the enterprise market. It added that Google Apps had been deployed to 3 million business users and over 30 million end-users. Dave Girourd, president of Google’s enterprise division, even suggested in November 2009 that firms can get rid of Microsoft’s Office in a year’s time.

That scenario, though, has yet to materialize.

Meanwhile, Oracle unveiled its Cloud 1.0 product–a cloud-based version of its OpenOffice product that it inherited from its Sun Microsystems acquisition–in December last year which targeted Web and mobile users.

However, Jones said these alternative offerings will not “truly rival” Redmond’s Office suite, noting in an e-mail interview that Office’s dominant position “looks unlikely” to be under threat any time soon.

According to Microsoft Asia-Pacific COO Andrew Pickup, the company will respond to these cloud-based competitors with its free, online-based Office Web Apps, which will be rolled out to users next month.

Pickup told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail: “Consider that in just over six months after [the beta version of] Office Web Apps were introduced, more than 30 million people used it to view, edit and share Office documents from anywhere. The Office Web Apps are a key piece of Microsoft’s overall cloud strategy, and we are very pleased with the speed and efficiency by which we are able to offer it to the entire world.”

Windows slow to mobile fight
Microsoft’s Windows OS business, however, might come under more pressure from Google to further transform. Bloomberg had reported in January that a shortfall in Windows revenue in Redmond’s second-quarter revenue results dampened the company’s better-than-expected overall market performance.

Tony Ursillo, an analyst at Loomis Sayles & Co., said in the report: “The stock has gotten very little credit for it because the market is worried about the continued erosion of the Windows franchise and the potential erosion of the Office franchise.”

Microsoft CFO Peter Klein added that the company did see a “small impact” from tablets and other types of computing devices, though it was “not material”.

Archrival Google has a significantly stronger presence in the mobile computing space with its Android mobile OS. Research firm Canalys unveiled the platform’s dominance when it reported this month that shipment of Android-powered smartphones overtook Symbian-based devices in the fourth quarter of 2010.

Furthermore, the Android 3.0 Honeycomb OS is also prepped to corner the tablet device segment as vendors such as Motorola and Samsung, among others, are in the midst of releasing devices powered by the latest iteration of the Google mobile OS.

Its Chrome OS browser-based system, which is aimed at migrating enterprises from on-premise, client-based deployments to a purely cloud-based one, is also seen as another potential threat to Redmond’s Windows OS and server business.

However, Matt Healey, program director of software and services at IDC Asia-Pacific, reckoned that while it is “a bit late” into the game, Microsoft is heading in the right direction.

“Its announcement that the next version of Windows will run on ARM-based processors was a good step forward,” Healey explained in his e-mail. “It enables them to participate in the growing [mobile computing] market.”

The software vendor is aiming to create smaller, thinner Windows tablets with better battery life, according to a Bloomberg report.

Pickup also cited the Windows Phone 7 OS as a platform that is aimed at placing Microsoft strongly in the mobile arena. He noted that as consumers are doing more work on mobile devices, the Windows Phone 7 software is developed to help them do more in fewer steps.

Combined with Office, the platform offers “greater productivity than we’ve seen on smartphones before”, he added.

According to Forrester’s Jones, Microsoft’s licensing practices will stand well amid the mobile computing trend, which the analyst said was “no threat to Office at all”.

He noted that the software vendor sells Office licenses according to per device, and not per user. So, as personal productivity tasks extend to mobile devices, this would mean more revenue for the software giant as companies will have to buy licenses for multiple devices, he added.

Battling against customer inertia
The “real threat” to Microsoft’s Office and Windows business lines, instead, is that consumers are so content with the current product that they see no need to keep upgrading.

Elaborating, Jones said Microsoft is caught between serving its retail and business customers. For the former, Redmond aims for a big release every few years to stimulate new sales, like it saw with the launch of Windows 7 in December 2009 and later with Office 2010.

In comparison, enterprise customers want more functionality for their software in between large, disruptive upgrades, so Microsoft will have to find a way to ensure steady revenue streams, the analyst said.

Office 365, formerly branded as Business Productivity Online Standard (BPOS), is therefore important to Microsoft for two reasons, Jones surmised. Depending on the plan customers sign up for, the software suite would include both the free and full-functioned Office product with other features such as SharePoint, Exchange Online and Office Communications Online. This will allow users with multiple devices to just pay once, he said.

Microsoft can then release updates to these products more frequently and in smaller increments to justify a regular revenue stream from its business customers, he noted.

“Google [and other potential rivals] aren’t nearly as big a threat [to Microsoft] as inertia is,” Jones said.

Schmidt: HTML5 to drive app development

BARCELONA–The latest revision of the HTML programming language will likely become a standard for building applications running on both the mobile and desktop platforms, benefiting the developer community, says Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

In his keynote address here Tuesday at the Mobile World Congress, Schmidt said: “It looks to me like HTML5 will eventually become a way almost all applications are built, including those on new phones. There are some features missing but it’s getting there.”

HTML5 took 20 years to be established due to the need for the underlying Web standard to aggregate its capability and evolve onto the proprietary Apple Mac and Microsoft Windows API (application programming interface), he explained.

Lacking social media coherence

There was “nothing new” in Eric Schmidt’s address at the Mobile World Congress, and the Google CEO did not say how the company plans to monetize its social media offerings, according to Eden Zoller, principal analyst at Ovum.

Schmidt’s keynote, he observed, was “big on vision and quotes, but low on any exciting announcements”, save for a demo of a new video editing service for tablets which did not work.

“There was a nod to cloud services, but nothing new,” said Zoller. “There was also no mention of how Google will or could bring coherence to its currently fragmented social media strategy, a weak spot in Google’s armory, especially given the importance of social media as an advertising platform.”

“Given Google’s push on mobile location based services, it seems a lost opportunity not to leverage this in ways that exploit social commerce, an advertising revenue that Schmidt acknowledged was important,” he added.

With all operating vendors, including those with proprietary API, adding in HTML5 standards on their systems, he said there is now “every reason to believe that eventually–meaning some years from now”, many applications will ride on HTML5 in a mobile and non-mobile form.

Resolving Android fragmentation
Schmidt, who will be stepping down as Google CEO in April, went on to discuss the company’s efforts in addressing the fragmentation of its Android mobile platform as well as the progress of the Chrome OS.

He acknowledged that fragmentation is an issue for Android programmers who want their apps to run smoothly on multiple devices. He said Google attempts to establish minimum functionality guidelines based on the Open Handset Alliance specifications, to allow for common applications in new Android-powered devices.

He added that the company’s anti-fragmentation clause instructs phonemakers to track the platform’s API and include mandatory Android interfaces.

Schmidt believes the Android Market will also provide the “carrot” to entice developers to upgrade their apps to support changes to the platform and not deviate too far to avoid having their apps dropped from the appstore.

He added that operators will not want to operate in an environment that is fragmented, and this would further motivate device makers to update new Android releases on their phones–specifically, Android 2.3, also called Gingerbread. He said the new release will help smooth over differences.

“We’ve released Gingerbread, which in a month or two everybody will upgrade to,” Schmidt said. “At that point, everybody will be on a common platform which should address a lot of your concerns.”

Elaborating on Chrome, he noted that the OS is currently targeted at netbooks and devices with keyboards. He added that there are no plans yet to merge Android and Chrome, but the company is “working overtime” to achieve this.

“I learnt a long time ago: Don’t force technology to merge when it’s not ready,” he said.

Intel unveils MeeGo tablet interface

Intel has shown off a developer preview of the tablet user interface for its MeeGo Linux operating system at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

At the same time on Monday, the company also addressed Nokia’s withdrawal from the long-term development of MeeGo for mobile phones, with software and services chief Renee James saying the company was “disappointed” with its Finnish partner.

The user interface (UI) is based on dynamic panels and does not resemble the netbook variant of MeeGo–the only version to be shown off so far on a mobile computing device. The tablet UI was demonstrated by Intel’s systems software chief Doug Fisher, who said it was “centralized around the user…rather than applications”.

Read more of “Intel unveils MeeGo tablet interface” at ZDNet UK.

Adobe: Flash shipped on 20 million handsets

Flash Player 10.1 has been installed on more than 20 million handsets in the six months since its launch, Adobe has said, as it outlined its plans for its mobile runtimes.

Adobe, which has seen Flash banned from iPhones and iPads by Apple chief executive Steve Jobs, talked about its plans for Flash and AIR at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona on Monday. Anup Murarka, Adobe’s director of technology strategy and partner development, said that the company is pleased with Flash’s mobile growth.

“There’s been over 100 percent year-on-year growth in the amount of video streamed by Flash, with over 120 petabytes a month used by both desktop and mobile,” Murarka told ZDNet Asia’s sister site ZDNet UK in a phone briefing.

Read more of “Adobe: Flash shipped on 20 million handsets” at ZDNet UK.

Apple overhauling iPhone notification system?

To cap off last week’s chock-full of Apple-related rumors, we now have this: is Apple about to acquire a company in the process of giving its iOS notifications system a major makeover?

Apple blog Cult of Mac says it’s hearing exactly that from a source, who is not named. The company Apple is allegedly buying isn’t confirmed in the report, but is said to be “small” and currently has an application available for sale in the iOS App Store.

Now that would describe about a thousand companies. But there aren’t that many that do slick notification apps. Cult of Mac has zeroed in on App Remix, the company that makes the app called Boxcar.

Boxcar pools all of your social media feeds and delivers your notifications from each into one app. App Remix’s CEO apparently had “no comment” on Cult of Mac’s query as to whether Apple plans on making the company an offer.

Apple’s own notification system isn’t regarded as the most stellar implementation. The original iPhone actually shipped without any real push notification system for third-party apps. It took Apple three iterations of the iPhone’s software before it found a system it liked.

But the system employed in Palm’s original Pre smartphone featuring WebOS is still roundly praised as the best in the business. Hewlett-Packard (HP), of course, owns WebOS now and recently introduced the software on several new phones and a tablet.

The man who invented the WebOS notification system, Rich Dellinger, actually quit Palm just after the HP acquisition last year to return to his former employer, Apple. The rumor mill heated up then that iOS’ notifications were in for a big change, but nothing more has come of that–at least not yet.

Apple updates its iOS software on a yearly basis, usually in June, and there’s a preview event usually around March to see what will be in the next version, in this case iOS 5. It’s possible we could see a new push notification process included in the next big software update for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad.

Will mobile vertical apps be compelling?

Applications for specific industries are on the cusp of a new wave–with the rise of smartphone usage, many vertical apps are becoming linked to the mobile phone or beginning to resemble a mobile app. Experts, however, say such apps need specific requirements to be viable.

In a blog post last year discussing the possibility of customizing one’s car with apps, CNBC correspondent Phil LeBeau cited examples such as downloading an app for a car to make a certain sound when the engine is started.

A separate article on EzineArticles.com noted that cars are being fitted with technologies that for instance, allow drivers to check e-mail messages and social media updates while on the road.

Some experts ZDNet Asia contacted say vertical apps are not a fad, but cautioned on their sustainability.

Ovum’s senior consultant Craig Skinner said in an e-mail interview that apps for verticals such as health and government are also well-positioned for strong development and usage.

According to him, some of the healthcare apps that are being developed or already in use include patient information access and health monitoring, which in some cases connect to external monitoring devices to measure blood sugar levels or heart rate. Such information is then fed back to the local healthcare provider.

Other “innovative” vertical apps include maintenance reporting apps for citizens to report about local issues that need repairs or maintenance work, as well as reminders for estate payments and library due dates, he said.

Similarly, Ashwin Palaparthi, vice president of innovation at AppLabs, thinks that micropayment apps for financial services will see long-term sustainable success.

However, Saverio Romeo, Frost and Sullivan’s senior industry analyst for ICT, expressed skepticism on the viability of vertical-specific apps.

“Do developers make substantial revenues from this model?” he questioned, pointing out that while some apps are profitable, many others are not. Due to this reason, it is “not safe to say” that app development will be sustainable in the long run, he added in an e-mail.

Romeo also cast doubts over some types of apps. While he called apps for transportation “interesting”, he said those that cater to the publishing, fashion, and tourism industries are driven by the growing popularity of tablets.

First-time success critical
According to AppLabs’ Palaparthi, “first time success” is a critical factor for apps to thrive. “If any newly launched mobile application has glitches in its first release, consumers will never touch it again, no matter the usage of the application.

“So, there is every chance for properly tested apps to become a huge success and…[achieve] long-term adoption,” he said in an e-mail.

Frost & Sullivan’s Romeo explained that the “unseen” ecosystem and mechanics behind an app, such as distribution platforms and compatibility of devices, are more crucial for sustainability.

“There is not much evidence that allows us to say that greater adoption will happen [in a particular industry] rather than in another industry,” he said. “The stores are a distribution tool of content and engagement with customers and the various industries will use it.”

Trends associated with mobile Web and cloud computing will also affect adoption, he added.

Ovum’s Skinner added that for apps to enjoy widespread usage, there must be “large multiplier factors across organizational boundaries that align well with scale advantages”, instead of the traditional one-to-one sales and support processes.

Wide coverage with iOS and Android
Given that Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android are currently the most popular, Skinner said developers developing mobile vertical apps will be concentrating on these two mobile operating systems.

“These platforms allow easy distribution and installation of the apps and provide a wide coverage of the market,” he noted. “While there are other platforms still covering a reasonable share of the devices, they are not attracting the same level of attention from the developer community.”

Romeo said greater uniformity should be the way forward, as there are currently too many platforms in the market. He said this can be done through various approaches, such as cooperation among the different players or moving toward the mobile Web.

When quizzed if the app developer market can start to evolve into a lucrative industry, he expressed reservations, but agreed that apps moving into vertical industries are an interesting development.

Skinner, on the other hand, felt that the app industry is growing rapidly.

“The value of the app comes from the additional sales that it facilitates, rather than from the revenue of the actual sale of the application.”

Yahoo launches tablet-focused ‘digital newsstand’

Yahoo announced a product Friday called “Livestand”, an app for tablet and mobile devices that will start as a personalized browsing tool for Yahoo-owned content and, in the future, possibly external content as well. Powering it is technology that Yahoo envisions as a way for both publishers and advertisers to easily reach tablet and smartphone users.

At launch, Livestand will feature content from Yahoo Sports, Yahoo News, Flickr, celebrity gossip site OMG, and the Yahoo Contributor Network (fueled by media from Associated Content, the freelance clearinghouse that Yahoo acquired last year). The content will be customized based on user preference, as well as time of the day and location–say, local news and weather reports. Advertisements, according to a release, will be “magazine-style”. Livestand will first be available as Android and iPad tablet apps in the next few months, followed by a browser-based version and smartphone apps.

Livestand will also be the centerpiece of a talk that CEO Carol Bartz, whose attempt to turn around the flagging tech company has been heavily criticized, will make at the Mobile World Congress conference in Barcelona later this month.

Last fall, Yahoo partnered with coffee chain Starbucks on a tablet-optimized landing page accessible only from Starbucks stores and powered by Yahoo content and technology. Livestand, with its local targeting and slick interface, has somewhat of the same feel. Tablet-based publications have been all the rage since the debut of the iPad a year ago, with recent months seeing the emergence of tablet-only news publications like News Corp.’s The Daily and lifestyle magazines like Virgin Group’s Project. But what Yahoo has built, and is initially fueling with its own content, is a visual news reader–a concept that has been popularized by the likes of Flipboard, a start-up that turns RSS feeds and Twitter streams into a magazine-like interface.

The real test for this new product will be whether additional content partners–say, magazine publishers and newspapers–choose to jump on board when Yahoo opens the gates.

Google seeks to unlock Android 3.0 hardware power

An interface coming with the forthcoming Honeycomb version of Android will open up a new ability for programmers who want to tap into hardware power unlocked by low-level programming.

The new interface is called Renderscript, said R. Jason Sams, an Android performance and graphics programmer at Google. He didn’t say so in so many words, but the goal for the feature has to be better games on Android. It’s a broader feature, though: it’s used in Honeycomb’s YouTube and Books apps.

“The target audience is the set of developers looking to maximize the performance of their applications and are comfortable working closer to the metal to achieve this,” Sams said in a blog post Thursday. “The target use is for performance-critical code segments where the needs exceed the abilities of the existing APIs.”

To that end, Renderscript exposes two hardware-accelerated interfaces, one for rendering 3D graphics and one for for power-efficient computing operations. To use it, Renderscript relies on a variant of the C99 version of the C programming language. And the Renderscript plumbing that comes along with Honeycomb, aka Android 3.0, makes the decisions about whether to run the computing jobs on regular or graphics processors.

The Native Developer Kit Google offers for Android already lets programmers directly access low-level hardware features. Renderscript has an important difference, though: it’s cross-platform. Instead of coming with software coded just for a specific chip, it comes with scripts that are compiled into an intermediate format that is then translated for a specific device only when it runs.

One example of Renderscript in action is a physics simulation of 900 particles below interacting with each other and simulated gravity from a tilting Honeycomb tablet with a dual-core processor.

HP dangles developer carrot with WebOS PCs

Sometimes it’s easier to compete by giving the world no option but to deal with you. By declaring its intention to use WebOS in its biggest selling and most well-known product line, Hewlett-Packard (HP) is doing just that.

Almost two hours into an event ostensibly scheduled to reveal HP’s new smartphones along with the TouchPad tablet, HP Executive Vice President Todd Bradley dropped a bit of a stunner. HP has long said since acquiring Palm that it planned to use WebOS in a variety of devices, but until today few realized it intended to drive the software into its PC lineup.

“I’m excited to announce our plans to bring the WebOS to the device that has the biggest reach of all: the personal computer,” Bradley said. And with that, many in the tech industry stopped wondering whether the TouchPad was really good enough to compete with the iPad and started wondering about how the world has been changed.

Already this year Microsoft has announced that Windows will run on ARM chips, which power the mobile world. And now HP is willing to risk alienating one of its oldest and closest partners by emphasizing its own software in hopes of creating a world in which software developers have no choice but to put WebOS near the top of their to-do lists.

If we were talking about just smartphones and tablets, it’s not clear consumers and developers saw enough Wednesday to take such a step. Even after the event, vital details about the newest generation of WebOS smartphones and the company’s first tablet are still glaringly scarce.

Perhaps most importantly, we have no idea how much the Veer, Pre 3, and TouchPad will cost. And besides that, shipping dates for the products were very vague, listed by the season rather than by the month and likely to arrive after next-generation products from Apple and from Google partners start to hit stores.

But HP has one very strong ace in the hole: the world’s most popular PC brand. If HP does manage to ship PCs in volume with WebOS, those software developers will suddenly have a huge potential market to address with their applications. HP sold nearly 63 million PCs during 2010.

Of course, such a switch won’t happen overnight and almost certainly won’t involve numbers on that large a scale for quite some time, if ever. In a brief interview after HP’s event, Phil McKinney, vice president and chief technology officer for HP’s personal systems group, said it’s likely that the first WebOS-based PCs will run WebOS atop Windows 7. He didn’t rule out the prospect of WebOS-only PCs, but he had nothing in the way of even basic details to share.

All the hedging aside, the announcement sends a clear signal. As Fortune’s Michael Copeland pointed out, HP doesn’t think it needs to rely on Microsoft to sell PCs anymore.

Microsoft was polite in response to HP’s event. “HP is a valued Microsoft partner, and we continue to work closely with them on many new products that bring great experiences to our mutual customers,” the company said in a statement.

However, it was obvious after HP bought Palm for $1.2 billion that it was moving away from Microsoft’s mobile operating system road map. It just wasn’t as clear that HP was prepared to slight Microsoft when it came to both companies’ flagship products as well, and no matter what combination HP chooses to use of WebOS and Windows 7 on its PCs, few would be surprised if it promoted its own software rather prominently.

And that, in turn, may encourage more and more people to think about alternative PCs running WebOS that aren’t quite tablets but don’t look like your father’s desktop tower either. An easy example would be HP’s Touchsmart PC, which one could easily see running WebOS as a kitchen-counter computer or in the lobby of a design firm.

If it all works out, HP will have given software developers millions of reasons to take it seriously. To be clear, this is not a long-term strategy: PC growth is anemic, smartphones are already outshipping PCs, and tablet growth is expected by most people in this industry to soar over the next few years.

HP will have to be competitive in smartphones and tablets to remain a force in the personal computing market, and its development teams in those categories need to pick up the pace to even stay abreast of Apple and Google. Still, it will be hard for competitors to match HP’s potential reach across the world’s computing markets if WebOS tablets, smartphones, and PCs prove popular.

At some point there will no longer be enough software development energy to support six different mobile operating systems. If Nokia really does throw in the towel later this week and embrace Windows Phone 7, we’ll be down to five.

WebOS has been an underdog in this fight for quite some time. But developers understand volume, and WebOS PCs could represent quite a lot of that.

Flash 10.2 arrives with more efficient video

Adobe Systems released Flash Player 10.2 on Wednesday, bringing a technology called Stage Video designed to be easier on computing devices’ processors and therefore batteries.

Tom Nguyen, product manager for Flash platform runtimes, offered this glowing account for the Flash Player 10.2 announcement:

Stage Video lets websites take advantage of full hardware acceleration of the entire video pipeline…Stage Video hardware acceleration means that Flash Player can play even higher quality video while using dramatically less processing power, giving users a better experience, greater performance, and longer battery life. In our testing across supported systems, we’ve found it’s up to 34 times more efficient.

Put another way, Flash Player using Stage Video can effortlessly play beautiful 1080p HD video with just 1 to 15 percent CPU usage on a common Mac or Windows computer…Many millions of additional PCs, from Netbooks to desktops, can now become slick HD home theaters on the Web.

CPU usage during video has been a particular sore spot with Flash, in particular with Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs lambasting Flash video as battery-sucking software. Stage Video, among other things, uses hardware acceleration to combine (“composite”, in technical terms) video with other elements such as text or graphics–think subtitles, pop-up ads, and player controls. (Adobe already added hardware-assisted decoding of H.264 video in Flash Player 10.1.)

Web developers need to update their software to use the new Stage Video interface; Flash evangelist Lee Brimelow offers a tutorial for those interested in how to do so. Google already has for its Flash-based player at YouTube, Adobe said.

Speaking of hardware acceleration, Flash Player 10.2 also takes advantage of that ability in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9 for higher performance and smoother compositing. It also comes with the ability to show full-screen video on one monitor in a dual-monitor setup.

Flash faces a host of challenges beyond power consumption. Also on the list are a variety of competing Web standards in varying degrees of maturity and the fact that Flash Player is a rarity on mobile phones.

The Flash Player 10.2 plug-in can be downloaded from Adobe’s download site, but things are somewhat different for users of Google’s Chrome browser. Google builds Flash Player directly into Chrome and it issued a new stable version 9.0.597.94 and developer version 10.0.648.45 with Flash Player 10.2; the new versions download automatically and are installed upon restarting the browser.

Manufacturers get Windows 7 service pack

Microsoft said today that it had sent the first service pack for Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 to original equipment manufacturers, with a consumer release to follow later this month.

The news comes several weeks after Microsoft’s Russian Windows localization team had reported the update as being finalized from its first and only release candidate, and released to manufacturers.

Microsoft says the update will go out to consumers through Windows Update on Feb. 22. TechNet subscribers and Microsoft’s volume license customers will get their hands on it a week earlier, on Feb. 16.

SP1 includes an updated version of Microsoft’s remote desktop client, alongside a round of hot fixes, and dynamic memory support for Hyper-V in Windows Server 2008 R2.

On the company’s server team blog, Michael Kleef, who is a senior technical product manager on the team, said that the dynamic memory feature alone has made a dramatic increase in machine density within the company’s testing:

Dynamic Memory lets you increase virtual machine density with the resources you already have–without sacrificing performance or scalability. In our lab testing, with Windows 7 SP1 as the guest operating system in a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) scenario, we have seen a 40 percent increase in density from Windows Server 2008 R2 RTM to SP1. We achieved this increase simply by enabling Dynamic Memory.

Kleef goes on to praise the new RemoteFX technology that’s included with SP1, which virtualizes the graphical processing unit on the server instead of on local hardware. This means thin-client machines can run more graphically intensive applications on hardware that wouldn’t otherwise support it, which as a side effect can cut down on electricity used by those machines.

“Together, these technologies will drive down the end-point cost and reduce end-point power consumption to as little as a few watts,” Kleef said.

Microsoft rolled out the first beta of SP1 back in July, with its first and only release candidate appearing in late October.

S’pore startup aims to be ‘Robin Hood’ to app developers

Singapore startup MobileApps.com is eyeing a share of the apps marketplace pie by positioning itself as a multi-platform app wholesale market, allowing developers to take home 95 percent of each app sold and promising to improve the app discovery process, according to the company’s co-founder.

Alvin Koay, co-founder and CEO of MobileApps.com, said that there are app marketplaces “popping up all over the place” today trying to make money off the ongoing app craze. To differentiate its Web site, which is named after the company, it is looking to become the “Robin Hood” for app developers, he told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview.

MobileApps.com was incorporated in Singapore in December 2010, although its office is currently based in Malaysia to “lower operating costs”.

To live up to its “Robin Hood” tag, Koay identified two main thrusts to its marketing strategy: Increasing developers’ share of the revenue as well as improving the app discovery process, which would aid the download process for users. The app marketplace would also be platform-agnostic and bring together apps that run on various operating systems such as Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7, for example, he said.

Developers earn more
According to Koay, developers who publish their apps on MobileApps.com would receive 95 percent cut of the revenue. This compares favorably with other notable app stores such as Apple’s App Store, Google’s Android Market and Research In Motion’s BlackBerry App World, all of which allocate only 70 percent of proceeds to developers, he noted.

He explained that the 5 percent MobileApps.com pockets from each app sale is used primarily to cover administrative and credit card processing costs.

To monetize the business, MobileApps.com will be relying on its proprietary algorithm, Koay said. The algorithm will be able to recommend apps that are specific to, for example, industries, country and audience.

In turn, the algorithm is incorporated into a “smart widget” that will be made available for free to all Web publishers, which will subsequently get a cut of the advertising fees generated from app developers who publish their apps within the widget, he added.

Elaborating, he said that the advertising model will be CPM-based (cost per thousand impressions) although developers currently do not need to pay for page views (PVs). Revenue will be generated when developers “jostle for positions” on the widget, which is paginated. Developers who pay more will be placed prominently on the front page of the widget, he explained.

“We believe that the market will correct itself and developers will see the value in paying for better placement in our widget, thus increasing our advertising revenue,” said Koay.

Web publishers will get 60 percent to 70 percent of the advertising fees paid by developers while MobileApps.com will take the remaining 30 percent to 40 percent, the CEO said.

To encourage take-up and build awareness of its brand among prominent Web sites and bloggers, Web publishers that place the widget on their sites will receive 100 percent of the advertising fees collected for the first three months, he added.

Solving app discovery challenge
MobileApps.com is also starting to talk to Android and iPhone blog sites and online communities about its widget, and Koay expressed confidence that the company’s offering will take off.

“We will be providing free, targeted content for Web publishers to put up on their site and they will be paid for it–it’s a win-win situation for site operators and bloggers,” he said.

The entrepreneur also hopes the advertising of apps via the widget on various online communities, will solve the app discovery problem that persists in many existing app markets today.

Furthermore, MobileApps.com is looking to localized content to grow its presence within selected markets. Koay said it has partners in Japan and Jordan to “replicate” its app marketplace, and is in the midst of looking for partners in South Korea and China.

In Jordan, for instance, he said its partner is translating existing apps into Arabic and is actively fostering an active developer community there, too.

Both the widget and app marketplace are not yet available but Koay is expecting the widget to be launched in a month’s time. MobileApps.com is still looking to populate the marketplace and once there is a critical mass of apps available for consumers, it will be made public too, he added.

“We know that we have to create something special in order to stand out from the rest of our competitors and we believe that with our business strategy of giving developers a bigger cut of the revenue and improving app discovery, we will disrupt the current app market model and make our mark,” said Koay.

Chrome OS delay a ‘good marketing decision’

Instead of pitching another operating system (OS) into the nascent mobile computing space dominated by its Android OS and Apple’s iOS, Google’s decision to delay the launch of Chrome OS-powered devices has been lauded by analysts.

Matthew Cheung, principal analyst at Gartner, said that compared to 18 months ago when traditional PC makers were constantly talking up netbooks and how the form factor was all the rage, today’s consumers demand tablet devices manufactured by both PC and mobile phone makers alike. To capitalize on this, Google has unveiled its tablet-optimized Android OS 3.0, codenamed Honeycomb, to corner this market, he noted in an e-mail.

He also reckoned this trend of computing mobility and connectivity via tablets will continue for some time yet, which means the delayed launch of Chrome OS-based devices is a “good market decision” and not a negative sign.

Chrome OS is a browser-based system that does not tax the device in terms of battery life, allows for extremely fast boot-up times and provides security with no local data or locally installed applications. Google had pushed back its projected launch date for the OS from late-2010 to mid-2011.

Waiting for right moment
“The delay of Chrome OS-enabled PCs will make the platform more relevant to the market [once it is launched] but is not detrimental to its long-term objective,” Cheung said.

Daryl Chiam, senior analyst at Canalys, concurred. In a phone interview, he told ZDNet Asia that Chrome OS has “a lot of work to do” to live up to its hype. A seamless user experience that syncs between one’s online and offline world, in particular, needs to be nailed down before the platform is released, which could be why Google delayed its launch, he speculated.

Furthermore, he cited the fragmented Android app ecosystem where there are multiple app marketplaces as a cautionary tale for Chrome OS. Chiam said that while there are some people who like the openness and choice afforded by the open Android ecosystem, most users prefer to flock to a de facto app store with a simple-to-understand payment model.

Developers, too, would be more prepared to develop for Chrome OS once Google improves on its Checkout payment mechanism, he noted.

Google appears to be heading in that direction, as its Chrome Web Store released in December 2010 is currently the only platform serving up Chrome OS-based Web apps.

The search giant has, in the meantime, made available a number of Chrome OS-powered notebooks to companies and individual users that had been accepted into its pilot program to generate interest and momentum.

Identifying Chrome’s potential
Yet, Chrome OS is not without its naysayers. An earlier report by ZDNet Asia’s sister site CNET called into question the relevance of devices powered by Chrome OS in the hardware scene of 2011. According to the report, the tablet device is here to stay and device makers focused on challenging Apple’s primacy in the tablet market are committed to adopting Android, not Chrome, as its main operating system.

Malik Kamal-Saadi, principal analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media, however, begged to differ. He said in an e-mail that Chrome OS “has never been meant for mobile devices but designed to compete with existing desktop OSes and to work atop advanced CPUs”.

Like Cheung, Kamal-Saadi noted that Honeycomb is the OS Google is using to target the portable multimedia devices such as tablets and smartbooks, which in turn eliminates the need for Chrome OS in this market segment.

Chrome OS, meanwhile, could potentially be a good contender to Microsoft Windows and Apple’s Mac OS X in the notebook and netbook arenas, he noted. Both Redmond and Cupertino’s offerings are desktop-centric OSes that “does not have connectivity in their DNA” and the majority of apps developed for these OSes are native while Web apps are browser-based and make use of plug-ins to access hardware resources, the analyst added.

On the other hand, Google’s browser-based framework is designed to provide natural support to the connected Web environment today’s consumers live in, Kamal-Saadi said.

“As computing is increasingly evolving toward the cloud, [the] Web and connectivity will become essential in the way apps are designed and distributed,” he noted. “This trend will make legacy OSes [such as Windows and Mac OS X] less successful…[while] Chrome OS is well-positioned to fight in this new environment.”

The analyst also acknowledged that the Web as a development environment and cloud computing are still in their “embryonic development stage”, which allows Google plenty of time to tweak and improve its Chrome OS to align the platform with market developments. Chrome OS, predicted Kamal-Saadi, will “unlikely be ready for market adoption before 2012”.

At its end, Microsoft is not taking the threat Chrome OS could pose to its existing Windows business lightly. In January, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced that the next version of Windows will be available on ARM chip architecture.

ARM-based chips are used in the majority of mobile devices such as Apple’s iPad and various smartphones, and Redmond’s decision to adopt the architecture signals its intentions to compete strongly in the mobile computing space in the near future.

Microsoft to make Outlook easier to touch

A Microsoft job posting has provided clues into Microsoft’s strategy to make its Office Web applications more friendly to touch-screen devices.

A listing that went up over the weekend for a software development engineer touts some of the successes of Microsoft’s Outlook Web App (OWA), saying it has “made a huge difference in the daily lives of millions of users all over the world” but that the company is looking for someone to take OWA to “the next level” with a “next generation” client. That client would be for both the desktop and “the latest mobile and slate devices”, the listing said.

OWA can currently be accessed via standard Web browsers but lacks some finger-friendly UI tweaks and gesture identifiers that competitors have packed into their mobile HTML clients. Google and Yahoo in particular have put out two-pane Web e-mail sites that work on devices like Apple’s iPad without the need for a native client application. Microsoft does something similar with its Hotmail service by offering users a simplified version of their in-boxes, but the company has not brought such changes to the latest version of OWA.

Along with the discussion about making OWA work better across devices, the listing goes into some detail about plans to help people “manage meetings, appointments, and tasks”. All three of those items are addressed in the current version of Microsoft’s Outlook platform, however this would suggest that Microsoft is at work on alternate means for those tasks to be handled–be it inside the app, or by way of a new standalone application in the same vein as the company’s Lync communications platform.

That Microsoft would be aiming to make its own Web services more friendly to as many platforms as possible should not be a surprise to anyone, especially given the last several years of product launches. Besides talking up the importance of HTML5 as part of the latest version of Internet Explorer, the company has attempted to make the Web-based versions of its Office applications work on as many browsers as possible, including Google’s Chrome, which had originally been left off the list of compatible browsers.

As for when we’ll actually get a look at this reworked version of OWA–that detail remains a bit fuzzy. While the company has said it’s currently at work on the next major version of the Office software suite, OWA also plays an important part in Microsoft’s Office 365 strategy. Part of the appeal for that offering is that users can get the latest versions of Office applications that are hosted by Microsoft, versus local deployments. If some of the changes are simply under the hood, there’s the potential for them to end up in 365 ahead of any future versions of its desktop sibling.

Microsoft’s job posting was first picked up by blog Winrumors, earlier Tuesday.

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

Firefox beta to Web: ‘Do Not Track’

Firefox 4 beta 11 has landed a useful security feature for people who are sick of “stalkertizements,” those cookie-based ads that use your browsing history to target ads at your perceived tastes.

The new “Do Not Track” feature in Firefox 4 beta 11 for Windows, Mac, and Linux sends out a header that tells Web sites that you want to opt out of behavioral tracking, though Mozilla cautions in a blog post that it will take some time for sites and advertisers to respond to the header.

The feature can be toggled via a check box in the Advanced tab of Firefox’s Options window.

Mozilla privacy lead Alex Fowler said that the engineers decided to base the feature in the header sent from the browser because it’s something that all Web pages read as they load. A blacklist or cookie-based solution would be harder to implement across different browsers. He acknowledged that successful implementation of “Do Not Track” also depends on advertisers and site owners respecting that incoming header.

He added that the initial stages of a legislative fix are under way as at least one member of Congress–Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.)–plans to introduce a bill ordering the Federal Trade Commission to create a “Do Not Track” program for advertisers. However, a second bill also being proposed does not include the “Do Not Track” option. Both might have a hard time passing in today’s antiprivacy climate, although a bill with “Do Not Track” would be the harder sell because of its stronger privacy controls.

Mozilla security and privacy engineer Sid Stamm has documented the technical implementation of “Do Not Track.”

Other changes in Firefox 4 beta 11–which Mozilla hopes will be the penultimate Firefox 4 beta–include moving connection status messages to a small overlay window, re-enabling WebGL on Linux, disabling automatic switching to offline mode when no network connection is detected, and a redesign of the default about:home page.

Android Gingerbread to get Open NFC support

Inside Secure plans to deliver a version of its open-source, near-field communication API tailored to Android 2.3 operating system — code-named Gingerbread — before the end of February.

Open NFC 4.2 will offer hardware manufacturers, wireless operators and software developers an easy way to implement near-field communication (NFC) functionality across a range of Android 2.3 Gingerbread handsets, the semiconductor and software company said on Monday.

“Open NFC relies on a separate, very thin and easily adaptable hardware-abstraction software layer, which accounts for a very small percentage of the total stack code,” said Philippe Martineau, who heads up NFC for Inside Secure. “[This means] that the Open NFC software stack can be easily leveraged for different NFC chip hardware.”

Read more of “Android Gingerbread to get Open NFC support” at ZDNet UK.

Mozilla on fire in bid to outfox rivals

Mozilla has a new plan for Firefox in 2011: Turn the crank faster.

The organization is set to deliver Firefox 4 in coming weeks. And according to a draft Firefox roadmap, Mike Beltzner, Mozilla‘s director of Firefox, proposed releasing versions 5, 6, and 7 in 2011, too. This fast-release ethos, pioneered in the browser world by Google’s Chrome, means smaller changes arrive more frequently.

For comparison, Firefox 1 arrived in 2004, Firefox 2 in 2006, Firefox 3 in 2008, with Firefox 4 slipping past a hoped-for 2010 ship date and likely to slip past another date set for the end of February.

The faster schedule is designed to make Firefox more competitive by getting new features into users’ hands faster. According to Beltzner:

We succeeded in re-energizing the browser market, creating competition and innovation which benefits Web application developers and users alike. This newly competitive market has presented challenges for the continued success of Firefox, and in 2011 we must ensure that we can deliver a product that is compelling to users in order to continue to be able to demonstrate our vision for the Web. To do this we must:

  • • provide a browser that is stable and responsive,
  • • build a product for modern desktop and mobile hardware,
  • • provide a simple set of features and experiences to help users get the most out of the Web,
  • • support Web technologies that are desired most by application developers and users,
  • • deliver those technology improvements quickly to our user base.

It’s not easy turning the crank faster, though.

“Changing the way we ship products will require the re-evaluation of many assumptions and a large shift in the way we think about the size of a ‘major’ release,” Beltzner said. “The criteria for inclusion should be no regressions [new bugs], well understood effects for users, and completion in time for a planned release vehicle.”

Firefox’s share of worldwide browser usage has remained largely flat, with Chrome and Safari steadily picking up usage in recent months. Chrome, which often serves as a vehicle for Google to promote favored new technologies, moved last year from a quarterly release cycle to an even faster one with twice that pace.

Microsoft gives Windows Phone devs copy, paste

The slow march toward the public release of Microsoft’s first update to its Windows Phone 7 system software is one step closer to fruition.

At the top of the PPCGeeks Podcast last week, Brandon Watson, who is Microsoft’s director of developer relations, announced that the company today would be seeding a new version of the Windows Phone Developer Tools to registered Windows Phone 7 developers.

Included in the update are things like the long-awaited copy and paste feature, and a performance improvement for application load times. The tools give developers a chance to test their applications for compatibility, but also signal that the update is closer to getting into the hands of end users.

During the podcast, Watson also said that the Developer Tools software was on track to pass a million downloads since its introduction at last year’s Mix conference. That’s no small feat considering Microsoft’s most recent tally of registered phone developers was north of 24,000.

Microsoft still has yet to nail down a specific date for a consumer release of the software upgrade. During a phone interview with ZDNet Asia’s sister site CNET, Greg Sullivan, senior product manager for Windows Phone 7 was still going with the within “the next few months” estimate the company had provided at CES.

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

Office Web Apps to go worldwide in March

Microsoft says that by next month, users worldwide will be able to get their hands on the free, online version of its Office suite.

In a post on the Office Blog earlier this week, the company said that it had expanded Office Web Apps availability in 150 new countries including Mexico, India, Israel and Saudi Arabia, and that by next month it will hit “all remaining markets in Central and South America”.

The free service, which contains Web-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, was launched by Microsoft in June of last year. Microsoft says that 30 million people are now using it.

Besides creating documents through the Office component of Windows Live, Office Web Apps exist on Facebook through Docs.com, as well as with some recent integration that use the hosted productivity tools to open up attachments. That same functionality is also built into Hotmail, where it was seeing 500 percent growth (month by month) in use, according to stats Microsoft released late last year.

Office Web Apps is just the latest in a series of Microsoft’s Web properties to vie for the important “worldwide” moniker. The last one was Windows Live Messenger, which this week expanded its Facebook chat connector to all markets.

EMC launches free edition of Greenplum database

EMC on Tuesday rolled out an open source community edition of its Greenplum data warehousing software. The free version is aimed at bringing more developers into the data warehousing fold.

Scott Yara, vice president of EMC’s data computing products division, said the community edition of the Greenplum database could turn “10s of thousands of downloads” into “100,000s of thousands”. “There’s an opportunity here to grow the analytics community,” said Yara.

The game plan for EMC is pretty obvious: Put Greenplum software in as many hands as possible. If Greenplum can build a vibrant data warehousing app ecosystem it could become a standard platform. Yara added that Greenplum has historically focused on high-end data warehousing, but the community of developers needs to be larger and should reach out to data scientists and other IT pros.

Read more of “EMC launches free edition of Greenplum database” at ZDNet.

Chemistry add-in for Word goes open-source

Microsoft today announced that its chemistry add-in for Word is now freely available for download and tweaking by the open-source community.

The tool, which was released in beta form in March of last year and has since been downloaded 250,000 times, lets users create and modify chemical information inside of Word 2007 and 2010. This includes chemical formulas, labels, and 2D structures that can more easily be worked on than with Word’s standard formatting tools.

Also known as Chem4Word, the add-in was developed through a partnership between Microsoft Research and three professors at the University of Cambridge. As part of the move to a v1 release, Microsoft has handed over the project to The Outercurve Foundation, which is putting it in its Research Accelerators Gallery where open-source community members can make changes to it.

“By shifting the project to the Foundation, we are encouraging scientists around the globe to engage, contribute, enhance, and support the original authors on this project,” Outercurve’s executive director Paula Hunter said in a blog post on the group’s site. “They have done some heavy lifting, but I am sure will welcome new collaborators,” she said.

Since the move to Outercurve’s gallery, project collaborators are already planning to bring 3D functionality to the tool, along with vector graphics rendering, and improved performance.

Users who want to grab the add-in can find it here.

Twitter buttons disappear from Gawker redesign

When blog network Gawker Media announced last year that it would be completely redesigning its portfolio of media properties–which include Gizmodo, Jalopnik, Jezebel, and the namesake Gawker.com–it created a wave of banter in the media industry. With only one story fully highlighted on the front page and a frame serving up alternate stories’ headlines, Gawker honcho Nick Denton is steering the company into a theoretical post-blog age.

But, when the redesign went live on several Gawker properties Tuesday, there were still a few surprises to the notably tablet-friendly experience. For one, Gawker sites have now completely eliminated the buttons that let readers share a headline on Twitter or StumbleUpon, winnowing the options down to Facebook alone.

Facebook is “by far the biggest social source of traffic for us,” Denton told the New York Observer via e-mail, adding that he found the smattering of other buttons to be cluttery. “These sites festooned with social media buttons–they look like primitive tribesmen clutching pathetically onto shiny baubles they believe to the symbols of modernity,” he added to the Observer.

Denton is a proud contrarian, but even his critics admit he’s been spot-on correct on occasion–like launching the original Gawker Media titles in the first place long before most people had ever heard of a blog.

It probably isn’t necessary to take a single publisher’s removal of Twitter buttons from its sites as a sign that Twitter’s shelf life has been shaved down, but it’s an interesting glance at one company’s belief in what drives traffic and what doesn’t–and perhaps what it believes its priority audiences are more likely to be using.

For Facebook, it’s a nice minor victory. The social-networking site has been plotting to creep further into the world of mainstream digital media, like Monday’s revelation that it will be launching a new product for third-party publishers that want Facebook-powered comments.

Analytics, mobility strengthen SAP’s APAC standing

German software vendor SAP is turning to its analytics, CRM (customer relationship management) and mobility products to enhance its growth in the Asia-Pacific region which, together with Latin America, are driving the company’s growth, reveals a company executive.

Stephen Watts, president of SAP Asia-Pacific and Japan, identified the three offerings as key to the company’s value proposition to customers, particularly in this region. Analytics, in particular, is clocking the “fastest growth” in SAP’s fourth quarter earnings report, he said in an interview Tuesday with ZDNet Asia.

Watts noted that the company’s in-memory high-performance analytic appliance is garnering strong interest globally as well as in the region. This interest spans all vertical industries, he added, as companies are trying to come to grips with their burgeoning data and the appliance is touted to streamline datacenter sprawl and provide “real-time” data analysis for all employees, as and when they need it.

With the inclusion of mobility in analytics, companies are now able to “untether” their workforce from their desks and push business-critical information to their mobile devices, regardless of the hardware manufacturers.

Watts said: “Mobility offerings should never be a vendor-driven decision but a customer-driven one.”

Furthermore, he noted that as more Asian companies look for top-line growth, establishing closer interactions and relationships with their customers will emerge as a key priority. To this end, he said SAP’s CRM products have seen growing demand.

Hiring and retaining talent are also ongoing challenges enterprises in the region have to face, he noted, adding that this is driving demand for the vendor’s human capital management tools.

Asia key growth driver
Asked if Asia will lead all regions in terms of growth for the company, Watts said the region, together with Latin America, will play key roles in driving SAP forward.

Citing revenue and growth figures specific to Asia-Pacific, he expressed confidence in the future and said the company’s reputation remains strong here.

According to Watts, SAP’s software and software-related services revenue for the fourth quarter 2010 grew 26 percent to 495 million euros (US$674.59 million), while total revenue saw a 23 percent growth to 574 million euros (US$782.25 million).

In comparison, globally, the company’s software revenue grew 35 percent to 1.5 billion euros (US$2.04 billion) over the same period, while its software and software-related services revenue rose 20 percent, SAP said.

Watts said fourth-quarter 2010 software sales was the company’s “biggest quarter in its history”, indicating that customers in the region are still looking to SAP to accelerate their business processes despite the company’s recent legal problems with rival Oracle.

SAP in December was ordered to pay US$1.3 billion plus interest to Oracle for copyright infringement committed by a third-party maintenance company, TomorrowNow, that it had acquired in 2005. The German software vendor will not contest the lawsuit but is planning to go to court to reduce the amount of penalties awarded, which it has said is “disproportionate and wrong”.

“The lawsuit and verdict has no impact on the market we play in,” Watts said. “We have already made provisions within our finances to pay the full penalty of US$1.3 billion, plus interest, and we’re not going to get worse in subsequent quarters.”

NPD: Windows Phone 7 off to a slow start

While Microsoft has already let us in on the number of Windows Phone 7 handsets it’s sold to carriers and OEMs worldwide, the bigger picture–as in how many consumers have actually made purchases–has been left up to research firms and retailer surveys. New numbers released by the NPD Group bring that picture into focus.

Windows Phone 7 gained 2 percent of the United States smartphone market during the last three months of 2010, NPD said in a research report that covers unit sales during that time. That’s compared to Android’s 9 percent growth over the previous quarter, bringing it to 53 percent of sales; Apple’s iOS, which went down 4 percent to 19 percent; and RIM’s 2 percent drop down to 19 percent.

One rather important detail to note here is that Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 wasn’t launched until the end of October in the United Kingdom, Australia, and some Asian markets, and in early November in North America. This means its two months of sales went up against more established competitors that were counted for all three months. One of those established platforms ended up being Windows Mobile–Windows Phone 7’s predecessor–which NPD says actually eclipsed Windows Phone 7 in terms of its market share during the same time period.

“Despite buy-one-get-one promotions at both AT&T and T-Mobile, the Windows Phone 7 OS claimed less market share than its predecessor, Windows Mobile, for which handsets are still available at all four major U.S. carriers,” Ross Rubin, executive director of industry analysis for NPD, said in a statement. Rubin added that Windows Phone 7’s launch share for the quarter had been lower than Android or Palm’s WebOS, according to the company’s Mobile Phone Track reports.

As for how much that share was, NPD said that Windows Mobile sat at 4 percent of the consumer market during the quarter, compared to 7 percent from the year before.

Later this year, Microsoft plans to offer a CDMA version of Windows Phone 7, which will make the new platform available on all the major carriers. As it stands right now, the device has been available only to carriers that make use of GSM technology. At CES, Microsoft said it was still on track to deliver a release of the software that would work with CDMA networks by the first half of 2011.

Author Jane McGonigal explains why ‘reality is broken’

newsmaker Until a couple of years ago, the idea that games could make people’s lives better was heresy. Everyone knew that games were a massive waste of time and that, if anything, they were harming those who played them the most.

But then word began to spread of new research that showed just the opposite: that games, and playing games, could have a positive impact on people. And while there was still plenty of skepticism, the woman behind the research, well-known game designer Jane McGonigal, began to attract a lot of attention with her new claims. Especially the idea that game designers might just be the very people that had the best chance of positively impacting the most lives.

Over the years, McGonigal’s work has received more and more attention. She first came on the scene as one of the people behind the hit alternate-reality game I Love Bees and soon began earning notoriety for the projects she herself designed–Tombstone Hold’em; World without Oil, which tasked players with imagining scenarios in a post-peak oil world; The Lost Ring, which was commissioned for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and introduced a “lost” Olympic sport to thousands across the globe; Superstruct, which asked players to come up with solutions to the kinds of massive problems that could threaten the future of our species; and more.

Along the way, she became a research director at the Institute for the Future. And now, McGonigal has published her first book, a big-picture tome called “Reality is Broken“, which takes the research she had been talking about and implementing in her games, and in keynote addresses from SXSWi to the Game Developers Conference to TED, and beyond, and uses it to make the argument the whole world can see, that games can make the world a better place.

One of the most prolific game designers around, McGonigal usually tries to help other people, or at least get other people to think, with her projects. But she has also turned her work inward–when she suffered a debilitating head injury in 2009, she ended up designing a game called Superbetter that she now credits with being instrumental in her recovery.

Yesterday, McGonigal sat down for a 45 Minutes on IM interview to discuss her new book, the millions of work-years humans have spent on World of Warcraft, her oldest games, and nail polish.

Q: First of all, congratulations on the book. Maybe you could start by summing up for those who haven’t seen the book why “reality is broken”.
McGonigal: I investigated the reasons why games seem to have an increasing pull on us. We’re up to 3 billion hours playing online games a week. I realized that compared to games, reality feels broken: it doesn’t engage us or motivate us or inspire us or connect us as effectively and reliably as our best games do. This isn’t necessarily a problem. Many people are effectively using games as a way to recharge from reality. But I think it clearly points to a problem with reality itself. Why should virtual worlds make us happier than the real world? Why shouldn’t we feel as motivated, optimistic, ambitious, determined, resilient, and collaborative in our real lives?

And why do you think games can make people’s lives better?
Games provoke positive emotions and strengthen our social relationships in really key ways that ultimately make us not just happier but also healthier and more successful. The book presents research that suggests that how we feel in games can spill over into our real lives–the confidence, the optimism, our willingness to help others. I write about why games make us more likable to others, and how they make us more likely to stretch outside our social comfort zone in ways that can make our real social networks stronger. That’s the first half of the book– looking at how “ordinary” computer and video games are charging us up and making us better. They’re more than escapist. They’re helping us get what we want out of life, and helping us spend time as the best versions of ourselves.

How long did it take before you felt you were making headway in convincing people that that argument wasn’t absurd?
Is a month or so from now a fair answer? But seriously, in 2008 I keynoted at SXSW Interactive, and that was a big turning point. I made a lot of the arguments I make in the book’s introduction in that keynote, and I was terrified that it would seem absurd and that I would be accused of trying to ruin the fun of games by pointing out that they actually make us better, not just entertain us when we’re bored. That talk received a really enthusiastic response and I started hearing from game designers and game developers all over the world about how the ideas really resonated with them. Still, it’s not easy today. There are so many people who “know” that video games are “bad”–violent, anti-social–and they don’t want to hear any evidence otherwise. I’m not sure they will read the book, but I hope if they have friends or family who are gamers, they will, because understanding games can be a crucial step toward healing the relationships that are being strained over wanting someone to stop playing so many games.

At the same time, I am happy there are more and more game designers who are interested in thinking about positive impacts. There’s a new working group in the International Game Developers Association for positive impact games. But it’s still a hurdle for many I know.

Along those lines, you recently said that gamification of tasks should make them harder, not easier. First, explain gamification, and then, why harder?
Gamification, means to take an ordinary task–running, losing weight, meeting up with friends–and adding a “game layer” to it, like points, levels, badges, leaderboards. Making something gameful, as I call it in the book, means making it more like a game, and we know that games are designed to be challenging. So gamification isn’t about making real life easier. It’s actually about making real life more challenging, in ways that we want. We want to be challenged to run more and faster (Nike +), or to get in shape (the Game Diet), or to see our friends more often and actually get out of the house (Foursquare).

The big game project I’m working on now is for the New York Public Library. It’s called Find the Future and we’re gamifying going to the library. But we’re not just giving you points for showing up at the library, or achievement badges for checking out books. We’re focusing on a real challenge instead. By playing this game, you write a book. A real book. You can write the book in eight hours. There will be 500 gamers, locked in at the library, allowed down into the 40 miles of underground stacks, and if they win, they write a book, and it goes in the permanent collection of the library.

So, you talk a lot about your biggest goal–that a game designer will win the Nobel Peace Prize within 25 years. Why is that so important to you?
I think we need an epic win condition that we can aspire to, something that we can weigh our game design decisions against. When I take on new games, I use that as a criteria. Do I think that making this game will improve the odds of some game designer eventually winning a Nobel Peace Prize? Not every game is anywhere close, but it’s a direction to head in. And I think that if anything can harness global engagement, it’s a game. We know that world peace requires global engagement. I also believe that we can improve people’s quality of life–their health, happiness and well-being–in meaningful ways with games. And if we make games that can measurably improve quality of life statistics, we should get the Nobel Prize for that.

I was wondering if it had to be the Peace Prize. Can you imagine a game or a game designer winning any of the other Nobel prizes? Economics? Medicine? Physics?
Sure. For example, players of Foldit or EteRNA could win the prize in medicine. They’ve already had a peer-reviewed article in “Nature” published after all.

You’ve said that the idea for that goal came while working on World Without Oil. I’m curious about whether you’ve felt you made a real difference with WWO, Superstruct, Evoke, or other games.
Evoke has been particularly heartening to see the real impact. Players created more than 50 real social enterprises that we were able to get seed funding for via the World Bank. Projects like Libraries Across Africa, which aims to be the McDonald’s of libraries–a for-profit franchise that would reward local entrepreneurs for setting up a free library, with revenue-generating side businesses like selling snacks, Wi-Fi, or cell phone access. The demand for Evoke is still really high. The pilot engaged about 20,000 students from more than 130 countries. This week, we’re opening the game back up to teachers and groups anywhere in the world to run the game again and go through this crash course in changing the world again. This means the game has a legacy–it’s not just a big event that happened once, but a resource that can be used again and again.

When I first knew you, you told me about the Ministry of Reshelving. Why did you do that project, and do the principles of that early work show up in what you’re doing today at all?
Back then, when I was a graduate student, I was looking for ways to use social media (before it was called social media) to inspire people to be playful in the real world. That project was an experiment–would people on the Internet accept a game mission to play out in their own local neighborhoods? You could play it in any bookstore, and you would report back with photos on Flickr. Now we have platforms like Scvngr and Groundcrew that can really compile lots of missions like that and create much more exciting game structures around them, better feedback, better social, better GPS confirmation.

Tell me how designing a game helped you overcome the aftermath of a serious head injury.
After I made the game SuperBetter to help me through my recovery, I wanted to see if it would work for others because it had literally saved my life. So I posted the rules online and asked folks to write me if they tried using any parts of it for their own illness or injury. I got anecdotal reports on using the game for diabetes, asthma, knee surgery, chemotherapy, quitting smoking, even a bad breakup. This was really encouraging and so I wanted to do two things–make a real, commercial version that anyone could play to improve the experience of recovery, and also do some clinical trials to verify how and why the game works.

At my new startup games company, Social Chocolate, that’s one of our first big projects. We’re designing the clinical trials now with Ohio State University Medical Research Center, where they have one of the best rehabilitation centers for traumatic brain injury. And the game will soon be in beta.

Explain the name, Social Chocolate.
If you’ve read the book, you know that my ideas about games are really grounded in the science of positive emotion and social connection. I was lucky to meet some entrepreneurs and fellow researchers–including Dacher Keltner, a researcher at UC Berkeley and the founder of the Greater Good science center–who wanted to start a game company to make games powered by the science. I decided it was a match made in heaven.

The name comes from something Keltner said once–that the smiles and laughter and warm touch that we give to one another in every day life, between friends, family, and even strangers, are like social chocolate–rich, satisfying, addicting, rewarding. We crave them more than anything else. Our games are going to focus on provoking social chocolate.

How would you have responded if someone had told you when World of Warcraft launched that by 2010, people would have put 6 million work years into it?
‘Quick! Let’s add one tiny thing to the game that players could do for a minute a week that would add up to 100 Wikipedias worth of collaborative effort.’ It’s too late now for WoW, but not for future games. I really feel that if we could put tiny opportunities to be of real heroic service into our games–a five-minute optional side mission–we could accomplish really extraordinary things.

Last question. I like IM interviews because I get a perfect transcript and because it allows my interviewee to be thoughtful and articulate. But also, it’s because IM allows for multi-tasking. So, what else were you doing during the interview?
Hahahahahaha. I was talking to my husband about what I’m typing to you and reminiscing about the old games since we worked together on Evoke, World Without Oil, The Lost Ring, and Ministry or Reshelving. Also, removing my nail polish.

Service contracts needed to protect mobile app users

With the app ecosystem experiencing an exponential growth, experts agree that service level agreements (SLAs) for mobile app purchases will give consumers more protection against faulty or underperforming apps. However, today, these are provided mainly for enterprise applications and consumers need to realize that the onus is still on them to protect their own interests, note industry watchers.

Craig Skinner, senior consultant at Ovum, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview, that from a legal perspective, mobile apps should be accompanied by their own terms of service or license agreement, or otherwise, be covered under an umbrella agreement provided by the app store owner.

Shalini Verma, Gartner’s principal analyst for consumer services and applications, noted that most consumer app stores currently require users to agree to a “terms of service” that typically includes a disclaimer which does not guarantee uninterrupted service.

“Most consumers would love to have a SLA from the service provider or the application developer, but in reality SLAs are largely used for enterprise mobile applications,” Verma said in an e-mail.

Skinner noted that for mobile apps that require recurring payments, customers will expect to know what they are paying for. However, he was quick to point out that in reality, consumers seldom pay attention to these details and the lack of service is unlikely to deter them from purchasing apps.

Verma said SLAs between providers and developers will provide better “protection” for consumers, for example, by facilitating refunds when necessary.

Skinner suggested that app providers should establish an interstitial agreement such as those provided by software companies, which include disclaimers and limitations of liability in license agreements to protect app providers. He added that such agreement would have to be viewed and accepted by consumers before they can purchase or use the application.

Noting that the agreement should be clearly highlighted to the consumer, Skinner said: “Having the agreement embedded or hidden in the app or on a Web site, which the customer is not required to view, could mean that the customer has not understood and accepted the agreement even though they are using the mobile app.”

Lack of billing relationship, lesser liability
Verma noted that due to the billing structure of app purchases, consumers have a direct relationship with the app store owner or their mobile service provider, so developers are somewhat “protected” in terms of liability. He added, though, that app developers usually have refund or claims policies for consumers “who have a legitimate cause for dissatisfaction”.

However, he noted that if consumers purchased faulty apps offered by lesser-known developers, they could potentially face problems with app developers that are non-responsive in the event of disputes.

Asked who should be held responsible for ensuring apps are safe for downloads, Skinner said: “From a legal perspective, it is mostly a case of buyer beware.”

However, he noted that with competition brewing between mobile platform and app store owners such as the Apple App Store and Google Market, market players would want to maintain to a high level of “quality filtering” to meet customer demand for stable apps.

“A sustained difference in the quality of apps coming through on one platform versus others will influence customer buying trends,” he said.

Apps laced with malware had previously infected users, the Ovum analyst said, noting that app stores that lack stringent checks would put their users at risk. He added that any security mishap could affect the app store owner’s reputation and user demand for products running on its platform will suffer.

According to Android Market’s Terms and Conditions, Google expressively limits its liability of apps purchased. Under clause 10.0, it stated: “Google and its subsidiaries and affiliates shall not be liable to you under any theory of liability…for any direct, indirect…or exemplary damages that may be incurred.”

Terms and conditions outlined on Apple iTunes, which supports the App Store, also stated: “In no case shall Apple, its directors, officers be liable for any direct, indirect…damages arising from your use of any of the service.”

Skinner and Verma concurred that consumer associations have a role to play in the event of a business failure, for example, when a major app provider goes out of business, leaving consumers in the lurch.

However, in the event of non-performing or faulty apps, the telcos can step in to provide service recovery and, perhaps, stop the sale of the developer’s apps, Skinner said.

Apple iPhone user, Joanne Goh, pointed to price and reviews as important factors in her decision to download apps. Goh told ZDNet Asia she has not experienced any problems with her apps, but said the establishment of SLAs would benefit the mobile apps ecosystem in the long run.

Windows Phone 7 devs get long-awaited pay day

Microsoft last week began the process of paying Windows Phone 7 developers for their work. For some, this comes three months after their apps appeared on Microsoft’s new mobile applications marketplace.

According to some of the top downloaded game and app developers ZDNet Asia’s sister site CNET talked with, their experience developing for Microsoft has been entirely positive, short of the wait to get paid and what those amounts have been. Developers were eager to gush about Microsoft’s development tools and the back-and-forth communication with the company–both before and after their apps had been launched onto the marketplace. They also said that expectations had been met in terms of early sales.

The key complaint across the board, though, continues to be size. The number of users with a Windows Phone 7 is simply not as large as it is for competing platforms, which is to be expected given that it launched just a few months ago. Earlier this week, Microsoft announced that it had sold 2 million of the devices to OEMs and carriers, meaning the actual user base that’s buying and downloading marketplace apps is somewhere below that. How big a size difference that actually is is unclear given that Microsoft does not share things like activation numbers or retail sales.

But the developers we talked with said they were more than happy to stick through this early period in hopes of the platform’s expansion. René Schulte, a Microsoft Silverlight developer who created Pictures Lab–a US$1.99 photo editing application that was ready in time for the Windows Phone 7 launch and has since been featured by Microsoft–said that sales have been “OK,” but that he couldn’t make a business out of it. “I’d be happy if Microsoft sells 10 times more devices and people continue to buy my app,” he said via e-mail.

Until that expansion happens though, one of the best ways to get a substantial sales boost in mobile application stores is to be featured, a practice done by all the major app store owners. Applications that are featured on Microsoft’s storefront get grouped together on their own page and can stay static while the top, new, and free categories change based on user behavior.

Several of the developers we talked with had been featured by Microsoft at one point in time and said that it had given sales, or downloads of their applications a healthy boost. Jason Kiesel, founder and chief architect of CitySourced, a city works reporting service that has a free app in the Windows Phone Marketplace, said the jump in downloads after being featured was “dramatic.”

“In those first two days, we basically doubled the total number of downloads of the previous month,” Kiesel said in a phone interview with CNET. Because Microsoft’s reporting tools lag some five to six days behind, and City Sourced was just recently featured, Kiesel noted that they did not yet know the full extent of the promotion. “I’m confident the total number of downloads will be quite substantial once the week rolls around,” he said.

But Microsoft’s system for featuring apps has led to frustration for some who say that the company’s selection process is skewed.

Developer Farseer Games, which expanded into Windows Phone 7 development after making Silverlight games for the Web, makes a title called Krashlander. The game has proven to be quite popular on the platform, but has never been featured, due to what developer Jeff Weber said was Microsoft’s penchant for promoting games that made use of Xbox Live, the online social gaming service Microsoft first rolled out with the original Xbox, and has since brought to the Windows Phone 7 platform.

“Krashlander sales have been OK relative to other non-Xbox Live games, but the way things currently work if your game is not an Xbox Live game, it does not get featured in the marketplace,” Weber said. “My game has been one of the top downloaded paid (non-Xbox Live) games since launch, it is currently the 10th highest rated app/game in the marketplace overall, but it has never once been featured.”

So why doesn’t Weber add the functionality? The simple answer is that not every game can get it. Developers have to pitch Microsoft to be a part of the Xbox Live portfolio, then code the Live APIs into their titles if they’re accepted. That extra work can then pay dividends to the developer once people who are playing that game share that information with their friends through achievements or game status that gets beamed out through the service.

Weber said this practice has led to frustration and he views it as a disincentive to produce future indie titles for the platform but that he still likes the platform itself. “I think the Windows Phone 7 has great potential both from a consumer/user standpoint and a developer standpoint,” he said. “I really hope Microsoft can make some adjustments and drive the popularity of the phone to where I think it deserves.”

So what comes next? There could be a boost in sales, or at least exposure, for apps and games once the first system software update hits, since it will make applications easier to find through the Marketplace search tool. Currently Microsoft’s search scours applications, games and music, mashing together the results. The updated version will let users sort which of those sub-genres they’re looking for.

There’s also the hope of continued growth. Microsoft’s expansion into CDMA handsets later this year will certainly help that cause. The key thing still seems to be getting customers to want the device more than the competition. As the company was happy to trumpet not only during its earnings call last week, but in a phone interview with CNET earlier this week, people who have the device, “love” it. The question that still needs answering is how to get the people who don’t have one to get one. Good applications are certainly one of the strongest steps in that direction.

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

W3C tackles touch-screen Web apps

In the competition between native applications for mobile phones verus Web applications, hardware support often makes native apps an obvious choice for programmers. But the World Wide Web Consortium is tackling one area, touch-screen support, in an effort that could help Web apps catch up.

The W3C published an editor’s draft of a new touch-screen standard for Web apps last week. The draft specification is designed also for devices such as drawing tablets that don’t have a screen, but today’s hot market for smartphones makes touch screens the more important focus.

A standard–if designed well and adopted–would make programmers’ lives easier by making it possible to write Web application software that would work on multiple browsers. And with touch screens expanding from the high-end smartphone market to lower-end models and to tablets, touch screens are becoming a dominant technology for user interfaces.

Of course, touch screens work to an extent with mobile browsers today. But they chiefly just reproduce the mouse era, and touch screens can be different. Multitouch is one obvious difference, but the draft specification also accommodates subtleties such as the pressure of a touch event and the radius of the spot being touched.

The specification defines how a browser would report information in a standard way to a Web application, letting programmers write software that responds to the events. And as with many Web specifications, it uses a real-world browser as a starting point. In this case, Apple’s Safari.

“Editor Doug Schepers did the sensible thing and started with Apple’s specification,” said Peter-Paul Koch, a consultant who closely monitors browser issues and in particular mobile browsers, in a blog post.

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

HP touts SaaS app store to Asia’s ISVs

SINGAPORE–Hewlett-Packard is targeting to pull both independent software vendors (ISVs) and enterprise customers into its orbit by providing a “connected cloud” through an app store platform that touts software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings.

Kelly Tan, vice president and managing director at HP Singapore, said the app store–called AP4SaaS (aggregation platform for SaaS)–has been operating globally since June 2010 but is only being actively marketed in the Asia-Pacific region now.

The gap was to allow HP to ensure the platform was working properly, and that both ISVs and enterprise customers would be onboard with the vendor’s “connected cloud” vision, Tan said during a media briefing here Friday.

The AP4SaaS platform sits as a layer atop the vendor’s standard infrastructure platforms based on its ProLiant BladeSystem and Intel Xeon processors.

Tan said plans for AP4SaaS originated from the work the company had done with telco partners a couple of years back. “We had the technology on-hand to create this app distribution platform and it was just a matter of putting things together,” she said.

In particular, the executive pointed to three industry verticals–government, finance and digital media–the company focused on as a “starting point” to get the platform going in the Asia-Pacific. But, it is now already looking to push the app store to other verticals, she said.

Tan explained that by pulling in its existing customer base to adopt the platform, this will in turn appeal to their partner ISVs and help populate the apps marketplace.

HP recently unveiled a slew of cloud-based offerings targeted at enterprises. Its Enterprise Cloud Services Compute, for instance, is touted to allow companies to automate the deployment process of private, or on-premise cloud systems, according to an earlier report.

Another product, HP CloudSystem, combines datacenter technologies with the vendor’s cloud service automation software to deliver unified security, governance and compliance across applications and various cloud environments, noted Damien Wong, general manager of software for HP Southeast Asia, who was also at the media briefing.

According to Tan, these cloud products continue to illustrate the company’s wider “Instant-On Enterprise” strategy.

HP packages aim to entice enterprise into cloud

HP has updated its range of cloud packages, with the introduction of cloud services for the enterprise from United States and United Kingdom data centers, a new package for private cloud deployments and a cloud automation tool.

HP Enterprise Cloud Services Compute will provide IT services from a U.K. data center, which HP believes will help with data governance and compliance, the company announced on Tuesday. It will initially be sold on a subscription basis, with a move to a pay-per-use tariff once HP has created demand models from its customers.

HP CloudSystem is a new package combining existing hardware from HP’s converged infrastructure portfolio and Cloud Service Automation system management tools, packaged for lower total cost.

Read more of “HP packages aim to entice enterprise into cloud” at ZDNet UK.

Aust govt enforces equal rights for open source

Government agencies in Australia should actively participate in open source communities and will be required to consider open source options equally when going to tender, under new policy announced Wednesday.

The new policy, announced by Federal Special Minister of State Gary Gray on the Australian Government Information Management Office blog this morning, asks agencies to include a provision in their procurement plans for projects over A$80,000 that the agency will equally consider open source software along with proprietary software. All procurement decisions will be based on “value for money”, the policy states.

In addition to this, suppliers to government agencies will also be required to equally consider open source solutions when sourcing requirements to respond to tender requests from government. The policy provided examples of clauses agencies could use to ensure suppliers take open source software into account when responding to tender requests.

“[Agency name] encourages suppliers to submit and/or develop open source software for this tender,” the document stated. “When responding to this tender, suppliers must demonstrate a willingness to actively consider open source software throughout all stages of procurement, solution design and implementation in order to produce a product that demonstrates value for money and is fit for purpose. This may include incorporating open source software components together with proprietary software components.”

Gray said the original policy needed to be re-evaluated as the open source industry had matured since it was developed in 2005.

“The government’s previous policy, established in 2005, was one of ‘informed neutrality’,” Gray said in the blog post. “This meant that agencies took an unbiased position that did not favour open source or proprietary software and procured the solution that was the best ‘value for money’ and ‘fit for purpose’ for their specific requirement.”

“Since then, there has been an increase in the maturity of the open source software products and the use of open source software by governments around the world. In recent years, many governments have revised their policies to increase the adoption of open source software,” he added. “This revised Australian government policy on open source software will ensure that we maintain international best practice and that our purchases of software will continue to reflect best value for money for the government.”

AGIMO faced criticism last week over its decision to mandate the Microsoft-focused office document standard across government agencies over the Open Office XML standard.

The policy commences from Mar.1, 2011.

This article was first published at ZDNet Australia.

VMWare earnings: A solid quarter

As virtualization and cloud computing trends continue to see growth, VMWare has also seen growth.

For its fourth quarter, VMWare reported net income of US$198 million, or 46 cents per share, up from 31 US cents in the same quarter a year ago. Revenue was US$836 million, a 37 percent increase. Wall Street had been expecting earnings of 44 US cents per share on revenue of US$803.8 million. (Statement)

For its fiscal year, the company reported net income of US$639 million, or US$1.51 per share, a 51 percent jump from the US$1 per share reported for fiscal 2009. Revenue was US$2.9 billion, up 41 percent from the previous year. Wall Street had been expecting earnings of US$1.49 on revenue of US$2.82 billion for the year.

Read more of “VMWare earnings: A solid quarter, year as virtualization momentum continues” at ZDNet.

APAC firms struggle over data management, storage

Data storage and management is the biggest IT infrastructure challenge for businesses in the Asia-Pacific, excluding Japan, which also face budgetary constraints, notes a new Springboard Research report released Monday.

Amid growing storage needs, the most significant infrastructure challenge faced in the region revolves around the storing and management of data, according to the research firm. This is further exacerbated as organizations struggle to cope with “constrained IT budget”, the report added.

“Given the key concerns, we expect increased investments in data archiving, storage virtualization, IT security, desktop virtualization and data deduplication among Asia-Pacific organizations over the next two to three years,” Seepij Gupta, associate research manager of IT services at Springboard, said in the report.

Storage area network (SAN) is the most preferred storage infrastructure among companies in the region, where 60 percent of respondents–comprising enterprises with over 1,000 employees–had already invested in such technologies, said the research firm.

The Springboard report also predicted that growth in the storage market, over the next couple of years, will be boosted by the emergence of cloud-based hosting and backup services.

Server profile low, but high on client
Springboard noted that only 35 percent of respondents had over 25 servers in-house. Microsoft Windows was the most adopted server operating system in the region, followed by Linux.

According to the report, 58 percent of organizations in the region had more than 250 clients. Respondents in India and China had the highest number of clients at over 500.

Fred Giron, vice president of IT services, at Springboard Research, said this underscored desktop management as a major concern for organizations because of “the vast sprawl”.

“This will drive strong growth opportunities for managed service providers and also open up more opportunities for thin clients,” Giron noted.

Proper apps definition prevents future headaches

As the time-to-market for an application to be developed and deployed continues to shorten, IT managers and developers tend to bypass the requirements definition component in the app process. This oversight usually leads to buggy or malware-exploitable apps, noted an industry veteran.

Nigel Clifford, CEO of app deployment and modernization vendor, Micro Focus, said companies and the media tend to look at a specific issue in the app deployment lifecycle and identify it as the source of problem in apps that are buggy or have loopholes that cybercriminals can exploit.

Oftentimes, though, app issues arise because the various stakeholders within the company did not sit down together and conduct a thorough requirements definition exercise for the planned business app, explained Clifford, who was in Singapore recently to meet up with the company’s channel partners.

In an interview with ZDNet Asia, he noted that while the technology behind creating an app is “interesting” and constantly evolving, it is more important to use the technology to enable business stakeholders to “understand the app”.

This involves identifying the databases and resources needed to provision for the app, as well as information the app will be accessing and functions the app is meant to serve, he said.

“Many times, app projects are interlinked with other projects and it is important to understand the environment that the app will be deployed in,” he explained. “With requirements definition as the starting point, there is accountability throughout the development process and a checklist to refer to once the app is created.”

Returning to double-digit growth
Elaborating on Micro Focus’s growth strategy, Clifford–who took up the company’s reins last May–said the company is looking to “return to double-digit growth” in the medium-term. According to a Financial Times report in June 2010, Micro Focus was running at a 5 percent growth trajectory but this figure is a fall from its usual double-digit expansion rate.

To boost its growth, Clifford said he is looking to strengthen the company’s “three legs”: app testing, mainframe application development via the Cobol platform, as well as modernizing and migration of mainframe apps to other “commoditized hardware platforms”.

He pointed out that Micro Focus also added to its Cobol  toolkit the ability for developers to code and deploy their apps for mainframes and other x86-based platforms. The launch of Visual Cobol R3 last week extended the toolkit to new platforms such as Java Virtual Machine (JVM), Eclipse and Microsoft Azure without the need for any platform-specific work, the company stated.

Clifford said: “We intend to retain our leadership of the Cobol market, which grew by 3 to 4 percent in the last six months.”

The company is also looking to grow “organically” through acquisitions, the CEO revealed, noting that any addition to the company is “unlikely to be dramatically left-field” and will complement the three key business areas he outlined.

U.K.-based Micro Focus in 2009 bought Borland and Compuware to boost its offerings for software development and deployment.

While bigger competitors such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM are entering the app testing space, Clifford remained upbeat over his company’s long-term future.

Delineating differences between Micro Focus and its rivals, he said in terms of customers, Big Blue plays in the niche industrial business verticals. He added that both HP and IBM cater more to enterprises and lack the scale to reach smaller-sized businesses. Clifford also said that HP’s Application Lifecycle Management (ALM) suite, which was launched last December, is not as tightly integrated and nimble as Micro Focus’ offering.

“Our product portfolio, keen pricing with timely delivery, as well as scalability to meet the needs of both enterprises and smaller businesses, will all help to bring us back into double-digit growth,” he said.

Apple App Store reaches 10 billion downloads

Less than three years after its launch, the Apple App Store reached its goal of 10 billion downloads last week.

To promote the milestone, Apple had promised to give away a US$10,000 App Store gift card to whomever bought the 10 billionth download. Apple said the winner of the gift card was Gail Davis of Orpington, England.

The store launched in July 2008 with just 500 apps and now touts the availability of more than 350,000 free and paid apps for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. Growth of the store’s popularity has been swift; in its first nine months, the store hit 1 billion downloads and followed that up with 5 billion downloads in June 2010.

The App Store has been such a resounding success for mobile computing that Apple’s competitors have been forced to launch similar ventures. Google, Microsoft, Research In Motion, Nokia, and Samsung all offer apps through their own app storefronts.

But the venture has not been without controversy. Early on, Apple’s app approval process often frustrated developers, who were sometimes left in the dark about the reason an app was rejected. But Apple recently announced plans to publish its App Store Review Guidelines and to allow developers to create applications with just about any tool they want.

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

Report: Android code identical to Java

Did Google take code from Java when it built Android? Oracle sure thinks so, and now an expert on software patents seems to agree.

Florian Mueller, who writes the blog FOSS Patents, posted a lengthy examination last week of 37 files within the Android 2.2 source code. Those files match files found in Oracle’s Java technology, and were even marked “PROPRIETARY/CONFIDENTIAL” by Sun Microsystems, the inventor of Java which Oracle acquired last year.

Oracle sued Google in August alleging that Android and the Dalvik virtual machine used in Android infringed copyrights and patents that Oracle now held after buying Sun. It later amended its complaint to include a line-by-line comparison of code between the two technologies, which Google later claimed was misleading.

Mueller took Oracle’s complaint and compared it against Android 2.2, which anyone can download and examine. In addition to the code outlined by Oracle, Mueller found an additional 37 files in Android that he said were identical to those found in Java2 Standard Edition version 5.

“Whether under a proprietary license or the GPL, the related code could not be legally relicensed under the Apache license by anyone other than the right holder (Oracle/Sun),” Mueller wrote in his post. It doesn’t look good for Google (it declined to comment to IDG News Service), but the matter will have to be hashed out in a courtroom before all is said and done.

Ed Burnette from sister site ZDNet took a look at the some code that Mueller did and came to a different conclusion. Burnette points out that the files in question actually didn’t ship with Android: instead they were unit test code and another set of files had been uploaded to the Android code repository but didn’t actually ship with devices.

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

Salesforce.com unfazed by Microsoft CRM

Salesforce.com has responded to Microsoft’s Dynamics CRM 2011 Online launch, calling the company’s latest offering a “snapshot of history”.

Microsoft’s online-hosted CRM system represents the software giant’s first foray into providing CRM via its own cloud, something Salesforce.com has been doing for a decade.

In an effort to attract customers Microsoft has offered up to US$249 in product credit per user for any Oracle and Salesforce.com customers switching to Dynamics Online.

However, Salesforce.com has verbally shrugged about the offer.

“Microsoft still bases its CRM on desktops, proprietary systems and Outlook. That’s a snapshot of history–not a social app for today’s mobile, open world,” the company said in a statement.

Microsoft’s offer is not hook-free in any case, with only companies between 15 and 250 users being eligible. Those who take it up will also be locked into a two-year licensing agreement.

Microsoft wouldn’t be the first Salesforce.com opponent to use monetary enticements to lure customers to its fold. In 2008, NetSuite offered its product for half of the amount Salesforce.com customers were paying at the time. In 2009, it extended the offer due to strong interest.

In addition to the monetary incentive, Microsoft will be using local partners and software vendors to sell the service to Australian customers.

This article was first published on ZDNet Australia.

Virtualizing your reality: 10 questions with Mark Egan of VMware

In its May 2010 research note on x86 server virtualization infrastructure, Gartner opens with the assertion that “…the market has a number of viable choices”. But its Magic Quadrant shows that VMware has stretched out its lead like Usain Bolt into the top-right corner of the top-right quadrant (combination of execution and vision), with the rest of the quadrant noticeably vacant.

Why is that important? Last year, the number of virtual machines passed its tipping point of outnumbering physical hosts in the world. This was a combined result of a sudden drop in the number of physical hosts and the increasing popularity of virtual machines. With customers reporting capital cost savings up to 60 percent and energy savings up to 80 percent, it seems likely that the trend will persist into the next few years.

In 2010, while physical hosting remained relatively flat under the 7.5 million mark, virtual machines pushed up past 9 million, and they’re expected to rise to more than 12 million within the next fewyears. This represents a steady march toward the flexibility and autonomy promised by the ubiquity of IT-as-a-service.

As the leader in this area, VMware counts all of the Fortune 100 among its 200,000 customers and was recognized last year with the Wall Street Journal‘s Technology Innovation Award. Under the leadership of CIO Mark Egan’s global information technology group, VMware’s strategy has been to emphasize its capacity to both improve agility and cut costs.

Egan brings more than 30 years of experience in information technology to VMware, most recently as partner of the StrataFusion Group, an executive-level consultancy. Prior to that, Egan served as CIO at Symantec Corporation for six years during the company’s meteoric rise from a US$600 million consumer publisher to the US$5 billion market leader in security. In the process, he managed the company’s technology integration through 28 separate acquisitions.

Egan holds a master’s degree in finance and international business from the University of San Diego and a bachelor’s degree in computer sciences from the University of Clarion in Pennsylvania. In an interview with ZDNet Asia’s sister site Techrepublic.com, he shared his insights on virtualization.

Techrepublic.com: Historically, cost savings has been one of the key reasons for companies to consider moving to virtualized environments. Are speed and performance beginning to eclipse that now or do you see cost savings still being the main reason to move from a physical to a virtualized environment?
Egan: If you look back over the last couple of years, one of the things we’ve been able to do consistently for our customers is save them money. That has always been a key focus for us, and I don’t see that changing, even as we emerge from this economic downturn. I am optimistic that things are turning around now and will continue to improve, so we’re looking at how we can continue to grow that top line and grow the business.

At the same time, I do see a growing emphasis on things like speed and agility. The question I hear is how can we get things done and get them done faster? So while there is still an eye on costs, speed is something my customers and peers are talking more and more about, and this is certainly an area where virtualization can help.

In the big picture, we talk about three phases of this virtualization journey. In the first phase, virtualization proves out when you start to see capital being saved. Then, you get to the second phase, where you start to involve mission-critical applications, the things that really run your business. Finally comes the third phase, where it becomes all about speed, optimization, and time to market. Different companies and industries are at different places along that path. Right now, we see many that are in that second phase moving toward the third. Technology is a function of company size and culture; some companies move quickly through these phases and some take more time.

Every well-run IT group is going to put emphasis on being cost efficient, and virtualization can be an important piece of that. But we certainly have to look forward to being fast, nimble, and able to react to changes going on right now. Virtualization is a key tenet for cloud computing, which is a big part of that change. It’s a similar path we’re seeing for both cloud and virtualization, where it starts with cost savings and becomes a style and a way of doing business.

You’ve talked about the importance of keeping individuals at the foundation of the people, process, and technology pyramid. How do you go about finding and keeping the right people?
The truth is that success happens because of good people. CIOs joke about not talking too loudly about how great our people are because of the risk of their being poached. But in particular, we look for people who are broad in their skills. The notion of an employee who is only a system administrator in Linux or in Windows, or is a storage administrator or network engineer, is blurring. We’re looking for someone who is all of those things, a cloud engineer or a cloud analyst, because in the new world they need to know all those environments. We also look for people who embrace and enjoy change, who want variety and want to do new things. The job description is not Linux administrator. It’s someone who knows Windows, storage, and networking, and getting that person can be difficult.

One way is by putting training programs in place with the staff we have today to get our people educated in all those areas. We put a good deal of emphasis on certifications and training. Another way is by getting students right out of school who bring a lot of innovative ideas into the environment. The combination of those two things allows us to get the best of both worlds. We also have career ladders where you don’t have to go into a management path to advance. There is a director-level equivalent who is an individual contributor. So if someone wants to be a senior-level architect within the IT group, they can choose to do that rather than being a manager. Our picture of what technology is going to look like in the next three to five years is probably going to change, and we want people to be able to make good choices on that journey.

Related to more choices in technology, there is an emphasis on making applications compatible with more devices, like smartphones or tablets, or with different browsers. Do you see more emphasis toward specific compatibility and customization or to maintaining a general ambivalence?
I would say a little more in favor of ambivalence. We know devices are going to keep getting smaller and smarter and changing very rapidly. What’s driving that is not the enterprise but the consumer. Lifecycles and new versions are coming down to a matter of months, and there’s a great deal of pressure on us as IT professionals to have all of our applications run on simple, easy-to-use devices. So if you think of social-media apps, for example, how do we take some of these systems with a Soviet-era interface and make them look like Facebook and be as easy to use as Twitter? I believe the user interface trumps functionality. To give an example from what we’re doing internally, we’ve got two suppliers and one clearly has more functionality but its UI is horrible. We’ve opted to use the one with the better UI just because of the adoption perspective. We’re willing to give up a little bit of functionality.

It’s coming back to a consumer-driven orientation. You don’t take a class to learn how to use Facebook. If you can’t just sit down and start using it, it’s not an effective tool. That’s what we have to do as IT professionals; we have to develop applications that run on any device and are extremely easy to use –great user interface, rich experience, all those things. I’m not smart enough to know exactly what device is going to win in the next couple of years, but it will be one I can carry in my hand and that’s easy to use.

How do you see the relative importance of Windows and its continuing change with new releases?
In the short term, we work with our customers to manage their existing environments and make them as easy as possible to work in. Going forward, our customers are looking for new options, and I don’t think it will be an entirely Windows world. Especially as you get into these new mobile devices, it’s not as relevant. This goes back to the idea that what is popular with consumers is what is going to be popular in the enterprise. And you just don’t see a lot of Windows on smartphones or the iPad or Android. So again, it’s difficult to predict what the future holds. But what consumers and, specifically, our customers are looking for is speed, innovation, and great user interface.

Most companies aren’t going to have the kind of scalability requirements you saw at Symantec in the six years when you went from 600 million to five billion in revenues, but how did you keep up during that period?
I believe the bigger challenges are more around people and process than around technology. This was an organization that just scaled tenfold in five years. When I joined VMware, we had to make a number of changes to the leadership team, and it needed to scale through the growth we were seeing. On the process side, it’s like putting brakes on a car. You put brakes on a car so it can go faster, not slower. You can get by without a lot of basic IT processes, like change control and release management, until you reach a certain size. Then suddenly it hits you that, “Hey, this stuff is really important and we’re just not scalable.” So it’s not that the technology is unimportant, but more important is having the right people who know how to deal with change, growth, and scale and deal with mergers and acquisitions. That’s where I’ve placed the greatest concern, both at Symantec and here at VMware. The emphasis on people is followed by process. Having basic processes is like the grease that keeps everything moving.

Don’t get me wrong, though; the technology is important. I work closely with the R&D group, and I’m fortunate to have a lot of brilliant engineers developing these great products we use. We have 97 percent of our environment virtualized and all on the x86 environment. So from a technology perspective, we are running a highly efficient environment, and we’re writing all our applications in the Spring framework for Java, which is very fast and natural, a great experience. So I do have the benefits of outstanding technology here, and it’s a true complement to the people and process side.

You mentioned the x86, which has been a primary focus, and that you are now 97 percent virtualized now. Are there other platforms or technologies–such as Spring–that you see becoming increasingly important for you?
As far as servers, about two-thirds of our environment is Linux and the other third is Windows. It’s pretty cost-effective to run on x86. We work with a large number of providers, both in our applications and the infrastructure. We have no plans to move from the x86. As far as getting to 100 percent, it’s currently a project underway for us. We expect to get there by next year and then continue to move forward. Another area we’re expecting to increase significantly next year is desktop virtualization for more and more employees.

In discussions about the cloud, one hurdle that comes up consistently for IT executives is security. Do you see this for virtualization also?
You have many of the same kinds of issues and challenges. There have been a couple of interesting developments lately in the security picture. One is that the threats have shifted from ones of broad-based notoriety that you used to see in the news to highly targeted attacks. You remember hearing about the Slammer and Code Red worms with million-dollar losses, but now you don’t hear about those as much. Now it’s organized crime that is quietly stealing a couple of dollars from each of us as we do business online.

From an IT perspective, what we need to do is protect our data. We need to shift from just protecting the infrastructure to also securing the data. What these guys are going to do is slip in through your firewall and then start looking for anything in the enterprise that might be valuable. Having application security is first and foremost. You don’t want someone finding something like credit card information or bank credentials, or in a technology company, it might be stealing ideas and IP. The shift is toward guarding our data more vigorously. In a virtual world, you have policy around how you communicate with the VM, and there is the ability to segment the entire environment into multiple virtual environments using technology rather than by using a firewall. So there are similar concepts and challenges; you still have to protect that critical data and the critical assets of the company.

Of the various pieces in a virtualized portfolio–database, networks, desktops, and storage–where do you see the greatest potential?
Clearly, that has been on the server side. If you have 10 servers and can get that down to two or three servers, you can have a great ROI in terms of less hardware, less space, less administration, and so on. But it’s expanding to other datacenter assets. For example, storage is a primary area where I would expect to find potential gains. What is also becoming much more prominent is the desktop. If you think about the number of desktops in relation to the number of servers, it’s an area where we see major gains for a lot of our customers.

Many employees who have desktops don’t need them for the more standard kinds of activity they are performing. What it comes down to is automation and management. The time spent on troubleshooting and fixing someone’s PC or laptop can be saved by just putting that all on a server through server virtualization and a thin client. This is a specific area where we are expecting to see the gains continuing to grow.

How would you describe the relationship between virtualization and cloud computing, especially in terms of perceptions and acceptance?
When I think of cloud computing, I consider it a style of computing. Some of the resources are in your datacenter, which would be more of a private cloud, and some are with a third party in a public cloud. You can access it via a browser, it is scalable, you can move the resources around, and you pay for only what you use. Virtualization is really a key tenet of that. So to get to that cloud-computing style, one of the first steps is to virtualize. Virtualization gives you that whole scaling of your resources. If you think of the cloud as an umbrella with different components, virtualization is one of the key pieces that allows you to get to that style.

How would you describe the unique value proposition VMware brings to the table over its virtualization competitors?
The market has clearly spoken in terms of establishing VMware as the leader in this space. The bigger issue is what are the next steps? Where do we go from here? We see a new “stack” emerging for the cloud. The first layer is the end-user environment, then the application platform, and then finally the underlying infrastructure.

In the end-user layer, our view is that you should have a device of choice and be able to securely access all the resources you need. That device is going to change, but it should have a great interface and a great user experience. In the application layer, there are three separate components. You have legacy applications, which you will probably want to optimize. You also have SaaS applications, and you have new applications. We would recommend that new apps use platforms like Spring or Ruby, which are as fast, agile, and flexible as Facebook and Twitter. For infrastructure, you use both private and public cloud resources. Ideally, you want to be able to move your resources back and forth in a hybrid model depending on demand. Thinking forward to what things will look like in the future, we clearly see this new stack emerging, and VMware is the only company with this unique value proposition across all three of those areas, as well as addressing how you comprehensively manage your resources.

Jeff Cerny has been interviewing top technology leaders for TechRepublic since 2008.

Microsoft’s Dynamics CRM 2011 hits the cloud

The latest offering in Microsoft’s Dynamics business, Dynamics CRM 2011 Online, is being released to customers this morning, following a four-month beta program that consisted of more than 11,500 businesses around the world.

The CRM software, which is being released first as a hosted service through Microsoft, hits 40 different markets in 41 languages today, with an on-premises and partner-hosted version of the software to follow on February 28. That delay can be chalked up to extra testing on Microsoft’s part to make sure it will work outside of the company’s data centers.

“One reason we do that [has to do] with the online environment,” Dynamics General Manager Brad Wilson told ZDNet Asia’s sister site CNET. “We run our own systems, and we have a lower amount of testing required because we are actually running the service in our data centers so we know exactly what configuration is going in,” Wilson said.

Even though it’s the same software, the company goes through some extra steps to make sure everything works once it’s in the wild. “When we release it out to our customers and to our partner hosts, we do additional testing because of the wide range of configurations that a customer or a partner host might have,” Wilson said.

As part of the initial launch, Microsoft has cut the price on the service from US$44 per user per month down to US$33 per user per month, as well as put forth its “Cloud CRM For Less” program, which has the company offering cash rebates on a per-user basis for companies that switch over from competing Salesforce or Oracle CRM tools. Wilson said it was too early to share data on how many rebates Microsoft had doled out so far, but said that as part of the launch announcement this morning, the company would have endorsements from companies that had recently made the switch from competitors like Oracle.

Users that are still using Microsoft’s beta release should move to the final release product in order to get full support, Wilson said. “Now we’re in the process of converting those existing beta customers onto full production trials, and then hopefully [moving] them on to be full, paid subscribers of the system,” Wilson said. The company stopped taking beta sign-ups for the online product last month.

Much like Microsoft’s Office 365, which is currently undergoing its own beta test leading up to a public release, Wilson painted Dynamics CRM 2011 Online’s big benefit as its capability to scale up or down depending on who is using it.

“What’s kind of cool about this right now is that this kind of price point and this type of technology lets smaller business take advantage of technology that was before only available to larger organizations,” Wilson said. “So to be able to offer it up as an on-demand service at a very affordable price really expands the access of the technology to smaller companies, and I think that’s very exciting.”

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

Google Chrome gets new developer hierarchy

In its first two years, Chrome development took a more collaborative approach than most Google projects, but now its leaders have decided on more sharply defined leadership roles to better manage the browser’s growth.

Instead of notifying a “watchlist” of programmers who are affected by a particular change to the code, a programmer on an “owners” list must now approve the change, high-ranking Chrome engineer Ben Goodger announced last week on the developers’ mailing list for the open source Chromium project that underlies Chrome.

Goodger wrote, “Much of Chromium’s practices are modeled on Google’s own internal engineering practices. OWNERS files were one area where we explicitly diverged. Why? In the past I had been concerned about the social effects of OWNERS files–I had been concerned about territoriality which can sometimes creep in any collaborative project. We had encouraged the development of “alternative” means of change notification, and so we have WATCHLISTS. WATCHLISTS proved insufficient for many of us, however. Darin [Fisher, another high-ranking Chrome leader] and I discussed the issue, and talking with other senior engineers decided that OWNERS files seemed like a more comprehensive answer.”

The basic problem, he said, is quality control. “Owners files provide a means for people to find engineers experienced in developing specific areas for code reviews. They are designed to help ensure changes don’t fall through the cracks and get appropriate scrutiny,” he said.

Chrome has open source foundations, including contributions from programmers outside Google. But as with Linux, Android, MySQL, and many other open source projects, the approach doesn’t mean it’s a hobby run by volunteers. The move to the owners system, though, reflects another step toward professional management of the software.

Goodger laid out his case this way, “In the more than two years since the Chromium project started, the number of people contributing has grown immensely. With this expansion has come many challenges, the most important of which is ensuring the continuity of our product and development principles. As our project has grown in size and scope, the code-base has begun to show signs of fatigue.

“I speak for a number of leads on the team when I say that we’ve had a hard time keeping up with the pace of change. As we expand the scope of Chrome in many different directions, it’s critical that we consider even more carefully the design of the core code. As we do this it is important to rely on the most experienced engineers in each area.”

He laid out the full details of the new code governance in a document describing Chromium’s new owners system. Among its strictures, “Only the people who are actively investing energy in the improvement of a directory should be listed as OWNERS. OWNERS are expected to have demonstrated excellent judgment, teamwork and ability to uphold Chrome development principles. They must understand the development process. Additionally, for someone to be listed as an OWNER of a directory they must be approved by the other OWNERS of the affected directory.”

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

German investigation of Novell patent sale halted

The German antitrust authority said on Wednesday that it is unable to investigate the establishment of a consortium set up to buy hundreds of open-source patents from Novell, due to the consortium members withdrawing their application in that country.

Microsoft, Apple, Oracle and EMC filed a notification with the Bundeskartellamt (Federal Cartel Office) on Dec. 6, telling the competition authority that they intend to unify under the name of CPTN Holdings to buy 882 patents from Novell (not including the company’s Unix copyrights). The filing was the first public identification of Microsoft’s partners in the venture, which was announced in late November along with the US$2.2 billion sale of Novell to Attachmate.

On Dec. 30, CPTN Holdings withdrew its filing. Microsoft told ZDNet Asia’s sister site ZDNet UK on Wednesday that this is “a purely procedural step necessary to provide time to allow for review of the proposed transaction”.

Read more of “German investigation of Novell patent sale halted” at ZDNet UK.

Microsoft opposes Apple trademark for ‘App Store’

Apple’s effort to trademark the name “App Store” has run in to opposition from Microsoft, which argues the phrase is too generic to register and would restrict competitors’ ability to use of the term to describe their own services.

A week after Apple launched its App Store for iPhone apps in 2008, the company applied for a trademark for “app store,” a retail store offering “services featuring computer software provided via the Internet and other computer and electronic communication networks,” as well as other services, according to its application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

However, Microsoft filed a motion Wednesday opposing the application with the agency’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, saying “app store” is “generic for retail store services featuring apps and unregistrable for ancillary services such as searching for and downloading apps from such stores.” Microsoft argued that “app” is a common term for mobile software applications, and that “store” is a common term for a “place where goods are sold.” Together, Microsoft said, the words represent a generic term for a primary service, and as such is unregisterable because it would prevent competitors from using the term to describe their own products. The filing cited efforts to trademark “The Computer Store” and “Log Cabin Homes,” applications the board rejected for their generic natures.

Microsoft’s motion notes that the phrase has become common enough that Apple CEO Steve Jobs used the phrase during an interview last October to criticize the proliferation of similar efforts from competing companies:

In addition to Google’s own app marketplace, Amazon, Verizon and Vodafone have all announced that they are creating their own app stores for Android. There will be at least four app stores on Android which customers must search through to find the app they want and developers will need to work to distribute their apps and get paid.

Microsoft’s filing notes that several other companies have online enterprises offering apps for mobile devices but have opted for other monikers to avoid the possibility of legal reprisal by Apple, even though those stores are referred to as “app stores” by the media.

Microsoft opened its own apps store–the Windows Marketplace for Mobile–in October 2009, offering screenshots, ratings, and version details of available apps.

Apple representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

Google Goggles solves Sudoku, reads print ads

Google’s Goggles application for Android and the iPhone has gained new capabilities in its latest iteration, including the ability to recognise print advertisements and provide the solutions to Sudoku puzzles.

Goggles is the company’s camera-based mobile client for, among other things, reading barcodes and showing the user online price comparisons for the relevant product–indeed, version 1.3, released on Monday, also speeds this process up for Android users–but other features of the new version provide greater interactivity with newspapers and magazines.

In a blog post on Monday, Google software engineers Leon Palm and Jiayong Zhang said the company was “excited to take another step in [its] vision of connecting offline media to online media”.

Read more of “Google Goggles solves Sudoku, reads print ads” at ZDNet UK.

S’pore tweaks CRM for integrated healthcare

SINGAPORE–The local healthcare system has been boosted to provide proactive healthcare services designed to benefit patients with chronic and long-term diseases.

Built on the same principles as customer relationship management (CRM) systems used in banks, the upgraded patient relationship management (PRM) was tweaked to operate as a “concierge” system to support the newly set-up Disease Management Unit (DMU).

Officially launched today at Changi General Hospital (CGH), to serve the eastern region of Singapore, the DMU monitors patients enrolled in the program–typically people suffering from chronic and long-term diseases. The new unit comprises trained nurse tele-carers who, aided by the PRM system, will keep track of patients to check on their condition, and make appointments with general practitioners, polyclinics or hospitals for follow-up medical care.

Chong Yoke Sin, CEO of Integrated Health Information Systems (IHiS), said the primary goal is to gather pre-existing information in the hospital, and combine it with future input to create a proactive and patient-centric medical care system.

Speaking to ZDNet Asia on the sidelines of the event, CGH COO Selina Seah explained that the PRM system essentially provides the ability for information, such as hospitalization records, lab results and blood glucose readings, to “talk” to each other, allowing DMU nurse tele-carers to continue monitoring patients after they are discharged from the hospital.

Seah explained: “We have different information about the patient but the patient’s [continuous] well-being needs to be regarded as his [personal] journey, not the hospital’s. The missing link was [having] a means for us to manage our patients from their perspective.

“So, like the CRM that banks use to track priority customers and their spending habits, this technology can allow us to extend healthcare to the patient’s home,” she added.

She added that for patients to benefit from the DMU program, they must already have information stored within the hospital to allow tele-carers to immediately cull information from the PRM when patients call. This will enable the caretakers to provide timely and appropriate support, she said.

Only about 400 patients from CGH were enrolled in the pilot phase of the new program, but the hospital aims to enroll 2,000 more this year, Seah said. The hospital mooted the idea of the PRM system three years ago and developed it with IHiS, which is the IT arm of the Ministry of Health (MOH).

To provide better usability, Chong noted that while the hospital has different registration systems, these are all integrated and information is updated real-time.

“With the rich depository of data, we’ll be able to do more business analytics, obtain trending data and have more evidence as to how effective healthcare can actually be improved so the patient actually benefits,” she explained. “The immediate benefits [provided by the PRM] are system alerts [to notify] nurses to contact patients who miss appointments, and the ability to present end-to-end medical history.”

According to Seah, the PRM cost S$700,000 (US$538,000) to build, aided by medical grants from the MOH, and will be replicated in other hospitals across Singapore.

While it is scalable, she said the system would likely require other enhancements when it is eventually rolled out to other parts of the country over the next couple of years.

She added that the PRM includes information and contact management tools that help tele-carers identify patients who need to be contacted for follow-ups, as well as the language patients prefer to communicate with, among other details.

Seah said: “In the future, we hope to build business intelligence because once you have the info and transactional records, you can start to cull [data to build] what’s likely to be the best protocol for the patient.”

With mobile devices increasingly popular, she said CGH is also looking at producing a wireless kit that will allow patients information to be sent directly to the hospital from their homes, bypassing the need for them to call or visit doctors and allowing the DMU to monitor patients’ condition real-time. The home assessment kit will be given to patients when they are discharged, she added.

Alongside the DMU launch today, Community Health Centers, which provide diabetic eye and foot screening, were also opened.

Microsoft’s server and tools boss steps down

Microsoft today announced that Bob Muglia, the president of its server and tools business, is stepping down and will be leaving the company sometime this summer.

In a memo to Microsoft employees, CEO Steve Ballmer said that Muglia will stick around for the transition as Ballmer does “an internal and external search for the new leader”, and that Muglia would “complete additional projects for me”.

The company would not comment on what Muglia plans to do next.

Muglia joined Microsoft in 1988. Before heading up the company’s server and tools business, he was its senior vice president and had leadership roles in Microsoft’s Office, mobile, and developer units. Muglia also sat on Microsoft’s Business Leadership and Technical Senior Leadership Teams, both of which play a part in shaping the company’s ongoing software and marketplace strategies.

During his tenure in the server group, Muglia helped the company launch and hone the direction of its Azure platform, which lets developers write applications that run on Microsoft’s hardware. Muglia’s team’s most recent effort has been the next major version of Windows Home Server, as well as Windows Small Business Server, the latter of which was released to manufacturing last month.

Muglia bounced back from a demotion following Microsoft’s late-’90s foray into e-commerce, called Hailstorm. As part of the rise of the server and tools business, which has become an increasingly larger part of Microsoft’s revenues, Muglia was promoted to president in early 2009.

Muglia’s departure is just the latest in a long string of executives who have left the company in just the past year. During 2010, Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie bid adieu, as did Business Division President Stephen Elop, who left the company to become the CEO of Nokia. Entertainment and Devices Unit President Robbie Bach and Chief Technology Officer J. Allard also left the company back in May of last year.

The full copy of Ballmer’s memo can be found below:

From: Steve Ballmer
Sent: Monday, January 10, 2011
To: Microsoft – All Employees
Subject: STB – Building on Success, Moving Forward

There are very few $15B businesses in the software industry, and Microsoft is the only company that has built three of them. While Windows and Office are household words, our Server and Tools Business has quietly and steadily grown to be the unquestioned leader in server computing. We have driven the industry forward and established the foundation for an entire generation of business applications. We have overcome significant competitive challenges. Over the past twenty years, the outstanding leadership from everyone involved in STB has made it a $15B business today.

We are now ready to build on our success and move forward into the era of cloud computing. Once again, Microsoft and our STB team are defining the future of business computing. In October, we completed an incredibly successful PDC where we detailed the future of the cloud, outlining Platform as a Service and demonstrating the rapid advancement of Windows Azure.

The best time to think about change is when you are in a position of strength, and that’s where we are today with STB – leading the server business, successful with our developer tools, and poised to lead the rapidly emerging cloud future. Bob Muglia and I have been talking about the overall business and what is needed to accelerate our growth. In this context, I have decided that now is the time to put new leadership in place for STB. This is simply recognition that all businesses go through cycles and need new and different talent to manage through those cycles. Bob has been a phenomenal partner throughout this process, and he and his leadership team have the right strategy in place.

In conjunction with this leadership change, Bob has decided to leave Microsoft this summer. He will continue to actively run STB as I conduct an internal and external search for the new leader. Bob will onboard the new leader and will also complete additional projects for me.

Bob has been a founder and leader of our server business from its earliest inception. He has led our Developer, Office, and Mobile Devices Divisions, and key parts of Windows NT and our Online Services business. I’ve worked with him in many capacities over the years and I’ve always appreciated his customer focus, technical depth, people leadership skills, and his positive energy. I want to thank Bob for his hard work, many accomplishments, and his focus on putting Microsoft first for 23 years.

We enter this new decade with STB providing the platform for today’s business solutions, and uniquely well-positioned to drive the future of cloud computing. I believe STB will continue to lead the industry with outstanding products and services for our customers and exceptional results for our business.

Thanks,
Steve

US patent awards surge in 2010; IBM still tops

There’s plenty of criticism of the U.S. patent system for granting intellectual property protections for ideas that aren’t original enough, but that hasn’t stopped the corporate patent frenzy.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted 219,614 patents in 2010, a 31 percent increase over 2009, according to statistics from IFI Claims, a division of Fairview Research that tracks patent grants.

As usual, IBM topped the list–this time with 5,896 patents, a 20 percent increase over 2009. Among those, Big Blue pointed to patents for monitoring and reporting earthquakes based on data from computer hard-drive accelerometers, for using short-range wireless communication among vehicles to provide traffic information, and for optoelectronic devices with light detectors for silicon photonics chips that communicate using light rather than electrical signals.

Next on the Top 10 list are Samsung Electronics, with 4,551 patents; Microsoft, with 3,094; Canon, with 2,552; Panasonic, with 2,482; Toshiba, with 2,246; Sony, with 2,150; Intel, with 1,653; LG Electronics, with 1,490; and Hewlett-Packard, with 1,480.

Patents have become a major battleground in competitive markets. Right now, mobile phone technology is at the center of a thicket of patent litigation that includes, among others, Motorola, Nokia, Microsoft, Apple, HTC, Oracle, Google, Samsung, Research In Motion, Sony Ericsson, Kodak, and LG Electronics.

So it’s no surprise technology companies try to hoard as many patents as possible to deter patent lawsuits from rivals or to come out stronger in the cross-licensing deals that often settle such suits along with payments from one company to another.

This balance-of-power approach doesn’t work when it comes to fighting lawsuits from intellectual-property companies; they typically lack actual products on the market, so a company that has been sued can’t rely on countersuing for infringement of its own patents.

In the race to grab patents, just about anything is fair game. IBM has applied for a patent for a computerized patent-management system.

The application itself embodies all the complexities of today’s patent and intellectual-property (IP) landscape. One claimed invention in the patent is:

A method of analyzing a component business model including a plurality of components, each of said plurality of components including at least one capability, said method including, for each of said plurality of components: determining whether an organization has said at least one capability from said plurality of components, said plurality of components being grouped into a strategic planning computer module for formulating business strategies for creating and managing inventions and IP rights, said strategic planning module including at least one electronic database having data for formulating said business strategies, an invent computer module for managing creation of said inventions based on said business strategies, an IP creation computer module for determining value of said inventions and creating an IP portfolio, said creating of said IP portfolio including creating said IP rights based on said determining of said value and said business strategies, an IP administration computer module for managing said IP rights based on said business strategies including extension, maintenance and retirement of said IP rights, measuring performance of said business strategies, creating and modifying budgets, and setting guidelines for IP counsel, a defend computer module for defending against infringements and invalidations of said IP rights based on said business strategies and monitoring market and competitor actions to develop risk management plans, an influence computer module including a standards influencing unit, a legal and regulatory influencing unit, and a policy influencing unit, and a capitalize computer module for identifying potential licensees and potential assignees of said IP rights, and managing licensing negotiations, cross-licensing negotiations, and assignment negotiations based on said business strategies; determining whether said organization needs said at least one capability; determining an ability of said organization to deliver said at least one capability; and generating a road map to enable said organization to at least one of create and improve said at least one capability.

Yes, if you could read that at all, you read it right: IBM is trying to patent computer technology to capitalize on patent portfolio, defend against patent-infringement attacks, and influence patent policy. Perhaps if the company is granted this sort of meta-patent, IBM will actually have something it can use to countersue an intellectual-property firm.

Alt media player VLC cut from Apple App Store

Popular media player VLC has been pulled from Apple’s App Store at the request of one of the program’s original developers–in a move that’s caused some hard feelings in the world of open-source software.

The situation involves a conflict between the General Public License, which governs VLC and many other open-source programs, and App Store policies.

“On Jan. 7, Apple removed VLC media player from its application store for iDevices,” Remi Denis-Courmont, one of the developers of the desktop version of VLC, wrote in a blog post picked up by the Web site of the nonprofit group behind the original software. “Thus the incompatibility between the GNU General Public License and the App Store terms of use is resolved–the hard way. This end should not have come as a surprise to anyone, given the precedents.”

Denis-Courmont himself was the one who sent Apple a notification of copyright infringement involving distribution of VLC for Apple’s iOS operating system, i.e., for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. The GPL lets people freely copy, distribute, and modify GPL programs provided the resulting programs are also covered by the GPL and this same provision. But digital rights management applied to programs in the App Store prevents sharing.

Denis-Courmont and others see that clash as a threat to the heart of the GPL, but Romain Goyet, co-founder of the company that created the iOS version of VLC, disagrees.

“The way I see it, we’re not violating anyone’s freedom,” Romain Goyet told Ars Technica. “We worked for free, opened all our source code, and the app is available for free for anyone to download. People are enjoying a nice free and open-source video player on the App Store, and some people are trying to ruin it in the name of ‘freedom.'”

VLC for the Mac, which, unlike Apple’s QuickTime, plays almost all common media files, was the second most popular Mac-software download during 2010 on CNET’s Download.com. And VLC for the iPad and for the iPhone captured the notice of CNET’s Rick Broida because they let users play virtually all video formats, with no conversion required, leading Broida to label VLC a “must-have” app.

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

Piracy possibility emerges with Mac App Store

A weakness in copy protection–the antipiracy mechanism at the heart of many a digital distribution system–has reared its head with Apple’s brand-new Mac App Store.

The store, launched last week, includes digital rights management (DRM) technology designed to ensure that only a program’s purchaser is authorized to run the program. But a hack distributed online apparently can be used to get around the system in some situations.

Although several have reported successful use of the hack to circumvent copy protection, it stems from problems in how software developers get their applications to verify permission to run, not from an irreparable problem with the Mac App Store’s DRM.

Nevertheless, the issue spotlights the painful realities of DRM. When it’s used, hackers often find a way around it, as happened for example with Blu-ray and DVD encryption. But commercial content creators naturally are averse to seeing their digital products spreading willy-nilly for free, and Apple’s removal of DRM from music in iTunes in 2009 and Amazon’s option to lend Kindle books are the exception rather than the rule. Just this week, a group of entertainment industry powers unveiled a new DRM and copy-protection technology called UltraViolet.

Apple didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

But Big Bucket Software’s Matt Comi, developer of a game called The Incident that’s vulnerable to the hack, said he’ll be releasing a new version of his software.

“Too bad they didn’t release a Mac App Store beta to developers–maybe we would’ve noticed this,” Comi said. Despite the problem, he added, “First day’s sales came in a few hours ago and we’re very pleased.”

With the Mac App Store hack, a person copies three files–digital receipts–from a freely downloaded application such as Twitter to another app such as Angry Birds that otherwise would have to be purchased before it runs. That second app essentially uses the free app’s authorization. Of course, a bootleg copy of the second app must first be obtained, but that’s rarely proved an obstacle in for those evading copy protection technology.

News of the hack spread quickly yesterday–but shortly afterward came more news that apparently at least part of the problem lies with the software developer and Apple’s suggested verification procedures rather than with a terminal problem with the technology.

“For apps that follow Apple’s advice on validating App Store receipts, this simple technique will not work. But, alas, it appears that many apps don’t perform any validation whatsoever, or do so incorrectly, like Angry Birds,” Apple watcher John Gruber said.

But another observer, Sean Christmann, also laid some blame on Apple. Although Angry Birds developers followed only two of the five steps Apple recommends for verifying the software is authorized to run, Apple’s instructions are flawed, Christmann said in a blog post.

Specifically, he said Apple recommends a verification process that checks a text file separate from the application’s binary file–in other words, an ancillary file, not the file the computer actually runs. He recommended a validation procedure that uses the application itself.

“At the end of the day, if your app is popular enough it’s going to end up on a pirated site, but for the time being, by following the instructions above, you can avoid having your app easily cracked with TextEdit,” Christmann said.

Comi had this description of the matter: “The issue relates to comparing bits of data from one file (the Info.plist, in other words, the app’s metadata) to bits of data in another file (the receipt). As long as those files are consistent, the app will launch. Pretty obvious in retrospect but easy to overlook. The fix is to not refer to the Info.plist.”

Asked if it plans a new version of Angry Birds, Rovio Mobile said, “We’ll look into it.”

Chester Wisniewski of security company Sophos also cautioned about a side effect of the problem: people might look for pirated software instead of going through the App Store. “Be cautious where you get things,” he said in a video. “Don’t pirate software. It’s the best way to get trojans onto your system.”

The Angry Birds application is a good example. “Unfortunately, Rovio did not follow the best practice guidelines that Apple set forth on what to do to prevent this application from being pirated,” Wisniewski said. “It’s quite easy to imagine it’s going to be widely distributed.”

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

Ballmer: Kinect support headed to PCs, in time

What do you do with a gadget that’s sold 8 million units in 60 days? You make it work on a platform that’s larger than the 50 million install base it’s built to work with. That would be the reasoning behind bringing Kinect to PCs, which Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer did his best not to deny when talking to the BBC on top of the software giant’s CES booth.

When asked by the BBC’s Spencer Kelly whether Microsoft plans to let users plug a Kinect unit into a PC in the near future, Ballmer responded by saying “We’ll support that in a formal way, in the right time, and when we’ve got an announcement to make, we’ll make it.”

That’s certainly more promising than a “no,” or a “maybe”.

Microsoft has long hinted at Kinect’s technology making its way to PCs, but for now the only way that’s happening is by unofficial means. Almost immediately after the Xbox peripheral’s release, tinkerers took to it, gaining access to its camera and microphone systems–a move that at first was frowned upon by Microsoft, before later being embraced.

However, one issue that may hold up Kinect’s route to the office is its spatial needs. Currently users need a fairly large play space, well away from TV screens, for it to pick up accurate depth. That said, some of the creations users have come up with using third-party drivers have proven this to be a hurdle that can be overcome with apps that focus on just upper arm movements. Microsoft’s introduction of tracking facial movements as part of its upcoming Avatar Kinect feature may be further proof the company is paying more attention to that area of the body for use with other Windows features.

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

Mobile, social elements changing BI landscape

There are going to be long-lasting changes in the business intelligence (BI) and analytics landscape as such software will have more functions catered for mobile workers incorporated into it and applications become increasingly collaborative and social, revealed a new report.

According to research firm Gartner, traditional assumptions about BI and analytics are being challenged by four trends. These trends revolve around mobile and social elements that are either being integrated into traditional offerings or changing the way businesses procure and utilize their BI capabilities, its report stated.

“The market for BI and analytics is undergoing a gradual evolution,” said Neil Chandler, research director at Gartner, said in the report. “By 2014, the metamorphosis of BI from IT-owned and report-centric will be virtually complete for a number of organizations.”

These organizations will, in turn, change what types of BI and analytics they use, how and where they procure the software and modify how information feeds the decision-making process, he added.

Rise of mobile BI
The first trend identified by the research firm is that 33 percent of BI functionality will be consumed via handheld devices by 2013.

It explained that mobility is playing an increasingly important role as current adoption rates, widely available current-generation devices, and the marketing and development campaigns of BI vendors promise to “quickly generate” a strong wave of mobile BI users.

Mobile BI will initially comprise of just porting existing reports and dashboards to mobile devices but, by 2012, vendors will be creating mobile analytic applications for specific tasks and domains, said Gartner.

The report also observed that the rise of mobile BI would widen the population of BI users to include a more mainstream audience, presenting an attractive investment opportunity.

Additionally, for remote workers who need to access corporate BI data on their mobile devices, organizations must ensure their current BI infrastructure can support these demands, Gartner advised, adding that tablet devices can be adopted to improve the mobile BI experience.

BI gets collaborative, social
Secondly, Gartner predicted that in two years’ time, 15 percent of all BI deployments will integrate traditional BI functions with collaboration and social elements to form a cohesive, decision-making environment, the report noted.

“Collaborative decision environments will drive investment in new BI and analytic applications, particularly those that link with collaboration and social networking functions,” Gartner stated.

A number of vendors have already latched on to the trend and are beginning to tailor offerings to meet these needs, it added.

With regard to analytics applications, the report stated that 30 percent of such software will include proactive, predictive and forecasting capabilities while another 30 percent will utilize in-memory functions to add scale and computational speed by 2014.

This third trend is in direct response to the need for more responsive data insight even as the volume of information rapidly increases, it added.

To address this challenge, companies will seek columnar data repositories and in-memory online analytical processing, which are faster and easier to architect, noted Gartner. Furthermore, packaged analytics applications will incorporate data and text mining, forecasting and regression, optimization, scoring and simulations using complex business rules and data modeling.

Lastly, the report predicted that 40 percent of business analytics expenditure will go to system integrators (SIs) rather than software companies.

Organizations will realize that the old method of buying products from software companies and getting SIs to integrate the applications into their backend systems is “increasingly risky and potentially uncompetitive”, Gartner argued.

The risks stem from the growth of user-driven initiatives, external information sources and the integration of unstructured content, it elaborated.

Companies are instead encouraged to rope business users into the process of deciding what BI and analytics software to purchase, and to broaden their choices beyond pure-play software vendors, the report noted.

Gartner is not the only research firm forecasting the evolution of the BI and analytics market. Springboard Research had mentioned last month that demand for reporting and analytics functions will render traditional BI obsolete.

The bifurcation between the two functions within BI is largely a result of increased demand from end-users for mobile reporting services, it added.

Apple’s Mac App Store launches with more than 1,000 apps

Apple kicked off its Mac App Store Thursday and launched with more than 1,000 apps.

In a statement, Apple highlighted well known Mac apps like iMovie and GarageBand as well as others from Autodesk.

The Mac App Store works for Snow Leopard users, Mac OS X v10.6.6. Prices range from free to US$79.99 for Aperture 3.

Read more of “Apple’s Mac App Store launches with more than 1,000 apps” at ZDNet.

Google Apps customers get e-mail lockdown

Companies and organisations using Google Apps are now able to restrict the e-mail access of selected users.

Google introduced the functionality for customers of its corporate Gmail service on Wednesday, saying in a blog post that it had been a particular request of schools that use the cloud-based productivity suite.

“It can also help businesses where the email access of particular contractors and other groups should be limited,” Google Apps product manager Adam Dawes wrote in the post.

Read more of “Google Apps customers get email lockdown” at ZDNet UK.

Microsoft: Windows to run on ARM chips

Microsoft has demonstrated a future version of Windows running on both ARM and x86 processors, and has announced partnerships with ARM processor vendors Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and Nvidia.

The software maker’s president, Steven Sinofsky, presented the demo at a CES 2011 press conference in Las Vegas on Wednesday. Sinofsky said that neither user interface nor development approaches were being shown.

“We’re looking at the hardcore engineering work we’ve been doing to work on a new class of hardware, where customers are demanding a tighter integration between hardware and software,” he said.

Read more of “CES: Windows to run on ARM chips, says Microsoft” at ZDNet UK.

Google gets halt of Microsoft contract with US Interior Dept.

A judge has granted Google’s request for a temporary court order that puts a freeze on a contract the U.S. Interior Department planned to award to Microsoft for an e-mail system.

U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge Susan Braden cited deficiencies in the procurement process for the US$49.3 million contract, according to the 27-page court decision unsealed yesterday and reported on by Bloomberg Thursday.

“Without a preliminary injunction, the award will put into motion the final migration of Interior’s e-mail system, achieve ‘organizational lock-in’ for Microsoft, and cost Google the opportunity to compete,” the judge wrote. The Interior Department intended to give the contract to Microsoft later this month, she said.

Google sued the Interior Department in October claiming that it was essentially barred from competing for the project because the agency’s proposal request specified that only the Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite-Federal could be proposed.

The company has made the same complaint about a contract the USDA awarded to Microsoft.

Google executives said they are pleased with the court’s decision, according to a statement provided to Bloomberg.

Microsoft provided CNET this statement: “The Department of the Interior determined that the dedicated, U.S.-based cloud solution offered by Microsoft met its minimum security and other requirements after a careful and thorough evaluation, and that Google’s solution did not. The judge’s decision does not address this fundamental determination. We believe the full record will demonstrate that this award is in the best interest of the government and taxpayers. Microsoft can’t publicly comment further due to its ongoing relationship with DOI.”

A spokeswoman for the Interior Department said she could not comment on ongoing litigation.

Google and Microsoft are in a heated battle over government and other contracts for tech services as agencies and businesses increasingly move to cloud-based systems to save money and create efficiencies.

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

Amazon takes first Android Appstore steps

Amazon.com has invited programmers to submit Android applications for sale through the company’s upcoming app store, a move that marks the arrival of a new and very different player in an increasingly complicated Android world.

The Amazon Appstore is a notable, if expected, arrival. Amazon has a long track record in e-commerce, with tens millions of customers already signed up, strong promotional abilities to recommend relevant products, and a successful expansion into electronic books through its Kindle program. And it’s got a very different pricing strategy compared with rival stores: Amazon will set the price tag customers see.

Amazon‘s scale means its store likely will be much more of a force for developers to reckon with than smaller app store alternatives to Google’s official Android Market, such as AppBrain, MobiHand, SlideME, AndSpot, and GetJar.

And, of course, Amazon’s store means Android is getting a notch more complicated for developers.

First, Google steadily adds new programming interfaces and abilities to its incarnations of the Android operating system. Second, manufacturers often add their own software variations in areas such as keyboards, search engines, and home screen interfaces. Third, hardware varies significantly, with different screen sizes, processing power, physical or touch-screen keyboards, built-in or removable memory, and assorted button layouts and options.

With new app stores, software distribution adds another dimension of complexity. Programmers not only will have to test their software on different devices but also choose which app stores to offer it in. It’s no surprise that middlemen see a business opportunity–Adobe Systems’ InMarket service is one example–to try to ease the process of app store interaction.

A very different app store
Amazon will be a very different app store from what’s come before. Perhaps the biggest change: though developers suggest a “list price,” Amazon will set actual application pricing, according to TechCrunch. Bafflingly, that point is not detailed in Amazon’s Appstore FAQ.

According to Amazon’s developer license agreement, “For each sale of an app, we will pay you a royalty equal to the greater of (i) 70 percent of the purchase price or (ii) 20 percent of the list price”. And the list price may not be greater than what a developer sells an app for at other app stores.

To be sure, Amazon has a lot more experience setting prices than most software makers, including discounts and other promotional measures. But developers will need to have faith that Amazon will act in developers’ interest as well as in Amazon’s own.

Late Wednesday, Amazon began inviting people to join its Appstore developer program–currently waiving the first year of the US$99 annual fee. The Amazon Appstore is set to launch later this year, Amazon told TechCrunch.

Android has become a major force in the mobile market, with 300,000 new phones being activated daily in December, according to Google. The operating system is spreading from phones to tablets to Google TV products–several of each showing up at the Consumer Electronics Show this week in Las Vegas–as well as to other types of devices.

Perhaps significantly, the Amazon Appstore omits the word “Android” from its name. According to the FAQ, applications must work on Android 1.6 or later, but it’s not hard to imagine Amazon expanding to offer apps for other devices if manufacturers permit it.

Middle-ground approach to control
Amazon will test applications before approving them for sale in the Appstore. The company looks to be choosing a middle ground between Google’s relatively laissez-faire Android Market and Apple’s more controlled App Store. According to the FAQ:

Our goal is for Amazon Appstore customers to have a good experience with every app they buy from the Appstore. As a result, we will be testing the apps you submit prior to making them available in our store to verify that each app works as outlined in your product description, does not impair the functionality of the mobile device or put customer data at risk once installed, and complies with the terms of the distribution agreement and our content guidelines. For clarity, our intent is not to be prescriptive in terms of what constitutes good app design. Amazon is a big believer in innovation in general, and we hope to feature many creative and innovative apps in the Appstore.

What’s not immediately clear is how widely Amazon will test applications for compatibility with the full range of Android devices. Kindle books can be read on any Kindle device or Kindle app, but Android applications have a more complicated set of compatibility dependencies.

Amazon also clearly wants a certain level of maturity among developers. According to the program’s license agreement, developers must “provide reasonable technical and product support for apps as requested by end users or us….At a minimum you will respond within 24 hours to any support request that we identify as critical, and in all other cases within five business days of request from an end user or us.”

The most obvious comparison to this ever-more-complex Android ecosystem is what Apple has done with the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. Apple offers comparatively few hardware choices and only the single App Store both for developer submissions and for customer downloads. There are still compatibility issues with older products, and developers have complained loudly about Apple’s app approval process, but it remains a less cluttered experience.

Of course, the relative chaos of the Android ecosystem can also be an asset. There are greater freedoms for those involved, which opens up avenues for innovation and business that may be inaccessible in a more controlled environment.

The Web has thrived despite lack of central authorities, and Google was born of the Web. As long as Google’s motive with Android remains to spur mobile use of the Web and Google services rather than extracting licensing fees for an operating system, it seems likely the Android world will remain chaotic.

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

SAP to pay interest in US$1.3B Oracle case

SAP has been ordered to pay interest on the fine it was dealt in November for copyright infringement against Oracle through its subsidiary TomorrowNow.

On Dec. 10, Oracle claimed that SAP owed an additional US$211 million in interest on top of the US$1.3 billion Oracle was awarded by a U.S. court to compensate for the software licences that should have been purchased in 2005 and 2006.

SAP appealed the claim on Dec. 23. The company argued that the “the court should decline to award any prejudgement interest, just as many other courts entering judgement on copyright claims have done”, according to the court filing.

Read more of “SAP to pay interest in $1.3bn Oracle case” at ZDNet UK.

Android named in updated Interval patent suit

Interval Licensing refiled a lawsuit on Wednesday against 11 technology manufacturers and retailers–including Google and Apple–alleging that each infringed on patents owned by the company.

Interval Licensing, which owns the patents granted to the now-closed Interval Research (co-founded by Paul Allen, a founder of Microsoft) claims that Apple, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, AOL, Youtube, eBay, Netflix, OfficeMax, Office Depot, and Staples are infringing on four key patents.

Interval Licensing originally filed a suit against the 11 companies in August 2010, alleging that they were infringing on Web technologies developed and patented by Interval Research in the 1990s.

Read more of “Android named in updated Interval patent suit” at ZDNet UK.

2010: War on piracy goes big

Governments and big industry have fought hard this year for control of the vast online oceans which were once the lawless playground of pirates.

They have come late to the fight. And many argue they do not understand the principles on which the online world is allegedly built.

But what they lack in experience, they address with money and power–and they have built a humbling arsenal.

COICA
The big gun of the anti-pirate coalition is COICA (the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act). This U.S. law, passed quickly with unanimous support, allows a Web site’s domain to be seized if it “has no demonstrable, commercially significant purpose or use other than” offering or providing access to unauthorized copies of copyrighted works.

It was pushed along with a flurry of last-minute lobbying from representatives of content providers including the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and union and media groups.

More than 70 Web sites have been taken down under COICA. In anticipation of its U.S. .com domain being shut down, Prominent Bittorrent Web site Demonoid has migrated to the Montenegro top-level domain, .me, and it has posted a banner asking visitors to write to U.S. senators to oppose the law.

ACTA
The nuts and bolts of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) were also finalized this year, paving the way for copyright infringement to be battled across the world.

The treaty has developed draft international standards on how to enforce intellectual property rights in countries including Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union. The end goal, perhaps a decade off, appears to be to pressure non-signatory nations to toughen their enforcement of copyright laws.

Bounties
You might think you would never snitch on your boss for using pirated software, but would US$20,000 change your mind? The Business Software Alliance is betting on it. The Australian chapter ran a campaign offering the reward for anyone who reports the use of pirate software in businesses.

The US$20, 000 is undoubtedly a small fraction of the fine the business will wear for its crime.

Allies
Events have forced big industry players to show their colors as friend or foe. Google had been fiercely neutral, but has now moved to cut pirate sites from appearing in search results.

Its complaint system has been sped-up, making it easier for Hollywood to complain about pirates using Google products. And the company is also developing means to cut pirate terms from appearing in auto-complete.

Google has also shown its willingness to expel copyright violators from its AdSense program and now Mastercard, Visa and Paypal have blacklisted pirate Web sites from using their financial payment services.

But the pirate sites have smaller payment providers like Flattr.com, owned by the Pirate Bay’s Peter Sunde, which allows users to donate to sites.

Supply lines
Pirate content can only exist if users can access it. So attempts by Hollywood to force internet providers to cut-off users who download pirate content could all but finish the battle. The biggest movie studios, represented by the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft, are embroiled in a federal court siege against Australia’s third biggest Internet provider, iiNet, in a watershed case that will determine if providers must monitor user downloads and act against those accessing copyright-infringing material.

The studios lost the initial round earlier this year and an appeal is still being fought.

Meanwhile, the U.S. movie and music studios are pursuing large civil cases against individual copyright-infringers. This year, American single mother Jammie Thomas-Rasset lost what is seen by some as another watershed court battle against the RIAA for sharing 24 copyright-protected songs and now owes some US$1.5 million for doing so.

Piracy and privacy sound alike…
The online lives of users have also caught the attention of governments from countries including Australia, the U.K. and the EU. The Australia Government’s secretive plans, first revealed in June by this Web site, could see records created and kept when Australians communicate over the Internet to each other and could even view stored Web histories.

The Australian Federal Police have backed the scheme, noting it will “add weight to [the] investigation process”.

Internet providers allege the scheme is onerous and have accused the government of strong-arm tactics.

This article was first published at ZDNet Australia.

S’pore app stores opt for self-policing

Despite Google’s recent move to introduce ratings for apps published on its Android Market, telcos in Singapore prefer regulatory obligations as well as a voluntary code of practice to filter objectionable content, which does not call for developers or store owners to rate apps.

Google last month announced that app developers that wish to publish their new or updated apps on the two-year-old Android Market are required to rate their new or updated applications either “All”, “Pre-Teen”, “Teen” or “Mature”. The move took effect on Nov. 30, according to a blog post.

Under this requirement, unrated applications are by default labeled as “Mature”.

While Google has indicated that the move was in response to user feedback about wanting more information on apps, the Android Market has been criticized by Apple CEO Steve Jobs for easy access to pornography.

At least one local app store owner, however, has no plans for now to follow in the footsteps of the Internet giant. According to M1’s general manager of corporate communications Chua Swee Kiat, the company uses a voluntary code of practice to assess apps it offers in the M1 app store.

The Voluntary Code for Self-regulation of Mobile Content was jointly established in 2006 by M1 and fellow local mobile operators SingTel and StarHub. The purpose of the code, explained Chua in an e-mail, is to help protect minors from accessing undesirable content from the Internet via mobile phones.

The Code, he noted, works on the general principles that mobile content should also be consistent with material that is available on an unrestricted basis, from other mainstream media to the general public. “In line with this, content that depicts sex, explicit nudity, extreme violence, or incites racial and religious intolerance, is expressly prohibited.”

When asked if M1 will introduce ratings following Google’s move, the M1 executive said: “We adhere to the voluntary code for self-regulation of mobile content which does not provide for ratings. If apps and content do not comply with the code, they will not be [offered on the M1 app store].”

Regulation no magic bullet
Dylan Tan, corporate communications manager at SingTel, said the company closely monitors the apps in its app store. Before any app is loaded into the SingTel Appzone, the carrier ensures that it complies fully with government regulatory guidelines; if it does not fulfill this requirement, it will not be made available in the app store, he noted in an e-mail.

Mobile applications in the island-state are regulated under the Media Development Authority’s Class License scheme.

Citing Singapore’s Internet Code of Practice, Yuvarani Thangavelu, MDA’s deputy director of development policy, said mobile content that are objectionable to public interest, public morality, public order, public security and national harmony are prohibited by applicable Singapore laws. App stores will be asked to remove mobile apps that violate such standards from their platforms, she said in an e-mail.

Bryan Tan, director of Keystone Law Corporation, described this as the “light brush approach [where] authorities require whatever that is objectionable to be removed”.

The regulation of mobile apps should be similar to Internet content, Tan added in an e-mail. “The buck stops with the developer but an app store could be asked [by the authorities] to remove apps which are deemed objectionable and its only responsibility is then to adhere to such instruction,” he elaborated.

Tan pointed out that the MDA, which controls Internet content using the Class License scheme, can wield this stick if necessary when it comes to mobile apps.

Nevertheless, the MDA believes that regulation alone is not sufficient to protect youths from inappropriate mobile content, said Thangavelu. Educating the public is also an important factor, she said, adding the government agency works with partners from the public, private and people sectors to implement outreach programs that promote the responsible and discerning use of media.

Thangavelu also noted the government organization continually monitors the relevance of existing codes and initiates consultations with the industry and community to refine or enhance existing standards when needed.

Content ratings logical in long term
A developer and an Android supporter ZDNet Asia spoke welcomed Google’s new classification, pointing out that it would help users locate the content they want.

In an e-mail, Nicky Wong, founder of mobile app development company Infindo, opined that a rating system is a “good move” for any app store, because in the long run the content will become more complex and the variety of apps will be greater. Such a measure would help end-users look for the right content in a crowded app market, he said.

Wong also disagreed that developers will find the need to assign specific ratings for their apps restrictive, saying that he personally is not bothered by the requirement.

Android user Chan Rui Ming also voiced support for the Android Market’s new rating system. He noted that the move may seem like a knee-jerk reaction to Job’s comment, but any app store that is expanding and maturing its business will logically need to classify its entire stock of apps to cater to the different interests of different users. It is no different from the need to have movie or video game ratings, the postgraduate student said, adding that ratings help users make a more informed choice of whether to download an app or not.

Apple’s App Store in 2009 launched its own content rating system, which has four classifications based on age: “4+”, “9+”, “12+” and “17+”.

Windows 8 to get gaming focus?

Microsoft is said to be bringing a bigger focus to PC gaming in the next version of Windows.

Citing anonymous sources, TechRadar reported yesterday that PC gaming will be part of a “new push” by Microsoft, as well as a “key component for the whole OS”.

Little is known about the next version of Windows. Slides that leaked onto the Web earlier this year hinted at a variety of features, including a digital software marketplace that would let users purchase and install Windows software.

Over the years Microsoft has been involved with several similar efforts–both through its own marketplace software with Games for Windows Live, as well as its recently refreshed Web downloads store to offer gamers a way to buy and manage games. And beginning with Windows Vista, Microsoft made a serious push at making games a more central part of the Windows experience by tweaking its file Explorer system to turn the games menu into more of an entertainment hub.

Critics, however, have slighted Microsoft’s ambitions compared to efforts by companies like Valve with its Steam platform, as well as Direct2Drive, Impulse, and Desura–all of which offer direct-to-PC downloads and community features, often times with fewer hurdles.

There are also some clear reasons to push PC gaming after taking a look at trends on the console side. Microsoft’s console sales during 2010 were particularly strong, with research group NPD reporting that the software giant had sold 34 percent more Xbox 360 units than in 2009. Microsoft also recently announced that sales of its Kinect accessory had topped 2.5 million, halfway toward the 5 million the company expects to sell by the end 2010.

Perhaps then, this gaming push could be deeper integration of the kind of features found on Microsoft’s Xbox Live platform, something that PC gamers can now get a taste of–though not without first downloading and installing client software. Taking that extra step out of the process, and building that interactivity in at a system level could certainly go a long way toward giving gaming a higher profile.

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

OSS recommended picks for business users

Amid an enterprise environment that is now more receptive to utility computing and focused on service-based contracts, open source software adoption has grown over the past two years and entered the IT mainstream.

In an earlier ZDNet Asia report, Vuk Trikovic, senior analyst at Ovum, said the 2008 recession sent a call for change in the business landscape, in which the model of paying for support was winning mindshare over traditional licensing models. He added that the recession had raised the profile of cloud computing, which had a positive spillover effect on open source. “It’s clear that cloud computing and open source go well together, with [third parties providing cloud services that are powered by open source,” Trikovic noted.

ZDNet Asia spoke to three open source software vendors and developers to unveil their top open source enterprise software picks, which they would recommend to help boost business operations and growth.

Workflow, content management
Sujee Saparamadu, CEO and co-founder of open source HR (human resource) management startup, OrangeHRM, pointed to workflow application, ProcessMaker (www.processmaker.com).

Saparamadu said the software was designed to give users the freedom of integrating HR processes, or workflows, that they want instead of having to adapt their workflows to competing software. “We explored many alternatives to deliver a greatly customizable product and concluded that ProcessMaker was by far the best,” he said.

The CEO then recommended enterprise content management (ECM) tools offered by open source vendor, Alfresco (www.alfresco.com).

He noted that he particularly appreciated the fact that the software has application programming interfaces (APIs) that make it easy for other third-party vendors to integrate their applications.

Brian Reale, Colosa’s CEO and co-founder, also singled out another open source content management, MindTouch, in his choice picks.

Reale, who is also co-founder of the company that developed ProcessMaker, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail that the OSS has a “very interesting approach” to content management and wikis.

MindTouch’s Web site states that its flagship product, Technical Communications Suite (www.mindtouch.com), is designed to create, manage and improve discovery and curating process in a company’s Web portal.

Reale said: “They have a great team and are innovating constantly in the area of content management. I like how they are adding vertical extensions to their product.”

He also highlighted Openbravo (www.openbravo.com), a Web-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. Openbravo, according to Reale, is a useful business tool and he pointed to the program’s latest 2.5 version release as “outstanding”.

The ERP application integrates accounting, sales and customer relationship management (CRM), procurement, inventory, production and project and service management, allowing each functionality to be added or dropped from the user’s Web browsers, according to Openbravo’s Web site.

Reale added: “[Openbravo] is successfully developing an ecosystem of plugins that extend their product…and these guys are clearly the innovation leaders in open source ERP software.”

Productivity, groupware messaging
When queried, Novell developer and contributor to OpenOffice, Michael Meeks, picked LibreOffice (www.documentfoundation.org) and Evolution (http://projects.gnome.org/evolution/) as two software programs that he “personally loves”.

Of LibreOffice, Meeks noted that “despite much hype” about Web-based productivity suites, the thick-client office suite will remain the “backbone of document editing”, which makes the open source software a good alternative to Microsoft Office and Google Docs.

LibreOffice was created after a group of programmers, called the Document Foundation, decided to branch out from OpenOffice.org and published beta versions of LibreOffice for download in September. OpenOffice is the open source rival to Microsoft Office that was formerly created by Sun Microsystems and now owned by Oracle.

Describing Evolution the “premier groupware client on Linux”, Meeks said the OSS gives users a slick e-mail and personal instant messaging package that connects to all standard protocols, as well as Microsoft Exchange and Novell’s GroupWise collaboration software.

NATO works with IBM on cloud

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and IBM are teaming up on a project that aims to improve data sharing between the group’s 28 member countries.

Under the deal, IBM and NATO will aim to improve data center efficiency as well as information sharing. The partnership will also aim to create a cloud computing model that could be used for other military operations.

The effort will be developed by IBM at the Headquarters of the Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (HQ SACT) in Norfolk, Virginia.

Read more of “NATO, IBM team up on cloud, collaboration project” at ZDNet.

Motorola Mobility acquires cloud start-up Zecter

Motorola Mobility, the consumer devices subsidiary that’s being formally spun off from the rest of Motorola, announced today that it’s acquired a start-up called Zecter, which makes software for cloud storage and file-sharing.

It’ll work the technology from Zecter’s products, ZumoDrive and ZumoCast, into its MotoBlur service so that subscribers can access and sync files across multiple devices more quickly, as well as stream content like music and video.

The Y Combinator-backed Zecter, founded in 2007, will continue to run its existing products. ZumoDrive, which operates an iPhone app for easy file syncing, will be unaffected; streaming app ZumoCast will temporarily have new account creation frozen while upgrades are made, but existing subscribers will see no change.

“Consumers want seamless access to their content and media from wherever they are, while content providers want to ensure that content remains protected and secure,” Christy Wyatt, corporate vice president of software and services for Motorola Mobility, said in a release. “We believe that Zecter enables that seamless experience with the necessary security measures, and we are delighted to be able to work with this team.”

Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

Skype experiences major outage

Skype is currently down for millions of users, according to reports.

The company said that some users were encountering problems in a Twitter post on Wednesday afternoon.

“Some of you may have problems signing in to Skype, we’re investigating, and we’re sorry for the disruption to your conversations,” the tweet from the official Skype twitter account said.

Read more of “Skype experiences major outage” at ZDNet UK.

Time to embrace software’s auto-update era

commentary Driven by Google and like-minded software makers, a new era is dawning in which your software is constantly refreshed–often without any intervention on your part at all.

Depending on how you see things, that could be either a scary loss of control over your own computer or a boon to convenience and security. Either way, the practice is increasingly common.

I, for one, welcome it.

In the last week or so, I’ve manually updated Google’s Chrome, Chrome Canary, and Picasa; Adobe Systems’ Flash Player, Photoshop, Premiere, and AIR; Microsoft Windows 7 and Office 2008 for the Mac; Apple Aperture; Mozilla’s Firefox and Thunderbird; Opera; and Evernote. Should this really be my job? Automatic updates can cause compatibility problems and yield control to corporations whose agendas may differ from your own, but used judiciously, I think it’s an improvement.

In days of yore, software came on disks manufactured and shipped at some expense to customers. But the Internet Age has enabled not just digital distribution, but frequent distribution, and programmers are following suit with a more continual stream of smaller updates.

In short, a lot of software is becoming a constant work in progress rather than a finished product. With that change, along with the spread of computing technology to so many corners of our lives, the burden of maintaining it shifts to the software maker.

“[With] commodities like browsers or operating systems, non-technical consumers may well be best served by automatic updates,” said Sebastian Holst, chief marketing officer of PreEmptive Solutions, a company that helps customers monitor and manage their software. “Many of the updates address emerging security threats rather than simply adding ‘nice-to-have’ feature extensions. Wouldn’t it be great if we could automatically update the batteries in smoke detectors? If we have to work to motivate homeowners to take that simple step to protect themselves, how realistic is it to expect consumers to conscientiously update their software?”

Browsers lead the charge
Browsers are a prime example of the auto-update ethos. When Google released Chrome more than two years ago, the company quietly began a program in which the browser silently updates itself automatically. The software periodically checks a server to see if an update is available, downloads it when it finds one, and installs it for use when the browser or computer is restarted.

At the time, Google said, “For major version updates, when feature changes are involved, we’ll explore options for providing users with more details about the changes”, but so far it’s maintained its silence, so to speak. Here’s Google’s rationale for silent, automatic updates:

“The primary reason is to ensure that as many users as possible are on the most current version of the software–and therefore as secure as possible–with minimal user effort…We’ve found that [waiting for user permission] only is desired in certain administration cases and in enterprise scenarios. For those cases we provide auto-update control via standard administration mechanisms.”

Opera has followed suit. “We actually do it as a silent update now. You can change that to have more control, though. But the default is silent,” spokesman Thomas Ford said.

And with the new version of Firefox due in 2011, Mozilla plans to make automatic updates easier. “With Firefox 4 we’ll be adding the capability to apply updates in the background to reduce the delay on start-up, and (thankfully) changing things so that not every update will result in a new tab being opened,” said Mike Beltzner, vice president of engineering for Firefox. “However we’ll always provide a clear message about how the user’s software has been updated, as well as a way to see what was changed.”

Firefox programmers want the browser to improve faster, though, and to accommodate that is considering a more aggressive auto-update embrace.

“I think we also need to consider whether doing releases as frequently as once a quarter requires we default to mandatory (silent) updates across major versions,” said Mozilla programmer Robert O’Callahan in a mailing list message.

“Yes, we need to consider it,” Beltzner replied. However, he added, “I wouldn’t equate mandatory with silent–there are ways of doing automatic updates that are not silent, and I find that silent ends up putting people on tilt a bit.”

In the browser world, I’m inclined toward automatic updates. It raises compatibility issues with plug-ins, but given how central a role browsers play in today’s Net attacks, I want holes plugged as soon as possible.

And in the long run, an auto-update ethos could help avoid today’s bane of the Web, Internet Explorer 6, released in 2001 and now holding back efforts to build a more secure and powerful Web.

Cultural adjustment
Windows Update embodies the shift in software distribution and was a significant moment in my growing appreciation for automatic updates.

Microsoft has shifted to an incremental monthly “Patch Tuesday” update cycle that has partly replaced the earlier service pack approach of infrequent, massive overhauls. The motivation is simple: security. No longer do software makers get much of a grace period between discovery of a vulnerability and attackers exploiting it. Indeed, Microsoft sometimes releases “out-of-band” patches for urgent problems.

A few years ago I had an “Aha!” moment with Windows Update, which I’d set to automatically download updates but wait for my permission to install. I realized that I installed every security patch Microsoft sent. There have been some problems sometimes with those patches, but despite being fairly technical I’m not the kind of person who’ll be able to detect them in some sort of testing.

I concluded that I’d probably be better off overall with Windows installing those updates and my checking later to see what was patched. I made the change, and I’m happy with it so far.

Sure, maybe some creepy government programmer is slipping a back door into my computer, but my guess is the updates are more likely to protect than compromise me and my data.

I’ve also become a part-time sysadmin for a mother-in-law who lives several time zones away (thank you, LogMeIn). She’s not technically inclined at all, so it was a no-brainer for me to enable automatic Windows updates on her machine.

Her situation made me think more carefully about silent updates. I want to be notified of updates with easy-to-find release notes detailing what changed on my computers (hint hint, Adobe AIR team). But many people lack the expertise to understand that information. In my mother-in-law’s case, pop-ups and dialog boxes and tabs alerting her to changes are confusing and worrying rather than helpful.

“It shouldn’t be, but alas, it is the user’s responsibility [to update software]. We’re willing to tolerate this horrible user experience simply because PCs are so useful,” said Paul Kocher, president of Cryptography Research. “As microprocessors become more pervasive such as in smart appliances at home, the update experience becomes even less tolerable, so finding a solution to this problem is a top priority for the PC industry. Intel understands this, as evidenced by their purchase of McAfee, so I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll see some improvements eventually.”

Caveats
Auto update must be effective if it’s to work. In three major updates to Office 2008 for the Mac in the last year, I’ve had to endure dialog boxes hidden inaccessibly behind other windows, mammoth downloads, and intrusive requirements to shut down all sorts of third-party software. The most perverse moment, each of the three times: the alert that I had to quit the Microsoft AutoUpdate program before I could proceed with the update.

It turns out I only had to quit an invisible dialog box asking me how often I wanted to check for updates. My gut reaction, given how awful the experience is: never! But a poorly implemented automatic update shouldn’t hold back the automatic update idea overall.

We should each get to choose silent or verbose updates, but I’ve concluded that there’s a role for silent updates, too.

Your opinion may differ, of course, and especially in a corporate environment caution is appropriate to avoid breaking existing computer systems. And think twice before you let any old software maker issue automatic updates.

“Users should decide their level of trust on a supplier-by-supplier basis, not app-by-app, and grant auto-update privileges only to those with a well-earned (established) reputation for software quality and customer support,” Holst said.

Enabling auto update isn’t such an easy choice for those with responsibility for managing dozens, hundreds, or thousands of computers, though.

“Corporate IT admins make every possible attempt to block auto-updating software because it often breaks other software the users need,” said Jennifer Bayuk of the Stevens Institute of Technology. “Corporate admins do a lot of what is called ‘sociability testing’ to ensure that diverse software can operate in harmony on a single machine, and auto-updating software defeats the integrity of their desktop deployment strategy.”

Web, Chrome OS, and phones
Perhaps the most ambitious embodiment of the auto-update era is Google’s Chrome OS. It’s a browser-based affair, running Web applications rather than anything on the Linux operating system hidden under the covers. Like Chrome, it’s got two common plug-ins built in–a PDF reader and Adobe’s Flash Player–so Chrome OS can take over responsibility for updating them, too.

With Chrome OS, Google will send updates automatically. It shouldn’t be the user’s responsibility to keep the software up to date, Google argues.

With Chrome OS and Web applications, the lines blur between Web applications and native applications. The auto-update era is already well-established at Web sites. Sometimes companies such as Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, and Google give users a chance to opt in to new versions of their sites, but many more changes happen behind the scenes without the user’s say-so, and the old versions eventually are phased out.

Web applications on Chrome OS can take a variety of forms ranging from glorified bookmarks to apps that work without a Net connection to browser extensions that give the browser new abilities. All these mechanisms, though, can be updated automatically.

Google also is headed this direction with Android. Newer versions of its mobile operating system let people grant applications permission to automatically update themselves. It didn’t take me long to enable it for most applications.

Chrome OS, smartphones, Net-connected TVs, satellite navigation systems, and automobile firmware illustrate how software is moving beyond the relatively narrow domain of personal computers. Multiply today’s update woes by these new electronics, then factor in the limited user interfaces many of these new devices, and the idea that users bear responsibility for keeping software up to date becomes increasingly untenable.

I see plenty of possible concerns with the auto-update era–incompatibilities, mistrust of corporations, new malware conduits, and intrusive user monitoring. But in my mind, the overall benefits outweigh the risks. I look forward to a world in which software is fluidly and constantly improved.

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

Microsoft shelves Office Genuine Advantage tool

In what can be considered a small victory for those who dislike additional security checks after purchasing software, Microsoft has quietly discontinued the use of its Genuine Advantage checker tool for Microsoft Office.

The antipiracy measure, called Office Genuine Advantage (OGA), required that users verify the legitimacy of their Office software before being able to download add-ons and templates from Microsoft, as well as download software updates Microsoft deemed “non-critical.”

The OGA program had been put into place in late 2006 as a follow-up to Microsoft’s Windows Genuine Advantage tool, which does similar checks to make sure copies of Windows are not pirated in order to receive updates and security patches.

ZDNet’s Ed Bott, who discovered the end of the OGA program via a reader tip over the weekend, notes that Microsoft has done little to alert users to the end of the program besides mentioning it at the top of a knowledge base article. Additionally, a page called “Benefits of genuine Office” remains up on Microsoft’s Office site, detailing what the company considers advantages of using genuine software.

One program that’s not being shelved as part of OGA’s end of life is Microsoft’s policy of replacing counterfeited software with genuine copies in cases where customers believed they were buying the real thing. That program, which also began in 2006, aimed both at helping people who had accidentally bought good fakes, as well as giving Microsoft leads on where it was coming from.

The removal of OGA does not mean a lapse in the front-line security Microsoft employs to keep software pirates at bay. Users still need to enter in a 25-character activation key when first installing the software in order to unlock its license. Just like in its Windows operating system, users who skip this step are still able to use the software, but with reduced functionality.

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

Adobe records first billion-dollar quarter

Adobe Systems said Tuesday that it recorded its first ever billion-dollar quarter, beating Wall Street’s estimates and forecasting a bullish outlook for its first quarter.

For the fourth quarter, the company reported non-GAAP earnings of 56 US cents per share, up from a 6 US cents per share loss for the same quarter a year ago. Revenue for the fourth quarter was US$1.01 billion, a 33 percent jump over the US$757.3 million reported a year ago. (Statement)

Wall Street analysts has been expecting earnings of 52 US cents per share on revenue of US$988.1 million.

Foursquare iPhone app: Now with photos

A new version of geolocation service Foursquare’s iPhone app hit the iTunes App Store Tuesday morning, bringing photos and comments to the product for the first time. Foursquare members can now post comments on their friends’ “check-ins,” as well as attach photographs to the directory listings for venues they visit and tips they leave behind.

These new features will be available on Foursquare’s Android app later in the week and then on its BlackBerry application next month.

Photo services Instagram and Picplz, as well as food photo network Foodspotting, are already tapped into the new Foursquare so that a photo can be cross-posted to Foursquare, and the company says that additional third-party tie-ins like Facebook and Flickr uploads are on the way.

Photos attached to a check-in are only visible to your Foursquare friends as well as other social networks where you’ve shared that Foursquare check-in, but photos added to tips and venues are public. Comments on a check-in are only visible to other people who could normally see that check-in.

As Foursquare’s original hook–the idea of pinging your friends with a geo-tagged location–has become a commodity rather than a unique feature, it’s had to move forward to add additional functions. Facebook, which once expressed interest in acquiring Foursquare, now offers check-ins of its own through Facebook Places; business reviews site Yelp also has added check-ins. Meanwhile, other formerly buzzworthy start-ups in the geolocation space are throwing in the towel: Brightkite has switched over to group text messaging altogether, and Gowalla now offers a way to aggregate check-ins from multiple services including ex-competitor Foursquare.

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

Taking IBM’s supercomputer to Final ‘Jeopardy’

When you consider mashing up supercomputers and games, there’s little doubt that many people think of IBM’s Deep Blue Grand Challenge project–which beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov in a famous 1997 showdown–as the standard by which all future projects would be judged.

Now, IBM is trying to outdo itself with Watson, another supercomputer Grand Challenge that, this time, will attempt to beat the world’s most successful players of the long-running hit TV game show “Jeopardy”.

And while “Jeopardy” might not be the first game show to cross your mind as being worthy of a full-scale four-year IBM Research project, Big Blue thinks that the Alex Trebek-hosted show offers one of the most important natural-language processing challenges it has ever come across.

IBM has been working on–and talking about–the project, code-named Watson, for some time. And this fall, it conducted dozens of tests, pitting Watson against a series of former “Jeopardy” players to see if it was prepared to take on the best in the world.

And now, IBM has decided Watson is ready. The company announced that Watson will take on two of the most successful “Jeopardy” players in history, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, in February 2011, in a bid to see if its computer is good enough to beat the best humans at this most abstract of word games, and demonstrate its natural-language processing utility for a wealth of other fields as well.

Watson Research Manager Eric Brown, sat down for a 45 Minutes on IM interview to talk about the program, and to tout the computer’s chances of beating “Jeopardy” kingpins like Jennings and Rutter, who between them, won more than US$5.75 million.

CNET: Well, I want to thank you for taking the time to do this. To start, I wonder if you could quickly sum up the Watson project from your perspective for those readers that aren’t familiar with it?
Brown: The Watson project is a Grand Challenge project being pursued by IBM to build a computer system that can compete on “Jeopardy” at the level of a human grand champion. To solve this Grand Challenge, we have built an automatic open domain question answering system, called Watson. Watson is built on top of IBM’s DeepQA (for Deep Question Answering) technology.

Why is “Jeopardy” a game worthy of being the follow-up to Deep Blue? I understand why–but I wonder if a lot of people would think of “Jeopardy” being worthy of being put alongside chess as an intellectual challenge.
Before Deep Blue, people though it was impossible to build a computer system that could beat a grand master at chess, which made that a very interesting Grand Challenge problem. But chess is fairly mathematical and well defined–each game state and the corresponding possible moves can be easily represented by a computer. “Jeopardy” requires understanding natural human language, which, unlike chess, is completely open-ended, is often ambiguous, and requires context to understand. Although humans can easily understand language, building computer systems that understand natural human language is extremely challenging. “Jeopardy” is a fantastic way to push the limits of this technology.

I watched the “Why Jeopardy” video, and I was struck by something someone said–the idea of Don’t answer a question if you don’t think you’ve got it right. Does that happen with Watson? And if so, why would it not know the answer?
That’s a key element of “Jeopardy”–if you get the answer wrong, you are penalized and the value of the clue is subtracted from your score–not unlike in business where, if you make wrong decisions with bad information, you will get penalized. This means that not only must Watson come up with the correct answer but also a meaningful confidence in the answer to decide whether or not to even attempt the clue. As to whey Watson would not know the answer, perhaps the question should be, how could Watson know any of the answers?

Here are a few things to consider. First, when playing “Jeopardy”, Watson must be completely self contained–it cannot be connected to the Web. All of the content Watson uses to answer questions is identified ahead of time, before seeing the questions.

Second, “Jeopardy” clues can cover any topic. In fact, we analyzed a random sample of 20,000 clues and found 2,500 different kinds of things the clues ask about. With such a broad domain, we couldn’t possibly predict every clue “Jeopardy” might ask and build a database of answers. Instead, the DeepQA technology that underpins Watson reads millions of pages of text and uses deep natural language processing techniques to generate candidate answers and evaluate those answers along many different dimensions.

Finally, the “Jeopardy” clues are expressed using complex, often tricky, natural human language. Just understanding what the clue is asking for is a challenge.

Briefly, what is the source of the content Watson uses to answer questions?
Watson uses encyclopedias, dictionaries, news stories, books, and Web content, among other resources.

So, how did the Watson team decide that Watson was ready to take on the top “Jeopardy” champions?
Over the last four years of developing Watson, we’ve evaluated the system in two major ways. First, we run large test sets–say, 3,000 questions–in batch mode to evaluate system performance, conduct error analysis, and improve the system. Results over this many questions give us a statistically significant performance measurement.

The second way we’ve evaluated Watson is by competing in “sparring” matches against former “Jeopardy” players. Last winter we played 79 games against people that had appeared on “Jeopardy”, and this past fall, we played 55 games against Tournament of Champion “Jeopardy” players. These sparring matches have provided a lot of insight into Watson’s performance.

How confident are you that Watson can beat the champs? And how surprised would you be if one of the champs came out on top?
We are very confident that Watson will be competitive. However, the exhibition match is just two games, and anything can happen. Watson (or any player, for that matter) could get [unlucky] with the categories or the Daily Doubles. This is another reason why we played the sparring matches–to create a record over a much larger set of games.

After these large tests you’ve done, what kind of questions give Watson the hardest time?
Since we haven’t played the final exhibition match yet, I can’t give you any specifics. I will say that we’re often surprised by some of the clues Watson can get right.

In one of the videos about Watson, I noticed a moment where, when asked to identify two of the men in the R.E.M. song, “It’s the end of the world as we know it” with the initials “L.B.”, Watson totally misunderstands and responds, “I feel fine.” What had to change for it to get past those kinds of basic language misunderstandings?
The interesting point here is that humans might perceive that as a “basic language misunderstanding”, but let’s look at what’s really going on. That kind of clue is challenging because of the many layers. You have to know the lyrics of the song, know what a “person” is, find the people in the lyrics, know what “initials” are, and match the initials to come up with the answer. This requires complex decomposition and nested processing.

Tell me what’s surprised you most about working on this project?
I think the biggest surprise is how quickly we’ve been able to push the technology. When we started this project, our state-of-the-art question answering system at the time was nowhere near being competitive at “Jeopardy”. Over the last four years, this team has made incredible progress and solved innumerable challenges, from natural language processing algorithms to scale out and latency. Seeing it all come together has really been amazing.

Another surprising element is the way this challenge has resonated within IBM, with our customers, and with the academic community. People are really drawn to “Jeopardy” as a demonstration of this technology. It has been very rewarding for the entire team.

How can what your team has learned on the Watson project be applied to other real-world projects/problems?
Watson is an application of underlying technology that supports better decision making by evaluating candidate answers (or “hypotheses”) with lots of different evidence and algorithms. We see a number of exciting applications of this approach in areas such as the medical domain, business intelligence, help desks, etc.

Finally (and this is the standard last question in this interview series), I like to do IM interviews for several reasons: it allows my guest to be more thoughtful and articulate than they might be in a phone or in-person interview; I get a perfect transcript; and instant messaging allows for multi-tasking. So, if you don’t mind, can you tell me what else you were doing during the interview?
I had a few IMs from colleagues, and I’ve talked to a few people that were in and out of the meeting room I’m sitting in. But for the most part I’ve been focused on this interview.

Excellent. Well, thank you very much for your time. I’m very excited by this project, and I really look forward to seeing how it turns out.
Great, thanks very much for the opportunity to share this with you and your readers.

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

Report: Software update to boost Kinect’s camera

Microsoft is said to be working on a software update to Kinect’s camera system that will improve the console add-on’s capabilities at detecting more subtle human gestures.

Eurogamer, which is sourcing the report, said that the update centers around increasing the camera resolution in the Kinect’s depth sensor from 320×240 to 640×480, a move Eurogamer said would enable the Kinect to potentially pick up things like finger and wrist movements.

The Kinect system is currently able to pick up and track 48 points on each player’s body, though Microsoft’s algorithms treat the hands as a single, solid pointing device within the system’s natural user interface. This has led developers like the Microsoft-owned Rare to add extra “across the body” follow-through movements to its Kinect Sports title to emulate ball spin in its bowling mini-game.

As part of the rumored update, Microsoft engineers are said to be working to increase the throughput of the Xbox 360’s USB connections, up from a reported 15-16MB per second to what will be closer to the ports’ 35MB/s limit. Compression of the Kinect’s signal is also said to be getting rejiggered in order to trim down how much data needs to get piped through. This is especially important given that an increased resolution of the image signal lends itself to a much larger stream than the current version.

Microsoft did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Besides the possibility of improved visual acuity, a larger video stream could improve a number of other Xbox features, including the quality of textures captured by the camera within games, and the VideoKinect chat application that is enabled once the Kinect hardware is plugged in. This could also end up being a nice business hook for the hardware, given Microsoft’s plans to make the Kinect compatible with its Lync communications service, as it outlined in the tool’s launch announcement last month.

Eurogamer is not providing any timeline of when the software update would be released.

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

Asia to be global mobile app hub

Asia will soon overtake the West and become a global hotbed for mobile application development and innovation, proclaim analysts who cite the region’s language diversity and long road to market maturity as main growth factors.

According to ABI Research, mobile application downloads will continue to increase over the next few years with Asia positioned as a key growth market.

In a report released Nov. 15, the analyst firm stated that between 2009 and 2015, application downloads in the Asia-Pacific region will clock a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 30 percent while application revenues will go up by 20 percent. By 2013, app downloads will hit 2.4 billion in Asia, accounting for about 20 percent of the world’s total available market.

Seet Fei Feng, research associate at ABI Research, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview, that the findings indicate that Asia is rapidly catching up with major and mature markets such as North America and Europe. In the long run, Asia will likely surpass the West as the global hub of mobile apps, Seet added.

She noted that the United States and Europe are currently still the dominant market for mobile applications, in which most of the world’s app developers are based. However she said Asia is in quickly playing catchup.

The analyst attributed the growth to increasing smartphone penetration in the region, which will consequently trigger consumer demand for localized app content in native languages. This, she said, will be the main push for more app developers based in Asia to flourish.

She added that the different languages and cultures make it difficult for developers based outside of Asia to enter markets in this part of the globe.

According to Seet, countries in the region such as China and India are also only starting to settle into 3G network technologies.

Combined with the rapid uptake of smartphones, she said there is “a lot of market potential in Asia for mobile apps and developers will [want] to target this segment”.

Ben Cavender, associate principal from China Market Research Group (CMR), concurred: “Asia will become a leader in both application downloads and application development.”

In an e-mail interview, Cavender explained that the mobile phone in Asia is the primary Internet access point, and many consumers use smartphones as their main computing device outside the home or office.

In the case of China, the CMR analyst noted that with a growing number of graduates from Chinese universities with programming specializations, China will see an increasing number of applications being developed in the country.

Michael O’Hara, chief marketing officer (CMO) at Wholesale App Community (WAC), noted that Asia is poised to be the global hotspot for mobile apps because the region is home to leading handset maker. WAC is a non-profit organization which aims to build an open apps platform.

In his e-mail to ZDNet Asia, O’Hara cited brands such as Korea’s Samsung, maker of the Galaxy tablet, and Taiwanese manufacturer HTC, which also had announced led plans to open its own app store.

ABI Research’s Seet also noted that even handset manufacturers and mobile app storefronts outside of Asia are beginning to recognize the significance of the Asian market. These organizations are actively encouraging a growing pool of local app developers to come up with useful and popular apps, she added. For instance, Research In Motion (RIM) will be holding its first BlackBerry DevCon Asia in Bali from Jan. 13 to 14 next year.

iPad and iPhone maker, Apple, in October also launched a Chinese language version of its App Store which stocks localized apps.

Declining revenue from app sales
While Asia will lead the next wave of app development and innovation, Seet does not believe it will be any easier for developers in the region to make a living solely out of creating apps.

“Sales will be uncertain with the vast amount of applications out there to compete with, and it will be a tough struggle to stay on the top of the download list,” she said.

According to ABI’s report, while app revenues will increase, income from app sales are expected to decline due to intense market competition which will drive down average selling price of apps.

Seet added that consumers today are also more receptive of advertisement-supported apps, which tend to be free for download.

Ralf Jahns, managing director of mobile analyst firm Research2Guidance, shared the same sentiments. He noted that while the smartphone app market will churn revenues totaling US$15.7 billion in 2013, up from just US$1.9 billion last year, it is tougher now to make money from building apps compared to two to three years ago.

Jahns explained that the biggest drop in app prices took place in 2008 and 2009, and by 2010, prices for paid apps had stabilized.

App publishers will have to turn to alternative revenue streams such as in-app advertising and in-app purchasing to generate revenue, he said.

He added that with the immense influx of mobile apps, app discovery on a mobile platform becomes problematic and there is less chance for developers to stand out from the crowd and make a profit.

Asia’s economic growth to spur cloud adoption

Strong economic growth in the Asian region will drive higher adoption of cloud technology, as will an established ecosystem of application developers who may eventually build the next big search engine or social media platform.

In a phone interview with ZDNet Asia, Microsoft Asia Pacific’s regional director for Internet policy, John Calligan, said strong economic activities in this part of the world have seen governments invest heavily in broadband technology, which is a fundamental element for cloud services.

This, together with a keen interest in deriving more efficiency from citizen services and cost savings, will result in a greater cloud adoption, Calligan explained.

While America and Europe are more advanced economies, compared to Asia, he said the current austerity drive is pushing IT to the backseat in those Western regions.

“Europe is going through an economic resizing that Asia isn’t going through,” he noted. “The slowdown has stifled innovation there, but I’m sure as [European] governments seek to drive more value, they will show great examples of cloud technology leveraging.”

In Asia, he said some markets are “evidently” more advanced in cloud adoption, depending on the country’s level of ICT maturity, geographical size and broadband penetration. He added that countries with wider cloud deployment will display examples of best practices.

Calligan observed: “Asia economies have pumped in US$55 billion to expand the broadband infrastructure over the last 12 months, this is on top of the massive investment countries have carried out for the past 15 years. This will definitely drive the development of cloud services.”

Service priorities to drive cloud in government
Elaborating on cloud adoption in the public sector, the Microsoft executive said governments will move different agencies to the cloud based on the priority of different services.

“Besides portal and Web-based services such as e-registration, we also see lots of excitement and opportunities for developing and incubating innovation. Governments not only lead by building cloud infrastructure, but also by creating an ecosystem where developers are able to come up with applications on the cloud platform,” Calligan said.

He said governments are leaning toward a private cloud implementation model, though, a hybrid deployment that includes the public cloud can help derive higher efficiency for governments.

For the public sector, the journey to the cloud is about consolidating and maximizing the server infrastructure, he noted. As a result, he said most are moving to a data center consolidation model while leveraging on existing ICT infrastructure.

Calligan explained: “For services with low risk [related to] data management and service delivery, agencies can rent a public cloud capacity and turn on infrastructure for a short period of time, [for example, to support] filing of records such as the census and elections, or for periods of a year.”

He said governments around the world, not just in Asia, are also adopting this measure for “peak-loading periods”.

However, cloud adoption in the public sector faces some challenges, he noted. “We see a lot of slowness because some agencies do not want to give up their infrastructure and be serviced by a [public] cloud,” he said. “So there’s a lot of dialog and discussion on how to move to a private cloud.”

One significant concern regarding cloud technology is the uncertainty over the location where data is stored and how strong data protection is to safeguard against criminal intent, he noted.

He reasoned, however, that even legacy systems today will inevitably have security gaps. He advised governments and private sector entities to audit their current IT structure and understand the level of security they currently have.

Calligan said: “It’s very interesting when people start to look at reliability, the level of redundancy and individual’s access to the system, it can move decision makers to understand that maybe their current infrastructure is not as stable and secure as they think it is.”

Oracle takes office suite to the cloud

Oracle has introduced Cloud Office 1.0, a cloud-based version of its office suite, which is aimed at Web and mobile users.

In its announcement on Wednesday, the business software specialist also launched OpenOffice 3.3, the most recent iteration of the desktop office software picked up in its acquisition of Sun. Both releases fall under the umbrella of Oracle Office and are built on the Open Document Format (ODF) open standard.

Cloud Office 1.0 promises to provide the same functionality found in its Oracle OpenOffice to users on the move, allowing on or offline editing of presentations, text documents or spreadsheets via a mobile device or Web interface. Like its desktop counterpart, Cloud Office is compatible with Microsoft Office.

Read more of “Oracle takes office suite to the cloud” at ZDNet UK.

Report: HTML5, Silverlight headed to WP7 browser

The Internet Explorer browser that’s built into Windows Phone 7 devices could be getting two very important additions next year: support for HTML5 and Microsoft’s Silverlight runtime.

A report by ZDNet Asia’s sister site, ZDnet Thursday morning says the extra functionality may come in the form of a major update codenamed “Mango” that is set to be released in August or September of 2011. That’s well after the rumored January or February release timeline for the phone update that will bring the long-awaited copy and paste functionality.

While the two extra Web features may not seem like game-changers, they move Microsoft‘s mobile browser into a more competitive spot among its peers, including efforts from Apple, Google, and Opera. It also lets browser users venture to more Web destinations and use more tools without running into compatibility pitfalls.

As far as the two technologies go, Silverlight is used as part of a number of media delivery platforms, as well as rich media applications. And despite being a very important part of Windows Phone 7 application development, Silverlight cannot currently be found in the mobile version of IE that ships in WP7 devices.

HTML5, on the other hand, is one of the things that did not make it onto the platform from the get-go, despite being a major feature of Microsoft’s latest desktop browser. In recent months Microsoft has been touting HTML5 heavily, and recent rumors pointed to it playing an important role as part of Microsoft-incubated Web apps marketplace.

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

Flash video gets a cloud option through Amazon

Adobe Systems’ Flash Media Server software is now available as a pay-as-you-go option on the Amazon Web Services cloud-computing technology, the companies announced Thursday.

Flash Media Server 4 lets customers send streaming video across the Net. By using it hosted on AWS‘ Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) service, customers don’t have to worry so much about installation and configuration details.

The service costs a flat rate of US$5 to set up and US$5 per month to use, with variable costs according to the video-streaming capacity needed and data transferred. For example, an extra-large server instance that can manage up to 1,000 Real-Time Media Flow Protocol video connections costs US$1.30 per hour, along with 10 US cents per gigabyte of data coming in from a device such as a user’s Webcam and 15 US cents per gigabyte of data being streamed outward.

Adobe shared full pricing details on its Web site.

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.


EMC expands Atmos for cloud service providers

Storage company EMC has released an add-on for its Atmos cloud storage offering that makes it easy for customers to add cloud storage to their services.

The EMC Atmos Cloud Delivery Platform (ACDP), announced Tuesday, adds a host of modules that will allow Atmos customers to turn the storage product into a storage-as-a-service platform without having to write their own metering, management, utilization and billing modules.

ACDP can be used by Atmos customers to offer cloud archiving, backup, collaboration and other storage-as-a-service solutions to customers. By using ACDP, says EMC, Atmos customers will be able to cut the time it takes them to deploy cloud services via Atmos from months to “a matter of days”.

Read more of “EMC expands Atmos for cloud service providers” at ZDNet UK.

Global SaaS market to hit US$9B in 2010

Worldwide software-as-a-service (SaaS) revenue within the enterprise application software market is expected to hit US$9.2 billion this year as more enterprise customers get comfortable with the technology and delivery model, according to Gartner’s latest report.

The research firm, which released its report on Wednesday, stated that 2010’s projected SaaSrevenue for enterprise application software is a 15.7 percent improvement on 2009’s US$7.9 billion intake. Additionally, as the market is growing from strength to strength, Gartner is expecting to see the industry rake in US$10.7 billion for next year–a hike of 16.2 percent from the current year.

Explaining the firm’s positive outlook for the enterprise software industry, Gartner’s research director, Sharon Mertz, said: “Initial concerns about security, response time and service availability have diminished for many organizations as SaaS business and computing models have matured and adoption has become more widespread.”

She added that as usage patterns and vendors’ on-demand ecosystems continue to evolve, additional business and technology services, vertical-specific functionality and stronger partner and buyer communities will be developed.

IT vendors, for instance, are on an expansionary track as they increase penetration within existing customer accounts as well as venturing into greenfield opportunities, Gartner pointed out. This, in turn, has led to a global SaaS landscape that is “evolving”, the report added.

Zooming in on the firm’s findings, content, communications and collaboration-based software continues to lead the enterprise SaaS market, with worldwide revenue for this segment on pace to reach US$2.9 billion in 2010, the report noted. This is followed closely by CRM (customer relationship management) programs, which will likely garner US$2.6 billion, Gartner stated.

Cloud computing supersedes SaaS
However, while overall SaaS revenue has and will continue to grow, its time in the IT spotlight has been replaced by a broader concept known as cloud computing during 2010. SaaS is now just one variation, representing the application layer, of the overall cloud architectural stack, the report stated.

That said, it is important to differentiate SaaS from hosting and application management or outsourcing, Mertz urged.

She pointed out that as cloud computing and SaaS are hot concepts in the market currently, many vendors are rebranding their hosting and application management or outsourcing capabilities as SaaS or cloud-based. This might result in customers experiencing “nasty shocks” when the software they have purchased turns out to be something else altogether, she added.

“[IT vendors] run the risk of confusing and antagonizing buyers if they persist in this approach,” Mertz cautioned. “Hosting and application management are not synonymous with SaaS, nor do they necessarily comply with the definition of cloud computing.”

Stallman: Chrome OS is ‘careless computing’

Richard Stallman, one of the computer industry’s most outspoken defenders of open software, doesn’t like Chrome OS.

Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, continued to speak out against the notion of cloud computing today, telling The Guardian that the notion of Chrome OS’ cloud model might better be described as “careless computing” than as cloud computing. Chrome OS is loosely based on a project near and dear to Stallman’s heart–GNU/Linux–but “it is delivered without the usual applications, and rigged up to impede and discourage installing applications,” he said.

That’s developer Google’s point: it believes that a Netbook that can’t install external applications will be inherently more secure than one that could install malware, and that a system without a lot of preinstalled applications will boot much faster. The consumer launch of Chrome OS Netbooks has been delayed about six months past its original launch target, but CR-48 test units are percolating out to reviewers.

Stallman is particularly concerned about the loss of control of one’s data with such a computing model, citing the example of a government official being able to confiscate your data without having to actually show a warrant at your front door. He’s been sounding this alarm for several years, though there’s disagreement as to just how seriously his warnings should be heeded.

He’s not the only one voicing concerns about Chrome OS today: Paul Buchheit, the former Google engineer who created Gmail, predicted on Twitter that the project will get killed or merge with Google’s other operating system, Android, at some point over the course of next year. No less of an authority than Google co-founder Sergey Brin has suggested that such a combination could be in store for Android and Chrome OS, though Google’s tendency to set up competitive projects, such as Buzz and Wave, appears to have been the strategy behind the two operating-system projects.

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

Report: Windows 8 could make CES appearance

The first public glimpse at the next version of Microsoft’s Windows could happen as soon as next month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

That’s according to The New York Times, which has posted a report detailing the software giant’s tablet-centric CES keynote plans, including at the bottom the Windows 8 bombshell.

Thus far Microsoft has remained tight-lipped about Windows 8, though there have been leaked documents, job postings, PowerPoint presentations, and nebulous release dates written in Dutch, that have helped paint a clearer picture of its possible launch timeline and planned feature set.

Along with what could be a live demonstration of the yet-to-be-announced operating system, The Times says Microsoft also intends to unveil a Web app platform. This would offer HTML5-centric Web apps in a similar fashion to Google’s efforts with its Chrome Web Store; however, The Times says Microsoft’s intentions are to make it fully distributed. Such a feature would seemingly go against the leaked slides that pointed toward Microsoft building a centralized software marketplace into Windows itself.

The Times also goes into some detail about Microsoft’s tablet unveilings, which are said to include a Samsung-made, Windows 7 slate. Unlike most in that class, this one will include a slide-out keyboard (akin to a smartphone), and is said to be “similar in size and shape to the Apple iPad”, albeit a bit thicker.

Microsoft’s CES keynote last January included just a handful of tablets, including one from Hewlett-Packard, which later became the Slate 500. An analyst report from Goldman Sachs posted over the weekend said the company is currently in danger of losing some of its top-line revenue next year, due in part to its approach to mobile devices–both phones and tablet PCs. We’ll certainly get a clearer picture of what 2011 holds in store for both of those devices come next month.

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

Apache foundation quits ‘proprietary’ Java process

The Apache Software Foundation has resigned from the Java steering group, claiming that the widely-used scripting platform is a proprietary technology under the full control of Oracle.

In a blog post last week, the Apache Software Foundation (ASF) developer community said its resignation from the Java Community Process (JCP) Executive Committee (EC) followed the committee’s approval of the Java SE 7 specification, as proposed by Oracle. The ASF said the specification came bound up with license terms that continued to forbid the distribution of independent, open-source Java implementations.

This vote was the only real power the Executive Committee has as the governing body of the Java specification ecosystem, and as we indicated previously we were looking for the EC to protect the rights of implementers to the degree they are able, as well as preserve the integrity of the JCP licensing structure by ensuring that JCP specifications are able to be freely implemented and distributed,” the post read.

Read more of “Apache foundation quits ‘proprietary’ Java process” at ZDNet UK.

Oracle: SAP owes us an additional US$211M

It appears that the record US$1.3 billion judgment that a federal jury awarded to Oracle in its copyright infringement battle with SAP last month isn’t enough. The company is asking for an additional US$211.7 million in interest, according to a San Jose Mercury News report posted last week.

The interest would “fully compensate” the company for the software licenses that SAP should have paid for in 2005 and 2006, the company said in its court filing last week.

SAP, which is still considering an appeal to the verdict, told Dow Jones:

We don’t believe that Oracle is entitled to any additional compensation beyond the final judgment in this case… We are, of course, disappointed by this verdict and will consider all available options. This will unfortunately be a prolonged process and we continue to hope that the matter can be resolved appropriately without more years of litigation.

Amazon eases iOS and Android app development

Amazon Web Services has cut the steps needed for developers to hook a mobile iOS or Android application into the Amazon cloud.

On Thursday, Amazon Web Services (AWS)–the cloud-computing subsidiary of Amazon–launched software development kits (SDKs) for both the Google-backed Android and Apple’s iOS operating systems.

“The mobile SDKs make it easier for software developers to call an AWS Web service API directly from a mobile application. Previously, developers either wrote their own libraries to handle the HTTP connection, request retries, and error handling, or built additional infrastructure to proxy the API  requests through a server fleet,” AWS said in its launch announcement.

Read more of “Amazon eases iOS and Android app development” at ZDNet UK.

Google pitches Exchange backup with Postini

Google continued to remind enterprise IT managers that it wants to provide alternatives to Microsoft’s e-mail products.

With the launch of Google Message Continuity, an e-mail backup service, Google wants to get a toehold in companies that run Microsoft Exchange servers for e-mail by offering themselves up as a backup solution should something go wrong with those servers. The idea is that in the event of an Exchange outage, workers could sign into Google accounts and get their regular work e-mail as usual through Google’s interface.

The real idea, of course, is to convince more and more IT managers to think about using Google instead of Microsoft as they consider Web-based e-mail and office productivity tools. Google has been pushing this strategy for several years now, hoping to dent Microsoft’s lucrative hold on enterprise software in much the same way that Microsoft is trying to derail Google’s search dominance with Bing.

Google is pitching the service as a way to avoid the problems caused on downtime of on-premise e-mail software, skating over the fact that Web-based e-mail services aren’t exactly 100 percent reliable either. Still, a combination of the two seems to make sense, as it’s unlikely both would be down at the same time.

More information about the service can be found on Google’s Postini Web page.

This article was first posted as a blog post on CNET News.

Microsoft’s voice platform to get a ‘brain’

Microsoft wants to make its voice platform a little more decisive.

Over the years, Microsoft’s speech technology has gotten increasingly more capable of figuring out what people are saying, as well as letting them do voice-powered searches and commands on devices besides the phone. But what’s been missing is the second part of the equation, which is a deeper understanding of their meaning and the context behind them.

To that end, Microsoft is in the process of building what it’s calling “conversational understanding” (CU), which mixes speech, a dictionary, grammatical structures, and machine learning to better figure out what users are saying so that the system can spit out an answer that takes into account all those things.

While there’s not yet a Microsoft-created product or a service available that does this, the vision for CU is coming together, Zig Serafin, the general manager of Microsoft’s speech group, told ZDNet Asia’s sister site CNET.

“Everything that we’ve been doing up to this point has been knowing what people are saying,” Serafin said. “If you use the analogy of a human, it’s like having a really good ear. Did I hear what you were saying while you were out on the go while you were on the corner of Market and San Francisco, and did I hear it well enough to be able to give the response you wanted?”

The next step, Serafin explained, was to get those words to do more than start a Web search, make a phone call, or launch an app.

“Where things are going, and where we’re right on the cusp of moving into is the brain element of the system. And that is understanding meaning,” Serafin said. To make that a reality, it’s meant getting the various pieces of Microsoft’s speech technology to work together.

That infrastructure is made up of a handful of technologies, both consumer and enterprise. Names you might recognize include TellMe, Bing’s 411 service and its iPhone app, the voice search on Windows Phone 7, and in places like the car with Sync. More recently it’s popped up on the Xbox 360 as part of the Kinect, which is Microsoft’s first implementation of an always-on microphone system that keeps an ear open for voice commands instead of requiring a button press.

Most of these systems revolve around finding out what users are saying, then feeding that back into the cloud. Though in some cases, those commands can be simple enough to not need to phone home. For instance, saying something like “play (song name)” or “call mom” can be processed locally, but if you’re saying something that goes outside of that short list of commands, it will ping Microsoft for the answer.

The idea behind CU is to take all this one big step further by hooking into buckets of data–be it third-party sites or private data feeds to add context to user queries and figure out what the user was trying to do. To that end, it’s not all just about search.

“[For] the application of conversational understanding, certainly search is one, but it’s much, much broader,” said Ilya Bukshteyn, Microsoft’s senior director of marketing for TellMe, the voice company Microsoft bought in 2007, and later folded into its speech group. “Understanding intenton search is going to be key to actually helping you complete your task instead of just finding data,” he said.

Bukshteyn detailed a system where Microsoft will be able to take something like helping plan dinner for two people, and break it down into a query that uses data from various places such as calendars, restaurant ratings, and location.

“All of that data is actually available in different places,” Bukshteyn said. “So having an engine and a service that can look in all those places–looking around your calendar, your past history, places you have in common that you may have been to, and then can assist you by giving you a few places to choose from, and then finalize that reservation we think is going to be of tremendous value.”

The secret, of course, is getting that process started by telling your phone you simply want to go out to dinner that evening. “This is effectively where Microsoft’s speech tools are headed,” Serafin said.

Echoing comments about Microsoft’s goal to get Bing to be able to consolidate multistep tasks into one action, made last month by Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft’s senior vice president of Online Audience Business, Serafin outlined a system that would make the number of apps users have installed on their phone, as well as the need to use them all, less critical.

“This area where you’re actually able to complete tasks that may have taken you multiple keystrokes, may have taken you multiple apps…In this world of understanding, you actually get into an environment where you can assist the user in what they’d like to get done,” he said.

As for when all this is coming, Serafin wouldn’t say. “There’s implementation that we’re building on this basis, and you’ll see more forthcoming on it,” he said. “What we’re highlighting is the strategy behind it, and how it actually makes use of what we’ve built up until this point.”

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.