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February 29, 2008
Promises of privacy play prominently in new services for storing consumer medical records online. Privacy and security, for example, are the top issue in a Google blog about its new service, called Google Health. The initiative, like others from Microsoft and Revolution Health, will offer a central, online account for storing and monitoring a patient's medical data.
But the new services don't come with the federal guarantees of privacy, a privacy group warns. Those rules apply only to healthcare providers, such as a hospital or a health plan.
Consumers are free to voluntarily move their data to a third party, such as the new online services. But strict federal privacy protections "generally do not 'travel' with or follow a medical record that is disclosed to a third party outside the healthcare treatment and payment system," says the World Privacy Forum.
Many patients will take advantage of the services, which aim to ease the crush of healthcare paperwork and give consumers more control over their care. But even well-managed and well-intentioned services will weaken consumer control over data.
"We won't sell or share your data without your explicit permission," wrote Google exec Marissa Mayer.
Sounds good. But part of the federal rules governs exactly how a consumer would "explicitly" agree to share records. Without government controls, the privacy forum warns, it could be much easier for a consumer to accidentally or casually authorize the sharing of records.
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February 28, 2008
Sprint has one-upped its competitors with an all-you-can-eat plan of $100 a month. The struggling wireless company, as it announced a whopping $29.5 billion loss for the fourth quarter, added unlimited data services to the unlimited voice buckets recently offered by AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and T-Mobile.
It'll be interesting to see if the stronger companies respond to Sprint. Most of the wireless carriers had just started to reap benefits from the billions they spent on high-speed data networks. For several years, consumers didn't seem much interested. Now we're using phones for text messaging, Web surfing, and media sipping in rapidly growing numbers.
The data revenues reported by Sprint's competitors are impressive. AT&T said data sales had jumped nearly 60 percent in the fourth quarter over a year earlier. Verizon Wireless saw its revenues jump 65 percent for the full year. Sprint trailed, with data revenues up only 21 percent for the year.
The last thing most of the industry wants is a price war for Web and related services. Sprint apparently is too desperate to care.
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February 27, 2008
Keeping home PCs safe from bad guys on the Internet is a constant hassle, especially if you're running Windows computers. And the hassle is multiplied by the number of PCs in a home. Each computer needs its own virus, spyware, and intrusion protection—and one for the kids might need parental controls.
Network companies feel your pain. They also sense an opportunity, and they're trying to move the protection from the computer to the network's hub, which they happen to build and sell. D-Link, for example, recently introduced a suite of security services that can operate on one of its high-end routers, the DIR-625.
Called SecureSpot 2.0 Services, the software offers a Web-based console that provides one place to monitor, install, and customize how a network is protected. The privilege comes at a price of $60 for three computers and $20 a year for added PCs. That's on top of the cost of the router, which runs about $80 online.
Expect many more routers and network devices to come with similar options. Networking giant Cisco is adding the ability to home routers sold under its Linksys brand. Also, the company that developed the services used by D-Link, Bsecure Technologies, is peddling its product to others.
If the D-Link offering is typical, the cost is higher than street prices for security software from outfits like Symantec and McAfee. But if SecureSpot does the job and cuts the hassles, it is worth it.
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February 26, 2008
Analysts debated today whether you can count on a new economic indicator: Google clicks. Google's shares fell about 5 percent in trading as several analysts said a reported drop in paid clicks could indicate that an economic slowdown is hitting the search market. The fear is that companies will slow advertising and consumers are less likely to click on the ads—which is how Google makes its money—as their shopping appetite slows.
But hold on, says another company that monitors Web traffic. There is no sign yet of a drop in the amount of traffic going from Google to retail sites, says Bill Tancer, an analyst at Hitwise.
That would lend more credence to alternative theories. A few analysts argue that the drop in paid clicks may only reflect changes inside Google, which has said it's trying to clean up accidental and fraudulent clicks.
Online sellers who depend on Web searches to find their sites can tell you that internal Google changes can quickly shift traffic patterns, for good and bad. So it seems dangerous to look at one month of Google clicks as a broad indicator.
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February 22, 2008
Making phone calls over the Internet just seems to keep getting easier, and sometimes cheaper. A new approach goes by the humble name of magicJack. While it isn't exactly magic, the little device manages some clever tricks.
The first is magicJack's ease. Plug the matchbook-size device into a computer's USB port. Then into the device's other end you plug a phone—any plain old telephone, whether corded or cordless. The magicJack comes with software that loads onto a Windows or Mac PC, and you get a dial tone through the phone.
Calls seem clear—as clear as any others over the Internet. They're also cheap. MagicJack's $40 price includes a year of free domestic calls to and from the device, which comes with its own phone number, as well as voice mail and other features. Domestic calls after the first year run an additional $20 a year, with international calls available at rates starting at 2 cents a minute.
The big downside is that the computer has to be up and running for the phone to work, much like with the granddaddy of PC calling, Skype. Skype, by the way, also advertises several devices on its site that enable it to work with traditional phones.
They start at $50, and they don't come with a phone number and free calls to other phones. Those cost extra from Skype. They also don't match the ease of setting up magicJack, which has lowered the hurdle to cheap Internet calls.
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February 21, 2008
Speaking of robots, there are those who like arms and legs and those who don't. Japanese automakers who are demonstrating androids in Washington, D.C., say the machines must move like humans to exist in our homes, with all our stairs, furniture, and other obstacles.
But the only company to successfully sell robots into homes says no to appendages. "Forget the anthropomorphic features," says CEO Colin Angle of iRobot. His company has sold millions of the Roomba vacuum cleaners and Scooba moppers. They look more like round trilobites crawling on the floor than they do humans.
Arms and legs look good, but they're too expensive for the function they add, Angle says: "Humanoid robots are never going to be practical."
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February 20, 2008
When Sony's Blu-ray and Toshiba's HD DVD launched their fight two years ago, high definition was spotty even in network prime-time shows, and only a few cable channels offered HD versions. Nobody thought about downloading an HD movie over the Internet. How times have changed. Sony's Blu-ray now faces stiff competition for HD dollars:
XStreamHD: Satellite networks DirecTV and Dish Network are fast adding high-definition channels to their services. XStream says it will launch later this year and promises an even better video experience, with full 1080p images and 7.1 surround sound coming directly into the home. The box will cost $400 plus rental/purchase charges, and we've yet to see which and how many movies XStream will offer. But even if XStream doesn't succeed, Blu-ray faces stiff competition in the added offerings from DirecTV and Dish.
Toshiba: You didn't think Toshiba was going away, did you? Toshiba and many competitors make standard DVD drives that do a good job of converting yesterday's disks to nearly high-definition resolution. The drives can be found at well under $100, in contrast to the cheapest Blu-ray drives, which run $300 on sale. Blu-ray will find it tougher to supplant standard DVDs than those disks did in replacing videotape. Many consumers will be happy to keep their current disk library with a good upscaling drive.
Comcast: The cable provider is leading its industry's efforts to offer more movie titles on demand, saying it hopes to have 6,000 a month available by year's end. Half of those would be available in high definition. Comcast is also adding HD channels and has reportedly said it could eventually offer hundreds. But that would mean a breakthrough in cable tech; today's coax systems limit most cable providers to a dozen or two HD channels.
Verizon: High-def content is a key motivation for Verizon and AT&T to spend billions of dollars to upgrade their systems for new television services. Verizon is running fiber optic cable to homes that can probably carry as many HD channels as Verizon can buy, including any that start offering movies in the top 1080p resolution that now only Blu-ray can produce. Verizon says it hopes to soon offer 150 HD channels. But so far, the telcos are offering only a few dozen channels in a lineup similar to those of most cable providers.
Vudu: This $300 box is the best dedicated device yet for downloading video from the Internet. Vudu has an innovative remote and software that makes video simpler to play than even Blu-ray, which means having to get and insert a disk into a player. On the downside, Vudu works just in homes with top-speed Internet access. Also, it so far offers fewer than 100 HD titles, the quality doesn't match Blu-ray's, and rentals are available only for 24 hours once they start playing.
Apple TV: This $230 box is fast becoming the best of the digital media adapters, which include Microsoft's Xbox 360 and are designed to link the TV to computers and the Internet. The latest Apple TV version can now function without a PC, enabling direct downloads from Apple's iTunes store and access to YouTube videos, among others. The iTunes store has only about 100 high-def titles available—and like Vudu, the quality doesn't match Blu-ray's, and rentals are available for just 24 hours once they start playing.
WNBC: Yes, the lowly antenna is more of a competitor than it was two years ago. The late-night shows have all gone high def, as has most prime-time and news programming. And while broadcast stations can't deliver 1080p as can Blu-ray, the HDTV delivered over the air is crystal clear—and cost free.
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February 19, 2008
In the fast-changing world of video tech, two years seems an eternity. The question is whether it's a fatal delay for high-definition movies on disk.
Toshiba announced Tuesday that it was abandoning the high-def disk battle, giving the victory to Sony and its Blu-ray format. And Toshiba isn't messing around, saying it would get out of the market by the end of next month. The company sounds as if it just wants to flush out the existing inventory of its loser HD DVD players.
Sony now has a clear field to sell movies and TV shows on disk. But the two-year fight with Toshiba over formats had gummed up the market, forcing studios to choose sides in releasing movies and stalling consumer purchases. Buyers hesitated to end up with a disk version of Betamax, the video format that lost to VHS in the last great format war.
But Sony hardly has a clear field overall. Compared with two years ago, consumers now have a vast array of choices for getting high-def content. New telco systems from Verizon, AT&T, and others are launching with dozens of HD channels. Verizon alone promises 150 in a year or two and 200 eventually. HDTV offerings are also surging on traditional cable and satellite systems, with DirecTV nearing 100 and Comcast running fast to keep up.
And suddenly nipping at the heels of all of those is the Internet, where consumers can now download HD movies and TV shows. The downloads come from nascent services like Apple's iTunes and Vudu that offer only 100 or so titles each. But the studios that produce video entertainment are intrigued by the Internet, which cuts out bulky, balky middlemen like Sony, Wal-Mart, and Comcast.
And so are consumers. Even cable's video-on-demand services have struggled, at least compared with the initial flush of Internet video, writes James L. McQuivey, a market analyst at Forrester Research: "Competition to satisfy consumers' on-demand needs through the Internet has taken off like a rocket."
Blu-ray still has advantages. Consumers like disks—they offer convenience and simplicity. The disk players remain the easiest way to watch a movie, once the disk is in hand. The quality of high-definition video also varies, and Blu-ray disks best any cable, satellite, or Internet version. There simply is no beating the quality of video and audio that can be loaded onto a Blu-ray disk, with its vast storage capacity.
Blu-ray, for example, is now the only place to get the true 1080p resolution, which is the top video quality that can be played back on some TVs. Vudu claims to offer movies in 1080p, but its Internet delivery forces compression that won't match Blu-ray's quality, at least not yet.
But few consumers can see the resolution differences, particularly on sets that are 42 inches and smaller. Even on larger sets, only videophiles might care. High definition in any of its many flavors still impresses most consumers. So it's unclear if a small quality advantage will be enough for Blu-ray to get firmly established in America's living rooms before competitors match its quality. Two years was a long time to lose.
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February 14, 2008
Corrected on 2/15/08: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the number of PlayStation 3 consoles that will be sold as of 2008. ISuppli predicts that 20 million will be sold.
Apparently, it's no joke in that commercial where a game player's pitch smashes the flat-panel screen. It's a real problem, especially with the Wii console and its interactive games. So we shouldn't be surprised that Panasonic is pitching a plasma TV as Wii resistant.
Plus, Panasonic is going after a fast-growing market. The inexpensive ($250) game console is still selling fast, judging from sites that track the rare Wii. The consoles sell out almost as fast as I can switch to the retailer's site.
"Wii shall overcome," says a note from market analysts at iSuppli. They say the Wii will soon eclipse Microsoft's Xbox as the most popular gaming platform. By year's end, consumers will have bought about 30 million Wiis versus about 26 million of Microsoft's console. Sony's PS3 will trail at 20 million.
But don't feel sorry for Sony. iSuppli predicts the PS3 will regain momentum. The three consoles will have nearly evenly divided the market by then, with Wii holding its own—even if players can't hold onto the Wii.
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February 13, 2008
Everyone has to agree that one of the great benefits of the switchover to digital TV is extra channels. Everyone except Microsoft, apparently. Microsoft's Windows software insists the added programs don't exist. Windows Media center ignores, for example, three extra channels broadcast by my local PBS station. One is a 24-hour kids channel that's a lifesaver when we want to plop our boys in front of the TV.
Media Center is part of some Windows editions and records television, among other things. But Media Center will not download programming data for the extra digital channels. That means there's no practical way to schedule recordings.
Other recording software, such as BeyondTV, handles the extra digital channels just fine. In user forums, Microsoft employees concede the shortcoming. It isn't a bug — just a feature that wasn't worth offering, they say, as so few Media Center users depend on broadcast TV.
Those who do can't depend on Windows.