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Irony alert: Microsoft, AT&T oppose Google\/DoubleClick merger on antitrust grounds

The old playground taunt of "it takes one to know one" seems especially apropos today as Microsoft and AT&T both raised antitrust questions about the proposed Google/DoubleClick merger. HangZhou Night Net

The $3.1 billion all-cash deal has attracted negative attention fromseveral major companiessince being announced last week. Microsoft's general counsel, Brad Smith, said in a statement yesterday that the deal "raises serious competition and privacy concerns in that it gives the Google-DoubleClick combination unprecedented control in the delivery of online advertising, and access to a huge amount of consumer information by tracking what customers do online."

While Microsoft may in fact care deeply about protecting your personal information online, the company also cares deeply about revenues—and it has made a strong push in the online advertising over the last few years. Despite its best efforts, Microsoft still trails Google in ad sales by alarge margin, and the proposed deal will widen the gap further.

Microsoft's complaint may be self-interested, but it may also have some validity;this is surely a merger that will receive more than a cursory glance from regulators. Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, told the New York Times last night that he's not worried. "We've studied this closely, and their claims, as stated, are not true," he said.

Smith estimates that the combined entity could control up to 85 percent of the online advertising market, which is a worringly high percentage unless you happen to sell desktop operating systems. Time Warner (one of the bidders for DoubleClick) and Yahoo (which also has a big stake in online advertising) are rumored to be in opposition to the deal as well, though neither company has yet come out publicly to say so.

If the companies do decide to launch a concerted campaign to derail the merger, expect it to follow the predictable logic of such events: "independent" reports will be commissioned, federal officials will be lobbied, commercials will air on DC television stations, and a "Normal, Ordinary Citizens Against Google Expansion" (NO CAGE) grassroots pressure group will form, though it will not disclose its sources of funding in order to "keep the debate focused on the facts." If the companies are feeling particularly gutsy, they might try to get state legislatures to pass motions denouncing the merger and demanding federal intervention. Whatever happens, expect a media circus in the run-up to the regulatory review.

Rural Arkansas school turns school buses into classrooms

The Sheridan school district in Arkansas is using technology to add academic value to the three-hour commute endured daily by students from neighboring rural communities. Originally conceived by Vanderbilt University biochemist Bill Hudson, Arkansas's Aspirnaut Initiative brings laptops, iPods, and wireless Internet to school buses in an effort to promote science education. HangZhou Night Net

Mobile computing technologies are increasingly perceived as an important tool for improving the quality of K-12 education. The Aspirnaut Initiative is the latest evidence of this emerging trend and could provide insight into the viability of mobile computing education programs. For the duration of the program's three-year trial, students aboard Sherdian's Bus 46 will use iPods to listen to educational podcasts, and "high ability" students will use laptop computers to connect to the Internet and interact with web-based learning programs. According to superintendent Scott Spainhour, students could someday receive actual course credits for the time they spend learning on the bus. At the end of the three-year trial, students who complete the program will be permitted to keep their iPods and laptops.

Opposite ends of the e-learning spectrum

A controversial e-learning initiative in Michigan that would have involved providing iPods to every student in the state was recently derailed in the face of widespread public criticism and allegations that the state legislators behind the program received personal incentives from Apple. The Michigan program was widely seen as a waste of state resources and a needless burden on taxpayers. Indeed, education technology programs are often regarded as poorly-planned boondoggles due to frequent mismanagement and high costs. Schools often lack the technical expertise required to make sound purchasing decisions and expensive hardware often goes unused. In many states, basic school needs are ignored in favor of costly technology programs that look good on paper but rarely live up to expectations.

Given all the problems faced by e-learning programs, will the Aspirnaut Initiative be able to succeed? There are some important differences between Aspirnaut and the Michigan program that are worth considering. With proper planning, highly-targeted technology initiatives can be used with success to resolve individual problems, but technology in and of itself isn't a panacea that can magically eliminate the impediments that detract from quality math and science education. Unlike the Michigan proposal, which offered a statewide program without a clearly-defined set of goals, the Aspirnaut program is designed to fulfill a very specific need for a particular audience of students. Aspirnaut's objective is to find a practical way to bring academic value to long bus rides for the benefit of students in rural communities who have limited exposure to technology.

Another advantage of the Aspirnaut program is that it differentiates between students on the basis of ability and provides individualized learning experiences accordingly. Such differentiation is important, because not all students are developmentally ready for advanced math and science curriculum. By providing students with access to technology and material based on their own readiness for it, the program limits the technology's potential to become a distraction rather than a learning aid.

It's also important to note that the Aspirnaut program is a limited three-year trial that focuses on a single bus rather than a statewide program. By performing an extensive trial before broad implementation, the program can easily be adjusted as needed to compensate for issues that emerge as as the trial progresses. If a larger program is eventually rolled out, implementors will have the benefit of experience and reliable data to help determine what works and what doesn't. Finally, I think it's worth noting that the Aspirnaut program receives donations from Vanderbilt University and is partially funded by private donations and fund-raising, so the experiment isn't entirely funded by taxpayers.

As technology becomes more important in the classroom, the lessons learned by unique and creative programs like the Aspirnaut Initiative will provide valuable insight to educators. It is imperative for state legislators and school districts to base technology initiatives on the results of practical trials rather than the overinflated rhetoric of vendors and the latest fads. Schools also must consider ongoing maintenance, upgrade, and licensing costs when making critical technology acquisition decisions. Hopefully, insights gained from programs like the Aspirnaut Initiative will help schools make more practical and productive choices when integrating technology in the classroom.

Google, Microsoft look beyond mobile search for voice interaction

Organizing all of the world's information is no good unless that information can be accessed, and Google's recent move into free 411 searches shows that the company is serious about voice search. But Google's plans appear to extend far beyond finding local businesses. In a patent issued last year, the company outlined a full-blown natural language voice search platform, and Microsoft's own recent acquisition of TellMe indicates that a voice search war could be brewing. HangZhou Night Net

The Google patent, issued in April 2006 and naming Sergey Brin as an inventor, describes a system for providing search results from voice queries, but it goes well beyond the system currently implemented as GOOG-411. In the patent, the inventors recognize the problems inherent in this sort of searching: lack of context and very short queries. "There is very little repetition in queries, providing little information that could be used to guide the speech recognizer," they note. "In other speech recognition applications, the recognizer can use context, such as a dialogue history, to set up certain expectations and guide the recognition. Voice search queries lack such context."

Nevertheless, Google believes that it can solve the problem, and the fruits of that effort appeared to be on display in GOOG-411, which can take moderately constrained input data (a business or business category, constrained by city) and return useful results. Though limited to business search at the moment, the system can handle a huge variety of accents and ways of requesting the same information, and pairing voice queries with the eventual search results is an excellent way to build up a database of useful voice snippets. This is exactly what Tim O'Reilly thinks is going on: Google is using an early implementation of the system to gather enough data to improve its voice recognition algorithms before a broader launch.

Voice search has been heating up in the last few months; one of Microsoft's largest buyouts this decade was made earlier this year, when the company acquired TellMe, which develops voice-recognition applications for use over the telephone. One of its most successful products is an automated 411 system; could Google's launch of a similar service less than a month after the Microsoft acquisition be pure coincidence? It certainly could, but it could just as easily be a show of strength from Google, which wants to make clear that Microsoft's expensive purchase can already be generally replicated by Google engineers.

Voice search, especially over mobile phones, stands to be a huge money-makerfor firms that can reliably automate the process of requesting information. Even directory assistance, which Google currently offers for free, is a cash cow, currently pulling in a buck a call or more. Late last year, the Kelsey Group estimated that directory assistance alone would service 6.3 billion requests in 2006—and that says nothing about demand for more general search services.

With that kind of potential revenue on the line, both Google and Microsoft hope to position themselves as leaders in the field. Both have been working with voice recognition for years; Google's patent discussed above was filed in 2001, and Microsoft's Richard Sprague told me at a recent conference that his company's voice recognition technology (now built into Vista) had been developed completely in-house over the last several years.

Nuance, another big player in the voice recognition market, won't offer a voice search tool itself, but already provides the tools to do so to third-party providers. And Yahoo, unlikely to abandon such a potentially lucrative market to its rivals, will no doubt make a voice search announcement of its own in the next six months.

The wisdom of unhealthy crowds: Web 2.0 takes on the flu

It's a familiar situation: the onset of some unpleasant symptoms of an illness leaves you wondering whether this is just the latest flu bug to wander into town, or if it's the first signs of something more serious. A new website called WhoIsSick hopes to harness websurfers' willingness to share what they're feeling in the hope that the information will provide a better perspective on whether to worry. HangZhou Night Net

The National Institutes of Health's information page on meningitis (a potentially fatal illness) illustrates the problem well: who hasn't had some of the symptoms on that list? The decision on whether to seek medical attention can be made more intelligently if you have some sense of whether there's a nonlethal virus that triggers similar symptoms going around.

This question hit home for founder P.T. Lee when his wife fell ill while on vacation, and couldn't decide how worried to be about it. Although some information regarding the spread of illnesses is available, sites like the CDC focus on specialized information and don't break things down on a fine scale, geographically. Most people aren't even aware of these resources, and tend to rely on friends and coworkers, who may not be available or have good information. Since he was on vacation, Lee had no access to these sorts of resources; after a drawn out visit to the local ER, he wound up convinced that there was a need for something better. To fill that need, he created WhoIsSick.

The site uses Google Maps to power its geographic features, but beyond that, the code is homegrown. Users generate content by inputting their zip code, choose from a list of symptoms, and add age, sex, and notes on their symptoms. "Symptoms were chosen to balance simplicity and coverage," Lee told Ars. "Based on research on health sites like CDC and discussions with doctors, we felt the six symptoms groupings would cover 90 percent of the common illnesses out there."

Those looking for information can search geographically, and filter based on symptoms, time, and other details. There's also a forum, although that currently features only about 25 posts. Ultimately, however, Lee plans on integrating the forums more closely with the rest of the site's content as WhoIsSick moves out of beta. Other plans include a weather map-style view of where infections are raging, as well as allowing other sites to incorporate limited pieces of content.

To be useful outside of large urban centers, Lee figures that they'd need about 100,000 visitors a month based on the assumption that only a few percent of them will contribute information. So far, he's optimistic: "The traffic has been stronger than expected. We are about three weeks into launch and are in the tens of thousands of unique visitors with a strong ramp."

Long term, however, WhoIsSick faces some of the same problems other sites do, from spam and other spurious submissions. But it also has some pretty unique issues, such as the probability that the target audience includes hypochondriacs who could amplify a few sniffles into a raging epidemic. Lee hopes that analytic software and filtering will help limit the impact and suggests that people will be interested in trends instead of specific reports.

The bigger problem for WhoIsSick, however, may be less with its content, and more with how people wind up using it. Lee says, "We really only want this site to be one additional source of data—not something that people would rely on for medical decisions." The site bears a disclaimer saying that "WhoIsSick is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice."

The fact that most of us recognize the problem WhoIsSick is supposed to help with provides some indication of the frequency with which people may end up checking their latest symptoms at the site. It seems inevitable that someone will eventually make the wrong decision based in part on information there; hopefully, when that happens, the disclaimers on the site will be sufficient to avoid a lawsuit. Because, for the majority of illnesses, WhoIsSick should provide some useful reassurance.

Adobe’s new Media Player: bring it on, QuickTime and WMP

Adobe introduced a new application for viewing media on the desktop this morning at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) show in Las Vegas. The application is called Adobe Media Player, which the company says builds upon the base of Adobe's Flash Player to help expand Adobe's video solutions online. Akamai CEO Paul Sagan, whose company is partnering with Adobe on the venture, described Adobe Media Player as "a technology portfolio that will drive new advances in Internet video authoring, playback and commerce." HangZhou Night Net

Unlike the current Flash Player, Adobe Media Player will enable content providers to monetize their media and provide new ways to distribute it. The application even offers options to protect their media through the use of "streaming encryption, content integrity protection, and identity-based protection." There will also be built-in options to provide analytics data on users so that content providers can have a better understanding of their audiences.

From the user perspective, Adobe claims that Media Player will offer higher-quality Flash playback than previously available. The application will also have the ability to play videos offline, "ways to discover interesting new shows," fullscreen capabilities, viewer ratings, and a Favorites feature that can automatically download new episodes of a show or podcast series.

It appears as if Adobe is getting serious about offering a richer video consumption experience on the desktop now that videos embedded in Flash format are widely available on the Internet. Flash Player has always provided the ability to watch .flv and .swf files and will probably continue to be the default option for testing within Flash itself, but offers an extremely limited user experience for actual media consumption. Adobe's new Media Player sounds like a much more robust application with the user experience and distribution options in mind, and that the company hopes will compete with the likes of Apple's QuickTime or Microsoft's Windows Media Player.

Adobe Media Player will be a cross-platform application, according to the company, and will be available as a free beta "later" in 2007 through Adobe's website. The full version is expected to be available toward the end of the year through Adobe and its technology partners.

Bungie releases two new Halo 2 maps today

Today Bungie and Microsoft drop two new Halo 2 maps on the masses of the Internets. The maps are titled Tombstone and Desolation, and are remakes of the classic maps Hang 'em High and Derelict. At $4 for the pack, this is a solid buy if you're still playing Halo 2 and have fond memories of those maps. Of course, Halo 2 doesn't know that there is such a thing as Xbox Live on the 360, so paying for the content is going to require a credit card. HangZhou Night Net

…we can't use Xbox Live Marketplace—it obviously doesn’t exist on the old Xbox. So this will be one of the last times you use a credit card proper to buy a map. In the Halo 2 game interface, you simply select the download option from the main interface, and it will show the new content there. This likely won't ever be available on a disc, like the last maps, so this is your only method for the moment. These maps could in theory be made free eventually, like last time, but the truth is that we’ll have moved on to Halo 3 by then and it won’t be a priority. So don't hold your breath.If you don't have a credit card, simply buy a $4 Visa gift card at a supermarket. Bam!

For simplicity's sake most Halo 2 players are going to drop the money for this content—without these two maps the new matchmaking playlists will simply tell you to buy the map if it rolls around. If one member of your crew buys the maps, odds are you will too, just to be able to play in all the playlists without interruption… a kind of peer-pressure to avoid bumps in play.

If you've had a chance to play these, what did you think?

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is no Thief, assets not Doomed

It's been a few weeks since the release of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., the anticipated FPSRPG—or Oblivion with guns, as some people have come to call it—set in the ruined lands of nuclear fallout. Things haven't been going so well for the title. After a roughfirst patch that created some issues for fans, rumors began to circulateabout the possibility of stolen assets being found in the game. Reportedly, certain graphical assets had been taken from Valve's Half-Life 2 and id Software's Doom 3. It didn't take long for some of the gaming press to run with it. However, it appears as though the assets in question are merely part of a generic texture pack sold by third-party asset creator Marlin Studios. The Inquirer has the scoop: HangZhou Night Net

Thanks to reader Rob S. for pointing out that the water textures used by both Valve and GSC GameWorld, the makers of STALKER, come from a texture pack sold by Marlin Studios. The chaps at Marlin make all kinds of exciting textures, including 'Home & Office Furniture – High Detail, Low Price!' and 'Traffic – Low Poly Pretextured Vehicles, SUVs and trucks you can even animate!'

Stunning stuff.

Valve has confirmed that it picked up some textures from Marlin for HL2, and separate sources have discovered that the IMP_Light texture that it was thought could have been pilfered from Doom 3 was, in fact, just a standard Impact Light texture, rather than referring to the Doom 3 monster.

The use of generic third-party assets is a common practice in many design firms, game or otherwise, so I'm frankly surprised that this is the first time that such an inquiry has been made—at least as far as I've witnessed. Regardless, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has now been cleared of all controversy and can resume its normal duties as the current post-apocalyptic shooter/RPG hybrid of choice amongst PC gaming fans.

Don’t settle for light speed; take Safari to ludicrous speed

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Being the default browser installed with an operating system has its advantages; just ask Internet Explorer on both the Mac and PC side. Yes, IE once shipped as the default choice for Mac users too, back in the dark days of OS 8/9. And it was fast, too, faster than anything else available at the time.

Today, Apple's browser of choice is Safari, based in part on the open source KHTML codebase and enhanced regularly through Apple's WebKit project. It's pretty fast, too, but not always. Sometimes, Safari can slow to a crawl depending on a variety of factors such as cache size or network congestion, or even how many tabs you have open at once. Sure, you could (and should!) switch to a better browser, but what if you don't want to?

MacFixit has an answer. Today's front page is devoted largely to a guide to speeding Safari back up, including some common and not-so-common fixes. Some of the highlights:

removing cached files in ~/Library/Safari, particularly the cached favicon data filesremoving the ~/Library/Preferences/ preference file (implicated in slow launch times)turn off AutoFill to improve browsing speed on pages with many text formsshorten the names of bookmarks to improve bookmark loading

In the comments for the article, you'll find two additional tips that I've personally found useful when trying to boost Safari's responsiveness: using the Activity Window (available, logically enough, under the Window menu or via Command-Option-A) to monitor individual page elements as they load; and enabling Safari's Debug menu to reveal an option for examining some of Safari's internal caches, including its JavaScript cache. This should help you out while you wait for Safari 3.0 to become available for 10.4…. we hope.

Don't forget that unless you're a MacFixit subscriber, the article will become unavailable after a couple of days, so if you're interested, better nab it now.

Microsoft tries to outshine Flash with Silverlight

Microsoft is preparing to announce the first public release of Silverlight, the new name for what was formerly Windows Presentation Foundation Everywhere, or WPF/E. The technologies will be formally announced at the "Mix07" conference, which starts on April 30 in Las Vegas. HangZhou Night Net

Silverlight is a set of technologies that are based on the Windows Presentation Foundation programming interfaces that shipped with Windows Vista. Formerly codenamed Avalon, the WPF toolkit allows all sorts of different multimedia types to be displayed on the screen, including vector graphics and video files. The language used to construct WPF objects is Microsoft's XAML, a XML-based user interface composition language. The idea behind WPF was to cleanly separate the user interface from the program itself. WPF/E was intended to be a cross-platform version of WPF that didn't have all the features of WPF, such as 3D acceleration support.

Silverlight running on Firefox, panning and zooming a vector image. Image courtesy of Microsoft.

Now, with the fancy new Silverlight name, Microsoft is planning on positioning Silverlight as a replacement for other web-based graphics technologies, such as Adobe's Flash. Microsoft is pushing the fact that Silverlight can deliver streaming videos encoded with its own VC-1 codec, which can be delivered in up to 720 lines of resolution. Flash, currently the king of streaming video on the Internet thanks to YouTube, is limited to 576 lines.

Microsoft's plan is to entice web developers over to Silverlight gradually, emphasizing that they can leverage existing skills with HTML, Javascript, AJAX, and XAML. The company plans to release a suite of Silverlight development tools to make this process easier. Tools such as Microsoft's Expression XAML builder (currently in beta) can also be used to create Silverlight presentations. While Silverlight is cross-platform in terms of web browser support, the development tools are Windows-only.

On the server side, Silverlight applications will work fine with Linux-based web servers, but Microsoft is encouraging people to use Windows-based servers by bundling extra tools to make the process easier. Windows Server "Longhorn"—the server version of Vista expected to ship later this year—will come with Streaming Media Services for deploying VC-1 video for Silverlight clients.

Microsoft will have to work hard to get developers to move away from solutions like Flash that have worked for many years, but the Redmond giant is nothing if not patient. The company will present Silverlight at the National Association of Broadcasters conference this week, and plans to demonstrate an trio of Silverlight applications: a Major League Baseball online stats and video system, a suite of set-top box apps made by IPTV technology developer Brightcove, and an Internet video player that can seamlessly overlap small banner-type ads created by advertising media developer Eyeblaster.

Capcom roundhouse kicks Gamer’s Day with a truckload of upcoming software

At the Gamer's Day convention in San Francisco late last week, Capcom unveiled a huge amount of upcoming content. We mentioned some of the news about Capcom's announcement last week, including the upcoming PC port of Lost Planet, but there's even more good stuff on the way. HangZhou Night Net

Thanks to the success of Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting on the Xbox Live Arcade, Capcom is apparently poised to take the content platform by storm. Announced at the event were both Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD and Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo HD, the latter of is likely to have many puzzle fans salivating.

The XBLA isn't the only content platform that Capcom has its sights on, though: Rocketman, an old-school shoot-'em-up with online co-op, and Talisman, a strategy game based on the tabletop game, are both due to hit the PSN, as well as the XBLA, in the future.

Despite all the attention being given to the current generation of consoles, Capcom hasn't forgotten about the PS2. Building on, and perhaps parodying, the company's success with the immersing affair Phoenix Wright, Capcom announced Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law. Playing on the Phoenix Wright formula, the licensed title will draw heavily from the off-the-wallcartoon, which—if the quality writing and translation is preserved—could very well be a hilarious diversion from the typical gaming norms. No release date was announced, but the title will be hitting both the PS2 and the PSP. And of course, the latest installation of the Phoenix Wright series is also set to hit the DS this year.

Also currently in the works are two new Mega Man games for the DS, both of which will help to commemorate the blue bomber's twentieth anniversary. The first is a sequel to Mega Man ZX, the runaway hit and award-winning shooter from last year. The second is a collection of three different versions of Mega Man Star Force, the latest title in the Network series of platform-RPG hybrids. Both games are set to hit this fall.

With Resident Evil 4: Wii and Super Puzzle Fighter II on the way this summer, and a bevy of other software to follow later in the year, Capcom looks to be on track for a profitable year.