SciTechBlog
August 14, 2009

Are Redbox DVD rentals too cheap?

Posted: 10:15 AM ET

Redbox operates DVD rental kiosks at over 15,000 retail locations across the country. The automated self-service systems hold over 600 DVDs and allow customers to pick up movies for only $1 per day.

The kiosks are gaining popularity, but their price and ease of use aren't winning over everyone. 20th Century Fox and Universal Studios have ordered wholesalers not to sell newly released DVDs to the rental company.

In a conference call with the Los Angeles Times, News Corp COO Chase Carey criticized the low-priced kiosks. "Having our [movies] rented at $1 in the rental window is grossly undervaluing our products," Carey said. "We are actively determining how to deal with it."

Unlike Blockbuster and Netflix, Redbox does not share profits from rentals with the major movie studios. But why should they?

The rental kiosks do not violate copyright law since they legally purchase the DVDs, and any form of unnecessary profit-sharing would certainly raise prices for consumers.

Upset by Redbox's success, Fox and Universal are leaning on wholesalers who distribute their DVDs to cut ties with the rental company. Redbox has responded by suing the studios for anti-competitive practices and abusing copyright law.

According to Ars Technica:

Redbox said that "Fox seeks to strangle" the low-priced rental market in order to maintain its own "artificially high" pricing scheme.

Meanwhile, Redbox plans to continue offering new releases from all studios, even if it means employees have to buy the DVDs at retail price the old-fashioned way.

Do you think the criticism of Redbox's pricing is justified? Should Redbox share profits with the major movie studios in exchange for new releases, or should the company remain independent?

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Filed under: Movies • technology


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August 5, 2009

Associated Press excerpts may cost $2.50 per word

Posted: 05:09 PM ET

In an attempt to generate new revenue, the Associated Press has partnered with iCopyright to charge licensing fees for quotes as short as five words.

Quoting 5 words from an Associated Press story may cost $12.50.

Quoting 5 words from an Associated Press story costs $12.50.

When linking to articles, news aggregators and bloggers commonly include excerpts to provoke discussion.

I understand the AP's desire to protect its content, but the decision to charge for excerpts that include links to its articles has me scratching my head. Without outside links to generate interest and drive traffic, what will happen to AP content online?

Ben Parr from Mashable weighs in:

The company’s complaint is that blogs and news aggregators (i.e. Google News) are taking its content and making all the advertising revenue. What they forget is that they provide a great deal of traffic and attention to content creators in the process.

Under the AP's licensing system, I would owe Mashable $25 for that quote. But more likely, I would have ignored Parr's article altogether to avoid paying a fee, and Mashable would have lost traffic.

In a statement released Monday, the Associated Press claims the licensing "form is not aimed at bloggers. It is intended to make it easy for people who want to license AP content to do so."

Bloggers may not be the primary targets, but vague licensing terms leave open the frightening prospect of legal action against anyone who quotes an AP article.

Executives at the AP are shooting themselves in the foot with this decision. Bloggers and aggregators are the best source of free advertising, and the traffic they generate is worth much more than $2.50 per word.

And you can quote me on that.

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Filed under: Internet • online news • technology


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July 14, 2009

Who should pay for online news?

Posted: 12:24 PM ET

Last week the New York Times e-mailed a survey to its print subscribers to ask how they felt about paying for online content.

According to the survey:

The New York Times website, nytimes.com, is considering charging a monthly fee of $5.00 to access its content, including all its articles, blogs and multimedia. All of this content is currently available for free.

The recession has not been kind to print news publishers. Several large newspapers such as The Rocky Mountain News have closed their doors for good, while others like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer have become Web-only publications. But advertising alone may be unable to sustain many news services, and publishers are scrambling to find new online sources of revenue.

Dwindling profits are also causing media companies to become more possessive of the news they generate.

In an article from the New York Times, Associated Press executives say they are concerned about news forums around the Web, including major search engines and aggregators like the Drudge Report, that link to news articles without paying licensing fees.

A group of European publishers is even pushing for new laws restricting online news distribution that, Ars Technica claims, "amounts to a long-winded rant against the Internet for stealing their news."

After years of easily accessible free news online, can the New York Times or any media company successfully retreat to a subscription-based method to monetize and control content?

Would you pay for access?

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Filed under: Internet • online news • technology


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July 13, 2009

Office 2010 and iPhone bricks

Posted: 10:40 AM ET

Sometimes you come back from the weekend already feeling behind. Here are a few of the latest tech stories to help you get back up to speed:

Microsoft Office 2010 gets the buzz award of the day. The new version of the mammoth computer applicaiton suite, which will be released to a select group today,  is expected to challenge Web-based applications, like Google Docs, which have been gaining popularity. From TechCrunch:

As a direct challenge to Google Apps, Microsoft is rolling out lightweight, FREE, Web-browser versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote. All based in the cloud, the web-based versions of these products have less features than their desktop cousins but still give users basic tools to edit and change documents.

More on what Office 2010 means in the big scheme of things from CNET:

According to Microsoft, the focus of this update was on three things: to make work flows more efficient; to effectively use Web applications to make your work available anywhere; and to make collaboration with others much easier.

Mashable has a good post on location-based phone services. A new survey says the number of people using location-based services will double to 5.7 million this year. The rise in GPS-enabled smartphones - those that know where you are and act like mini-computers - accounts for much of the increase.

Some cool ways to use these services, from the blog:

Apps are responding in kind. Zhiing is a new mobile app for sending friends your location as quickly as possible, Yowza sends you coupons based on what stores are nearby, and Google Latitude helps map out where you and all of your friends are. This type of information helps get the most relevant information to you as quickly as possible. Weather forecasts, nearby friends, and local train schedules are automatic.

For the parents among us, BusinessWeek has an interesting story on the federal government's slashing of a program to put more technology in schools. Check out the story for the details of the impact, but the core of the story is in this factoid:

The Obama Administration in May proposed slashing funding for Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT), one of the main government sources of technology for public schools, to $100 million in 2010, a 63% decline from this year's $269 million.

Finally, for those looking to purchase some of the many new gadgets out there - especially the iPhone 3G S - take note of this Ars Technica post, which says bricks instead of phones are turning up in some retail boxes. But don't blame the Apple store, the site says:

The general consensus, however, is that customers themselves are responsible for the large majority of these cases. People purchase an expensive item, take it home, replace it with bricks, and sometimes even shrinkwrap the box for a return. Many retail stores won't check a box that looks like it was never opened in the first place, making this an easy switch to pull.

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Filed under: gps • iPhone • Microsoft Corp. • Microsoft Office • schools • technology


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June 25, 2009

Apple rejects soft-core porn iPhone app

Posted: 12:59 PM ET

False alarm: Apple is not - at least not yet - approving iPhone apps containing pictures of naked women.

The blogosphere lit up Thursday with reports that Hottest Girls had the distinguished privilege of being the first application approved for sale in the iTunes App Store that contains nudity. The Hottest Girls iPhone app is not new, but as of Thursday, it added photos of topless women to its gallery of "2200+ sexy bikini babes and lingerie models."

Of course, porn has long been accessible on the iPhone through its Internet browser, but this appeared to mark the first time Apple has sanctioned images of naked women for the popular device.

An image from the 'Hottest Girls' application for sale in the iTunes App Store.

An image from the 'Hottest Girls' application for sale in the iTunes App Store.

Some speculated the "change" in Apple's porn policy was a result of expanded parental controls in the new iPhone 3.0 OS software.  Age restrictions can now be set to prevent mature downloads from the App Store.

According to a Gizmodo article that seemed oddly excited by this news:

This is not just an application that downloads softcore content from the Web, bypassing Apple's censorship. There is no censorship here, as this is truly an Apple approved app "rated 17+" for "frequent/intense sexual content or nudity" and "frequent/intense mature/suggestive theme."

The editors at Wired.com took the Hottest Girls app for a test drive and were underwhelmed. "The application itself is terrible," wrote Wired's tester, "but you can be sure that there will be more, and better, very soon."

Shortly afterwards, the Hottest Girls app, which claims to be the first officially sanctioned iTunes app to contain topless photos, disappeared from the iTunes store.

A website allegedly run by Hottest Girls app developers explained the disappearance:

The Hottest Girls app is temporarily sold out. The server usage is extremely high because of the popularity of this app. Thus, by not distributing the app, we can prevent our servers from crashing. Those who already have the app will still be able to use our app. To answer the question on everyone's mind: Yes, the topless images will still be there when it is sold again.

By Thursday afternoon, Apple's public relations team felt the need to weigh in. From Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr:

Apple will not distribute applications that contain inappropriate content, such as pornography. The developer of this application added inappropriate content directly from their server after the application had been approved and distributed, and after the developer had subsequently been asked to remove some offensive content. This was a direct violation of the terms of the iPhone Developer Program. The application is no longer available on the App Store.

Did Apple do the right thing? Is the fuss over this episode just silly? And, given how lucrative the pornography industry is, is it just a matter of time before nudie pics become available through the App Store?

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Filed under: Apple • Internet • iPhone • online video • technology


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June 22, 2009

HP announces printer-computer hybrid

Posted: 01:32 PM ET

HP announced what it calls a "new category" of home printers today.

The Photosmart Premium with TouchSmart Web basically is a fancy-named home printer with a 4.3-inch LCD touch-screen panel attached to the front of it. The printer can connect to the Internet, which HP says has never been done.

It seems like HP is trying to ride the iPhone social phenomenon, both with the design of its new machine and with the fact that the company has partnered with others to develop printer "apps" that help you print coupons or customized news reports. Among HP's first print app partners are USA Today, Google, Web Sudoku and Fandango.

HP says the printer will retail for about $399 and hit stores this fall.

But guess what? Smartphones, netbooks and latptops - even the Kindle e-reader - connect to the Internet, too. Why not make printing off of your phone easier?

This begs another question: Aren't we moving past the printed age? Obama is making health care paper-free. Environmentalists decry paper waste and printer ink pollution. You can scan coupons from a smartphone, airline boarding passes are going electronic and news is rapidly migrating onto the Internet. Why print?

Or, if you do want to print something, why not just print from your computer?

In an interview, HP senior vice president Stephen Nigro acknowledged that printing will eventually go away. In the near term, however, home printing is expected to grow, he said.

"We look at it as an evolution, but we don’t see printing going away for some time," added Nigro, who said the Web-enabled printer is targeted at tech-savvy consumers.

He touted the new printer as a "big deal," saying it brings "the printing experience into the Internet and Web-connected age."

What do you think: Is this really a big deal or just corporate hype? For 400 bucks, would you buy one?

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Filed under: Internet • technology


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June 10, 2009

Do you suffer from 'Internet fatigue?'

Posted: 11:55 AM ET

Pretty much every time I write a post about Twitter or Facebook, a good chunk of you lash out in the comments with some healthy criticism. You say there's too much information out there. Or that online social networks are ruining our society. Or you say the constrant stream of online blather is getting on your nerves.

Well, Luddites of the world, this post is for you.

I chatted recently with a researcher from the Pew Internet and American Life Project about people who suffer from 'Internet fatigue.' John Horrigan says there's a whole segment of the Internet-savvy population that lives online but kind of resents how connected they've become.

Take Horrigan's quiz to find out what kind of tech user you are. And check out the full Pew report.

In the podcast below, Horrigan and I talk about how he sometimes wishes his cell phone would stop ringing. And he offers some tips for keeping your online connections at a comfortable level.

I took the quiz and came out as a "digital collaborator," which basically is a person who get some creative satisfaction from making and sharing things online. True enough, since I do work at a Web site, and enjoy sharing photos and building sites in my free time.

I do realize the irony of writing about tech fatigue by ADDING more information to the Internet. Hopefully you'll cut me some slack and let me know what you think in the comments. What kind of tech user are you?

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Filed under: Internet • social-networking sites • technology


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June 4, 2009

An update on plastics: tech gone too far?

Posted: 12:03 PM ET

Plastics are everywhere - in our cars, in bottles and under my fingers as I type this post. But, increasingly, there are questions about the synthetic material's impact on the environment and on human health.

There are some efforts to ban certain types of plastics. Others seek to recycle more. And technology is being developed to make plastics from new materials, like plants, instead of petroleum.

Here's the latest breakdown on technology and the plastics industry:

BANS: On Tuesday, California's state senate passed a bill that would ban BPA plastics in the state, the LA Times reports. Independent scientists have found that BPA, a chemical found in some baby bottles and food cans, can impair childhood development. On the federal level, the Food and Drug Administration is currently investigating the issue and is expected to release a new opinion in a matter of weeks, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

More from that paper:

The federal investigation comes after the Journal Sentinel revealed Saturday that lobbyists met last week at an exclusive club in Washington to hammer out a public relations strategy to sell the benefits of BPA to the American public, including “befriending people that are able to manipulate the legislative process.”

The group also discussed hiring a pregnant woman as a spokeswoman for the chemical, referring to such a person as the “holy grail” for the public-relations campaign.

That story followed earlier reports in the Journal Sentinel that showed how industry lobbyists wrote large sections of the FDA opinion, released last September. The FDA’s opinion was based on two studies, both paid for by industry. Those studies since have been assailed by an international consortium of scientists as “incomplete and unreliable,” the newspaper reported in April.

OCEANS: At least one group is trying to scoop plastic hunks out of the ocean, the San Jose Mercury News reports. When plastic is dumped at sea, or blows from the land into the ocean, it tends to congregate near ocean gyres, where the water swirls around a point (this video will help you make sense of the situation). Here's more on the project to scoop plastic out of the ocean:

This June the 151-foot Japanese sailing vessel "Kaisei," operated by a California-based conservation group called the Ocean Voyages Institute, will unfurl its sails in San Francisco and head seaward to assess how to implement the project. The flagship will be joined by a decommissioned fishing trawler with specialized nets. If they are successful, the next step will be to capture and process the waste.

But is this possible? Much of the pollution lies below the ocean's surface, consisting of small plastic particles that create a toxic soup whose components outnumber surface plankton 6 to 1. Skimming waste off the surface would be tedious ...

Plastics biodegrade very slowly, if ever, and environmental groups worry about their effects on ocean life. Sea turtles, for instance, think plastic grocery bags are jellyfish. They swallow them and then suffocate.

TECH: CNET writes about a start-up company in San Diego that is trying to turn sugar water into spandex, which would go into stretchy pants and car dashboards. They story says plants, like sugar cane, appeal to plastics makers in part because their price fluctuates less wildly than oil, the more common building-block for plastics. More on that:

If successful with its demonstration facility, Genomatica expects to license its technology to other chemical manufacturers.

Schilling said the company has plans for making other chemicals, using a suite of software modeling tools that speed up discovery of ways to manipulate microorganisms to make a desired product.

What do you think? Are plastics a valuable technology? Do we need to move on? Send us your comments and questions.

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Filed under: plastics • technology


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May 20, 2009

Oh iPhone rumors, how I love thee

Posted: 11:32 AM ET

We’re just a little more than two weeks away from the rumored release/announcement of the new version of the iPhone.

It's expected that the Apple will release the 3.0 software at the World Wide Developers Conference on June 8th (no Jobs, but Phil Schiller will be doing the keynote). Having a few friends and colleagues who have started developing for the iPhone - I've actually got to play with the beta a bit. I must say, as nice as cut and paste is, the search is my favorite new feature. Being able to search through emails, contacts and anything else on my phone is way nice (and one of the main features I missed when I first got the phone last year).

The real question is - will new hardware be announced at the same time? Some of the big rumors surrounding video recording (that it will only work on new hardware) point to it coming soon - and has sparked a flurry of rumors to go with it.

Some say you will be able to edit video on the phone. If this comes true, I suspect it will be more about trimming to make the video shorter than making it theater-worthy.

There’s also a host of rumors surrounding Apple developing custom innards for the phone – custom processor, OLED screen, a specially designed battery – although those seem more likely for a further away iteration than anything we're likely to see this year.

I'm hoping for increased capacity (really a no brainer, but how big will it be? ... 80GB iPhone please?) and a better camera. Three megapixels would be acceptable, 4 would be grand and 5 would actually be worth using.

What do you think Apple should provide with a hardware update to the phone? And which of these rumors sound too good to be true? OHH and just to bait the water a little – what are the chances Apple will finally come through with the long rumored netbook/tablet?

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Filed under: Apple • iPhone • online video • technology


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May 11, 2009

The future for netbooks

Posted: 11:28 AM ET

I don't own a netbook, but I do own a 5-year-old Dell Inspiron laptop. I like to think of my Inspiron as an "oversized netbook" simply because it makes me appear more trendy.

According to an April survey by Changewave Research, one out of every four computers purchased in the next three months will be a netbook. These small, inexpensive laptop computers are quickly becoming the latest hip accessory. Unfortunately, their bare-bones computing abilities make them about as useful as a chihuahua in a handbag.

In a TECH.BLORGE interview, Lenovo analyst Matt Kohut admits that netbooks may not live up to the expectations of some consumers.

Initially people weren’t sure what to do with them. Retailers were saying, "here’s this new netbook PC," and the average person picked one up and said, "oh wow, that’s small, maybe I can run Photoshop." So, as an industry, we ended up with a lot of returns, because the functionality of what netbooks could do was not well communicated.

However, Kohut is upbeat about the future of netbooks. Second-generation netbooks are expected to have beefier computing power, run Windows 7 and offer 3G wireless capabilities, all while price points continue to drop.

So where is Apple's sleek, user-friendly netbook alternative? Apple CFO Timothy Cook told investors not to hold their breath at the company's quarterly-earnings call:

When I look at what is being sold in the netbook space today, I see cramped keyboards, terrible software, junky hardware, very small screens, and just not a consumer experience, and not something that we would put the Mac brand on, quite frankly.

However, Ars Technica isn't quite buying Cook's skepticism and points out that Apple always trashes an idea before doing it.

Even though they can't play games or edit video and often strain when loading YouTube, netbooks continue to sell. Do these low-priced Internet browsers fulfill an actual need, or are customers simply blinded by impossibly low prices?

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Filed under: Apple • computers • consumer tech • Internet • online video • technology


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About this blog

Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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