Rough seas nearly sink Facebook's Beacon

Facebook's "Beacon" advertising program nearly ran aground this week.First, the liberal activist group MoveOn.org tore into the strategy, which shares members' activity from third-party sites on their Facebook "news feeds," as an invasion of privacy. Then MoveOn upped the ante earlier this week over the program's lack of an opt-out control. Then, on Thursday, reports began to surface that the program was close to being heavily altered or even cut altogether. The advertising program continues to be scrutinized by legal experts, and several advocacy groups have already filed complaints to the Federal Trade Commission.Welcome to the big time, Facebook. The site, which grew fast and was considered a cultural curio in the wake of its pioneering developer platform launch now must justify a stunning $15 billion valuation and prove that its reported 50-plus million users can be mined for major dollars.

Now the company has received a harsh lesson on what it means to be in the spotlight, and just how tricky it is to use the demographic and behavior information about its readers for targeted advertising. As social media companies ranging from MySpace to Digg have learned, it's the users, as much as the executives, who are in charge.And just three weeks after announcing the Beacon advertising effort with fanfare in New York, those users along with some very noisy advocacy groups like MoveOn, spoke loudly: they weren't happy.

On Thursday, Facebook customer service representative Paul Janzer posted a note of reassurance to supporters of MoveOn's protest group, hinting that alterations was on the way. That evening, Facebook officially responded with a press release announcing some changes to the advertisements that require users to click an "OK" button before any story is published to their News Feeds.It's an improvement for sure. MoveOn representatives cited "victory" in an e-mail on Thursday evening, but in a sense, they still didn't get everything they lobbied for. Spokesman Adam Green had told CNET News.com in an e-mail earlier on Thursday that the organization intended to pose two major questions to Facebook about Beacon. "Is it still possible for private transactions made on other Web sites to be displayed publicly on Facebook without explicit permission?" he explained in the e-mail, adding "Is there now a way for users to permanently block Beacon, so they can have peace of mind that the problem is dealt with? (The) answer needs to be yes."The first question, Green said, was answered with Facebook's press release and the changes to Beacon. "That pretty much was done tonight," Green said in an interview with CNET News.com on Thursday evening. "If it's true, and no private information will be shared without explicit permission, that is definitely a huge step."

Green was hesitant to make a judgment call on the fact that Facebook did not institute a way for users to permanently block Beacon ads. "We're kind of going to wait and see exactly what it looks like when they implement tonight's policy," he said, adding that MoveOn wanted to gauge users' reactions first. It goes without saying that it's good news for Facebook that the activist group isn't making a stink about the Beacon changes not being sufficient--for now, at least.
Either way, there are still some loose ends to clean up.Social media strategist Oz Sultan said that Facebook may have some image repair to do, primarily because a group as prominent and vocal as MoveOn had attached itself to the cause. "I think there's a bit of damage control that they have to do, more so around the act that it's almost Christmas," he explained, referring to Facebook users who had complained that the entire contents of their holiday shopping lists were published to the site, spoiling many a surprise. "The shopping implications of what people are doing and what they don't want people to know because they want to surprise people, that's definitely going to provide some reason for damage control."

Admitting error, too, may be an embarrassment for the company in the face of its advertising clients, given the confident debut that Facebook Ads made earlier this month. "They basically sat down and said this is the holy grail of advertising," Sultan observed.On the other hand, while a number of Facebook users were ticked off, others might not have noticed Beacon much at all--or even cared. The controversy over Beacon advertisements didn't reach the fever pitch of user outrage and exposure on the site that the once-controversial News Feed did when it debuted in 2006. The News Feed, which many users saw initially as a flagrant violation of user privacy, was a much more prominent addition to the site than the Beacon ads, which some users still have yet to see.In response to the News Feed snafu, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg posted a public apology on the site, acknowledging that "we really messed this one up." The privacy controls for the News Feed were heavily bolstered thereafter.

But with regard to Beacon, Oz Sultan said, "I don't think a lot of people know this exists." To add to that, many Facebook users probably don't have an issue with it, either, even in its previous incarnation. "A lot of (young people) are totally willing to give up tons of privacy information for like, free crap." In fact, he added, if it had been any time other than the holidays, the reaction might've been far more subdued.Some retailers who have partnered with Facebook on Beacon ads approve of the change. Among them is Bill Hildebolt, president of Beacon partner ExpoTV.com, who said that while he isn't sure what Facebook has in store, he's optimistic. "I think it's great that they're evaluating the market feedback that they've gotten and that they're thinking about how to evolve the program," he said in an interview. "We totally support them in innovating what they think is best for our mutual users, for themselves, and for the partners."
When asked if he was concerned that new controls on Beacon might make the ads less effective, Hildebolt said he couldn't make that call. "It will become less frequent," he said of users opting not to post Beacon notifications on their News Feeds, "(but) I'm not sure that that will make it less effective." Retailers have good reason to welcome change; as other Beacon partners have hinted before, if users aren't happy with the program there's a good chance they'll blame the retailer rather than Facebook.

Users who still aren't satisfied can rest assured that there's a Firefox plugin that can block Beacon completely, easily returning them to their regularly scheduled Facebook programming.
The challenges are not over for Facebook and its advertising program--after months of Silicon Valley fawning over Facebook's potential, all eyes are still on the young company, and those observers have begun to turn cynical. Neither blocking Beacon nor putting privacy controls on it answers the biggest question, Oz Sultan said, and it's a question that even MoveOn didn't raise. "Facebook's getting all this data, so what are they doing with all this data?" he asked. "This is complete behavioral data on everything you do? It's legally very questionable long term."
He added that the real end result may be that groups like MoveOn, with their fat D.C. Rolodexes, could push lawmakers to address the issue. This is a vague legal area, and this is an area which the laws that are written right now aren't designed to cover," he said. "I think they will push some sort of litigation. What that is, I could not even tell you right now."But for now, MoveOn's aims are loftier. "We hope this has a ripple effect throughout the industry," spokesman Green said, "and sets a precedent that it's unacceptable to assume that it's OK to share private information publicly without permission."

Qualcomm Chief Welcomes iPhone’s Spread

Paul E. Jacobs, chief executive of Qualcomm, the maker of chips for mobile phones, insisted it was pure coincidence that he found himself within a few blocks of where the iPhone was introduced to France on Wednesday.But though the iPhone, the cellphone-media player from Apple, has no Qualcomm components, Mr. Jacobs generously gave it credit for making consumers more eager for third-generation cellphone networks.The 3G technology — which Qualcomm designs and licenses — allows cellphone Internet browsing that is comparable in speed to broadband on a desktop computer. But the iPhone, which the French operator Orange put on sale Wednesday, does not support 3G.The current version, now available in Britain, Germany, France and the United States, uses a technology called Edge that speeds second-generation network data transfers. Apple has already said it intends to offer a 3G iPhone in the future.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that a really positive effect of the iPhone was to focus mainstream people on the idea of using their device for data,” Mr. Jacobs, who is based in San Diego, said during a visit to Paris to see customers and government officials. “But it also caused mainstream consciousness that 3G is really a good thing to have because it will make your experience better.
“Qualcomm could have spent huge amounts of money advertising 3G and not gotten the point across as well as the iPhone has,” he said.Although Orange had said that its iPhone plans would offer unlimited Internet access, the company disclosed clear limits Wednesday. The iPhone cannot be used with Internet phone services like Skype; it cannot be used as a modem for a personal computer and it cannot be used to connect to peer-to-peer networks.

Orange also reserved the right to limit subscribers who download more than 500 megabytes of data a month. It said it would sell an unlocked version of the iPhone for 649 euros ($950), with an additional 100-euro unlocking fee, along with a 399-euro model with a two-year Orange contract.Simon Treille, the first to buy an iPhone in France at the Champs-Élysées Orange store, said it would change the mobile Internet. “It’s like a PC screen but you always have it in your pocket,” said Mr. Treille, who works at jechange.fr, a Web site for comparison shopping.

Despite the hundreds of billions of euros that European companies and governments invested in 3G at the turn of the century, it is only now beginning to attract wide use, a situation that has led some to call the transition from GSM, the 2G technology, a failure.But Mr. Jacobs pointed to many signs of success for 3G. Some operators, like Orange and Telstra, in Australia, are reporting that for the first time, the revenue they generate from data use is more than that from text messaging, for instance.Worldwide, the company says, 60 million 3G phones were sold last year, and it estimates that the number will grow to 90 million by the end of this year.

Hewlett-Packard recently signed on to offer Gobi, a new Qualcomm design that puts two kinds of 3G networking into one for use in laptops. Mr. Jacobs said to expect a series of similar announcements from other computer makers.Mr. Jacobs also said that he felt “pretty good” about the progress of the company’s legal battles with Nokia over royalty payments and was confident about Qualcomm’s antitrust case before the European Commission.In October, the European Commission opened a formal investigation into whether Qualcomm was overcharging its business partners for using patents that are essential to 3G.

Google in energy: Imitator or innovator?

Google announced on Tuesday plans to put hundreds of millions of dollars into alternative energy. The question now is whether the company is advancing the state of the art or just imitating everyone else who is dumping loads of money into the field.The answer is some of both.One of the first companies to get funding from Google will be eSolar, which will make solar thermal plants based on the heliostat design. In this concept, an array of flat mirrors gathers and directs sunlight onto a water tower. The water boils into steam, which turns a turbine to make electricity.

The heliostat system is superior to other solar-thermal projects because the mirrors cost less, construction is easier, and more of the heat gathered by the mirrors ultimately gets used to make electricity.The only problem for eSolar is that it hasn't, exactly, been an innovator during the past couple of years. Oakland's BrightSource Energy has been touting the heliostat system for a while. It is currently building a prototype plant in Israel and has already cleared many of the regulatory hurdles to build a 400-megawatt station in California.BrightSource also has experience on its side. It was founded by Arnold Goldman, who founded Luz more than 20 years ago. Luz built some of the world's largest solar-thermal plants. In fact, plants churning more than 300 megawatts of power built by Luz years ago in the Mojave are still cranking out power.
Many of the engineers who worked on the Luz projects are at BrightSource. In a recent interview, Goldman said the company's researchers have been examining the pros and cons of heliostat systems for more than a decade.Who is at eSolar? The chairman is Bill Gross, who founded eToys, Overture Services, and Idealab. While he has created a company for residential solar energy, most of his experience is in the Internet. Other members of the executive team have experience in solar, but it doesn't appear that they have a lot of experience in building large-scale thermal plants. It is also unclear whether the company has plans for prototypes or large-scale plants under way.

It's not like eSolar can't pull this off, but it's clear that it isn't exactly doing something original. This is really more of a venture capital-type deal than a way to push the frontiers of science. And let's not forget that there are other solar-thermal companies out there, such as Ausra, that have built prototypes and signed large scale contracts already.On the other hand, Google is putting money into Makani Power, which wants to harvest power from high-flying kites. A few companies have experimented with this, but it's in the very early research stage. Here, Google can clearly be an innovator.Google also wants to get into advanced geothermal energy. Geothermal already exists, but it also could use a lot more research-and-development support. Alexander Karsner, the assistant secretary for energy efficiency at the Department of Energy, says geothermal cannot provide 20 percent of the United States' electricity need,s as some advocates claim.You can look at this in two ways: geothermal doesn't have much hope, or that it's a field ripe for turning over conventional wisdom. Thus, depending on what occurs here, Google could push the state of innovation forward.

Nokia increases market share in mobile phone business

Nokia sold 110 milliion phones in the latest quarter, and business is booming
"Worldwide sales of mobile phones to end users in the third quarter of 2007 reached 289 million units, a 15% increase from the same period last year," says Gartner, Inc.Nokia's mobile phone sales to end users totaled 110.2 million units reaching a market share of 38.1% in the third quarter of 2007. This quarter, Nokia not only exhibited the highest year-on-year market share increase, but also raised operating margins thanks to effective cost management and global distribution strategy. This was achieved despite the average price of its phones falling from €90 to €82.
Other points to note are the success of the Korean manufacturers, Samsung and LG, and the sad decline of America's Motorola. Gartner says:Motorola's sales into the channel remained weak and, with limited surplus stock, sales to end users were not enough to maintain its No. 2 position. Motorola's market share dropped 7.6 percentage points from the third quarter of 2006, relegating the vendor to the No. 3 position. "Motorola today is a pale version of the company it was a year ago," [Carolina Milanesi, research director for mobile devices research at Gartner] added. Although the Razr2 was well received and accounted for 900,000 of the overall sales, Motorola needs a much stronger portfolio to return to its former market share.
Gartner reckons sales of mobile phones in Western Europe reached 47.2 million units, with 45m sold in North America, 24.5m in India and 13.1m in Japan. Average penetration in Western Europe is 115%: everywhere except France, there are more mobile phones than people.

Mission for James Bond's Q: Seek venture capital

"Now pay attention, 007!" In the James Bond novels and films, it fell to technical expert Q to invent the gizmos and cunningly concealed weapons that helped the British spy cheat death and save the world.From a biometric keyboard to blast-proof curtains, the inventions on display in the real world this month came from five technology firms in the final round of the Global Security Challenge, a competition to identify the world's most promising security start-up."I'm sorry that Q wasn't at the judging table," said Sir Richard Dearlove, who from 1999 to 2004 was the real-life C--the code-name given to the head of British spy service MI6.But on a more somber note, he told participants: "We are faced with complex new threats to society...We must also contend with the possibility that many new technologies have a dark side and may be used against us."According to Venture Business Research, which provides intelligence and research on private companies in high-growth sectors, more than $6 billion of investment has flowed into private security and defense businesses in the United States and Europe so far this year, up from some $3.5 billion in the whole of 2006.Spotting that potential, MBA students at London Business School staged the inaugural security challenge last year, when British start-up Ingenia Technology took the $10,000 first prize for an anti-counterfeit laser-scanning device.

Such was interest in the competition that the U.S. government's Technical Support Working Group raised this year's prize to $500,000.Industry players, private equity groups and venture capital firms all listened closely to the entrants' pitches, in an event highlighting the challenges facing young companies in turning bright ideas into commercial ventures.The winning entry was from NoblePeak Vision Corporation, based in Wakefield, Mass., and founded in 2002 as a spinoff from Bell Laboratories: its night-vision camera can pick up short-wave infrared (SWIR) light invisible to the eye.The black-and-white nighttime images are much sharper than those generated by thermal video cameras, and applications include battlefield vision, protecting buildings, and helping car drivers avoid collisions at night.Other finalists included biometric technology to recognize keyboard users by their typing behavior--sparing users from memorizing dozens of passwords--and a handheld device for testing exposure to nerve agents.By scanning the eye, it can also detect carbon monoxide or cyanide poisoning, or identify trauma to the brain.Another company offered new high-strength fibers that get fatter when stretched and are highly resistant to blast damage, offering potential as special curtains to catch flying window glass in an explosion.Also in contention was a 'face synthesis' device to create up to thousands of images from one photo, predicting how the subject will look in different lighting conditions, from different angles and with varying expressions or facial hair.

A poll of investors, experts and industry players at the event identified biometrics and protection of critical infrastructure as key growth areas in coming years.But Lee Buchanan, a former assistant U.S. navy secretary who now advises U.S. private equity group Paladin on investments, said the crucial point was to deliver more than just security."Typically a company or an organization is going to be much more interested in a security technology which also has a non-security yield--an increase in productivity, an increase in the distinction of its own product," he said.Competition judges praised the caliber of the entries but found some of them lacking in key areas.The keyboard developer was targeting an "incredibly crowded area" of the IT security market and had not undertaken much peer review--a criticism shared by the face recognition system.The fiber-maker was praised for its innovation, but found wanting in its delivery strategy. The eye scanner's makers had underestimated regulatory challenges and the difficulty of building a robust product.Security companies need a good business model. "I don't see very many of those out there," said Buchanan, who identified sensor technologies for explosives, bioweapons, and nuclear materials as one of the biggest gaps in the market.While this year's $6 billion investment in the sector has been swollen by some big one-off deals, Venture Business Research director Douglas Lloyd said European interest had markedly increased, and a series of dedicated security funds had started to emerge."I expect investment activity in this sector to remain buoyant. And I also see this as a more attractive sector, as many do, than clean energy," Lloyd said."The failure rate of security businesses is much lower than clean-tech ones and, as importantly, the capital investment required to build a successful security business is also much lower."With politicians and intelligence chiefs warning of a decades-long struggle to come against al-Qaida, security looks set to remain a growth industry. Paladin's Buchanan rejected the charge often leveled by critics that the defense and industrial establishment has a vested interest in talking up the dangers.

"I'm not sure we can over-emphasize the threat. It's going to be with us a very long time. It is very deep and abiding. I don't think we're nearly at the point where the hype exceeds the need," he said.Phil Davies, marketing vice president for winning entrant NoblePeak Vision, said the company--funded by Matrix Partners and North Bridge Venture Partners--would use the kudos and cash to help it grow."The primary focus has been on the U.S., just to get things moving, but we've got enormous interest from the commercial security guys in Japan and well-known camera manufacturers," said Davies, who is also selecting a representative company to target British and European markets.The camera core is priced at just under $3,000. Davies said a nuclear power station might typically require at least 50 of these, and an airport or university campus up to 100. The company's revenue is projected to rise to $70.6 million in 2010 from $559,000 in 2006.With NoblePeak now on its second round of financing, he said winning the Global Security Challenge couldn't have come at a better time: "It's great bragging rights."Memo to Q: no need to retire just yet.

France unveils anti-piracy plan

French web users caught pirating movies or music could soon be thrown offline.Those illegally sharing files will face the loss of their net access thanks to a newly-created anti-piracy body granted the wide-ranging powers.The anti-piracy body comes out of a deal agreed by France's music and movie makers and its net firms.The group who brokered the deal said the measures were intended to curb casual piracy rather than tackle large scale pirate groups.French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the deal was a "decisive moment for the future of a civilised internet".

Net firms will monitor what their customers are doing and pass on information about persistent pirates to the new independent body. Those identified will get a warning and then be threatened with either being cut off or suspended if they do not stop illegal file-sharing.The agreement between net firms, record companies, film-makers and government was drawn up by a special committee created to look at the problem of the net and cultural protection.Denis Olivennes, head of the French chain store FNAC, who chaired the committee said current penalties for piracy - large fines and years in jail - were "totally disproportionate" for those young people who do file-share illegally.

In return for agreeing to monitor net use, film-makers agreed to speed up the transfer of movies to DVD and music firms pledged to support DRM-free tracks on music stores.The deal was hailed by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), which represents the global interests of the music business."This is the single most important initiative to help win the war on online piracy that we have seen so far," it said in a statement.

French consumer group UFC Que Choisir was more cautious.It said the agreement was "very tough, potentially destructive of freedom, anti-economic and against digital history".

Dork talk

I was mean to the Philips Streamium Player the other week. Some of you might have thought, "Well, that was a PC product and Fry is a Mac man to his boots, so what can we expect?" I can hardly express therefore the pleasure with which I am able to rave about another, in many ways, similar device, and one that is even more emphatically PC-oriented.

Trevor Baylis leapt to fame 10 years ago with his wind-up radio. Now comes his Eco Media Player (around £170). There is something about this adorable device that makes me smile, and keep smiling. The difference between it and the Streamium says a lot about the crucial emotional reciprocity between manufacturer and consumer of which one is aware the moment one opens the packaging. One product gives off an air of corporate indifference and separation from the human world, the other a sense of wanting to please, of wanting to love and be loved.

Chunky, rubber-skinned and round-cornered, the Eco Player's dimensions make it thicker than the mainstream generation of players, but then it has to house the famous Baylis crank. For all that, it feels lighter than a packet of cigarettes. My version has 2GB of internal flash memory, but models up to 8GB are (or will be) available. All that you'd hope to find is present and correct: mini USB connector with which it can be charged via your PC or Mac's USB (2.0) port, slot for a mini-SD memory card and sockets for headphones and line-in. Plus FM radio (great quality), a music player in all the usual formats (if you like volume, this blasts the iPod out of the water), video (using the asv codec: boo), a voice recorder, a self-styled ebook reader and a startlingly bright torch. Yes, torch.

Granted, the video is no better than on the Philips and the resolution and icon design on its 1.8-inch screen is never going to make Apple quake in their boots, but this device has got that thing, you know?

Its most obviously innovative feature is that whatever you have eaten that morning will power it - calorie-fuelled charge of one minute via the wind-up handle provides 40 minutes of audio play.

The details are so right, too. Both the mobile phone and the PC-to-device mini-USB cables come in sprung recoil housing. Good - really good - bud earphones. The torch simply makes one grin. And there's more under the bonnet. A kind of cheerful openness pervades the Eco. Audio recording is fine for "voice memos", whatever the hell they are, but the Eco goes one step farther with a software switch that lets you record via line-in, too. Cassettes, minidisks, DATs and vinyl are welcomed through a minijack for conversion into MP3. There are plenty of dedicated little boxes that do this, but Baylis has thrown this into an already function-rich object that has already more than justified its asking price.

There is also a switch that allows the crank to discharge its power not internally to the device's own Lithium Ion battery but out through the mini-USB into a mobile phone, charging it with up to two minutes of talk time. A selection of popular phone connections is included. Very handy in an emergency, though I found it couldn't deliver enough kick to start up a phone whose battery was drained. Still, it's yet another pleasing extra. And did I mention that there's a speaker so you can listen, in mono admittedly, without earphones? Eat Trevor's dust, Apple. Only the iPhone can match that. No iPod can.

But yes, this is truly a PC-only device. The asv video codec is not available on the Mac. So far as I am aware, there isn't any Mac software to allow you to convert into it. The Eco's utility CD can't even play on a Windows Virtualised or Bootcamped Mac, for it is a tiny disk and the slot-loading Mac accepts only the standard CD size. Well, that's Apple's fault, not Baylis's, though the device works well enough with a Mac, mounting itself as a disc when connected.

For all its quirkiness, perhaps because of it, I love this little thing. It could have just traded on the "eco" aspect of its power generation and Baylis's name. But it offers more than that. It is robust, clever without being pleased with itself, useful and appealing. And, as with people, I like it because it likes me.

A brief history of stealth aircraft

Just a generation ago, it was a hush-hush military project, a futuristic aircraft that fit right into the shadowy cloak-and-dagger atmosphere of the Cold War. Nowadays the F-117A Nighthawk stealth aircraft--the first of its kind--is making a high-profile circuit of the world's air shows, from New Mexico to Dubai, as it heads into retirement.

But even today, the plane is still as startling a sight as it was in the late 1980s when the Pentagon first revealed it to the public, all triangles and trapezoids. Those long edges and slopes, along with smaller serrations spread across the airframe, are key elements of how the F-117A hides in plain sight--they scatter and redirect radar signals away from the radar detector that sent them skyward.

Stealth design has taken a more streamlined turn in subsequent aircraft, from the B-2 Spirit bomber to the F-22 Raptor that the Air Force has designated as the Nighthawk's successor.

Six things to be thankful for in technology, 2007

Today is Thanksgiving in the US. Typically, that means gathering with friends and loved ones, eating prodigious amounts of turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing, and watching the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys play football. Hopefully, people also take time to reflect on the things in their lives that they're thankful for. In that spirit, Ars is offering up a list of events and developments in 2007 that we think fellow geeks should be thankful for.
Finally, DRM is dying

Ken Fisher: 2007 is the year of the infamous Steve Jobs open letter on DRM, the year that EMI got brave enough to kick DRM to the curb, and even Universal is considering the idea. I've long argued that DRM isn't about piracy, it's about selling your rights back to you. With the growing backlash against DRM, smart players are realizing that their customers don't want to be treated like thieves, even if the MPAA has the gall to suggest that they do. Yet, even the MPAA knows that customers are tired of seeing their fair use rights trampled, coming out earlier this year to call for a change in the industry.

DRM isn't dead yet, but the writing is on the wall. DRM for music will likely not last another year. DRM for video is another matter, as those players remain convinced that their products need protection. Once DRM dies in the music scene, however, the pressure will be on Hollywood to explain why it continues to trample on fair use.
Gaming went mainstream in a big way

Ben Kuchera: What am I thankful for this holiday season? While it may annoy the more hardcore gaming audience, I'm going to have to say the new mainstream acceptance of gaming. With the Wii selling to every demographic and games like Guitar Hero bringing games to people who never tried the hobby before, it's a great time to be in the industry. While some people are scared that the hardcore gamers are being forgotten, there isn't much evidence of that yet; this year was chock full of wonderful games for the hardcore market as well as games that broke through to a wider audience. Just take a look at the features titles we reviewed, as well as the heap of mini-reviews this year.

I love the fact that I have plenty of games to play with my friends and family, even if they've never picked up a game controller before, they can play many Wii games, and the rhythm game genre is turning many parties into Guitar Hero gatherings. Gaming is now reaching out to more people, and that's good news for everyone.
The big disrupter: the iPhone

Eric Bangeman: I admire many of Apple's products—and I've been a Mac user for 22 years—but I also find myself irritated by some of the things the company does. But this year, I'm truly thankful for a game-changing product from Apple, the iPhone.

I've been a smartphone-PDA junkie for close to a decade and have used just about every mobile OS known to humankind during that time. The iPhone has truly made my life easier with its innovative UI, ease of use, and incredibly tight integration with Mac OS X (something no other smartphone has ever achieved). It makes me more productive (NewsGator's iPhone RSS interface is simply amazing), entertains me when I want to be entertained, and in its jailbroken form allows me to add extra functionality as I wait for official third-party apps to be released early next year.

The iPhone is significant not just because it is such a compelling product, however.The iPhone is sending a message to people at Apple and indeed everywhere that phone lock-ins aren't cool, and that the product can and will be made better by its community. In just a few short years, we'll look back and see how the iPhone caused a mobile revolution much like the BlackBerry did in the Enterprise.
Yes, we're even thankful for "Web 2.0"

Jacqui Cheng: I'm grateful for the mass proliferation of Web 2.0. Don't laugh! While some (okay, a lot) of Web 2.0 services serve little purpose, many others have done wonders to connect our online lives with our offline lives—that's what the Internet is for, after all.

Social networking sites like Facebook have exploded and brought in a huge number of users online who wouldn't have used the 'Net so much otherwise, helping them get back in touch with old classmates and friends as well as make new ones. Services like Twitter may seem like a niche catering to stream of consciousness fans, but it also serves to let me know what everyone's up to when I'm out and about, on devices ranging from laptops to just regular old mobile phones. I'm now a faithful worshipper of GrandCentral—having voicemails accessible through the web or sent to me in MP3 format is almost as good as Visual Voicemail on the iPhone. (Almost.) Flickr now serves as a photodocumentary for my life, and the numerous ways I can send photos directly to it (through my phone is my favorite) mean that everything is there.

There are numerous others that I haven't listed, and there are a lot of other technologies that tie into making these services useful (wireless broadband, near-ubiquitous WiFi, more feature-rich handhelds). Overall, the new(ish) wave of services that connect our real lives to each other through the 'Net have made both my online and offline lives more enjoyable. With the proliferation of powerful handheld devices like the iPhone and the N800, we'll be able to do even more online while enjoying life offline.
Volunteerism is at an all time high

Ryan Paul: The principle of volunteerism has elevated open source software into the public awareness and transformed the software industry. The growing importance of open source software is a poignant reminder that everyone who participates has the capacity to make a difference. Every participant, regardless of the scope or nature of their contribution, is helping to bring better software to all of us. That doesn't just mean programmers. It also includes unsung heroes, like documentation writers, artists, beta testers, bug reporters, and users who teach and support other users. Without the principled commitment of all of those people, I wouldn't be who I am today.

I feel compelled to express my gratitude for the open source software community and all of the hard-working volunteers who contribute their precious time and effort. The collective labor of the open source community has delivered technological liberty to myself and countless others. I'm grateful for the culture of volunteerism and collaboration that makes the community such a powerful and compelling medium for ideological interchange and technological progress.

I'm also thankful for the Creative Commons, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and other tireless defenders of freedom who work every day to ensure that our future will not be locked down and encumbered by increasingly draconian intellectual property laws. You can see our coverage of the EFF's battles here.

I would also like to extend my appreciation to companies like Red Hat, Novell, Canonical, Google, Nokia, Collabora, Fluendo, and so many others that are coming to the table, motivated by enlightened self interest, to collaborate with the open source software community and spread freedom for our mutual benefit.

OLED and E Ink: the future is now

Jon Stokes: The earliest mention that I can find of E-Ink's technology on Ars is a post that I made way back in 2002, when the technology was "three to five years away" from commercialization. I was excited about it then, and I'm excited about it now, in spite of some of its teething problems (i.e., the slow refresh time). I've also been covering organic LED (OLED) technology for at least this long, also as part of the "three to five years away" beat. So I'm thankful that in 2007, both of these technologies began to enter the market in a meaningful, high-profile way. Sure, there were products based on E-Ink and OLED before 2007, but 2007 feels like the year that both have rounded some kind of corner and are poised to become truly mainstream. Now if we could just see some action on the Moller Aircar front...
In all, a great 2007

2007 has been a great year for tech, but of course there's one other thing we must give thanks for. You! Ars Technica readers are some of the smartest on the 'Net, and it's for you that we're here working tirelessly day-in, day-out. Although there is much work to be done before we can close the books on 2007, we're already looking forward to a great 2008.

Bloggers beware: You're liable to commit libel

These days, everybody and his dog has a blog. Unfortunately, almost nobody has a clue about their responsibility under defamation law. And if the dog has a clue, he ain't talkin'.Most professional writers and members of the media are familiar with this stuff, but chances are, you're not. If you write, host, or even comment on a blog, you need to be. That's because, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, we all have the same rights and responsibilities under defamation law.

Now, I confess to not being a lawyer. But I am a blogger who would like to stay out of court. I've also run marketing for a few companies and have spent way too much time with lawyers, so I do know a fair amount about this stuff.Since legalese can be intimidating, I thought I'd attempt a plain-English overview of the subject. I'd also like to invite those more knowledgeable than me to comment. Keep in mind that this is intended to open your eyes, not provide legal advice, which I'm certainly not qualified to do. First, people usually ask the wrong question: "Can a blogger be sued for defamation?" The sad truth is that almost anybody can sue you for almost anything these days. So, don't ask that question; it's dumb. What you want to know is your responsibility under the law, and therefore, how best to protect yourself from successful litigation.To prove libel, which is the same thing as written defamation, the plaintiff has to prove that the blogger published a false statement of fact about the plaintiff that harmed the plaintiff's reputation. Let's break that down."Published" means that at least one other person may have read the blog. That's right, just one.A "false statement of fact" is a statement about the plaintiff that is not true. Truth is the best defense against libel. An opinion is also a defense against libel. But, depending on the context, the difference between an opinion and a statement of fact can be remarkably gray. Context is a big deal in determining defamation.

One thing to watch out for: simply inserting the words "in my opinion" in front of a statement of fact doesn't magically make it an opinion.Satire and hyperbole can also be defenses against libel, but again, very gray.Then there's the matter of "harming the plaintiff's reputation." It's one thing to say that a false statement harmed your reputation, but if you can't demonstrate damages, the suit may be effectively worthless. Damages would include, for example, losing X customers that represent Y income, suffering emotional distress and so on. Also, if your damages are minimal, you may have a hard time finding a lawyer to take the case. They're a greedy lot. (That's an opinion, not a statement of fact.)If the plaintiff is your average, everyday, run-of-the-mill person or company, then negligence is sufficient to prove libel. That means that a reasonable person would not have published the defamatory statement. If the plaintiff is a "public figure," however, then the plaintiff must prove actual malice--a higher burden of proof. That means that the blogger knew that the statement wasn't true or didn't care.Then there's the question of who's responsible for comments on a blog. Whoever publishes the Web site is responsible for content on the site. That includes comments. However, many bloggers have independent agreements to indemnify the site that publishes their blog. That may or may not include comments.

Plaintiffs can certainly sue everybody in the chain and see what sticks, though they will likely go after those with the deepest pockets. You can avoid the entire question by turning comments off.To make matters worse, this is the Internet, so there are individual state and national laws to consider. I'm going to stick with California and U.S. law, and hope for the best.You may be able to get insurance for this sort of thing. I was able to get a quote for what's called media liability insurance, but it was expensive and had a high deductible. It also took lots of time and and paperwork just to get the quote. In any case, a business insurance broker should be able to quote you a policy from one of their carriers.Well, those are the basics. Check out this EFF site on defamation for FAQs and examples. You can probably spend a lifetime understanding different scenarios and studying case law.As for me, I'm planning to play it safe. I mean, how hard can it be to say nice things about people?

Is this bike made from spider webs?

Some people weave baskets by hand. But Delta 7 Sports is weaving bikes that way.The Payson, Utah-based company on Monday unveiled the Arantix, a mountain bike made out of hollow tubes spun from carbon fibers. The unusual design of the so-called IsoTruss tubes, based on technology from Brigham Young University, allows Delta 7 to cut down weight. A standard hard-tail mountain bike frame (without shock absorbers) made from the stuff weighs about 2.7 pounds, but it's as strong or stronger as a conventional carbon or aluminum frame, according to the company.

In 2009, Delta 7 will come out with a lightweight road bike too, said Lester Muranaka, who runs marketing and sales for the company. Delta 7's road bike will likely weigh around the same as other elite road bikes, but early tests indicate that it could be more aerodynamic and, thus, potentially give a rider an edge. "We think the strength and aerodynamics are going to be big sellers," Muranaka said.

If anything, you'll get noticed. Delta 7 has taken its prototype out to nearby Moab, the epicenter of dirt riding in North America. There are a lot of fancy bikes in Moab, but the Arantix gets stares. Test riders must invariably answer a lot of questions.A fully equipped bike costs $11,995--way more than any bike out there that isn't encrusted with jewels--but each one takes 300 hours to build. Volume manufacturing will lead to lower prices, according to the company. Consumers also can order the frame separately, without components, for $6,995.

The IsoTruss tubing relies on a combination of chemistry and geometry. Delta 7 takes carbon fiber, which has one of the better weight-to-strength ratios in industrial material science, and weaves it into an intricate pattern with a spool-like loom. The overall pattern consists of isosceles triangles, which are triangles with two equal sides connected to each other to form pyramids.The weaving is done by hand. In essence, making the tubes is sort of like making a giant cat's cradle or a lanyard. One piece of carbon fiber is used for each tube. In all, a finished bike frame from Delta 7 will contain 1,672 linear feet of carbon fiber.

Kevlar is then used to fix the carbon fiber in place. The Kevlar-coated tube is inserted into an oven, where it gets baked for four hours at 255 degrees Fahrenheit.
Delta 7, which is a subsidiary of Advanced Composite Solutions, is hoping to have a machine ready in 18 months to two years that can automate the weaving process. Two other companies have licensed the IsoTruss technology for things like cell phone towers, but the hand weaving made the products uneconomical.

Delta 7 went with bikes because, well, there are always guys out there who will pay money to get something cutting-edge. CNET News.com also has written stories about an Internet-enabled exercise bike from Daum and two-wheel drive motorcycles and mountain bikes from Christini.Delta 7 will produce 200 of the Arantix mountain bikes in 2008 and will grow production to 1,000 bikes in 2010. The first bikes will be released in the first quarter. Delta 7 is taking deposits for them now.

The wooden car with a split personality

When Vasily Lazarenko began tinkering, he had a vision: build a wooden car. And apparently, it was a case of double vision. The resident of Chernovtsy, Ukraine, fashioned one half of the body with a retro look, and the other half with more modern styling. (Or at least, "modern" as it seems to be understood in the aftermath of the notoriously unstylish Soviet empire.)

Amazon.com's Kindle to go wireless

Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos believes the Kindle will be to reading what the iPod was to music, according to report published Sunday in the online edition of Newsweek magazine. In what appears to be the Bezos' first interview about the company's upcoming electronic reader, Amazon's chief told the magazine that the Kindle can store up to 200 books and connect to the Web with the help of a system called Whispernet. Amazon, a company that has become synonymous with buying books online, will also offer Kindle owners a selection of more than 88,000 digital books at launch time, according to Newsweek. Last week, CNET News.com reported that Bezos will unveil the Kindle at a media event in New York on Monday. An industry source said that the device will retail for $399 and receive automatic downloads from major newspapers and publications. The source also said that Kindle features e-mail. The e-mail service enables owners to receive word documents or PDF files that can be stored in the device's library just like a book, Newsweek reported. But what makes the handheld truly unique is that it downloads books off the Web--and it can do that "in less than a minute," Bezos told the magazine. E-readers used to confine e-book buyers to wherever their computers were located. Digital books had to be first downloaded to a PC and then synced to an e-reader. Amazon is freeing them to buy wherever they can connect to the Web and this could lead to more impulse purchases. Amazon is banking a lot on the e-reader. The retailer held up the release for more than a year in an attempt to deliver a superior product than predecessors, a source told CNET News.com. Previous attempts to convince the public to switch to digital books have largely failed. To help spur demand, Amazon is pricing Kindle editions of New York Times best sellers as well as new releases for $9.99. Price is important because in the past, e-books have often cost the same as the paper kind and that stifled demand. Newsweek offered few details about the Whispernet system, but did say that its based on the EVDO. A source told CNET that Sprint will provide the EVDO access. EVDO will enable Kindle owners to hook up to the Web via a cellular network. That means way more coverage than having to look for a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Start-up makes electric power from motion

Clean tech company M2E Power on Friday said it has raised money to commercialize battery technology that converts motion to electrical energy.

The $8 million series A round was led by OVP Venture Partners and included money from @Ventures, Highway 12 Ventures, and existing investors. The investment will be used to expand research and development and build initial products.

The company's mission, in essence, is to apply the long-understood Faraday Principle--that putting a conductor near a magnetic field will produce voltage--to 21st century applications.

Treadmill tests at a biomechanics lab at Boise State University show how motion can produce enough electricity to power a light (on walker's waist).
(Credit: M2E Power)

Its initial target is to create a D-size battery for the military and then create batteries for consumer electronics. Later, it plans to make larger batteries for renewable energy sources like wave power and wind turbines.

Soldiers rely increasingly on D and AA-size batteries to power scopes, radios, and other mobile electronics. Batteries alone can be an additional 10- to 30-pound burden, and discarded batteries leave a trace of a mission's movements.

The company intends to test out its batteries as part of a military research effort and, in parallel, design batteries for consumer devices.

Initially, the company expects to make a battery charger for a cell phone or digital music player that would provide a backup charge to an existing device with a cable, said Regan Rowe, director of business development at M2E Power.

Within a few years, it hopes to have mobile electronic appliances with specially designed motion-to-energy batteries, Rowe said. The batteries are larger than today's but the devices will never need to be plugged in.

In tests, M2E Power has found that two hours of motion--what an average person produces--is enough for one half to one hour of talk time on a cell phone.

How it works
Magnet and coil generators are typically too large for use in mobile electronics. The company's technologists have been able to generate enough electricity to power small devices by manipulating the electromagnetic field that is produced when a coil moves near a magnet, explained Rowe. It has patents in magnetics and coil structures.

Protoypes of batteries that convert kinetic energy--motion--to stored electricity.
(Credit: M2E Power)

Its initial prototypes include a magnet attached to a spring, wire coils, circuitry, and a traditional battery to store electricity.

Because it is self-charging, it allows designers to make batteries with less traditional storage material, which often contain heavy metals, Rowe said. Also, the charging algorithms will be less taxing on batteries, making them last twice as long, she said.

The technology is scalable enough so that it could be used for wave and tidal power, hybrid batteries for cars, and other larger renewable energy applications.

From the moon to the Earth--in HD

The Japan Space Agency's (JAXA's) Kaguya spacecraft re-created one of the most memorable photos from space--an Earth-rise from lunar orbit. But this one was taken for the first time with a high-definition camera.

JAXA's spacecraft is currently orbiting the moon and its equipment is being tested in preparation for its real mission to map the moon with high-definition images later this month. Two satellites carried by Kaguya, including one that will eventually land on the moon, have already been launched into lunar orbit to help the lunar mapping project.

NHK, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation, developed HDTV for use in space. Click here to see a video of the Earth-rise and Earth-set from the JAXA project site.