Sept 29 – Oct 5

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This week’s headline story: Business Supported MOOCs

empty_classroomMassively Open Online Courses or MOOCs have received a lot of attention, but questions remain as to the value that businesses place on students who receive education through MOOCs rather than through traditional colleges. That question is beginning to be resolved. Major corporations are beginning to invest in building MOOCs that meet their specific needs. Last week, MOOC provider Udacity announced the Open Education Alliance, which allows students to earn a free certificate based on a series of online courses developed with input from Google, AT&T and several other companies. Similarly, MIT and its MOOC partner edX are offering the XSeries – a series of courses based on input from a consortium of about 50 companies, including UPS, Procter & Gamble Co. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. The XSeries will prepare students to take a test and earn a “verified certificate” in subjects like computer science and supply-chain management. Meanwhile, companies such as Yahoo Inc. have begun reimbursing employees who take certified courses from Coursera, another MOOC provider.

and elsewhere in Tech News.

  • Okay, you’re familiar with MOOCs, how about MOORs? The first Massively Open Online Research or MOOR course is being offered by a team from UC San Diego. In “Bioinformatics Algorithms – Part 1,” students will work in teams on specific research projects under the direction of prominent bioinformatics scientists from around the world.
    Is Massive Open Online Research the Next Frontier for Education? [UCSD News]
  • Scientists at Stanford University have built the first functioning computer based on carbon nanotube transistors. “This could be a revolutionary technological leap,” says Dan Olds, an analyst at The Gabriel Consulting Group. “It takes much less power to change the state of a carbon nanotube versus today’s transistors,” Olds said. “Nanotubes are much better at dissipating heat. You can pack more nanotube transistors onto a chip. We would see devices that can do a whole lot more useful work while using a whole lot less juice — and that’s a great combination.”
    Replacing silicon with nanotubes could revolutionize tech [Computerworld]
  • The creator of the world wide web and director of the web standards body W3C, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, is backing measures to embed support for Digital Rights Managament in HTML5. The measures Berbers-Lee backs would add support for Encrypted Media Extensions to HTML 5 allowing media companies to publish DRM-protected music, movies, and other media to the web reducing worries that users will download and distribute the media illegally. Berners-Lee believes that supporting DRM on the Web is necessary in order to get media companies to utilize the Web for media distribution. Free software advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Free Software Foundation, have called the proposals “disastrous”. They argue it is an attempt to elevate the business interests of media companies over the greater good of an open web where information can be shared freely, and would place unacceptable restrictions on how individuals use computers.
    World wide web creator rules DRM support should be baked into web tech [ZDNet]
  • NASA is planning to send a 3d printer into space next year allowing astronauts to print tools and parts as needed.
    NASA To Launch 3-D Printer into Space [NewsFactor]

and in Tech Industry news…

  • Microblogging service Twitter has filed for an initial public offering and should debut on the stock exchange in November. The firm aims to raise as much as $1 billion under the TWRT ticker symbol.
    Post-IPO, Twitter Co-Founder Moving to Billionaire Status [NewsFactor]
  • Apple has displaced Coca-Cola as the leading global brand in Interbrand’s 14th annual Best Global Brands report, ending the soda maker’s 13-year rule. Google took 2nd place pushing Coke down to 3rd.
    Apple, Google Stomp Coke in Global Brand Ratings [Ecommerce Times]
  • There is unrest amidst Microsoft’s Board of Directors. Several of the board members are pressuring Bill Gates to step down as chairman. They are looking to reboot the company with fresh ides from a new CEO and new Chairman of the Board.
    Mutiny at Microsoft Over Gates’ Future Role [Ecommerce Times]
  • Amazon is about to join Apple, Roku and others in the set-top box business. Amazon’s box will provide instant access to Amazon Videos, as well as Netflix and Hulu Plus.
    Amazon To Debut Set-Top Box For Holidays [NewsFactor]

and finally…

  • The new iOS7 recently released by Apple for iPhones and iPads has a new user interface where icons seem to float above the background, and apps zoom in an out as the user interacts with them. While most users think the new user interface is cool, a minority are complaining that the zoom animations are making them nauseous and giving them headaches.
    Does iOS 7 Make You Feel Sick? [NewsFactor]
    Twitter IPO Filing Shows It Ain’t No Facebook [Technology Review]

SOPA and PIPA Shelved

Two bills making their way through the House and Senate, intending to clamp down on Internet piracy, have run into a brick wall. PIPA (PROTECT Intellectual Property Act) is a bill in the Senate and SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) is in the House. Both originally intended to require Internet service providers, search engines, and online financial services to block Web sites that are suspected of distributing copyrighted material. Some feel that the bills represented the first major step towards government censorship of the Web.

Internet companies including Google, Microsoft, Wikipedia, Facebook, and many others have spoken out against the legislation, which is being driven by lobbyists from the Motion Picture Association, Recording Industry Association of America, and other IP owners. The tech companies fear that the legislation would alter the way that the Internet works, put Internet companies out of business, infringe on Internet freedom, and stifle innovation. Companies and legislators backing the bills believe that something must be done to reduce online piracy, which they say is responsible for eating away at media companies’ profits.

Last weekend, President Obama sided with the tech companies saying that the legislation should be shelved until it can address concerns over negative impact on the Internet. Over the course of the week many businesses, organizations, and individuals climbed on the anti-SOPA band wagon, which culminated in a Web blackout on Wednesday. Wikipedia, Reddit, WordPress, and hundreds of smaller sites went black Wednesday, replacing their Websites with anti-SOPA rhetoric. By Thursday morning, the pressure became too much and the sponsors of the bills announced a surrender of sorts. With elections around the corner, bill supporters feared that this hot-potato item might ruin their chances for re-election. Once elections are over, it is likely that the two bills return in one form or another.

Digital Divas

Two Japanese pop stars stole the show at the recent Digital Concept Expo in Tokyo. The green-haired “Megpoid” and red-haired “Akikoloid” sang flawlessly as they performed amazing dance routines, working the audience into a frenzy. The truly unbelievable aspect of the performance is that both rising stars are completely computer generated. Through the use of voice-synthesizing software and sensors around the venue, on the cameras, and on two human dancers backstage, the two synthesized pop stars offered a realistic 3-D performance that rivaled the best human concerts. Music by the virtual pop stars has made it into Japan’s top 10 hits list. So, who gets the glory: the virtual performers, or the programmers?
Japan’s digital divas take to the stage, wow fans [Reuters]

Apple’s New Cloud

This week Apple unveiled the long anticipated iCloud at its World Wide Developers Conference. The new cloud computing platform is similar to recent cloud music services from Google and Amazon, but goes several steps further. Users of iCloud will be able to store not only music, but all kinds of data and apps on Apple’s Web servers, to be shared across devices. iCloud takes advantage of Apple’s new unified OS X Lion, scheduled to be released next month, to allow users to have a common computing experience across all of their devices. Using iCloud, all of your apps, music, movies, photos, books, email, contacts, calendars, and data files are stored on the Web, and pushed to each of your devices. Users will no longer need to purchase multiple versions of an app for each of their devices. One copy of an app will come with a license that covers up to ten devices. The service also runs on Windows PCs through iTunes. The New York Times suggests that iCloud is the beginning of the end for PCs, and the birth of true cloud-based personal computing. iCloud is scheduled to be released this Fall. Microsoft and Google are both working to offer similar cloud services.

As users migrate to the cloud, they will have to commit to one vendor for storing their data and media. That vendor will most likely be Apple, Microsoft, Google, or perhaps even Facebook. As the cloud era arrives there are several important issues that should concern users. What happens if you are unhappy with your cloud service? Can you easily move your data to a different vendor’s cloud? Also, who is responsible for the safety of your data? How will Apple and the others compensate users for the loss of data? How about privacy and security? Can the vendor monitor what you store in its cloud, like Google monitors gmail, and Facebook monitors user profiles? These are issues that are already important and will certainly become critically important in coming months and years as cloud computing becomes the norm.

Addressable Ads

On the Web, businesses place small text files on your computer, called cookies, that assist in tracking your Web browsing activities. The information gathered with cookies is used to personalize your browsing experience. This includes displaying advertisements that are targeted at your interests.

Now cable TV and satellite providers want to try a similar technique called Addressable Ads. By monitoring the shows you watch on TV, the providers are able to learn a lot about your interests and tastes. Using this information they will soon begin sending commercials to your television specifically selected for you. So, for instance, at 9:30PM, in the middle of a broadcast hockey game, rather than showing all viewers the same commercial targeted at males aged 18 to 35, each viewer would see a commercial targeted at his or her unique interests. In an Addressable Ads pilot in Baltimore, Comcast discovered that viewers were 32 percent less likely to turn away from Addressable Ads.

While Addressable Ads provide more interesting commercials for viewers,they also cause concern for those who care about privacy. The customer viewing information gathered by cable and satellite providers is typically shared with data aggregation companies, which in turn can pass it on to advertisers. Unlike Web cookies, Addressable Ads are able to associate customer names, addresses, and other information with the data collected. This becomes even more worrisome as television, Internet and phone continue to converge. Cellular providers have the ability of placing ads on phones based on the current location of the device. When all of these technologies are combined, marketers will know about your every habit. They will be able to combine knowledge of your interests, your location, your activity, the time of day, and other factors to provide you with the perfect ad. Current privacy legislation is ill equipped to protect us from such an implementation of technology.

Apple’s Announcement and the Fight In the Livingroom

This week Apple rolled out its next generation iPods including an iPod Touch with cameras to support Facetime, which you may recall is Apple’s video phone software for WiFi networks. The new iPod Nano is half the size of the old Nano and features a touchscreen and an FM radio. An upgrade to iTunes includes a music-centered social network called Ping that lets iTunes users connect with friends to share their musical tastes, and follow artists for news, videos, and information. Besides new iTunes and iPods, Apple also unveiled a new Apple TV which is half the price and a quarter of the size of the previous model. For $99 the new Apple TV provides users with streamed movies from computer or a NetFlix account and on demand television programs and movies.

Apple isn’t the only company working to bring Internet TV to your living room. Google is reportedly engaged in talks with major Hollywood studios to bring rental movies to YouTube. Google is also working with music labels to open its own online music store to compete with Apple’s iTunes. Amazon is in the race as well. The company is reportedly in talks with several major media companies including NBC Universal, Time Warner, and Viacom to open a video subscription service similar to NetFlix. Clearly the next major tech battle field is the livingroom.

eBook Power Struggle

Amazon has had its hands full since the announcement of Apple’s upcoming iPad tablet computer. The iPad is expected to compete strongly against Amazon’s Kindle eBook reader. Besides the many and varied applications that will run on the iPad, it will also offer a robust iBookstore that will feature titles from popular publishers that include Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, MacMillan, and Hachette. The deal that Apple has made with these publishers is significantly better than their deals with Amazon. Apple is allowing the publishers to set their own price for ebooks and will take 30 percent, while Amazon pays publishers a flat $15 per book and sells the ebooks at a subsidized rate of $9.99.

The publishers are using their new association with Apple’s iPad to leverage a better deal with Amazon. Last week, Amazon made the headlines for pulling all MacMillan books from its online shelves in retaliation of MacMillan’s demand for variable pricing on its ebooks. Amazon complained that MacMillan was imposing a pricing model that was bad for consumers and the ebook industry. MacMillan, which has considerable influence in the publishing world, began advertising its books as “Available at booksellers everywhere except Amazon.” The tiff didn’t last long as Amazon gave in to MacMillan’s demands within days. Shortly there after, two other publishers, Hachette and HarperCollins made the same pricing demands of Amazon. That leaves only Penguin and Simon & Schuster, who are expected to jump on board any day now.

So, it would appear the days of $9.99 ebooks are over. Best sellers are likely to sell for $14.99, while other, less popular titles will retain their $9.99 price tag. This is essentially what happened in the digital music industry in 2007 when Apple iTunes, under pressure from the music industry and Amazon’s new MP3 store, moved from a 99 cents per track model to variable pricing. Now its Amazon’s turn to buckle under pressure.

But Amazon isn’t taking its recent hardships lying down. This week Amazon acquired Touchco, a manufacturer of touchscreen displays. Meanwhile, PVI, the company that makes the Kindle’s e-ink display announced that it will soon be capable of producing color e-ink displays, and even flexible models. It’s feasible that Amazon could come back later this year with a new Super Kindel featuring a color e-ink touchscreen, and additional applications. As color e-ink displays enter the market, it will be interesting to see if consumers prefer them over the led displays of the iPad and the upcoming generation of tablets.

Introducing the iPad

After months of speculation and anticipation, Apple’s latest creation is finally unveiled. Last Wednesday, with a packed amphitheater of journalists poised on the edges of their seats, Steve Jobs and colleagues showed off Apple’s new tablet PC, the iPad. Since then bloggers and journalists have been filling pages with there impressions of the iPad ranging from ecstatic to skeptical. Here’s a short overview of the iPad and the world’s reaction to its arrival.

The iPad is a 9.5 by 7.5 inch, half-inch-thin tablet PC, with an aluminum case, and a 10-inch LED multi-touch display. It has a custom-designed 1 GHz processor for high performance and a long 10 hour battery life.

Not unlike a giant, thin and sleek iPhone, the iPad has the same button and port configuration as an iPhone, and runs all of the iPhone apps at a larger, higher resolution. It also runs software specifically designed for it including Apple’s iWork word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation applications. The iPhone OS and interface that runs on the iPad has been updated to take advantage of the large display.

The iPad has most of the features of an iPhone 3GS including an accelerometer, Assisted GPS, Bluetooth, portrait or landscape viewing modes, and a software keyboard. Users can purchase a regular external keyboard which connects to the iPad dock. The iPad can then act like a notebook, utilizing the touchscreen in place of a mouse. There is also an optional case that doubles as a stand for convenient movie viewing, and laptop computing.

The iPad connects to the Internet over Wi-fi networks or over AT&T’s 3G cellular network. Unlike the iPhone, there is no subscription plan required. Two prepay options are available. One provides 250 MB for $14.99/month. The other is unlimited data for $29.99/month. Users are free to use the iPad exclusively over Wi-fi to eliminate monthly fees altogether.

Wi-fi-only models of the iPad range in price from $499 to $699 depending on the size of the hard drive, while iPads that support both wi-fi and 3G start at $629 and run up to $829. Wi-fi only models will be available at the end of March with Wi-fi+3G models arriving a month later.

What distinguishes the iPad from previous Windows-based tablets is the user interface and software. The iPad comes instantly out of sleep displaying the home screen. Swiping across the display reveals pages of applications. Apples implementation of the multi-touch user interface looks very elegant, intuitive, and easy to use. While the iPad runs all iPhone software, it’s large hi-def display will serve some applications better than other. Movies, books, newspapers, magazines, and photos look beautiful on the iPad display even at extreme angles. This makes it easy for two or three people to view simultaneously. Maps and GIS applications are sure to be popular on the iPad. Games will take on a whole new aspect viewed on the iPads large display and controlled via the accelerometer. Apple’s iWork software supports more productive activities while the Web browser and social network applications provide user’s favorite online activities. Without doubt, software developers will be using the iPad’s software development kit to design many applications that take advantage of the iPad’s unique form factor. There should be many more enticing apps available by the time the iPad hits the market.

The reviews of the iPad are mostly favorable, with some well known silicon valley journalists practically gushing over it. However, there are points of dissatisfaction as well. The iPad has no camera, and is unable to function as a phone over AT&T’s network. The iPad does not support multitasking to the level where multiple applications can run in multiple windows. So when switching between applications, the user must always return to the home screen and relaunch the application. The iPad does not support Flash, so some Web content will not be viewable. The iPad is extremely limited on ports. Besides its headphone jack, it has only its one Dock connector for connecting to a PC. Perhaps the largest concern expressed over the iPad is it’s lack of open standards. It appears that all media content on the iPad will be locked down with digital rights management. Movies, television programs, books, magazines, and newspapers will have to be purchased from Apple partners. DRM is the norm for ebook readers like the Kindle, and video services like netflix. However, an iPad-like tablet based on Google’s open Android or Chrome OS platforms, could garner a fan base of users who feel Apple commands too much control over its users.

No matter what level of success the iPad achieves, its impact on the market will be considerable. While the iPad doesn’t have enough power or features to compete with regular notebook computers, it is likely to make life difficult for ebook readers like the Kindle, and netbooks. It’s lower-than-expected price, is already causing other tablet manufacturers to drop their prices in order to better compete when the iPad hits the market. Just as 2008 was the years of the smartphone, and 2009 was the year of the netbook, it is likely that the iPad will make 2010 the year of the tablet.