Claim: We Don’t Need Net Neutrality Because The Internet Isn’t ‘Broken’

Reading Drudge and the Wall Street Journal this morning had me concerned that Julius Genachowski, the FCC chairman, was going to smash my modem into tiny pieces with a +2 mace in the name of flexing regulatory muscle. Hardly. It’s true that the FCC will vote tomorrow whether or not to implement some sort of Net Neutrality regime, but considering that it’s already stated what it means to accomplish with the vote, I don’t understand why folks are so upset. But, I’m willing to listen.

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Gmail’s Holiday Gift: Another Year Of Free Calling To The U.S. And Canada

I own an iPhone. I live in San Francisco. As such, it’s basically a total crapshoot as to whether or not I’ll be able to make a phone call in the city. Skype had always been a pretty good back-up solution, but an even better one came a few months ago: Gmail Calling. And now Google has just extended the free period of the feature through 2011. Yes, through next year.

Gmail Calling is great because it exists fully in the browser in an app that I always have open anyway: Gmail. If you use gChat, it’s right below your status message marked with a phone icon and the words “Call phone”. Hitting this launches a dialpad window within Gmail (similar to a chat window) and you can call any number in the U.S. or Canada for free. In my experience, the call quality and reliability have been excellent.

All of this is done by way of a Google Voice plug-in. We were all excited for the desktop version of Google Voice — which we got to test out — but Google decided to go this route instead, and I do think it’s a better idea.

When the feature launched back in August, Google would only commit to keeping it free through the end of the year — so this 1 year extension is great. But a Google representative at the time also told us that they hoped they could keep calls free indefinitely if the margins on international calls could cover the U.S./Canada ones. No word on if that’s the case yet, but again, the 1 year extension is a good sign. It currently costs 2 cents a minute to make calls through the service with dozens of other countries.

Zynga Debuts First Mobile Web Browser Game Mafia Wars Atlantic City

It’s no secret that Zynga is making a big bet on mobile, recently acquiring mobile app developer Newtoy, and launching native Farmville apps for the iPad and iPhone. In fact, as of earlier this month, Farmville for the iPhone had seen 7 million downloads with 10 million people per month accesing Zynga on a mobile device. Today, Zynga is debuting its first game designed for the mobile web: Mafia Wars Atlantic City.

According to the company, the game was built in HTML5 and has been designed specifically to be used on a browser-based smart phone or device including the iPad, iPhone, Android, Blackberry and WebOS devices. Mafia Wars Atlantic City is available by pointing your mobile web browser to or at GetJar.

Zynga’s bet on HTML5 (versus Flash) is also worth noting as well, which allows the games to be played on iPads and iPhones. The gaming giant recently bought Dextrose AG, which developed an HTML5-based development engine.

Zynga, which brought on former Yahoo exec David Ko as its SVP of Mobile, also recently announced Zynga Poker will be coming to Android phones this week. And Mafia Wars debuted a significant music partnership with rap artist Dr.Dre last week.

As Ko told TechCrunch’s MG Siegler at LeWeb a few weeks ago, Mobile is a huge opportunity for us. We have a huge user base to leverage, and they have some really exciting IP. Stay tuned.

Information provided by CrunchBase

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings Argues Why The Short Sellers Are Wrong

Netflix is one of the best performing stocks this year, up 225 percent year-to-date, with a $9.3 billion market cap. But it is also priced to perfection, with a lot of short sellers hoping to profit from its fall and antsy Wall Street analysts downgrading the stock. Today, CEO Reed Hastings defended Netflix’s prospects in a very public, very detailed, and very unusual blog post on Seeking Alpha. The post was in response to a specific short seller, Whitney Tilson, who last week laid out his case against Netflix in another Seeking Alpha blog post. By addressing this one short seller, of course, Hastings is trying to address the market’s jitters as a whole, and he does a pretty convincing job of it.

Tilson raised a number of concerns, ranging from the recent resignation of Netflix’s CFO to pressures on Netflix’s margins to market saturation and increasing competition in streaming video. Hastings acknowledges that Tilson “only has to be right on one or two of these issues in 2011 for him to make money on his short of Netflix. . . . Odds are he is wrong on all of them, in my view.”

Hastings then goes on to rebut the short seller’s argument (short sellers are investors who bet against a stock). I’ll summarize each of Hasting’s counter-arguments below:

  • The CFO left because he wasn’t going to become CEO anytime soon.
  • The First Sale Doctrine (which allows Netflix to rent DVDs after purchasing them) may be under attack, but it won’t change in 2011. And Netflix’s video streaming business is growing so fast that by the time it does have any impact on DVD costs, it won’t matter anymore.
  • Internet bandwidth costs should continue to decline, and while ISPs might like to charge content providers for data, that won’t happen in 2011.
  • Free cash flow has taken a hit because of the increased payments Netflix is making to media companies and content owners, but Netflix will begin smoothing that out on a quarterly basis instead of taking big hits once a year.
  • Market saturation in streaming video over the Internet is not yet an issue.  Market demand is still accelerating.
  • Criticisms about “weak content” are not supported by subscriber’s voracious appetite for what Netflix has to offer, but Netflix is trying to get better movies and TV shows all the time.
  • Content costs are going up, but postage costs are going down as viewers shift to streaming.
  • If necessary, Netflix will take a hit to growth before taking a hot to margins.  ”Management at Netflix largely controls margins, but not growth.”
  • Netflix is facing a growing number of competitors in streaming video, but it maintains advantages in scale and brand.
  • TV Everywhere could become a long-term threat, but it is more of a defensive move fro the cable companies rather than a new profit engine.
  • International expansion could have an impact on margins in the short term

Let’s drill down further into some of these issues. Netflix is obviously betting big on the transition to streaming video. The more it can get subscribers to watch streams instead of DVDs, the more it saves on postage. On the flip side, video content owners are demanding more money for those streaming rights. Hastings thinks that concerns about too many streaming services coming online is overblown at this point:

Streaming is growing rapidly; it is propelling Hulu, YouTube, Netflix and others to huge growth rates. Streaming adoption will likely follow the classic S curve, and we’re still on the first part (acceleration) of the S curve. Since we expanded into streaming, Netflix net subscriber additions have been 1.9m in 2008, 2.9m in 2009, and over 7m this year (estimated). While saturation will happen eventually, given the recent huge acceleration of our business specifically, and streaming generally, saturation seems unlikely to hit in the short term.

And while a major new streaming competitor could come in and blow away Netflix’s lead, Hastings makes the case that Netflix has a huge competitive advantage when it comes to the number of existing paying subscribers and its cost to acquire new ones:

For a competitive firm to materially hurt our growth, they have to have some positive differentiator (price, additional content, integration, etc.), and then they have to market their service effectively. This wild-card of major new competitor offering great content and marketing aggressively is the single best near-term short thesis, but no one knows if it will happen in 2011.

The core competitive barrier for direct competitors is brand/subscriber-evangelism. Our large subscriber base is very happy with Netflix, and tells their friends about Netflix. That means that the cost of acquiring the incremental 1m subscribers is lower for us than for a competitor, and thus our net additions are higher

Finally, in terms of the quality of the movies and TV shows Netflix makes available for streaming versus what people get on cable TV, Hastings points out:

. . . at $7.99 per month, consumers don’t expect to have everything under the sun. A variant of this misunderstanding is when DirecTV (DTV) advertises against Netflix, calling out some Netflix content weaknesses. When an $80 per month service is picking on an $8 per month service, the $8 per month service just gets more attention from consumers and grows even faster.

The key question is whether some combination of Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Google TV and other Internet video services will some day effectively replace the cable TV experience. And if it can, whether that combination will cost more or less than the $80 or more people pay for cable today. But remember, people are already paying for Netflix, which helps Hasting’s case.

Whether or not the stock will keep going up is another question entirely. At $178 a share, would you buy or short the stock?

Motorola Teases With The New “Buzz” Tablet

CES 2011 is just around the corner and in a rare bit of intelligent marketing Motorola is showing off what appears to be a new tablet, probably called something like “Buzz,” judging by the clever bee flitting around at the end.

We knew a bit about the new tablet last summer, noting it would probably end up on Verizon and have something to do with FiOS. I suspect we’ll see something with the Droid branding here with an expected launch date of Spring 2011. Could this be part of Verizon’s big launch event at CES on Jan 6?

Bleacher Report Raises $10.5M; Now Fifth Largest Sports Site

Bleacher Report is going to announce a new $10.5 million round of venture capital this morning and a lot of people reading this will probably say, “Bleacher-who?”

Somehow Bleacher Report has pulled off two things you’re not supposed to be able to pull off in Silicon Valley’s Web scene. The first is keeping a low-profile while growing steadily in users and revenues. The second is building a serious sports challenger to the big portals and legacy news companies. Finally.

Bleacher Report claims it has 17 million uniques (roughly 70% more than TechCrunch, for perspective) and is ranked by comScore as the fifth largest sports site, after Yahoo, ESPN, Fox Sports, AOL Fanhouse. Quiet Bleacher Report recently passed Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports. It’s the first pure startup to come close since the days when the Web was born. (Some players, like Fantasy Sports Ventures, dispute this because they operate networks of many independent sites, that added together, may rank higher. I am referring to a single destination site, not a collection of sites under one brand or a blog network. You can split hairs, but what matters is how advertisers view it, and advertisers are purchasing from Bleacher Report as if it is one site.)

Let’s face it, a big reason the portals are still so relevant is they lead in mass-appeal content verticals like finance, entertainment and sports. The reliance on that last category is going to change if Bleacher Report keeps blocking-and-tackling (sorry). With the number one player, Yahoo, in damage-control, it’s not exactly investing in the product. (That’s right! More bad news for Yahoo!)

In the last year, Bleacher Report has started getting big sports six-figure ad buys on par with the other big players, by mainstream advertisers like Gilette and Axe. The biggest challenge now is getting in more of those deals and taking down AOL Fanhouse first, and the rest of the top four later. “This company is growing astronomically and it’s just an execution play right now,” says Eric Chin, general partner at Crosslink Capital which lead the round.

That’s a big reason the founders aggressively recruited Brian Grey to be their CEO in July. He was previously the head of Fox Sports Interactive and the first GM of Yahoo! Sports before that. He knows the secrets of two of the top four. Bleacher Report also recently added Associated Content CEO Patrick Keane to its board of directors.

So how has Bleacher Report pulled this kind of growth off when almost no other sports-related startup has? Tons and tons of content for nearly any sports team anyone could care about. They produce more than 500 pieces of content a day, and have more than 1 million aggregate subscribers to their online newsletters tracking some 300 teams. Bleacher Report is different than a portal like Yahoo that aggregates and creates content, fan sites that parrot the message ownership or the league wants fans to hear or ESPN that focuses heavily on big market teams. It’s also different from younger companies that act like blog networks or the Digg-like Yardbarker.

Bleacher Report has 3,000 contributors and 700 featured contributors. Most are everyday sports fans who want a megaphone and people to argue with, but have day jobs and don’t have the time to build a large enough blog to get an audience on their own. Bleacher Report gives them some light editing tips, stats and analysis to provide story ideas and research, and of course distribution. In exchange these writers aren’t running their own blogs, they are writing on Bleacher Report’s blog platform and that gives Bleacher Report one big site to sell — rather than a network of sites– and total flexibility to sell creative the way they want, not in a set designated banner or box.

This round was lead by Crosslink and comes on top of $7.3 million from angels and friends and family and a firm called Hillsvn Ventures. The terms of this deal weren’t disclosed, but we’ve heard that the founders took some money off the table. That’s not a surprise. These three friends started this company back in 2008, paying themselves founders salaries and resisting temptations to sell or take money at an earlier stage. They’ve earned it in a tough category.

Cardpool Speeds Up Gift Card Selling By Removing The Snail Mail Option

The gift card marketplace model has steadily evolved over the years, as Plastic Jungle, Cardpool and others compete to grab a piece of of the market. For example, Plastic Jungle is trying to partner with online retailers to power a payment portal in the checkout process that will allow shoppers to use a credit from a different store to make an online payment. Cardpool recently gave its members the option to purchase instant redemption gift cards, instead of waiting to receive them in the mail for use. Today Cardpool is launching another useful feature: the ability to sell a gift card online without having to mail it in via snail mail.

Previously, in order to sell an unused gift card on Cardpool and other gift card marketplaces, you would need to mail the actual card in to receive money. Cardpool has developed a technology that allows users to enter the card number and pin number on the gift card and be able to sell the item immediately online. With this new program Cardpool will then mail you a check for the value of the card or you have the option to get an Gift Card or Facebook Credits for the value.

While Cardpool still has to mail you a check, the advantage of the new electronic redemption program is that you cut out the hassle of having to mail the cards in. Cardpool founder Anson Tsai says that the removal of this friction point in the process should be “game changing” for the gift card industry.

Cardpool has raised angel funding from a number of well known investors including Jeff Fluhr, Ron Conway, Max Levchin, Mitch Kapor, Alfred Lin, Naval Ravikant, Chris Dixon, Chris Sacca, and Paul Buchheit.

Information provided by CrunchBase

Google: Over 4 Million Users Have Downloaded At Least One Marketplace App

Google just put up a post with a few interesting details and statistics about how its recently launched Apps Marketplace is performing amongst Google Apps users. Google says that 4 million Google Apps users have at least one Marketplace app installed on their domains. While Google published a similar number four months ago, the search giant tells us that they haven’t posted an updated number and is seeing “growth” in terms of users and downloads.

Launched in March, the idea behind the marketplace was fairly simple—using a set of APIs, third-party apps could deeply integrate their products within Google Apps and offer these free or paid apps to the productivity suite’s users. Google offers over 250 enterprise apps to users including Zoho, Socialwok, Aviary, Bantam Live and more.

Google says the Top Installed Categories on the App Marketplace include Project Management, CRM, and Accounting and Finance. The top ten apps downloaded in order are Manymoon, Insightly, Zoho CRM, Aviary Design Suite, Mavenlink, Outright, MailChimp, RapidTask, Insync and

As we wrote a few months ago, there are mixed reviews on how apps are actually performing on the marketplace. As a whole developers seem happy to be associated with Google, but some developers who were pilot partners told us that downloads dropped after the initial launch of the marketplace. Others complained about the massive amount of noise on the marketplace in terms of a large amount of applications to choose from.

It’s still unclear how much money developers can actually make from the marketplace. All the apps on the list offer a free plan; some charge if you exceed a certain number of users. I’d be interested in seeing what percentage of users are downloading paid apps vs. free apps on the marketplace. And of course, one telling data point would be how actively the apps are being used in the marketplace once they are downloaded.

Information provided by CrunchBase

A Little Bling For Your Holiday: Hands On With Ulysee Nardin’s $1.1 Million Watch

Only a few more days ’til Christmas and time’s running out! This year, instead of mucking about with a pasta maker or a handsome bathrobe, why not tell the one you love how you really feel – with a violently expensive diamond-studded watch. This $1.1 million timepiece is covered in pave diamonds and sapphires and the entire torubillon movement is suspended on a plate of pure sapphire. While you and I can laugh at the price tag, the fact that they were able to drill and attach all of the moving parts to a sheet of gemstone is pretty darn impressive, at least from a technical perspective.

Presumably those in the market for this handsome and stylish timepiece aren’t thinking about cost but, if I may be so bold, I’d recommend that you also hire full-time security for the SO who will be receiving this item this year. Perhaps you can slash a bit of the caviar budget and let the cats go a bit hungry this year.

Click through for video.

Under Arrest: The Author Of That Pedophilia Book Amazon Banned

Remember that vile ebook “The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: A Child-Lover’s Code of Conduct” that briefly topped Amazon’s top 100 bestsellers lists, only to be pulled following massive customer and media pressure on the Internet retailer?

Well, according to Florida’s News 13, the author of the book, Phillip R. Greaves II, was arrested today for violation of obscenity laws.

According to the news outlet, Polk County Sheriff’s Office, along with authorities in Pueblo, Colorado, have arrested the mentally unstable man on third-degree felony charges, which are punishable by up to 30 years in prison in the state of Florida.

Polk Sheriff Grady Judd told News 13 that detectives who were investigating the case researched the book and inquired about receiving a copy, ultimately leading to the arrest.

“He wrote this book specifically to teach people how to molest and rape children,” Judd said. “You cannot engage in or depict children in a harmful light.”

Greaves could be extradited to Polk County as soon as today.

(Thanks to Auston Bunsen for the tip)

12 Days Of Christmas: Boxee Box Giveaway

The Boxee Box will certainly bring joy and merriment to your holiday. It is with out question one of my favorite gadgets of 2010 and so I’m really excited that we can give one away to a lucky reader. It’s a wonderful device that while not without faults, is still pleasing and fun to use. So how do you win one of these wonderful devices? Click through for the rules and instructions.

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Google’s All-Chrome Notebook Keeps Your Head in the Cloud

Are you ready to embrace the cloud? Gird your loins, for Google’s Cr-48, Chrome OS Notebook, laptop prototype or whatever else you want to call it is itching to drag you kicking and screaming up to the cloud and into it.

Google’s Cr-48 is, as many Google projects are, a brazen experiment in laptoppery that’s so crazy it just might work. Might not, either. For the Cr-48 — or whatever it ends up being called -– is really a notebook only in the sense that it has a keyboard and a hinge which lets it fold in half.

The sell here is that the Cr-48 runs Google’s new and long-anticipated Chrome OS. Based on a skeletal Linux build, it is virtually instant-on and instant-off, and its simplicity is hard to overstate. That’s because Chrome OS really is almost nothing but the Chrome web browser.

When you turn on the Cr-48, it drops you right into the Chrome browser, with a handful of icons which are really shortcuts to web pages. Anything you can do on the web -– with Chrome on Linux, anyway -– you can do on the Cr-48. Flash, JavaScript, whatever, it’s all possible, but of course, Google would prefer you stick to Gmail, YouTube, Picasa and the like. Google’s services are tightly integrated with the Cr-48, to the point where you’re asked for your Google ID when you turn on the machine for the first time.

And be assured: None of this will work if you’re not online. The Cr-48 supports every kind of Wi-Fi, and it packs a Verizon WWAN system with a killer hook: Users get 100 MB of free bandwidth every month. That’s not much, but it can get you through the dead zone between Starbuckses. (Additional bandwidth costs up to $50 for 5 GB a month.) It won’t, however, do you any good on an airplane without Gogo: You can open a few cached web pages on the Cr-48, but mostly it’s a 3.6-pound brick when you’re offline.

Under the hood the Cr-48 has netbook guts: a 1.66-GHz Atom CPU, 2 GB of RAM and integrated graphics, all powering a 12.1-inch, 1280 x 800 screen. Battery life is impressive: at least 8 hours with the wireless on (because you’d never turn it off). You also get a sole USB port (for input peripherals mainly) and VGA output. And there’s a grainy webcam.

Sure looks like a laptop. But is it really? Consider the evidence: The 16-GB SSD drive is not user-accessible, and you can’t store any files on the machine. Want to type a letter? You’ll need to go to Google Docs (which, oddly, is not a default icon). Want to write an e-mail? You’ll have to visit Gmail. Want to view a picture or video on your camera’s SD card? Well, er, you’ll have to upload it to the web from someone else’s real computer: The Cr-48’s SD slot is nonfunctional. Remember: You are not allowed to access local files, period!

Hackers are surely going to start finding a way to mod these things to overcome their limitations –- I tricked the machine into downloading a Firefox setup file, but had no way to open it — but for now the Cr-48 is really more of a tablet masquerading as a laptop. It even has its own app store, already full of the usual suspects. Weatherbug FTW!

WIRED Caps-lock key re-imagined as a search button. Nifty instant-on capabilities. Beautiful, bright display. Epic battery life.

TIRED Useless without wireless connection; only moderately useful with one. Requires massive buy-in to the Googleverse. Printing via cloud connection to another PC is erratic at best. Touchpad — “it’s all one big button” — requires lots of retraining. Keyboard feels clammy.

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Pure Android + Delightful Hardware = Great Dance Partners

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Nexus S

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Let’s get this out of the way first: The Nexus S is an excellent phone. It’s not as nice as an iPhone 4 as a complete package. But it’s a great phone on its own merits, and it does even do many things better (connectivity, media-sharing, background processes and notifications). You very well may prefer this to an iPhone, but it is not an iPhone. If you want an iPhone; you should buy an iPhone. Phew. Now g’head flame away.

The tech specs are excellent. (Get your writing sticks out, nerds, because here comes a list.) The Nexus S has a 1-GHz Cortex A8 Hummingbird processor, a 4-inch Super AMOLED 800 x 480 display, 16 GB of flash memory, a gyroscope and accelerometer, and two cameras. There’s a 5-megapixel 2560 x 1920 shooter in the back with a flash, and a 640 x 480 front-facing cam for vanity shots. It’s got antennas for GPS, Wi-Fi, 3G, Edge, Bluetooth and most intriguing of all, NFC. Got it? Pencils down.

So how does all that work? Let’s start with the Hummingbird processor: It’s fast. Really fast. Apps fire seeming instantly, everything loads well, and we never had an issue with it hanging or stalling to process something. Yet, it does this without being a battery hog. We were very pleased with the performance and power tradeoff.

Battery life is also quite good, assuming you’re using it casually. We pulled out nearly 30 hours of battery life, using it occasionally all day to snap a few photos, browse the web, send e-mails and make an occasional phone call. (And yes, the GPS was turned on.) However, when we really hammered it with heavy internet use, media playback and the in-car navigation function and plenty of apps, we were done in just over five hours. It takes approximately forever (or three hours) to fully charge. We really dug the battery-use feature, which shows not only how much life you’re getting but also exactly how you are spending your power.

The backside camera did fantastic with night shots, so-so shooting into the sun, but in most other respects is more or less average. We were neither amazed nor turned off by it. The frontside camera is a toy. It takes mediocre snaps, that will make fun party pictures, but it’s not exactly built for precious memories. Video was likewise just OK; it’s good but not great.

Where it really shines, however, is in sharing that media. Take a photo or shoot a video, and sending it to YouTube or Picasa, or even Facebook or Dropbox, is a mere three taps away.

The display is great, but it’s not going to blow you away, nor would we describe it as beautiful. Pictures look fantastic, and text is crisp and readable. The screen is bright and colors were largely accurate. You aren’t going to want to hang it on your wall, or dive into it, but in terms of phone displays, it’s solid.

We were thrilled with reception. We had voice and data reception in numerous places in San Francisco where our phone is typically either wobbly, or has no signal. Whether this was the antenna, or T-Mobile’s coverage in San Francisco, we can’t say. But overall, it was a solid experience, and we certainly had better coverage in tough-to-cover spots (subway stations and tunnels, downtown between large buildings and among a sea of other users) than we normally do.

GPS reception was flawless when we had it, but it did have occasional trouble picking up a signal, such as in heavy cloud cover. This was as expected.

The real novelty in the hardware specs is the NFC (near field communication) antenna. Hold the phone near an object with an embedded NFC tag (like certain Google Places window displays) and the phone will recognize and import the tag. At some point, it will be able to transmit tags as well, letting you exchange them with other users. This should make for an interesting way to seamlessly exchange small bits of data. But for now, it’s mostly interesting in theory — you’ll need a lot of luck finding any NFC tags out in the wild.

All of that hardware is crammed into one good-looking phone. The most noticeable and immediate feature is the Contour Display — the parabolic glass in the front that curves slightly to meet your face. It’s a subtle, yet nice-looking feature. It feels substantial in your hand and provides a certainty when held to your face, yet is in no way distracting when you’re using the touchscreen. We loved it. One big nitpick? The audio jack is on the bottom. It’s off-putting.

But the real gravy here is the OS: The phone runs version 2.3 of Google’s Android operating system. Even better, it hasn’t been mucked up by a carrier or hardware manufacturer to add a skin or other enfeebling of the operating system. It’s just Andoid, with no add-ons or takeaways. We love this OS, and it reminds us why phone manufacturers and carriers should quit skinning up Android. Pure Android is Best Android.

And 2.3 is quite an improvement, if somewhat invisible at first. There are a lot of iterative interface enhancements that make it more usable. For example, green-lit indicators let you know what’s running at a glance, a yellow glow indicates you’ve gotten to the bottom of a list, and numerous other small changes make the phone feel instantly familiar. Word selection during text entry has been greatly improved with 2.3, and it’s now easier to edit text you’ve already entered with multitouch to select partial blocks of text. Text selection is for the first time natural, although still not graceful.

Application management is far better in 2.3. One longstanding issue we found with Android phones is that users can easily be confused trying to quit out of an application. (And it’s still confusing! But it’s better.) People end up with a phalanx of apps draining their battery and pinging away at them with notifications. This version of Android adds a dedicated “Manage Apps” option on the home menu. It essentially holds your hand all the way to the kill floor where you can switch off an app, or easily delete it altogether.

And then there are apps. Android apps aren’t nearly as slickly designed as their iOS counterparts, but they’re close. The major social media apps (Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare) were as charming as a debutante. The more sophisticated Android apps, like Layar, remain amazing.

But the cloud apps and internet services are where it’s at. Enter your e-mail address and password, and your Google contacts, calendars and, of course, e-mail all import nearly instantly. If you’re a Google Voice user, your calls and voicemails just start showing up on the new phone as if by magic.

It’s clear that Google’s cloud strategy is a winner. As soon as you enter your Google account information, you’ve got all of its app services—voice, Gmail, YouTube, Picasa, Blogger — quite literally at your fingertips. And cloud services mean more than your Google account. Thanks to Dropbox, Rdio and 1Password all my music, file storage and passwords were just there. The constant trickle of notifications, which don’t announce themselves as rudely or publicly as on an iOS device, gave the phone the feel of something that was simply embedded in the internet. A node on the digital highway.

Once again, overall this is an excellent phone. Certainly it’s running the best version of Android yet, implemented purely, and on first-rate hardware. The operating system could still be more user-friendly and intuitive, but we do not hesitate to recommend this phone.

WIRED Integrated Google services a snap to set up. Wealth of apps. Super speedy processor makes quick work of tasks. Slick-looking, almost symphonic form-factor; Contour Display and hand-friendly backside are a delight to talk to. More deeply connected to the internet than your basement-dwelling, neck-bearded uncle.

TIRED Interface seemingly still designed primarily for dudes who dig binary. Greatly improved multitouch text selection means text editing is now merely horrible instead of atrociously shameful. Autocorrect seemingly programmed by non-native English speaker.

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Wi-Fi Thermostat Gets Us Hot Under the Collar

You can get Wi-Fi in everything from your bathroom scale to your fridge these days, so why not put it in your thermostat, where it might actually come in handy?

Filtrete has done just that, coupling an advanced programmable thermostat with a Wi-Fi add-in that lets you control it from your computer or with an iPhone app.

This makes more sense than you might think. That’s because even on a touchscreen thermostat, configuring a weekly program is never easy. Like most programmable thermostats, Filtrete’s lets you set four temperature changes, four times a day, every day of the week. That’s 56 individual data points to configure on a small display with a minimum of input options.

Now connect that thermostat to your computer and the world opens up: Configuration becomes easier, and adding multiple programs (summer, winter, vacation, girlfriend at home and so on) is no longer a pain.

Unfortunately, setting up the thermostat is a bit of pain. I didn’t have power running from my furnace to my thermostat, which meant I had to connect an ugly, wired transformer to wall power in order to power the Wi-Fi module (otherwise the thermostat can be configured from the control screen only). Overcoming this hurdle — which isn’t documented in the manual — took considerable effort and was complicated by the device’s truly arcane setup routines.

With everything finally running, managing my environment was a breeze. Feeling chilly but your hands are full in the kitchen? Pull out your phone and kick it up a degree. Left on vacation and forgot to turn on the lower-temp program? You can do it later from any web browser … and then turn the heat back on when you’re on the cab ride home.

All this convenience is great, but it’s also the reason why I question Filtrete’s claims that I’ll save $180 a year on my utility bills.

The problem is this: While programmability is wonderful, the ease of changing the temperature from anywhere means you’re much more likely to do it, when otherwise you’d just sit there and suffer, too lazy to get up. Now, while I’m working in my office, I can kick the furnace up a couple of degrees without even walking upstairs, so why not do it?

In fact, my utility bills have gone up since I installed the device, not down. But hey, at least it’s warmer in here.

Ultimately I can only hope that my need for all this additional heat will eventually be counterbalanced by the additional body fat I am gaining from not walking up the stairs so much. I call that a win-win.

The most configurable thermostat available; lets you tweak from the console, PC or smartphone. Bright, easy-to-read display.

TIRED Web-management tool is poorly designed, with key features buried. Can’t configure multiple programs without a PC. Reported temperature gets very jumpy when messing with power, batteries or the (removable) Wi-Fi module. Requires “C” power from HVAC unit.

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Google To Expand And Market Movie Streaming Service In 2011

Google is expanding its feature film streaming service, says a source who’s been briefed on the product. The service will likely be an expansion of the current movie rental/streaming test launched by Google earlier this year. Announcements should be made in early 2011, says our source, and will be heavily marketed.

Ex-Netflix executive Robert Kyncl, who was hired by Google earlier this year, is negotiating studio deals, says our source. The service will initially focus on top tier films and to focus marketing efforts there, including pairing with Google TV. A deeper library will be added over time. Existing rental titles are certainly not new release top tier films.

Earlier this month Google acquired video delivery company Widevine. Technology from Widevine may be used to power the new movie service.

We’ve reached out to Google for comment.

Information provided by CrunchBase