Tricked-Out Travel Gear for Frequent Fliers

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Photo: Jens Mortenson
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Air travel is an abomination. But don’t double-fist brewskis and head for the emergency slide. Make the best of it with a totally fly travel kit that will keep you comfy and entertained in cattle class, while clocking in at just over 6 pounds.

1. Exped Air Pillow

WIRED Lighter than a Sky Mall catalog at a mere 3 ounces. Packs down small enough to fit inside a coffee mug. Separate one-way valves for inflating and deflating let you dial in just the right amount of skull-cradling pressure. Contoured shape adjusts to more sleeping positions than Rodney Yee. Soft, polyester tricot shell is gentle on your face yet stands up well to scrubbing. Totally has your back—also makes a great lumbar support.

TIRED Somewhat useless in the aisle seat. Ted Haggard-y valves sometimes go both ways.


Rating: 9 out of 10

2. Powermat Rechargeable Travel Mat

WIRED Built-in battery pack for portable, cordless power-ups. Small enough to fit in our back pocket (we wear big jeans). One full charge juiced our thirsty iPhone more than five times. Includes adapters for USB, Nintendo DS, various phones, and all of Apple’s iWhatevers. Wireless magnetic induction charging sure to amaze juggalos.

TIRED Flimsy hinges for a portable device. iPhone case ($40!) thicker than a Stieg Larsson plotline.


Rating: 8 out of 10

3. Timbuk2 Commute 2.0

WIRED “Checkpoint friendly” TSA-compliant laptop pocket unzips so your rig doesn’t have to go naked during the security dance. Waterproof shell wards off boozy spills from cramped coach seatmates. Backside sleeve secures to a roller bag. Roomy main compartment plus 10 gear pockets will store more bric-a-brac than your crazy cat-hoarding aunt.

TIRED Neither upright nor locked—bag flops onto the laptop compartment when placed on ground. Awkward shoulder strap.


Rating: 8 out of 10

4. Sony MDR-NC300 headphones

WIRED Excellent sound; music and movies were both handled beautifully. Good battery life. Movie, Bass, and Normal modes deliver audio for almost any situation; cancellation function silences unwanted noise like a grade-school principal. Monitor button mutes the tunes to let you listen to the captain speaking. Ships with seven extra sets of earbud covers.

TIRED No way to customize modes. Bulky battery pack and processor. We would have preferred more volume. Thanks for the extra covers; they come off faster than shirts on Jersey Shore.


Rating: 7 out of 10

5. Dell Streak

WIRED Tablet phone flies like a hummingbird at a mere 7.7 ounces. Slim profile slips easily into a coat pocket. At 5 inches, screen is big enough to showcase gory details of True Blood, small enough so your seatmates won’t catch you watching Glee.

TIRED Sluggish touchscreen had us doing more poking than a Facebook first-timer. Available in any color you like, as long as it’s black. As power-hungry as a third-world dictator. Hear that? It’s 2009 calling. It wants its outdated Android OS back.

$300 (with two-year AT&T contract),

Rating: 6 out of 10

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Kill Your Contract With These Prepaid Cellphones

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Photo: Jens Mortensen
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Mobile carriers love holding their customers by the brass ones. But don’t sweat commitment. These days, buying a month-to-month prepaid cell phone doesn’t condemn you to toting around a flaming POS.

1. Motorola i1 | Boost Mobile

The i1 isn’t exactly the freshest phone, due to its outdated Android 1.5 OS. But with a vivid 3.1-inch HVGA display, good-enough touchscreen, Wi-Fi, and 5-MP camera, this month-to-monther is actually a keeper. And we can say “No contract, suckaz!” faster than you can type #ATTFAIL.

WIRED More than 50,000 apps! Thin and pocketable. Tough casing can take a tumble yet looks sharp at the office. Free push-to-talk chatting and SMS with other iDen handsets (surely all your peeps are on Boost, yo?).

TIRED Built-in mic is weaker than a virgin daiquiri. 15-fps video resembles footage from the moon landing. Fake-out: What looks like a touch scroll wheel is just a D-pad. 2.5-mm headphone jack. Bail is cheaper.


Rating: 8 out of 10

2. BlackBerry Curve 8530 | Virgin Mobile

Like Mephistopheles, carriers have perfected the art of temptation. Minus a two-year contract, this workhorse costs 10 times as much. It could well be worth it, thanks to document, spreadsheet, and presentation editing, plus a full-on BlackBerry OS (not some watered-down version) that supports roughly 6,000 apps. There’s even tethering, if you’re willing to sidestep Virgin’s terms of service.

WIRED Spot-on optical trackpad. Downright slick interface. Ships with apps for Twitter, Facebook, and something called MySpace. Fully loaded: GPS, 3G, Wi-Fi, and BBM (BlackBerry messaging). Battery lives for days.

TIRED Scratch-prone plastic back feels and looks chintzy. Dinky 2.0-megapixel sensor. Mere 2.46-inch screen with 320 x 240 resolution. Grainy video.


Rating: 7 out of 10

3. LG Prime | AT&T

The housing has worse plastic than Heidi Montag, while the clunky browser looks a lot like Internet Explorer 4.0. Still, this phone isn’t an entirely bad call. We had fun taking multishot photos and 12-fps video (and playing it all back on a nice 3-inch 400 x 240 touch display). Try that with a disposable handset from The Wire.

WIRED Featherweight at just 3.1 ounces. Standard 3.5-mm headset jack and up to 16 GB of side-loading storage (microSD card not included) mean it serves double duty as a viable music player. Battery delivers hours of talk (assuming calls aren’t dropped).

TIRED Fussy touchscreen is more difficult to finger than a mob hit man. Crummy navigation. Home-screen apps are finicky. Mobile email costs an additional $5 a month. Only 48 MB of internal memory.


Rating: 5 out of 10

4. Samsung Intensity | Verizon

Whether you’re a foot soldier or kingpin, nothing’s more satisfying than a spacious QWERTY. This slider provided the smoothest typing of the bunch. Throw in voice-recognition dialing, AIM and Yahoo messaging, and up to 16 GB of external storage, and the call sounds convincing. In practice, the meager display is embarrassingly lo-res (220 x 176 pixels) and too square, making movie-watching about as intense as a bowl of cold oatmeal.

WIRED Dedicated voice command button. Photos turn out well in Night Shot mode. External speaker is bus-shakingly loud.

TIRED Low-quality camera with no video capture. 2.5-mm headset jack. Janky interface. Unless you’re an 11-year-old girl or Lady Gaga, the metallic red casing is a tad flashy.


Rating: 2 out of 10

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Keep It Vinyl With Old-School Stereo Components

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Turns out the Age of Rock neither burned out nor faded away. Proof: Plenty of companies still crank out old-school stereo components that let you cruise the highway to hell, one side at a time.

1. Human Speakers Model 81

WIRED Accurate and hearty sound: sweet highs and bass deep enough to make your subwoofer stand up a little straighter, just to get some attention. Everything—woofers, tweeters, cabinets, crossovers—is handmade by a poet in New Hampshire. (That’s right: a poet—who knows how to rock.)

TIRED Online order form straight out of GeoCities. Old-school looks did not pass the lady test. To the man cave, Robin!


Rating: 9 out of 10

2. Raysonic SP-200

WIRED With warm, bright sound that puts a sonic shine on vinyl and lossless audio, this 100-watt integrated amp even smooths the harsh notes of low-bitrate MP3s. Completely groovy stereo imaging, man.

TIRED It’s all about the midrange—very little low thump or ultrahigh splash. Be careful around those eight KT-88 tubes: They run hot enough to shatter if you get greasy fingerprints on them, and replacement will set you back about three bills each.

$2,990 (as tested),

Rating: 8 out of 10

3. Technics SL-1200MK2

WIRED This club-favorite turntable has more street cred than 2Pac—all of our most trusted vinylphile friends spin it. Supersturdy aluminum chassis and platter. Simple to operate without spilling your Coors. Just like 1979: High-torque direct-drive motor is dead steady and easily transitions from Supertrampin’ to scratchin’ and beat matchin’.

TIRED Pitch control and adjustable tonearm overkill for the home user. Stylus sold separately.


Rating: 8 out of 10</div

4. Solid Tech Rack of Silence ROS4 EVO

WIRED With only four points of contact per shelf, air swirls gaily around your gear, keeping it cool. Spring-loaded corners do a great job of soaking up your vibrations: In our totally scientific tests, one-man-dance-party-induced record skipping was reduced by 39 percent.

TIRED ‘Spensive. Spikes harshed our mellow: Unless you have carpet, you’ll have to shell out another $400 for hardwood-friendly feet.


Rating: 7 out of 10

5. Tributaries T100

WIRED Ceramic-encased resistors in this power conditioner keep dangerous voltage spikes out of your pricey gear. (Hooking a high-buck system to a standard surge protector is like serving steak on a Kleenex.) Handy front-side USB charging port. Puts all components under the command of a single power button.

TIRED That button is frustratingly finicky. Voltmeter display refuses to turn off; constantly blinks 120 … 119 … 120. OK, we get it!


Rating: 7 out of 10

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Microsoft Has Seen The Light. And It’s Not Silverlight.

Nearly a year ago, Microsoft pulled together a group of reporters for Bing Fall Release event. The highlight of the presentation was a demo showing off some nifty new features in Bing Maps. The problem? All of this stuff required Microsoft’s Silverlight browser plug-in to work. I berated the company for once again pushing users towards a more proprietary web. So today it’s time to laud them, as they seem to be backing away from that strategy.

During last week’s Professional Developers Conference (PDC), ZDNet’s Mary-Jo Foley asked Bob Muglia, Microsoft’s SVP of the Server and Tools Business, why the company failed to highlight Silverlight in a meaningful way this year. His answer was rather surprising.

Silverlight is our development platform for Windows Phone,” he said. And while he said that the technology has some “sweet spots” for media applications (presumably like Netflix, which uses Silverlight on the web), its role as a vehicle for delivering a cross-platform runtime appears to be over. “Our strategy has shifted,” is how Muglia put it.

Instead, as they made clear during PDC, Microsoft is putting their weight behind HTML5 going forward. Hallelujah.

Microsoft’s new IE9 web browser (which is in public beta testing) will be a big part of this strategy. And presumably, a lot of the things that currently require Silverlight, like some of those nifty Bing Maps features, will move to HTML5 going forward. Again, that’s great news.

So why is Microsoft doing this? It seems that Microsoft sees the writing on the wall. They likely know that’s it’s going to be much harder to make a dent in the new developer world order with Silverlight, which still has a relatively small market penetration and no penetration in mobile, than with HTML5, which is (or shortly will be) everywhere — including all of Apple’s devices.

HTML is the only true cross platform solution for everything, including (Apple’s) iOS platform,” Muglia told Foley.

This is a very different tone than Muglia had just a year ago, when he and then Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie were out on the circuit drumming up support for Silverlight with hopes that it would become a new de-facto standard like Adobe’s Flash. It’s not clear if Ozzie’s imminent departure from the company has anything to do with this change of tone or vice versa.

Regardless, Silverlight will now be mainly known as the development platform for Windows Phone going forward. In other words, the way to make native apps for those devices. But for just about everything else, it will be HTML5 or bust. And that’s great news for all end users. It’s one less plug-in to download. And it’s another step towards a unified web.

The Sexy Details of How the iPad and MacBook Will Hook Up

During the “Back to the Mac” event two weeks ago, Steve Jobs made a particularly witty remark as he unveiled the MacBook Air, one that made the audience chuckle in laughter:

“We asked ourselves, what would happen if a MacBook and an iPad hooked up? Well, this is the result, we think it’s the future of notebooks.”

There is always a strategic intent with the things that Apple says at product launches, especially when they come from Steve Jobs. This is because Apple cares deeply about the perception of its products. By intimating that the Air is the future, and that it blends the best of the MacBook Pro and iPad, Apple is signaling a lot. There is no doubt that this first phase in “hooking up” between the MacBook and iPad foretells a deeply converged future on many levels.

iOS and OS X Aren’t Hooking Up

Often when people visualize the convergence of the iPad and MacBook lines, they wonder whether a unified operating system will take over, which somehow blends the best of both the touch and “mouse” metaphors.

This is unrealistic and silly. Though iOS is OS X’s little cousin—both use different APIs and layers, but reside on top of UNIX—merging them makes little sense from an end-user perspective. iOS and OS X serve different use-cases, applications, and markets, and the touch metaphor on a MacBook simply wouldn’t serve a user well in the majority of cases. And running multiple browser tabs and multitasking between 8 open applications requires a much more immersive experience than iOS may ever provide.

But despite the fundamental difference in how we interact with a MacBook and iPad, Jobs made sure to deeply blend how we view the two products at the marketing level, by touting attributes like the Air’s ability to turn on instantly, and last 30 days without a charge.

Why the Hardware is Rapidly Intersecting

One reason why Steve Jobs wants us to think about the MacBook Air as an extension of the iPad, is because there is a hardware convergence happening under the hood. The MacBook Air benchmarks were the most telling sign that this is occurring. Apple was able to double the system performance of the MacBook Air, despite using the same 3 year-old CPU technology from Intel—Intel Core 2 Duo processors running at pokey speeds.

Though profound this isn’t surprising—the Air uses flash instead of spinning disks, and SSD technology dramatically cuts data transfer bottlenecks for applications that are I/O (Input/Output) constrained. And guess what? Most simple computing tasks are memory and IO-constrained. This fact helps the flash-based Air operate on par with Apple’s high end MacBook Pro line, except under taxing CPU-intensive scenarios such as video rendering.

So let’s get this straight: Apple is using several year old technology, and the Air’s system performance screams. This is nothing short of incredible proof that after a certain threshold, CPU advancements are only adding incremental benefit to 90% of what the user cares about today.

Instead, performance is more dependent on graphics processing than ever. This is why Apple designed the Lion OS to heavily focus on OpenCL, which leverages parallel constructs within the GPU to extend its utility to non-graphics tasks. And a big reason why Apple didn’t go with Intel’s newer CPU line is they lack support for OpenCL, and Apple is probably designing new applications like iLife 11 to take advantage of OpenCL’s power.

The fact that Apple’s sexiest new Notebook didn’t go with Intel’s latest technology is damning for Intel and is the best signal yet of how innovation in PCs is getting blown away by what’s happening in the mobile ecosystem. Right now, benchmarks show that the fastest ARM-based smartphone CPUs are only about 25% as fast as the Core 2 Duo that Apple is using in the MacBook Air. But this delta will compress fast.

In about 2-3 years we will be seeing integrated chipsets make their way up the food chain, and potentially fit in notebook-class form factors. Multicore ARM solutions, based on ARM-15, will make this a reality in about 2 cycles of Moore’s Law.

Skeptics will say “no way — never, not with the need for Flash”. I agree that Flash is probably here to stay on desktops. But all the pressure on Adobe to make Flash better is, ever so slowly, improving how rendering and compositing are done in hardware. And even in the midst of their darkest public battle last Spring, Apple and Adobe were cooperating in getting Flash acceleration to work on desktop Macs. In the future, it’s conceivable that Flash could be the only remaining bottleneck that prevents Apple from using an embedded SoC in a MacBook Air. But hardware acceleration for Flash is approaching which can solve this dilemma.

All of this rapid advancement in what’s under the hood has huge ramifications for the future of the MacBook Air and iPad. Anyone want a MacBook Air that is several pounds, Runs OS X, lasts for 30 hours, has a detachable keyboard, and then converts to an iPad running iOS once the screen is removed?

I am not saying that Apple is going to make this device, nor that it’s even in their best interest to pursue one-size-fits-all form factors. But there is no denying that the hardware is converging, and the “Back to the Mac” theme of Apple’s latest event deeply intimated this.

The Mac Store’s Incredible Network Effect

The remaining puzzle piece in the intersection of the MacBook and iPad is all about the applications—both end-user discovery & distribution and developer support. The iOS storefront was the genius behind the iPhone becoming a low friction distribution warehouse for content.

In much the same way, the Mac Store is Apple’s umbrella strategy to encourage developers of long-tail content to have an easy landing pad on the Mac, developers who are already building apps on top of iOS.

Interestingly, the Mac Store allows Apple to do the reverse of what Microsoft is doing with Windows Mobile 7: whereas Microsoft can leverage .NET familiarity to encourage the desktop dev community to write apps for WM7, Apple will use its iOS franchise to kick-start a vibrant ecosystem of Mac developers.

But there’s also something more magical that this network-effect provides for Apple: by specifying that developers use Apple’s tools, namely Xcode and LLVM, Apple gains a layer of control in how this hardware convergence plays out.

How so? Apple can have developers simply flip a recompile switch and upload universal versions of apps to the Mac App Store, which work on both ARM and x86. In this way, Apple is setting up a distribution mechanism to host and install code which will allow them to transition hardware seamlessly.

This is the ultimate in streamlined distribution, since a developer can focus on one unified environment based around Cocoa Touch and Objective-C, along with a set of UI / UX constraints. Apple then abstracts all this from the user, independent of the hardware.

Apple Hates Control and Loves Optionality

If it’s not completely clear yet, Apple is setting the stage to be processor and component agnostic. This not only allows them the above-mentioned architecture-neutrality, but also affords them incredible pricing power, and ensures they can tap into consistent component supply, which will be a critical challenge as they lock up an even bigger slice of the supply chain.

Apple can build an A4-variant themselves, or they can partner up with one of many vendors. If Intel starts innovating again, that’s an easy choice for Apple. If nVidia, with its graphics pedigree, emerges as a winner in combining GPUs with ARM-based CPUs, Apple can partner more deeply or buy the company. Or Apple might decide to stick with x86, but use GPU/CPU technology from AMD.

It’s all about optionality. And Apple is building that into its long-term strategy, by combining its rapidly expanding footprint in mobile hardware / software with its iOS developer mind-share to rev its Mac franchise into much higher gear.

Wow Hooking Up Feels Amazing – When’s Our Next Date?

I believe it’s pretty clear: Apple wants to use OS X, running on an incredibly battery efficient MacBook Air-like form factor, as a bottoms-up strategy to attract loyal iOS fans over to the Mac franchise. After all, there are around 150M users of iOS worldwide. Apple knows that iOS is a secret weapon to bring both consumers and corporate users to higher end Mac products. And the marketing around the Back to the Mac event is just a precursor for Apple’s underlying strategy in mixing these two worlds.

Behind-the-scenes, Steve Jobs is setting up all the pieces for Apple to converge these product lines. But it’s all about optionality for Apple. When and how they choose to get there is up to them. And my guess is Steve Jobs is going to do so in a way that continues to make the Apple experience a superior one for you, its loyal customer.

There’s Always A

This just landed in our inbox: a pitch for a new URL shortener with the slightly amusing name, which is of course described by its creator – John McKinnon – as a shortening service that “kicks it”.

If you think or TinyURL or whichever service you fancy just seems too serious for certain linking occasions, is one way to get the job done.

And because it’s so cheeky (wink, wink, nudge, nudge), it’s bound to get you some attention, too. Say, isn’t that the reason why we share links in the first place?

Case in point:

Which Cellphone Did The Yemeni Terrorists Use?

If you look closely at this shot of the bombs allegedly sent from Yemen to Chicago you’ll notice what looks like a small camera up in the corner. Slide down the side and you see the volume buttons and I suspect the silver area is where the battery holder once stuck to the circuit board. It’s clear that this was a phone – probably of modern vintage – so which phone is it?

Read more…

Our Government Can’t Prevent A Digital 9-11: Entrepreneurs Need To Step In

At the Security Innovation Network (SINET) Showcase at The National Press Club in Washington, D.C., this week, Michael Chertoff, former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, presented a dire assessment of the cyber-security threat facing our nation. He discussed how rogue governments and hackers are quietly infiltrating our computer systems and the disasters that can be perpetuated—like those you see on the TV show “24”.  Chertoff worries that these risks haven’t yet gripped the public imagination; that it may take a “digital 9-11” to get businesses, consumers, and governments to fortify their defenses.

The most troublesome thing I learned by talking with a who’s who of our nation’s security community was that our government doesn’t believe it has the ability to defend us from the rapidly evolving threats. Yes, the National Security Agency and some branches of government have brilliant computer scientists working for them and can defend their own systems; but the rest of us are our own. The Government simply can’t innovate fast enough to keep pace with the pervasive threats and dynamics of the internet or Silicon Valley’s rapidly changing technologies. Indeed, as George Hoyem, a partner at the CIA-backed venture fund In-Q-Tel, noted, there has been a 571 percent growth in malware since 2006; today, 60 percent of all websites are infected.

The experts agreed that we need private industry to step in and help solve the world’s cyber-security problems.  But we can’t count on the big companies—they can’t innovate as fast as startups can.  So our entrepreneurs need to lead the charge. And many are doing just that.  Robert Ackerman, managing director at Allegiance Capital, said that in 1981 more than 70 percent of research and development in security technology was done by companies with 25,000 employees or more, and less than 5 percent was done by companies with fewer than 1000 employees. Today, the large companies perform 38% of the R&D, and companies with fewer than 1000 employees do about 25%.

But here’s the big obstacle: when it comes to Government—which is one of the biggest markets for security technologies, the deck is stacked against the entrepreneur. Nearly all big government contracts go to large contractors. These contracts run not in the millions of dollars, but in billions.  And we don’t get billions of dollars of value—if we’re lucky, we get some clunky old systems that entrepreneurs could have delivered much better versions of in a fraction of the time and a tiny fraction of the cost. Because these contracts are so big, they require many levels of approval—usually by Congress. It typically takes 3-4 years for government to award these.  Companies have to go through a grueling “certification” process to get approved to bid, and it costs millions of dollars to prepare proposals and to lobby government officials and political leaders. Startups can’t wait this long or afford the cost of bidding.

The chasm between government and entrepreneur couldn’t be wider. All of the government officials I talked to were open to change and seemed eager to embrace new technologies; yet they had no idea where to start or how to get around their own bureaucracy.

Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C., are located three thousand miles apart in space and light years apart in concept. Technology managers in government don’t know where to find the entrepreneurs who are ready and able to build innovative solutions.  And when they do come across them, they don’t have mechanisms to fund, support, or purchase technology from startups. So government managers are forced to deal only with the big contractors—who have a greater incentive to add staff (and so increase billing) than to cut costs through innovation. Not only are we wasting billions of dollars, but our nation’s defense industrial base is neglecting the vast majority of innovation from early stage and emerging growth companies.

What should the government do to remove the obstacles? There were some great ideas discussed, by people like Curtis Carlson, CEO of SRI International; Dean DeBiase, of Reboot Partners; Asheem Chandna of Greylock Partners; and SINET’s founder Robert Rodriguez:

1.      Overhaul the acquisition and procurement process to level the playing field for small companies: it must be made easier for startups to bid for government contracts and the selection criteria balanced to weigh equally the risk of technology obsolescence with the risk of a startup’s failing. Procurement times should be reduced to months rather than years; some projects should be done in smaller steps so that the big guys aren’t the only ones qualified to complete them.

2.      Increase awareness between technology buyers, builders, investors, and researchers. The SINET event was billed as the first of its kind. In Silicon Valley, such networking events—between entrepreneurs, investors, buyers, and academics—take place at least every week. Why not bring government technologists to Silicon Valley and other tech centers on a frequent basis? They will understand what is happening in the tech world, and entrepreneurs will get the chance to learn what problems need to be solved and to meet the people they can sell their solutions to.

3.      Provide tax incentives for security innovations—R&D tax breaks, similar to the high-efficiency-energy tax breaks for consumers.

4.      Provide seed funding for startups. One of the reasons for which Silicon Valley has so many Web 2.0-type startups, is that successful entrepreneurs, who have made their fortunes, are playing the role of Angel and VC. They provide funding and mentorship. Why not provide government technology managers with the ability to fund and mentor the startups that they believe can solve critical problems?

One more great idea (not from SINET, but reported by Rob Pegoraro, of The Washington Post) is from Internet pioneer Vint Cerf. Vint advocates the creation of a “cyber fire department”—a recognized, trusted, public entity that companies can call upon when they need help. This would function as Sandia National Laboratories did in battling the Conficker worm.

Bottom line: until changes begin to occur on a national scale, U.S. cyber-security will remain a global backwater in the continually innovating domain that is cyberspace.

Editor’s note: Guest writer Vivek Wadhwa is an entrepreneur turned academic. He is a Visiting Scholar at UC-Berkeley, Senior Research Associate at Harvard Law School and Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University. You can follow him on Twitter at @vwadhwa and find his research at

The Future of Local Commerce = Facebook + Foursquare + Yelp + Groupon

Editor’s note: The following guest post is by David Marcus, founder and CEO of Zong, a mobile payment provider for Facebook Credits, AT&T and hundreds of leading destination websites and mobile applications

There’s been much hype, crazy valuations, and overall market excitement about businesses that promise to unleash the power of the social graph, location, recommendations and group buying. Facebook’s latest valuation according to SecondMarket is now about $30 billion, Foursquare raised $20 million at a post-money valuation of $115 million while still at a pre-revenue stage, Yelp, short of selling for $550 million to Google, raised over $25 million at an undisclosed but very high valuation, and finally Groupon raised $135 million at a whopping $1.35 billion valuation. So besides their huge success with the investment community, and their users, what do these companies have in common, and what does all this have to do with disrupting Local Commerce?

In an August TechCrunch guest post, Alex Rampell, describes how Online2Offline commerce is a potential trillion dollar opportunity. The gist of it is that we spend most of our disposable income offline, in local stores, restaurants, and shopping malls. But companies like Groupon, Gilt, and other group buying and private sale startups are changing the money flow. People buy online, and redeem offline. But this is just the beginning of a perfect storm brewing that will change the way we discover, shop, and pay for things. Let’s focus on the main function each of these different startups provide to understand how bringing them together will ultimately disrupt multiple trillion dollar industries:

  • Facebook: provides the Social Graph, which is fast becoming a utility. Through its open platform, and APIs, we share more about our lives and our interactions online and on mobile every day.
  • Foursquare and Gowalla: provide location services and check-ins, along with game mechanics that motivate users to unlock badges, earn mayorships, and get discounts at local stores in the process.
  • Yelp: provides crowdsourced reviews of local businesses. Now also provides check-ins, and offers.
  • Groupon: provides discounted offers against a promise to increase sales and bring in brand new customers to local businesses.

The interesting thing here is that there’s a lot of overlap between the features offered by these companies. Recently, Facebook launched Places, a mobile geo-location service that mimics Foursquare local check-ins. Yelp also added check-ins, and recently rolled out Yelp Deals, a Groupon clone.

Considering that Local Commerce will be mostly mobile, one of these companies still must bring all of these features together, along with one-click payments (IMHO), to truly tap into the potential of all these disruptive technologies. In my mind, the ultimate product combines all these features in a mobile app. A user would launch the app, see what special deals are in her area (location + group buying), whom of her friends already bought the coupon/item (social graph), local reviews from friends (social graph + reviews), and then she could buy the desired coupon in one click on her handset. She could walk into the local business with a discount code, barcode, or maybe at some point in the future, an enabled RFID tag, and redeem what she just bought.

All of these companies, with the exception of Yelp, are at an early stage of their product development in this space. Facebook Places is lacking the gaming mechanics of Foursquare, the reviews of Yelp, and the local deals of Groupon. Foursquare is missing scale in its discounted offers. Yelp is missing the reach of the social graph, and the embedded payments. Groupon is lacking core social graph features that would give it better relevance through social shopping.

So which one of these companies will succeed in unleashing the power of Local Commerce by combining the right set of features with the appropriate on-the-ground salesforce? My bet is on Facebook to be first. They have a large advertising sales organization that could reach out to local businesses, already are supposedly testing offers on Places, they have de-facto more distribution and social graph access than any of the other companies, and finally they are building a true payments platform.

Groupon and Yelp also have a decent shot at it, but it will be tough to compete with Facebook’s distribution capabilities and ubiquity. In order to remain relevant, they will have to innovate and come up with original features. Foursquare’s future is probably going to be more challenging with more players entering their space, but it it could end up being bought (once again for founder Dennis Crowley) by Google, which is preparing to aggressively go after the local commerce opportunity.

Top 30 Android Apps Of All Time

Editor’s note: This guest post was written by Alex Ahlund (@alexahlund), the former CEO of AppVee and AndroidApps, which were acquired by mobile app directory Appolicious. He is currently an advisor to Appolicious. In his previous guest posts, he gave us his picks for top iPhone apps.

With the ubiquitous media coverage surrounding the iOS (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch) app market, it’s important to remember that Android also is making huge headway. More than 100,000 apps are now available in the Android Market. Within the last six months, Android devices have reigned supreme, comprising 32 percent of all new smartphone purchases. There is finally a larger selection of models being manufactured and more carriers offering them. When the first Android device launched, I predicted that the OS would surpass iPhone in the coming years. While this looks to be true, those of us involved in the app industry are concerned with something more specific: Who will have the most active app marketplace?

Currently, iOS is still the definitive winner. There is not enough app interest on the Android consumer front to warrant a mass exodus just yet. I have a pretty simple metric for determining the potential of an app market: Is PopCap involved? If the answer is no, then the market is still too green. While PopCap has yet to enter the Android space, they have noted plans to port some of their game titles in the coming months. This supports the notion that Android has big potential, but it’s still too early.

Nevertheless, Android does have serious potential, and there are some fantastic apps already available! Without further ado, here are my top all-time picks for the Android platform, broken down by top free apps, top paid apps, and top games

Top 10 Free Apps

1. Kindle (review) – bring the book reading experience to your Android device. Read all the same titles from your Amazon account and enjoy the same functionality in a pocket format

2. SkyFire (review) – faster web browsing and video streaming than included mobile browsers

3. Google Voice (review) – take control of your phone by creating a new number, route calls to various paths, and take advantage of tons of advanced features like voicemail transcription, free texting, cheap international calling, and more

4. EverNote (review) – the ultimate, centralized notebook and note creation system that syncs to the cloud

5. Barcode Scanner (review) – scan books, movies, and music to quickly get information and pricing

6. Lookout (review) – the problem with an open system like Android is that you are prone to viruses and walware. Lookout keeps these in check and runs scans on your device for installed apps and downloaded files

7. Facebook (review) – you know the drill, get your social network fix

8. Layar Reality Browser (review) – see overlays on your camera as you scan the real world and get up to date information on it

9. Mint (review) – aggregate all of your finances safely and stay on top of your bank account balances, credit lines, mortgages and more

10. Places Directory (review) – like AroundMe, Places Directory lets your know of restaurants, movie theaters, and more in the area

Top 10 Best Paid Android Apps

1. Root Explorer (File Manager) (review) – a comprehensive file manager to access and manipulate all files on your device

2. Advanced Task Manager (review) – keep all system tasks and apps in line to get the most efficient and speedy phone

3. Beautiful Widgets (review) – customize your device with tons of skins and widgets

4. SetCPU for Root Users (review) – overclock, underclock and tweak your device’s performance

5. MyBackUp Pro (review) – keep everything on your phone backed up and secure incase you need to restore remotely from the cloud

6. CacheMate for Root Users (reviews) – the best cache clearing app currently available, free up tons of space

7. Sound Hound (reviews) – like Shazam or Midomi, find music instantly by letting your device listen

8. Dropbox (review) – sync files between your computers and your mobile

9. LogMeIn Ignition (review) – access your computers remotely from your phone

10. DroidAnalytics (review) – keep on top of all your blogs and websites with this solid Google Analytics client

Top 10 Best Paid Android Games

1. Robo Defense (review) – as a fan of tower defense games, Robo Defense stacks up with the best. Open maps, solid graphics and excellent upgrades, this will make any TD gamer happy

2. Fruit Ninja (review) – like its iPhone brother, Fruit Ninja is all about cutting up fruit and earning bigger points

3. SNESoid (review) – play all of your favorite SNES games right from your device

4. HomeRun Battle 3D (review) – a quirky sports game with online play, multiple game modes, and a casual but exciting experience

5. Abduction! 2 (review) – a Doodle Jump clone with plenty of new features and power-ups

6. HyperJump (review) – launch a creature higher and higher by collecting coins and power-ups along the way

7. Zenonia (review) – a fantastic mobile RPG with all the fixings that’d you’d expect from the genre

8. WOW Keyboard (review) – play World of Warcraft directly from your mobile device

9. Angry Birds (review) – the chart topping, bird tossing game is now available on Android

10. Voice Music (review) – let your voice become a musical instrument as its converted into a keyboard

In addition to the paid offerings available on Android, the platform offers great free game classics like UnblockMe, Bubble Blast II, and Backgammon.

So those are my picks. What have you been using that has become a staple on your device?

Information provided by CrunchBase

With Two Days Left In October, Diaspora Pushes Public Alpha To Thanksgiving

Project Diaspora. The open source Facebook-killa. You know the one. Developers got a taste of it last month. And the rest of us were supposed to get a usable alpha build this month. Well, there are only two days left in this month. So it’s shouldn’t be too surprising that they’re pushing the consumer release again.

In a post pointing out some of the progress being made today, the Diaspora team notes:

Our basic feature set is almost done. Once that is stable, we’ll set up an alpha server so that anyone, not just developers, can try Diaspora and help us improve it. We’re shooting to do this before Thanksgiving.

So what has Diaspora been working on since last month? Here’s some of the latest features they note:

  • Public messages are can now be posted to Twitter and Facebook
  • Friends can now be in multiple aspects
  • Re-sharing of status messages to aspects other than the one originally posted to
  • An invite system for inviting your friends not hip to Diaspora yet
  • Email notifications on new friend request and acceptance
  • Account data is exportable
  • A more friendly “getting started” experience

That said, we’ve heard from some developers who built versions themselves that there were some pretty glaring security holes in the initial builds. Hopefully those will be fixed before the public gets any kind of taste.

Is Gulf Seafood Safe To Eat? Feds’ New Test Says Yes, Not Convincingly

More than 9,000 square miles of U.S. federal Gulf waters are closed to commercial and recreational fishing today thanks to the BP oil spill. However, government offices today claimed that seafood from the Gulf is basically safe to consume, based on the results from their latest battery of tests.

You gonna eat that? Companies responsible for the environmental disaster spilled about 5 million [Correction: in the original post, I wrote “gallons” and have corrected the typo] barrels of oil, accidentally. They poured about 2 million gallons of oil dispersants into the Gulf waters on purpose, though. The dispersants were supposed to break up the wildlife-choking slicks into droplets that could be more easily digested by oil-eating bacteria. Or at least, they’d make the water look more like water and less like tar while the cameras were flying overhead.

At the time of the spill, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) sent scientists to the Gulf to help with the oil spill cleanup. Even that federal office knew nothing about the dispersants’ likely impact on sea life or humans. USGS director Maria McNutt admitted to her office’s ignorance at last week’s 2010 PopTech conference.

By May, the St. Petersburg Times reported, there were still no federal standards for how much dispersant could be present in seafood consumed by humans, a detail the paper confirmed with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Here’s what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claimed in their joint press statement today regarding the safety of seafood in the Gulf, though:

Building upon the extensive testing and protocols already in use by federal, state and local officials for the fishing waters of the Gulf, NOAA and FDA have developed and are using a chemical test to detect dispersants used in the Deepwater Horizon-BP oil spill in fish, oysters, crab and shrimp….

Experts trained in a rigorous sensory analysis process have been testing Gulf seafood for the presence of contaminants, and every seafood sample from reopened waters has passed sensory testing for contamination with oil and dispersant. Nonetheless, to ensure consumers have total confidence in the [emphasis added] safety of seafood being harvested from the Gulf, NOAA and FDA have added [a] second test for dispersant when considering reopening Gulf waters to fishing.

Using this new, second test, in the Gulf scientists have tested 1,735 tissue samples including more than half of those collected to reopen Gulf of Mexico federal waters. Only a few showed trace amounts of dispersants residue (13 of the 1,735) and they were well below the safety threshold of 100 parts per million for finfish and 500 parts per million for shrimp, crabs and oysters. As such, they do not pose a threat to human health.

The press statement follows an investigative report by English Al Jazeera about the dispersants’ impact on people and our environment that concluded:

The Gulf has suffered the largest accidental marine oil spill in history. Compounding the problem, BP has admitted to using at least 1.9 million gallons of widely banned toxic dispersants… Dispersed, weathered oil continues to flow ashore daily…

[Human] health impacts include headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pains, chest pains, respiratory system damage, skin sensitization, hypertension, central nervous system depression, neurotoxic effects, genetic mutations, cardiac arrhythmia, and cardiovascular damage…

One researcher studying the impact of dispersants in the Gulf, told Al Jazeera about dolphins— and people— hemorrhaging from too much dispersant exposure. Gulf residents showed off pieces of their boats that had been eaten away by dispersant-contaminated waters over just a short time.

How could the new FDA-NOAA tests declare the seafood from the Gulf oil spill waters safe to eat in light of Al Jazeera’s (and so many others’) reports?

[UPDATE: Readers requested clarification on “others’ reports.”] News organizations from MotherJones to the Washington Post and New York Times have run stories that examine the issue of dispersants’ toxicity in a similar light.

According to the press statement, the government labs tested for traces of dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate, a.k.a. DOSS, a component of the dispersants used in the Gulf that’s approved by the FDA for use in various household products and over-the-counter medication at low levels.

They didn’t test for the other stuff that’s included in Corexit 9500 the primary dispersant used by BP and still sprayed over the Gulf these days. [Update: further detail on ingredients in disperants.] The labs also didn’t test the toxicity of oil-and-dispersant combined.

Corexit 9500 includes ingredients like propanols that are used in household cleaners (which one presumably shouldn’t eat) but it is less toxic than some other Corexit dispersants, which include the ingredient 2-butoxyethanol. These other Corexit dispersants were likely used in the immediate response to the oil spill.

BP and Nalco— the company that makes Corexit— for some reason, haven’t revealed the exact ingredients of what they used, how much of it, and when in the Gulf waters. Nalco sticks to the message that it has only been “making” Corexit 9500 for Gulf responders since the start of the spill.

Image via: U.S. Coast Guard 8th District, External Affairs

Lars Rasmussen, Father Of Google Maps And Google Wave, Heads To Facebook

When Google put their faith in Wave, an ambitious new project last year, they knew it was a gamble. But a big part of it was the team behind the project. A team led by Lars Rasmussen, the engineer best known as the co-creator of the hugely successful Google Maps. And now he’s left the company. And from what we hear, he’s heading to Facebook.

Rasmussen confirmed his departure on his Facebook page. Yesterday was his last day of work at Google. He didn’t give any indication where he’ll be heading next, other than he’d be “a whole big ocean closer” (he was living in Australia where the Wave team was based). But the fact that he put all this info on Facebook is telling. From what we’re hearing, he will be joining Facebook.

Neither Facebook nor Google has returned our request for comment yet.

This is a huge loss for Google and a huge gain for Facebook. But it’s hardly surprising that Rasmussen is leaving Google given that the search giant killed his ambitious Wave project barely a year after it was first unveiled.

Rasmussen’s defection is the latest in a series of moves from Google to the pre-IPO Facebook. But his move is likely the biggest one since Chrome OS lead Matthew Papakipos made the same jump in June.

We’ll be very interested to hear what he’s working on at the social network. No word yet on what his brother Jens, who also helped co-create both Maps and Wave, will be joining him there.

Update from Facebook:

As matter of policy, we do not comment on potential employees until they start.

In other words, when he gets back from his vacation in between jobs, they’ll confirm.

Update 2: It’s also worth noting as well that current Facebook CTO Bret Taylor was heavily involved in the launch of Google Maps.

Do Twitter’s Application Naming Rules Spell Bad News For TweetDeck?

MG earlier wrote a post about Twitter’s rules regarding its trademarks, logos and so on.

Here’s what struck me, going over the guidelines:

Naming your Application or Product, Applying for a Domain

Do: Use Tweet in the name of your application only if it is designed to be used exclusively with the Twitter platform.

Don’t: Use Tweet in the name of your application if used with any other platform.

The reason why this struck me as odd is because one of the most popular desktop and mobile applications with the word ‘tweet’ in its name is TweetDeck, which comes in both native desktop and mobile client forms (Adobe AIR, iOS and Android).

Is TweetDeck “designed to be used exclusively with the Twitter platform”? Well, definitely not.

TweetDeck enables people to interact with their Twitter friends via a unique interface with lots of bells and whistles, but it does much more than that. To clarify, the application boasts support for platforms such as Facebook, Foursquare, LinkedIn, MySpace and Google Buzz.

That’s five major offenses to Twitter’s naming rules right there. Question is: does Twitter plan to effectively enforce these guidelines and lay down the law for TweetDeck (and co)?

I’ve requested a comment from Twitter and will update when I hear back from them.

Update: Twitter responds briefly: “case by case basis”, suggesting TweetDeck has nothing to worry about. The startup’s founder, Iain Dodsworth, echoed that sentiment on Twitter.

MLB’s TagOramic Lets You Stare Into The Face Of Each And Every Fan At The World Series

Were you lucky enough to attend one of the MLB playoff games this month? Then you’ll want to check out TagOramic, a nifty feature on that was built to celebrate the Fall Classic. Over the course of the playoffs, MLB has taken some absolutely massive panoramic photos of each stadium — and they’ve taken them at high enough resolution that you can zoom in and see each and every fan.

The site has also integrated support for Facebook Connect, so even if you didn’t get to attend one of the playoff games, you can sign in and see if any of your friends have been tagged in the photo. It sounds silly, but it’s surprisingly fun to see a shot of your friend mid-hot dog, surrounded by a sea of other fans.

The panoramic photos are actually made up of hundreds of smaller photos, which were taken over a 20 minute span at each game. Each panoramic photo has a more specific description; here’s one of them:

Panoramic image from the fourth inning of Game 1 of the World Series at AT&T Park in San Francisco, CA. Photo is made of 280 photos (28 across by 10 down) taken over a 17-minute span and merged together to make a single photo. The final hi-res file is 79,828 X 19,290 pixels or 1,539 megapixels.


One other thing to note: there’s a Like button next to each team to show how much support they’re getting on Facebook. The Giants are destroying Texas. No surprise there.