Friday, January 9, 2009

Microsoft strikes deals for Live Search

Microsoft is hoping two new distribution deals will give its Live Search a much-needed boost.

The company is announcing on Wednesday a global deal with Dell that will see Live Search be the default search engine and a Windows Live toolbar bundled on the bulk of consumer and small-business PCs sold by the computer maker over the next three years. That deal is in addition to a five-year deal with Verizon Wireless, which leaked out earlier on Wednesday.

It's the latest effort for Microsoft, which has been trying--and struggling--for the past four years to build a search business that can offer a substantive rival to Google. But the latest market share numbers indicate that Microsoft is falling even further behind. Searches at Windows Live Search fell 16.7 percent year over year, giving Microsoft 9.1 percent market share in the U.S. in November, according to Nielsen Online figures released earlier this week. Google's searches rose 21.7 percent, for 64.1 percent market share, and Yahoo's searches dropped 1.4 percent from November 2007, for 16.1 percent share.

In an interview, Microsoft Senior Vice President Yusuf Mehdi said that the search product has gotten good enough that the time is right to start promoting it more heavily. Microsoft has already struck deals with HP and Lenovo to increase the distribution for Windows Live and Microsoft's search engine.

"We've gotten to a point where the product is now in a good enough state that we want to start to get it out more formally in front of more customers," Mehdi said. "These two partnerships are very significant for us, because an opportunity to put our search offering out before a broader audience now in a pretty mainstream way, and I think you should think about it as the first step of us slowly bringing up the dial on how we start to promote our product.

Microsoft has also made other moves, including building its own ad-serving engine, spending billions to acquire Aquantive, and trying promotions such as its Live Search Cashback and other efforts designed to give consumers a financial incentive to use its search engine.

The Dell deal will kick off next month, while the Verizon deal will begin in the first half of this year and includes both mobile search and other mobile advertising services. "It's a big win for us and by far the largest search and mobile display relationship we've entered into with any mobile operator," Mehdi said.

Mehdi acknowledged that Microsoft needs more than distribution deals to truly compete with Google. "These distribution partnerships are part of our strategy," he said. "We know we have to do a lot of other things, including improve the product, including being able to market direct with consumers, and build loyalty and brand around our offering."

Mehdi wouldn't say how much market share Microsoft expected to gain with the Dell deal or talk about Microsoft's other plans, including a rumored rebranding effort. He did say the Dell deal is flexible enough to accommodate a name change.

Microsoft had supposedly been in a bidding war against Google for the Verizon deal, according to earlier reports from The Wall Street Journal. Verizon Wireless and Microsoft have declined to discuss financial details of the deal. But a source close to the company said the five-year arrangement is worth a minimum of $650 million with Microsoft paying Verizon on a per handset basis.

This is believed to be the largest mobile search and advertising deal to date. The Journal reported last year that Google's deal to offer search on Sprint Nextel phones was about half what Microsoft was willing to pay for the Verizon deal. Details about Yahoo's deal with AT&T announced last year weren't disclosed either, but it's believed that Yahoo promised AT&T about $400 million in guaranteed revenue to become its default search provider.

As for the details of the Microsoft/Verizon deal, starting in the first half of this year, Microsoft Live Search will be preloaded on new Verizon Wireless phones and smartphones to provide all local and Internet searches. Microsoft will also power search for Verizon Wireless' VCast content, allowing subscribers to search for ringtones, full music tracks, videos, and other VCast entertainment content and news.

Depending on which device they use, Verizon subscribers will be able to search for content either by voice command or by typing their queries. And the search tool will also provide location-based results, meaning subscribers will be able to search for restaurants, movie theaters, and other businesses nearby.

Also as part of the deal, Microsoft will manage all search and display advertising for Verizon's mobile Web services.

Today mobile search is still in its early days. Only about 9 percent of cell phone subscribers search the Net from their cell phones, according to ComScore M:Metrics. But usage is growing, especially as more consumers upgrade to smartphones like Apple's iPhone or Research In Motion's BlackBerry devices.

Despite its small size today, the big search companies see the mobile market, with more than 3 billion subscribers worldwide, as a huge opportunity. Winning Verizon Wireless, which is currently the second largest cell phone carrier in the U.S., is a big deal for Microsoft. Yahoo is powering search for AT&T, the largest cell phone U.S. carrier. And Google has a deal with Sprint Nextel, the third largest U.S. operator.

But it's still unclear how important these carrier deals will be. Microsoft and Yahoo have previously struck similar multi-year portal deals on the PC side with Verizon Communications and AT&T, but Google still dominates the overall search market. And just as they can on the PC, users still have the option to use any search engine they wish from their cell phone browsers.

So far, Google has managed to continue its search dominance on mobile devices with 60 percent of mobile subscribers who search the Internet from their phones using its search engine. About 36 percent of subscribers use Yahoo and 10 percent use Microsoft, according to ComScore.

Google may also have another advantage in mobile, as carriers start rolling out more devices that use its Android operating system. Android is an open-source mobile operating system that tightly integrates several Google services into phones, including Google's search products.

So far, T-Mobile is the only carrier selling a Google phone, the G1. But other Android phones are expected to hit the market later this year. HTC, the maker of the G1 is planning another Android device, as is Sony Ericsson. Motorola has also said it plans to use Android as one of its main operating systems in future phones. And LG and Samsung, members of Google's Open Handset Alliance, are also expected to release Android phones.

Top 8 Microsoft Research projects to improve our lives

I'm always fascinated by the ideas folks come up with for research projects when it comes to how we use computers and technologies in our daily lives. Microsoft Research has a Web site covering its socio-digital systems research projects. Much of the work is about unlocking the personal photos and information in our Documents folders to better connect with family members. Other projects are about how technologies and user interfaces can improve how we preceive and interact with our digital lives.

Here are the top eight socio-digital systems research projects that I find most interesting and think could yield something we might see in consumer products down the road.

Phone home. No, not the telephone-call kind of phoning home, but rather sending information from your cell phone or computer to help create a digital presence while you are away. It's about pushing images from your cell phone and delivering them as a postcard to a digital picture frame, such as with the (1) Digital Postcard project. Imagine that digital picture frame you have now automatically shows digital Christmas cards or birthday greetings from loved ones. The (2) Epigraph project shows some real promise for those who are away or not living at home anymore. Each family member gets a space on the screen to post whatever content they want to have there for mom and dad. Or imagine military servicemen or women keeping connected with their spouse while away by sending digital updates from their phone or computer onto the screen.

I know it's here somewhere. I just received an e-mail from Micro Center advertising a Western Digital 1TB drive for $99 bucks, and we're now seeing 1.5TB drives at retail. That's amazing. On the other side of the equation, we're generating new content at amazing rates, snapping photos with our cameras at the drop of a hat. I take lots of pictures with my digital camera because there's seemingly no cost to capturing all those extra photos in digital form. But what happens to all this stuff? It goes into places like our Pictures folder on the hard drive, it's on memory sticks and cards, or DVD and data CDs. And how will we find and access it later? That's what the (3) Digital Shoebox and (4) Family Archive projects seek to explore. It's like the data management version of the cryogenic-freezing program: We all keep creating personal digital content and buying more disk drives in hopes that someday they'll discover a cure for the information archiving, searching and retrieval of all that stuff before our time on earth is up.

Shake -- Good phone, good little phone. Not long ago we all would have said touchscreens were something for kiosks, and voice recognition wasn't good enough for everyday use. Now touchscreen smartphones are all the rage, and most phones have at least some basic voice-dialing capabilities. I use voice dial on my BlackBerry all the time. Microsoft is exploring the potential of "vibrotactile" (that's a new one on me) displays to help communicate using handheld devices. Imagine the comfort of "feeling through your phone" your latchkey child putting the key in the lock when he arrives home safe after school, or feeling the romantic heartbeat of your significant other when they send you an SMS text or e-mail. That's what the (5) Shake2Talk project is about. This one's a little out there, and while I'm not so sure we're going to have shaking phones anytime soon, I'm always curious what a research project like this might learn.

How was your "meeting on the green," honey? One of the funniest stories a buddy told me was when a vendor took him out golfing one day at work and his cell phone pocket dialed his spouse. He later was caught in a lie about his difficult workday. The (6) Whereabouts Clock shows where family members are located based on their cell phone's GPS location. At the very least, family members will have to get more creative about the tall tales they tell regarding their comings and goings.

Foot in both camps. Still waiting for the paperless office? So am I. If you're a fan of the movie Brazil (a Terry Gilliam film) as I am, you know that technology doesn't always change everything the way we think it will. Two projects -- (7) Text-it-Notes and (8) TEXT2PAPER -- are all about transferring messages back and forth between paper and digital form without manual transcription. I'm seeing products like digital pens and paper -- Livescribe for example (which is pretty good actually) -- in stores like Costco. While still on the novelty end of things, we're all looking for ways to create bridges between our pens, pencils and computers. What I want is a Post-it Note scanner, text recognition, wireless data transfer and paper shredder, all in one device. It might cost $400 for the device, but I'm sure we all need one of these for our Post-it Notes, don't we? :)

Microsoft layoff rumors swirl

This week, Microsoft has trumpeted a number of wins for the Xbox 360, which currently has a firm hold on second place in the current-generation console sales race. Calling 2008 the "biggest year ever for Xbox," Microsoft said its high-definition gaming console reached the 28-million milestone in units sold globally through the end of 2008, outpaced Sony's PlayStation 3 in the European, Middle East, and Africa regions by a cool 1 million units, and logged its 17 millionth Xbox Live subscriber, generating $1 billion in digital distribution sales in the process.

Still, it appears the Washington-based software company has plans to match rival Sony stride for stride in an effort to trim costs in the face of the ongoing global economic downturn. CNBC reports today that as early as this month, Microsoft will begin reducing its workforce. According to CNBC's sources, the downscaling will primarily come by way of the elimination of positions vacated by those already leaving the company as well as a reduction in contract employees.

In late December, tech blog Fudzilla reported that Microsoft planned to trim its staff by as much as 17 percent in the New Year, or about 15,000 employees. However, a Microsoft source told CNBC that the blog's initial report was "grossly exaggerated" but added a caveat that "any company not paying careful attention to headcount in a climate like this is nuts."

CNBC's report named no specific business groups that Microsoft may be targeting with the cutbacks. It did, however, mention a recent report in the Seattle Times claiming that Microsoft eliminated about 180 positions related to its declining Internet browser business, which saw its market share drop from 74 percent in May 2008 to 68 percent in December.

Microsoft will hold its annual Consumer Electronics Show press conference the morning of Thursday, January 8. GameSpot will be on the scene in Las Vegas to provide coverage of the briefing as well as the rest of the show.

New Freescale processors target Linux netbooks

FreeScale HQ

Despite the fact that their keyboards are hand-cripplingly small, the "netbook" sector of computer sales continues to grow and expand. Whether it's the small form factor or the significantly lower price tag, these computers are appearing on shelves from almost every major manufacturer. To keep prices low and save precious system resources, many manufacturers are preinstalling Linux on these machines.

Freescale Semiconductor (formerly the chipmaking division of Motorola) hopes to get in on the action, launching a new, low-cost processor they call the i.MX515. According to Freescale the chip is designed to power "low-power, gigahertz performance netbooks at sub-$200 price points". Sporting an ARM Cortex-A8 core, Freescale claims that the i.MX515 performs from around 600mHz to 1 GHz and provides up to 2,100 Dhrystone MIPS (million instructions per second). When it comes to memory, the chip supports mobile DDR1 in addition to DDR2, allowing for a bit more flexibility in configuration.

The i.MX515 Info sheet

What makes the i.MX515 exciting, however, is the battery life that it can potentially bring to its machines. According to Freescale's statistics, the chip will have the capability to power machines with up to 8 hours of battery life, with a display as large as 8.9 inches. The company included many advanced power management features such as a dedicated, hardware-based video acceleration block, supposedly allowing for this long battery life and significantly cooling things down. Freescale claims that there is no need for heat sinks or fans with the processor.

According to Henri Richard, chief sales and marketing officer at Freescale, any OEM that hasn't yet got into the netbook space is "making a huge mistake". "It's happening, it's there, it's real. And if you're not there to take advantage of it, you're going to miss big," the former AMD executive warned. The real question is: how much of an offering will there be for computers in Freescale's target price range? It is currently reported that Freescale will showcase a Pegatron (ASUS spinoff) built netbook at CES this week, and Asustech also reportedly has plans to release a sub-$200 computer in the coming months.

All we know at this point is that these computers will almost definitely be running Linux - these chips just can't provide enough CPU power to run any Windows operating system, including netbook standard XP.

Indie dev suggests peers should support OS X, Linux gaming

2008 was a big year for indie gaming. With the likes of Braid, Castle Crashers, World of Goo, and a host of other titles raking up big sales numbers, the indie gaming industry is growing right alongside its bigger brother. And, like the indie film industry before it, the smaller, more humble sector of the industry garners a lot of adoration and respect from its faithful followers. But now that the indie sector is growing, how does one stand out from the pack? According to one indie developer, the answer is simple: make games for Mac OS X and Linux.

Jeff Rosen of Wolfire Games recently made the case for indie devs to embrace cross-platform gaming on his company's official blog. Using the success of his own title, Lugaru, as a starting point, Jeff asserts that creating cross-platform games can have a huge affect on the way the market receives the title. Even though OS X and Linux may have a smaller market share, Jeff argues, the residual word-of-mouth sales generated by that smaller piece of the pie can potentially facilitate a marked increase in total sales.

"Obviously supporting Mac OS X and Linux means you tap into another platform and expand your potential market base," wrote Jeff. "That much is clear. But surely adding an extra five percent is negligible, right? Wrong. Not all five percents are created equal."

According to the sales statistics from Lugaru, which is currently available for PC, Mac, and Linux, Jeff witnessed a 122 percent increase in sales as a result of his decision to release the title on the OS X and Linux platforms in addition to Windows. To date, 50 percent of the software's overall sales have come from the Mac OS X version and another five percent of the Linux version.

Data source: Wolfire Games

Jeff's argument essentially boils down to "it's good to be a big fish in a small pond." By creating a title with a decent scale and scope for the Mac OS X and Linux platforms, developers gain attention from the media and the fan communities involved with those platforms, which can be a vocal minority. "Having a Linux build meant coverage on Slashdot," Jeff explained. "A lot of people heard about and supported Lugaru simply because we had a Linux build."

Those vocal minorities, if treated well, tend to evolve into evangelists, who in turn sell the game to others in a more passionate and contagious way. "A small minority of your users will go crazy with your game and spread it all over the place," said Jeff. "On the Internet, all it takes is one thread on a popular forum, and you've literally got hundreds or thousands of new visitors. Basically, a small amount of your users can make a huge difference for you."

"To conclude, if you're not supporting Linux and Mac OS X from a philosophical standpoint or for the fans, at least do it for the money," Jeff closed, bluntly. "If you don't support non-Windows platforms, you're leaving a lot of cash on the table. I don't know about you, but I'm not in a position to just say f— it to a large community of people who want to support us."

Ignorance, arrogance, and bad code

So why haven't developers gotten on board with what seems like a solid game plan? "In an ideal world, every game would be available for the Mac, simply because the economics make sense," Jeff told Ars. "You don't need to sell very many copies before the minimal cost of cross-platform development pays for itself." To Jeff, the answer lies in three key hang-ups that developers face: ignorance, arrogance, and bad code.

In Jeff's mind, ignorance is the first hump which stops the ball from rolling. "I think a lot of companies think it is harder than it is to support Mac OS X and Linux and that the pay off is a lot smaller than it is," Jeff continued. "The combination of these two fallacies means that it doesn't get off the drawing board."

As for arrogance, Jeff brings up a familiar story that Mac gamers might recall. "There is the famous case of Half-Life 2. Valve wanted a $1 million dollar advance on the Mac OS X version. No Mac developer has this kind of cash to front, and Apple decided not to foot the bill either, perhaps on principle of the unusual request. There is no technical reason that Mac users can't have Half-Life 2—it's simply messed up business development."

Lastly, bad code creates an obvious technical boundary that prevents cross-platform gaming from being a normal occurrence. "Even if you have used some proprietary technology that is only available on Windows, like DirectX, a Linux superstar can still salvage it if your code is nice and has reasonable abstraction," explained Jeff. "However, if your code is terrible, the porting process will not be easy. But porting your game to other platforms is not easy if you are not familiar with them. Just the act of getting a Linux machine up and running, and getting familiar with new developer tools is too much of a barrier for most people."

Even with cross-platform support, distribution is king

As the indie gaming community grows, indie developers will face the same challenges that big developers face on a micro level. Advertising, or at least getting the word out there, will be a challenge, and decisions such as making a title cross-platform can have a huge, sweeping effect on the overall sales of a piece of software. Jeff's own title is a good example of this, as is other software such as Aquaria. "Supporting other platforms will definitely give you a leg up on the competition," Jeff reiterated.

But at the end of the day, distribution is king when it comes to indie success. Exploring alternate release opportunities will be a key factor in the success or failure of indie devs moving forward. Steam, in particular, has proven to be an excellent avenue for indie game distribution. Having recently signed on to have his company's titles hit Valve's digital distribution platform, Jeff offered insight into the viability of these platforms for his company and his peers.

"While we did sign a deal with Steam and a few much smaller distributors, we are still waiting for replies from a number of other companies like Greenhouse," he explained. "Many distributors, even the ones that claim to be indie friendly, have not even replied to our multiple emails for over a month. Kudos to Valve for being on the ball, even if they don't support Mac OS X and Linux."

Independent developers will continue to walk a hard road, but the future does look bright. Distribution avenues for games are becoming more abundant and easier to access, and publishers are beginning to take more risks, as the costs of publishing games through digital distribution is minuscule compared to traditional retail modes. This allows indie developers to spend their time developing solid games and trying to break out from the pack in the quest to claim a piece of gamers' hearts. And that's good news for gamers—of all platforms.

Thank you SGI, for freeing the GNU/Linux 3D desktop!

In January of 2008, software code at the heart of GNU/Linux 3D applications was discovered to be non-free—a potential disaster for free software advocates hoping to see advanced graphical acceleration now common on modern operating systems.

The code, licensed by Silicon Graphics (SGI), was distributed under the SGI Free License B and the GLX Public License. These licenses, although permissive, contained three sets of terms which created significant burdens for all users and developers and a particular problem for the free software community because they made the code non-free (see the Free Software Definition at

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) Free Software Compliance Lab's Brett Smith explained, "We discovered that these licenses covered contributions that SGI had made to the X.Org Project and the Mesa 3D Graphics Library. These projects, including SGI's code, are an important and familiar part of modern GNU/Linux desktop systems. The FSF Compliance Lab then worked with SGI towards today's announcement."

You can read SGI's press release here:

Steve Neuner of SGI said, "SGI has been one of the most ardent commercial supporters of free and open source software, so it was important to us that we continue to support the free software development community by releasing our earlier OpenGL-related contributions under this new license. This license ensures that all existing user communities will benefit, and their work can proceed unimpeded. Both Mesa and the Project can continue to utilize this code in free software distributions of GNU/Linux. Now more than ever, software previously released by SGI under earlier GLX and SGI Free Software License B is free."

Welcoming today's announcement, Peter Brown, FSF executive director, said, "We couldn't be happier with this decision, and we're very grateful to SGI for all their assistance. The FSF is committed to ensuring that everyone's computing tasks can be done with free software and this SGI code plays an important role in scientific and design applications and in the latest desktop environments and games."

Still, there are a few legal loose ends that need to be tied up before GNU/Linux distributions can utilize all the code base in freedom. Brett Smith explained, "There are a few other copyright holders that I'm working with to resolve their licensing issues and I'm confident that fully free distributions like gNewSense will soon be able to utilize all of this code." The FSF will be releasing further information early next week.

In addition to thanking SGI for this major contribution, the FSF would like to thank the OpenBSD community for alerting the FSF to the problem.

Students, law prof want RIAA trial live and online

Back in October, we covered the case of Joel Tenenbaum, a Boston graduate student accused by the RIAA of sharing copyrighted music as "sublimeguy14" on KaZaA. Tenenbaum did not go quietly into that dark night; instead, he offered the RIAA a settlement of $500. The music lobby declined, and it took Tenenbaum to court.

But Tenenbaum decided to fight the case, and he lined up the support of Harvard Law's Charles Nesson and his class of law students. Not content with simply taking on the Tenenbaum case, Nesson & Co. have attacked the entire legal underpinning of the RIAA's litigation strategy, charging that massive damage awards are unconstitutionally high and that the RIAA is operating as a "private police force" by pursuing what are essentially criminal cases.

And they have done so in prose that is nothing if not distinctive for a legal filing: "Is the law just the grind of the statutory machine to be carried out by a judge and jury as cogs in the machine, or do judge and jury claim the right and duty and power of constitution and conscience to do justice?" asks one. You get the idea.

Now, they want the whole trial broadcast on the Internet.

Let's do it live

With the case now before the judge, Nesson and his students are now making a strong push for an unusual request: they want the entire case made available digitally over the Internet. The Harvard team wants to stream the trial live and record it for later use. They tried this yesterday during a hearing, but the judge said no; the larger issue about whether the trial itself can be broadcast won't be settled for a few more days.

Charles Nesson

The RIAA has asked for additional time to respond to the proposal, but according to the "joelfightsback" Twitter account, that request has been denied. RIAA lawyers must file their response by January 12.

Apart from the recording issue, the other pretrial issue that is concerning the Harvard team involves Tenenbaum's computer. Well, not his computer, exactly—his parents' computer. The music industry apparently believes that Tenenbaum conducted at least some of his alleged downloading when home from school, and it wants to image the hard drive of the parents' machine to find out.

At yesterday's hearing on the matter (the one where the judge refused to allow recording), Nesson told the court, "You can hardly imagine anything more intrusive than asking anyone to disgorge a computer." (The AP has a nice writeup of the hearing.) No ruling was made, however.

Can't we all just get along?

The odd case (the RIAA subpoenaed Tenenbaum's family members as well, asking them to turn over any burned CDs Joel may have given them in the past) continues to grind on, and Nesson wonders why. Given that the RIAA says it is abandoning its widespread lawsuits, why would it not simply drop the case?

On December 19, 2008, Nesson (whose Twitter account bills him as the "dean of cyberspace") tweeted into the ether, "joel just sent me the slashdot piece saying riaa is stopping its attack campaign except for cases already pending. why that choice."

He soon had his answer when RIAA President Cary Sherman sent him a note saying, "I hope you understand that we can’t just walk away from cases we’ve filed. Doesn’t mean we want to litigate everything, we’d obviously prefer not to. If you have any thoughts on a resolution, I’d be all ears. Sorry I couldn’t tell you months ago that we were getting out of the lawsuits, but I’m sure you understand."

Nesson's response? "i don’t really understand why you are continuing the litigation, but if that’s your position then i ask you to agree to our motion, just filed, to admit internet to the courtroom, and then to join with me in making the trial the best possible example of civil discourse within the rules of federal civil procedure." (Nesson is not, it should be noted, a fan of capital letters.)

And that's where we stand at the moment. The RIAA has stopped suing (for now), though the cases against Tenenbaum and others continue apace. Nesson wants the trial broadcast to the world, while the RIAA considers the question. Assuming that the RIAA's goal all along has been in large part educational, one could hardly imagine something more educational to millions of file-swappers than watching a high-profile trial live on the web, but we shall see what we shall see.

For now, Tenenbaum is rallying his faithful through a Facebook group. 2009 should show us a host of surprising events, but one worth watching will be the attempt by some Harvard Law students—armed with Web 2.0—to see if they can take on the recording industry and win.

'Smart' French parking meters to send tickets by text message

About 60 local authorities in France have already installed a system that detects the presence of vehicles and alerts police if drivers exceed their allotted time.

The metres were devised by Technolia, an engineering company. In the future, they hope to use the technology to send a text message to the car's owner, warning them when their pre-paid parking time is running out.

"We are revolutionising parking with the individual monitoring of spaces," Claude Zandona, the company's managing director, told the Times.

The meters create magnetic fields that register the metal mass of vehicles and have a direct computer link to a police station, the paper said.

In the town of Issy-les-Moulineaux cars are allowed 20 minutes of free parking. But if they overstay, the smart meter sends a message to a police control room, which alerts officers through their mobile telephones 15 minutes later.

"That way police and wardens don't have to spend the day walking up and down the road," said Mr Zandona, who wants to bring the technology to Britain and a number of other countries.

"The police can go and sit in a café if they like and just pop out when they get a message to say a car is parked illegally. They have an 80 per cent chance of finding the car still there between 12 and 18 minutes after the limit, we have found. That's why we warn them after 15 minutes."

Mr Zandona wants to expand the system so motorists pay for parking with a personal identification number incorporated into their mobile telephones.

"The meter would then send a text message to warn you five minutes before your time was up. You could buy more time through your phone if you wanted.

"But if you didn't, you'd get another message to say you'd overstayed and been fined."

He said the fines could be sent directly to drivers' homes, reducing or even eliminating the need for wardens.

Review: The Polaroid camera is back, in digital

A strange little ritual used to go along with Polaroid cameras. The shooter would grab the print as it came out of the camera and wave it in the air, as if that would stimulate the chemicals and make the picture appear faster. It didn't. Yet it felt dumb to just stand there, waiting for the picture to develop.

Polaroid stopped making film packs last year, so this little piece of tech culture will soon be just a memory. But just as the film-based Polaroid camera is fading away, along comes its digital replacement.

That's right: Polaroid was set to announce Thursday at the International Consumer Electronics Show that it is introducing a digital camera that produces prints right on the spot. You can even call them "instant" prints, but they take nearly a minute to appear, so they're only as "instant" as the old film prints.

Essentially, the $200 PoGo is a camera that contains a built-in color printer. It produces 2-by-3 inch photos by selectively heating spots on specially treated paper. It has nothing to do with the old chemical Polaroid process, but the prints convey some of the same Pop Art charm: They're grainy and the colors are slightly off, with faces tending toward a deathly blue-green.

The camera is a successor to a standalone printer Polaroid put out last summer, designed to connect to camera phones and digital cameras. When I reviewed it, I noted that if Polaroid combined the printer with an image sensor and an LCD screen, it would be a resurrection of the instant camera. It turns out that's exactly what Polaroid was working on.

Unfortunately, you'll have to wait to get your hands on the camera: Polaroid says it will go on sale in late March or early April.

The camera is a fun product, and people who have been lamenting the death of the Polaroid will find solace in it. Its prints can be peeled apart to reveal a sticky back, which makes them easy to paste on fridges, doors, books, computers, cell phones and other surfaces you want to personalize. For a colleague's going-away party, I took a photo of him, printed out a couple of copies and pasted them on soda cans for an instant "commemorative edition."

The PoGo also has crucial advantages over the old film cameras. You can look at what you shot on the LCD screen, then choose whether you want to print it. You can produce multiple prints of an image, or print something you shot some time ago.

The standalone printer and the new camera use the same paper, which costs $5 for a 10-pack, or $13 for a 30-pack. It's expensive compared to inkjet paper, but about a third of the price of Polaroid film (there are still stocks in stores). No ink or toner is needed.

Despite its high points, The PoGo has the feel of a first-generation product, with noteworthy shortcomings.

As a camera, it's primitive. It doesn't have auto-focus, just a switch for infinity or close-up shots. The resolution is five megapixels, far below that of cheaper compact cameras. Neither of these things matter much for the quality of the prints, which are small and of low resolution anyway, but they do matter if you want to use the digital captures for other purposes.

Like some other cheap digital cameras, there's a substantial lag from the time you press the shutter to when the picture actually is taken, making it nearly impossible to capture action or fleeting expressions.

The prints are narrower than the image captured by the sensor, so you can't print the exact image you see on the screen. Substantial slices are trimmed from the top and bottom of the image to produce the print. In the default shooting mode, the camera doesn't warn you about this effect. You can crop images you've shot, zooming in on parts of them, but there is no way to reduce the size of the image to fit it all on the print.

The life of the rechargeable battery is limited, because of the energy needed to heat up the prints. You can get a bit more than 20 prints on one charge if you do them in one sitting. If you make a print only now and then, you'll get fewer on a charge, because the camera will need to heat up the print head every time. (The old Polaroid cameras didn't have battery problems, because most of them had batteries built into the film packs - a brilliant design. But enough nostalgia.)

None of these flaws are fatal. If you don't like the way the PoGo works as a camera, you can shoot pictures with another camera that uses an SD memory card, then move the card over to the PoGo and print the pictures. But if that's what you plan to use the camera for, you might as well buy the $100 PoGo Instant Mobile Printer, which is slightly smaller. It doesn't take memory cards, but will connect to other cameras with a USB cable.

The camera is much simpler to use than the printer, and it fits the bill for those who want to recapture the simple, spontaneous spirit of Polaroid shooting. Sadly, Polaroid declared bankruptcy in December because of troubles at its parent company. That puts the future supply of PoGo printer paper in question, but Polaroid is still operating, and it appears it will continue for the foreseeable future. In any case, it's likely the portable printing technology will live on, because what it does is unique.

Refurbished iPhones Land at Best Buy

Best Buy seems to have a good deal going with Apple, as it was the first retailer outside of Apple's own stores to carry iPhones, and now will be the first again, by selling "refreshed" or, more accurately, refurbished 3G iPhones.

The refurbished iPhones will be devices that were returned within 30 days by the original owner and are priced $50 less than a shiny new model. So an 8GB model would sell for $149 while the 16GB model sells for $249. The refurbished iPhones are now available at 350 Best Buy locations that have a Best Buy Mobile store.

best buy, iphone, refurbished, retailThis will also make the iPhone the only refurbished item Best Buy currently carries. Of course the retail giant tries to get around that fact by calling the iPhones "refreshed" instead, but a marketing ploy through semantics doesn't change the fact that these are refurbished iPhones.

So what does this mean for you? Well, if you are in the market for a 3G iPhone, then Best Buy is a great place to get one for $50 less than full price. Best Buy stores are far more plentiful than Apple stores, so it's now more convenient than ever to get a 3G iPhone that someone else didn't want.