Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Will You Pay By Chip or Stripe?

Us Canucks certainly love our debit and credit cards: carrying around cash is just sooo passé! Of course along with electronic payments comes the risk of fraud, identity theft, and counterfeiting: an issue that has been running rampant in the country over the past few years. An Ipsos Reid study in February 2005 reported that two millions Canadians had been affected by identity theft. In an effort to reduce such incidences, we’re seeing more and more chip-enabled terminals surfacing.

What are these? Debit or credit cards with chips embedded in them, such as RBC’s Platinum Avion VISA card, are inserted into a chip-enabled machine, and remain in the machine until the customer has completed the transaction. With standard magnetic stripe cards, the customer swipes his card, or inserts and immediately removes it, then proceeds with the transaction. According to RBC, chip-embedded cards provide “increased protection against counterfeiting and skimming fraud”.

A trial run using cards with this new technology is set to take place in Kitchener-Waterloo, ON this fall, in hopes to eventually roll out the technology across all cards, ATMs, and retail terminals in Canada. RBC, who has just announced 10 million successful chip transactions, says it plans to switch from the standard signature method to a PIN code for its Avion VISA customers in the future. Moneris Solutions already offers more than 75,000 chip-enabled point-of-sale units across Canada.

Although I’ve luckily never been the victim of a major identity theft incident, I have had unauthorized purchases made on a credit card for minimal amounts. When asked how this could possibly have happened (after all, I knew for a fact that, at the date and time of the purchases, I was at home with my wallet, and VISA card, in my possession!), my bank told me that a “fake” version of my card could simply have been made by someone skimming the information from a machine. It made me shudder to even think someone could, and would, do such a thing.

Hopefully a Canada-wide chip-based system will help put a stop to identity theft and credit card fraud.

Monday, July 30, 2007

YouTube Works on Copyright Video Filtering Technology

In an effort to ward off evil, copy-written videos from being posted on YouTube, Google says its working on some sort of video-recognition technology that would be able to detect content that infringes upon copyrights before it is actually posted.

Although I don’t think it’s right to leave a problem to fend for itself, I also wonder how well such a technology would work. It’s no secret that every time a technology is introduced to prevent illegal copying or distribution of content online, some tech geek hacker finds a way to crack it, and we’re back to square one again.

In some ways, the current method of waiting until illegal material has been flagged and promptly removing it might be the most successful way to go. Sure, some content ends up leaking to a small portion of visitors that manage to catch the video in time (like in the case of the movie Sicko, where about 600 people saw it before it was removed). But is preventing this worth the possibility that the new technology could wrongfully identify a personal video and prevent someone from posting their own stuff? What’s more, if someone is anxious enough to view leaked content online, he’s probably just as anxious to get out there and watch the actual movie/show as well.

Trying to control the behaviour of millions and millions of users will indeed be difficult; especially since YouTube sees thousands of videos posted on its site per day. But it’s a move Google must make in order to protect the rights of content owners. This is especially important since several lawsuits have been made against Google/YouTube, claiming that the company allowed thousands of unauthorized clips to be posted.

According to Times Online, a Viacom lawyer (one of the firm’s named in the suit) said that if the filtering mechanism helps, they’d be "very grateful" for it. But, all plaintiffs in the suit feel that YouTube should have acted sooner.

Google says the new filtering technology should be implemented by September. I can’t wait to see how it pans out!

Friday, July 27, 2007

E.T., Phone….My Cell?

Remember the days when you had to be some fancy-schmancy business person, or a well-connected techie with deep pockets in order to own a cell phone? And even when you did own one, it was a huge, brick-styled contraption that surely didn’t spell convenience in every sense of the word. Today, cell phones have grown so much in popularity, that recent reports indicate they’ve actually surpassed landline phones!

The Globe & Mail cites figures of $36.1 billion for cellular and Internet services in Canada in 2006, compared to just $9.75 billion for local phone services. Cellular phones accounted for 35 per cent of the total revenue with an impressive $12.64 billion.

According to a recent report, two-thirds of Canadian homes have at least one cellular phone; while about 7.5 million residents have broadband Internet access. I represent a growing category of consumer that doesn’t even own a landline service or phone, and strictly uses a cell phone and the Internet for communication.

In fact, I touched upon this very topic in the December 2006 issue of Marketnews Magazine (High-Tech Telephony, pg. 66). With the growing number of people who own cell phones, the traditional “home phone” is becoming a thing of the past.

The key word, however, is “traditional”, as neat, new home phone incarnations attempt to rejuvenate the category. These include things like Bluetooth phones, which connect with your Bluetooth-equipped cell phone to allow for making and receiving calls in areas of the home where you might not get adequate cellular reception (e.g. a basement); and Skype-capable multi-handset bundles that let you chat via the Internet in every room of the home using a traditional-looking handset.

It’s great to see even the home telephony sector moving forward with technology. Members of the consumer electronics industry can read High Tech Telephony by logging into the digital edition of Marketnews Magazine. Consumers can check out Talkin’ on the Cheap, a hands-on review of five Skype phones, on pg. 86 in the December 2006 Holiday Issue of here’s how! magazine (Click Here to download the full issue in PDF format: http://www.hereshow.ca/Uploads_Issues/vol5_no6_FullIssue.pdf)

[Photo: GE’s 28300EE2 2-in-1 Internet phone system can function as both a traditional landline phone, and an Internet phone. This model, and four others, were reviewed in the Dec. 2006 issue of here's how! magazine.]

Thursday, July 26, 2007

MP3 Tax Back in Play

The Canadian Private Copying Collective (CPCC) is trying, once again, to impose a levy on the sale of "MP3" players for 2008-2009. That includes the popular iPod, and other portable audio players with built-in memory that the CPCC says can be considered a "recording medium".

The way I see it, if I buy it, I own it. Let’s use the real-world, every day example of clothing. If I buy a pair of jeans, then lend said jeans to my girlfriend for a night out on the town, is this unauthorized use of the legwear? After all, I bought them for me to wear, not to share with anyone else. From the manufacturer/retailer’s perspective, my friend was a potential customer that could very well have forked over the dough to buy those jeans herself, right? Should I then have to pay a “lending” levy on the jeans that cover how many friends I might lend them to once I’ve purchased them?

The same goes for music, except replace the jeans with the MP3 player, or rather the memory within the player that holds the tunes. I can transfer music from my MP3 player to my friend’s device, and therefore, she won’t have to purchase the tracks herself. But who’s to say she would have purchased them at all? What’s more, now she’s actively listening to these tunes, and may wish to purchase a future album now that she's gotten into the groove of their music. And perhaps she's even exposed others to the tunes who in turn decide to purchase the CD or download the tracks. Are you following me?

If the argument is based on the fact that I can copy tunes back and forth amongst my own devices, what’s your point? If I buy a nice designer top, can I alter this top, wear it underneath a vest, maybe sweater, layer it with other tops, and so on to create several different outfits? Sure I can. It’s mine!

Bottom line: artists should be compensated for their music via the sale of CDs, and even digital tracks: it would be ridiculous to think otherwise. But once purchased, the owner of these tunes should have the right to burn them to a CD, transfer to an MP3 player, or stream them throughout his home in any way he pleases. Each device that facilitates these tunes are that person's business.

Of course there will always be cases of counterfeiting, or unauthorized sales: this happens in any industry (think "designer" handbags, DVDs, or "prescription" pills, for example). These individuals should be prosecuted. But the rest of us folk are just trying to enjoy our music and technology any way we can. And so we should.

I’d love to hear your views on this topic.

Background: In a 2003-04 decision, the Copyright Board approved the CPCC’s request for a levy on the hard disk or flash memory embedded in iPods and other MP3 players. The Federal Court of Appeal later threw out this decision, stating that the CPCC had no jurisdiction to impose such a levy. Subsequent to the decision, several digital audio player manufacturers reduced the price of their players. The private copying levy rates have remained unchanged since 2001; and they expire on December 31, 2007.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Students File Suit Claiming Facebook Founder Stole Their Idea

I’ve covered the topic of social networking several times over the course of the past few months, but it’s such a popular topic lately that I can't seem to go one day without seeing a hot new story all over the media about it. Recently, it's all about popular Website Facebook. And this week’s hot news follows the standard path that most successful new start-ups end up walking down: the lawsuit. Three college students have filed a lawsuit against 23-year old Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, claiming that he stole their idea. When one reaches the top, rest assured that people will try to cash in on your fame. It’s a classic "kick 'em when he's up" scenario.

The lawsuit alleges that the three men in question concocted the idea for a site, and had originally called it ConnectU, with the idea that it would help connect Harvard students. Zuckerberg was brought on for the technical aspects: these guys were athletes, not tech geeks. The three allege that Zuckerberg eventually stopped working on the site while he went ahead with his own site that followed the same premise.

If Zuckerberg was the one who was able to take the idea and run, he deserves the credit. But in all fairness, if he stole someone else's idea, well, that's just wrong.

The students filed a suit against Zuckerberg and Facebook in 2004 that was quickly dismissed. As Facebook grew in popularity (it currently claims over 30 million active members!), the three men became more red-faced, and finally filed again in March 2007. A hearing today will determine whether this suit will proceed, or be dismissed yet again. Stay tuned!

As a sidenote, it's funny (but increasingly common) that a small, college project has evolved into a company that could soon file for an IPO, and might just be worth millions. It just goes to show that no matter how small an idea you think you have, and no matter how young or old the “inventor” is, protect your properties. What seems like nothing could very well be the "next big thing" in new business.

[Photo: Mark Zuckerberg].

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Touch 'N Go Computing on the Surface

Imagine snapping a cute pic of baby Billy with your camera phone, plopping the phone down on the coffee table, and having the digital pic pop up automatically on the surface of the table. Sound ludicrous? Nope. It’s called surface computing, and it’s actually being deployed right now in a few select businesses.

Surface computing is a concept that you can’t truly grasp until you’ve actually seen it in action (visit www.microsoft.com/surface for some great demos). Essentially, the 30-inch “surface” can recognize objects that have an appropriate ID tag (similar to a barcode), like a WiFi digital camera, cell phone, or PDA, by simply placing the device atop the surface itself. Plop down a smartphone, and literally drag-and-drop images or tunes to/from it. You can also manipulate things like digital pictures: spread your fingers apart to blow up an image; or “virtually” rotate it just as you would if a physical print were actually laid out on the table.

The applications for surface computing technology in business are endless. For example, U.S. cell phone carrier T-Mobile has already expressed interest in the technology as a means to present different price plans and product features to customers. In Las Vegas, Harrah’s Entertainment has deployed surface computing in all of its hotel properties. For example, guests at Caesar’s Palace can take a virtual tour of PURE nightclub, or book Elton John tickets, right from the virtual concierge service in the Microsoft Surface.

But imagine having surface computing in the home! You arrive home after an event, plop your digital camera on the coffee table, and the photos you just snapped instantly spew onto the surface. Then, start arranging and rotating images to show the family when they get home. Upload pix to your photo sharing Website; or even send them via e-mail. And because the technology can recognize more than one point of contact at a time, you could swap data like tunes, video, or pix, between two or more devices connected on the surface.

Although we’re likely far away from actually using surface computing as a mainstream technology in the home, it’s definitely something to get excited about. The demos are worth taking a look at.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Karma and Cell Phones

Do you believe in karma? Results from the Reader’s Digest Global Cell Phone Honesty Test indicate that many people just might believe in the basic principles of this concept.
Reporters left 30 cell phones in busy areas of 32 countries, than hid in the bushes, called the phones, and watched to see what happened. Think many unaware passers-by looked left, right, swiped the phone and walked away? Wrong. The majority of people agreed to meet the reporter and return the phone to its rightful owner.

Not surprisingly, the reason most people cited for returning the phone was the basic principles behind karma: everything you do in life has an equal effect. In basic terms, what goes around comes around. Many reported having lost something of their own recently, whether it was a cell phone, wallet, or something else of value.

“If you can help somebody out, why not?” said Ryan Demchuk, a 29-year old insurance broker from Toronto. “Integrity in this city is exceptional. I lost my wallet and got it back, and I returned two wallets in a week.”

Demchuk was right about the integrity of the city: according to the results of the Reader’s Digest test, Toronto ranked second, with 28 of the 30 phones having been returned! Toronto was beat out only by Ljubljana, Slovenia, where 29 of the 30 phones were returned. Despite popular belief, the younger generation was not more prone to swiping the lost devices: they were just as honest as their elders; while women were slightly more likely to return the phones than men.

Other North American cities ranked as follows: Montreal was 5th with 25 phones returned; and New York was 6th (tied with Mumbai, India and Manila, Phillipines) with 24. Which country bottomed out the list? Hong Kong, China and Kuala Lumpur, Malysia tied for last place with only 13 of the 30 phones returned. The average return rate was 68 per cent.

“In almost every city,” noted Peter Stockland, Editor-in-Chief at Reader’s Digest Canada, “at least half of the phones were returned, and this was far above our expectations.”

Do you believe in karma? Or would you praise the winfall and pocket a "lost" phone or other item of value?

The complete results of the test can be found at http://www.rd.ca/.

Friday, July 20, 2007

RFID: Tag, You're It!

Imagine walking through the grocery store, filling up your buggy with a week’s worth of goodies, then simply pushing the buggy over a sensor and voila: your total pops up on-screen instantly. Pull out your debit or credit card, punch in the digits, and off you go. No nasty line-ups. No price-checks. Is this possible? Sure it is. Ever heard of RFID?

RFID stands for radio frequency identification, and is essentially the future of bar-coding. Each RFID “tag” contains a microchip and tiny radio antenna that can be attached to products to transmit a unique, identifying number to an electronic reader. This reader in turn links to a computer database where information about the item is stored. There’s no doubt that RFID offers many advantages over typical bar-coding. It does not require line-of-sight in order to scan an item; multiple items can be scanned at a time; and information can be read, written, and stored digitally.

RFID can mean greater convenience for consumers at the check-out, but it also has advantages for businesses. Think of RFID as a virtual consultant that can analyze business practices, than advise what can be done differently in order to better save time, money, and resources. If you can account for every pallet of product, or even each individual item, at all times throughout the supply chain, imagine how easy it would be to pinpoint where improvements can be made! Is your distributer taking too long to deliver product? Is inventory not being properly recorded? Is staff taking too long to find the items they need? In some of Hewlett-Packard's implementations of RFID, the company found that staff spent 1/3 less time simply looking for things they couldn’t find.

An RFID pilot was conducted recently in Canada’s grocery industry, and the results were promising. The grocer was able to track where each box of product was at any given time, and understand inefficiencies in the process. For instance, product was ordered when inventory was already in stock; boxes were taken off pallets and put right onto the floor; and items weren’t being shelved, even when they were available. A recall was simulated during the pilot, and it took the system just five minutes to locate where every single box of that particular product went: this process would typically have taken days!

“There is no system today that allows you to get such a granular level of data and feedback,” explained Shai Verma, Director of RFID at IBM Canada, during a summary of the pilot at the 2007 Wireless and Mobile Expo in Toronto. “[RFID] decreased out of stock issues to zero.”

Verma also gave some great real-world examples of RFID implementation: the Great Wolf Lodge in Niagara Falls, an indoor water park, uses RFID bracelets in place of hotel room keys; while Pfizer Pharmaceutical Co. has equipped every bottle of Viagra with an RFID tag to confirm its authenticity.

Of course, there’s still a lot of work to be done in order to fully deploy RFID. For one, it is highly expensive. Who will incur the costs of each tag? The manufacturer? Distributer? Retailer? Will the price of products be increased to compensate for the cost of tracking them? Also, what level of RFID is necessary to each business? Do you really need to tag every single item in a box? Each box? Or each pallet of boxes? How sophisticated a system does one need? Is theft a major concern, or a minor one? Does one use passive RFID, which can only track within a limited distance; or active, which can track a product through much farther distances? These are all questions that need to be answered by all parties involved in order for companies to confidently take the leap toward RFID.

“Eventually, the potential of RFID will be realized,” said Verma. He predicts that 2009 will be the year of RFID.

Even so, future RFID developments are already in the works. According to Victor Garcia, CTO at HP, the company is working on what it deems to be “second generation” RFID. Called Memory Spot, this 1 x 1 mm chip will have a CPU built right into it that can store up to 2 MB of data, and will be 15,000 times faster than current chips. Each chip could essentially store a product’s “DNA”, including things like set-up videos, photos, schematics, and specifications.

It sounds like it’s straight out of a movie, but believe it or not, technologies like RFID are the way of the future.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

LAX Charges up Gadgets

On a recent business trip, a fellow journalist I was traveling with found himself sitting in a lone seat on the opposite end of the airport so he could charge up his notebook in the only available outlet. Wouldn’t it be great if it were more convenient to charge up devices in airports? There's nothing worse than having a flight delayed right when your notebook is about to run out of juice!
The Los Angeles International Airport (better known as its airport code, “LAX”) is offering a great solution to this.

In partnership with Samsung Mobile and JCDecaux (an airport advertising contractor), Los Angeles World Airports has deployed charging stations in all terminals in LAX. The stations, shaped as poles, will refuel all of your techie gadgets while you wait: everything from notebooks to cell phones and PDAs.

A total of 51, 8.5-foot tall stations have been erected, each with four outlets to accommodate any device that goes by U.S. voltage standards. Don’t want to leave your precious PC or smartphone on the floor where a hyper-excited child might accidentally step on it? The stations each have a small shelf for maximum device support.

Even better news: in celebration of Samsung Mobile’s 10th anniversary, use of the stations will be f-r-e-e. I’m not sure if this implies that they will eventually follow a pay-per-use model (probably), but either way, technophile travelers should enjoy the service as a useful, and welcome, accommodation.

It’s great to see technology being recognized as an important part of the travel experience: I’ve seen everything in airport stores from noise-canceling headphones (something I can’t live without on a flight!); to the latest DVDs for those with multimedia-capable notebooks or portable DVD players. Now all we need is worldwide Internet access while in flight...

Sidenote: to learn about "cool", tech gadgets for travel, check out Traveling with Technology: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles in here's how! magazine. (Click on the thumbnail cover to download a PDF of the entire issue)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Colour Me Blue…tooth

A conference I attended today at the 2007 Wireless and Mobile Expo shed some light on what to expect with the new Bluetooth v 2.1 standard, and I must say, I’m impressed. Improvements will include things like quicker, near-field communication that eliminates the need to enter that pesky four-digit default access code to authorize the pairing of devices; to significantly reduced power consumption. An even higher speed version of Bluetooth is anticipated for the end of 2008, which could see speeds of approx. 48 Mbps! That’s perfect for large file transfers and video streaming, which the current Bluetooth standard cannot handle.

There’s no doubt that Bluetooth has become an important part in virtually every area of technology: from pairing mobile phones with wireless headsets or an automobile’s audio system for the play back of tunes; to highly targeted “proximity-based” Bluetooth ads, like those Cisco has erected in Toronto’s Pearson Airport. Other applications include things like Bluetooth home entertainment remote controls that could eliminate the line-of-sight issues you're currently faced with in using standard IR remotes; or even advanced gaming options with the latest consoles like Nintendo’s family-friendly Wii.

But the standard has even more useful applications, like in the medical industry: imagine having a message beamed to you, letting you know that a sickly family member has not dispensed the day’s required pill from a Bluetooth-equipped casing?

I look forward to seeing what the future of Bluetooth has to offer. As Bluetooth SIG’s Kevin Keating explained in his keynote address, the firm is looking to conduct “a little less conversation, and a lot more action.” (I wonder if they'll be doing so in some blue suede shoes?)

As an interesting "tidbit", in case anyone thought that the name Bluetooth originated from a series of highly scientific calculations, think again. Apparently the name originated after a Danish Viking and King named Harold Blatand, who was known for uniting areas of Denmark and Norway, much the same way the Bluetooth standard aims at uniting devices across different platforms. However, Blatand also had a penchant toward eating blueberries, which often stained his teeth blue. Hence, he was often referred to as the Bluetooth king. And there you have it…and no, that isn't a joke!

[Photo: BlueAnt’s Supertooth Light handsfree speakerphone is by far my favourite Bluetooth device. A clip wraps around a car's sun visor, and the beautifully-designed unit magnetically connects to it, which makes for very easy removal when charging is needed (but with a rated 33 days standby, this isn’t very often). Once the phone is connected (which is blazingly simple to do), just pop out the microphone by pushing in a button on the right side. Then, just make and receive calls without ever putting the phone to your ear. Sound quality is fantastic: I’ve never once been asked if I was using the speaker function of my phone, nor to move closer to the microphone. The Toronto roads are a safer place since I hooked up this device!]

Monday, July 16, 2007

Conrad Black Could Get 20 Years

This is “old news” in the web world, but worth reporting nonetheless: media mogul and fellow Canadian Conrad Black could face upwards of 20 years in the slammer after having been found guilty on several counts of fraud and obstruction of justice.

The former head of Hollinger International will likely not serve that much time: I wouldn't be surprised if he serves no time at all; or received the standard "house arrest" sentence that is the result of many high-profile cases. Not surprisingly, Black has reportedly already gotten the wheels in motion for an appeal.

The charges against Black range from fraud in relation to alleged shady payments under a non-compete clause, to obstruction of justice for allegedly removing boxes (of which the contents remain unknown) from Hollinger Inc. offices without authority. This was supposedly prior to receiving a subpeona from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Along with three others from Hollinger, Black has been accused of embezzling US$60 million from the company.

Sentencing is scheduled for November. Does anyone actually think Black will serve time in jail? More important, does anyone believe he deserves to serve time? Or should he be released with a slap on the wrist?

comScore Reports June’s Top 50 Websites

comScore Media Metrix has released its list of the top 50 visited Websites in the U.S. for the month of June. Although much of the list is easily predictable given recent and upcoming events, it’s interesting nonetheless to see where Web traffic is going on a daily basis.

The upcoming World Series of Poker shot traffic to online gambling sites up 13% to 12.5 visitors; while the beginning of summer vacation resulted in traffic to online gaming sites increasing 8% to 64 million visitors (kids need to occupy their time somehow, right?) As adults begin planning summer getaways, hotel/resort Websites saw an 8% gain to 34.6 million visitors.

“Hollywood-type” entertainment news has a very significant effect on Web traffic: such Websites saw 7% growth to 42.1 million visitors. This was due largely to “breaking” news stories (and I use that term lightly) like Paris Hilton’s “unexpected” early release from jail. The alleged murder/suicide saga with WWE member Chris Benoit and his family led to a whopping 117% increase to the WWE Website, which reached 8.4 million visitors during the month. Pride month resulted in a 23% jump in visitors to gay/lesbian sites, which rose to 3 million for the month.

Not surprisingly, topping the overall list for the month of June was Yahoo! sites, with more than 133 million visitors; followed closely by Google sites and Time Warner network, both at upwards of 123 million visitors.

Rounding out the top 10 are (in this order): Microsoft sites (116 million); Fox Interactive Media (83 million); eBay (81 million); Amazon sites (53 million); Ask Network (52 million); Wikipedia sites (47 million); and Apple Inc. (44 million). Apple’s position in the ranking is expected, given the tremendous buzz surrounding the iPhone launch last month.

Other interesting entrants include The Weather Channel (No. 13); Facebook (20); and Wal-Mart (21). It’s intriguing that a social networking Website beat out the world’s largest retailer, albeit not by much: Facebook narrowly inched Wal-Mart out for the 20th spot by a mere 43,000 visitors. It will be interesting see how the numbers fall for the month of July.

Click here to view the full top 50 list.

Friday, July 13, 2007

AOL Settles Suit

AOL has just settled a U.S. suit for $3 million bucks. The money will be awarded to customers who claimed the company continued to charge them for service even after they canceled their accounts.

Apparently it was difficult to cancel an AOL account. VERY difficult. The first thing that comes to my mind about AOL in Canada is the massive marketing promotion it held back in the dial-up days. I’d be surprised if there’s anyone out there who doesn’t recall having received an AOL installation CD through the mail, or some other promotional means. The CD was clearly emblazoned with the promise of a “free trial”. The only exception was that you had to provide a credit card number, and, unless you called to cancel before the trial period was up, charges would begin incurring each month. Fair enough, as long as the rules and regulations were clearly stated. Ahh, memories...

Anyway, back to the U.S.: according to the suit, which was settled with 48 states and the District of Columbia, AOL will, in addition to refunding money to subscribers, ensure that customers are able to easily cancel an account online.

The Globe & Mail report cites one particular consumer complaint as helping to get the wheels of this suit in motion. One Vincent Ferrari not only wrote about his cancellation woes on his blog; he also recorded and posted audio conversations he had with reps trying to cancel the account! This led to a swarm of commentary from others, as well as a slew of TV and radio interviews.

It’s safe to assume that AOL call centre reps in the States have been provided with updated training on dealing with account cancellations.

Wii Wants You to Get Fit

Unlike other gaming consoles, Nintendo's Wii encourages intense, physical movement, by requiring the player to simulate a real action in order for it to occur on-screen. For example, in bowling, one needs to swing his arm forward with the neat remote in his hand (and securely strapped to the wrist) to bowl the ball: just as he would in real life. In baseball, swing it like a bat to hit the “virtual” ball being pitched to you.

Now, the firm is taking the fitness aspect to the next level. At E3 (currently taking place in California), Nintendo announced plans to launch a new game called Wii Fit in 2008. A player’s body mass index (BMI) is measured by standing on a new Wii accessory called a Balance Board, which resembles a scale. (Something tells me this game will be played alone at home, and not in the company of friends!) Once measured, players can engage in a series of balance- and fitness-based manoeuvres, like head-butting a soccer ball, contorting into yoga moves, or twirling a virtual hula hoop. The player’s progress is continually tracked so he can reach goals, and even compete with friends should he be brave enough to disclose the dreaded BMI!

Sure, getting outside and actually engaging in such activities is the ideal solution to get fit. But for some people, this legitimately isn’t possible due to a number of factors: time, money, transportation, young children, inclement weather…the list goes on. The way I see it, if a person can’t be motivated to actually play sports, isn’t it better he play a “virtual” version than none at all?

I see some of the latest Wii games as modern-day fitness videos: move over Jane Fonda, we’ve got a new player in town!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

iPhone “nano” Rumours Shut Down

On Tuesday, I reported JPMorgan predictions that Apple had a smaller, lower-priced iPhone already in the works, modeled after the popular iPod nano player. It turns out that this information was based on a report issued by one JPMorgan analyst, Kevin Chang, and was shortly thereafter refuted by another analyst from the same firm, who questioned Chang’s sources.

According to Reuters’ latest report, a U.S. spokesperson for JPMorgan sided with the second analyst, Bill Shope, on the debate. Shope admitted that a cheaper iPhone would undoubtedly reach the market at some point in time, but launching one so soon after the inaugural model would be “unusual and highly risky”.

Shope's report described a second-generation iPhone (which has not been confirmed by anyone at Apple) as likely being the complete opposite of what Change predicted: a higher-end version, with higher speed connections. Apple’s iPhone currently operates on AT&T’s 2.5G network rather than the faster 3G standard.

It’s amazing that a product that doesn’t even exist has already caused so much controversy and debate. Way to go, Apple, on always being able to spark up so much interest and debate about your products...even before their mere existence has been confirmed!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Future Shop Jumps on Social Networking Bandwagon

Online social networking is a growing trend: more and more people are using the Web to communicate, share, and get information. In recognition of this, Future Shop has jumped on board with its own, online community forum. I doubt Facebook or MySpace is shaking in its Web-networking boots, but from a retail perspective, it’s great to see a Canadian company take a bold step in fostering open, customer communication.

An industry conference I recently attended in NYC alluded to the importance of such open communication. “Invite conversation instead of demanding attention,” recommended John Batelle, founder of Federated Media. He aptly calls the current state of affairs the “Conversation Economy.”

Customers can visit the Future Shop forum (accessible via http://www.futureshop.ca/), and chat with others about products, ask questions, share stories, and throw in their own two cents. Available in both English- and French (there’s a separate forum for each), the conversations are monitored by an Avatar (i.e. a virtual “host” and product expert).

Several topic categories are available, ranging from gaming, to home theatre, and car audio. There’s even a spot for general, “off-topic” feedback. For example, one visitor posted “product suggestions”: stuff she’d like to see stocked on Future Shop shelves. Following the initial post, 10 others chimed in with their own “wish lists”. Sure, it isn’t realistic to think that Future Shop buyers are agonizing over these requests, taking notes, or getting on the phone right away to add SKUs to store shelves. But to allow such an open discussion helps consumers feel like they have a voice.

I took a quick look at the site. Currently, the top question is whether one should choose the PlayStation 3 or the Xbox 360. So far, 23 responses have been posted, each with a clear opinion. The "featured" question is a debate between Blu-ray, HD-DVD, and “standard” DVD. Sure, not all of the opinions are fully educated ones: some are based on fact (via references to legitimate publications like Twice or Marketnews!), some on opinion, and others on sheer misinformation. Many even originate from Future Shop sales associates across the country, who clearly identify themselves. Each comment can also be rated on a scale of 1-5. But every opinion is valuable, whether it prompts someone to pipe in and clarify with facts; or allow someone to play devil's advocate.

The point is: people are talking about technology. And that’s always a good thing for the industry.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Is a Second-Gen iPhone Already in the Works?

Rumour has it that Apple may already be working on its second-generation iPhone. JP Morgan predicts that the next iPhone will be slimmer and, most important, cheaper: pretty much a “nano” version of the smartphone that has captured the U.S. nation by storm (and has had Canadians salivating in anticipation).

The firm’s source for this information, according to Reuters, is a patent application Apple recently filed. The description was for a multifunctional handheld device equipped with a circular touch pad control.

Would a slimmer, smaller iPhone have the same appeal as the sleek and stylish just-released unit? After all, one of the iPhone’s most significant advantages over other “smartphones” is the oversized, touch-screen display that permits easier scrolling through things like web pages, e-mails, and music collections. A nano-like iPhone would have to forego many of the features and benefits of its larger sister due to size restrictions; but on the flip side, it would appeal to a whole new market that wants more affordability. Right now, the iPhone will cost U.S. customers a pretty penny at a hefty $500 for the 4 GB version and $600 for the 8 GB. Either way, if the iPod is any indication, there’s little doubt that a smaller version would be received just as well as the first-generation iPhone.

Of course Apple isn’t talking, so this rumour is still just that: a rumour. Nevertheless, iPhone Nano does have a nice ring to it…

Monday, July 9, 2007

Microsoft Extends Xbox 360 Warranty in Wake of Too Many Returns

It’s always nice to hear about a company taking charge to rectify a product issue. Microsoft says that the number of Xbox 360 returns due to hardware failure has been "too large", and therefore, is extending the product warranty to three years. Additionally, the firm will reimburse customers who have already paid to repair a “three red light flashing error” on the gaming console. According to Reuters, the charge will cost Microsoft upwards of US$1.05-1.15 billion, before taxes.

Microsoft says it has since made improvements to the Xbox 360 to reduce the likelihood of the hardware failure, indicated by three red flashing lights, and the result of "a number of factors".

Given the highly competitive nature of the gaming console market, this is definitely a good move on Microsoft’s part. So many companies focus on grabbing new customers, and not keeping the existing ones happy. Meanwhile, these existing customers are the ones who will recommend one console over another to friends and family; and even spread the word through online means, like social networking 'sites.

What's more, with Nintendo’s Wii leading the market; and Sony having just dropped the price of its PlayStation 3 console to be in line with the Xbox 360 Elite, this is perfect timing for Microsoft to step up. Sure, it’ll cost the company financially. But can you put a price on pleasing your customers?

Friday, July 6, 2007

HD Player Race: Dual-Format Discs, or Dual-Format Players?

During the 2007 International CES, Warner Bros. announced what many anticipated could be the solution to the ongoing high-definition DVD format war: a Total High-Definition Disc (THD) that would consist of a Blu-ray version of a title on one side, and the HD DVD version on the other. These discs were set to hit the market in the second half of 2007, but now Warner is delaying production. Why? Because only two movie studios offer films in both formats: Warner (no surprise there) and Paramount Pictures. Given this fact, the existence of a dual-format disc can't be justified at this point.

According to the Associated Press, Warner has decided not release THD discs until each studio delivers at least 10 titles in both formats. The firm feels this is more likely to happen by early next year, then by the end of 2007.

In an ideal world, the best solution, would be one, unified, high-definition format. But failing that, THD could represent the best of both worlds, and, most importantly, a win-win situation for the customer.

From the player manufacturing end, a few companies have also taken steps to end the format war. LG Electronics announced a dual-format, Blu-ray/HD DVD player at the 2007 International CES in Las Vegas. Although the first-generation player is limited in its ability to accomodate interactive menu features of HD DVD discs (it offers complete playback of Blu-ray), its very existence solidifies a strong point: why should consumers have to choose?

Meanwhile, Samsung Electronics has also announced that it will debut a dual-format player in time for this year's holiday season, although there has been no confirmation if the player will be available in Canada or not.

Assuming that a unified format is far from existence, the HD format war will likely become a chicken-and-egg race going forward: will more dual-format players come out of the woodwork, eliminating the need for a THD disc altogether? Or will single-format players continue to dominate, encouraging studios to back both formats?

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Work While Commuting, says Survey

If Canadians just worked through the commute to the office, we’d be one step closer to closing the supposed productivity gap between us and our neighbours to the south. This is according to a recent survey conducted by Decima Research on behalf of Intel of Canada.

The survey reports that Canadians spend, on average, 240 hours per year traveling to and from work. For those who travel via public transportation (approx. 12%), this time could be used to catch up on work. Of course this would require high-tech devices like notebook PCs, and mobile devices, which Intel says only 11 per cent of companies provide to their employees.

“It’s not about working longer,” says Intel of Canada’s Country Manager Doug Cooper, “It’s about Canadian commuters making better use of their time.”

Cooper says using commuting time or, better yet, adding work-from-home options to a business, will help reduce the need for employees to work overtime at the office. Twenty-six per cent of respondents said their employers have a work-from-home policy, compared to 40% of private sector companies; and 100% of public sector agencies in the U.S. The survey cites interesting Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity data that says Americans work 164 more hours per year than Canadians. (Although, in all fairness, no definition was provided for the term “work”, so this could be subject to interpretation!).

The Institute also claims that closing the work gap between Canada and the U.S. could potentially lead to an increase of almost $12,000 in disposable income to an average household.
Perhaps such initiatives will also help boost Canada’s reputation with our own Conference Board (see related story).

Although I personally don’t commute to work via public transportation, I can’t imagine wanting to use a one-hour morning and afternoon trip home to log on to my PC and start penning an article; or write follow-up e-mails. Nor can I imagine working on a Toronto subway or crowded bus as an even remote possibility during the rush hours. This time is all-important un-wind time. But for those who struggle with extra-long commutes into the office, it’s a no-brainer that work-at-home schedules can only increase productivity rather than reduce it.

The results are based on a total of 4,292 surveys completed online between April 9 and May 31, 2007.

Photo: Toronto Mayor David Miller and Toronto Hydro Telecom President, David Dobbin.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

CBC Tests Power of Social Networking

CBC has really taken the reigns when it comes to technological innovation, partnering with mobile phone companies and Websites, alike to offer its content through various means of distribution. But the broadcaster is receiving some flak as of late for its attempt to use a popular social networking Website to “poll” Canadians on their wishes for the country. The project, in celebration of Canada Day, was aptly named the Great Canadian Wish List, and could be found on widely popular site Facebook.com. Was this an innovative approach to reaching an audience; or rife with issues?

Many argue the obvious: how can you confirm that legitimate people are submitting responses, and not fake accounts set-up by lobbyists to promote their own cause? What’s more, how can you confirm that the people responding are even Canadian? Not to mention: how many people are actually taking the poll seriously? One of the most “recently created” wish lists was to “bring back the McDeal”. Need I say more?

On a more serious level, the top “wish” on the list is to abolish abortion in Canada (9,753 respondents); followed by (ironically) for Canada to remain pro-choice (8,302). Rounding out the top five are a spiritual revival in our nation (4,608); to restore the traditional definition of marriage (4,590); and to lower or altogether eliminate tuition fees (3,507).

CBC says that the exercise was not meant to be an actual poll, but rather an experiment to gauge how social networking Websites could be used to reach an audience, and to help build support for a cause that one believes in.

Some journalists have called the experiment “embarrassing” for the CBC; while others have commended the broadcaster on its innovative tactics. I agree with the latter: whether the experiment worked or not is irrelevant. After all, that's why it’s called an experiment. The Great Canadian Wish List represented a fresh, creative approach to expression, and deserves some applause in my opinion.

The final CBC report on the Great Canadian Wish List, for those who are interested, can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BhZJgZfsGW8

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Do Not Call is Coming

Hi, my name is Christine from Company XYZ, and you have been demographically selected to….(*click*). Ever experienced such a scenario? It’s highly likely that you have, with telemarketing running rampant in Canada. Well, your hopes and prayers to stop being bothered during dinner time, or while your favourite TV show is on might be answered. Today, the CRTC is one step closer to the creation of a National Do Not Call List. If your number is on this list, telemarketers can’t call you.

I’m skeptical as to how well such a list would work: according to a prepared CRTC press release, some callers would be exempt from the list due to the Telecommunications Act. These include: registered charities; political parties; nomination contestants, leadership contestants or candidates of a political party; opinion polling firms; general circulation newspapers; organizations that have an existing business relationship with a consumer; and organizations to business consumers. Pardon my asking, but who exactly is left? Can't pretty much any company find a loophole that would slot them in one of these categories?

For example, my cell phone and cable TV is from Rogers making me an existing Rogers customer. Does this mean one of Rogers Publishing magazines can call me? After all, it is technically the same company when you reach the top of the organizational chart, right? Note: this is just an example: I do not, as it stands, receive any unsolicited phone calls from Rogers!

Nevertheless, if you hate late night calls and prodding tele-sales tactics, I’d advise you get on this list as soon as the opportunity becomes available. The CRTC says that once it has located an independent operator to manage the list, Canadians will be able to add their number to the database at no charge.

I hope whatever company is found to operate this list understands the importance of high security: can you imagine what would happen if such a list was hacked?