Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Spam e-mail still a booming business despite the current recession

Spammers haven’t taken a break during the recession. Unwanted commercial e-mail, or spam, accounts for 86% of all e-mail traffic, according to Symantec’s March report on the “State of Spam.”
That explains all the penis-enlargement, Viagra, luxury watch and weight-loss e-mail pitches I’m still getting. (Sample ad above.)
The comedy news Web site, Onion News Network, has posted a video that says 90% of spam e-mail comes from a little known Eastern European country called Koy4Goff. (I’ve posted the video on sister site One Stop Video.)
Actually, according to Symantec, the U.S. is the source of 25% of spam e-mail received here. That’s the most of any country. Brazil was second with 9%, followed by India with 5%.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Senior correspondent reports on bizarre animals created with Adobe Photoshop




Tech-media-tainment’s senior correspondent filed this next report.
And by senior, I mean senior citizen, since it was my mom. And it’s not so much a report as an e-mail that she forwarded to me from her cousin.
Usually she sends me cute animal photos or alarming news reports that turn out to be false (thank you, Snopes.com).
Today she e-mailed me a bunch of wacky Photoshopped chimeras – different animals merged together such as a bird with the head of a wolf or a dog with the head of an eagle.
Her comment with the e-mail was “This is really something – Mother.” I guess that counts as a report for Tech-media-tainment.
She’s right, the photos are pretty amazing. Posted above are several samples. They’re from Worth1000.com. Get it? A picture is worth a thousand words. Worth1000 is a Web site that sponsors contests for digital artists. It was created by the founders of Aviary, a privately held company based in Long Island, N.Y., that makes software tools for graphic designers.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The nasty truth about Miss Spider and friends




I guess they ran out of cute, lovable animals to anthropomorphize about the time “Miss Spider” was created.
“Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Friends” is one of those animated children’s TV shows I have to endure as the father of two youngsters. The show follows the adventures of a family of bugs living together. The clan is led by the gentle, kind-hearted Miss Spider, voiced by the sexy Kristin Davis of “Sex and the City” fame.
Among the adopted “children” living with Miss Spider and her spider kin are a bed bug, jewel beetle and a dragonfly. The community of bugs they live with includes a stink bug, a praying mantis, earwigs and carpenter ants.
In real life, these aren’t the most adorable animals. Spiders and praying mantises are stone-cold killers of other insects. Bed bugs are nasty little blood suckers. And stink bugs are just plain gross. (See photos above.)
If Miss Spider ever snapped out of it and realized that she was a predator, she and her family would devour most of Sunny Patch in a day. The survivors would be rounded up and eaten by Dragon, the dragonfly, and Mr. Mantis, the praying mantis.
That would give little kids nightmares, sure. But maybe they’d learn something about the animal kingdom.

The “Miss Spider” cartoon (2004-07), airing on Nick Jr. and Noggin, is based on the children’s books by David Kirk.
"Miss Spider" artwork from Noggin, a property of MTV Networks, which is a unit of Viacom International. Spider photo from Wikimedia Commons. Praying mantis photo from Flickr site of Martin LaBar. Bedbug photo from the Scavenging blog.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

With online video and free, over-the-air TV, why pay for cable or satellite?


Last Friday my Comcast DVR didn’t record Fox’s “Dollhouse” as planned. I had three shows programmed to record at the same time, but the DVR can only record two at once. But it was no problem. I was able to watch the episode on Hulu.com.
Using Hulu was a pleasant experience. The episode was free, with limited commercial interruptions, and the video quality was great.
Like many people, I’m starting to question the traditional methods of receiving and viewing television programming.
I pay $97.50 a month for Comcast service. That breaks down to $92.46 for Comcast cable television and $5.04 in taxes, surcharges and fees. My package includes standard cable channels for $57.99, a “digital classic package” of extra channels for $16.99, a dual-tuner digital video recorder rental for $15.99 a month, and $1.49 for so-called “cable guard” insurance (which I should have canceled long ago).
I’m paying $1,170 a year for cable television service. That works out to $3.21 a day. I could be paying even more if I got a package of high-definition television channels. So the big question is: Is it worth it?
Probably not. Especially during a recession.
The sad fact is that most of the television I watch is from the broadcast channels anyway, which I could be getting for free with an over-the-air antenna.
I regularly watch Fox’s “Dollhouse,” “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” and “House,” as well as NBC’s “30 Rock.” All are available on Hulu, which is co-owned by NBC Universal and Fox-parent News Corp.
I also watch ABC’s “Lost,” which is available on ABC’s Web site.
Plus, I watch BBC America’s “Ashes to Ashes,” the sequel to the original U.K. series “Life on Mars.” I just searched online and found full episodes of “Ashes to Ashes” running on TV.com, owned by CBS Interactive.
And finally, I watch “Reaper” and “Supernatural,” which run full episodes on the CW’s Web site.
If it were up to me alone, I’d eighty-six my cable. I neglected to mention that I also subscribe to Netflix and have a Netflix set-top box for streaming video from the Internet.
Unfortunately the decision to cancel cable isn’t mine alone to make. My wife would want cable just for the news channels: CNBC, MSNBC, CNN and Fox News Channel. Meanwhile, I could survive with broadcast network and online news.
My kids would want Noggin, Disney Channel and the like.
So on review it looks like we’re sticking with cable, for now. I’m outnumbered. But I’ll keep the subject open for debate.
Photos above: Eliza Dushku as Echo on "Dollhouse" and the title sequence from "Ashes to Ashes."

Friday, March 27, 2009

Obama says no to legalizing pot

President Barack Obama, a savvy politician, played it safe when asked about legalizing marijuana Thursday. He said he was against it, at least when it comes to helping the U.S. economy.
Legalizing marijuana is one of those third rails in American politics. Like Social Security reform, most politicians stay clear of it. It’s never seriously discussed. Even the topic of medical marijuana for cancer patients and others is a tough one to raise. Decriminalizing pot? Forget about it.
Meanwhile, the endless war on drugs continues to waste taxpayer money. Drug lords are getting rich and using violence and government corruption to get their product to market.
During an online townhall meeting Thursday, Obama said the question of legalizing marijuana was a favorite among people who submitted questions to the White House for the event.
Reuters covered the event:

“I have to say that there was one question that was voted on that ranked fairly high, and that was whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy and job creation,” he said to laughter at the White House event.
“And I don’t know what this says about the online audience,” Obama said, tongue-in-cheek. “This was a fairly popular question. We want to make sure that it was
answered.”
“The answer is, no, I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow our economy,” he said before moving back to a more sober discussion of unemployment and healthcare reform.

Obama was wrong to dismiss the idea as if it were a joke. He ran for president saying he planned to correct the failed policies of the past. He can start with the “war on drugs.” And the first step is not to dismiss an idea that’s apparently popular with a sizable audience.
For the record, I should state that I don't smoke marijuana or patronize prostitutes, even though I've advocated for their legalization here. I just believe that people should make their own moral choices on those things.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Great Recession



Writers like to be the first ones to come up with a catchy name for a trend, event, generation and the like. The Jazz Age, the Great Depression, Baby Boom Generation, the Me Decade, Generation X, you get the idea.
Now it looks like writers have settled on the Great Recession for the current economic turmoil. The recession, which started in December 2007, has led to a surge in unemployment, cratering of consumer confidence and spending, and turbulence on Wall Street.
On March 10, the head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, said, “I think that we can now say that we’ve entered a Great Recession,” according to the U.K.'s Telegraph.
A March 11 article in the New York Times says the Great Recession moniker really took off in December as more economists, analysts, reporters and others began using it in large numbers.
The New York Times also has a neat interactive graphic that shows the U.S. jobless rate and unemployment rate by county. Check it out.
April 1 would mark the longest recessionary period since the Great Depression, according to the Kansas City Star.
A Wikipedia entry called “Late 2000s recession” says the 2008-09 period is “sometimes called the ‘Great Recession.’” Contributors to the economic downturn include high oil prices, high food prices, and the collapse of a major housing bubble in the U.S., it says.
The University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism has put together a book of photographs covering the economic downturn. The title? What else? “The Great Recession.”
The Boston Globe has compiled a series of photographs that document the hardships of the Great Recession. The series, called “Scenes from the recession,” illustrate foreclosures, evictions, bankruptcies, layoffs and abandoned projects.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer has a Web site called “The Great Recession: In-depth report on the national, Ohio and local Cleveland economy.”
Here’s a depressing article from the Los Angeles Times about California’s hard-hit Inland Empire. It’s labeled the first in a series of articles called “Postcards from the Recession.”
Web sites have even popped up using the phrase. The Great Recession site at greatrecession.info includes the tagline “Because it’s not a Depression. Yet.”
And because economics can be boring, journalists are finding ways to spice up their coverage. My favorite article, “More women needing cash go from jobless to topless.”
Talk about a stimulus plan.

Photos above:
Humorous graphic showing recession-era logos for major companies. (From Flickr account of Weimin Liu.)
Google Trends chart showing search traffic for the term Great Recession.
Actress Elizabeth Berkley as a stripper from the movie "Showgirls" (1995).

Environmentalists Cheer Death of Newspapers

As the U.S. ponders the future of journalism without a vibrant newspaper industry, one group is quietly cheering its demise – environmentalists.
The Web is full of posts by people complaining that newspapers kill trees and that the production and transportation of newspapers pollute the environment.
For instance, Social Times writer Nick O’Neill posted an article Jan. 19 titled, “The Only Things Newspapers Are Good for is Killing Trees.” He says he’d love to see the newspaper industry go belly up. “Selling daily papers is simply a waste of paper,” he says. Although he mourns the loss of quality journalism, he thinks somehow online news will fill the gap. But he admits there isn’t a decent business model for it yet.
On Monday, the Ann Arbor News in Michigan announced that it will print its last edition in July and replace it with an online product.
The 174-year-old newspaper will cease and its owners will start a new online media company called AnnArbor.com LLC to provide local news and information.
On March 17, Hearst Corp. printed its last Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper and turned it into an online-only operation, with a fraction of the news writing staff.
On Feb. 27, E.W. Scripps & Co. shut down the 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News in Denver.

(Photo of last issue of the Rocky Mountain News above.)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Twitter users grouse about Yahoo Mail outage

Yahoo Mail has been rather glitchy lately. The load times can be long and sometimes the system times out. It will give you messages such as "try again later." It's frustrating for people like me who use Yahoo's free e-mail service as their main personal e-mail.
When Yahoo Mail went down yesterday morning, users of Twitter quickly posted their complaints. I'm not a Twitterer, but I use Twitter Search to check out what people are saying about something as it's happening.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Half-empty strip malls, store closings are signs of the times

The state of retail is pretty depressing at the moment.
With consumers cutting back on spending, hundreds of retail outlets across the U.S. are closing. Some companies are cutting back on stores, while others are closing for good and liquidating their inventories.
The recession is causing a massive reset of the retail industry in the U.S. It’s survival of the fittest. Wal-Mart Stores and Best Buy, for instance, are managing the downturn better than most.
The same Darwinism is affecting shopping malls. Those with the best locations and retailers will do well. Those with second-tier locations and tenants will be hit disproportionately hard.
A strip mall in Skokie, Ill., now sits half empty two blocks south of the more prosperous Old Orchard Shopping Center. The strip mall is losing another anchor tenant in Office Depot, which has been closing underperforming stores nationwide. The empty store fronts with papered windows and for-lease signs are pretty sad.
In the last year, Circuit City, Mervyns, Linens N Things, Tweeter, The Sharper Image, Steve & Barry’s and KB Toys all have gone belly up. Given the prospects for the economic recovery, more names could join that list.

(Photo of Office Depot store in Skokie, Ill, holding a store-closing liquidation sale this month.)

Pure Digital, Redbox skip the IPO path


With the market for initial public offerings on hold during the current recession, two consumer technology companies that had planned to go public opted to be acquired instead.
Pure Digital Technologies, maker of the popular Flip pocket camcorders, and Redbox, operator of automated DVD rental kiosks, would have been fun to watch as standalone public companies.
But Pure Digital and Redbox needed to find a different exit strategy to satisfy their investors.
Cisco Systems on March 19 announced its intent to acquire privately held Pure Digital of San Francisco for about $590 million in stock.
Pure Digital has sold more than 2 million Flip Video camcorders, easy-to-use devices for capturing videos and sharing them on YouTube, MySpace and other popular Web sites.
Coinstar, operator of those green coin-counting machines in grocery stores, in February bought the remaining portion of Redbox that it didn’t already own.
It purchased the 44.4% stake in Redbox held by McDonald’s as well as shares held by other minority investors. Redbox is based in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Note to Diego, Wonder Pets: Sometimes it’s OK to let animals die


With a 3-year-old daughter and 5 ½-year-old son at home, I have to endure a lot of children’s television programming.
After hours of watching “Dora the Explorer,” “Backyardigans” and other kid-vid, you can’t help but get resentful and start looking at the flaws in these shows.
There’s a trend in some kid-vid shows (“Go, Diego, Go!” and “Wonder Pets”) where characters who rescue animals are actually interfering with nature’s way.
Diego and the Wonder Pets often get distress calls from cute animals in the wild who are being threatened by their natural predators. The heroes will dash off to help these creatures avoid pumas, hawks and other predators.
Their response reminds me of a town I lived in where citizens were up in arms over the fact that snapping turtles were eating the baby ducks in a particular pond. Hey folks, that’s what snapping turtles do. That’s nature. Just because baby ducks are cute and snapping turtles are ugly doesn’t mean you should interfere with nature’s way.
Maybe Diego should start an episode with three animals of the same species that need to get home and end the show happy that one survived to make it.
Also, would it kill Diego and the Wonder Pets to save a human every now and then?
They’re probably like PETA protestors stepping over homeless people when picketing for animal rights. Diego would say, “Human in trouble? Not my thing, amigo. He can fend for himself; I’ve got a butterfly to rescue.”

Does blogging still matter?


With microblogging service Twitter all the rage now, long-form blogging seems to have gone out of style.
Critics of Twitter say it exemplifies the short-attention spans of American … Hey, did you hear that Chris Brown might leak a sex tape he made with Rihanna?
Anyway, Twitter’s like a service for attention deficit dis … I can’t believe what Gwyneth Paltrow just said. What a stuck-up bitch.
What was I saying?
Oh, yeah, traditional blogging.
I was late to blogging. I started Tech-media-tainment on Google’s Blogger service last November and just passed 100 posts the other day. I started a sister site One Stop Video about a week ago.
In an essay for Wired magazine, posted Oct. 20, 2008, writer Paul Boutin makes the argument that blogs are dead. He says blogs have been co-opted by mainstream media and commercial interests. Twitter, Flickr and Facebook are better ways for average Joes and Janes to express themselves now, he claims.
Well, since Boutin wrote his controversial article, corporations have flocked to those other services too. Dell, Amazon.com, Starbucks and scads more companies are all on Twitter, offering discounts, special deals and posting press releases. They’re on Flickr and Facebook as well.
Boutin makes some good points about Web logs. But he focuses mostly on people trying to make a name for themselves and get noticed. True, it’s very hard to get noticed in the sea of blogs out there. But for some, that’s not the main reason to blog. Some people just use it as a creative outlet and to share thoughts with friends and family.
I’ve been sharing photos and personal stories online for more than 10 years. In January 1999, I made my first Web pages on GeoCities.com to joke about a ski vacation I took with a friend.
I ended up creating three free GeoCities accounts over the years because I kept running out of storage space for my photos. Bandwidth issues were a big drawback. Use too much and Yahoo (owner of GeoCities) would temporarily suspend access to your Web pages.
Ultimately I switched to a paid account on Flickr (also owned by Yahoo) in March 2005 to share and store personal photos. It’s a terrific service. It makes organizing and sharing photos fun and easy.
As for blogging, I’m not sure how long I’ll stick with it. I mostly got started to learn more about new media journalism and to prepare for the start of a tech blog at Investors.com, owned by my employer, Investor's Business Daily.
The Web is littered with dead blogs or blogs with infrequent postings.
Up-to-date blogs are usually filed with personal stuff, family photos, or people talking about their feelings or their pets.
Hopefully Tech-media-tainment and One Stop Video are more compelling than those blogs.
But who cares? Practically nobody is reading this anyway.
(T-shirt in above photograph available from Despair Inc.)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Twitter backlash has begun

The feverish media coverage of microblogging service Twitter as the next big thing has prompted the inevitable backlash.
People who don’t feel the need to express themselves in 140-character blurbs online are mocking those who do. While the technorati have flocked like sheep to be a part of the supposed next big thing, many others think they can get along just fine without it.
The same sort of rush to the latest and greatest Web service has occurred before, but few of those services have been big financial successes. Social networking sites, bookmarking services, online video sharing, peer-to-peer music swapping, and virtual worlds, among others, all have had their day in the spotlight.
Media reports have criticized jurors for twittering during trials and congressmen for posting tweets during President Barack Obama’s Feb. 24 address to Congress.
Celebrity Twitter user and actor Ashton Kutcher is looking into making a movie inspired by Twitter, according to Chicago Sun-Times columnist Bill Zwecker. As if “You’ve Got Mail” (1998) wasn’t bad enough. If Twitter were a TV show, it would have jumped the shark by now.
Twitter parodies are showing up on YouTube, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and elsewhere. Check out some examples on sister site One Stop Video.
Isn’t that so American? Build something up and then tear it down.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Twitter me unimpressed

“All day long at school I hear how great Twitter is at this or how wonderful Twitter did that! Twitter, Twitter, Twitter!”

That’s how I feel about microblogging service Twitter. The above quote is from “The Brady Bunch,” except I substituted Twitter for Jan’s older, more popular sister Marcia.
I admit it – I don’t get Twitter. The content seems pretty worthless. It’s mostly a lot of blather.
I’ve been tracking a dozen users of Twitter and reading their posts. I’ve also searched for information and news across the Twitter network. But again, I haven’t found much use for it.
Even the company behind it hasn’t found a business case for the service. It’s a money loser that doesn’t have any revenue. Its backers have been scrambling to find a way to make money on it. (See March 17 New York Times article.)
Twitter has vocal fans and critics.
A coworker says he thinks the service is going to be a huge deal. Just look at the uptake of it, he says. Millions of people are using it, he says. He compared it to the early days of Google, when people questioned why the world needed another Internet search engine.
But search is one of the key uses of the Internet. Posting messages (or “tweets”) of no more than 140 characters each probably isn’t.
While I don’t think Twitter will fizzle like once-hyped virtual worlds such as Second Life, I don’t think it will make it as a standalone business.
I think microblogging will be like e-mail and instant messaging, communications services that were rolled into large Internet offerings from the likes of Microsoft, Yahoo and Google.
I see some valuable uses for Twitter. One is filling the space between e-mail and blog posts for people to stay in touch with their family and friends. (Letting others know when they’re on travel, etc.)
Another is the immediacy of Twitter – posts are instantly searchable. That’s not the case with search engines like Google. Also, since Twitter posts are so short, professional and amateur news-gatherers can get information out much faster than current methods.
But I’m not sure Twitter will be able to capitalize on those uses. Following the dead pioneers business scenario, other services could learn from Twitter’s mistakes and find a business case that works. Other services already are leveraging Twitter’s infrastructure for their own gain, such as stock news service StockTwits.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A notebook computer for AIG millionaires


With unemployment rising, investments and home values falling, and consumer confidence in the dumps, Dell has decided that now is a good time to launch a high-fashion luxury notebook computer.
Dell’s new Adamo notebook starts at $2,000. It’s billed as the world’s thinnest notebook computer at 0.65 inches thick. The 4-pound personal computer is sleek, stylish and being marketed as though it were expensive perfume or a fur coat.
Black-and-white ads feature gaunt runway models in haute couture posing with the laptop as if it were a martini or pricey purse.
I know the perfect market for these new notebook computers – all those Wall Street bankers and insurers who’ve taken millions in taxpayer-funded bailout money to use as bonuses for their poor performance.
The executives at bailed-out insurer American International Group who recently took $165 million in bonuses using federal rescue funds should all buy Adamo by Dell notebooks. It would go nicely with their Apple iPhones running the I Am Rich application.

Web videos need a respected aggregator

The Web is full of entertaining videos, but I usually don’t see them unless someone sends me a link.
The problem is that those interesting videos are hidden like Easter eggs around the Web. You have funny user-generated content and mash-ups on YouTube, original comedy on FunnyOrDie and the Onion News Network, “Saturday Night Live” shorts on Hulu, and other videos scattered elsewhere.
What this situation is crying out for is a respected aggregator, a TV Guide for the Web. I have yet to find a Web site that fits the bill. I would have thought TV Guide or EW.com would have stepped up to do it, but no. Sites are either pushing their own content or are cluttered with a lot of crap videos.
Just for grins, I’ve started a separate Web site on Google’s Blogger to embed some of my favorite videos and provide links to others. The site is called One Stop Video. For now, it’s just an experiment.
A word of caution, however, some of these videos are rated R for language and content. I’ll post ratings for each video.

Monday, March 16, 2009

New iPod Shuffle could be a washout

Last week, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek post about Apple's new iPod Shuffle. I said the company may have designed the music player to be super small in part because owners will easily lose the device and have to buy replacements. (The third-generation iPod Shuffle is less than 2 inches long and less than three-quarters of an inch wide.)
Chicago Sun-Times technology columnist Andy Ihnatko mentioned replacement sales as well in his column Saturday. But he added a wrinkle that I hadn't considered related to fitness buffs. He writes:
I'm certain that Apple will sell a lot of iPod Shuffles. Most of them to the same people. As a teensy invisible little music player that clips onto clothes that people get all sweaty in, the new Shuffle will probably become the most frequently-laundered product in the history of consumer electronics.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Lingerie Football League tries to give it a go


Despite a recession that has hurt established professional sports and fringe sports alike, the Lingerie Football League – one of the most questionable pro sports leagues ever – still has plans to begin play this fall.
The LFL sent out an e-mail the other day announcing that tickets are going on sale Mon. March 16 for five of its 10 teams. (Since Tech-media-tainment covers both fringe sports and pretty women, we’re on the e-mail distribution list.)
If the LFL gets off the ground, I’ll be surprised. After all, its organizers haven’t been able to pull off their main publicity event, the Lingerie Bowl, for two straight years. The Lingerie Bowl was created as a pay-per-view alternative to the Super Bowl halftime show.
LFL tickets cost $8 to $63, but if part of the attraction is looking at pretty ladies, er, athletes, then it makes sense to get close to the field. That makes for a pricey guys’ night out or “man date.”
The Lingerie Football League kicks off Sept. 4 in Chicago. (Actually Hoffman Estates, Ill., a northwest suburb.)

(Photos: Lingerie Football League logo and Chicago Bliss running back Jaime Cloud.)

Netbooks evolving away from target market


I’ve been watching the evolution of netbook computers both as a journalist and as a consumer. I still haven’t seen the perfect netbook for me yet, but I’m hopeful.
Unfortunately the true promise of netbooks – low-cost, ultraportable notebook PCs – seems to be getting away from manufacturers as they continue to blur the lines with full-function notebook PCs.
Palm founder and handheld computing pioneer Jeff Hawkins had the right idea with the ill-fated Foleo. That product was canceled by struggling smart-phone maker Palm just as the company was set to go into production in September 2007.
(Read my interview with Hawkins published Aug. 8, 2008, in Investor’s Business Daily under the headline “In Netbook Category, Palm Founder Reboots.”)
Hawkins got a number of important things right with the Foleo. First, the small, lightweight (2.5 pounds), wireless-enabled notebook had a full-size keyboard and decent sized screen (10 inches). Early netbooks, like Asustek’s Eee PC featured cramped keyboards and tiny displays (7 inches), which made them almost toy-like.
The Foleo also turned on and off instantly, thanks to its use of flash memory and a version of the Linux operating system. Plus, the energy-efficient flash memory gave the Foleo good battery life (up to 5 hours).
The Foleo was the first notebook designed for speedy access to the Internet at wireless hot spots. You could flip it open at Starbucks and instantly write e-mails, browse the Web or craft a blog entry.
Techies knocked the first-generation product for not having a fast enough processor to run video well. They also couldn’t understand why someone would buy a netbook when they could get a full-function notebook PC for about the same price or a little more. (Foleo was expected to sell initially for $499.)
Bloggers and tech columnists who harshly criticized the Foleo and predicted its demise crowed when Palm caved. But they missed the point – the Foleo was never meant to be a replacement for a full-function notebook. Those same critics were blind-sided by the success of the Eee PC and other netbooks.
The technorati care about cutting-edge technology, while mainstream consumers want simple products that fill a need in their lives. The techies just didn’t get the netbook category.
What makes the netbook category attractive to consumers is the idea of an ultraportable notebook PC costing $300 to $500. Before netbooks, you’d have to pay more than $1,000 for a compact notebook from Sony or Fujitsu.
The netbook category has evolved rapidly in just over a year since Asus introduced the first one in late 2007. Traditional PC makers like Acer, Dell, HP and Lenovo have since jumped into the market, as have Intel and Microsoft.
(See my article, “Netbooks, Notebooks: Categories Merging,” from the March 2 issue of IBD.)
Early netbooks used the Linux operating system, but today most netbooks ship with Microsoft’s Windows XP. The hardware specs are moving upstream too. New netbooks are shipping with bigger screens (9 to 10 inches) and even features like webcams, touchscreens, TV tuners and GPS receivers. They’re also coming with 120 to 160 gigabyte hard disk drives rather than solid state memory.
The larger screen sizes and accompanying full-size keyboards are welcome. But adding traditional PC features will raise the price for netbooks, slow them down and eat into battery life.
Market research firms Gartner and IDC are calling netbooks “mini-notebooks” now because they are evolving to be low-end notebook PCs and not so much their own category any more.
What I want from a netbook is a “notebook lite.” I want something that’s lightweight and affordable and does a few things really well – Web browsing, e-mail and word processing. It should have the ability to at least read Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint slides and PDFs. It should use solid state memory, which is faster, more reliable and uses less power. It also needs a 10-inch or larger screen and have a full-size keyboard.
Oh, and it should cost less than $500.
Is that asking too much?

(Top photo: Acer’s Aspire One AOD150 netbooks, which debuted in February, have 10.1-inch screens and start at $350. Bottom photo: Palm’s Jeff Hawkins with the Foleo subnotebook at its May 2007 debut.)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Apple's brilliant iPod replacement sales strategy


I have a theory as to why Apple is making its iPod Shuffle music players so teeny-tiny.
The smaller they get the easier they are to lose. That could spur replacement purchases.
With the new iPod Shuffle now smaller than a AA battery, it could easily get lost under a car seat or in the bowels of a sofa or disappear in the grass.
Steve Jobs, you’re brilliant. I can’t wait for my iPod Invisa. ("SNL" skit reference. Photo above. Please see story in Investor’s Business Daily for further explanation.) But maybe you should include a built-in tracking device next time.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Chicago cops should lay off the hookers


The sheriff of Cook County, Ill., which includes Chicago, recently got a lot of press for announcing plans to sue Craigslist for allegedly being a major source of prostitution.
With Chicago a contender for murder capital of the nation, it’s amazing that our cops are wasting their time trying to make a dent in the “world’s oldest profession.” Gang violence, street robberies, burglaries, fraud and other crimes should be much more pressing concerns.
Prostitution is not a crime that makes people afraid to walk the streets at night. I happen to believe that prostitution should be legalized, regulated and taxed. No amount of enforcement is going to stop it.
The benefits of regulating prostitution include controlling the spread of HIV, protecting women who choose this line of work from violence, getting help for women with drug abuse problems, and getting tax revenue from an underground-economy business.
However distasteful to many Americans, prostitution is something that’s always going to be here. Right now, it’s hiding in plain sight in massage parlors and ads for escorts. A look at Craigslist’s “erotic services” section makes it pretty clear there is more going on than private dancers and platonic dates for hire.
Craigslist, the Web’s biggest publication of classified advertisements, promised in November to begin cracking down on ads for prostitution after coming under fire by several state attorneys general.
As it should, the San Francisco-based company says it’s working with law enforcement agencies to combat human trafficking and child exploitation on its site. Both serious crimes.
Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart’s move to sue Craigslist is a misuse of taxpayer money. Cook County has the highest sales tax rate in the country, thanks in part to threats of layoffs at the sheriff’s department that could affect public safety. Surely, those cops can put that money to better use.
Cook County last year doubled its county sales tax to 1.75%, which raised the overall sales tax in Chicago to 10.25%. The rates in New York and Los Angeles are below 8.5%.
In January, Cook County sheriff’s police lured to Chicago a 37-year-old Las Vegas woman advertising escort services and arrested her for prostitution. They scored big headlines because they said the woman, Charlie Sunn (pictured above), was charging $500-an-hour, the most they’d seen in two years of stings.
I consider myself something of a pragmatic libertarian. I believe that government should be fiscally conservative and focus on the things that matter most. It also should stay out of people’s personal lives as much as possible and leave the moral issues for religion.

Updates: Newspaper woes, DTV transition


More newspaper industry bad news

My timing was pretty good for my latest post about newspaper job cuts.
McClatchy Co., publisher of the Sacramento Bee and Miami Herald, said Monday it plans to cut 1,600 jobs, or 15% of its workforce. The job cuts are part of a bigger plan to reduce costs, including slashing executive pay and eliminating the company dividend.
McClatchy runs about 80 daily and non-daily newspapers.

Americans getting message about digital TV switch

The percentage of U.S. households totally unprepared for the transition to digital television dropped to 3.9% as of March 1. That compares with 6.8% in December, according to measuring service Nielsen.
People are finally getting the message that broadcasters are shutting off analog signals and households using antennas to get programming for their analog TVs need to do something. At the very least, those households need to buy digital converter boxes. They also can get ready by buying a new DTV set or subscribe to cable, satellite or telco television services.
All full-power U.S. broadcast television stations will switch to digital-only signals by June 12. Many broadcasters were allowed to switch over on Feb. 17, the original deadline, which was extended when President Obama and Congress balked.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

News media decline creates cottage industry




The troubles of the newspaper industry and journalism trade overall have created a cottage industry for Web sites that track their decline.
The Web site Paper Cuts tracks U.S. newspaper closings and job cuts. It counts 56 newspapers that have closed so far this year. That’s on top of 40 that closed last year.
Paper Cuts also counts more than 3,555 newspaper jobs lost this year to date, which is on pace to beat last year’s total of 15,333-plus job cuts.
Another Web site is Newspaper Death Watch. As you’d expect the postings are mostly gloom and doom for the newspaper industry.
It also evaluates some of the solutions proposed for rescuing the industry, including subscriptions for online content, charging for premium content, turning newspapers into non-profits, government subsidies, and bundling with cable service.
A Twitter site called The Media Is Dying provides quick updates on layoffs, closures and rumors.
The Web site Magazine Death Pool tracks the demise of magazines. It’s reported on the recent deaths of Movieline’s Hollywood Life, The American, Computer Shopper and Hallmark Magazine. It’s also put slick business magazine, Portfolio, on death watch. Noting a 60% drop in ad pages in the first quarter alone, the site calls the publication “Conde Nast’s charity case.”
Magazine Death Pool also reports that more than 525 U.S. magazines folded last year. This year, as of mid-February, 40 have closed.
Newspapers and magazines have been hit hard by the recession, but other industries are suffering as much or more. There are a host of Web sites that track closures and job cuts in vertical markets, such as retail (Timely Demise), law firms (American Lawyer’s The Layoff List), and tech companies (FuckedStartups and Screwdd).
Another Web site, It Died, tracks not only shuttered tech firms, but also Web services that have been discontinued.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

TV tune-out week a good time to reassess what shows are worth watching; Goodbye, 'Heroes'


For 15 years, the Winnetka Alliance for Early Childhood in Winnetka, Ill., has sponsored a TV Tune Out Week in February or March. The group encourages families with young children to turn off their television sets for seven days and engage in alternative activities in the village and neighboring communities.
This year’s TV Tune Out Week concludes today.
While my household isn’t participating in the program (my 3-year-old daughter is a holy terror when she can’t watch Disney’s “Cinderella,” “Tinker Bell” and the like), I do like the idea of it.
My version of the program would be “TV Cut-Back Week” instead. Hey, with digital video recorders like TiVo and Comcast DVR boxes, there’s not much sacrifice any more with TV tune-out weeks. You just record your shows during tune-out week and watch them the next week. It’s sort of like binging after Lent.
Anyway, TV Cut-Back Week is a great time to look at what shows you’re recording on your DVR and deleting the weakest ones. My Comcast DVR is getting pretty crammed. So, I’m going to cut loose some of the shows that aren’t grabbing me anymore.
“Heroes,” that means you.
Season 1 of the NBC show about ordinary people who find themselves with superhero powers was a lot of fun. At the end of season 1, “Heroes” had momentum. The story possibilities were exciting.
Season 2 had promise with a new big bad villain, but the plot meandered and the show lost its way. I was an apologist for the season at first, but ended up agreeing with the critics.
With Season 3, the producers tried retooling the show even more and it’s now a complete mess. “Heroes” is basically unsalvageable at this point. That’s too bad because it showed such potential.
March 27, 2009, update: In order to clear out my crowded DVR, I also have quit watching “24,” “The Office,” “Beast” and “The Whitest Kids You Know.” Good shows, but not worth my time.

Friday, March 6, 2009

What you can learn from in-flight gift catalogs



The staff of Tech-media-tainment returned from a five-day vacation to Playa del Carmen, Mexico, on Thursday, hence the lack of posts on TMT.
On the flight back to Chicago from Cancun, after finishing a stack of magazines, I flipped through United Airlines’ early spring 2009 SkyMall gift catalog. Here are a few things I observed about the gadgets, household problem solvers and other products for sale:


There’s no shortage of overpriced gizmos from the likes of Brookstone and Hammacher Schlemmer. And Sharper Image founder Richard Thalheimer is back with another company to peddle electronic gadgets now that the Sharper Image retail chain has gone bankrupt.
Thalheimer’s new company is RichardSolo. The products it carries aren’t much different from those sold by the Sharper Image, such as nose and ear hair trimmers. He devotes a full page to a pocket-size backup battery for Apple iPhone or RIM BlackBerry phones. It also features a built-in laser pointer and LED flashlight. Price: $69.95.
Or how about three flameless candles with a remote control for $49.95. They use energy-efficient LED lights. Perfect for the “player” who wants to set the right romantic mood lighting.


People like to pamper their pets.
You can buy steps for your tired, old pooch who needs help getting up on the couch or bed ($39.99) or a ramp for Fido to get into the car for $119.
The catalog also touts cabinets that hide kitty litter boxes inside a “handsome piece of furniture” for $99.95 or a decorative potted plant for $129.95.
My favorite is the pet doorbell set. “Train your pet not to scratch at the door! Pets simply push the Pet Paw to tell you when they need to come in or go out!” Yeah, right. Price: $69.95.


Then there’s a category of products that offer solutions for problems you didn’t know you had.
How about a self-propelled pool float for $159.99? Apparently it’s too much work for some people to paddle with their hands. They need a floating lounge with motorized propellers controlled by joysticks on the armrests.
Even better, how about a radio-controlled, motorized snack float that brings food and drinks to you for $49.99? “No need to paddle around or get out of the water for a cold drink or snack – make ’em come to you!”
I like the electronic feng shui compass for $399.99. The gadget supposedly “locates and calculates energy fields” so you can position furnishings in your home to provide positive energy for family and friends.


Spy technology is going mainstream.
On sale in the SkyMall catalog were a wireless stealth DVR camera that can record up to 45 days of high-quality digital video on a 2 GB SD card for $274.99 and an all-in-one, four camera video security system with night vision for $1,499.99.
You can also get a pen that discreetly records video and audio on 2 GB of internal memory for $149.99. A cheaper spy pen sells for $99.99 in the same catalog.


Apparently there are a lot of germaphobes out there.
Several manufacturers are selling toothbrush sanitizers that use ultraviolet light to kill germs. “A single toothbrush can harbor millions of microorganisms, including those that carry colds and flu,” says one ad for a $39.99 device. Probably only a real concern if you share toothbrushes, I say.
Or how about disposable, antibacterial-infused covers for remote controls? “A recent study of germs in hotel rooms found that germs abound, and television remotes rarely get wiped down, let alone disinfected,” the product description says. The remote control covers cost $39.99 for a 15-pack and $49.99 for a 25-pack. My suggestion: buy a cheap pack of disposable antibacterial wipes if you’re worried about that sort of thing.
But wait there’s more. The catalog advertises a touch-less paper towel dispenser as helping to prevent the spread of germs. Just wave your hand in front of the sensor and one sheet automatically dispenses. Only $59.99, not including paper towels or the required four D batteries.
On the high-end, there’s a UV disinfection scanner for $79.99. It’s a wand that you wave over hotel beds and carpet to kill dust mites, lice, flea eggs and germs. “Stop the spread of infectious diseases – from the common cold and flu viruses to deadly E. coli and Asian bird flu,” it says. You supply your own light saber sound effects.


Phoenix-based SkyMall is owned by N.Y.-based private equity fund Spire Capital Partners and the Greenspun Corp.
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