Jobs keynote: Customizable iPhone screen–big whoop

Instead of unveiling the next iPhone, Apple CEO Jobs used his MacWorld pulpit to tout new iPhone features, none of which are that earth-shattering and many of which, agruably, should have been included in the initial iPhone launch.

1) SMS: Sending messages to multiple recipients. Come on….

2) Location: The iPhone has no GPS, but it can use the mobile network to triangulate a user’s approximate position. Nifty. Apple, however, announced this capability months ago for the Java and OS versions of Google Maps. Nothing new here.

3) Lyrics Support: As Telephony Senior Editor Ed Gubbins said “So it can be like a portable, handheld karaoke [device]? My God, it is a great time to be alive…”

4) Customizable Interface: Here’s the big one if you can call it big. You can move the iPhone icons around by “shaking” the device, bringing your content to the forefront and maximizing applications you use most. Nifty, but again not earth-shattering.

Looks like there’s no new iPhone on the plate today, but we’ll see what else Jobs has in store.

Apple expectations

The Apple store is officially down for maintenance. That can only mean one thing: CEO Steve Jobs keynote, beginning as I type, will reveal new Apple products. The question is, will we just see a batch of new iPods or is today the fateful day Apple releases the 3G iPhone? The iPhone isn’t the only anticipated wireless product. Rumors have been circulating that Apple will release laptops embedded with WiMAX chips, a move that could be of massive significance to Sprint and Clearwire. Updates to come.

CES: Intel and Moto’s WiMAX ride

When I climbed into the SUV in the Las Vegas Convention Center parking lot, Motorola Networks CTO Dan Coombes asked, “Got your laptop? Well, pop it open.” Moto and Intel had set up a demo WiMAX network around the convention center and Las Vegas strip, and they aimed to show it off. But instead of passively watching the typical demo, they invited me to try to push the networks to its limits while they carted me around the city. I love a challenge.

To set up some context, Motorola and Intel were taking a bit of a risk of here. We all know the rules of demos. Half the time they don’t work. Wireless demos are particularly cantankerous–which usually explains the Ethernet cord that snakes out from under the counter. So, to do a live demo in a moving vehicle during rush hour traffic in one of the most congested areas of the U.S. took some chutzpah.

Motorola and Intel have done this kind of thing before. In Chicago at WiMAX World, Motorola rented out a tourist boat and cruised it up and down the Chicago river, running two dozen WiMAX devices at full tilt in the process. There, however, they had a base station every quarter to half mile, each pointing directly at the wide-open murky expanse of the river. There was no way that setup wasn’t going to deliver. In Vegas, though, the situation was a bit more tenuous. Moto decided to set up a temporary network using Clearwire spectrum six weeks before the Consumer Electronics Show, and according to Coombes, they had to rig an awful lot of stuff together at the last moment.

The access points were installed about a mile apart in rough circle around the convention center. There are no 25-story casinos sticking out of the Chicago river, so in Vegas Moto and Intel had to show that MIMO really works. The modem that Moto used was its newly announced MIMO home gateway, a device that really isn’t supposed to be moving around at 40 MPH leaping from sector to sector, Coombes explained. To get it to work, Coombes’ engineers yanked off the MIMO antennas, and taped on two large plastic flanges that looked as if they had been just cut off the Venetian blinds in his hotel room. This contraption along with a Wi-Fi router was mounted behind the backseat, while the rest of the car was packed to the gills with Intel-powered gadgetry all connected to the WiMAX modem through Ethernet cables and Wi-Fi.

My hosts warned there would be dead spots, and dead spots there were. As we passed under the towering steel curtain of the Wynn Hotel–where we stayed trapped for 10 minutes–in gridlock traffic, the Internet radio stream cut off, the onboard navigation system stopped remapping and everyone’s browsers popped up error screens. Meanwhile the WiMAX modem went haywire desparately searching for a signal. But after passing out from under the Wynn’s shadow–and quick reboot of the modem–the network worked impressively.

Admittedly we were one of the only three cars on the network so capacity wasn’t much of an issue, but I did my damndest to overtax the bugger. I simultaneously played YouTube videos on my Wi-Fi enabled phone, previewing songs from the iTunes store on an iPod touch, and downloading the biggest honking files I could find on my laptop. Meanwhile the Internet radio was blaring, the in-car navigator was chirping away and live video feeds from the other vehicles were streaming over a peer-to-peer connection on another computer (Coombes, who I suspect was a bit bored after a full day of reliving same demo, was also checking his e-mail via Outlook). And during all this IP commotion, I managed to navigate my way TelephonyOnline.com without the slightest hiccup.

I figured it was time for a real test, though. YouTube is for bandwidth-challenged sissies. Could the network handle a DVD-quality stream of a feature-length movie? So I went to Netflix’s movie-on-demand page and selected a good three-and-a-half hour long movie for our in-car enjoyment. This may have been a little more than I bargained for. My computer didn’t have the proper software, so Netflix began downloading all 25 MBs of Windows Media Player 11, updated my codecs and made me restart my computer. But as we pulled in to the parking lot of convention center, the opening credits of Les Miserables began playing full-screen on my computer. I admit, I was impressed.

Juniper loses its COO

At first glance, analysts do not appear to be too dismayed by the news of Juniper Networks’ chief operations officer resigning without a replacement. In a research note this morning, UBS Investment Research analyst Nikos Theodosopoulos called the announcement a definite negative for Juniper but said the router vendor’s strong fundamentals would outweigh any effect of Stephen Elop’s departure in coming months.

Elop, who joined Juniper as COO (a post created for him) only a year ago this month, was crucial to the router vendor as it conducted a sweeping internal overhaul. The man himself described some of those efforts to me in an interview last fall. In that sort of reorganization, it’s especially helpful to have an outsider at the helm to see things with a fresh pair of eyes. If Juniper is now on the tail end of those efforts, Elop’s importance may be ebbing anyway.

For day-to-day operations, I have posed the question before: Who needs a COO? Some studies have even suggested that CEOs with COOs perform worse because they rely on the COOs more.

In any case, if Juniper wants to maintain the position, Theodosopoulos had an interesting piece of advice in this morning’s note.

“Juniper may need to provide a path to CEO for the new COO in order to get a high-caliber candidate like Elop,” he wrote. “Juniper has had two COOs in the past, and both left the company within two years of starting.”

Juniper’s CEO for more than 11 years, quinquagenarian Scott Kriens, gives the impression he plans to stick around a while. If Juniper wants to lure a top-shelf, hard-working, ambitious COO, the company must realize that, to such a person, being COO won’t always be enough.

CES: Entering the point-and-click paradigm

I have a remote for my television set, DVD player, audio system and even one left over from the VCR days. As a result of my plethora of remotes, it often takes a good ten minutes and a lot of frustration to navigate between all the entertainment options. For this reason, I was especially excited to hear about software developer Hillcrest Laboratories’ news this week.

In conjunction with CES, Hillcrest announced it has secured an additional $25 million round of funding, led by new investor AllianceBernstein. Hillcrest said it will use the funds to further extend its pointer-based application creation platform and pointing technology to devices that control and display digital media.

As a start-up company seven years ago, Hillcrest has been in the development and innovation stages for the better part of its existence. Now as high-definition TV sets with higher resolutions improve the picture quality, encourage interactivity and new applications, 2008 is poised to be Hillcrest’s year to make it big.

In the fall, I spoke with Danny Briere, CEO of TeleChoice, who told me that Hillcrest is historically a favorite company of the analyst firm’s to follow because of the “insanely cool stuff” it develops. Specifically, he was referring to its sleek new air mouse that uses soft buttons on the TV set and an interface users navigate similar to the PC. Since insanely cool technologies are what CES is all about, I had to check it out for myself. Having done so, I wasn’t disappointed.

According to CEO Dan Simpkins, Hillcrest’s vision is to bring a new “‘point-and-click’ paradigm to the television and beyond” through its pointing technology, Freespace, which can be used in remote controls, PC mice, and game controllers. Parag Sheth, vice president of corporate marketing for Hillcrest, said that the traditional 100-button remote control will become a thing of the past as consumers want new ways to interact with all the content exploding today.

Hillcrest, which licenses its technology business to business to consumer electronic companies and service providers, is emphasizing two main differentiators in its pointer devices: efficiency of interaction – users can point anywhere on the screen without having to scroll, search or even aim at a particular point on the screen – and scalability of the presentation as users get access to hundreds of movie titles, their personal content, Internet services, games and traditional TV through spatial, contextual navigation.

The remotes are reminiscent of Nintendo’s Wii game-changing controllers that also require simply pointing and clicking. Sheth said that Hillcrest’s designs have some distinct advantages over the Wii, namely its Adaptive Tremor Removal. The technology gets rid of the natural tremor in user’s hand to allow for accuracy in pointing. Furthermore, it doesn’t require the level of activity that the Wii encourages. The devices works whether consumers hold the device upside as they lie on the couch, sideways or even if they are grabbing a drink in the other room. Using wireless RF technology, it doesn’t even have to be pointed at the TV set, STB or wherever the service provider opts to embed the software.

Steth said that we can expect service providers to begin marketing the technology in the summer of ‘08, and the company hopes to announce customers in the first half of the year. I, for one, am excited to see the industry reaction to this decidedly insanely cool new product.

CES: Yahoo delivers on wow factor

As much anticipated keynotes for CES, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates and Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang had a lot of pressure to deliver a cool new technology CES regulars have come to expect. While attendees lined up four hours early for Gates’ speech and only trickled in 30 minutes before Yang’s, Yahoo was the clear-cut winner in terms of delivering on a wow factor. It’s a small step for Yahoo, which has the likes of Google to compete with. Rumors that Microsoft itself may be plotting to acquire the Internet company still quietly circulate as well.

Gates’ demo, concluding his speech, was essentially a GPS handheld-looking device – not a cell phone or gaming console by any means – more so a large block. The apparatus will be used to identify people and places and bring up background information, menus, directions, histories, advertisements, etc. To illustrate, Gates used a photo of himself to access pictures and clips from his last eight CES keynotes.

Although Microsoft’s technology was cool as usual, Yahoo’s Yang outdid Gates by debuting a concept demo for a mailbox homepage that took the recognition capabilities of Microsoft’s block to the Web. Yang plans to morph Yahoo mail into a universal mailbox that includes emails, voicemails, instant messages and messages from any third-party network a user is in, such as LinkedIn or MySpace. The mail service will allow users to simplify their mailboxes by creating a hierarchy of importance amongst the user’s contacts, as well as show updates that any contact may provide to Yahoo.

Yang, along with Marco Boerries, Yahoo’s senior vice president of Connected Life, also demonstrated other third-party applications that could be built into Yahoo’s navigation bar including evite.com, MTV or Flickr – sites users may frequent or ones their friends and connections recommend they use. Those in the Flickr community can create a tag map – a collective showcase of what the world finds interesting, as Yang described it. From the Yahoo mail page, subscribers can see a location a Flickr user has recommended, along with pictures and more information that they choose to upload.

In an equally intriguing example, Yang used the interface to go from an email regarding dinner plans out to profiles of those emailed, their dinner preferences and availability. Through evite, the party planner can narrow down a restaurant from a list of recommended ones that match the participants’ tastes, view the menu, get directions and send an invite to everyone’s mobile, PC or TV – all with a few drags of the mouse.

Granted, it’s a lot more impressive to be shown rather than told, but essentially, any information users choose to share with Yahoo can be turned into a personalized, potentially very useful collaborative experience. The site really combines the coolest aspects of social networking and content sharing and has the potential to make Google take notice. Naturally, neither Gates nor Yang would commit to a launch date, but it will be interesting to follow the companies as the technologies come to fruition.

Buying on the rumor

“Buy on the rumor, sell on the news.” So goes the old Wall Street saying, and so go investors, in large numbers. One of the problems with that notion, of course, is that it encourages rumors in all sorts of unhelpful ways. Take for example the story of Carrier Access, an equipment vendor that put itself up for sale last summer and was acquired by another vendor, Turin Networks, in December.

In early August, just days after Carrier Access announced it was seeking strategic alternatives, a news story in one prominent online publication, citing anonymous sources, claimed Tellabs was “close to acquiring” Carrier Access for nearly $7 per share, having been in discussions on the subject “for a while.” According to information filed only recently by Carrier Access, the company had had discussions with numerous potential suitors in the months during which it was seeking strategic alternatives, but in all that time, it had received (or in one case, sent) non-binding “indications of interest” from only four companies: Turin Networks, a private equity fund, a small-cap public company and a company that is publicly traded outside the United States. None of those sound like Tellabs to me. With a market cap above $2.6 billion, it’s a bit of a stretch to call Tellabs “small cap,” since the term usually refers to companies with market caps between $250 million and $2 billion. But even if it was, the small-cap company in question didn’t send Carrier Access a letter of interest until November 15, 2007. And even in mid-November, Carrier Access said, the small-cap company had not yet begun due diligence on its would-be target.

So how could Tellabs have been “close to acquiring” Carrier Access back in early August? I’m not sure.

At the end of September, the same online publication wrote again of the supposedly imminent Tellabs deal, claiming, “One source says the board was set to vote on a number of proposals [this week], with Tellabs being the front-runner.” The board did meet that week to discuss potential deals, but again, at that point, Carrier Access hadn’t received a formal offer (even a non-binding one) from any company matching Tellabs’ description, so being “the front-runner” seems doubtful, to say the least. According to Carrier Access, the board decided at that meeting to send its own letter of interest to the non-U.S. publicly held bidder, to express an interest in acquiring it in an all-stock transaction, while continuing discussions with the other three parties. (According to the filing, that non-U.S. firm wanted to execute a reverse-merger, in which Carrier Access would technically acquire it but end up owning the minority of the combined company, so that the resulting company would trade on the NASDAQ.) Carrier Access sent that letter on October 1, 2007 and spoke with management at the non-U.S. company shortly thereafter, continuing discussions with the other bidders.

Meanwhile, the vendor’s joint product partnership with Tellabs–perhaps the main justification for a Tellabs acquisition–had dissolved.

In early November, the aforementioned online publication claimed Carrier Access was getting acquisition offers “in the $5 to $6 range,” again citing anonymous sources. That would be interesting if true, since the company agreed to be acquired for $2.75 per share later that month.

I’ll leave it to others to speculate as to the motives of those anonymous sources or how their assertions came to be reported as truth. I’ll simply say: Don’t believe everything you read. And don’t buy on the rumor.

CES: After keynote No. 9, Gates calls it quits

Bill Gates CES 2008LAS VEGAS – Yep, after delivering the keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show eight times since 1994, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates is giving up his annual role as technology seer for a life focused on his charitable foundation. If you hadn’t heard, Bill Gates is retiring from Microsoft, and he’s going out with a little humor. At CES he spoofed his rather eccentric and geeky personality with a video in which he called everyone from Bono to Hillary Clinton looking for some activity to occupy his time (to see the keynote Webcast see Microsoft’s Press Pass page).

Starting next year, we’ll have to listen to someone else’s vision of technology at CES. Maybe it’s blasphemous to say, but I think it’s for the best. Gates and Microsoft haven’t exactly been on the cutting edge of innovation of late. The company sells an awful lot of software, but the average person on the street stopped getting excited about the newest release of Windows in about 1995.

Frankly the most spectacular jumps in consumer electronics in recent years have not come from Microsoft. Apple gave us the portable digital music player. Microsoft gave us the Xbox, but only after Sony and Nintendo turned the game console into a massive global market. And in a technology closer to home, Microsoft’s probing into the mobile space has been mediocre at best–Palm invented the smartphone, while RIM and Apple perfected it for the enterprise and the consumer, respectively.

Sound like I’m Microsoft bashing? Perhaps I am a bit. But I’m not criticizing the company or its business model. It makes great products (well, some are greater than others) that people buy by the boatload. But it’s been quite some time since Microsoft came up with the next big thing. Just look at what Gates and Microsoft cohorts preached from the CES pulpit: social media, home networking, even video sharing. It looks neato, but it’s hardly a new gospel. We’ve been seeing the same stuff presented at conferences for years.

Maybe that’s the value of Gates’ keynotes. Just as Microsoft’s software might allow it to turn a cutting-edge innovation into a mass-market phenomenom, maybe Gates’ keynotes validate those innovations to the industry at large. If you saw Bill talk it up at CES, then you know the technology has legs. But maybe it’s time the keynote was delivered by a true visionary in the technology world instead of the industry’s most successful reactionary.

Keep tuned to Unfiltered this week. Associate Editor Sarah Reedy and I will be making daily updates to the blog.

Netflix heats up video competition

The Netflix-LG announcement today is just one more sign of what’s coming in the video competition wars. As we head into CES, we can expect a lot more news of this type. Netflix is planning to stream movies directly into LG High-Definition television sets, bypassing any existing service providers with its video content, which includes thousands of movies and TV titles.

While telcos are moving as fast as they can — note the qualification there — to deliver video services, the current sellers of video content are going to stand still and watch their market disappear. Just as AT&T will try to exploit IPTV to make its U-verse service all-encompassing, consumer electronics makers and content distributors will capitalize on the ubiquity of the Internet to extend their reach as well.

The result is likely to be a much more fragmented video entertainment market than already exists today. Cable companies and telephone companies won’t be able to take for granted the appeal of their video-on-demand services, and they are going to have to work harder to sell all the extras and add-ons that many of them are developing now.

Services like the ones Netflix and LG are promising to offer will have greater appeal to a younger audience that glommed onto Netflix first and is already doing much of its video viewing over the Internet. Telcos and cablecos will have to work harder to convince the members of this crowd that they want to pay a major monthly fee and sign two-year contracts for services.

Verizon aims for Star Power with Guitar Hero III

The holidays were good to Guitar Hero addicts who also happen to be Verizon Wireless customers. The wireless service provider, along with mobile entertainment company Hands-On Mobile, last week announced the exclusive availability of Activision’s Guitar Hero III mobile game for Verizon customers.

The game, available on any Get It Now-capable Verizon handset, features four guitars and three venues, requiring players to hit number keys in sync with colored notes that appear on a scrolling fret board. GHIII will cost subscribers about $5 for monthly access or $12 for unlimited use. At launch, the mobile game included 15 tracks from the Guitar Hero console series, with the ability to purchase more songs made available each month.

Let’s be honest, the small screen of a mobile handset looks nothing like a plastic guitar equipped with notes and a strum key. However, for a device you can play practically anywhere, users will most likely be forgiving. GHIII-ready Verizon handsets vary in keyboard usability and screen size and quality, so the game does as well, but all come equipped with three fret keys (rather than the five on the console), a rock meter, multiplier and, of course, Star Power.

Admittedly, I can’t even pass the easy setting for the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “Suck My Kiss” on the console (although I did complete a song on the LG Chocolate without hearing the eminent boos!), so I enlisted two seasoned GHIII pros to test the Verizon service out. Both were impressed with the display and audio quality, but had trouble with the small frets and crowded keyboard. As to be expected, the graphics were also not “stunning” as Verizon has claimed, and the download speed is somewhat slow. A claim Verizon was dead on with, however, was that the game is addictive – a trait GHIII gamer have come to accept and appreciate.

The $12 price point for only 15 songs may turn away some avid gamers, but I suspect a large GHIII customer segment – the young users who don’t pay their own cell phone bills – won’t mind the fees. After all, despite the understandably slow download speed, the game is as easy to access as a new ringtone.

It is no wonder that Verizon wants to get in on a part of the industry that multiple analysts have touted as the next billion dollar market. It isn’t the first, however. Tap Tap Revolution, a mobile adaptation of the popular Dance Dance Revolution, is already available to Apple’s iPhone users as a native app downloadable using Installer.app or iBrickr. Users keep their taps in sync with the song playing by tapping the touchscreen to beat when the lights hit a bottom line. New songs can be downloaded over the phone’s Wi-Fi connection.

So, now that we can dance and rock out on our phones, I am confident more games are to come. Perhaps Madden for your mobile? I say bring it on. This is what opposable thumbs and dexterity are really for, right?

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