Today we looked at the man behind the first joystick, and from that launching point it's a good time to talk about everything that came thereafter. While most of us are familiar with gamepads starting with the Atari or NES and going from there, it's hard to wrap your mind around all the gaming controllers that have been released since. From the gimmicky to the surreal, if you can dream it, someone has done it. Some of the more popular modern games are played with dance mats or guitar controllers, but who really wants to control a game with a big finger that you stab into an arcade cabinet with a model of someone's behind? I'm convinced that game was only invented so we have an easy joke when we talk about game controllers.
1up.com has a look at some of the more "out there" controllers. Some I've used, some I've avoided, and others I've never heard of. A lot of these things just didn't work; ideas always move faster than technology, but unfortunately that rarely keeps companies from selling products anyway. I'm not going to be quite as hard on these guys as 1up was, I think it's important to note that it takes a lot of failures before we get something like a Guitar Hero controller or a DDR Pad. Of course, the Guitar Hero controller is a ripoff of the Guitar Freaks controller, and the DDR Pad is really just a Power Pad with different colors, so maybe there are just a few ideas out there and we keep repeating them.
I do think it's odd that they completely ignore rhythm games, since that's a genre that's always begging for custom controllers. From the Donkey Konga Bongos to the Beatmania controller to the aforementioned Dance Dance Revolution pads, most rhythm games have their own controller. Luckily most of these games are solid and avoid the gimmickry associated with the sillier controllers, so they're not as fun to read about. This article really makes me want to track me down some Samba De Amigo controllers.
To an extent, there are two schools of thought about how to go about screening for a new drug. One could be called the "Intelligent Design" method: choose a target, study its structure and biochemistry, and then design a drug that specifically interferes with it. In this case, much of the work goes into understanding the system. The second, called "High Throughput Screening," takes a more evolutionary approach. All you need in this case is a test tube version of the process you want to affect. You search for drugs simply by dumping every chemical you can get your hands on into the test tube and looking for those that inhibit the process. Once an effective compound is identified, variations of it are synthesized and tested in turn.
Although less targeted, high throughput screening has some advantages. You don't need a complete understanding of the process you're trying to alter in order to test compounds, meaning it will work with complex and poorly understood disease targets. Malaria ranks pretty high up on the scale of complex and poorly understood diseases, and a reader was kind enough to point me to an article that describes a screen of compounds for the ability to inhibit the growth of drug resistant strains of the malarial parasite. The technique also took advantage of a different aspect of high throughput screening: the majority of the drugs they tested have already been approved by the FDA, meaning they've passed rigorous safety screening, and would be relatively inexpensive to bring to market for a new use.
Nearly 200 drugs were identified that reduced parasite cell division by over 50 percent. The authors focused in on an antihistamine called astemizole, which can be ingested orally. Testing in mice showed that it knocked down the load of the malarial parasite by about 80 percent. The drug itself is no longer on the market in most of the developed world, since alternatives with fewer side effects are available. As the patent on the compound has expired, however, it is being sold in over-the-counter form in the developing world. The authors also note that, as a successful drug, hundreds of variants on it have already been synthesized, and may be worth testing for enhanced anti-malarial activity.
The work was done at Johns Hopkins, and there's an interesting coda in the final paragraph that shows that this promising work may not be the last high throughput screen to use this panel of drugs:
Currently, the JHCCL is undergoing expansion to include every available drug ever used in the clinic via phase 2 clinical trials or approval by the FDA or its foreign counterparts. When complete, the JHCCL will be available to any researcher interested in screening for existing drugs that may be useful as economically viable new therapies for diseases of the developing world.
Hopefully, this won't be the last time we report on screens using this panel of drugs.
Nothing says “we’re not a faceless corporation” like a corporate blog—unless that blog is launched by Dell and features product announcements and tours of the “Enterprise Command Center.”
After opening its new blog to the public last week (Name: one2one, Tag: “Direct conversations with Dell”), it didn’t take long for Dell to come in for a blogosphere tongue-lashing. Jeff Jarvis complained that “Dell isn’t listening. And listening, once more, is the first step in blogging.” Steve Rubel made the same critique, telling Dell to “Join us. Be real. Walk the talk.”
It didn’t take long for the complaints to get Dell’s attention. One2one’s newest post, put up only this morning, is headed “Real People are Here and We’re Listening.” To prove it, Lionel Menchaca, Digital Media Manager at the company, went on to provide links to the blog’s critics and said that Dell really, truly, actually wants to join the conversation. “We’re excited to be here,” Menchaca said, “and we welcome your ideas.”
Dell’s week-old experiment in corporate blogging illustrates the difficulties faced by companies who make the decision to engage in a public discussion of their products and their problems. There’s obviously a fine line to walk here between being open to talk about corporate weaknesses and driving away potential business, but one2one shows that the blogosphere has no time for corporations who simply want to use a blog as another PR outlet. To its credit, Dell seems to want more than this for the new site.
The question is whether a corporate blog can ever be more than a marketing site. At some level, such blogs unavoidably become marketing tools—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If a company tries to make itself look better by listening to and interacting with customers, that’s the kind of marketing and PR push that we in the Orbiting HQ would like to see more often.
It usually works best when not pitched as an “official corporate blog,” and Microsoft has done a decent job of this with their MSDN blogs, which actively solicit developer feedback. Well-crafted blogs can humanize an organization, but they can also provide valuable, direct feedback from customers to developers and engineers. If done right, corporate blogs can help both the customers and the company. When treated as a traditional PR vehicle, nobody wins.
It was almost two years ago to the day that we reported on Internet Explorer’s first-ever drop in browser market share. At the time, IE usage had dropped from 94.8 percent at the beginning of 2004 to 93.9 percent a few months later. As Firefox approached the big 1.0 milestone, its market share continued to soar, and it passed the 10 percent barrier in October 2005.
Web analytics firm OneStat.com is now reporting that Firefox has grabbed an almost 13 percent market share worldwide, while IE has dropped to just over 83 percent. Firefox’s current 12.93 percent market share is up from 11.51 percent in November 2005, while Internet Explorer is down almost 2.5 percentage points. In the US, IE has dipped below the 80 percent mark, down to 79.78 percent, while Firefox has 15.82 percent of the market.
OneStat.com measures browser usage by looking at the traffic at its clients’ web sites. The figures from sites using the company’s commercial traffic analysis package are combined to come up with numbers that represent the average number of visits from a particular browser. According to TheCounter.com, while IE 5 and 6 combine for 84 percent market share, Firefox has just 10 percent and Safari 2 percent. That’s a significant gain for Firefox, which had just 6 percent at the beginning of the year by TheCounter.com’s stats.
Here at Ars, the picture is a bit different. A quick glance at our stats shows that Firefox is the most popular browser with our readers, with 41.92 percent. Internet Explorer accounts for 29.1 percent with Safari at 9.9 percent and Opera at 2.45 percent.
Firefox is even stronger in other parts of the world. In particular, the browser accounts for 39.02 percent of all web traffic tracked by OneStat.com in Germany, with IE sitting at 55.99 percent. Firefox has also broken the 20 percent barrier in Italy and Australia.
With new browsers in the offing from both Microsoft and the Mozilla Foundation, those numbers may be shaken up a bit once Internet Explorer 7 and Firefox 2.0 ship (beta candidate 1 of Firefox 2.0 was released yesterday) later this year. Of course, Internet Explorer is a more radical change from its predecessor, while Firefox 2.0 is a more evolutionary revision. Whether IE 7’s new features and improved security settings will be enough to stop the defections to alternatives remains to be seen.
Legislating "immoral" activity on the Internet has been a popular pastime for as almost as long we’ve been online. The latest salvo in the ‘Net legislation war comes in the form of a bill that would make life difficult for online gamblers in the US. The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act fo 2006, which was introduced last year, passed today by a 317-93 margin. It attempts to address online gambling by prohibiting wire transfers, "payment system instruments," and credit cards from being used as payment methods for online gambling sites.
Online gambling has been a growth industry for the past several years. Sports books have been popular for some time. More recently, the popularity of Texas Hold ‘Em has led to the rise of a number of poker sites, some of which are pay to play. Worldwide, Internet gambling sites are estimated to take in upwards of US$12 billion annually. Half of that US$12 billion comes from gamblers in the US, and the impact of raising the bar higher for online wagering has many gambling firms outside the US concerned.
Unfortunately for opponents of online gambling, the prospects for similar legislation in the Senate are murky. There have been no comprehensive antigambling bills introduced to the Senate yet, although the possibility exists that an amendment barring online gambling could be tacked on to legislation currently under consideration. With the Senate becoming more preoccupied with fall elections, thay may not happen this year.
Unlike other legislative attempts to regulate the Internet, this one could actually have a significant effect. Instead of trying to outlaw gambling sites (many of which are based outside the US), the bill makes processing or facilitating payments to them illegal. As a result, would-be gamblers would be unable to use their credit cards, debit cards, or make direct transfers from their US bank accounts to pay gambling sites. There are always ways around prohibitions like that, but the legislation will likely have the desired effect on casual gamblers.
If you’re a betting man, Microsoft’s Chief Software Architect has some guidance for you on Windows Vista’s as-of-yet undetermined release date. Speaking in Cape Town, South Africa, Gates said that there is an 80 percent chance that Window Vista will be ready for release in January of 2007. Or if you’re a pessimist, you could call it a 20 percent chance that Vista won’t be ready.
After a series of slips that ultimately pushed the OS years off course, the light finally appeared at the end of the tunnel for the Redmond giant when plans for a late 2006 release started to gel. Yet in March the company announced that it would delay the OS until 2007, taking a tone of penance and promising that this time, they wouldn’t rush things. Jim Allchin, co-president of Microsoft’s Platforms & Services Division, said at the time, "We are trying to do the responsible thing here… Maybe in the past we would have just gone ahead but now we’re not going to do that."
Comments from Gates in South Africa struck a similar note, with Gates promising that the company will look seriously at what they learn from the future Beta 2 release. The Wall Street Journal quoted Gates as saying, "We got to get this absolutely right. If the feedback from the beta tests shows it is not ready for prime time, I’d be glad to delay it."
Gates isn’t the only Big Boss at Microsoft sounding the warning alarms. In May, CEO Steve Ballmer emphasized that timing issues with the company’s partners could contribute to a delay. Gates is now suggesting that technical matters could also contribute to such a delay, which is a bit like pointing out that the sun is bright: serious technical challenges can always introduce last-minute delays. However, the public nature of Gates’ comments suggests that Microsoft is indeed bracing for the possibility of this yet another delay.
At this stage, what remains clear is that we are not likely to hear a formal "shipping" date for several more months, as the beta program drags out. Another beta is expected in the coming months, and that beta will be followed by at least one if not two or three release candidates.
Gates also told attendees at the conference in Cape Town that the company was investing between US$8 billion and $9 billion on Windows Vista and Office 2007, the two biggest potential revenue generators for the company in the coming years.
Movie studios are showing themselves increasingly willing to put their films up for sale and rental on the Internet—and not just through sites that they own or control. The most recent example comes from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, which has just inked a deal with online video distributor GUBA. GUBA becomes the first “video sharing community” to get access to the Sony catalog of films, but don’t think that “sharing” means “free.”
GUBA plans to charge 20 bucks to download new features and a ten spot for films from the back catalog. Though the service initially has only 100 Sony films, this will be expanded to 500 within the next year. The films are protected by Microsoft DRM (sorry, Mac users), and they’re only viewable on a Windows computer (or an HTPC hooked up to a television). As is usual with this type of setup, no DVD burns will be allowed.
In some ways, GUBA is an odd choice for a Sony partner. Much of the site is a YouTube-style assortment of zany videos, which means that you can have a link to a man who can touch his eye with his tongue on the same page as the link to Underworld: Evolution. Such pairings can make the site feel a bit schizophrenic, but GUBA has done a good job of making it simple to look for either free or premium content.
GUBA has made quite a name for themselves the last few months. In addition to scoring the recent Sony deal, the site also announced a partnership with Time Warner in June. Warner, like Sony, has shown a willingness to experiment when it comes to Internet distribution, though they’ve been doing it longer than Sony has.
Warner already has a deal in place with one-time pariah BitTorrent. The plan to offer DRMed movies to users through BitTorrent’s efficient distribution system is a telling admission of the legal uses of peer-to-peer technology, though studio insistence upon strict DRM controls and a lack of DVD-burning options make the service no more attractibe than GUBA.
Warner has also been active in Europe, partnering with another peer-to-peer company there to offer movie downloads. Such moves are excellent news for consumers, but not for the reason you might expect. What’s exciting about the recent announcements is that they show the movie studios have learned their lesson from the music business and are determined to provide good legal alternatives to piracy right from the start.
Unfortunately, the actual services that have been rolled out are underwhelming unless you own an HTPC. Even then, they aren’t a great deal when you consider that picking up the DVD costs about the same price and offers more flexibility and portability. When movie studios finally discover the magic combination of price and DRM that makes their product compelling to consumers, online distribution could become a lucrative alternative to traditional retail. That day has not yet arrived.
Last week we talked about
America Online AOL’s new plan to make money: free access for broadband users combined with an online ad push. The idea is to find future profits in advertising (like Google) instead of in the shrinking market for AOL subscriptions, which has always been the company’s bread and butter. Today, the Wall Street Journal offers more details about what the move could cost AOL (subscription required).
The paper expects that AOL will give up almost US$1 billion in profit over the next three years if it does do away with subscription fees for broadband users. Even to a company as large as AOL, this is some serious cash. The plan is to offset this loss by cutting the same amount from the company’s marketing budget (which won’t be as focused on signing up new subscribers) and by boosting ad sales.
In order to keep profits steady, AOL’s advertising division needs to grow by 30 percent a year. That sounds like a lot (and it is), but AOL has actually been doing an excellent job of selling advertising for the last few years, and ad sales have been growing at 35 percent a year. If they can’t keep up the growth, however, the company could be in trouble, since it will no longer have massive subscription revenue to fall back on in the lean years. Should that happen, Time Warner won’t be happy, as AOL supplies 20 percent of the company’s total profits.
The company’s risky plan is an acknowledgment that the old business model won’t work for much longer. AOL has been bleeding customers for years. Although they still have more than 18 million customers in the US alone, the company’s own estimates show that this number will fall to six million by 2010. As they contemplate a shift toward more advertising, their recent deal with Google looks better all the time.
The plan has met with controversy at AOL headquarters, in part because it would involve some substantial job cuts. If it’s pushed through, AOL would essentially transform itself into a portal company that could offer MapQuest directions, old shows on In2Tv, AOL branded e-mail, etc., etc. Such a move would make the company more of a direct rival to Yahoo, MSN, and even Google. With each of these companies competing for ad dollars, the online ad wars could heat up even further.
The introduction of Microsoft Private Folder 1.0 has caused a bit of a stir in the tech world. What does it do, exactly? Basically, the app creates an icon on the desktop called “My Private Folder” into which files can be dragged and dropped. The first time the program is run, the user is asked to provide a password, which is then used to encrypt the files.
“Private Folder 1.0 is a useful tool […] to protect your private data when friends, colleagues, kids or other people share your PC or account,” Microsoft said in an announcement. After verifying that you have a valid copy of Windows according to Windows Genuine Advantage, you can download it and try it out yourself.
Immediately after the tool was released, complaints rang out over the Internet, particularly on the MSBlog that hosted the announcement. Many people expressed concerns that the application would make their IT lives difficult. Some of the issues raised were the idea of employees hiding or sharing secrets in the encrypted folder, and users forgetting their password and being unable to retrieve crucial files.
Personally, I think these criticisms are highly overblown. Utilities to encrypt files have been available on PCs for years—even something as simple as WinZip allows anyone to encrypt and store files away from prying eyes. The only possible difference here is that the Microsoft utility might be perceived as more of a threat, simply because it comes from Microsoft and might therefore be more popular.
Ultimately, however, the responsibility lies with both IT and employees to ensure that a set of fair and workable computing rules are established, understood, and respected. Allow me to illustrate with a personal example. When I worked at EA, there was an incident involving a tester releasing images of new NBA jerseys on the Internet while they were still under NDA. The employee was quickly terminated, and management immediately started up the ominous-sounding “QA Isolation Project” to ensure that no files could ever again escape the confines of the testing lab. As we soon discovered, however, the new firewall policies did nothing to prevent people from transferring files over MSN Messenger. While eventually this hole was filled, the company then suffered a much larger leak, not from a tester at all but from a disgruntled developer who walked out of the door with an entire batch of burned prerelease games in his briefcase.
The moral of the story is that if you are terrified that your employees are going to hide or reveal secrets from management, you have more than just technical problems. While Microsoft’s “Private Folder” application may seem to cause headaches for IT management, it is nothing more than a useful utility that should be monitored only as much as any other application a user is allowed to install on their computer. One thing to keep note of, however: Microsoft is not providing any technical support with this program, so if you run into any problems, you are on your own.
Yahoo is one of the few survivors of the Great Dotcom Bubble Era, when any kid in his basement with a neat idea could be a billionaire overnight and dream of buying out the stodgy “old media” that once laughed at him. While those days are long gone, we’re well into the hype of Web 2.0, where adding flashy new features to your old web site is the path to advertising-sponsored riches.
Yahoo has been hard at work jumping on the Web 2.0 bandwagon, revamping their home page, adding a new Mail, and even a new Yahoo Photos section. Now they’ve entered a new area of webbiness by announcing Yahoo Trips, a site designed to help organize and document your travel plans.
“The launch of Trip Planner further demonstrates Yahoo!’s overall commitment to innovation in the field of social search and social media,” said Jasper Malcolmson, director of Yahoo! Travel. One does wonder what kind of field “social search and social media” actually is, but never mind, let’s look at the site itself.
After signing in with your Yahoo ID, you can proceed to the main site. The site seems very focused on the idea of sharing your trip journals with others—the most prominent options to begin with involve looking at other people’s trips. To create your own trip, you enter the start and end dates using a pop-up calendar, then give your trip a name and a description. From there, you can add destinations and attractions such as hotels and restaurants.
Yahoo Trips. Let’s go see my mom!
The site isn’t really a one-stop shopping destination for planning your entire holiday. You can’t book your airline reservations from the site, for example. However, for stops in the United States and Canada, Yahoo does provide a zoomable map view. To test it out, I tried entering an obscure location (Quispamsis, New Brunswick) and was surprised to see that centered in on the location right away. I couldn’t get it to give me driving directions there from Vancouver, however.
The site is an interesting experiment in collaborative trip planning, but will anyone really want to look at other people’s vacation photos? From the look of things, it seems a lot of people have signed up already. At least in the Web 2.0 world, you aren’t stuck waiting for someone to advance the slide projector.