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Friday, January 06, 2006

Teen's-eye-view of tech in 2006

Ironically but predictably, just as teen blogging arrives on the radar screens of parents and the mainstream news media (and not long after it's acquired by News Corp. for $560 million!), it's beginning to peak out among teenagers. That's according to smart and articulate 14-year-old podcaster, Web publisher, athlete, sports fan, and honors student Corey Durkin in New Jersey. Please check out this week's issue of my newsletter to see what Corey's predicting for teens' use of technology in the coming year.

'Convergence' in our homes

They're after our family rooms, you know. Our whole houses, in fact, not to mention our lives, since the convergence they keep talking about in all the coverage this week of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas is highly mobile, of course. There's all the competition among music providers for real estate on our cellphones and throughout our homes (see this in the New York Times). Then there's news that Google and Yahoo plan to move onto our TV screens, with music videos, news, weather, etc. (see this front-page Times piece). That would be scary for the good ol' TV networks, except that CBS reportedly plans to sell downloadable TV shows through Google. If you can't lick 'em, join 'em, must be the strategy, since Google and Yahoo will certainly sell advertising associated with their TV programming. The Times's team of reporters in Vegas describes how it all works. But all that wheeling and dealing for our ears and eyeballs is behind the scenes. In its "Best of CES Awards," CNET presents the finalists among all the gadgets on the actual show floor: several in every category, from camcorders to MP3 and portable video players to "Emerging Tech."

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Patch update!

Microsoft announced today it would issue a patch early "in response to strong customer sentiment that the release should be made available as soon as possible," ZDNET reported. To get the patch, go to or look into automating patches, if you haven't already. The Washington Post provides background. Please see two posts down for more detail on this week's PC-security craziness.

Parents pay for school laptops?

That's what's expected of parents in Fullerton, Calif., USATODAY reports. "The public school system in this quiet city 27 miles southeast of Los Angeles is pushing the frontiers of computer technology in the classroom with a program that puts a laptop computer into the backpacks of children as early as first grade. It is pushing the boundaries of financing, too, by asking parents to pay $500 a year for three years so each of more than 2,000 elementary and middle school children can have their own Apple iBook G4 laptop." The program, at four of the district's 20 schools has created a storm of controversy, USATODAY adds, quoting a number of Fullerton parents. District officials say parents who can't afford the $1,500 can get financial aid.

PC patch confusion

If you feel confused, you're in good company. The latest Windows security breach, the unofficial patches, and the official patch Microsoft has promised for next week even has Washington Post PC security writer Brian Krebs scratching his head (see "Patch or Pay?")! In short (believe it or not), Microsoft announced it would patch this major security flaw next week; at least two unofficial patches have been released by security code writers (one actually endorsed by the SANS Institute, which usually advises people to wait for the PC maker's patch), Brian reported earlier; and a beta version of the official patch was, Microsoft says, inadvertently leaked to the Net at large, CNET reports. Some experts say it's crazy to wait for the official Microsoft patch (see this ZDNET security blog), but Brian says that may mean forfeiting Microsoft help: "Microsoft says Windows users who have questions, concerns or problems surrounding this issue can call 1-866-PCSAFETY. Keep in mind, however, that if you do apply this third-party patch, Microsoft will in all likelihood refuse to help you return your PC to its previous pre-patch state should the patch somehow muck it up." There just is no final or fool-proof solution to the family PC security problem, though the three cardinal rules (an antivirus service like McAfee or TrendMicro, a firewall, and keeping up with MS patches) help hugely. So what's a PC owner to do in a confusing situation like this? Probably the best thing is trying out the free beta version of Windows OneCare (here's its security info page). Then, if your PC gets infected, it's Microsoft's fault and the company might help you.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Music players No. 1

Even as The Who guitarist Pete Townshend's warning about earphones echoes around the world, the organizers of the giant Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas release figures showing that MP3 players will be huge in 2006. The BBC cites Consumer Electronics Show figures showing that sales of music players "soared by 200% in 2005 to $3bn (£1.73bn)," with the projection for 2006 being $4.5 billion. Keep an eye on the volume level of those earbuds, people! BTW, the Beeb adds that Nos. 2 and 3 at CES are game consoles and flat screens, respectively.

iPods & ears

Everyone using an iPod or any MP3 player needs to read this story. Undoubtedly because of the iPod's popularity, Pete Townshend's warning was picked up by news outlets worldwide. The Who guitarist said it was his use of earphones in the recording studio, not the loud music he played on stage, that caused irreparable damage to his hearing (he "has to take 36-hour breaks between recording sessions to allow his ears to recover," the Associated Press reports). But earbuds are the worst. "In a study published last year in the journal Ear and Hearing, researchers at Harvard Medical School looked at a variety of headphones and found that, on average, the smaller they were, the higher their output levels at any given volume-control setting." Because tiny phones in ears so far don't do a good enough job of blocking outside sounds, people compensate by cranking up the volume. Northwestern University audiologist and professor Dean Garsecki told the Scripps Howard News Service that he has a colleague at Wichita State U. who pulls earbuds out of students' ears and asks them if he can measure their output. He often finds them listening at about rock concert level - "enough to cause hearing loss after only about an hour and 15 minutes," Scripps Howard reports. And an Australian study found that about a quarter of iPod users 18-54 listen at volumes sufficient to cause hearing damage. The BBC quotes an entry in Townshend's Web site as saying, "I have unwittingly helped to invent and refine a type of music that makes its principal proponents deaf. My intuition tells me there is terrible trouble ahead."

What to do? "The rule of thumb suggested by researchers at Boston Children's Hospital is to hold the volume of a music player no higher than 60% of the maximum, and use it for only about an hour a day," Scripps Howard reports.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Texting's appeal to teens

"Presence," convenience, and a degree of anonymity are three big reasons why teenagers love text messaging on phones, computers, and other devices. The article in the Detroit News blurs any distinction between the devices pretty much the way teenagers do. "Presence" is simply the ability to know if friends are available for chatting - the way instant-messaging services (as opposed to telephones) let users know that. Convenience is obvious - kids say IM and texting is more convenient than talking (and a bit less "formal," apparently). The anonymity issue is interesting. Teens like texting because they can communicate directly but slightly indirectly at the same time. The Detroit News quotes a psychologist who helps parents and teens negotiate cyberspace, Dr. Michele Ondersma, as saying that teenagers say things online that they wouldn't say in person. A middle-school tech expert I spoke with last year told me about the sense of control IM-ers have when conducting, say, five separate conversations simultaneously (see "IM anthropology"). The Detroit News article has a sidebar: "IM-speak," a directory of acronyms, or text shortcuts, IM-ers use, like GAL ("get a life") and CUL8TR ("see you later").

The latest on kid phones

Regular cellphones and young children don't mix, many parents find, for security reasons (another way to talk to strangers) and financial ones (still more uncontrolled minutes!). "No, if you're going to issue your child a cellphone, it had better be ultra-simple, ultra-limited, ultra-rugged and ultra-parent-controlled," writes New York Times tech writer David Pogue in his review of Verizon's LG Migo, The Firefly, and the Enfora TicTalk. Fortunately for parents, they look pretty much like "real cellphones," so kids who like electronic toy that mimic grownup ones will probably like them. But they're all about parental control, so no one over the age of around 9 or 10 is going to want one. They connect with only a handful of pre-programmed phone numbers, and "they're designed exclusively for voice calls; they can't download ringers, send text messages, do email, take pictures, check voice mail or get on the Web," David says. One divorced mom emailed me because she wanted a phone for her daughter to go with the child on weekends she was with her dad - a phone no one at the dad's house would want to use. I told her these phones were pretty perfect for that, but there would be limited appeal for her daughter beyond a certain age!

Monday, January 02, 2006

2006: 'Golden Age of gaming'?

That's the view of UK gamemaker David Braben. In a commentary at the BBC, he likens this juncture in the gaming industry to the 1930s for filmmaking, when movies went from sheer spectacle to serious artform. He says that now, for gaming, the artistic content is becoming "the main driver." The BBC's gaming editor adds that, with the release of Sony's PlayStation 3 and Nintendo's Revolution (the Xbox 360 was available before the holidays), "over the next 12 months, the most powerful piece of technology in the home is likely to be the games console in the living room, rather than the PC in the bedroom." The explanation is not just next-generation graphics and games, it's media convergence - that word that keeps coming up in turn-of-the-year reporting. These consoles play other media, too, and they are communications tools as well (witness Xbox Live's voice and text chat and text alerts on cellphones).

Downloads up, CDs down

The trend continues, and it's bad news for brick-'n'-mortar music stories. 602.2, down from 650.8 11/12/25 Album sales were down 7% last year from 2004, the Associated Press reports, but sales of tunes from the online music services were up 148% over 2004's. That sounds fabulous for the recording industry, but 95% of music is sold in CD format. "The top three best-selling albums of 2005 through Dec. 21 were rapper 50 Cent's 'The Massacre,' which had sold 4.8 million copies, followed by Mariah Carey's 'The Emancipation of Mimi,' with 4.6 million sold, and Kelly Clarkson's 'Breakaway,' which sold 3.3 million units," the AP cites Nielsen SoundScan as reporting.