On Christmas Eve, we're playing with Mozilla's new Labs project called Weave, a web service platform for users to sync various elements of Firefox into the cloud and between computers. Initially, Weave only syncs bookmarks and browser history with Mozilla's servers (using encryption throughout), but the idea is to eventually allow add-on developers the freedom to include other things like RSS feeds, new Firefox Personas, and just about anything else the web can dream up. Weave is a bold move towards creating truly portable user profiles that can (eventually) go far beyond the basics, so let's see how this first step measures up.
Weave requires the Firefox 3 beta 2 released earlier this month, so users who value extensions that haven't received compatibility updates should probably watch from the sidelines for now. Also, this initial release is only at 0.1, and APIs for third parties won't arrive until an early 2008 release of 0.2. Some of Weave's core features haven't been implemented yet, making this release truly fit its label of "early prototype" (note that the term "beta" hasn't even been used yet). That said, if you're running the new Firefox 3 beta and want to give Weave a spin, you can get started by signing up for a new Mozilla Services account and following the instructions to download the Weave extension.
Upon installing Weave and restarting Firefox 3, a short five-step wizard helps get you started with syncing items. Once Weave opens up with version 0.2 to allow third-party syncing elements, it stands to reason that this wizard will include a step for the user to choose which services to sync. As it stands now, Weave only does bookmarks and browsing history, so the wizard just allows users to create a backup of their bookmarks before performing the inaugural upload.
Get your Weave on
Managing items to sync, Weave add-ons, and how Weave interacts with Mozilla's servers is done via a new preference pane, but not from Weave's entry in Firefox's Add-Ons pane as some might expect. The image above of course is the area where, eventually, users will have a longer list of items to sync. As preference panes go, Weave's UI feels pretty well laid out so far, offering easy access to features that will arguably be new concepts to many of Weave's potential users.
For users who want control over how Weave syncs, whether encryption is used, and other settings, the Advanced tab already offers a good handful of options. For now, encryption is mandatory, though the grayed-out option in this tab hints that various encryption methods could be made available in future versions. An option to delete sync data from the server will likely be useful for any syncing hiccups. Again, Weave is a prototype project.
While Mozilla is mum on details at this early stage, such as how often syncs are performed and whether the extension will be incorporated into a future Firefox release, Weave 0.1 is a solid start (though one developer on the project told Ars he believes Weave syncs every 30 minutes). This release also confirms speculation about a potential Mozilla move into web services that arose after Mozilla Labs VP Chris Beard made suggestive comments about that earlier this month.
Indeed, other services have already embarked down this path, including various Firefox add-ons, Apple's .Mac service, and Google's Browser Sync Firefox add-on. But none have had such a broad scope fueled by Firefox's trademark open approach. Developers can hook into .Mac to sync their own applications between Macs, but Apple's Safari browser doesn't have an official plug-in architecture. Further, .Mac users can't do things like collaborate or open up portions of their data to other users like Weave can with its (forthcoming) selective bookmark sharing. In the same vein, though Google's Browser Sync add-on syncs a couple more items than Weave right now (like site passwords), Google has shown no signs of opening up the engine to third parties like Mozilla will with Weave.
Traditionally, sync over the web has been a multi-headed beast for most companies. Plaxo, for example, offers contact duplicate detection and "disaster" recovery as part of its paid premium services. Apple also offers easy backup options in many of its .Mac-enabled applications, and it even went to the trouble of baking in contact duplicate detection into Address Book. Given sync's unruly reputation, Mozilla will need to take care to help stave off the headaches that creep in when syncs go wrong.
Gotta wear shades
Weave offers a bright future. Though it isn't quite ubiquitous computing, the promise of ubiquitous browsing, collaboration, syncing various web tools, and personal data is an intriguing one. Some lines have already been drawn around what functionality Weave will and won't approach (i.e., it is not a file storage service), but Mozilla Labs is definitely looking to tread new ground with Weave.
Rock Band, while keeping parents and neighbors awake in many American neighborhoods, has had a hard and turbulent road to release here in Canada. The Canadian version was originally slated to be released alongside the American version, then later delayed, and delayed again, and for some retailers delayed yet again. The potential Christmas present has become more rare than the Nintendo Wii around these parts, and the hopeful holiday rockers are left standing out in the cold.
CBC has been covering the story, and reports that retailers are placing the blame squarely on EA Canada, the game's publisher. Botched arrival dates and diminishing stock have caused some serious problems for retailers. Calls around the Ontario area reveal that big box chains like Best Buy, Wal-Mart, and Toys 'R Us are receiving very few units, and the EB Games outlets are essentially already sold out through preorders.
For those not living in the Greater Toronto Area, though, the wait could be much longer. Talk on gaming forums like GameFAQs and NeoGAF hints that gamers living out in central and western Canada are far less lucky, with stores receiving only one or two bundles before Christmas. Favoring Toronto for shipped product is not a new phenomenon for Canadian consumers, but with how tight shipments already are, it's still a heart-wrenching blow at this time of the year.
My own EB received first the game-only copy of Rock Band yesterday, and were supposedly getting a handful of the special edition bundles today. Being high on the preorder list, even I was surprised to find that not only had shipments not yet arrived at 1pm EST today, but that even if they did, I would be out of luck until well after Christmas. The outlook for those to follow was bleaker. I spoke to the clerk at the store and she reiterated that the supply would be minuscule. "We just aren't getting very many in," she told me. "We had no real idea how many we were going to be shipped, and now we have a bunch of preorders for people that definitely won't be able to get one before Christmas."
Thanks EB, I'm so glad I preordered.
Here's the situation: Activision paid to use the song "What I Like About You" by The Romantics on the game Guitar Hero Rocks the 80s. Like many songs where it didn't have access to or didn't pay for the master track, Activision had its team of talented studio musicians re-record the song for inclusion in the game. The Romantics sued because the new version of the band's song sounded too close to the original–which was the point all along, really, but this way The Romantics get more money.
The whole thing smelled bad, and on Monday a federal judge denied the request to stop sales of the game. According to the announcement, the judge "indicated that to the extent there were any copyright issues, Activision did exactly what the company was supposed to do in developing the product."
It's been pointed out that this sort of sound-alike recording is protected under law, and is, in fact, encouraged. The law states that the original copyrights of a song "do not extend to the making or duplication of another sound recording that consists entirely of an independent fixation of other sounds, even though such sounds imitate or simulate those in the copyrighted sound recording."
This played out exactly like most people assumed it would, and The Romantics ended up looking a little sad as they tried to squeeze a few more bucks out of the use of the band's song. We know that having your music included in Guitar Hero games leads to a measurable increase in digital sales, so why not just enjoy the publicity and the new market you're reaching? Hopefully, this ruling will keep other bands from trying this again, and the music business will begin to embrace these games as a way to break in new bands and renew interest in existing songs.
Court records don't indicate if The Romantics pleaded their case in awesome red suits.
The development of optical communications and other applications for lasers has led to a booming industry for optics. For some applications, it can now be critical to obtain lenses that reflect less than one percent of the light over a certain color range (for comparison, glass reflects about four percent). Likewise, it is sometimes critical that more than 99.9 percent of the light is reflected at the surface of a mirror, which is a lot harder to achieve than one might think. Typically, the reflectivity of these optics are controlled by depositing layers of material with different refractive indices. Each layer reflects some of the light, however, if the spacing of the layers is correct, the light from each surface interferes destructively, resulting in less total reflected light. The correct layer spacing can be obtained by considering the color of the light to be transmitted, which means that these coatings are generally useful over a very narrow range of wavelengths and then only when the light hits the layer at a particular angle. More complicated layer structures can increase the range of colors transmitted. This also expands the range of angles at which the light can be incident, however, it generally comes at some cost to the effectiveness of the anti-reflection coating. Calculating the layer design is somewhat of a black art, with highly paid Germans using a combination of computer programs, experience, and animal sacrifice to achieve optical coatings with the required specifications.
This is all a bit embarrassing when you consider that many species of butterfly have incredibly reflective wings, and the common housefly has an eye that doesn't reflect much light at all. The problem is that designing these structures from scratch is quite difficult and the three-dimensional structure used by houseflies and butterflies is very hard to manufacture. But that shouldn't stop us from stealing it and that is exactly what a group of researchers has done. They used a pair of housefly eyes as templates to grow replicas of the structure, but using materials that are sturdier and heat resistant (aluminum oxide to be precise).
They showed that these copies had less than one percent reflectivity from very deep purple to the infrared and this low reflectivity was maintained over wide range of angles of incidence. Really, a very remarkable optical coating. I should note a couple of caveats though. These surfaces are neither smooth nor flat—normally optical surfaces are made as smooth as possible—so there is some question about how well the spatial properties of a laser beam will be preserved after transmission through such a surface. It could be that interference preserves the beam nicely, however, it is more likely that the spatial structure is destroyed, rendering the laser beam useless.
Normally, this paragraph is reserved for me to say some trite thing about where this research might go. This time, I will let the authors' have the final word:
Biological structures are the result of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. Such designs of nature possess many unique merits that would be difficult to achieve by a complete artificial simulation.
Nanotechnology, 2007, DOI: 10.1088/0957-4484/19/02/025602
Continuing its march around the world, the iPhone's next potential stop is South Korea. "Talks" have already commenced between Apple and Korea Telecom Freetel (KTF), a mobile phone carrier with both 12 million subscribers in the country and close ties to NTT DoCoMo, Japan's largest carrier.
As The Korea Times notes, KTF has been open throughout the year about its desire to sell the iPhone in South Korea. Though Apple has yet to make a decision, it has stated its plans to sell the iPhone in Asia "sometime next year," but it has yet to specify where. Considering that Apple is also in talks with NTT DoCoMo, Japan's largest mobile phone carrier and the second largest investor in KTF, cutting a juicy deal with the two-punch combo of these companies has got to be at the top of Apple's list.
Unlike in Japan though, South Korea requires all handsets to run a Korean-developed mobile phone OS called WIPI. Though the government there recently began allowing 3G mobile phones to be sold in the country (as long as they don't have Internet functionality), this rule likely poses a significant hurdle for Apple. A good portion of the iPhone's appeal is its internet capabilities, after all.
KTF must be offering some kind of option or workaround for the WIPI rule, or perhaps a method is on the table for WIPI's core requirements to be incorporated into the iPhone's implementation of OS X. Whatever the situation, Apple must still see some way to get the iPhone into South Korea, otherwise the talks would likely have been called off by now. KTF's CEO Cho Young-Chu says he's been waiting for an answer from Apple since August. Guess we'll just have to join him.
A new patent application filed by Microsoft describes methods for "enforcing" advertisements in downloaded media. Traditionally, ads accompany streaming content and, by extension, restrict that content to a browser. But technology that could bring ads to downloaded content would open up new opportunities for digital distribution services, advertisers, and consumers, and could give DRM a whole new leg to stand on.
Microsoft's patent application, titled Enforcing Advertising Playback For Downloaded Media Content, describes systems that are based both on tokens and DRM which would prohibit playing a media file unless its accompanying advertising is viewed. The technology is designed to prohibit fast-forwarding, editing, or otherwise circumventing the advertisements, though it is unclear exactly where the ads would be placed. Internet users have repeatedly announced their distaste for pre-roll ads in streaming content and video games, but users of NBC's Hulu service reportedly don't mind its TV-like interstitial ads.
On the other hand, users have made it abundantly clear that paid content, such as the $1.99 TV shows from Apple's iTunes Store, should be devoid of any advertising whatsoever. This is where Microsoft's ad-enforced download technology could actually offer a new choice for distributors and consumers. Downloads offered for less than $1.99—or, ideally, for free—that contain an agreeable amount of advertising could gain real traction with consumers who want to download, collect, and organize their own media library. This would be especially advantageous for users who want to experience media on portable devices, or while otherwise offline.
The studios could take a swing at digital distribution by offering free (or cheap) files that contain a little advertising and DRM, in exchange for offline and portable viewing. If Microsoft or another service could offer a selection of TV shows and movies at least competitive with the dominant iTunes Store, the allure of free, portable media might help customers overcome some of their DRM loathing.
In a Stevenote sent to Apple employees at mid-year, Jobs awkwardly described the company as a chair with the three legs—wouldn't that be a stool?—: the Mac, the iPod, and the iPhone. As 2007 winds down, it's seems only appropriate to consider the year for Apple from that ternary perspective.
Intel CPUs, iPod Halo, Mac OS X, Windows Fatigue, whatever the cause, the effect is that 2007 will be remembered as a Mac Renaissance not seen since the early 90s. In 2006, 5,655,000 Macs were sold. 2007 will see sales between 7.7 million and 8 million—a 36 to 40 percent increase—and two to three times the projected growth of industry average. Since only the iMac saw significant revision this year, this is especially positive news. Of course, that hardware "leg" of Apple—someone find a new metaphor for Jobs—benefited from new software. Besides iLife '08 and iWork '08, including the spreadsheet Numbers, the tri-named Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard was released in October. During its first weekend alone, Leopard sold 2 million copies, something that took the previous iteration of OS X over a month to do. Mac sales in 2007 were great, a trend that will likely continue in 2008.
While new Macs were scarce in 2007, the iPod line launched two new models, as well as repackaging an old one and adding color to the last. While the Shuffle got color cases, the iPod Classic was kept around to keep the Zune in its place: last. The iPod Nano introduced a wide-screen display to the most popular iPod, and the iPod Touch introduced the touch screen display to people who don't want a phone. In 2006, Apple sold 46,366,000 iPods and is expected to sell approximately 55 million in 2007, an increase of somewhere around 17 percent. While the growth rate for sales may be leveling off, that's still a hell of a lot of media players. In contrast, music sales at the iTunes Store continue to accelerate, with Apple passing the two-billion song mark in January, followed by three billion songs in July, with four, or even five billion, likely to be announced at Macworld Expo in January. The iPod, and the iTunes Store, continued their respective market dominance, and will likely continue to do so in 2008.
Finally, that leaves the third leg of Apple, an appendage whose sales continues to elongate. Introduced at Macworld Expo 2007, the iPhone went on sale six months later, selling 270,000 units in its first two days. Seventy-two days after that, Apple sold its millionth iPhone. Now, rumor has it that the iPhone will have sold 5 million units in 2007, putting it on track to meet projections of 10 million sold in 2008. Clearly, Apple has another hit product in the iPhone.
While this has been a great year for Apple, there have been problems. Lackluster sales of the "sort of a new DVD player for the Internet age," as Steve Jobs awkwardly described the Apple TV, has ensured the furniture metaphor will not become a table anytime soon. However, worse than the failure of the Apple TV in 2007, was the inability of Apple to bring video content to the iTunes Store. The impasse with the movies studios andNBC abandoning the iTunes Store means 2007 saw a decrease in the number of video titles available. Still, even this problem is small when considered against the spectacularly successful transition of Apple Computer.
In 1992, market share for the Macintosh peaked at just over 12 percent, an all-time high. By 1997, Apple Computer's percentage of the PC market had plummeted to less than four percent, and that's about where it stands now. It was only fitting then that 2007 began with a symbolic statement of the obvious, and so should we ring out the end of the year in the same way.
Apple Computer is dead, long live Apple, Inc.!
Aside from the likes of NBA Jam and NBA Street, I have little interest in basketball games. For all I know, NCAA 08 March Madness, the latest EA college basketball game for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, might be the best basketball game ever created. But honestly, I'm a Canadian gaming writer. They send me American College Basketball. They never send me hockey. What's going on here? It's a like a developer that decides to send Ben JRPGs while throwing away its stock of rhythm games.
In the interest of science, I figured it was worth tackling the game just to see what it's like to play something completely new to me. Sure, March Madness 2008 features a ton of new modes, a buffed up dynasty mode, online play with new online leagues, over 400 teams, ESPN integration, and a ton more, but I simply wanted to see if I could have fun. I played a single game and decided to judge it solely on that single game: after all, with little outside knowledge of the sport, the single game should be enough to determine whether or not it would be worth playing again.
Selecting "Play Now" put me in a match as the Miami Hurricanes against the Kentucky Wildcats. Upon getting the game set up, a "mini-game" prompt popped up to offer a sub-goal to accomplish in addition to beating the Wildcats: "score 19 points or more in 40 seconds and boost your team intensity meter." A neat feature, I thought, and moved on. The loading screen quickly appeared, allowing me to shoot baskets while the game loaded. Another neat feature.
Actually getting into the game proved a little daunting. The typical control demo that most EA games have during the loading was absent, so it took a while to learn the basics. Passing and shooting worked fine, but setting up a pick proved more difficult. In fact, I never really got a feel for it, and as such, the key game became trying. Not helping matters was the sheer frequency with which fouls were called, which made me hesitant to try for a steal. However, I did learn how to manipulate one of the new features: team intensity. Controlling the crowd and the team with this feature felt more natural than it does in Madden, and soon I had the crowd standing and roaring with every move I made.
The graphics were sharp: the hardwood floor shined and gradually dulled, getting slippery and squeaky with the player's sweat. The sounds and motions of the crowd were equally impressive; each good play gave me a surge of enjoyment, and when the chanting in unison started, it was really something. Perhaps it's the lack of glass separating the players from the crowd, but there was something more pronounced about the crowd's interaction than the hockey games I play.
Though the audience had me going, I was down at the half and ultimately lost the game. If there was a really nice tutorial—which there isn't—then I could see myself, and other non-basketball fans, really getting into this. As it stands, though, the game isn't all that inviting to newcomers. EA's hockey, golf, and football franchises all have fairly welcoming beginner experiences, but I found myself shut out of the basketball world after a game: I wouldn't play again. It's a pretty safe bet to say that this game remains only for the fans.
This post came out of Frank contacting me to complain that EA, for some odd reason, keeps sending him the oddest games. He's a Canadian! Send him the hockey! He then asked if college basketball was really that big in the States. Having spent a few years attending the University of Kentucky I was taken aback. "Games are like holidays in Kentucky," I told him. "The bars fill, everyone wears the team colors… it's pretty intense."
After that, it was his turn to be amazed. We both thought it would be interesting to hear his thoughts on a game completely alien to him and see what he thought. When he remarked that there is no glass separating the crowd and the court as if it were breaking news, I knew we were going to read something special.
It's okay Frank, both sides of the border still love bacon. Even if your bacon is wrong.
Younger gamers looking to con a Wii out of parents this year by selling them on the physical benefits of "active" gaming, it's time to dream up a new strategy. A UK study entitled "Energy expenditure in adolescents playing new generation computer games" reveals that a round of Wii Sports doesn't work the body nearly as hard as proper exercise. While it expends more energy than "idle" gaming with a controller, the difference is negligible.
Eleven physically-fit teenagers, ages 13 to 15, were selected for the study. After measuring expended energy in a resting state using five sensors placed around the body, the participants played 15 minutes of Project Gotham Racing 3, followed by rounds of Wii Sports boxing, tennis, and bowlingfor 15 minutes each. Though there was a marked difference in expended energy between rest and PGR3, Wii Sports definitely has a lead on the racer in physical activity.But not by much:
Project Gotham Racing 3: 125.5 kJ/kg/minWii Sports bowling: 190.6 kJ/kg/minWii Sports boxing: 198.1 kJ/kg/minWii Sports tennis: 202.5 kJ/kg/min
The study concludes that the physical activity "was not of high enough intensity to contribute towards the recommended daily amount of exercise in children… In a typical week, active gaming rather than passive gaming would increase total energy expenditure by less than 2 percent."
Wii Sports is hardly representative of "active games" as a whole (no DDR? No Rock Band drumming?), but it's likely the most widely-played game among them. In an experiment to see if other games could lead to weight loss, Ars Technica's Gaming Editor Ben Kuchera was able to lose twenty pounds in two months with a combination of fitness games and an improved diet. There are certainly games out there that burn more calories than sitting on the couch with a controller, but unfortunately Wii Sports is not one of them.
Curiously, the study was funded by Cake, Nintendo's UK marketing arm—and probably didn't producethe results the company was hoping for. Of course, this is unlikely tohave muchimpact upon the Wii's tight availability.
The Christmas tree is all lit up; I can see it from my office. There is just one more day before Christmas, and the unwrapping of a bunch of new games and systems and toys and… oh, I'm excited. Nintendo has three new games for us today to tide us over, and one of them has me itching to go get the Wii turned on. In fact, I'm humming the theme song now…
Blades of Steel (NES, 500 points or $5)
For those of us who grew up with the bad voice samples, the awesome fights, and the playable Gradius game at intermission, this is one of those magical games from our youth. With real cities, fake teams, and shoot-outs to break up tied games, this is one of those things that my friends and I played for days. The best hockey game ever made? Debatable. But let's go ahead and say yes. For $5, this is worth a download.
Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong's Double Trouble (SNES, 800 points or $8)
Donkey Kong Country never really had the game play to justify multiple sequels. By removing Donkey and Diddy Kong for the third title, Nintendo and Rare make the game even less appealing by turning a pigtailed girl and a big, dumb ape baby named Kiddy into the lead characters. Not a smart move. This is good for the completist, but I would stick to the first two titles and call it a day.
Rolling Thunder 2 (Genesis, 800 points or $8)
Better graphics, two-player support, and the same solid game play from the first Rolling Thunder make this a compelling buy. I find that some people loved Rolling Thunder, and others are convinced I'm making it up when I describe it. Finding one of the assigned doors with a machine gun behind it was always a thrill, and the animations were impressive for the time. This isn't a bad game for a rainy day.
Out of these three, I'd say that Blades of Steel is the must-buy. By the way, is the announcer saying "Hit the pass," over and over, or am I insane?