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Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Search engine giant Google has moved heavily into the hardware market by buying mobile phone maker Motorola Mobility for $12.5bn – around £7.7bn. A joint statement said the boards of both companies had unanimously approved the deal, which should be completed by the end of this year, or early in 2012, subject to regulatory approval..

The move means that Google will follow Apple’s model by controlling the software, hardware and content on its devices. Microsoft also moved towards a similar solution earlier in the year. While it did not go as far as buying Nokia, it struck a deal that would make Windows Phone the sole smartphone platform on its handsets.

Google is effectively betting that the future lies in mobile computing devices rather than desktop PCs. And as smartphones are now effectively small computers that can also make phone calls, it seems a good call.

But where will the deal leave other manufacturers, such as Samsung and HTC, who use Google’s Android system on their phones? They will fear that Motorola will have a clear advantage and may get first access to new features or software releases.

Industry analyst Stuart Miles cautioned that if Motorola was seen to get too much preferential treatment – such as early access to new versions of Android, it might alienate the broader community of hardware manufacturers. But would that bother Google?

Larry Page, Google chief executive, said: “Motorola Mobility’s total commitment to Android has created a natural fit for our two companies. Together, we will create amazing user experiences that supercharge the entire Android ecosystem for the benefit of consumers, partners and developers. I look forward to welcoming Motorolans to our family of Googlers.”

The Android ecosystem? Don’t you just love techno-speak?

The smartphone market is highly competitive has escalated into a bitterly fought patents war between the major manufacturers and software giants. Microsoft and Apple are suing Motorola and Google over a string of alleged patent infringements relating to Android.

Monday’s deal means that Google now owns Motorola Mobility’s swathe of patents, thought to total about 17,000, and strengthens its position in the market.

Android phones are becoming increasingly popular and this move puts Google in a position to capitalise on the success of its operating system. Apple and RIM, which manufacturers BlackBerries, must be looking at this deal and assessing its impact on their own businesses.

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Facebook has launched an instant messaging service for mobile phones, initially in the US. It will rival BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), which is currently used by more than 45 million people, including a fair few rioters according to recent news.

BBM allows anyone with a BlackBerry handset to chat with any other Blackberry user anywhere in the world for free. Very handy if you have a pay as you go contract and are charged for every text you send.

Facebook hopes that it will be able to build on the messaging features that its 750 million users already enjoy. The new dedicated app, for iPhones and Android devices, allows users to contact individual friends or groups of people across platforms – so someone with an Android device can chat with friends who are using iPhones.

“More and more of us rely on our phones to send and receive messages. But it isn’t always easy to know the best way to reach someone on their phone. Should you send an email or text? Which will they check first? Did they even get your last message?” wrote Facebook engineer Lucy Zhang in a blog post introducing the new app. “We think messaging should be easier than that. You should be able to write a message, click ‘Send’ and know that you will reach the person right away.”

Yes, that’s why it’s called instant messaging, Lucy.

Apple has recently announced its own instant messaging service. Called, almost inevitably, iMessage it will be launched later in the year. It is also thought that Google will introduce a similar service for Android phones as part of its Google+ service, which is currently being trailed by users.

For many people, texting is now a very common use of their mobile phone: the average person sends five texts every day. There are times when sending a quick message negates the need for a lengthier telephone call, or where it simply isn’t possible to talk.

So texting can still meet a large proportion of users’ needs. But it can cost money. And while you probably have the mobile numbers of close friends and family safely stored in your contacts list, does this cover everyone you might ever need to send a message to?

Facebook’s application will allow messages to be sent to anyone you have as a friend – for most people this will be a much larger list.

In a world where instant contact and quick response appear to be so crucial, Facebook Messaging could be the next big thing.

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Almost one in three adults in the UK now uses a smartphone, according to a report by the telecoms regulator Ofcom.

The annual Communications Market Report combines the regulator’s own research with work carried out by other industry analysts. The 341 page document provides a comprehensive snapshot of the UK’s TV, radio, internet and telecommunications consumption.

Although the iPhone was the favourite device for 32% of adults, among teens its popularity was beaten by the Blackberry, which 37% of young people identified as their preferred brand.

The report notes that the increased uptake of smartphones has led to a dramatic rise in mobile internet use. And, not surprisingly, social networking was the biggest use of phones.  Facebook was the most visited website on handheld devices, with 43 million hours spent on it in December 2010.

Teenagers are much more likely than adults to use smartphones for social networking, listening to music and playing games, while adults are more likely to send e-mail, surf the net and use mapping programs. No great surprises there.

Texting remains popular and Britons sent an average of five text messages a day last year, contributing to a total of 129bn texts sent. The total continues to grow dispute the increased use of instant messaging applications.

The huge boost in smartphone usage has led to a 67% rise in mobile data use as phone users watched videos and sent emails on the go. Mobile operators, such as O2 and Vodafone, have been put under huge strain by the new load.

Many of those taking part in Ofcom’s survey confessed to being obsessed with their smartphone. 37% of adults and 60% of teenagers described themselves as “addicted”. 47% of teenagers and 22% of adults even admitting to using their device in the toilet.

There is no mention made in the press release of how often smartphones are used for making telephone calls. And that probably tells us a lot.

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Yes, it’s true. Anyone considering a separation can download an app that will help them to decide whether divorce is the correct option.

The app – simply called Divorce? – promises to offer a simple guide to all of the issues around a complex subject. And all for just £9.99!

The iTunes blurb states that, “The app guides you through your particular circumstances intuitively. There are sections about applying for a divorce, the children, financial issues, choosing a lawyer and working out budgets.”

It does have a caveat, however. “The app is not a substitute for professional advice to which users are directed throughout the app when appropriate.” And it only applies to people living in England and Wales, as some legislation differs in Scotland.

Peter Martin, who is Head of Family Law at OGR Stock Denton, helped to develop the app. He said that it is intended to help couples think through their situation before embarking on costly legal action.

So does this use of technology trivialise divorce, or is it a helpful tool for those in difficult relationships? There are, of course, differing opinions on that one.

Anastasia de Waal, deputy director and director of family and education at the think tank Civitas, questioned whether the app would actually make a great difference.

“Ultimately the chances are this app will be mainly used by the curious – and perhaps on occasion the temporally furious – with little threat to lawyers’ coffers,” said de Waal.

But Dr Adrian Rogers, who describes himself as a “pro-family” campaigner, said that if the app revealed the “true complications, difficulties and suffering” of divorce, it could help persuade people to fight to save their marriages.

Is staying together simply because it is easier than getting divorce something to encourage? Rogers believes that if it saves marriages the app is to be welcomed.

So if you are considering divorce you now know where to turn to for some initial advice. And it is good value too – how long would £9.99 buy you of the average divorce lawyer’s time?

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Do you have a pay monthly mobile phone? And if so, when was the last time you checked whether the contract you are on is giving you the best value for money?

According to a new study, 33 million UK mobile phone users are wasting a total of nearly £5bn a year because they are on the wrong contracts.

This equates to almost half of the average annual spend on mobile phones, or £195 per person compared with an average spend of £439 annually.

The results in this report are based on statistical analysis of 28,417 anonymised bills carried out by Billmonitor, an Ofcom approved bill-analysis service set up by mathematicians at Oxford University.

It found that 76% of users are paying too much because they signed up to tariffs after wrongly estimating how many minutes and text messages they routinely use. Many people, it seems, underuse their free calling minutes, using on average just one quarter of their monthly calling allowance, with a total waste across the UK of £2.62bn.

But there are also those who don’t have enough minutes in their plan and therefore waste money on “out of allowance” calls, which are charged at the normal calling rates.

The report also sets out the scale of the challenge for subscribers hoping to get the right contract, noting that there are now more than 8.5m potential mobile tariffs available – an incredible total. This calculation takes into account not only tariff and handset costs but also the costs for all usage.

In addition to contract issues, users spent £719m a year calling premium numbers and sending premium rate texts from their mobiles, while £502m was spent calling and texting while abroad and £1.36m was spent on roaming charges.

So the lesson would seem to be that we should all take a closer look at our monthly bills and think about changing tariff, if possible. And when taking out a new contract, which can now be for up to two years, we should think very carefully about what we actually need from a phone.

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In a rare case of prices going down, the cost of calling a mobile phone from a different network or a landline is set to become cheaper after regulator Ofcom imposed a reduction.

The amount that mobile phone companies can bill their rivals for handling calls from their networks will fall by 80% over the next four years, starting from 1 April.

3 UK can currently charge up to 4.48p a minute, slightly more than the other operators. The big three– O2, Vodafone and Everything Everywhere, which includes Orange and T-Mobile – currently charge 4.18p a minute to connect calls from other phone companies.

Charges for all providers will be reduced to 2.66p next month and will fall to 0.69p by April 2014.

So how will the phone companies cope with the resultant loss of income? Well. Ofcom isn’t too worried as they are all making more money every year on data services.

Many people now use their phones mainly for text, e-mail, internet and social networking applications with actually making telephone calls being less common.

Data traffic has more than doubled in the past year and now accounts for the majority of traffic over mobile phone networks, said Ofcom. Revenue from data increased by 90% between 2007 and 2009 and is set to grow even further.

So the poor mobile phone companies won’t be losing money any time soon, it seems.

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A new poll has revealed a huge underestimation of the hours Scots devote to the television, implying that we give false answers in surveys to make it appear we watch less TV than we actually do.

The majority of Scottish adults claim to watch less than 21 hours a week. But official figures show the real figure is far higher at 33 hours. And the figure doesn’t include programmes watched through iPlayer or other online methods, meaning the true figure will be higher still.

Research by TV Licensing Scotland found that TV time has increased sharply in recent years. The UK average for all ages – including children – is now 28 hours per week, three hours more than in 2001.

Women are the more prolific viewers, racking up 35 hours in front of the screen in an average week. By contrast, men lose just 31 hours of their lives to the TV.

As Scotland’s apparent love affair with TV intensifies, so does the number of sets we own. Scots now have an average of 2.3 rooms with TVs in them. Ten years ago just over half of all Scots had a television in the bedroom (58%). This has now jumped to almost three quarters (72%).

Despite the recession Scots still managed to buy 713,000 flat screen sets in 2010, twice the number sold in 2006, according to market analysts GfK Retail and Technology. The higher figure could be due to the popularity of digital sets as we prepare for the switch over to digital terrestrial television services.

The rise in TV viewing is perhaps not surprising, as more people now sign up to Sky or cable providers and vastly increase the choice of programmes they have available.

But the apparent deceit that leads to our telling surveyors that we watch less television than we actually do suggests that we are a little ashamed of the amount of time we spend in front of the TV.

So what are the guilty pleasures? Soap operas perhaps?

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From 28 February commercial channels, but not those funded through the license fee, will be free to feature brand names in programmes. This follows a change in OFCOM’s rules on product placement on UK TV and radio.

Until now programme makers have had to have their actors hold products at odd angles so that brand names cannot be seen, or invent their own products, as is usually done in soap operas.

But now you could see someone in Coronation Street picking up a particular brand of chocolate in the Kabin – if the makers pay them enough money of course. Celebrity cooking shows could recommend particular brands of products as key ingredients. And who knows what reality tv shows will come up with.

So why the change? Well, it is advertiser driven. It seems the power of the paid advert is diminishing. Remote controls make a quick change of channel easy while many people now use Sky plus and fast forward through the ad break to the next part of the programme.

(Disclaimer: other hard disk based recording technologies are available. This blog receives no funding from Sky Television.)

Even the sponsorship of programmes is not bringing advertisers the return on their investments that they would like, and so product placement is the only place left to go.

Product placement will be allowed in dramas and documentaries, soaps, entertainment and sports shows – but not in children’s tv, news, current affairs, consumer affairs or religious programmes.

And UK legislation already bans product placement for tobacco, alcohol, gambling, foods or drinks that are high in fat, salt or sugar, medicines and formula baby milk. So don’t expect anyone to order a Guinness at the Rover’s Return then.

According to OFCOM, the broadcaster will have to broadcast a logo for three seconds at the start and end of programmes which have been paid to feature particular products. So we all get to play spot the brand name.

Will this make any great difference? Personally I don’t see it. If a company sponsoring a programme and showing its logo at every opportunity doesn’t increase its sales, why should the use of a product within the show itself.

But advertisers must think they will get a return on their investment, or they wouldn’t have pushed for the change.

So if Ken Barlow is sitting eating a packet of Werther’s Originals on a Wednesday evening, will you rush to the shops as soon as the programme is over?

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More than a million people die around the world in car accidents each year. Modern vehicles already contain many safety features, including seat belts and airbags – but could new technologies eliminate crashes altogether?

Most accidents happen because of human error rather than mechanical issues. And so scientists are developing cars with the hope that the vehicle itself can help out the driver.

In Sweden, researchers for Volvo are testing an auto-braking system that stops a car immediately if it senses another car is getting too close at speed. A sensor system maps out objects around the car and engages the brake if a collision is about to happen – even if the driver has his foot on the accelerator.

And testing is going well, with lead scientist Erik Coelingh convinced that his system will work. He has a vision: “in the future there will be no collisions, will be no fatal accidents with vehicles anymore.”

Meanwhile in Detroit, researchers for General Motors are developing a prototype windscreen, which they hope will enhance drivers’ vision – the Advanced Vision System.

Three infrared cameras monitor the driver’s head position and the exact direction he or she looks while driving. And when visibility is bad, key features can be highlighted on the windscreen, making life easier.

Thomas Seder, the man leading the project explains how it would work on a foggy day.

“[We can] highlight the edge of road, augmenting reality effectively, making it more apparent to you so that you can release your attention to other things that you should be scanning for.”

So all you have to do is make sure you drive between the lines. Sounds like a video game, doesn’t it?

Can a car ever become totally safe? Somehow I doubt it.

The main issue with any technology is always reliability. Pretty much every gadget fails to work now and then. And if drivers come to rely on these innovations rather than on their own awareness of the road, it could be disastrous.

The use of these systems may help to make driving safer. But I can’t help but think that finding ways to improve the skills of drivers might be a better long term bet.

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The End For Books?

Does the news that Amazon now sells more e-books than paperbacks mark the beginning of the end for the book?

The same statistics do show that paperback sales are up too, but what industry analysts call the “moment of cross-over” may have arrived, meaning that digital is now becoming the dominant format for the reader.

Amazon is in an ideal position to exploit this position, as it also makes and sells the leading “e-reader” – the “Kindle” – although others including Sony’s sell well too. And the boom in sales of tablet computers may also lead to increases in the sales of electronic books.

The growth of online retailers like Amazon has already meant hard times for bookshops. Many smaller independent retailers have vanished from the High Street and even US giant Borders has gone to the wall in the UK.

“Our vision is that every book in every language should be available for you to download and start reading in 60 seconds,” said Christopher North, the UK managing director of Amazon.

No more waiting for the book to come in the post then. Just download and read immediately. Another example of instant gratification.

But what does this mean for authors?

Neill Denny, who edits the industry journal ‘The Bookseller’, believes it will become more difficult for new authors to get into the market.

“Breaking new authors is much harder digitally. Sure, you can build excitement with Facebook fan pages and the rest. But impulse buying of books can’t really happen in the same way,” he argued.

Others disagree, believing that increased sales in whatever format can only be good news. It is much cheaper to produce an e-book than it is to have one published in the traditional format. And it is also much easier to self-publish, cutting the publishing house out of the equation entirely.

This doesn’t just appeal to those trying to gain a foothold in the market. The likes of Philip Roth, Martin Amis and John Updike are all bypassing publishers to sell digital editions of books directly to readers, via Amazon.

While the number of e-book readers sold in the UK lags well behind their American counterparts, they are growing very swiftly, with huge leaps in sales reported over Christmas. And trends in the US are usually followed on this side of the pond.

So the paperback won’t be disappearing immediately, but the move towards electronic editions will continue it seems.

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