This week, two of the major players in technology demonstrated what big companies can do when they get serious about changing the world.
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As reported here and elsewhere, Google held its Google I/O developers conference in San Francisco, and the company made news on both days of the event.
On Day 1, it announced upgrades to its tablet and smartphone software; movies in the Android marketplace; a new cloud-based consumer music storage/playback service; and a preview of a home-centered technology initiative.
The resurrection of its troubled Google TV set-top box was teased in one session, although not formally released. And the company revealed its intention to make major use of USB for attaching keyboards, mice, photo transfers, and more to Android tablets: an obvious thumbing of the nose at Apple, whose iPad has little or no use for USB.
On Day 2 it dropped The Big One: production models of Internet-only Chromebook notebook computers that are essentially “dumb” terminals umbilically attached to the Internet.
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Then there was Microsoft’s $8.5 billion-dollar purchase of Skype, the Internet phone and phone-conferencing service, which was variously hailed as a wise business proposal and a less-than-flattering look into the psychological makeup of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.
The deal, the largest acquisition in Microsoft’s history, opened a pool of speculation almost as large as the deal itself about why Microsoft did this. Most speculated that Microsoft is anticipating the role of mobile video and voice technology in tomorrow’s computing world, and is using its Skype purchase to assure its place in that market. The inference that this was a bad deal for Microsoft, rather than a good one, was rampant. Eweek thought the deal was a great idea; other analysts were decidedly more mixed.
Popular GigaOm blogger Om Malik opined that Skype’s well-regarded video and voice-conferencing software gave Microsoft leverage in enterprise collaboration, especially competing against Cisco and Google. Even more important, however, is its place on the Windows 7 mobile phone platform, which would give Microsoft a well-known competitor to fend off Google Voice and Apple’s video-calling Facetime software.
There’s also speculation that Skype’s teleconferencing capabilities will add to Microsoft’s vision of its popular X-box gaming system, expanding it to becoming the hub of all things computing, from gaming to social communication. A leaked internal Microsoft video, first revealed in March on the Games.com blog, outlines this vision, giving some idea of the company's thinking.
The “secret sauce” of people controlling the movement of an avatar pictured in the video is Microsoft’s Kinect add-on for its Xbox gaming system, a hands-free controller that uses hand and body movements to control actions on the screen. Imagine your avatar, and everyone else’s avatar, talking and interacting on screen in a conference call, powered by Kinect, Skype, etc. You get the idea.
Then there’s the dark side of the deal: a speculation from the pages of Electronista saying that Microsoft badly overpaid for Skype, and the theory that CEO Ballmer bought Skype because he's obsessed with dominating Google. “Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is also known to have a personal obsession with beating Google at all costs," Electronista noted. "The executive willingly loses hundreds of millions of dollars each quarter in online efforts to support Bing, Azure, and other cloud efforts targeted at Google. If aware of Google's involvement in the bidding process, Ballmer may have bought Skype partly to keep it out of Google's hands.”
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Speaking of the cloud, how popular is it, really? Research by the Ericsson Advanced Lab, as quoted in Advanced Television, notes that the ability to stay connected is making people dependent on the Internet for their needs. The study, which surveyed people in the U.S., parts of Europe and Japan, noted that 35 percent of Android and iPhone users are checking their Facebook pages on their smartphones before they get up.
The increasing popularity of apps is the hand maiden of the Internet attachment. According to Michael Björn, Head of Research at Ericsson ConsumerLab (as quoted in Advanced Television), apps make people feel more in control of their lives. “Apps even give consumers a new sense of freedom; if a new situation arises, there’s probably an app out there that could help them.”
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Watching Netflix for the hearing impaired — or for those who have trouble following films with heavy accents — has now been made easier via the addition of a subtitling feature. For Netflix users on any browser, and starting this week on the iPad, it’s a simple adjustment. When you’ve selected your film, there’s a tab on your window that says “subtitles." Open and check it, and subtitles are available for watching. Most English-language films have subtitles, but do yourself a favor and check first.
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If you view the "good old days" in music as the era of the Kinks, think again. The Library of Congress opened the National Jukebox this week for access to historical sound recordings that date back to the dawn of the 20th Century. All the recordings are available to the public free of charge. You can find them using any Flash-equipped Internet browser.
There are some gems here.
For those of us who only know the music of George M. Cohan from James Cagney’s Academy Award-winning performance in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” here’s the actual voice of Cohan performing “I Want To Hear A Yankee Doodle Tune,” one of his lesser-known songs. You can hear that Cagney got the characterization right.
Al Jolson, that memorable singer known to us mainly through the two mid-1940s-era biographical films starring Larry Parks, or from the original 1927 Warner Bros’ “Jazz Singer,” comes to life in a 1911 Cohan-authored song called “That Haunting Melody.”
Here’s an early obscure George Gershwin song, “When Buddha Smiles,” peformed in 1921 by the Paul Whiteman orchestra only three years before “Rhapsody in Blue” burst onto the concert scene and changed music forever.
While this would make a perfect tablet app — Flash-enabled Android tablets can probably be used — Flash-less Apple iPads won’t work with it. There is a workaround for iPad users, however: an app called iSwifter, which enables you to play Flash-enabled music, videos, etc. on the iPad.
As a side note: If you enjoy historical musical trips like those offered via the National Jukebox, you should also tune in on Saturday nights to “The Swing Years and Beyond,” hosted by Amanda Wilde on KUOW-FM here in Seattle. For ears tuned to contemporary American music, some of her oldies might seem a little strange. But when you start identifying with the passion these artists gave to their music, it's easy to become a fan.