Thursday, June 26, 2008

The TouchSmart Has Improved -- But Not Enough

Hewlett-Packard has been on a roll in the consumer PC market lately, with a new emphasis on attractive designs and a new willingness to take risks. It has competed hard with Dell on price, while at the same time offering some of the style and cool features usually associated with Apple or Sony.
WSJ's Walt Mossberg says Hewlett-Packard's new generation of touchscreen computers, the HP TouchSmart PC, is powerful and well-equipped, but doesn't realize the full potential of touchscreen computing.

About 18 months ago, the giant PC maker brought out an unusual desktop computer called the TouchSmart, a bulky model meant for kitchen counters. It was intended as a walk-up home kiosk, with large icons you could activate by merely touching them to check the weather or to consult your calendar.

This TouchSmart was praised for its originality, but it wasn't as practical as promised, and wasn't a big hit. Still, H-P is persevering with the concept. It has refined the hardware and the touch-controlled software, and has come up with a new line set to go on sale by mid-July.

This new TouchSmart, which comes in two models priced at $1,299 and $1,499, is a relatively slim, one-piece desktop with a large 22-inch screen. It resembles the Apple iMac or the Dell XPS One and, like the latter, runs Microsoft's Windows Vista. It has a wireless keyboard and mouse, and can be used as a normal Vista computer.

But, like the first TouchSmart, this new model comes with H-P's touch-controlled user interface and special programs designed to be manipulated with your fingers. For this model, H-P is de-emphasizing the idea that the machine is meant for the kitchen, but it is forging ahead strongly with the notion that touch control is the wave of the future.

After testing the new TouchSmart PC for a few days, my verdict is mixed. The TouchSmart software is indeed improved. It's attractive, more versatile and more practical -- and fun to use. The hardware is handsome and well-equipped. And H-P deserves credit for continuing to build software expertise in a world where makers of computers and cellphones must become as expert at software as they are at hardware. But the latest effort has some problems.

The TouchSmart interface is inviting. There's a top row with huge icons, called tiles, displaying your favorite programs, and a bottom row of smaller tiles for other programs. You can scroll each row with a finger and decide which programs go in which row. You can even include in either row not only TouchSmart programs, but the regular Windows programs or Web sites that you like. When you tap on a tile that isn't for a special TouchSmart program, the computer pops you into the regular Windows interface. To return to the TouchSmart interface, you just tap a home button below the screen.
Hewlett-Packard's TouchSmart

The TouchSmart software includes a calendar, a weather widget, a clock, music and video players, a program for composing short notes, and even a basic Web browser. All worked OK in my tests, but they're simple and limited.

The computer itself is fairly powerful. Both models have dual-core processors, large hard disks, and a whopping 4 gigabytes of memory. And both run the special 64-bit version of Vista, which allows more memory usage and can be much faster than regular Vista, but only if you buy special 64-bit software programs. This machine is loaded with every conceivable port and connector, mostly hidden from view, and the high-end model even has a TV tuner.

But this is still a Vista computer, with all of the disadvantages that entails, especially a sluggish start-up and an annoying barrage of pop-up warnings. And the new TouchSmart is preloaded with craplets, those irritating trial programs and come-ons that you didn't order.

There's a built-in Webcam that works in low light, but it's almost impossible to tilt the computer forward to get the best shot. Plus, the TouchSmart software interface is very basic and is ragged around the edges. It isn't a multitouch interface -- like the ones on the Apple iPhone and in the next version of Windows, code-named Windows 7, that recognize a variety of gestures and perform different tasks when multiple fingers are used rather than just one. For example, you can't rotate a photo on the TouchSmart by grabbing it with your fingers, or move back and forth through Web pages by swiping the browser with your fingers.

The TouchSmart software is just a thin shell plopped on top of Vista, and it crashed on me four times during the course of a few days of testing. Also, the limitations of the TouchSmart applications can be frustrating. The photo application wouldn't let me create albums. The music application didn't display artist names for some of my MP3 files, and the calendar application can't display an onscreen reminder of an event if you're working in the main Vista interface.

If you're intrigued by the idea of a quick and simple interface on a handsome one-piece Vista machine, the TouchSmart might make sense. But it doesn't deliver on the full promise of touch computing.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Chrysler will offer wireless Internet access in 2009 models

Have you ever thought rush hour on the 405 Freeway might be more bearable if you could check your e-mail, shop for a book on Amazon, place some bids on EBay and maybe even, if nobody is looking, download a little porn?

Then perhaps you should be driving a Chrysler.

The nation's third-largest automaker is set to announce Thursday that it's making wireless Internet an option on all its 2009 models. The mobile hotspot, called UConnect Web, would be the first such technology from any automaker.

Struggling Chrysler is hoping that providing motorists access to the information superhighway will set it apart from competitors and help reverse a dismal year; through May, sales are down 19.3% compared with 2007, the worst drop-off in the industry.

"It's a notion of always wanting to be connected wherever you are," said Scott Slagle, Chrysler's senior manager of global marketing strategy, who has been testing the technology since last week, allowing his daughters to surf the Web from the back seat. "There's a demand for that."

Coincidentally, Wi-Fi on wheels is being unveiled just days before new hands-free legislation goes into effect July 1 in California and Washington state. Those laws, designed to reduce accidents caused by driver distraction, prohibit talking on a cellular phone without a headset or other hands-free device.

Perhaps not surprisingly, safety advocates were less than overwhelmed by Chrysler's innovation.

"Surfing the Web is something people really don't have any business doing while they drive," said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Assn. "It's definitely a distraction."

His and other safety groups say the only way to drive safely is without using any electronic devices, headset or no.

Chrysler says that when the car is in motion, the service is intended to be used only by passengers. The privately held company acknowledges, however, that there is no way to prevent a driver from steering with one hand and Web surfing with the other.

"We're relying on the responsibility of the consumer to follow appropriate legislation," said Keefe Leung, Chrysler's engineer for the product.

In that case, Californians tempted to Google and drive can breathe a big sigh of relief: The new laws don't proscribe use of computers or the Web, except for drivers under 18 years old. There is a different law on the books preventing the use of television screens or video screens farther forward than the rear of the front seats, but it's unclear whether that measure applies to computers browsing the Internet.

State Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), who authored the California laws, is trying to clarify that situation. He's introduced legislation prohibiting drivers from using any "mobile service device" (including computers) or text-messaging while driving.

"It's great to see technology advance," Simitian said. "But this raises a lot of concerns."

In Chrysler's defense, it's not the first company to offer Internet access in cars. Avis Rent A Car introduced Avis Connect in January 2007. Like UConnect Web, Avis Connect (which costs $10.95 a day) operates on the 3G network using a cellular-based signal.

The device used by Avis is also available through its manufacturer, Autonet Mobile, for $595 plus a $39 monthly subscription rate. Users get download speeds of 600 megabits to 800 megabits per second.

Avis spokesman John Barrows said the device, which is portable, is fairly popular but not in as much demand as GPS units.

"We emphasize that this is not for use by the driver while operating the vehicle," Barrows said.

Chrysler will formally roll out the technology Thursday at an event in Detroit spotlighting its 2009 lineup, which will appear in showrooms in September. The automaker did not disclose pricing, but said there would probably be a base charge for the option, plus a monthly or annual fee.

UConnect Web is an extension of the company's UConnect system, which provides Bluetooth connectivity for cellphones and MP3 player integration with the car stereo. Rival Ford provides similar services, but without Web access, in its popular Sync system.

With the added Internet connectivity, drivers and passengers will be able to get such devices as laptop computers and Nintendo Wii consoles online. As to what users can download while in the car, Chrysler's Leung said anything was fair game.

"There are no limitations in content," he said.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Firm Makes Its Mark In the Blink of an Eye

FotoNation Team in Ireland
Solves Photography Pitfalls;
Next Up? Camera Phones
Galway, Ireland

This small city on Ireland's west coast has become the digital capital of the winning smile and the clear eye.

Two-thirds of the world's digital cameras -- and soon hundreds of millions of camera phones -- are outfitted with technology from a tiny hometown company, FotoNation, that has solved some of photography's perennial pitfalls.

Software developed by the company allows Nikon Corp.'s newest digital cameras to employ "smile detection" -- which stops the picture from being taken until everyone in the frame is grinning. It makes it possible for most Eastman Kodak Co. cameras to automatically scrub red eyes from photos as they are taken. And it enables the newest Pentax Corp. cameras to warn shutterbugs when a picture is spoiled because someone closed their eyes.

FotoNation was founded by its chief executive, Eran Steinberg, a 46-year old Israeli engineer who lives in San Francisco. Mr. Steinberg started working on digital-photography development in the 1990's with computer scientists at the National University of Ireland's Galway campus -- after he married an Irish woman. After his previous employer closed in the bust, he and the Galway engineers started taking on projects for camera makers.

Mr. Steinberg saw that cameras with a digital brain could fix problems that had bedeviled photography for decades. "Traditional camera companies look at improving image quality with glass," he says, referring to lenses. "We asked, 'How can you do things to the image?' "

FotoNation, which has 70 employees world-wide, divides its engineering efforts between Galway and low-cost Bucharest, Romania. At a recent visit to its offices in Galway, engineers from Ireland, Romania, Moldova, Germany, Hungary and India fine-tuned software. Some were writing new code for the picture processors in cameras. Others checked changes in the code against a database of 600,000 human faces that FotoNation has built to test its software algorithms.

Other companies, such as ArcSoft Inc., Fremont, Calif., and Omron Corp., of Kyoto, Japan, also market photo-improvement technology. But FotoNation has the largest share and the broadest product line, market researchers say.

"Those guys are geniuses," says the U.S. marketing chief for one Japanese camera company.

Tessera Technologies Inc., a San Jose, Calif., semiconductor company that specializes in products for cellphone cameras, completed its acquisition of FotoNation for as much as $39 million last month. FotoNation won't disclose its annual revenue.

FotoNation's first hit product addressed a problem that has vexed photographers since the advent of color flash-photography: red-eye. Red-eye occurs when the light from a flash penetrates a dilated pupil and reflects back the color of red blood vessels in the eye. Camera makers had tried various fixes, such as a preflash to contract pupils before the actual picture is taken, or separating the flash from the camera lens -- complicated solutions that drain batteries.

FotoNation's breakthrough idea was to develop a software algorithm small enough to run on the processor of a digital camera that can detect eyes in a picture, determine whether they are red, then automatically erase the color before the image was stored. Nikon's introduction of the feature in its CoolPix line in 2003 legitimized the idea of buying software from FotoNation and attracted other customers.

Last year, 80% of the 100 million digital cameras sold world-wide came installed with red-eye reduction. Most camera makers no longer give users the option of turning off the feature.

Mr. Steinberg says FotoNation hasn't yet been able to solve the unnatural coloration, often green in dogs, that shows up in many photos of pets. One of the biggest problems is that there is too much variation in dogs' faces to pinpoint the eyes.

Since the CoolPix, FotoNation has unveiled at least one new feature every year, mostly designed to improve photographs of the human face. "About 80% of consumer photos have faces in them," says Mr. Steinberg. If a camera detects a face, it can set exposure levels and distance on the face. It prevents a common mistake of snapping a picture of two people by aiming between them and inadvertently focusing on a distant object.

FotoNation's vice president of engineering, Petronel Bigioi, a Romanian who came to Ireland as a graduate student, says that FotoNation's face-detection algorithm was developed by having a computer digitally examine hundreds of thousands of images of faces and letting it figure out what they had in common. The computer created about 200 rules for detecting a face -- including rules for detecting two eyes and a nose, and other rules for measuring the distances among them. The FotoNation software decides it has found a face when it confirms about 20 of the rules.

One key to FotoNation's software is its ability to continuously examine the digital-image sensor in cameras before the picture is actually shot. Once it locks on a face, it keeps track of its location, in part because it knows faces don't move very fast. Face tracking isn't perfect. It will lose someone if they turn around and all it sees is their hair. FotoNation is still working on software to identify facial profiles -- which are daunting, because they show only one eye.

Last year, companies like Sony Corp. and Casio Inc., started selling cameras with FotoNation's face-identification technology. The idea is that photographers can teach the camera to recognize at least 20 different faces of individuals such as friends or family members. The camera will know to focus on them, instead of others in the picture. The feature, which Casio calls "Family First," can be turned off if the photographer intends to focus on one of the faces not stored in memory.

This year, FotoNation added a feature that Samsung Electronics Co. has included in some cameras called FaceTime, which tells the camera not to snap a photograph until someone has stepped into the frame with a smile.

FotoNation recently introduced software for eliminating "purple fringing," a distortion that occurs in areas of high-contrast shot with inexpensive lenses, especially when a picture is enlarged on a video monitor. Purple fringes may show up along a roof-line set against a bright sky, or around bare tree branches. Mr. Steinberg hopes the new product will be attractive to camera-phone makers.

Also in development: solutions to turn blurry shots caused by shaky hands into sharp pictures, and a way to enhance pictures taken in front of windows, whose brightness often trick cameras into turning people in front of the windows into dark silhouettes.

Mr. Steinberg says one reason he sold FotoNation to Tessera is to move the company's technology into a broader range of products. Tessera's chief executive, Bruce McWilliams, says there are potential uses in home security, medical monitoring and automobiles to warn drivers that blinking may mean drowsiness. "Human beings process life in video," he says. "This is what humans will want."

Phones Will Soon Tell Where You Are


Would you want other people to know, all day long, exactly where you are, right down to the street corner or restaurant?

Unsettling as that may sound to some, wireless carriers are betting that many of their customers do, and they're rolling out services to make it possible.

Sprint Nextel Corp. has signed up hundreds of thousands of customers for a feature that shows them where their friends are with colored marks on a map viewable on their cellphone screens. Now, Verizon Wireless is gearing up to offer such a service in the next several weeks to its 65 million customers, people familiar with it say.

Making this people-tracking possible is that cellphones today come embedded with Global Positioning System technology. With it, carriers have already offered mapping features such as turn-by-turn driving instructions. But they long hesitated to offer another breakthrough made possible by GPS -- tracking of cellphone users' whereabouts in real time -- because of privacy and liability concerns.

Now, increasingly, the wireless industry is deciding that location tracking has so much sales potential that it's worth the risks, so long as tight safeguards are in place. It's a result of the convergence of GPS with another digital phenomenon: a generation of young people who are comfortable sharing a great deal of personal information on social-networking Web sites and eager for still more ways to stay connected. The initial target market of location-tracking services: 18- to 24-year-olds.

Vivek Agrawal, a 22-year-old composer in Palo Alto, Calif., uses the service offered by Sprint to know where 10 friends are at any given time and organize impromptu get-togethers. "I'm using it amongst my closest friends," he says. "Those are the people that I'm used to asking questions like, 'Where are you?'"

The wireless industry is cracking open this new market gingerly, mindful that it could face a huge backlash from consumers and regulators if location-tracking were abused by stalkers, sexual predators, advertisers or prosecutors. "When it gets to privacy, that's quite frankly an area where we can't afford to make any mistakes," says Ryan Hughes, a vice president at Verizon Wireless.

Like Sprint Nextel, Verizon Wireless will use a service called Loopt, led by a 22-year-old, Sam Altman, who created the software as an undergraduate at Stanford. Mr. Altman says he is well aware of the dangers of misuse. "It's one of those things, the more you think about it, the more ways you can figure out a creep could abuse it," says Mr. Altman, who, as chief executive of closely held Loopt Inc., in Mountain View, Calif., still carries a messenger bag to meetings. "I think people realize that unlike a telemarketer call, which can be annoying, a location-based service could be an actual physical safety risk."

He set out to give Loopt strict rules to prevent misuse. The most significant is that cellphone users who sign up can make their whereabouts available only to a network of friends who also buy the service. They can view each others' location any time, with the proviso that users always can temporarily turn off location-tracking. The service doesn't continuously update, because that would overtax the carrier networks and consume too much battery life; it "refreshes" every 15 minutes or so, and users can always manually refresh.

Mr. Altman added a couple of other rules to make the service safer. Children under 14 can't sign up. And for the first two weeks, new users are to get several messages reminding them that the service is on and that they're being tracked.

Still, he encountered some roadblocks at Sprint. In the fall of 2006, Sprint was considering letting a subsidiary, Boost Mobile, offer Loopt to its customers. Sprint General Counsel Len Kennedy called Mr. Altman to a meeting and grilled him for two hours about the risks of users broadcasting their location to the world.

To ease Sprint's concerns, Mr. Altman agreed to a change that more rigorously limited the service to a network of friends. He changed the software so users couldn't troll outside their friend network for other cellphone users whose location might possibly be visible. "We wanted to make sure profiles weren't viewable just wide open on the Net," says a Sprint attorney, Frank Triveri.

In November 2006, Sprint let its subsidiary offer Loopt to Boost customers, who buy cell service through a prepaid package rather than an annual contract. And last July, Sprint offered Loopt to the far more numerous customers of its main cellular service. In addition, Sprint has a similar-working "child locator" service aimed at parents, which it recently made available on all Internet-enabled Sprint cellular handsets.

A disclaimer that must be signed by Sprint customers who take the service suggests how concerned Sprint is about liability. "Sprint is not responsible for the Loopt Service," it says, and customers disclose their location "at your own risk." The service is currently being offered free as a promotion, but Sprint will eventually charge a few dollars per month, as its Boost subsidiary does.

Loopt has a laborious registration process that involves scrolling through several pages of disclaimers and privacy notices. Once signed up, users get regular messages reminding them that location-tracking is on, a possible source of annoyance to subscribers.

Relaxed View

Some in the industry think wireless carriers are being too skittish. Richard Wong, a partner at venture-capital firm Accel Partners, says "operators are sometimes too careful around this issue and are stifling innovation to some degree." He says the industry isn't taking into account that younger consumers have a much more relaxed view about what constitutes an invasion of privacy than their parents.

Our City Forest, a San Jose, Calif., nonprofit that promotes tree-planting in urban areas, gives its employees phones equipped with the service, to help them coordinate while in the field. Employee Meghan Johnston, 18, gives the service a rave review, but says she wishes it also enabled her to post pictures of trees so experts could help her identify them. "It'd be nice to make it accessible to people outside of Loopt, but not creepily," she adds.

New location-sensitive services are emerging at a rapid pace. Wireless carriers have long been able to get a decent lock on a user's location by gathering data from cellphone towers. But the increasing pervasiveness of GPS-enabled cellphones has made it much easier for carriers to track users' whereabouts. GPS is a network of earth satellites, developed by the Defense Department, that can determine an object's location based on how long it takes for a signal to reach the object from satellites.

A service called Whrrl, from a Seattle company called Pelago Inc., will soon begin logging the places cellphone users visit -- right down to the name of a specific establishment. For instance, if a user visits a Chinese restaurant, the system will automatically pinpoint the location, look up the name of the restaurant based on the address and allow the user to share that information with others whom the user selects. The service, which the company says has tens of thousands of users, will also recommend nearby places popular with a user's friends by highlighting locations on a map.

An early version of Whrrl that can be downloaded through the phone's Web browser requires users to enter their location manually. Pelago says it will launch the complete GPS-enabled version with a U.S. wireless carrier later this year.

Yahoo Inc. is jumping into the fray, too. Earlier this year, it announced a product for mobile phones called oneConnect that will integrate location-tracking into other communications services such as instant messaging. Yahoo says it will be available in the second quarter.

Verizon Wireless -- a joint venture of Verizon Communications Inc. and Vodafone Group PLC -- expects to roll out its service using Loopt in April. It is taking a cautious approach, drawing lessons from Internet companies that have taken heat over their more-freewheeling approaches to social networking. Watching Internet companies "has given us a sense of the laundry list of things that could go wrong," says Mr. Hughes, Verizon Wireless's vice president of digital media programming.

The largest U.S. wireless carrier, AT&T Inc., says it's still weighing its options on location-tracking services, but notes that privacy is a top concern.

With Sprint and, soon, Verizon Wireless coming on board, location tracking is a rare cellular feature in which the U.S. industry is ahead of Europe's and Japan's. The reason is that U.S. regulators mandated several years ago that phone companies include location-tracking technology in handsets so public-safety personnel could track people's whereabouts in emergencies.

But location-based services are also growing overseas. European mobile carriers are starting to offer subscribers turn-by-turn driving directions and computerized maps. Amsterdam-based GeoSolutions BV offers a service called GyPSii, which allows cellphone users to view the location of others who use the service, as well as pictures and videos they have uploaded. So far, users are downloading the application from the Web. But the company has announced plans to offer it through wireless carrier China Unicom Ltd. in time for this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing.

Japanese wireless carrier NTT DoCoMo Inc. offers a service that allows parents to view the location of their children when they're carrying certain GPS-equipped "Kids' Phones."

So far, the services and the privacy issues they raise are barely on the radar screen of regulators and others in the federal government. The Federal Trade Commission, however, has met with several location-tracking companies to prepare for a May workshop that will focus on advanced mobile services. "When you're dealing with matters as intimate as someone's location, I think you have to make sure that consumers have clearly and unambiguously agreed to be made part of the service," notes one commissioner, Jon Leibowitz.

The Federal Communications Commission back in 2002 considered issuing regulations for commercial location services, but decided it was too early to delve into the issue. The agency says it hasn't any plan to restart those proceedings.

The only relevant statute appears to be a 1999 law that says cell-service carriers must get "express prior authorization of the customer" to use or provide access to location information for commercial purposes. The sponsor of that law, Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, says it may be time for an update. "As each new technology revolution takes place, you need a discussion about what the implications are for privacy," he says.

Policing Itself

The wireless industry is trying to stay ahead of the debate by policing itself -- and lobbying. Carriers are drafting a set of privacy standards for location services through their main trade group, CTIA-The Wireless Association. The rules, expected to be adopted in April, are being circulated with key officials on Capitol Hill and the FCC.

As the leading startup in the nascent industry, Loopt has mounted its own Washington outreach. Mr. Altman hired a tech-industry lawyer, Brian Knapp, as chief privacy officer. The two have made frequent trips to Washington to court officials in Congress, the White House, the FCC and nonprofit groups, explaining Loopt's privacy policies and getting input on how to tweak them. The goal, says Mr. Altman: to "keep from getting legislated out of business."

After Mr. Knapp visited the National Network to End Domestic Violence last June, Loopt agreed to make its privacy controls easier to find on cellphones. It added a feature that enabled users to give a false location to throw off a stalker.

Another issue that's beginning to get attention is under what circumstances carriers or service providers like Loopt should have to turn over real-time location information in criminal investigations. Federal magistrates have been split on what authority a prosecutor needs to tap location-tracking services: a simple subpoena, as would be required for an individual's call records, or an order based on "probable cause," a much higher standard used for legal wiretaps.

Mr. Markey says lawmakers and regulators should be giving the privacy issues surrounding location services serious thought, rather than waiting for a high-profile incident of corporate or government misconduct that brings the issue into sharp focus.

"There has to be a national debate about what the privacy implications are," he says.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Dash's Car Navigator Gives Smart Directions, If Others Participate

As smart as in-car navigation devices are, they could be smarter. They could talk to each other via the Internet and share information on how fast traffic is moving on the roads they have just traveled. And they could also use the Internet to let you search for places of interest, get map updates, or even receive new destinations wirelessly.

Starting this week, just such a smarter navigation box is hitting the market. Called the Dash Express, this $400 product looks a lot like units from better-known firms such as Garmin and Magellan. Like them, it uses GPS satellite signals to locate your car on an easily seen map, and to route you to destinations and places of interest, using both visual and spoken instructions.

But, unlike any other in-car navigation device I've seen, each Dash Express, from a Silicon Valley start-up called Dash Navigation, becomes part of a network, connected to the company via the Internet. Each device not only receives and displays information, but transmits it as well, acting as a "probe," as Dash calls it, to measure local traffic speeds. This information is compiled by the company and then broadcast back to all other Dash units in your area, almost instantly painting streets on your map with color codes to indicate traffic speeds.

I've been testing a Dash Express in and around my home base of Washington, D.C., and, while it isn't perfect, I like it a lot. If the company sells enough units to create a solid network, Dash could radically improve in-car navigation.

That "if" is the big catch with Dash -- in order to get its special benefits, enough units must be sold in your city to feed the network with sufficient traffic data. According to the company, for most cities just "several hundred" units would be enough to provide more than half of the significant traffic data it requires for major roads during normal commuting hours.

Meanwhile, Dash, like some of its competitors, makes use of limited traffic data provided by a commercial vendor. This information, which mainly covers major highways, is presented as a dotted line on the Dash maps, to indicate that it may be stale. By contrast, fresh input from Dash's own network is presented as a solid line.
he service costs between $9.99 and $12.99 a month. That fee includes the cost of the Internet connection used by the Dash Express, which is achieved using both cellphone and Wi-Fi networks.

To test the Dash, I had to create a tiny two-car network. My colleague Katie Boehret and I each drove the same route in Dash-equipped cars, about 15 minutes apart. The route included everything from the smallest residential streets to large local commuter arteries to the jammed Washington Beltway.

Katie went first, and by the time I retraced her route, my Dash unit's screen was ablaze with solid-color streets indicating the traffic speeds she had encountered: green for free-flowing traffic, yellow for moderate congestion, red for stop-and-go conditions. Even two-lane local roads, the kind where traffic data are almost never available, were colored in.

Once Dash begins selling, the company won't rely much on the information provided by a single driver like we did. It will average and weight the information it receives, to eliminate odd results from especially fast or slow drivers, and to emphasize the newest data. Each Dash reading will time out after no more than 25 minutes, turning solid lines into dotted ones as a warning that the information may be old.

I did run into a couple of glitches during the test. For one small road Katie had traveled, I received no Dash data. And on the return trip, Dash tried to route me right into a Beltway traffic jam, even though its screen showed that area in red. The company is working a future feature, called My Route, that would allow savvy drivers to order the device to use the local routes they prefer, to avoid such jams.

Dash Express has a host of other nice features, explained online at Instead of giving you one route to your destination, it offers three choices, one of which supposedly incorporates current traffic conditions. It allows you to type in a destination on a personalized MyDash Web page and have that address sent wirelessly to your Dash unit, ready to be selected. You could even have a colleague or friend send you a destination while you are driving, so you don't have to pull over to type it in or, worse, try typing while driving.

And the Dash also connects to the Internet to perform searches for local businesses, and then routes you there. Plus, you can create your own lists of favorite places and points of interest, or share those created by others and send these to your Dash from the MyDash Web site.

Dash Express finally brings the power of the Internet, and of community information, to auto navigation. If it becomes popular, it could be a big deal.

Observing your teenager's driving habits by remote

Stephanie Wade, a Peck, Kan., mother of six, didn't make her children wear seat belts in the car when they were younger. So years later, it was difficult to persuade her 16-year-old daughter Kelsie to wear one when she got her driver's license in November.

To police her child, Ms. Wade in January had a video camera installed in plain view in Kelsie's car. The camera, made by DriveCam Inc., records both the inside of a car and the view outside through the windshield. Whenever the vehicle makes a sudden move, the camera wirelessly transmits a digital recording to DriveCam's central-monitoring station, where it's analyzed and emailed to her parents within 24 hours. DriveCam also sends a weekly report rating the teen's driving and safety skills.

Using DriveCam's service, Ms. Wade saw that her daughter wasn't wearing her seat belt. "We started saying, 'Kelsie, you have to be buckled and anybody in the car has to be buckled,' " says Ms. Wade, 43. Kelsie complied -- a move that later may have saved her life.

DriveCam's $900-a-year camera and one-year monitoring contract were paid for by the Wades' car-insurance company -- an incentive increasingly offered by insurers to attract younger drivers. But it's also one of several new tools that help parents keep track of teenage drivers.

In the past, parents could only guess -- and worry -- about what their teens were doing behind the wheel. But the rapid advance of inexpensive camera and recording technologies -- spurred in part by Internet cameras, digital cameras and cellphones -- has given parents more control over their kids when they drive. Part of this is spurred by insurance companies, which offer discounts on teen-monitoring systems to woo young drivers and their parents.

The technologies are proliferating as the number of teenage and young-adult drivers in the U.S. increases. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says there were 13 million drivers between 15 and 20 years old on the road in 2006. And that year, 3,490 young drivers died, making vehicle crashes the leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 20 in the U.S.
A camera mounted on a rear-view mirror captured a young driver on her cellphone just before she lost control of her car and drove into a ditch. She wasn't seriously hurt.

Like DriveCam, BrickHouse Security, a unit of BrickHouse Electronics LLC, offers a recording package to families with teen drivers. A $400 camera with LCD playback screen is clipped to the rear-view mirror to record the view outside through the windshield. It has an input port for a second camera, which parents can use to record what's happening inside the car. The camera records roughly two hours of high-resolution video on a standard 2-gigabyte memory card. There is no central monitoring service. Instead, parents can review the video on the LCD screen in the car or access the memory card on a personal computer. (Also available is a $100 camera that records in a lesser quality and doesn't come with an LCD screen.)

Last May, OBS Inc., a Colorado-based mobile surveillance company, launched the HD1, a video-camera system for cars, aimed in part at parents with teenagers. The HD1, which starts at $965, works like a digital-video recorder, filming everything that goes on in and around the car with as many as four cameras. Parents can remove the hard drive from the system using a key and connect it to their television or PC to view the video.

BrickHouse and Alltrack USA also offer GPS tracking features that can let parents know where their teens are driving. Using the devices, the car location and the speed at which it is moving is tracked by a satellite and then transmitted to a secure Web site parents can view.

Market Still Small

Despite the number of products available, the market is still relatively small. Thilo Koslowski, an analyst with market researcher Gartner Inc., says less than 1% of U.S. vehicle owners install camera systems in the car. He cites the high cost of some of these systems and the potential spying concerns as the reasons parents may be holding off, and adds that few parents have the time to analyze a long driving video.

And using teen-tracking technology may cause some tension between parents and their kids.

Todd Morris, CEO of BrickHouse Security, says his customers tell him that they almost always install the company's GPS product covertly, without the teenager's knowledge.

Mark Alexander, a consulting engineer in Tyler, Texas, secretly installed a GPS system from BrickHouse on his son's car last fall, before the 18-year-old went off to boarding school in Chattanooga, Tenn., for his senior year. Installing the antenna for the system out of sight underneath the dashboard of the vehicle, Mr. Alexander was able to receive text messages every time his son, Reid, drove the car over 80 miles per hour or left the grounds of the boarding school. When he received a text message, Mr. Alexander says he called his son immediately in the car, warning him to slow down.

Mr. Alexander says his son was never able to figure out exactly how he kept tabs on his whereabouts. At one point, his son even disabled the OnStar in-vehicle diagnostics system in the car, thinking that was the culprit. Mr. Alexander eventually told his son about the GPS system over the holidays.

Mr. Alexander, 49, says that installing the system in the car improved his son's driving habits. He adds that he has no problem with bugging his kid's car without telling him how he did it. "Around my house, we have the golden rule. He who has the gold makes the rule...If you want my checkbook and my car with my name on it, these are my rules," he says.

Reid responds: "My dad knows me well enough to know that it is probably a good idea to know where I am at all times."

Matter of Trust

Karen Zager, a New York psychologist who specializes in parenting and relationship issues, says that trust is something that teenagers need to earn from parents over time. She suggests, however, that parents should start positively by giving their teens more freedom from the start and seeing how they handle it. Then they can scale back those freedoms if their kids misuse the responsibility.

Whether or not parents should use teen-tracking products like GPS, Dr. Zager says, is dependent on how trustworthy the parent thinks their children are. She adds that parents don't necessarily have to tell their kids how they are tracking them, but says the idea that they will be monitoring their teenagers should be something that is openly discussed.

"After the initial, 'I hate your guts. You are the worst parent to ever walk the face of the earth,' I think the idea would be that your child comes to respect that what you are doing is in the child's best interest," says Dr. Zager.

Ms. Wade, for one, says she was skeptical when she first heard about DriveCam because she knew it was spying on her daughter. Her daughter, Kelsie, agreed, fighting her mom on the camera at first. "I felt like my parents could always see me and know when I was doing something wrong," Kelsie says.

Two weeks after the camera was installed, Kelsie lost control of her car driving 55 mph on a dirt road and flipped over two times. The car was totaled. Kelsie, who was wearing her seat belt, emerged with only a slight case of whiplash. Today, Kelsie says that since the wreck, she doesn't mind the camera's being in the car, calling it a "good learning tool."

"At first I completely hated it, because it was this huge black thing underneath my mirror and every time I looked over there I would see it," she says. "But now I don't mind it."

Saturday, June 21, 2008

A '60s troubadour turns postmodern disc jockey

Satellite radio is the open secret of the new media. If you're one of the 17 million Americans who owns a satellite-equipped car or home receiver, you have access to a staggeringly diverse variety of round-the-clock programming that ranges from reggaeton and Howard Stern to Frank Sinatra and "The Shadow." Yet for most of the rest of us, satellite radio is still barely more than a whispered rumor. But now that FCC chairman Kevin Martin has given a thumbs-up sign to the merger of XM and Sirius, the two U.S.-based satellite services, the chances that satellite radio will finally become a major media player have taken an upward tick -- meaning that you may be on the verge of discovering "Theme Time Radio Hour," the most interesting radio show to hit the airwaves in decades.

"Theme Time Radio Hour" is heard on XM's Deep Tracks channel every Wednesday at 10 a.m. EDT, then repeated several times each week on various other channels. The host is none other than Bob Dylan. Yes, that Bob Dylan. Not that he has to vouch for his identity on the air: The raspy, nasal honk of his voice is instantly recognizable to anyone who knows anything about American popular culture. So is the fascinatingly wide-ranging musical sensibility that informs his program, which was launched two years ago and has racked up 75 episodes to date. Each week Mr. Dylan plucks a topic out of the air -- colors, trains, death and taxes, spring cleaning -- and plays recordings of a dozen songs whose lyrics relate to it in some way. In between songs he chats about the music and its makers, interspersing his gnomic mini-lectures with a cornucopia of old radio-station promos, celebrity vignettes and phony phone calls and email readings.

On a recent episode devoted to doctors, Mr. Dylan played, among other things, Jackson Browne's "Doctor My Eyes," B.B. King's "Walking Doctor Bill," Doc Pomus's "Send for the Doctor," the Rolling Stones' "Dear Doctor," the White Stripes' "Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine," an obscure 1955 calypso song by Lord Lebby called "Dr. Kinsey Report," and "Hadacol Boogie," a jumping ditty recorded in 1949 by Bill Nettles and the Dixie Blue Boys whose subject was the once-celebrated patent medicine touted by its maker as a cure-all for "stomach disturbances, gas, heartburn, indigestion, nagging aches and pains, and certain nervous disorders."

Mr. Dylan's crisp, pungent commentaries were as listenable as the songs he played. Toward the end of the show, he introduced a gospel number by the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi by gently chiding listeners who turn up their noses at songs on religious themes: "Any time people sing about what they believe, it elevates it. You don't have to be a junkie to enjoy the Velvet Underground song 'Heroin.' You don't have to have horns and a pitchfork to enjoy 'Sympathy for the Devil,' but it does help. The thing is, it's all music, and when the people believe what they're singing, it's just better."

Listen to a clip of Bob Dylan on his XM Radio show, "Theme Time Radio Hour":
• Introduction to "Joe"

Part of what I find so engaging about "Theme Time Radio Hour" is that it flies in the face of the conventional wisdom about radio in the 21st century. Teenagers and college graduates are less likely to listen to radio nowadays, a decline that media consultants attribute to the rise of the iPod, which allows its owners to choose from thousands of previously downloaded songs at will instead of settling for whatever a disc jockey cares to play. The assumption is that under-40 listeners are now choosing to withdraw into gated communities of musical taste, behind whose electronic walls they listen only to what they already know they like. That's how most of the hundreds of existing satellite-radio channels work. Each one is devoted to a narrow stylistic sliver -- show tunes, New Age, old-school hip-hop, even 24/7 Led Zeppelin -- so that when you tune it in, you know just what you're getting. Not so "Theme Time Radio Hour," which gives you what Mr. Dylan thinks you ought to get. Nor is his taste predictable: He likes nothing more than to throw musical curve balls, and if you don't like the song he's playing now, all you have to do is wait three minutes for the next one to come along.

To listen to "Theme Time Radio Hour" is to rediscover the sense of musical adventure that old-fashioned disc jockeys with strongly individual personalities offered in the days before big-money stations pinned their fiscal hopes to the rigid Top 40-style playlists that took the fun out of radio. Now that America's public-radio stations are abandoning musical programming in favor of news and talk, such shows have grown hard to find in many major markets. That's what makes satellite radio promising. Because it has so many different channels, it has room for everything -- including unpredictability.

After listening to a few episodes of "Theme Time Radio Hour," it occurred to me that Mr. Dylan and Eddie Gorodetsky, his producer, had inadvertently come up with a model for other musical genres. Why not, say, a show hosted by the classical violinist Hilary Hahn, an articulate young woman whose musical tastes are as wide-ranging as Mr. Dylan's? Instead of reheating the same old casserole of drive-time leftovers, Ms. Hahn could dish up an eclectic stew of classical music, pop, bluegrass . . . or whatever. That, after all, is the point of "Theme Time Radio Hour," which is dedicated to the admirable proposition that no well-rounded cultural diet is complete without a weekly dose of whatever.

Friday, June 20, 2008

There's No Directory of Cellphone Numbers, And Perhaps There Never Will Be One

In the last six months of 2007, a Centers for Disease Control survey found 18% of U.S. households don't have a landline -- up from 5% in the same period four years earlier. And, as discussed in this Real Time from last month, digging into the survey by age shows the decline of the landline in stark terms: 34.5% of adults aged 25-29 live in wireless-only households.

But as the landline slides toward extinction, a question: In a cellular-dominated world, how will we find a phone number for someone we don't know?

There's no white pages for cellphone numbers, and it doesn't seem likely that there'll be one soon. A few years ago, the cellphone industry's main trade group hired a company to assemble such a directory, but the effort collapsed after some carriers lobbied against it and surveys showed a majority of customers didn't want it. Subsequent efforts have fared little better: Earlier this year, a company called Intelius shuttered an online directory of 90 million mobile numbers amid anger from cellphone users and threats from Verizon. (Intelius -- not Intellius, as I had it earlier -- still offers a reverse-lookup service, for a fee.)

In backpedaling, Intelius said that "it's clear the market is still not ready." But it may never be.

Would you miss the white pages if they vanished tomorrow? In an ideal world, how would we find contact information for people we don't know? Join a discussion with me and other Online Journal readers.

The principal reason there's no cellphone directory is simple: We don't want one. The cellphone began as an extension of the landline, and the last thing we wanted (particularly as the ones paying for the calls) was telemarketers and other landline nuisances following us to it. Now, more and more users (particularly younger ones) see the cellphone not as an adjunct to the landline, but as a replacement.

But at least so far, the wireless-only trend hasn't prompted many people to reconsider and decide we really do need a cellphone directory after all. And I don't think that will change.

Why not? Because in a number of important ways, the cellphone is more of a break with traditional telephone service than it is an evolution of it. And those differences will only become more apparent in the coming years.

The biggest reason wireless-only adults don't need a directory is that they're reachable in other ways -- through their homepages, blogs, MySpace and Facebook outposts and of course through their email. Twenty years ago, the telephone was the only practical way of reaching someone -- and in that situation, a directory of telephone users was obviously crucial. Now, the phone is just one method in a range of communications options, and often it's not the best one. (As also discussed last month -- I've had phones on the brain.) It seems like having a phone in our pocket would make it a more important device, but the rise of other ways of communicating have made that phone far less important.

Less important in terms of phone functions, at least -- for as phones get smarter, they become less and less like the phones we grew up with. We're more likely to use them for text messaging or accessing our email, reserving voice calls for friends, family members and important colleagues -- another reason fewer and fewer people need our number. And new services allow us to sort and direct incoming calls as if they were emails -- witness the Google-owned GrandCentral, which gives you a single phone number from which calls are directed to a range of other numbers, whether it's your home phone, work phone, cellphone or some voice-mail box you'll regard like your spam folder on your email.

I don't know if GrandCentral itself will fly or die, but its approach seems likely to succeed: Pretty soon most of us will have a single point of contact, used by people we don't know to communicate with us in whatever way we collectively deem appropriate. And we'll control how and when they do so -- just as we increasingly control how and when we shop, read the news or watch TV. Once we've achieved this level of control, perhaps a directory of these single points of contact will emerge. But until then, more and more of us will do just fine without the old white pages.

That will arouse uneasy feelings that technology has once again done away with something we assumed was eternal -- the phone books that arrived once a year, the ones we sat on as kids at the dinner table, are shrinking as fewer and fewer people bother to be listed in them. Those of us who remember looking ourselves up in the white pages and thinking that now we belong to a place may lament -- not for the first time -- that our real-world communities are becoming more fragmented as people spend time in online communities of their own choosing instead.

But as with so many technological shifts, these vague feelings of loss won't stop us from changing. As the digital world matures, one of its great themes is the ability it gives us to channel information for consumption at a time and via a method of our choosing. The only surprise would be if phones weren't swept up in that too.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Cable Plan Faces Bumpy Road

Cable-television operators, who have long sought a way to do away with the set-top box, say they have found a way to make that dream a reality.

Even so, a number of hurdles still have yet to be worked out.

In May, Sony Corp. and six of the biggest U.S. cable operators agreed to use Cable Television Laboratories Inc.'s technology standard, dubbed tru2way, saying the innovation would enable a new generation of TV sets to include video on demand, digital video recording, interactive-programming guides and other services -- all without the use of the ubiquitous cable box.

Sony signed the agreement with Comcast Corp., Time Warner Cable Inc., Cox Communications Inc., Charter Communications Inc., Cablevision Systems Corp. and Bright House Networks.

Because of technical limitations, satellite providers are unable to provide two-way interactive services such as video on demand.

The cable operators, with the exception of Charter Communications, have pledged to adopt tru2way by midsummer 2009.

Several observers say various factors stand in the way, including getting cooperation from electronics retailers and coming up with a business model to make the idea take hold.

About three years ago, cable operators had something called the CableCard, a plug-in about the size of a credit card that would have allowed consumers to plug their cable lines into their TV sets without the use of a set-top box.

But CableCard never really got off the ground because retailers and manufacturers couldn't agree on what the two-way standard would be. Some TV sets were compatible with the card, and some weren't.

"The CableCard was really chaotic, especially at retail," said Tuna Amobi, entertainment analyst at Standard & Poor's. "Retailers found that it really created a lot of confusion in the minds of the consumers."

Other analysts point to difficulty in getting broad market support. Says James McQuivey of Forrester Research: "Even if the new Sony [TV] becomes available -- and that could be years from now -- and you take that device home, will it only work with that one cable system? Or if you were to switch to some competitive provider, would it still work?"

The Consumer Electronics Association, the industry's trade group in the U.S., says it is pleased with the landmark agreement on tru2way. But it also signaled that having Sony, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.'s Panasonic brand and several cable operators on board with tru2way is only one step on a long road that could get bumpy.

"It is difficult to say...whether alternative technical proposals for cable-equipment compatibility will be chosen by some cable operators or equipment manufacturers in the future," the CEA said.

To be universally adopted, the standard needs approval from the Federal Communications Commission.

Another hurdle, Mr. McQuivey says, is that "nobody has discussed what the business model for this is going to be."

Ostensibly, the things possible without the set-top should be the same as options available with the box. The most prominent of those is probably video on demand. Video on demand allows viewers to watch shows stored on central servers that are streamed to users who make on-screen requests to see specific programs. Typically, as with a digital video recorder, on-demand video allows consumers to pause, rewind and fast-forward a program as it is played back.

Despite great promise, the offering has yet to become a significant revenue generator for cable operators.

Networks and studios offer various ad-supported television shows on-demand for free, hoping to galvanize loyal viewers and pick up new ones by encouraging sampling. Its true value is hard to quantify, however, especially when fast-forwarding of ads is allowed.

Addressable advertising is another possibility tru2way holds for cable operators. Such ads would target specific consumers based on what they watch, and gather demographic information. Ideally, viewers could opt out of seeing certain kinds of ads. Major cable operators, in an initiative known as Canoe Ventures, are working on the specifics.

Whatever cable operators and TV manufacturers decide, they had better be quick about it, says Robert Rosenberg, president of Insight Research.

"There has to be a simple way to download video straight from the Internet to the TV, the device has to be very simple and affordable, it's got to have strong search capabilities, and it's got to be rolled out aggressively," Mr. Rosenberg said.

As online video becomes increasingly part of the daily lifestyle, consumers are going to expect to be able to download high-definition video straight from the Web to their TV sets. Once a great deal of content is available this way, viewers need an easy way to sort through it all, using their remote control to navigate an on-screen guide.

For cable operators, the risk is that this process could leave them out of the equation altogether.

"Cable doesn't have a huge amount of time to establish dominance in this area," Mr. Rosenberg said. A personal-computer maker, another electronics manufacturer or a phone company "could end up bringing something like this to market faster," he said.

And cable companies are sometimes regarded as slow to adapt. "They say, 'We'll do this, we'll do that,' and it ends up taking five years, and it's not what everyone expected it to be," Forrester Research's Mr. McQuivey said. "So here's where I stand on tru2way: I'll believe it when I see it."

Thursday, April 24, 2008

ION TTUSB10 USB Turntable

USB turntables are a bit of an odd duck: at their core they're a device that still exists to serve of the pleasure of audiophiles and DJs - two small and elite groups - but they have digital audio converters and USB connections to facilitate conversion of sweet, sexy analog sound into easily portable digital files on your computer. Taking all of that into consideration, it's really a wonder LP lovers don't consider USB turntables the Antichrist.

Actually, that's a little unfair: plenty of people have record collections moldering in boxes in their basements that they've love to listen to again, perhaps on their mp3 players or their media PCs. They're probably looking for a fairly easy solution that sounds good. For these people, Ion Audio has the TTUSB line, including the TTUSB10, a turntable with USB and RCA outputs that hopes to not only play your records, but help you digitize them with style and ease. Today's task: find out exactly how well those claims stand up to the cold, harsh light of reality. Let's go.
Review Verdict

* USB turntables are a good idea, but because the Ion Audio TTUSB10 has a few setup, sound and usability issues, I can't give this particular USB turntable my full recommendation.

The Good & Bad

* Well-written audio recording & editing guide
* 1/8 inch jack input for recording tapes as well as records
* Free updates for the included software
* Includes RCA plugs for use as a standard record player
* 45 rpm speed allows faster recording without loss of quality

* Setup process is overly complicated
* Included software is a mixed bag of quality
* Recorded audio sounds harsh
* Export as MP3 requires plug-in
* Included click and pop filter does not work

Essential Specs & Stats

* Record compatibility: 33, 45 & 78 rpm playback
* Other input(s): 1/8" stereo line input
* Power source: Self-powered
* Warranty: One year
* Released date: July 2007

Package Content

* TTUSB10 USB Turntable
* Platter
* 45 rpm record adapter
* Dust cover
* Tone arm weight
* USB cable
* Software disc


Just plug the TAPE 2 PC into your computer using the provided USB cable, install the software and start converting your music. Easily transfer to your iPod or other MP3 player.

TAPE 2 PC includes EZ Tape Converter 2 for PC (EZTC2) and EZ Audio Converter for Mac (EZAC); the simplest way to record and convert tapes directly to iTunes. EZTC2 features Gracenote® MusicID technology, which analyzes your recordings and automatically retrieves album, artist and song information for you! EZAC lets you easily enter track information. You can now digitally archive your collection in just a few mouse clicks.

When you're finished archiving your cassettes to your computer, TAPE 2 PC can connect to your stereo system using standard RCA cables for convenient cassette listening in your living room, garage, or wherever your stereo system resides.

Upgrading your favorite recordings has never been easier.
Key Features

* Quickly transfer music on your tapes to MP3 format on your computer!
* Dual dubbing cassette deck
* Plug & Play USB audio interface no drivers needed!
* Metal and CrO2 tape selector
* EZ Tape Converter 2 software (PC) and EZ Audio Converter (Mac) for hassle-free recording
* Audacity software (Mac and PC) included for cleaning up worn recordings


* USB Cable
* Stereo RCA Cable
* Software CD
* Quick Start User's Manual

Computer Requirements

* PC
o Windows XP or Vista
o One available USB1.1 port or higher

* Mac
o Mac OS9 or higher
o One available USB1.1 port or higher