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Brier Dudley's Blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

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August 24, 2007 5:44 PM

Labor Day plans

Posted by Brier Dudley

I'll be out for a week, which is good because my personal laptop on Thursday crashed with a corrupted registry hive.

It's funny. I always seem to come down with a cold or something when I finally take a break from work. This time I've got a sick computer.

After spending a few hours unsuccessfully mucking around with XP's system recovery console, I figure I'll need at least another day to make it right. There's also a good chance I'll kill it and need a few days to shop for a new one.

Then I'll really need a vacation.

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August 23, 2007 10:04 AM

Seattle's Pluggd lands $6 million

Posted by Brier Dudley

Podcasting is so 2006. Now it's all about online video and advertising.

That's how I'm reading the announcement today that Seattle's Pluggd scored financing after shifting its business model.

Former Microsoft and Amazon.com manager Alex Castro started Pluggd in January 2006 as a podcast search service. That's still the emphasis of its public-facing Web site, but the business is now describing itself as a video search and ad platform.

It turns out the same technology that Pluggd used to scan the audio of podcasts can be used on digital video. It's also a useful way to insert contextual ad banners at relevant points in the stream of content.

That's the business that landed the series A financing. Intel Capital was the lead investor, with participation from DFJ Frontier, Labrador Ventures and angel investors.

Apparently investors weren't put off by competition from Google's new video ad-insertion system that debuted on YouTube yesterday. Maybe they're hoping that Google or Microsoft will buy Pluggd.

From the release:

"We think Pluggd's solutions for targeting high-value ads into online video are ingenious," said Ian Sobieski from Band of Angels. "This is an incredibly dynamic marketplace and we feel Pluggd is demonstrating strengths that will allow it to emerge as the leader."

Sobieski and DFJ Frontier's Scott Lenet will join Castro and Mark Klebanoff on the board, and Intel Capital's Gustavo Aray "will also participate as a board observer,'' the release said.

Here's how Pluggd describes its technology:

By unlocking the entire video stream, an advertiser no longer has to rely solely on pre-roll and post-roll placement. Rather, they can dynamically place clickable overlay ad banners at any point in the program it is the most contextually relevant.

It sounds like a great business, but I hope Pluggd's stuff never shows up in movies I'm paying to watch.

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August 23, 2007 9:41 AM

Rockstar's latest tease video, just in time for PAX

Posted by Brier Dudley

First it pushed the limits of taste, now it's pushing video game graphics to new levels of realism. But will Rockstar Games ever finish the high-def games it's promoting with dazzling trailers?

This one, for Midnight Club: Los Angeles, will still draw a crowd at Rockstar's PAX booth. Even if you don't play games, it's worth checking out to see how close games are coming to movies:

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August 22, 2007 3:27 PM

New games galore at Seattle's PAX: A partial lineup

Posted by Brier Dudley

Don't be overly alarmed if you see suspicious characters milling around the convention center in downtown Seattle this weekend.

Some 30,000 gamers are expected for Penny Arcade Expo, an exhibition and playfest running Friday through Sunday.

The annual event was started in 2004 by Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, Seattle based creators of the online Penny Arcade comic.

Unlike most industry shows, this one's open to anyone interested enough to pay $30 a day and battle huge crowds for a chance to see and try the latest video, PC and tabletop games.

It's also a schmoozefest, since so many big game companies are located in the Seattle area.

That will spill into PAX parties that game companies are holding around town. The most decadent may be a World War III theme bash with "authentic military machinery and weaponry" that Vivendi's hosting to launch its new PC action game "World in Conflict."

Here's a sample of launches, unveilings and other PAX-related announcements:

-- Among other demos, Nintendo will provide hands-on play of its upcoming "Metroid Prime 3": "Corruption for the Wii and Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass" for the DS.

-- Seattle's Flying Lab Software will provide hands-on play of "Pirates of the Burning Sea," its upcoming multiplayer online game.

-- PAX hosts Krahulik and Holkins will show off "Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Episode One," a game they're developing with Vancouver's Hothead Games.

-- Wizards of the Coast will be talking up its digital ventures, including its Gleemax social networking site, "Magic Online" and "MapleStory."

-- Seattle's WizKids will be previewing its new "Halo ActionClix" tabletop game, including "Halo 3" content.

-- Sony will show the latest version of "Uncharted: Drake's Fortune," a cinematic adventure game its releasing this fall.

-- Games for Health, an organization promoting healthful aspects of video games, is hosting a mini-conference tied to PAX on Thursday in Seattle. Health researchers, game producers and others will discuss games with health benefits such as "Dance Dance Revolution."

-- In one of the larger booths, the U.S. Army will give the first hands-on demo of its upcoming "America's Army: True Soldiers" game for the Xbox 360. It's also hosting an America's Army LAN game in its booth, and bringing Silver Star recipient and game consultant Sgt. Tommy Rieman.

-- Gamecock will show its upcoming "FURY" for the PC, "Dementium" for the DS and "Insecticide" for the PC and DS.

-- D3Publisher will be offering previews and play of "Dark Sector" for the PS3 and Xbox 360, "Dead Head Fred" for the PSP and Wii titles "Naruto: Clash of Ninja Revolution" and "Dragon Blad: Wrath of Fire."

-- Even old-school arcade games will be on display, such as Betson Enterprises' "Fast and the Furious: Drift" and "Big Buck Hunter Pro."

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August 22, 2007 2:02 PM

Sony dares Xbox to become a video recorder

Posted by Brier Dudley

Sony confirmed at a games conference in Germany that the PlayStation 3 will morph into a digital video recorder.

With an accessory TV tuner called PlayTV being released in Europe next year, users can record TV shows onto the console's hard drive. It sounds like the service will also complement Sony's online game service. I'm guessing Sony will tie in its movie business somehow, maybe with downloadable films, although it seems more interested in selling Blu-ray discs to PS3 owners.

PlayTV sounds like a great device: With two HD tuners, it can record 1080p content on the console. It also includes a seven-day program guide and the ability to send recorded content wirelessly to PSP handhelds. From the release:

Designed to reinforce PS3's rightful place in the Living Room at the heart of the home entertainment needs, the twin channel TV tuner peripheral and PVR software turns PS3 into a state of the art TV recorder, allowing users to watch, pause and record live TV.

On the other hand, why doesn't Sony just put the tuner inside the console? It could charge extra for one with DVR capabilities. But this is the same company that's selling a $300 Ethernet dongle for its TVs, instead of building one into them.

Sony's not saying when PlayTV will come to the U.S. and a spokeswoman told me it won't be shown at the PAX game conference here in Seattle this weekend. The official statement:

"We have no announcements at this time regarding DVR/PVR capabilities for PS3 in North America."

That seems like a starting flag for the Xbox team to add a tuner-recorder feature to its console before Sony. It could probably hack one together in a week based on the external tuners you can buy for Media Center PCs.

It seems logical, but there are a few reasons why Microsoft may choose to let Sony run with its all-in-one entertainment console.

Like Apple, Xbox is selling TV and movie downloads and Microsoft may prefer to have 360 owners fill their hard-drives with paid content instead of free, over-the-air material.

Microsoft may also continue steering people toward setups that include both an Xbox and a Windows Media Center PC, which can record TV and play it back through an Xbox.

Maybe Microsoft is waiting until it releases the third generation Xbox to really move the console beyond gaming and into digital video, but that might give Sony's PS3 to catch up if its DVR takes off.

Either way, it seems like Sony's opened an interesting new front on the battle over the digital living room.

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August 22, 2007 11:05 AM

Apple disrupting mobile phone business models

Posted by Brier Dudley

We're finally getting to the meat of Apple's dealings with wireless carriers.

It sounds like what's really revolutionary about the iPhone is the way it's shifting control from carriers to device manufacturers.

From an impressive Financial Times story breaking the news that T-Mobile, Orange and O2 will carry the iPhone in Germany, France and England:

The deal gives manufacturers of handsets for the first time a direct share of the revenues a mobile phone operator makes from calls and data transfers, marking a shift in the relationship between the parties.

Until now, mobile operators have campaigned fiercely against such an approach, but industry experts expect that Apple's success in securing the deals could spur other handset manufacturers to try to secure similar terms.

I wonder, though, Apple really has as much pull over carriers as the story implies. Are carriers really being snowed by Apple? They're crafty negotiators who may care more about the deals being made than the portrayals of their new partner.

You've also got to wonder about the kind of relationships Apple is building, if it really is dictating terms and snubbing executives. If it bullies them with iPhone 1.0, it may have a tougher time making deals with iPhone 2.0 and 3.0.

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August 21, 2007 4:41 PM

Sneak preview of "Halo 3" at Seattle Imax tonight

Posted by Brier Dudley

A cool bonus for Seattle-area Halo fans: a free preview screening of "Halo 3" tonight, on the huge screen at the Pacific Science Center's Imax theater.

Members of the Bungie team will demonstrate a cooperative campaign, the "saved films" feature and "one or two surprises,'' according to an announcement at Bungie.net.

You can RSVP for the hourlong event by e-mailing hnation@microsoft.com but seats are first-come, first-serve.

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August 21, 2007 2:44 PM

Amazon.com leaks Windows Home Server details

Posted by Brier Dudley

Once again, the Seattle e-tailer gave consumers an early peek at the price and specs for a hot new product: The first Windows Home Server units, from Hewlett-Packard, will cost $599 for a 500 gigabyte version and $749 for a terabyte.

Computerworld has a write-up of the gaffe.

If Amazon has it right, the servers will be available Sept. 15, putting to rest recent speculaton about an Aug. 27 launch date.

Microsoft's Home Server team blog clarified the Aug. 27 reports but hasn't said anything yet about the Amazon slip.

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August 21, 2007 9:31 AM

MTV dumps Microsoft for RealNetworks

Posted by Brier Dudley

MTV's partner on a new digital music venture is indeed a Seattle company, but it's not Microsoft.

The Viacom subsidiary today announced a broad partnership with RealNetworks and Verizon Wireless to provide a digital music service spanning PCs, portable music players and mobile phones.

On Monday, I speculated that the Seattle company MTV might work with would be Microsoft and its Zune group, but I was off by about 14 miles.

I wonder if MTV lost patience with Microsoft after their jointly developed music service, Urge, failed to take significant share from iTunes.

Today's release from MTV calls Urge "critically acclaimed" and says it's a cornerstone of the new venture, but it still doesn't look good for Microsoft. First MSN Music fizzled; now Urge is going to be linked to RealNetworks.

Maybe MTV felt that Microsoft snubbed it and the Urge partnership by launching a separate music store for the Zune.

It's inside baseball, but you've got to wonder about Microsoft's shifting digital music strategies. The company has some of the best technology for digital media, but its music initiatives and partnerships seem to come in fits and starts.

UPDATE: There are some spicy comments posted in response to this entry, but for some reason our system was recently displaying zero comments posted. I've asked for more duct tape to be applied to the jalopy powering our blog system. Meanwhile I hope that zero doesn't dampen the conversation ...
UPDATE2: Fast service with the tape, no more zero.

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August 20, 2007 1:47 PM

MTV to announce digital music partner, maybe Zune?

Posted by Brier Dudley

A big announcement in the digital music space is scheduled for Tuesday morning.

MTV scheduled a conference call for "two industry-leading partners to discuss a new digital music initiative."

MTV is one of the partners. There's a good chance the other one is in the Seattle area.

MTV already has a partnership with Microsoft. It built its Urge music store on Microsoft technology, and Microsoft bundled Urge with the current version of Windows Media Player. Even so, Urge hasn't made a splash -- or a dent in iTunes.

My guess is that MTV and Zune will announce a relationship. Apple fans may chuckle, but there are many reasons a Zune-MTV partnership would make sense.

Microsoft is gearing up to launch several new Zune players and to broaden its marketing beyond hard-core music fans. The next phase of Zune will sure be marketed through MTV and its sister channels such as Comedy Central.

Partisans may think MTV will take a coolness hit by partnering with Zune. But I don't think average consumers would care one way or the other, and MTV would probably like to get whatever boost it can from the big Zune marketing budget.

Zune, meanwhile, could use the credibility that MTV's brand would give the device. Why not let MTV choose the bundle of promotional tunes that come with a Zune?

Maybe it will even put Comedy Central clips on the device instead of obscure music videos.

At a higher level, Microsoft and MTV's parent company, Viacom, are sympathetic. They have similar views on intellectual property protection and Google, and Microsoft has some of the most sophisticated DRM technology available for buying and subscribing to music services.

Further evidence of the corporate sympathies came today when Paramount and DreamWorks announced that they've chosen HD-DVD as their exclusive format for high-definition DVD sales. Viacom produces and distributes Paramount and DreamWorks videos, and HD-DVD is Microsoft's preferred format and includes the Redmond company's software.

Another possibility is that MTV could be turning its back on Microsoft and making a deal with RealNetworks, but that seems like a longshot.

MTV could even be making a deal with a music startup such as iLike. The Seattle social music network service today announced that it reached 10 million users, but MTV probably wouldn't call that industry-leading.

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August 20, 2007 10:24 AM

Invasion of the monster laptops

Posted by Brier Dudley

If you're intrigued by The Dragon, the giant HP laptop that I wrote about in today's column, you may want to check out a few other options in the ultralarge notebook category.

Dell's XPS M2010 "has been a very successful product" over the last two years, according to a Dell employee who e-mailed me this morning. Just like HP's newcomer, Dell's has a 20.1-inch display, dual-core processor, dual hard-drives and a starting price of $2,999.

The first time I saw a 2010 was in Microsoft's "Flight Simulator" game studio. I couldn't believe it was a portable -- it has an even more unusual design, with a Bluetooth keyboard that slides out when the machine is open.

But seeing the 2010 started me wondering if anyone would buy these things. If HP's chasing Dell in the category, there must be a decent market. At the least, HP's entry might lead to some price competition and push these things under $3,000.

Niche PC makers also make some big laptops, although the lines are blurry because Dell and HP bought two of these companies.

Alienware (which is owned by Dell) sells the Aurora mALX with a 19-in. screen, Intel dual-core processors and dual drives. Prices start at $3,999.

Voodoo, the game machine maker that HP acquired, sells the Envy H:201, with a 20'' screen and AMD Turion processors. Prices start at $4,949.06. I'm not sure what you get for that extra 6 cents.

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August 16, 2007 5:22 PM

Latest word on Skype outage: Deficient algorithm

Posted by Brier Dudley

A statement just issued by Skype, via spokesman Ryan Wallace:

Apologies for the delay, but we can now update you on the Skype sign-on issue. As we continue to work hard at resolving the problem, we wanted to dispel some of the concerns that you may have. The Skype system has not crashed or been victim of a cyber attack. We love our customers too much to let that happen. This problem occurred because of a deficiency in an algorithm within Skype networking software. This controls the interaction between the user's own Skype client and the rest of the Skype network.

Rest assured that everyone at Skype is working around the clock -- from Tallinn to Luxembourg to San Jose -- to resume normal service as quickly as possible.

Wallace said he "will be reachable by cell during the evening."

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August 16, 2007 3:52 PM

Kirkland Googlers get party deck with a view

Posted by Brier Dudley


SRM Development / Broderick Group

The "podium" at Google's new Kirkland campus is visible in this rendering provided by SRM Development and Broderick Group, the real estate firm that handled the lease.

It won't be as tranquil as Lake Bill on the Microsoft campus, but Google's Kirkland campus will have a huge landscaped deck with a water feature taking advantage of westward views of Lake Washington.

The deck is actually a plaza between the buildings. It's technically called the podium, though, since it's being built as a deck on top of the largely underground parking garage.

Details came today from Jim Rivard, director of real estate at SRM Development, a Spokane-based company that's developing the 7.2-acre site. Rivard said his company has been working with Google since February and signed the lease last week.


SRM Development / Broderick Group

The campus layout.

He said the first building will be ready for occupancy in the first quarter of 2008 and the rest will be done by June.

The buildings were designed by Lance Mueller & Associates, the same architect that did Seattle's techie Fisher Plaza. Broderick Group is the broker and W.G. Clark Construction is the builder.

Other amenities include a shower facility in the parking garage, presumably for bicyclists.

But Rivard didn't know whether Google will install heated bidet toilet seats like the ones at headquarters in Mountain View.


SRM Development / Broderick Group

The campus includes a large deck with a water feature looking toward Lake Washington.

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August 16, 2007 12:00 PM

Sampa swings for the trees

Posted by Brier Dudley

Sampa, a Seattle Web startup, emphasizing genealogy with a new online tool for building and sharing family trees. The free tool was to be launched today (Thursday) at noon.

I wonder how many small startup offering ambitious tools for Web sites, blogging and social networking will turn their attention to smaller niche markets.

Sampa's making a clever, viral move because users may loop their relatives in to collaborate on building the trees. Presumably they'll keep returning to update the trees as their families evolve.

Here's how the change was described by founder Marcelo Calbucci (who left Microsoft in 2004):

"Sampa used to be a generic Web site building tool. More and more we want to move that into a purpose-driven website solution for families and groups of people that want to share with people they already know.''

That's a change of perspective for Sampa, which was built to be a horizontal platform.

Sampa's service is free and the business is supported by ads. Calbucci said they may add a premium service in the future, but right now the company is trying to raise $500,000 of seed capital.

One use of the proceeds would be to expand headcount by 50 percent - from two people to three.


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August 16, 2007 12:01 AM

Google leasing Kirkland campus, next Yahoo?

Posted by Brier Dudley

The big fish are being reeled in on the Eastside.

Google has signed a lease for a three-building office campus that's under construction in Kirkland, not too far from the company's current offices near the city's main post office.

"The greater Seattle area is of great significance to us as a base for recruiting, as a home to our current employees and we're looking forward to having a greater number of future employees there, as well as having customers, partners and of course users in the area,'' spokesman Jon Murchinson said. "So, as we are a rapidly growing company, we're taking advantage of this opportunity to acquire more space in Kirkland."

The deal ends years of suspense - in tech and commercial real estate circles, at least - about where the search giant would choose to expand in the Puget Sound region. That is, until they start speculating about if and where Google will expand on the Seattle side of Lake Washington.

In May Google expanded its base in Fremont, adding room for 240 engineers in addition to a 30-person sales office.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based company earlier considered buildings in Bellevue and even the Safeco tower near the University of Washington.

Google started in Kirkland in 2004 with a few engineers and now employs about 400 who are sprawling into an adjacent building. They include veterans of Microsoft, Amazon.com and other local companies, as well as recruits who opt to live in the Northwest.

The company is notoriously secretive about growth plans, but one of the local engineering bosses, Shiva Shivakumar, told me in June that its Seattle area offices should employ several thousand people within a few years.

In Kirkland, construction has started on the campus at 747 Sixth Street South.The site used to be called the Sedorco property for a door company that used to be on the property but city planning documents at one point call it the "Campus at Kirkland."

As approved, the site has three buildings totaling 180,000 square feet and parking for 640 cars.

But that's not all.

Sources who tipped me off to the Google deal mentioned that another Silicon Valley biggie is shopping for space on the Eastside, specifically downtown Bellevue.

Yahoo! is looking to open a large office - around 120,000 square feet, the source said - giving the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company its first major presence in Seattle. The company now has a very small sales office, as well as server facilities in Eastern Washington.

A Yahoo! spokeswoman wouldn't confirm or deny this, but made it clear the company is interested in places with a lot of tech talent.

"We're always looking to diversify our real estate portfolio and we want to be where the most talented people are,'' Helena Maus said. "I wouldn't say much more."

I will, though. If a Yahoo! deal pans out it would give the region a search trifecta, with all three top players in the area.

Then it wouldn't matter quite so much, from an economic development prespective at least, who wins the battle for online ad dominance.

(I've updated this with a more specific address and a map link)

(Update 2: Here are links to Kirkland's development activity report, which mentions the Sedorco project with 180,000 feet of office space. The initial permit was for 180,000 feet, but another permit for related garages mentions 192,000 feet.)

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August 15, 2007 11:42 AM

Technology Review calls out UW innovators

Posted by Brier Dudley

The UW had an impressive showing on Technology Review's annual list of the top innovators under age 35.

Three Huskies are on the list, including computer science doctoral student Tapan Parikh, who was named "top humanitarian of 2007" for his mobile phone technology helping small-business owners in developing countries. Here's a March blog post describing his work.

Jason Pontin, editor of the MIT publication, said in a release that it's "remarkable to have three recipients at one institution."

The other two are Yoshi Kohno, assistant professor of computer science, for work that may improve the safety and privacy of online transactions, and Babak Parviz, an assistant professor of electrical engineering researching the intersection of biology and nanotechnology.

Here are their nutshell biographies, provided by the UW:

Kohno, 29, invented the concept of systems-oriented provable security, which promises to beef up the safety and privacy of online transactions. His other research has looked at the security and privacy implications of electronic voting machines, consumer electronics, Web browsers and radio frequency identification (RFID) electronic tags.

Parikh, 33, a doctoral student in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, uses mobile phones and open-source software to create novel tools for the developing world. He started a company in India to develop a product for microfinance co-ops and is now creating tools for health-care diagnoses and agricultural certification.

Parviz, 34, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering, is recognized for his research at the interface of biology and nanotechnology. Parviz works on biologically inspired self-assembly. He has used the method to build flexible plastic circuits, nano-scale electronics and low-cost biological sensors for detecting diseases such as HIV.

UPDATE: There were a few more on the list but not included in the original release:

Microsoft Research's Desney Tan, an affiliate UW computer science professors, noted for using electroencephalography (EEG) signals to operate computers.

UW alum Karen Liu, a Georgia Tech professor applying body language to computer-animated characters.

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August 13, 2007 11:58 AM

Ex Microsoft, Google, Nextel team fund voice startup

Posted by Brier Dudley

They're not saying how much, but a group of blue-chip tech veterans is funding Travelling Wave, a Seattle startup developing voice recognition technology.

The angels include former Googler Colin Wong, former Microsoftie and VC Bill Miller, Madrona Venture principal Geoff Entress and Jim Judson, a lawyer who worked with McCaw Cellular and Nextel International.

The company has developed what it calls a "predictive speech-to-text" system for mobile devices. It describes the technology like this: When the software is installed on a phone, users press a button, say a word and type the first letter or two and have the word appear on the screen.

According to today's funding announcement, Travelling Wave has finished early trials and "is poised to deploy with mobile carriers and handset manufacturers in the coming year."

Founder Ashwin Rao previously worked in research at Bell Labs and Dragon Systems.

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August 13, 2007 10:11 AM

Learn more about Seattle broadband project

Posted by Brier Dudley

Here are few more details about Seattle's broadband project that I wrote about in today's column.

First, citywide Wifi isn't high on the list of priorities. At least that's my impression, after talking to Bill Schrier, the city's chief technology officer. He mentioned the challenges EarthLink has had with municipal Wi-Fi in places such as San Francisco.

But he did say that Wi-Fi nodes could be added to the fiber that's extended into neighborhoods. I think that's an interesting option -- maybe the city could provide free basic service on the same network. That would help lower-income residents overcome what's really the biggest cost of computing nowadays, Internet service, and provide roaming access for everyone.

Schrier is also keeping his eye on Layfayette, La., and Clarksville, Tenn., as models of muncipal fiber providers.

He didn't say which Seattle neighborhoods could get the fiber pilot project, but assured me that Paul Allen's poeple haven't been twisting his arm to put South Lake Union at the head of the line.

Here are some links if you'd like more background:

Seattle Broadband Initiative home page

A column I wrote a year ago questioning the broadband project.

A column on Qwest's CEO discussing the company's plans for broadband in Seattle.

The key report by the city's broadband task force from May 2005

Contact info to provide input to the mayor.

The City Council's Energy and Technology Committee.

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August 13, 2007 9:20 AM

Will Vudu put a hex on Comcast, Netflix and Apple?

Posted by Brier Dudley

Joining the crowded video download market next month is Vudu, a Santa Clara, Calif. startup that's preparing to sell a set-top box with some interesting technology.

Vudu is using what it calls hybrid peer-to-peer networking to speed downloads to the point it can promise instant playback.

The boxes will share content with others nearby to speed downloads, but there are also central servers supplementing the feeds. Users aren't sharing content in the Napster sense; all this activity happens under the covers.

Specifics won't be available until early next month, but the company will sell the boxes for under $500 and rent and sell downloadable movies. It's made deals with pretty much all the key movie studios and will have 5,000 titles available at launch. They'll download at 480p but the box will upscale them as high as 1080p.

The box itself is about the same size as the Apple TV unit and contains a Broadcom chip and a hard drive that's many times the size of the base Apple unit. By the end of the year users should be able to supplement the device with external drives connected via USB.

Patrick Cosson, Vudu's vice president of sales and marketing, said the big library of high-def content and fast speeds will differentiate the product from Apple TV and services such as Netflix downloads and cable providers' video-on-demand.

The images looked great in a demo he gave during a Seattle visit, but I didn't get to see a download in process because he said the hotel's Internet service wasn't up to snuff.

To get instant access, Vudu boxes need at least a 1.7 Mbps broadband connection -- basically the upper tiers of DSL or Comcast.

Cosson said the startup recruited a number of people from Microsoft's WebTV group, including interface designer Keith Ohlfs.

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August 9, 2007 12:30 PM

Study: Users unhappy with online video downloads

Posted by Brier Dudley

This should send up red flags at Apple, Amazon.com and Microsoft (and now Blockbuster...).

Only 16 percent of consumers downloading videos from the Internet were happy with the experience, only 13 percent said the pricing is reasonable and fewer than one in five will do it again in the future, according to a new report from Parks Associates.

The firm released a quote from its research director, John Barrett, who concluded that "niche markets will emerge, but mainstream consumers will remain lukewarm about the video download experience":

People don't see a reason to use video downloading services. Sure, it saves a trip to the video store, but it takes longer, looks worse, and you end up watching it on a 17-in. screen. No wonder consumers are dissatisfied with the experience.

More appealing, according to another firm's study out today, is the option of downloading videos and burning them to DVD.

The Diffusion Group found that 29 percent of adult Internet users are "likely" to buy a movie download if they could burn it to a DVD, but only 6 percent said they "definitely would" purchase a download-to-burn (D2B) flick.

Its money quote, from Michael Greeson, president and co-author of the report:

D2B [download to burn] services are still very new, so this is encouraging news. Then again, translating interest for such a novel service into actual demand will be difficult, as is seen by the extent to which download time and price-per-title impact the appeal of D2B services.

I prefer walking to the neighborhood video store and getting the free popcorn they throw in, but that may change when the rainy season begins.

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August 8, 2007 5:26 PM

AT&T censored Pearl Jam's political commentary

Posted by Brier Dudley

Still think net neutrality concerns are overblown? Keep in mind AT&T's "content monitors."

Pearl Jam protested when an overzealous AT&T content monitor cut political comments from a Web cast of the band's Lollapalooza performance on Sunday.

The Seattle band had inserted the lyrics "George Bush, leave this world alone" and "George Bush find yourself another home" into a song, but they were missing from the Web cast.

When asked, AT&T told Lollapalooza that the monitor made a mistake and the lyrics would be restored, according to a writeup today on Pearl Jam's Web site. An excerpt:

This, of course, troubles us as artists but also as citizens concerned with the issue of censorship and the increasingly consolidated control of the media.

AT&T's actions strike at the heart of the public's concerns over the power that corporations have when it comes to determining what the public sees and hears through communications media.

The post was picked up by tech blogger Om Malik and others. I wonder if it will be a turning point in the debate over net neutrality.

As Pearl Jam pointed out, the incident undermines the public statements by the likes of AT&T's chief executive "that fears his company and other big network providers would block traffic on their networks are overblown."

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August 8, 2007 3:33 PM

It's official: Xbox Premiums getting HDMI

Posted by Brier Dudley

Choose carefully before you buy a new Xbox.

The latest ones off the production line have HDMI ports, a feature that makes them easier to connect to HDMI-equipped TVs and home theater setups.

Microsoft started putting HDMI ports onto its more expensive, limited edition consoles this year but left them off the standard "premium" consoles. Now premium consoles -- the $350 models -- are getting HDMI as well.

Microsoft isn't announcing the change, other than to confirm the news. Tech blog Ars Technica floated the change Tuesday after receiving an anonymous and unconfirmed tip.

A spokesman at Xbox PR firm Edelman told me that although Microsoft does not generally comment on Xbox components, it is confirming that Xbox premiums with an HDMI port are being slipstreamed into the supply on store shelves.

"That is being phased in to the retail channel to meet demand,'' he said.

The company isn't making a big deal out of this, probably because it wants to sell out the consoles that don't have the new port. But it is noting the change on Xbox packaging, so look for the HDMI notation if this is something of interest.

It seems coincidental to the Xbox price-drop, which was coming anyway to boost sales ahead of big fall game releases such as "Madden" and "Halo 3."

Home theater junkies -- the sort who pay more attention to the back of receivers than the front -- will care the most.

HDMI is a relatively new type of connection system that carries both audio and high-def video signals through a single cable, rather than multiple cables, and it's used on most new flat-panel televisions and home theater receivers.

The addition of HDMI ports was an inevitable move as the console evolves into a home entertainment hub capable of dowloading high-def video content and serving as a TV set-top box.

The Xbox also needed to match the connectivity of Sony's HDMI-equipped PlayStation 3, which is going to morph into a TiVo-like digital video recorder and TV tuner next year, according to comments that a Sony executive made in New Zealand last month.

Still unconfirmed is whether the HDMI-equipped Xboxes also have cooler-running internals based on a smaller, 65-nanometer processor that was expected by now.

Overheating is a bigger concern than HDMI for most consumers, so Microsoft ought to be less secretive and let people know if and how the Xbox innards have been upgraded.

On premium consoles, at least, HDMI seems to be the only way you'll be able to tell if you're buying a recently built console that presumably has better thermal engineering.

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August 7, 2007 1:00 PM

Service referral site started by ex Microsoft couple

Posted by Brier Dudley

UberSquare.com will "officially launch" Wednesday after operating in friends and family mode since Mach.

The site lets people post projects they're working on, such as a kitchen remodel. Then service providers can submit proposals do the work, similar to posting a comment on a blog.

Jenny Chan and Henry Tam started the site after having trouble finding a good hardwood floor installer. They're married ex-Microsofties; she was formerly a senior financial analyst and he was a Virtual Earth development lead.

Their site also includes a social networking feature, of course. Users can create a group of friends or family and share referrals with them.

In an unusual move for such a small site, they're using a micropayment system. Consumers can post projects for free, but service providers are charged credits to respond with a proposal. Credits cost from $1 to 67 cents depending on the purchase plan used.

To start, the site is focusing on the Northwest and will only extend from Portland to Vancouver, B.C.

It brings to mind Imandi.com, a well-funded "services marketplace" startup that flamed out in the dot-com bust.

Seattle-based Judysbook.com also has roots in service referral - it's named after a book of preferred service providers kept by a founder's mother-in-law -- but it's now primarily a deal-hunting shopping site duking it out with Mpire.com.

Chan's announcement describes UberSquare as "eBay meets Craigslist" but maybe it's community features will do a better job weeding out sketchy vendors.

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August 7, 2007 11:39 AM

Apple socks it to Dell with new iMacs

Posted by Brier Dudley

The new desktops that Steve Jobs unveiled today will sell themselves, but Apple couldn't resist putting this onto its iMac page:

imackeyboard_4_20070807.jpg

But the real interesting competition may be between Apple and Microsoft, since Jobs also announced a new version of its iWork productivity software including a spreadsheet and improved word processor.

I wonder if that was a factor in Microsoft delaying the new version of Office for the Mac.

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August 6, 2007 5:21 PM

Ex-Microsoftie hosting testy French president

Posted by Brier Dudley

I'm just catching up on my French gossip and found out that a former Microsoft VP owns the New Hampshire lakefront estate where French President Nicolas Sarkozy is vacationing (and blowing his top over the paparazzi ...)

Sarkozy is staying in Wolfeboro at a 62-acre retreat owned by Michael Appe, a former Microsoft vice president of reseller and end-user sales.

I'm guessing it's the same Michael Appe who asked the Justice Department here to quickly settle its antitrust case against the software company.

Here's a paparazzi gallery with a few shots of Appe's place, in case you're looking for a rental next summer.

The Boston Globe did a nice job writing about the scene last week.

Appe rents his pad for $30,000 a week, according to this AFP report.

Here's a video tour that Appe gave a local TV station, before Sarkozy began chasing away reporters:


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August 6, 2007 4:34 PM

Fake Steve Jobs outed on purpose?

Posted by Brier Dudley

That's Valleywag's snarky take on the New York Times' outing of a Forbes editor as author of the Secret Diary of Steve Jobs.

Valleywag questioned whether the outing was nudged along to promote an upcoming book.

I wonder if the outing is payback for the satirical blog's particularly sharp (and relatively unfunny ...) jabs at the New York Times lately.

Payback or not, the blog seems to go off track when it does insidery media critiques. Would Steve Jobs bother to parse the coverage of Microsoft's financial analyst meeting?

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August 6, 2007 11:55 AM

Bungie boss on Halo 3, GTA and game cinematics

Posted by Brier Dudley

Here is more from my interview with Harold Ryan, manager of Microsoft's Bungie game studio, who was profiled in today's paper.

This Q&A has been edited a bit for flow and to minimize overlap with the profile.

Q: So does "Halo 3" have more or less animation?

A: Relative to "Halo 2," there are less true cinematic moemnts but we actually integrated the story much better into the gameplay this time. The story is deeper and better than it was for "Halo" and "Halo 2." More of it is told while you play, when the player is in control, rather than taking control away from the player in most cases.

Q: Through conversations with Cortana or something?

A: Through conversations, you get messages in various ways. Basically there are story elements you can tell by leaving the player in control but directing their camera or focus while they're playing.

One of the main focuses for "Halo 3" was actually writing a story that was better from start to finish. We had more time on "Halo 3" to get that right. We spent the last seven years getting better at developing a "Halo 3" story, or "Halo" story. A lot of that work went into "Halo 3."

Q: A movie version of "Halo" was expected to debut along with the game, creating a really big pop, but the movie is now on hold. Was that disappointing?

A: The team certainly was really excited to see the game brought to theater .... Overall, am I disappointed I don't have to worry about a game and a movie at the same time? No. I'd love to see the movie happen but I'm glad to have it sidelined for now so I'm not distracted by that.

Q: I wonder if there's a risk to to the game quality if you overemphasize the story in an effort to make "Halo" appeal to mainstream culture.

A: The thing about our game designers is they are game designers -- they're there to make a game that's fun to play. Ultimately "Halo" is a first-person shooter. It's about playing through the environment, growing your own skill, how can the game be balanced by challenging you as you go through it.

There's enough push here for game-play -- enough hardcore gamers on the team and in the fan base -- that there's no real risk that the story will go too far. "Halo 2" did get some feedback that our cinematics were long. We didn't want to cut back, in fact we wanted to make the story richer and deeper in "Halo 3," but we made a real focus of having the story play out as you played through the game as much as possible.

So there's more story in "Halo 3" than "Halo 2," but like I said, the story's told while you're playing much more than it was in "Halo 2."

Q: Can you talk about how you balance the creative side of game development with the engineering side?

A: You typically start out a game with an idea for how you want to it to play or what you want the story to be. It can start from a couple different roots but typically usually you're very open, creative, here's what I'd love to have. There's what you'd love to have, what you want to have and what you can achieve. We're constantly pushing polished features in -- we spent a lot of time on "Halo 3," even now, today, there will be another evening after we get done with this where we sit down and look at -- based on our full play-through that all the leads did last night of our current build. What's one thing we would try to add, as crazy as it may be at this point in the schedule, that would really make the game that much better.

There's a constant push for that all the way up to the bitter end. For me that iterating push was, as a QA manager, was always that [question] of when do I absolutely have to turn them off, because every time you make a change there's a risk that you'll introduce a bug or detract more from the final game than the change that you're trying to make. That's coming up very soon but we'll probably squeeze out another couple of days.

I'll give you a good example -- last weekend my core leads and I worked a straight 48 hours iterating on a build to meet our deadline for Monday by trying to get as many features in as we could. We're putting eveyrting we've got into taking it now and polishing it. One of the hard things with a game is you don't know how it's going to play out until all the content's there and it runs at full performance.

As you're going through development -- running at 15 fps, 20 fps -- you can't tell how it's going to feel when it runs at full speed ... That's a lot of where the last minute polish comes in because you don't really know whether it's going to feel good or bad or not quite good enough until you're close to the very end,

Q: What sort of features might you put in at this point?

A: In some cases you might change a behavior of a character in the game, modify the AI ... There are a lot of tools to play with in "Halo 3," both for the character and the AI. Getting so everybody can use all those in the most fun way possible is a good example of the kind of things we'll change right now.

Q: What's the biggest competition for "Halo 3"?

A: Probably the biggest competition for Halo 3 is going to be "GTA" ["Grand Theft Auto"]. It's certainly, on the scale of units and fan base (that and "Madden") are probably the only other two games that are close, around the 7 million, 8 million unit per release games.

Luckily for us in Xbox sales they're both coming out on the 360 so we don't have to worry about people being only able to play it on the PlayStation or anything like that.

Q: So is "Halo 3" going to be the family-friendly alternative to "GTA"?

A: "Halo 3," despite its rating of mature, it's definitely much more family-friendly than many of the other mature games. I haven't played "GTA4" yet, so I don't know exactly what it's going to be like.

My kid's been playing since he was two. He's a good kid, he understands the difference between reality and game play.

Q: Will there be more versions -- "Halo 4," perhaps?

A: I think there will always be more stories in the "Halo" universe, absolutely.

I have a stack of game proposals for the "Halo" universe that is everything from back to the origin of the forerunners to a thousand years in the future after "Halo 3" ends. I think there will always be more stories in the Halo universe, absolutely.

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August 3, 2007 10:38 AM

Amazon.com throws down gauntlet with payment service

Posted by Brier Dudley

Amazon CTO Werner Vogels and services evangelist Jeff Barr used their blogs to announce Amazon Flexible Payment Service, or FPS, this morning.

FPS, the latest addition to Amazon's Web services, lets site developers use Amazon's payment system to charge customers for using their services.

It's dubbed flexible because it allows a variety of payment methods -- credit cards, bank account transfers and Amazon Payments -- and charges different merchant/developer fees depending on which method a customer uses.

In a particularly clever move, FPS will use Amazon's authentication system. That means customers registered with Amazon will use the same login and payment information at other Web sites using FPS. Vogels put it this way:

This helps Amazon customers keep their payment information secure while exploring new services and its helps developers by removing the typical friction associated with making a first-time or repeat purchase.

This works both ways. Web services that register new customers will add to the list of Amazon registered customers. Amazon's authentication/payment system is a long way from becoming universal, but this could nudge it that direction.

FPS also puts Amazon into direct competition with Microsoft, Google and eBay, all of which are trying to propagate their own online registration and payment systems. I wish they'd all work together so you'd only have to use a single sign-on for everything, but that's a fantasy.

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August 2, 2007 3:49 PM

Groovy download iConcertCal 2.0 now available

Posted by Brier Dudley

University of Washington engineering grad students Jeff Cole and Brandon Smith had a surprise hit when they released iConcertCal last Christmas.

The free software plug-in for iTunes notifies you of upcoming shows featuring bands in your music collection. Among the kudos was a 3 1/2 mice rank from Macworld magazine, which listed it as a Mac Gem. Lifehacker also provided an early boost by calling it out as a "download of the day."

Today they announced the release of a new version that adds CD release dates, links to buy albums and two social features -- the ability to share concert calendars with friends and to find other concertgoers in your city.

Seattle's iLike has similar features and rich backers, so I wondered if a merger was in the works.

"We wondered the same thing, but I guess they decided to compete with us instead of buy us,'' said Cole, who lives a few blocks from iLike's Capitol Hill office.

After Cole and Smith started getting notice, iLike was among the big companies that contacted them. Another was Ticketmaster, which invested in $13 million in iLike in December.

Cole said he's not looking to add music-recommendation features that are the foundation of iLike and instead wants to keep the software a lightweight concert and music referral service.

Smith has graduated and Cole still has another quarter to go.

Even if nobody buys the company, they might start to make money in addition to the donations some users have made. They'll get a percentage of sales from Amazon.com when users pre-order upcoming albums through their software.

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August 2, 2007 3:13 PM

The safest credit cards for preventing ID theft

Posted by Brier Dudley

According to a new report from Javelin Strategy & Research, Bank of America's Visa Platinum is the safest.

Javelin found that "while almost all card issuers do well in helping their customers after fraud or theft occurs, many need to upgrade their identity fraud detection tools,'' according to a story published today by Computerworld.

Among the shortcomings: 56 percent of card issuers still ask customers to provide Social Security numbers to identify themselves.

B of A's platinum card scored 69 out of 80 points in Javelin's survey. American Express Blue was second with 66 points, followed by Discover Platinum and First National Bank Omaha's Platinum Edition Visa Card.

Apparently that extra security comes at a cost. The story didn't mention this, but the top-ranked cards seem to have higher interest rates, according to a quick check with Bankrate.com. The top-ranked card charges 4 percent more than the best-rate platinum card, so you have to balance the risk with the cost.

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August 2, 2007 2:24 PM

Microsoft's new Windows blog: Fun, but not Scobleish

Posted by Brier Dudley

Microsoft is publishing a new consumer-oriented blog called Click! that's aiming for average folks using Windows, building the brand with a lighthearted touch and providing "coverage" of Windows-related topics from the company's perspective.

The best entry since it began publishing July 10 is about a Canadian programmer who named his daughter Vista Avalon Simser. It ran under the headline "Vista, baby: Cute until she boots." But it didn't mention that little Vista's online birth announcement showed her wearing an iPod onesie.

It's fun, but I'm not sure Click! will win over the A-list blogging clique that embraced Robert Scoble before he left for a startup last year.

Scoble roamed around Microsoft and blogged about various things happening at the company, raising the profile of the company among the Web 2.0 chattering class. Click! is produced by technical editors and writers and former journalists with a different mission, according to its introductory statement:

Click is a Microsoft blog for the rest of us -- a place to share stories, blow off steam, swap tips, get help and talk shop about Microsoft Windows and the other technologies in our lives. So whether you're an armchair technophile or you're still learning your way around the keyboard, we think you'll find something worth checking out here each week.

Where Click! is similar to Scoble's blog is in its unstated mission to provide a sympathetic alternative to independent news outlets covering the company. The more the merrier, I guess, as long as the public knows what's news and where it's coming from.

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August 1, 2007 3:24 PM

B.C. Web company cashes in with Disney

Posted by Brier Dudley

You can hear the ka-ching sound all the way down here in Seattle, after Kelowna, B.C.-based Club Penguin sold to Disney today in a deal worth up to $700 million.

Disney is buying Club Penguin as part of a bigger effort to develop online portals based on franchises, such as a pirates site that blends games, video and advertising.

I wonder how much the 60-person company will interact with Disney's Internet team in Seattle's Smith Tower. If immigration issues weren't so sticky, I'd be guessing that they might combine at least some of the operations.

Club Penguin is interesting all by itself. It has proved that you can build a big subscription service catering to kids. The 2-year-old company has more than 700,000 subscribers paying $5.95 a month, plus more than 12 million "activated" users.

In the announcement, the site was described as "one of the fastest growing online destinations for kids ages 6 to 14. The site features animated penguin avatars that inhabit a snow-covered virtual world, converse with other users, participate in group activities and create and furnish a virtual home with currency earned inside the game."

Disney's paying $350 million in cash for the company, and giving it the option of another $350 million if it hits growth targets.

That's a lot of cash, but Disney boss Bob Iger is hot for online properties. I covered his presentation at CES in January, which sounded like his quote in today's announcement:

"This acquisition is consistent with our strategy of leveraging technology to create and deliver high-quality entertainment around the world and our commitment to investing our capital to generate growth and value for our shareholders/ Club Penguin embodies principles that are of the utmost importance to Disney -- providing high-quality family entertainment and fostering parental trust. The founders have woven together new technologies and creativity to build an incredibly compelling, immersive entertainment experience for kids and families. ... Combining the creativity and knowledge of the Club Penguin team with our existing Disney Online assets will help us further achieve our objective of establishing clear leadership in the kids and families online virtual worlds space around the globe."

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August 1, 2007 12:29 PM

First came Seattle's Apprentice, now a Startup Junkie

Posted by Brier Dudley

A new cable TV show called "Startup Junkies" will feature Seattle's Earth Class Mail when it debuts in January on the MOJO.

The eight-episode documentary will profile the company and "serial entrepreneur" Ron Wiener, who started the mail handling service in 2004.

Earth Class Mail provides a service that scans mail at a processing center in Portland, then sends it via e-mail to subscribers. Customers include businesses, expatriates, RVers or soldiers stationed abroad.

Seattle's Screaming Flea Productions has begun videotaping. From the release:

One storyline follows the ups and downs of Series A fundraising activities, including a presentation by Wiener at a Keiretsu Forum angel investor meeting.

The cast also includes "Earth Class Mail employees who've worked in multiple startups throughout their careers -- classic 'Startup Junkies,''' the release said:

"Imagine if a TV show had captured the exciting early days of the largest household brands," says Matt Chan, president of Screaming Flea Productions. "We expect the series to be both educational and entertaining,-- featuring the challenges of fundraising, hiring the right talent and the all-important task of scaling a business."

We'll have to see how it compares with Zoodango founder James Sun's performance on "The Apprentice."

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August 1, 2007 12:00 AM

Wireless hi-fi from Seattle's Open Interface

Posted by Brier Dudley

It sounds like Bluetooth radio technology is finally starting to live up to some of its more exciting promises, like wirelessly moving high quality audio and video to and from mobile devices and around the home.

Seattle's Open Interface plans to push that along further with a new lossless audio codec that it's releasing today.

The company claims that its SOUNDabout Lossless codec compresses audio without degrading its quality, yet transports faster than Apple's lossless format and the open source Free Lossless Audio Codec.

Because it doesn't have significant lag time, SOUNDabout can be used in settings like a wireless home theater and won't result in audio playing back slower than the images.

The codec will be offered to Open Interface customers such as chip manufacturers, who may use it to develop gadgets that could go on sale in a year or two.

The company demonstrated the software in a mock-up Tuesday using wireless surround speakers and the voices seemed synchronized, but I was watching a portion of "The Italian Job" that had subtitled Italian dialog so I couldn't tell for sure.

One use of the technology could be in flat-panel televisions that come with wireless rear speakers, Chief Executive Tom Nault said. To set up the system, you'd only have to plug in your TV and plug the rear speakers into a power outlet.

The software may also be used in gadgets such as wireless headphones, but Open Interface sees the biggest opportunity in mobile devices that are increasingly becoming portable entertainment systems with audio and video storage and playback.

Nault said he'd like to be able to enter his office with his device (he's now carrying an iPhone) and have the audio automatically play back through Bluetooth speakers, instead of headphones, without taking it out of his pocket and setting it into some sort of dock.

"We think wireless is part of the evolution of the dock,'' he said.

Open Interface is pretty low profile, even though lots of people are using phones and other devices that include its software. It produces a software stack that chip manufacturers such as Qualcomm use to add Bluetooth capabilities to devices such as Apple's iPhone, Motorola's Razr and LG's Chocolate music phone.

Open Interface started here in 2000. The company was initially an offshoot of a Japanese company that hired Akemi Sagawa, a Microsoft product marketing manager, to launch its U.S. subsidiary.

In 2004 the company was spunoff and is now 80 percent owned by its 25 employees. Most of the rest is still held by the Japanese company.

Sagawa, now the company president, is one of several former Microsofties, including Greg Burns, chief technology officer.

Burns said the company's background in writing efficient, low-power software for mobile devices influenced the codec design, which is less processor-intensive than codecs developed initially for personal computers.

Open Interface is simultaneously working on technology that uses Bluetooth with Wi-Fi to transport high-definition video wirelessly. It demonstrated a prototype at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, and plans to present its latest stuff at the next CES in January.

UPDATE: Nault told me that although it may take one or two years for companies to develop an entirely new product, the new codec could appear in products within a few months because it only requires a software upgrade.

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Gadgets and games | Fun stuff I've written about lately includes Apple's iPhone, Hewlett-Packard's HDX laptop and Microsoft's Halo3. Also on the radar are new digital video boxes such as the Tivo HD and the Vudu.