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Free speech wins out in online anonymous criticism case

What happens when you’re upset about a business dealing with Massachusetts real estate developer Paul McMann? One anonymous critic put up a web site about the man, inviting other people to share their own stories. McMann wasn’t real pleased about this development, and he filed suit against the anonymous proprietor of the site and issued subpoenas to learn his (or her) true identity. An Arizona judge has just ruled that McMann is not able to use the compulsory discovery process to unmask his accuser unless he can show that his anonymous opponent actually committed a crime.HangZhou Night Net

The saga began back in Massachusetts, where McMann first filed suit agaist his detractor in early October. In his complaint, a copy of which was seen by Ars Technica, McMann told the court that he was being defamed. He specifically pointed to statements on the web site which said that he “turned lives upside down” and that people should “be afraid. Be very afraid” of McMann. He also claimed that the site was damaging his career in real estate; one potential lender and another potential business partner both told McMann that they were not interested in working with him after seeing the site.

At the end of the month, Judge Joseph Tauro tossed the case. He pointed out that the two statements cited by McMann could hardly be considered defamation because “these two statements are not provable as true or false, but rather are opinions.” The judge recognized that such cases could easily be used to identify critics, even if such critics had done nothing illegal. He also dismissed McMann’s claim that a photo of McMann published on the website was a violation of McMann’s personal copyright (the photo has apparently been replaced by the picture of a grinning jack-o’-lantern).

A week later, McMann refiled his suit in Arizona. The nonprofit group Public Citizen helped in the defense of the Arizona case, and they claim that McMann made no mention of the Massachusetts case. The state of Arizona was a strange choice, as McMann did not live or do business there and had no reason to think his anonymous critic did, either. It was apparently chosen because the paulmcmann.com site was registered with Domains by Proxy, which is based there. McMann’s attempts to learn John Doe’s identity from Domains by Proxy were unsuccessful; the company told him that he needed a court order.

On January 18, Judge Christopher Whitten sided with Judge Tauro and dismissed the case. Whitten ruled that “the Plaintiff must show that its claim would survive a Motion for Summary Judgment before being entitled to discover the identity of an anonymous speaker through any compulsory discovery process.” In other words, McMann had to provide solid, upfront evidence of illegal behavior.

“This victory is a win for the First Amendment right of free speech on the Internet,” said Public Citizen attorney Greg Beck. “The Court correctly recognized that people’s right to speak anonymously online should not be violated without good cause.”

The two decisions reinforce a set of recent rulings on Internet anonymity. At the end of 2005, for instance, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled that anonymous bloggers should receive strong protection from exposure, and also ruled that a plaintiff would have to pass the “summary judgment” test before a subpoena would be authorized. But those who have been criticized find it hard to resist trying their luck in the courts, even though many such cases turn out to reveal nothing more interesting than the hourly rate charged by the plaintiff’s lawyer.

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Zune 2.0: The Empire strikes back

Microsoft hopes to launch the Zune in Europe before the end of 2007, the company told Reuters over the weekend, and hinted that there would be "more devices, more features" by that time. Acknowledging that Apple is a tough competitor in the music-player market, Microsoft’s marketing director Jason Reindorp said that the company was still happy with the Zune’s launch numbers and hopes to sell 1 million units by June.HangZhou Night Net

What’s in the future for the Zune? Here’s what we know from comments both public and off the record from Microsoft sources. Speaking at the Midem Music Expo in Cannes, France on Saturday, Microsoft’s media business chief Chris Stephenson also indicated that more versions of Zune are on the way. These will include a flash-based version of the player, which is currently expected to arrive in the fourth quarter of 2007. Sources say that the flash-based Zune will compete against the iPod nano and other diminutive flash-based players. Sources tell us that Microsoft also hopes to roll out a 12GB model if the NAND flash memory market can make the jump. The irony in this is that the next jump in NAND flash storage will likely be caused by the success of the iPod nano, which is already driving a significant portion of all NAND flash memory sales.

Stephenson also said that he envisions the proliferation of music "filling stations"—retail locations that already host WiFi hotspots—where Zune users could fill up on music over the air. He also said that the company is looking into more ways for users to "cache and download on the go." This all but confirms the company’s plans to fully enable WiFi in the way that many potential buyers have hoped—the ability to purchase music directly from the Zune. Also rumored is the possibility that Microsoft will enable full sharing of subscription music over WiFi, despite recent reports that users can’t even share all songs under Microsoft’s current three-play limit.

Other Zune rumors include the possibility that a pocket version of Internet Explorer will run on the next version of the Zune. Apple’s upcoming iPhone will allow web browsing via WiFi, as does the Sony PSP. If WiFi ends up becoming fully-enabled on the Zune for music purchasing and sharing purposes, it would only sense to enable web browsing via the Zune as well.

Reindorp said that the company was not trying to play catch-up with Apple in a market where the iPod is so entrenched, but attempting to give the Zune a name for itself. "We are very realistic, we have what is essentially a three-year plan to firmly and solidly get on the radar," he told Reuters. Microsoft seems to acknowledge its slow start with the Zune, but like the original Xbox, has big plans for sneaking the Zune in as a big player in the future.

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Parallels acknowledges SWsoft ownership

What do Parallels and enterprise virtualization software maker SWsoft have in common? More than we thought, it turns out. Parallels acknowledged today that the company is, in fact, owned by SWsoft, an acquisition that happened three years ago before most of us had ever even heard of Parallels. HangZhou Night Net

Does this public disclosure mean that anything will change for Parallels—seemingly the public favorite for virtualization software on the Mac these days? Marketing manager Ben Rudolph told Ars that the answer to that is a big fat "NO."

"Parallels will still have its own brand, site, and team," Rudolph told us. "We will simply be leveraging SWsoft’s substantial experience, talent and resources to make our products even better, and get the out the door even faster."

But why did Parallels and SWsoft keep the partnership a secret for so long?

"We have different skill sets and different approaches to virtualization, so we wanted to make sure that we maintained our own identities so we could stay focused," Rudolph said. "Now that we are moving to server virtualization, and SWsoft is expanding its virtualization management tool sets, there's a lot more overlap, so we wanted to be sure to let customers know that we're a 'one stop shop' for virtualization. We have their needs covered top to bottom, be it server or desktop, Windows, Linux or Mac, hardware virtualization, OS virtualization, or virtualization management."

SWsoft CEO Serguei Beloussov acknowledged to Fortune that the next version of Parallels, expected to be released this spring (we assume he is referring to the next "major beta" that we discussed with Rudolph at Macworld), will "by coincidence" make it easier to run OS X on non-Apple hardware.

This would be, of course, a move that Apple would not be thrilled about, but an inevitable (and tempting) development now that Macs share similar processor structure to their non-Mac bretheren. VMWare CEO Diane Greene told Fortune that they face the same temptations and challenges with Apple: "We were trying to do it the way they wanted to, but in hindsight we should have just gone ahead. I wonder what Steve Jobs is going to do, because there is so much pressure to run Mac OS on non-Macs."

All this being said, it seems that we (as consumers) have a lot of exciting things to look forward to in the world of virtualization on the Mac this year. Parallels seems intent on keepin' it real with the small-company feel, but for how long can they keep up that front while the software continues to gain momentum and, with it, an inevitably large user base?

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Rumor: DVD Player to be overhauled with Leopard (updated)

I'm sure we all know many a Mac-using geek who absolutely loathes the DVD Player app that comes packaged with OS X. I use it just because it's there and it's simple, but I know many more who would rather stab their own eyes out with a rusty Zune than use DVD Player on the Mac. HangZhou Night Net

New rumors, however, say that DVD Player has gotten a major overhaul from Apple and will be shipping with Leopard when it gets released. DVD Player 5.0 will be "a significant upgrade" from the version included with Tiger, ApplerInsider's sources claim, and will sport improvements both in functionality and look & feel.

There will supposedly be a totally new, fullscreen chapter navigation interface, and users will no longer have to exit fullscreen mode in order to navigate between chapters. If the user is watching a movie in window mode (as I tend to do on occasion, if I don't plan on paying 100% attention to the movie and am doing other things), the chapter navigation floats vertically on the side.

Most excitedly, the new DVD Player 5.0 will supposedly have a time bar for visual scrubbing, and there will also be an audio equalizer added to the application. Other small improvements include the addition of a sleep timer and and an option to keep the viewer above other applications.

Will this improve the DVD-watching experience in OS X? Sure seems so, although of course nothing can be said for sure until the application gets put to real use. Are there other features that you'd like to see added to DVD Player?

Update: There are now reports that DVD Player 5.0 makes references to both HD DVD and Blu-ray:

"sd dvd folder" = "VIDEO_TS";
"hd dvd folder" = "HVDVD_TS"
; "blu ray folder" = "BDMV";

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The story behind the hypothetical Ghostbusters video and game

I was saving this for Viddy Well, but now that the whole story has come to light I figured it would be worth its own post. Here's the story: a video of what looked like footage from a Ghostbusters game popped up on YouTube, and suddenly the gaming sites went crazy with speculation about the title. The intriguing thing was how quickly this went around the Internet; it's clear that the Ghostbusters IP is still powerful. Those of us who remember the movies fondly from our youth would be very interested in a game based on the movies. Of course, that's only if it's done right. HangZhou Night Net

It turns out the footage came from the developer Zootfly, who really wants to make a Ghostbusters game. Gamespot asked them a few questions about the footage we saw, and while they don't have the rights to make the game yet, they're hopeful.

GameSpot: The first obvious question is, why release these videos of a prototype Ghostbusters game to the public? Was it designed to drum up interest in the game?

Bostjan Troha: We hoped the publisher would sort out the IP issue in a jiffy and we'd be recharging proton packs in no time. Unfortunately, they didn't push to untangle the IP hard enough and the whole thing stalled a bit. There’s actually no insurmountable problem with getting the IP. It's just that extra mile someone needs to stride to get it.

As die-hard Ghostbusters fans we somehow felt obliged to share the early prototypes with the public. Also, we hoped to show that the fan base is enormous and that there’s a wide and genuine interest for a next-gen Ghostbusters game.

Mr. Troha then went on to describe the response to the video as "unbelievable." These are some savvy businessmen: now we're all talking about a game they are working on but don't have the rights to, and now they can take these stories and the success of the video to the people who own the rights to the Ghostbusters name and prove that such a game would do well commercially. It was a clever use of YouTube and the gaming press, but only time will tell if it works.

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Apple’s record quarter: inside the numbers

Yesterday, Apple Computer, Inc. reported record profits of $1.14 per share ($1 billion) on revenues of $7.1 billion, which was also a record. The earnings were a pleasant surprise for Wall Street given analysts’ expectations of around 78¢ earnings per share. Ars listened in on the entire quarterly earnings call to learn more about what Apple’s excellent quarter means for the future of the company.HangZhou Night Net

Can you hear the music?

As usual, the iPod was the engine powering Apple’s earnings. The company sold over 21 million iPods during the quarter, up 50 percent from the first quarter of fiscal year 2006. Margins were strong as well—over 31 percent—due to better-than-expected component prices. Apple reported that iPod sales increased at a higher rate outside the US, but that it had 72 percent of the digital music player market in the US. The iPod also burst through the 50 percent market share barrier in Australia, Canada, Japan, Switzerland, and the UK.

Music and video revenues from iTunes were up as well, 29 percent from the same quarter last year. Although sales of music and videos have significantly lower margins than the hardware sales, the good news for Apple is that the company continues to dominate the market. That’s especially true in the US, where the iTunes Store is responsible for over 85 percent of all downloaded music purchases according to Nielsen-Soundscan.

Retail was strong for Apple too. The company set a new record with $1.1 billion in revenues, which works out to about $6.7 million per store while seeing heavy foot traffic—roughly 13,000 customers per store, per week during the just-ended quarter.

Apple still makes computers, too

In recent years, the performance of Apple’s desktops and laptop has been something of an afterthought given the success of the iPod. For the past few quarters, however, Apple has been enjoying hardware growth that is significantly ahead of the overall PC market.

For the last quarter of 2006, Apple held the fifth spot in the US PC market. Gartner’s figures show that Apple moved 808,000 Macs in the US while Apple reported selling 1.606 million computers worldwide. According to Gartner’s figures, 67.35 million PCs were sold worldwide during that quarter, giving Apple 2.38 percent market share. That’s a significant jump—17.2 percent—from the company’s 2.03 percent share during the fourth quarter of 2005.

This marks the eighth of the last nine quarters where Apple’s growth has outpaced that of the overall market. In the US, the difference is huge: Apple computer shipments grew 30.6 percent, compared with the -3.2 percent growth seen by the overall US market.

Apple’s biggest winner on the computer side of the aisle was the MacBook. While Apple no longer breaks down hardware sales by product, they did say that laptop sales jumped 65 percent. The only bit of bad news for Apple came in the form of slower-than-expected sales of the Mac Pro, which Apple ascribed to a scarcity of professional apps than can run natively on the machine.

Looking ahead

Apple has managed to stay above the 5 percent market share point in the US for two consecutive quarters (they were at 4.8 percent for the second quarter of 2006). That’s a high-water point for the company this decade and its ability to grow much faster than the rest of the market bodes well for the future of Mac OS X as well as its desktops and laptops.

According to Apple’s own figures, over 50 percent of its retail store sales during the third quarter of 2006 were to people who had not previously owned a Mac. That trend continued during the fourth quarter, as Apple’s research showed that over half of the Macs sold during that time were to people new to the platform.

What’s driving Apple’s better-than-the-market growth? Various reports have cited the iPod halo effect, the switch to x86 hardware, the ability of Macs to run Windows, as well as more competitive hardware prices. It’s likely a combination of all of those factors working together, and barring any major missteps by the company, there’s little reason to believe that things will be different in the quarters ahead.

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Quarks, colored gluons, and quantum chromodynamics

As most casual fans of modern physics should be well aware, there are
two brilliant, exceedingly accurate theories that dominate the physics
landscape today: general
relativity at the large end, and quantum mechanics at the small. While
they are both correct at their respective length scales, and they both
collapse
down to what is considered classical physics under certain conditions,
they are in complete disagreement with one another. Of the four
fundamental forces in the universe, quantum mechanics handles three of
them—electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak
nuclear force—where as general relativity handles the
remaining
force, gravity. General relativity aside, there is an
interesting
question (well, many interesting questions) lying in the other forces.
Have you ever thought about what holds the nucleus of an atom together?
Classical electrodynamics, Coulomb's law in particular, states that like
charges repel one another, so how does a group of positively charged
protons and neutral neutrons stay together? The
answer is the strong nuclear force, more specifically my favorite named
subatomic particles:
gluons. Granted, this is a simplification. The details are contained in
a sub-field of quantum mechanics, quantum chromodynamics (QCD). QCD
states that gluons mediate strong color charge interactions of quarks
and are therefore indirectly responsible for the binding of protons and
neutrons in an atomic nucleus.HangZhou Night Net

Clearly,
this binding energy is strong, as it is capable of overcoming the
electromagnetic repulsion that two protons feel between one another,
but this leads to another question, one that is unanswered in nuclear
physics today. Why does this strong attraction stop? What is keeping
this force from pulling all the quarks that make up protons and
neutrons in an atomic nucleus from forming a big "quarkblob" as opposed
to the individual
subatomic particles we observe everyday? For any one who has studied
physical chemistry (or a related field) they should be aware of the
concept of interatomic potentials, equations that describe the
forces or potentials between two atomic bodies. While there are a
myriad of these potentials, for the most part they share a similar
shape, as shown in the figure to the right. At very long distances
there is little to no attraction, at medium distances there is a strong
attraction between particles (which can be thought of as a bond), and
at very short distances there is a very strong repulsion. It has long
been empirically believed that the nucleon-nucleon—where a
nucleon
is a neutron or proton—interaction has this general shape,
where
thishard-core type repulsion at short distances would serve
to keep the quarks that make up protons and neutrons from collapsing
into a large "quarkblob".

Proving that a potential like this exists within the QCD framework is
exceedingly difficult, however a team of Japanese researchers has done
just that. The research article on this work is available from
arXiv for
free, for the physically inclined to read. In order to
compute this potential, the researchers needed to create a pair of
nucleons on a computer from scratch and compute how the total energy of
the system changed as a function of the distance between them. Even
though QCD contains all the necessary physics to carry out this
computation, it is no easy task. At the simplest level (which
is about as far as I can intelligently discuss this topic), a proton is
made up of three quarks, two up quarks (u) and a down (d) (uud). While this
is not entirely accurate, if
someone could simulate the quark trio and let it equilibrate, they
would have made a proton. However, this glosses over much of the
important details of the actual process which involves additional
gluons and quark-antiquark pairs appearing during the process. In the
quantum mechanical reality, these would all exist simultaneously which
is something a modern computer could not handle. In order to study this
the researchers used massively parallel computing techniques to
construct and store all the potential configurations that would be
needed to create two nucleons. Using a technique known as lattice
quantum chromodynamics, and advanced algorithms the team was able to
derive the nucleon-nucleon interaction potential by solving for a
wavefunction that satisfied the Schröedinger equation, in the proper
reference frame.

What the team found was that this empirically known repulsion at short
distances is indeed a direct consequence of QCD theory, and they were
able to quantify the nucleon-nucleon interaction potential in a way
never previously done. However, some
computational limitations placed restrictions on values that the
simulations depended on: the masses of the u and d quarks were
higher than what is experimentally agreed upon. This results in the
final results of the paper being slightly less quantitative, and more
qualitative, yet it represents a huge breakthrough in the field of
nuclear physics and QCD. Beyond adding a definite answer to a decades
old problem, the methods devised can be applied to study exotic forms
of matter not directly accessible in a terrestrial laboratory. The
authors point out how this work can be used to study what are called
hyperons: particles that contain a valence strange quark (s) in place of a u or d quark. Matter
like this occurs in supernova explosions and within the centers of neutron
stars, not something that is accessible by us. This work is another example
of simulation and computational research that will let science go
beyond what is currently possible. However, as always work of this
nature must be viewed with care since this is such a rapidly evolving
field. As Prof. Frank Wilczek of the physics department at MIT states
in his review
of this work in Nature,
"yesterday's sensation is tomorrow's calibration"—which
coincidentally is one of my new favorite quotes.

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Balancing forces in the evolution of flight

Birds may make it look easy, but flight is very stressful for them. Or at least for their shoulder joints, according to some recent research. Because the muscles and ligaments that stabilize the shoulder all reside close to the body, they have little leverage to hold the wing in place. As a result, one of the muscles (the pectoralis) in a pigeon's wing needs to exert a force of seven times its body weight simply to hold the wing steady while gliding, according to a model of the wing built by the authors. To actually pull the wing down for flight increases the requirement to 13 times body weight. HangZhou Night Net

This would all be easy if the muscle were pulling against a rigid joint, but a bird's shoulder needs to be open and allow a broad range of movements. As a result, unless the pectoralis's force were balanced, it would pull the wing right out of its socket. The authors of this report tested a number of other structures in the wing for their ability to counter-balance the force of this muscle and found that a ligament (the acrocoracohumeral ligament, or AHL) was ideally located to provide an opposing force. In fact, tests with the actual ligaments of dead pigeons revealed that the AHL could survive strains of nearly 40 times a pigeon's typical body weight.

The authors ask what this ligament is doing when it's not stabilizing a wing? The closest living relatives of birds are the Crocodilians, which primarily flex their shoulders horizontally. In alligators, the ligament extends horizontally, and doesn't even seem to be put under stress during their normal stride—the force generated by the pectoralis seems to be counteracted by other muscles. This raises some obvious questions about how the ligament came to play such a key role in the wing.

Fortunately, the paths and attachments of ligaments leave landmarks on bones which can be detected even in fossils. Ancestors of birds such as therapod dinosaurs and the Archaeopteryx appear to have an arrangement very much like an alligator's. But after that point, other fossil species on the bird lineage indicate that the adoption of a new orientation for the AHL and a more flexible shoulder joint occurred both very gradually and in tandem. The timing of these changes suggest that the last common ancestor of all modern birds (which lived well after their split with reptiles) had an intermediate shoulder where only part of the stress of a vertical wing was transferred to the ligament, but that the process was at least underway.

It's a neat study that suggests that even mechanical engineers might have something to tell us about evolution.

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iLife and iWork ’07: Coming soon?

If (like most of us) you can tell time, you might have noticed that 2007 is almost three weeks old now and yet there's no sign of the eponymous personal or professional productivity suites from Apple. Expected to be unveiled (or at least announced) at Macworld Expo last week, it seems this year's upgrades to iLife and iWork aren't quite ready to come out of the oven.HangZhou Night Net

Then there's the impending release of Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard," and here the big news to come out of MWSF was—nothing? What gives, guys?

Remain calm, all is well, says Apple. While listening in on yesterday's earnings conference call, we unearthed two tidbits of news regarding both of these new ventures.

Numero uno: What's up with Leopard?

Continue to plan to ship Leopard in the Spring. We've got a lot of people working on it.

Numero dos: iLife. Give it to us.

We don't announce future products, but… stay tuned.

One might assume the pinpoint, up-to-the-second iLife release schedule mentioned above would also apply to its business-oriented cousin, iWork. There's some mild speculation that there may be features of iLife/iWork '07 that will in fact require Leopard, perhaps involving ties to Time Machine (you may want to hit mute before following that link) or other new technologies in the OS. This is entirely possible, of course, but if that's the case, it also means that the suites won't be available for a notable portion of 2007. Will there be a backlash if new and improved 2008 versions ship half a year after the 2007 models?

There are also half-hearted rumors abound of another Apple event later this month that's possibly timed to coincide with Microsoft's unveiling of the consumer versions of Vista at the end of January. The next significant milestone in Apple's 30th-anniversary year could be March 24, six years to the day of the release of Mac OS X 10.0. Or how about April 1, anniversary of the company's incorporation? Then there's this year's NAB conference, the scene of past Apple product introductions starting on April 14. Will we see the 2007 application/OS lineup before then?

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Zune on track for 1 million sales by July

The Zune may not have been noteworthy enough to make Amazon.com's Best of 2006 list, but Microsoft is reporting that the portable music player still had a fantastic December. Besides the device, Microsoft is reporting that Zune-related accessories and the Zune Marketplace also saw rapid growth during the last two months of 2006, but bear in mind that the Zune Marketplace launched on November 14, 2006. HangZhou Night Net

While the iPod still held the top spot in hard-drive based MP3 player sales, Microsoft claims that the Zune finished right behind Apple's uber popular device. A Microsoft spokesperson stressed that the Zune showed clear signs of success in its first six weeks.

"We're happy to report that we achieved our goal of establishing Zune as the clear number two seller this holiday behind an entrenched competitor. No other single device has been able to achieve these kinds of results in a six week launch period and we remain on track to exceed one million units in sales by June 30, 2007."

When the iPod launched, it sold 125,000 units in its first two months on the market. Taking the spokesperson's quote above literally, the Zune must have seen similar sales as compared to the original iPod, and over the next three years, Microsoft is sure that it can improve the Zune's position in the digital music device industry. Last December, Zune marketing director Jason Reindorp explained the company's game plan to Laptop Magazine.

"For us, the sales are right on track. They're exactly where we wanted them to be. This is week three, so it's kind of early for us to be thinking about share. The main thing for us is—and right from the beginning we were saying this—that this is a three-year plan. We're really thinking in terms of years and not weeks. From our retail partners we're hearing—and this is completely anecdotal—that they're seeing Zune drive what they think is incremental sales to the category right now."

The Zune is bound to improve within the next three years. Who knows, it could even dethrone the iPod at some point. By no means would that be easy, but with the right mixture of innovation and marketing, plus maybe a major mistake by Apple, could the Zune become number one? Aren't we seeing a similar trend right now with the Xbox 360 and PS3?

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adCenter Labs puts Microsoft’s latest advertising innovations on display

Recently, members from Microsoft's Research Center group and the adCenter group teamed together to create a series of new technologies directed toward online advertising. The team, which refers to itself as Microsoft adCenter Labs, is made up of over 100 researchers, developers, and analysts. The goal behind the adCenter Labs project is to lure in would-be advertisers to Microsoft while displaying ways that the company is innovating in the advertising space. HangZhou Night Net

Rather than tell potential advertisers what Microsoft could do for them, the company decided to create the adCenter Labs web site that provides interactive videos and demos of the group's latest creations—many of which are very cool.

Believe it or not, there are a lot of things to do at the adCenter Labs site. The first thing I tried was the Demographics Prediction, which takes a web site as input and writes back some information about its audience. How did Ars fare? Mostly male, frequented by those between the ages of 25 and 34. Microsoft.com, on the other hand, had a demographic of women over the age of 50; very interesting.

For advertisers, tools such as the Online Commercial Intention (OCI) detector can be quite fetching. The OCI can analyze a customer's search history and determine whether or not he is in the mood to shop. As a complement to OCI, Microsoft also has the Content Categorization Engine which offers possible categories along with a confidence rating for a given URL.

Some of Microsoft's most creative projects have come from the Microsoft Research Center, and the company has been putting more and more muster behind its advertising sales since the birth of the Live platform. Will we see any groundbreaking technologies come out of the adCenter Labs project? I think so. It's definitely a Microsoft group to keep an eye on over the next year.

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“Marketplace” glances at professional gaming

Whenever anyone in the media talks about games, and it's not to call us bloodthirsty killing machines or how we use games to train ourselves to run over our cats with cars, I'm happy. I perked up yesterday when I heard the host of "Marketplace" on my local NPR station start to talk about gaming. HangZhou Night Net

KAI RYSSDAL: Y'know how you read about people getting up at 4 o'clock in the morning to line up to buy the latest video game machine? And you say, man, what's the matter with them?

Okay, well, maybe not. This piece takes a look at professional gamers, and it seems like they actually have a sense for how big the potential market is for gaming leagues. I'm not all the way sold on professional gaming yet; the few things I've seen in this regard were way too geeky for widespread consumption. It really is a matter of upping the production values and getting some people in there who actually know the games to give good play-by-play. Thenmaybe professional gaming could work. Maybe. The Business of Sports analyst (best title ever) weighs in:

DERSE: Well, it's no longer guys sitting alone in the middle of the night. You have a number of different leagues already trying to sort of vie for status. But there are actually a couple out there that have been pretty interesting. You've got the World Series of Video Games, which I think yesterday announced a five-week series with CSTV, College Sports Television, to display its event. And then last week at CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, Championship Gaming Series, which is a product of DirecTV, has announced that it's gonna be airing a series of team-vs-team competitions beginning in February. And it's very, very high-production value in a team format. And just listen to the way they promote it:

ANNOUNCER: In 2007, the 101 on DirecTV invites you to get… your… game… on!

Oh, dear sweet Lord. This is still an interesting read (or listen) if you want a look at how we're viewed by everyone else, and how the very idea of gaming professionally (or as a spectator sport) appears to those outside the thrall of gaming. Am I ready for jocks with joysticks? Probably not, but the more exposure our hobby gets, the better for everyone.

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Why Gears of War is holding up, and why derivative games can be classics

The problem with Gears of War is that unless you're playing it, it's easy to forget how good it is. You take a break for a while, and when you think about the game it's in terms of just another shooter, an exercise in "stop and pop" game play that may be pretty but doesn't do much to move the genre forward. You start to wonder what all the buzz was about. After all, no one gets this excited about a new Rainbow Six, do they? Of course not. Gears of War has to be overrated. HangZhou Night Net

Then you play it again, and everything that makes the game great comes back. I've actually had to put the disc back into the gaming collection and away from my 360. If I have it readily available I'll spend too many afternoons playing to the expense of other games. The weapons are balanced, the level design is top notch, and the game holds up over mult-hour gaming sessions. We now know that the chainsaw attack is often left to chance when two players rev it at the same time, and that can annoy some. I like it; the mood of the game is less formal than most multiplayer games. Much of the time when I'm playing multiplayer the game is almost secondary—it's more like we're hanging out and just happen to be shooting at each other with arrows that embed themselves in your skin and then explode. Of course, the fluid nature of the gameplay may annoy some, as referenced by Penny Arcade:

Animal appeal or no, he'll never be made to tolerate the fact that there are times where – when pressing their all-powerful A button – he can't actually determine what the result will be. I have heard it said that "it's a poor craftsman who blames his tools," but he's not trying to build an armoire. He's trying to navigate a simulated environment, and the indecision this creates obliterates his amusement.

I didn't give Gears of War my Game of the Year nod for 2006, and that move lead to much wailing and gnashing of… well, 360 controllers, honestly. I gave it to Brain Age, because that game made me multiply and have fun doing it; it turned trying to be smarter than my girlfriend into a meta-game. It sold everyone I know on a DS and it was all I saw in the hands of others outside the home for a good two months. I stand by my choice, but Slate has a great article on why they think Gears of War was the best game of last year. They may love Cliffy B a bit too much for my taste, but they make some strong points.

In addition to being a great marketer, Bleszinski is also terrific at
explaining how game design works. "In the grand scheme of videogame
real estate the 'A' button is Park Place," he wrote in a blog post
this past September. "The D-pad, Y, and back are Compton and Watts.
When we put together our control scheme for our games we say to the
player that the buttons that are prime real estate are the things that
the player will be doing most often while playing. Allow me to ask this
question then—how did [using the 'A' button for jumping] from the days
of Sonic and Mario creep into the shooter genre?"

Is it as simple as design? When I think back to things I would change about Gears of War I have to really get the brain going to come up with any sort of list. More levels? Oh, they just released some free ones. More game-types? Sure, okay. Clan play on Live? YES PLEASE. But all these things are additions to the core game, and I can't think of any real problems I have with the experience as it stands now. It's a game that just feels good to play, and it shows just how good you can make a game in an established genre when you take the time to refine every aspect of play. Gears even perfects co-op play: every bit of the game can be played with a friend at home, online, and you can add or drop the second player at any point of the game. This needs to be the new standard. Yes, I know how hard this is to do, but that doesn't take away from how important it is to gamers.

Gears of War has set the bar remarkably high for every other shooter that gets released in the next few years—this is the new high-water mark. We'll see what happens when Halo 3 is released on the 360, but right now we have one of the modern classics on the new systems, and as a game I like it even more as time goes on. Some people may disagree with my love affair with this game, but my question would then be: have you beaten it? Played it for a few hours online with good players? Mastered the control scheme? This is a game that looks limited from the outside, but once you're in the thing it's clear why we're all so impressed. This is a game you have to play to understand, and every fan of action games should make it a point to at least give it a few hours.

I can't wait to see what they do with the sequel.

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