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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a photo of McMann published on the website was a violation of McMann’s personal copyright (the photo has apparently been replaced by the picture of a grinning jack-o’-lantern).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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Microsoft announces direct downloads of Vista, family licensing

When we first told you about Windows Anytime Upgrade, I observed that Microsoft was taking a confident stance against piracy. By packing all four operating-system versions into a single retail disc package, Microsoft can rely on its own antipiracy tools to validate on-the-fly upgrades. Once installed, a quick trip to the Windows Anytime Upgrade application presents you with the opportunity to upgrade from Home Basic all the way to Ultimate, for a fee.HangZhou Night Net

Yesterday Microsoft announced an expansion to their online sales efforts in the form of direct downloads for both Windows Vista and Office 2007. Starting on January 30, Microsoft will sell the retail editions of Windows Vista and Office 2007 on the Windows Marketplace. Customers will be able to purchase software keys and download the installation software. At launch, the program will only be available in North America, and will only support the English versions of these applications.

"With the consumer launch of Windows Vista so close, we're excited to announce three new ways to make the purchase and upgrade experience easier than ever," said Brad Brooks, general manager of Windows Client Marketing at Microsoft. "These new programs give our customers more flexibility and choice to ensure they get the edition that's right for them."

Windows Anytime Upgrade can be tapped by OEMs who can then set up their own software offerings for their customers. According to Microsoft, these partners can establish their own upgrade pricing, but Microsoft has made the following recommendations: Home Basic to Home Premium $79, Home Basic to Ultimate $199, Home Premium to Ultimate $159 and Business to Ultimate $139.

Family discounts

Microsoft also announced a family license plan for US and Canadian users aimed at giving users reduced licensing costs for multiple machines. Until June 30 2007, customers who purchase Windows Vista Ultimate (upgrade or full version) can purchase up to two additional Vista Home Premium licenses for $49.99, a discount of $350 from the MSRP of $399.99.

It's a shrewd move by Microsoft. Windows Vista Family Discount will give Vista Ultimate buyers with multiple PCs in the home a relatively inexpensive way to upgrade their machines while costing Microsoft relatively little.

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iPhone’s expected profit margin to top 50 percent

How much will the iPhone really cost Apple to make, and how much of a premium on top of that will consumers be paying for it? A preliminary analysis by iSuppli of Apple’s recently-announced iPhone shows that, based off of the estimated cost of materials, Apple has priced the iPhone with over a 50 percent profit margin on both models. HangZhou Night Net

iSuppli estimates that the hardware Bill of Materials (BoM) for the 4GB version of the iPhone will be $229.85, and with the addition of nonhardware costs (such as royalties to EDGE, an operating system, and various software), comes out to a total price of $245.83. With a projected retail price of $499 from Apple and Cingular, that puts the 4GB iPhone at a 50.7 percent profit margin. The 8GB model’s profit margin is slightly higher—with an estimated hardware BoM of $264.85, total cost of $280.83, and retail price of $599, the 8GB iPhone will have roughly a 53.1 percent profit margin. iSuppli says that the company has a "high degree of confidence" in these figures, but that until an actual teardown of the iPhone takes place, the numbers are considered preliminary.

Can Apple survive in the cutthroat mobile phone world with such high margins? The company has succeeded in the past in charging similar margins on the iPod nano and the iMac (45 percent, according to iSuppli), so the iPhone’s apparently hefty margins come as no surprise. However, the mobile phone market has so many players and so much competition (about 835 new models are expected to come out this year, with at least 14 models that have features similar to the iPhone) that Apple may have a hard time thriving in such a vastly different market.

iSuppli Director and principal analyst Jagdish Rebello said that "With a 50 percent gross margin, Apple is setting itself up for aggressive price declines going forward." The fierce competition is only exacerbated by service providers who are always pushing deals on handsets as a part of new contracts. Apple’s multiyear tie-in with Cingular will limit Apple’s reach in the market too, since there are still entire states that have yet to be blessed with Cingular coverage.

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Recognizing the errors of our ways

Most researchers have an ambiguous relationship with statistics. We realize that it’s a necessary tool for a lot of what we do, but it’s also a distinct discipline that can require a graduate degree to fully understand. An unfortunate result is that either the statistical tools we use are often somewhat simplified, or we work with someone else who does the actual statistical analysis. Two different papers came out recently that point out the dangers of not having a firm grasp on statistics. One suggests an improvement over standard statistical tests, while the second contains a whole list of common errors and cautions in the application of a recently developed technology. HangZhou Night Net

The first looked at what are called observational studies: large collections of patients that are undergoing medical treatments and are tracked for whether the treatments have an effect. Unlike randomized clinical trials (which are needed before new treatments are used), however, the results of observational studies can be complicated by decisions made by doctors and patients. It’s possible that only a subset of patients ever get a given treatment, which could have more to do with their long-term health than the actual medical intervention.

The authors look at a cardiac catheterization procedure used to reopen blocked heart arteries. In early randomized clinical trials, the decrease in mortality following the procedure was in the 10-20 percent range. But once the procedure was put into common use, doctors only tended to perform it on younger patients with less severe heart problems. Observational studies with three different types of standard statistical controls suggested that the decrease in mortality was nearly 50 percent, but was this due to the procedure or the patients?

The authors redid the data using what’s called “Instrumental Variable Analysis,” a technique developed by economists that acts to re-randomize the data. As they put it, “An instrumental variable has 2 key characteristics: it is highly correlated with treatment and does not independently affect the outcome.” They found that geographical location provided such a variable. The use of catheterization was more common in some locations—in those regions, the procedure was more commonly performed on older and less healthy individuals. In effect, where you had the procedure done acted a bit like the random assignment of similar patients to groups who did or did not receive the procedure. This analysis placed the mortality benefit in the neighborhood of 16 percent, about the same as was seen in the randomized clinical trials.

The second study was far broader, and produced a large set of recommendations for improved analysis of a specific class of study. The experiments these authors looked at involved DNA chips, technology that allows all of the genes expressed by a tissue to be examined at once. In many cases, chip technology has been used to look for differences between cancerous and normal cells, in the hope that specific sets of genes may correlate with outcome or response to targeted treatments. The authors looked for studies dating from 2004, and found nearly 100 studies of this sort that fit their criteria. They then looked at all of the things these studies did wrong, and found that they fell into three main categories.

The first mistake is hanging on to inappropriate standards. Many researchers continued to use the most common standard of probability (p < 0.05) to judge relevance, despite the fact that even the smallest DNA chips now represent over 20,000 genes. That means over 1,000 of these data points are going to be false positives unless people use a more stringent standard. Other publications built up a panel of potentially diagnostic genes using a set of patients, and then included these same patients in tests of whether those genes really were diagnostic, which obviously would skew the results. But the biggest problem seemed to be a basic mix up of cause and effect: "the most common and serious flaw was a spurious claim that the expression clusters were meaningful for distinguishing different outcomes, when the clustering itself was based on genes selected for their correlation with outcome."

They also pointed out some more general flaws. Many studies lacked a clear goal, meaning that their results tended to reveal vague correlations, rather than producing usable conclusions. Possibly as a result of the lack of a clear goal, many of the studies evaluated simply threw every tumor sample they had on the DNA chip, without regard to the general health, age, or treatment received by the patient. These differences made it impossible to correlate the outcomes with anything.

Both of these papers provide a wealth of potential cautions regarding the interpretation of clinical data from the fields of cancer and heart disease, two of the biggest killers in the US. They also highlight one of the strengths of science: it is potentially self-correcting. Hopefully, these papers will receive sufficient attention within the field for corrections to be made.

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New lobbying bill to criminalize political bloggers?

One of the Democratic priorities for the new Congress was passage of a lobbyist reform bill, but the introduction of S.1 into the Senate has caused a veritable firestorm of controversy. That’s because section 220 of the bill introduces disclosure requirements for “paid efforts to stimulate grassroots lobbying.” The Traditional Values Coalition calls this section the “most expansive intrusion on First Amendment rights ever proposed in the United States Senate,” while GrassrootsFreedom.com chairman Richard Viguerie says that if it passes, “We’d be living under totalitarianism, not democracy.” But are these accurate statements, or is truth the first casualty of rhetoric?HangZhou Night Net

S.1 would change the rules for lobbyists. It bans all gifts from lobbyists, imposes restrictions on trips and accommodation offered to elected officials, and requires all “earmarks” to be identified in spending bills, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But the bill also wants to bring disclosure requirements to the murky world of astroturf groups (so-called because they mimic real grassroots organizations). This is certainly a noble goal; undisclosed corporate money washes through so many front groups now that it can be difficult to tell when opinions are genuine and when they are bought and sold.

Section 220 of the bill “would require grassroots causes, even bloggers, who communicate to 500 or more members of the public on policy matters, to register and report quarterly to Congress the same as the big K. Street lobbyists,” said Viguerie in a statement, but the truth isn’t that simple.

First, a couple of facts: though groups like the Family Research Council claim that “the liberal leadership in the US Senate seeks to silence groups like the Family Research Council,” the bill was actually cosponsored by Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the top Republican leader in the Senate. What’s more, the bill appears to be an exact reintroduction of last year’s S.2349, which was introduced by Trent Lott (R-MS) and actually passed the Republican-controlled Senate, complete with section 220.

So much for the liberal plot. In fact, some liberal groups oppose the measure, including the ACLU. The group argues that the reporting requirements are “onerous” and that “people must be able to disseminate information, contact their representatives, and encourage others to do so as well.”

So what’s in the bill?

Section 220 introduces a series of modifications to the 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act. The most important is that “paid efforts to stimulate grassroots lobbying” now counts as “lobbying” under certain circumstances. Currently, lobbyists are only considered as such if they have contact with elected officials or staff members. Should the new bill become law, disclosure and reporting requirements for lobbyists would be extended to groups who attempt to influence the general public to contact legislators.

This is what has inspired claims that bloggers and activists of all stripes will suddenly be classed as lobbyists and will be monitored by the government. What the bill says, though, is that the rules only apply to people who are paid by clients to encourage the public to contact Congress about specific legislation. The rules do not apply to any communication directed at less than 500 people, they do not apply to any communication directed at a group’s current membership, and they do not impose any speech regulations (all that is required is a quarterly report describing where one’s money came from and what bills were worked on).

Would this apply to a political blogger? Not usually. Because section 220 is only a series of changes to the Lobbying Disclosure Act, that legislation’s other rules still apply. According to OMB Watch, a government accountability watchdog group, the LDA’s registration requirement is only triggered by groups that spend more than $24,500 on lobbying semiannually and employ a least one person who spends 20 percent or more of their work time on lobbying. The bill also concerns only the federal government; groups operating at the state level are exempt.

It might apply to groups like the Family Research Council and the ACLU, however, but that seems to be exactly the intent of the bill. These are major advocacy groups in the same league as the astroturf groups so often funded by industry, not tiny nonprofits operating out a rented storefront in a downtrodden Midwest town—or bloggers operating from a basement.

The measure will hardly “send critics to jail,” as Richard Viguerie warns, and it’s simply not true that the “Senate will have criminalized the exercise of First Amendment rights.” Sending in a form can hardly be counted as draconian government harrassment, much less criminalization of free speech, and it won’t apply to most small advocacy groups or bloggers anyway. (Note that Viguerie is referred to as the “direct mail titan of the right” by SourceWatch, and that he would need to disclose his clients and their payments to him in many cases if this law were to pass).

The legislation seems designed instead to give the public more information about who is funding public advocacy campaigns. Much as prescription drug makers have begun advertising their products directly to the general public, other corporations have found it more productive to disguise their interest in an issue, convince the public that it’s either good or bad, then let individuals contact Congress directly. This gives their message more credibility, but citizens first need to know that the sources for these messages are credible.

Sen. Robert Bennett (R-UT), though, is concerned that section 220 is overly broad. He has introduced amendment 20, which would kill section 220 but leave the rest of the bill intact. (It’s a sign of just how much interest the bill has received on Capitol Hill, it currently has 96 proposed amendments).

S.1 has not yet come to a vote, though debate has progressed vigorously and a vote could be called at any time.

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Game Review: Wario Ware: Smooth Moves (Wii)

We know what we're getting from Wario Ware titles: microgames shot at us at a machine-gun pace, using the best of whatever input device the game is put on. We started with a GBA game, added a tilt sensor, and then moved to the DS with Wario Ware Touched. The GameCube Wario Ware was a great party game, but unfortunately didn't have any fun controllers to play with. Wario Ware: Smooth Moves is what fans of the franchise have been waiting for: microgames that use the Wiimote. In fact, this game uses the Wiimote in more novel ways that you can count, but that is actually one of the bigger issues with the title. HangZhou Night Net

Smooth Moves has you hold the Wiimote in many different ways to play the game: from the Handlebars to the Janitor, the positions all sound like vaguely boring sexual positions and are introduced via hilarious voice-over narration with a graphic explaining how to hold the Wiimote. Horizontal, vertical, with your hand over or below it; there is a learning curve involved with keeping all these positions straight. The downsides are obvious: if you just came into the game, you'll have to learn these positions or you're at a disadvantage, and that takes away from the pick-up-and-play joy of past Wario Ware titles. Also, having to be told how to hold the controller breaks up the action. The Wiimote is sometimes held on your nose, head, and hip. I've included a picture of the Mohawk position so you get a sense of what I'm talking about. The game is still fast-paced, but with that extra screen game play is slowed down. It's a little disappointing, and takes a while to get used to.

That being said, this game proves how strong of a controller the Wiimote is; maybe even a little better than Raving Rabbids did. There is a boss battle where you have to catch and balance falling blocks on a platter, and the fine control you have on both left-to-right movement as well as tilt as impressive. The games themselves are also as crazy as we're used to: from putting dentures into granny's mouth to playing Starfox to shooting bananas from your forehead into a giant nose, you really don't know what you'll see next. The first play-through is therefore the best—and where you'll laugh the most. Of course, some games will take you one or two tries before you figure out what you have to do, but those are rare.

Even with the slightly slower play this is a great game, and awesome for parties. Smooth Moves has bright and easy-to-understand graphics while the game play is top notch. Unlockable minigames help to round out the experience. There is a game where you have to put the Wiimote DOWN and then pick it up like a phone when you hear a ringing sound. That's just awesome. If you have a taste for the ridiculous and want to show off the Wiimote's capabilities, it doesn't get much better than this.

Verdict: Buy
Price: $49.99
System: Wii
Developer and Publisher: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: E10

Other recent minireviews:

Turtle Beach Earforce X2 Wireless Headphones Metal Slug Anthology Super Columbine Massacre RPGThe Mad Catz Xbox Live Retro Stick Gitaroo Man Lives

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HP opens up market share lead on Dell during fourth quarter

PC market share numbers for the fourth quarter of 2006 are out from Gartner Research, and once again, they do not paint a pretty picture for Dell. For the second consecutive quarter, Dell saw negative year-over-year growth as its worldwide market share in terms of units shipped dropped 8.7 percent from the fourth quarter of 2005, from 16.4 percent to 13.9 percent. The story in the US was the same, although Dell managed to hold on to its number one position.HangZhou Night Net

Rival Hewlett-Packard saw 23.9 percent growth during the same time period worldwide, moving nearly 11.7 million PCs—over 2.2 million more than it did during the fourth quarter of 2005. HP also made up ground on Dell in the US, moving closer to knocking its biggest rival off of its market share perch there. HP’s 4.05 million shipments and 25.3 percent market share in the US marked a 16 percent increase from the previous year—a marked contrast to Dell’s -17.3 percent slide.

Lenovo, Acer, and Toshiba rounded out the worldwide top five. Lenovo saw 9.3 percent year-over-growth, slightly ahead of the market’s 7.4 percent growth. In contrast, Acer and Toshiba both grew by leaps and bounds: 33.1 percent and 24.5 percent respectively.

Data source: Gartner Dataquest

For the entire year of 2006, the worldwide PC market grew 9.5 percent worldwide compared to 2005. Despite having two bad quarters back-to-back, Dell still managed to end up atop the worldwide market share figures—but just barely. The Round Rock, Texas-based PC maker shipped 38.05 million units during 2006, up 3.5 percent from 2005. HP was a close second place with 38.03 million, up 19.2 percent from the previous year’s 31.9 million. Lenovo’s growth of 10.9 percent was just over the market baseline of 9.5 percent, while Acer and Toshiba saw growth of 37.1 percent and 27.3 percent respectively.

Data source: Gartner Dataquest

In the US, Dell and HP still dominate with HP continuing to close the gap on Dell, which saw its market share drop to its lowest position in four years. For the fourth quarter of 2006, Gateway found itself in the number three position with 7.1 percent of the market, selling almost the same number of PCs as it had the previous year. Toshiba moved into the number four spot ahead of Apple, capturing 5.3 percent of the market compared with 4.2 percent during the last quarter of 2005. Apple is in the number five position, moving from 3.7 percent market share to 5.1 percent.

Apple was the leader in terms of US market share growth during the fourth quarter, moving 30.6 percent more computers than it did the previous year. Toshiba was second with 22.3 percent, HP third with 16.0 percent, while Gateway and Dell saw negative growth of -1.1 percent and -17.3 percent respectively. Overall, US PC makers shipped 3.2 percent fewer machines than they had a year previously.

Data source: Gartner Dataquest

Aside from Dell’s big slide and the strong growth of some of its competitors, the big story during the last quarter of 2006 was pricing. Most of Dell’s competitors gained ground with aggressive discounting, but the low prices were aimed at something other than the competition. "In the consumer market, the PC industry battled for wallet share against other consumer electronics products, such as game consoles and flat panel TVs," said principal analyst Mikako Kitagawa of Gartner Dataquest’s client computing markets group. Some of the price cutting was also intended to convince consumers to buy PCs during the holiday season instead of waiting for Vista’s launch at the end of this month.

2007 should bring more of the same in terms of growth, and Dell shouldn’t expect pressure from the competition to relent at all. The launch of Vista at the end of the month may spur the market a bit throughout the year; whether it will prove to be enough to reverse the overall decline in the US remains to be seen.

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The Midway: The “Whole lotta shootin’ going on” edition

Ah, the Midway. I'm actually starting to look forward to writing this;it givesme a good excuse to play all those little games that normally would just sap my wallet. It's a dangerous thing, being able to download console games online, and ever since I bought Jumping Flash through the PS3 to play on my PSP I've been hooked on getting more old PSone games portable. No one told me that if I bought four $5 games it would be $20! I thought they would stay affordable forever! HangZhou Night Net

Let's take a look at what we have this week:

Our pick of the week: Heavy Weapon on the Xbox Arcade. (800 points or $10) You won't have a hard time getting used to the controls on Pop Cap's newest casual game; like a ton of other Arcade title the left analogue stick moves your tank and the right analogue aims your turret. You can move your atomic tank to the left and right of the screen as the level scrolls and enemies try to attack you from the air and land, and that's about it. It's simple, uncomplicated, and fun as hell. There is nothing startlingly new or different about this game (choosing how to upgrade your tank between levels adds a litte bit of strategy), but it's fun nontheless. It's an easy game to get into and if you crank the sound the explosions and bullets all have a good "oomph" to them. Multiplayer co-op is also fun, and there are plenty of easy achievement points to grab if you want to pad your score. This beats last week's selection of Ms Pac Man pretty easily, and I'm looking forward to more play time tonight.

Also from the 360: three new Lumines downloads will be released next week, and one of them is free for Gold members. Feeling any better about that purchase?

What about theother systems?

The Playstation Store: No new titles here, although Sony has added Rally Cross to the list of PSone games available. I'm a sucker for rally games (Dr. Gitlin's post yesterday has me all giddy) so that may be worth grabbing. We also have the news that flOw is going to be released in February, and that's a must-buy. You can also grab a costume pack for Genji if you're into that sort of thing.

The Wii Virtual Console: Nintendo has been shooter-tastic lately with their Virtual Console picks. This week we have Xevious (NES, 500 points or $5), R-Type III: Third Lightning (SNES, 800 points or $8) as well as Moto Roader (Turbografx 16, 600 points or $6). I still have my copy of R-Type III on my real SNES, but Xevious will probably be a buy for me. Moto Roader I've never heard of, but it's another title that supports up to five players and may be fun for parties if your guests are into classic games.

My wish list for next week:

Tekken 5 (PS3)Worms (360)Goldeneye (Virtual Console)

What? I can dream, can't I?

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FCC says no to satellite radio merger

One rumor that has resurfaced periodically over the past couple of years was dealt a fatal blow today. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin told reporters after an FCC meeting that the Commission would not approve a merger between satellite radio rivals Sirius and XM Radio. According to Bloomberg, Martin said that "there is a prohibition on one entity owning both of these business."HangZhou Night Net

Most of the merger rumors have come directly or indirectly from Sirius CEO Mel Karmazin. In a November 2006 interview, Karmazin remarked that he would be open to a merger. "I have focused my entire career on shareholder value and wealth creation. Often mergers allow for that," said Karmazin. "I combined my radio company with CBS, and I combined CBS with Viacom."

At that time, we pointed out while that a merger would make sense financially—both companies have been hemorrhaging money from expensive programming agreements and satellite launches—it would have a hard time clearing regulatory hurdles. When the FCC initially licensed the two satellite radio companies in 1997, there was language in the licensing barring one from acquiring control of the other.

During a speech at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show, Martin compared the satellite radio market to the satellite TV market. He suggested that the same barriers that thwarted an attempted 2002 merger between DIRECTV and DISH Network would come into play with Sirius and XM Radio.

Even if the FCC were to have a change of heart and green-light a merger between Sirius and XM Radio, it would still have to pass antitrust scrutiny by the Department of Justice. Although a combination of the two radio companies wouldn’t have the same effect that it would in the TV market, where satellite is the only alternative for some US residents, it would still have the effect of eliminating competition—something that rarely benefits consumers.

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Dolby to turn volume down on loud commercials

Gone will be the days of relaxing on the couch while watching TV, only to frantically jump up and turn the volume down when a particularly loud commercial comes on. That’s what Dolby hopes to avoid with a system introduced at CES last week, called Dolby Volume. The system introduces technology to equalize the volume accross TV channels, programs, and commercials.HangZhou Night Net

Dolby says that the goal of Dolby Volume’s aim is to deliver consistent volume levels by modeling how "humans perceive audio" to eliminate variable loudness in the audio stream. Dolby claims that the system does this automatically without any type of user intervention (aside from the initial setup). During the demonstration, Dolby’s engineers said that the adjustments will be non-linear and that they will be able to process all types of audio streams without worrying about sampling rates. The system will be able to handle up to a 30dB in reduction or amplification. No word on what happens when watching an action movie or TV show with explosions or or other sudden noises that are meant to be loud and startling.

Volume-leveling technology like this is nothing new—some television sets, DVD players, TiVos, and even digital music players have a similar technology built in—although Dolby Volume appears to have improved on the process quite a bit. Dolby says that the system is able to perform these functions without generating "disruptive audio artifacts," and reporters who attended the demonstration said that they did not notice any sort of delay or drop in audio quality.

How much will this miraculous volume equalizing technology cost? Dolby won’t say just yet, but claims that it shouldn’t raise television set prices by "more than just a few percent." Depending on your definition of "a few" and how expensive of a TV you’re thinking about buying, that means that Dolby Volume could potentially cost a pretty penny… or not much at all. The company hopes that television makers will be able to have Dolby Volume incorporated into their products by the end of the year.

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Third-quarter FCC indecency complaints released

The FCC has just released its amended numbers for complaints of all kinds that were filed in the third quarter of 2006. Dealing as it does with such a wide range of communications issues, the FCC hears complaints that cover everything from cell phone billing practices to digital television issues to electrical interference. Most interesting of all, though, are the obscenity complaints—and there were a lot of them.HangZhou Night Net

The FCC received 162,170 indecency/obscenity complaints between July and September 2006. The complaints were not evenly distributed within those three months, though, which is a pattern we’ve seen before. In July, only 179 people complained. In August, 404 people complained. But September is apparently the filthiest month of all, as it generated a whopping 161,587 complaints to the FCC—a one-month increase of 40,000 percent.

What generally happens is that activist groups like the Parents Television Council (“Because our children are watching”) monitor the dirtiest shows on television, then write up the foul language and sexual activity in excruciating, pornographic detail (if you think I’m kidding, look halfway down the PTC page about Nip/Tuck for the paragraph beginning “Sex acts depicted…”). Video clips are also archived and shown in order to generate the requisite outrage. Periodic, large-scale campaigns are then mounted to flood the FCC with complaints over particular shows, and whenever one of these is successful, there’s a massive spike in obscenity complaints. Judging from the numbers in July and August, few Americans care enough to contact the FCC without such prompting.

This holds true in areas besides obscenity. Although disgust with the customer service offered by cable companies and big telecom firms is widespread around the office water cooler, that doesn’t translate into many official complaints. Only 678 people complained about wireless service quality in the entire three-month period, and only 2,032 complained about any sort of billing or rate problem. Only 100 people were upset about their cable bills.

Surprisingly, 5,741 people complained about unsolicited faxes, which raises the obvious question: people still use faxes? (I kid, I kid.)

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