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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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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 atexplaining how game design works. "In the grand scheme of videogamereal estate the 'A' button is Park Place," he wrote in a blog postthis 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 theplayer that the buttons that are prime real estate are the things thatthe player will be doing most often while playing. Allow me to ask thisquestion then—how did [using the 'A' button for jumping] from the daysof 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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Recent Posts

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Whenever anyone in the media talks about games, and it's not to call...

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