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TidBITS#927/05-May-08

This week brings an eclectic set of news and reviews, starting off with Microsoft not purchasing Yahoo for $50 billion and running all the way through Joe Kissell's review of the Nabaztag Internet Rabbit. In the middle Joe also covers the release of the MozyHome online backup service, Jeff Carlson looks at movie purchases on the Apple TV, and Glenn Fleishman examines AT&T's new iPhone plan for the hearing and speech impaired. Glenn also reflects on the outpouring of support for handcrafted HTML and reports on Microsoft's ending of support for its PlaysForSure DRM, and Matt Neuburg contributes a glowing review of Vara Software's new ScreenFlow screencasting software. In the TidBITS Watchlist, we look briefly at updates to TextExpander, DiscLabel, Microsoft Messenger for Mac, Tinderbox, MacPilot, Infovox iVox, Synchronize Pro X, 1Password, the iMac ATI Radeon HD firmware, and Java for Mac OS X.
 
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Microsoft Pulls Yahoo Acquisition Offer

  by Adam C. Engst <ace@tidbits.com>

According to a story by Ina Fried in CNET's Beyond Binary blog, Microsoft has rescinded its offer to purchase Yahoo. In early February, Microsoft offered Yahoo $31 per share (see "Microsoft Bids $44.6 Billion for Yahoo," 01-Feb-08). Although speculation about the offer provided fodder for innumerable news stories and blog posts, in the end, it came down to money. Microsoft upped its offer to $33 per share, adding another $5 billion to the purchase price, but, according to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's letter to Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang, Yahoo's board of directors held out for $37 per share, a level to which even Microsoft wasn't willing to go. In theory, Microsoft could have taken the offer directly to Yahoo's shareholders, but Ballmer felt Yahoo would take steps during the process (most notably, forge a closer relationship with Google) to make the company undesirable as a takeover target for Microsoft.

So we're back to where we started, with Microsoft still looking for ways to fend off the hard-charging Google while still raking in $14.1 billion in profits on $55.1 billion in sales in 2007, making it the most profitable technology company according to Fortune. That's well ahead of Google ($4.2 billion in profits) and Apple ($3.5 billion).

Whatever problems Yahoo may have had before, the company's handling of the Microsoft offer would seem only to have worsened them - see Kara Swisher's report on the mood of Yahoo executives in All Things Digital.

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MozyHome for Mac Online Backup Service Reaches Version 1.0

  by Joe Kissell <joe@tidbits.com>

Online backup provider Mozy (now part of EMC, which also owns Retrospect) has announced that their Mac software has reached version 1.0 after more than a year of public beta testing (see "Two Online Backup Services Announce Public Betas," 2007-04-30). MozyHome for Mac offers unlimited online backups for a flat fee of $4.95 per month (a free 2 GB account is also available). The Mac MozyHome software is a 4.8 MB download.

MozyHome uses 448-bit Blowfish encryption for your files as well as 128-bit SSL to protect data while in transit. During incremental updates, the software copies only the portions of files that have changed (block-level incremental backup), reducing the time backups take to complete - a particularly welcome feature for those who want to back up large files that change often, such as Entourage databases and disk images used by virtualization software. Mozy also stores multiple versions of each backed-up file so that you can restore it to its state from any point in the past 30 days. Users can restore files using the Mac client software, download them from the company's secure Web site, or order DVDs (at an extra charge) containing their data.

Version 1.0 contains many changes from the beta versions, including support for Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, Mail messages, and files with resource forks. Formerly, backups ran automatically, whenever files changed; now, you can opt instead to run backups on an explicit schedule. You can also now throttle the program's bandwidth (at all times or during certain hours). In addition, version 1.0 features a long list of bug fixes and performance improvements.

MozyHome, as the name suggests, is for individual users. Mozy also announced that business versions of its service, MozyPro and MozyEnterprise, will become available later this year. Pricing details were not released.

I've become increasingly enthusiastic about online backup services as their costs have come down and feature sets have improved (see "Online Backup Options Expand," 2007-04-09), though speed will likely always be a concern, given the significant amount of data most of us have to back up and the limited upstream bandwidth of most consumer-level broadband services. I'll be interested to see how the new version of Mozy stacks up against competitor CrashPlan, which has so far held the lead in both breadth of features and performance.

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Apple TV Gains Movie Purchases and DVD Date Releases

  by Jeff Carlson <jeffc@tidbits.com>

The Apple TV, the company's "hobby" (according to Steve Jobs) media playback device, added to its appeal last week with a pair of movie-related announcements.

First, it's now possible to purchase movies directly from the Apple TV; before, they could be bought only from the iTunes Store on a computer. Movies for sale are available only in standard-definition resolution, not HD, even when an HD rental is available for the same title.

This feature appeared briefly several weeks ago, inconveniently the day I submitted the final version of my latest book, "The Apple TV Pocket Guide, Second Edition," to Peachpit Press. I wasn't able to successfully purchase anything on my Apple TV at the time, however, and Apple didn't get back to me with an answer before the capability disappeared.

The other news from last week goes beyond the Apple TV. A collection of movie studios announced that movies would be available for the Apple TV and other on-demand services on the same date that DVDs are released. Previously, Apple's position was that movies would be available for rent or purchase 30 days after the DVD release date (no doubt a limitation imposed by the studios at the time). The participating studios include 20th Century Fox, The Walt Disney Studios, Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures, Universal Studios Home Entertainment, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Lionsgate, Image Entertainment, and First Look Studios.

The new policy has been slowly adopted for weeks. The Oscar-nominated film "Michael Clayton" appeared for rent at the iTunes Store and on the Apple TV when the DVD was made available, but the timing also coincided with the Academy Awards. I'm guessing the success of that movie on iTunes (where it remained the top rental for several weeks) helped convince other studios that the 30-day limitation was silly.

Could this be the start of a clue among the movie studios? I'm not holding my breath. But it does show that they're finally realizing that although the main content may be the same - the movie - a DVD and a digital download are different offerings. People who purchase DVDs want higher video quality, something they can grab off the shelf that doesn't require an Internet connection, and the multitude of extras available on some DVDs. People who rent or purchase movies from direct services like the Apple TV are looking for near-instant gratification (depending on the capacity of one's Internet connection) and, most of all, convenience.

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AT&T Adds iPhone Plan for Hearing, Speech Impaired

  by Glenn Fleishman <glenn@tidbits.com>

The iPhone may not be any more accessible to those with hearing or speech impairments, but it's now more affordable on a monthly basis. AT&T has introduced a $40-per-month Text Accessibility Plan available through the company's National Center for Customers with Disabilities. The plan includes unlimited SMS messaging and unlimited EDGE data, along with 40-cent-per-minute voice usage and Apple's Visual Voicemail.

Customers who qualify can purchase and activate an iPhone as if they were applying for a regular service plan, and then contact AT&T's center to have the plan changed to this new offering.

This plan is essentially the same as the most expensive messaging package available as an add-on for existing AT&T customers who upgrade to an iPhone - that unlimited messaging plan also costs $40 per month - without any requirement for a voice plan. For other customers, AT&T requires at least a $40-per-month voice calling plan, which would be the equivalent of 100 minutes of calls made per month using this new offering.

A separate iPhone TTY (teletype) adapter ($19) allows the use of standard TTY equipment for relay calling, although relay calling requires the use of voice minutes. Apple documents its iPhone accessibility features, although the iPhone lacks a common feature ensuring hearing-aid compatibility that is not yet mandated by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC apparently started enforcing a requirement on 18-Apr-08 after cellular telephone carriers failed to hit a mark that 50 percent of all cell phone models offered have one or both of two forms of hearing-aid compatibility.

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Lovingly Craft Your HTML

  by Glenn Fleishman <glenn@tidbits.com>

My article about New York Times's design director Khoi Vinh's comment that he and his staff still hand code their HTML stirred a fair amount of both nostalgic and contemporary reverie among TidBITS readers (see "Hand Coding HTML Is Still in Vogue," 2008-04-28). Slashdot picked up Vinh's comment separately, and many readers there seemed to misunderstand - they thought Vinh was saying that every page on the New York Times site was being created by hand. One commenter wrote, "Handcoding takes far more time than is necessary in a changing scenario of today's news. Effort not proportional to returns. As a shareholder, i [sic] would sue them for wasting money."

Of course, as other Slashdotters contemptuously replied, the New York Times is database-driven, and Vinh and his staff are hand coding templates, not pages. Readers at Lifehacker were much more clued in when they commented on my article. It's fascinating to see people cast off the opprobrium that sticks to hand coding HTML, and proclaim how great it is.

But this set of responses made me realize that my headline was perhaps confusing: Hand coding seems to imply that every page is written by hand. In fact, we at TidBITS, the folks at the Times, and people at millions of sites around the world are hand crafting our HTML. We use HTML like a chisel, and enjoy the feeling of manual tools. Others may use jackhammers, and that's their choice.

Stand up today and be counted as an HTML handcrafter. I feel a "ye olde" coming on.

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DealBITS Discount: Save 20% on HoudahGeo

  by Adam C. Engst <ace@tidbits.com>

Congratulations to Paul Schumann of mac.com, Kelly Greenwood of juno.com, and Rachael Watson of hotmail.com, whose entries were chosen randomly in last week's DealBITS drawing and who received a copy of the $40 HoudahGeo photo geocoding software, as did Aleta Watson of cox.net, who referred Rachael to this DealBITS drawing. If you didn't win, don't fret, because you can save 20 percent on HoudahGeo; it's only $32 through 18-May-08 if you use coupon code "DEALBITS08" when ordering from Houdah Software. Thanks to the 480 people who entered this DealBITS drawing, and we hope you'll continue to participate in the future!

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Thank You for Not Playing: Microsoft Expires DRMed Music

  by Glenn Fleishman <glenn@tidbits.com>

Microsoft plans to break their customers' ability to play MSN Music-purchased songs on computers other than those that are currently authorized after 31-Aug-08. When the Zune was introduced in late 2006, Microsoft abandoned its long-time PlaysForSure digital rights management (DRM) system that embeds information in media to control playback. You can read a lovely, snarky annotation of Microsoft's letter to its MSN Music purchasers at eWeek Microsoft Watch.

The Zune Marketplace uses a different DRM system that's compatible with only the Zune. Microsoft currently sells no unprotected music, while Amazon's entire digital music catalog is DRM-free, and a subset of the iTunes Store is sold without device and playback locks. Geoff Duncan wrote about the new and old DRM systems in "Of the Zune, DRM, and Universal Music," 2006-11-13.

Users can continue to play MSN Music audio indefinitely on any machine authorized before 31-Aug-08, and can transfer and authorize songs on up to 5 computers total for any one song until that date. However, because Microsoft's system works on a per-song basis, if someone transferred a large library to another computer, they would need to authorize each song - one source says by starting to play each song, which must be an overstatement - before the August 31st deadline. After that point, music will continue to play only on previously authorized computers. Anyone forced to reinstall Windows, upgrade, or add a new machine is out of luck.

Microsoft suggests burning songs to audio CDs, although it doesn't mention the necessary second part of that transaction, which is to rip the music back as unprotected MP3, AAC, or even lossless music files.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has challenged Microsoft's action as part of their long-running battle against DRM. The EFF is not against copyright, ownership, control of usage, royalties, or reasonable limitations. Rather, they believe DRM is an ineffective method to provide such controls, because DRM punishes only those who opt into it by broadly restricting personal use rights that are encoded in both law and judicial decisions. These rights include being able to make reliable backups, play media on any device one owns, and choose when and how to pause and resume playback; various DRM systems restrict different sets of personal use rights. [Editor's note: For a detailed academic look at the implications of how the content industries are encapsulating intentionally fluid laws into rigid DRM technologies, see Tarleton Gillespie's "Wired Shut." -Adam]

Microsoft is engaged in what many opposed to DRM view as the worst-case scenario: a company sells a lot of media with DRM, then prevents users from continuing to use the media within the constraints imposed on the system, and offers no recompense or reasonable option to work around the shutdown.

What's odd, of course, is that Microsoft is neither going out of business (obviously) nor shutting down MSN. Rather, they made a business decision to shift their entire protected music approach to a new one because PlaysForSure wasn't reliable enough for them to eat their own dog food. This also left in the lurch lots of their partners who had stuck with PlaysForSure through thick and thin.

It's a crummy decision. Microsoft could have used technology to unlock all the music purchased, even if that required them to make additional payments to the copyright holders. They could have chosen to run their DRM authorization servers indefinitely. They could have done lots of things. Instead, they chose the worst possible solution.

The EFF suggests that Microsoft either refund all purchases or provide DRM-free replacements. They also make the implicit point that given the aggressive tactics used by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which includes filing suits against dead people and grandmothers without computers, Microsoft should provide full documentation of purchases so that if their users choose to burn music to CD, they could later prove that they legitimately purchased that music.

I don't know of any individuals who enjoy DRM; this move certainly strengthens the hands of all DRM opponents by providing a case in point: the day the music died.

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ScreenFlow: Screencasting on Steroids

  by Matt Neuburg <matt@tidbits.com>

There used to be an advertisement - I forget what it was for, exactly - that portrayed the user sitting in an armchair facing his computer, with his hair, his dog, and everything else in the room streaming backward, blown by the metaphorical force of whatever was happening on the computer screen. Well, that user is me using Vara Software's ScreenFlow. It isn't just good: it's eye-opening. I quite frankly had no idea that an application could look and act like this. This program has knocked my socks off - with my shoes on.

ScreenFlow makes screencasts. A screencast, in this context, is simply a screen capture movie - a movie of your computer screen, capturing what you do (and, optionally, what you say). This might not seem sexy to you, but please accept, for purposes of discussion, that to some of us, screencasts are very, very important. As a documentation writer, I have to explain to users how to work with software. As a beta tester, I have to describe to a developer how to trigger a bug. As a dutiful son, I have to show my mother how to remove Bookmarks Bar items in Safari. In all these cases and many more, I find that one moving picture is often worth ten thousand words.

In the past, I always made screencasts with Ambrosia Software's Snapz Pro X. But without prejudice to Snapz Pro - a wonderful utility, which I use constantly - it has never worked as well as it should have for movies. It has no option to compress sound, so narrated movies are always huge; therefore, I always have to recompress afterwards (I use the wonderful QTAmateur for that, as I'm too stingy to pay for QuickTime Pro). Plus, I've never found a setting where onscreen text appears in crisp focus in the resulting movie.

With ScreenFlow, these problems are gone; but that doesn't begin to explain what's great about ScreenFlow. Let me talk you through the process of making a screen capture movie with this amazing program.


Ready When You Are, Mr. DeMille -- With ScreenFlow running, and with your recording options set up, you signal to ScreenFlow that you want it to start recording. (You can use a status menu, the Dock menu, or a global keyboard shortcut for this.) Your screen is momentarily covered by a dark transparent curtain, along with a window that counts down ("5, 4, 3, 2, 1") to the moment when recording will start. The curtain vanishes, and the "camera" is rolling. You do and say whatever you want to make a movie of, and then signal to ScreenFlow to stop recording (in any of the same ways whereby you signaled it to start).

Now, with most screen capture programs, that's effectively the end. (Snapz Pro, for example, when you finish recording, puts up a window where you can enter your QuickTime export settings; at this point, you either save the movie or you don't, and that's that.) But with ScreenFlow, things are only beginning. You suddenly find yourself rocketed into a window that looks very much like iMovie HD - the good old iMovie, the one with timelines at the bottom, remember? There, top and center, is the screen capture you just made. Below it are simple video controls to play, rewind, and advance the movie, and a sound level meter. Below that are your timelines: typically, one for the video, one for the narration.

What's happening is that you're now in a document, within a movie editing application. ScreenFlow is offering you a chance to edit your movie before exporting it. You can edit now, or you can just save the document (and even quit ScreenFlow) and return to it later. What sort of editing can you do within ScreenFlow? Well, for starters:


Lights, Camera, Actions -- But wait, there's more - a lot more. You can also add "Actions" to your movie. To understand, imagine that you are a music engineer. As the musicians play, you are twiddling dials to raise and lower the sound level on various tracks. Now imagine that this twiddling is itself somehow recorded. That's what an Action is: it's a specification of a twiddle, to be applied as the movie plays.

For example, earlier I said that you could alter the audio volume. But what if you want to duck the audio volume - lowering it, not as a whole, but starting some distance into the movie? Simple. Position the playhead at the point where you want the volume to duck, select the audio clip in its timeline, and click Add Audio Action. Now lower the audio volume with the slider. Done! To change the rate at which the volume reduces, widen or narrow the Audio Action, which appears as an overlay on the audio timeline.

You can do the same thing with video. Recall my example where there's a small image of you superimposed on the image of your computer screen, and you reposition it. If you reposition it as part of a Video Action, the resulting movie will show the image of you moving from one spot to another.

Similarly, earlier I mentioned that the whole screen is captured. But suppose you want to zoom in on one area of the screen, or pan a cropped movie from one area of the screen to another. Again, you can do this with a Video Action. To pan a cropped movie, for example, you'd add the Video Action, then slide the crop region to the desired part of the screen.

Thus, by splitting your video into multiple clips and using Video Actions, possibly along with additional media, you can get some very cool transition effects even though ScreenFlow lacks QuickTime "transitions" in the iMovie sense.


I'm Ready For My Close-up -- But wait, there's still more. It turns out that while it was capturing your screen, ScreenFlow was also recording a lot of extra information. You can manipulate that information, as desired, in parts of the movie.

For example, ScreenFlow has remembered all the keys you pressed during the screen capture. Suppose you want all or part of your movie to show the viewer what those keys were. To do so, you add a different kind of Action - a Screen Recording Action. One of the options here is "Show Keys Pressed"; the result is that, once this Action takes effect, key presses are represented textually in a rectangle in the middle of the movie.

Similarly, ScreenFlow has remembered the cursor position and mouse clicks throughout the screen capture, so if you want an enlarged cursor in your movie, or if you want mouse clicks represented visually or audibly, you can have that too. Thus, instead of using another utility such as Mousepose and setting it up beforehand to get these effects, I can just make my screen capture and then include the effects later.

Coolest of all the effects you can add during editing are "callouts." Here, a region of the movie is isolated, to call the viewer's attention to it; the rest of the screen can be darkened and blurred, and the isolated region can be enlarged, as if someone had stuck a magnifying glass over it. You can isolate in this way a circular area around the mouse cursor or a rectangular area matching the frontmost window portrayed in the movie.


Closing Credits -- When you're ready to export your movie, you have access to the full range of QuickTime compression codecs and settings for video and audio, as well as scaling; you can also elect to chapterize your movie using markers you've placed in the timeline. This is only an export and your ScreenFlow document is still a saved document, so if you're not satisfied with the resulting movie - the exported movie is too big, the scaling is too small, you'd like to change some editing decisions, whatever - you can always alter the document, export again with different settings, and so on. And by the way, the exported movies are gorgeously, perfectly focused; the viewer can see every detail of what was on your screen.

ScreenFlow is a stunning, clean, clear, beautifully designed application. I understood most of it within about 10 minutes of trying the demo (whose limitation is that exports are watermarked); but the application also includes very good online documentation, including a tutorial that corresponds to a tutorial document embedded in the application. Also, there are (of course!) some online screencast tutorials, created with (of course!!) ScreenFlow itself.

ScreenFlow costs $99.99. It requires Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, a G4 or better (or Intel), and Quartz Extreme capability; and the availability of some features may depend upon the quality of your graphics processor. The demo is a 4.7MB download.

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Getting to Know the Nabaztag Internet Rabbit

  by Joe Kissell <joe@tidbits.com>

Shortly after I moved to France last year, Glenn Fleishman offered to introduce me to his contacts at a company called Violet that's based here in Paris. (And thus, by the way, it's pronounced "vee-oh-LAY.") Violet is best known as the developer of the Nabaztag Internet-enabled rabbit, and this product sounded sufficiently wacky that I was delighted to pay its creators a visit. It turned out they're located just down the street from me, about a ten-minute walk away, and I'd unknowingly passed their offices dozens of times already. So I set up an appointment, and Morgen and I met with Rafi Haladjian (one of the Nabaztag's inventors) and Jean-Fran├žois Kitten (yes, apparently his real name) for a personal, hands-on demo of the Wi-Fi bunny.

[View image]

That was more than seven months ago. Ever since, I've intended to write about the Nabaztag and the philosophy behind it, but every time I've started pondering what to say, I've gotten profoundly stuck. Even now, I'm not entirely sure what to think of it. I believe I could argue with equal conviction that this device is surprisingly useful or a ridiculous waste of $165. In any case, there's certainly more to this gadget than meets the eye. Luckily (or unluckily, depending on your point of view), little appears to have changed in the Internet rabbit arena since last fall, so I believe my observations are still pertinent.


Nabaztag Basics -- First things first: how does one pronounce this strange word? I wrote it phonetically in my notes the way its designer said it - roughly, "NAB-us-tag," where the stress is on the first syllable and the middle vowel is a schwa. It's the Armenian word for "rabbit," and it seems to make as little sense to French-speaking people as it does in English.

In case you've not kept up with the news in rabbit technology over the past few years, let me give you a quick description of the Nabaztag. It's a rounded conical hunk of plastic about 9 inches (23 cm) tall (including the two protruding ears), with eyes and a nose painted on front, a belly-button microphone, and a single button on top - but no other visible user interface. You plug in the AC adapter (it doesn't work with Energizer batteries, sorry) and it connects to the nearest open Wi-Fi network. (There are provisions to use password-protected networks, too, though they require a bit of fiddling to set up.) When the bunny powers on, several multicolored LEDs glow from behind the plastic case, and the motorized ears spin around in a manner that would surely be quite painful for a real rabbit.

Then you go to a Web page to register your adopted rabbit - yes, they say "adopt" to mean "buy" - and specify a bunch of preferences and personal information such as where you live and what kinds of news and music you're interested in. From then on, your Nabaztag becomes an interactive network appliance that can do any or all of a long list of things. For example, various combinations of lights (solid or blinking, in different configurations and colors) could indicate:

The built-in microphone and speaker extend the list of capabilities much further. To mention just a few examples, the Nabaztag can:

Oh, and let's not forget the ears! Normally they spin at various times without any particular meaning. But you can configure them in arbitrary positions and send them to your friend's Nabaztag (alone or along with a voice message) - and your friend's Nabaztag's ears will assume the same positions. (For example, point both ears down to mean "I'm sad" or whatever.) Hey, who needs video, voice, text, or even flashing lights when we have digital semaphores! For some reason, this capability tickled me more than anything else the little bunny can do. (Oh, and if you pair your Nabaztag with someone else's to "hard-wire" messages like ear positions between the two rabbits, that's called marrying them. Yep. To the best of my knowledge, though, they only reproduce within Violet's factory.)

Last but not least is a built-in RFID reader. The idea is that you buy special RFID tags called "Ztamps" to stick on your keys, glasses, and other objects. When these objects come into proximity with your Nabaztag's nose, it notices they're there and can take whatever action you want, such as playing a sound or sending a message. As far as I can tell, the Ztamps aren't yet available separately, but Violet does sell a variety of Ztamp-equipped children's books (in French only, for now). When your child holds one of these books up to the Nabaztag, the rabbit reads the book aloud. That's right: your robot rabbit can relieve you of the tedium of bonding with your kids by reading them their bedtime story. (I have yet to see a child interact with a Nabaztag in person, and I'm thinking it's possibly best that way.)

Although the Nabaztag comes pre-configured to deliver certain kinds of information right out of the burrow - um, box - the company expects and encourages extensive personalization and even hacking; they also offer an API for third-party developers to create their own applications and services. (Some Nabaztag services are free, by the way, while others require a paid subscription.) There's even a healthy aftermarket for replacement ears in a variety of colors and patterns.

By the way, I should mention that the current generation of Internet rabbit is called "Nabaztag/tag" - I guess that's Armenian rabbit-speak for "rabbit 2.0" - the original Nabaztag, which is still available for about $95, doesn't include the microphone or RFID reader, and doesn't support WPA encryption or streaming MP3 audio. The company representatives I spoke to said that future generations would be designated with additional "/tag" endings. Perhaps they'll come with a selection of RFID Nabaztag/tag/tag tags.


Down the Rabbit Hole -- All right, so you can buy this groovy little bunny appliance thingy that can do a million and one things, but who really needs one? The candid answer, according to Violet's Haladjian, is no one. He'd be the first to admit, he says, that Internet rabbits aren't going to change the world, that he's not looking to build the future of his company on plastic bunnies. The Nabaztag is simply the first example of a larger idea Violet is trying to promote - that of leveraging the power of ubiquitous wireless Internet access to turn ordinary objects into smart objects. We're accustomed, he explained, to having a computer screen (or, at least, some kind of screen) mediate our experience of the Internet. But although computers make good all-purpose tools, there's life beyond the PC - and there are other, simpler and more direct ways to use that near-universal connectivity. So think of the Nabaztag as a rather elaborate proof of concept for a future in which lots of friendly little objects can do lots of useful things by virtue of being connected to each other and to a global source of infinite data. Violet's ambition is to connect everything in the world, and they're starting by connecting small, familiar-ish objects.

That word "friendly," by the way, is key. As an example, Haladjian cited home automation systems, which have been around for decades, but which, he says, are still complex and intimidating enough to scare away many people. A little rabbit with funny ears and a single button, on the other hand, isn't intimidating. You interact with it in natural ways like talking to it and holding objects in front of it rather than by connecting wires and looking at a screen and typing or mousing. So it hints at a more user-friendly future of invisible computing in which much simpler objects with embedded computers replace many of the functions for which we currently rely on full-blown desktop or laptop computers.

This idea, of course, is not unique to Violet or the Nabaztag. For example, a company called Ambient offers a number of small Internet-enabled devices, such as the $150 Ambient Orb, which glows in different colors to indicate information like traffic, weather, and stock prices; and the $124.99 Ambient Umbrella, whose handle glows when rain is expected. You can buy standalone devices to stream Internet radio, and even the Apple TV is a type of Internet appliance. (There's also the $179.95 Chumby, a little Wi-Fi-connected gadget that can serve up the time, weather, traffic, news, music, and so on - though unlike the others mentioned here, it still relies on a conventional LCD screen to display data, making it more like a keyboard-less computer than an appliance; see "Chumby: The Beanbag Computer," 2007-12-14.) In any case, the Nabaztag is the only one I can think of with anthropomorphic (or, uh, kuniklomorphic) characteristics.

The question is why someone might find a Nabaztag (or any other such appliance) worth buying when their existing, conventional computer can do almost all the same things (though I've never seen a Mac with motorized ears). The Violet reps suggested that the Nabaztag is especially good for applications that aren't worth your full attention - for providing information in the background, perhaps even while you're focused on some other task on your computer. I think that's on the right track. I can attest that as an introvert, I'd be much less distracted by unobtrusive glowing lights on a device over on the table than by something popping up on my screen all the time, and I might even be more inclined to report my status or mood using rabbit-ear semaphores than typing a tweet or changing my iChat status (see "Instant Messaging for Introverts," 2008-04-04).


Multiplying Like Bunnies -- Apparently enough people have seen past the weirdness of the Nabaztag's design to make it quite a successful product. In fact, according to Violet, when the original Nabaztag was introduced in 2005, their first 5000 units sold out in 10 days, even though it was the middle of the summer and the device had been advertised only by word of mouth.

However, I must confess that I am not myself a Nabaztag owner. Though I left the Violet offices fully convinced of the coolness and usefulness of the Nabaztag, it didn't meet my "can't-live-without-it" test, and I'm not inclined to collect toys just for their conversation value. (Plus, you know, $165 buys a lot of French pastries. Gotta have your priorities.)

My sense, from looking at the activity level of various blogs and forums devoted to the Nabaztag, is that the device's earlier popularity is waning. Violet has been slow to release promised improvements (such as the Ztamps, which had been scheduled for delivery last October), and I've seen no sign of the impending arrival of a Nabaztag/tag/tag. But that may be a moot point, because Violet's stated intention is not to put a Nabaztag in every home. They've got loftier goals, and for all I know, they may be well on their way to meeting them.

As for me, I can certainly get behind the concept of invisible computing, and I can see the value of having lots of smart objects in my home. They may even enhance my communication with others in a way that ordinary computer software never could. The Nabaztag in particular may not quite scratch my itch, but I'll be watching future developments in this area with great interest.

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TidBITS Watchlist: Notable Software Updates for 05-May-08

  by Adam C. Engst <ace@tidbits.com>

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Hot Topics in TidBITS Talk/05-May-08

  by Jeff Carlson <jeffc@tidbits.com>


iPhone Effect -- An AdWeek article argues that the iPhone is pushing companies to take mobile marketing seriously. (4 messages)


AppleWorks Replacement -- A reader discovers a replacement for AppleWorks Spreadsheet in DataGraph. (2 messages)


How long is AT&T's Exclusive Contract with Apple? Is Apple's five-year exclusivity deal with AT&T a lock, or will the provider market open up once owners' two-year service contracts are up? (13 messages)


Skating Now Possible on the River Styx! Canada is finally getting the iPhone. (1 message)


First Look: The Linux-Based Paragon Rescue Kit for Mac OS X Lite -- Joe Kissell solicits feedback on an article about this new data recovery software. (16 messages)


Selectively Pruning Time Machine Backups -- The mechanisms for deleting portions of a Time Machine backup are confusingly opaque. (5 messages)


OmniFocus: the interface is weak but the project is willing -- Readers respond to Matt Neuburg's review of OmniFocus. (5 messages)


auto-filing of read mail in Apple Mail -- More Eudora-to-Mail woes, this time the inability to automatically file read messages. However, the solution might be tackled from the opposite direction. (3 messages)


Using MacBook power adapter with MacBook Pro -- The two adapters output different power levels, but seem to work fine on either machine. What's the difference? (8 messages)

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