15th > July > 1999 Archive

The Register breaking news

NatSemi will announce IA chip today

We were asked, nicely, by NatSemi's spin outfit in London, to wait until this afternoon, 1600 UK time, before we wrote all about the IA (info appliance) processor we saw at Computex in June. We first saw the IA chip at Computex in early June. (Story: NatSemi starts to fab System on a Chip) But as the WSJ seems to have published the lot, we figured we'd do the same, even though we'll go to the press conference anyway. It's in Golden Square, seven pubs away from Szechuan Publishing's HQ in Mayfair. The Geode SC 1400 is a system on a chip device which NatSemi has brought early to market and which integrates over 40 other chips. Acer, Philips, and other OEMs are lining up to use the Geode in different types of devices. More technical detail later, when we've duly tipped up to the Golden Square venue. Has NatSemi yet realised that the Internet smashes international boundaries and time zones? ®
The Register breaking news

IDT exits x86, puts Centaur up for sale

Another one bites the dust - IDT is to follow NatSemi out of the x86 clone business announcing yesterday that it is putting WinChip developer Centaur up for sale, and is considering shutting it down if it doesn't find a buyer. Centaur's WinChip was designed as a low-cost chip that would power bargain-basement PCs, but although it seemed like a good idea at the time, events have overtaken it. PCs have been moving into the bargain basement without much help from Centaur. Intel price cuts undermined the company, and the fact that the fastest WinChip is only 266MHz hasn't helped IDT's case. Significantly, it says it will sell Centuar's intellectual property and design operations, and that it will absorb the cost of writing off WinChip inventory. So you can't give them away. "The Centaur design subsidiary has created quality products and significant intellectual property for IDT, yet the Company's ability to drive increased revenue and profits by participating in this highly competitive marketplace has not met our expectations," said CEO Len Perham. "Our decision to exit this marketplace underscores our focus on the communications market, where we can deliver the greatest value to customers and the most attractive returns to our shareholders." IDT, which announced much improved Q1 results yesterday anyway, says it's had "expressions of interest from multiple parties," and hopes to close the deal by the end of September. So who's biting? Register long-shot: Acer? ®
The Register breaking news

Excite goes shopping for iMall

Excite@Home, the portal operator, is laying the foundations of an online shopping centre, and is sending a warning to competitors like Yahoo and AOL. It has agreed to acquire iMall, the e-commerce software specialist, in a deal worth around $425 million. It has also established an agreement with payment processor, First Data. By combining resources from the two deals, Excite's president, George Bell, reckons that his company will be able to offer clients a working online shopfront inside 24 hours. Businesses will have access through their shops to Excite's 22 million subscribers. The clients will be provided in part by First Data's database. Having acquired an 11 per cent stake in iMall in November last year, First Data set about putting its two million clients online at a rate of about 4000-5000 a month. The deal with Excite will serve to accelerate that process. The deal will bring more traditional retailers online rather than increasing the number of online only enterprises. Excite and iMall are exchanging shares at nearly two iMall shares for one Excite share. ®
The Register breaking news

US Congress sits on hands while Web whizzes by

Don't look to the US government for online privacy protection. It's all too confusing. The Congressional Commerce Committee were scratching their heads while Federal Trade Commission reps testified on Internet privacy legislation earlier this week, contradicting each other, and at times even themselves. FTC commissioner Sheila Anthony claimed to be "concerned" that the continuing absence of online privacy would "undermine consumer confidence and hinder the advancement of electronic commerce and trade, specifically of trade with the European Union and its 320 million consumers." Fair enough, but her colleague, FTC commissioner Orson Swindle, scoffed at any such need, pointing to a new, 14-page FTC report flattering industry's efforts to regulate Web privacy by itself. "I do not believe [our] Report accurately reflects reality," he declared, drawing more than a few double takes. But he quickly made it right: "First, the dated and unfavorable results of the 1998 FTC Study are prominently described in the first seven pages of the Report, while the current and favorable results of the [industry-sponsored] 1999 Georgetown survey are relegated to a brief discussion in the middle," Swindle explained. The point here apparently is that industry-sponsored surveys are a good deal more reliable than those cobbled up by his own office, and deserve greater attention. Go figure. The Commerce Committee, for its part, is indeed puzzled, and the jury is very much out. The Register has learned that any decision is likely to be delayed until after current US/EU policy harmonisation talks on Web privacy give some indication of which way the hot air is blowing. If national regulation appears inevitable, Congress is sure to climb on the legislative bandwagon lest the US Commerce Department gets the jump on them. But for now things are a bit quiet on Capitol Hill. That's because the Committee fears producing a slapdash bill that will require continual and publicly-embarrassing switchbacks and tweaks to get it into a reasonable form, as few members have the background in Internet computing needed to make a first-round knockout bill likely. Numerous members are "like bookends" in the discussions, a Committee spokesperson joked to us. "They're not up to speed on the issues, or the technology." In that case perhaps it's best that they don't try anything too strenuous - like drafting an Internet privacy statute, say. The core message here is that Web users had better look after their own privacy: the legislative momentum is drifting towards diffusion and forfeiture of responsibility - all of which may be a good thing, actually. And Zero-Knowledge Systems president Austin Hill couldn't agree more. His Canadian firm makes a software package combining strong crypto, proxy servers, remailing, and several other tricks to ensure not just privacy, but anonymity, on line. "Why should you trust the laws?" Hill asks, then answers: "Laws can change." Trust cryptography; trust the math, he urges. "Users," he says, "shouldn't have to trust me, or anyone else, for their privacy." A fair observation, and in it a hint of the boost companies like his may get from US Congressmen scratching their heads as the Internet whizzes by. Oh, and as for the Clinton Administration's position on Web privacy, Internet inventor Al Gore declined to take The Register's call. Perhaps he's now occupied with inventing the World Wide Web. We'll let you know if we ever get through. ®
The Register breaking news

AT&T contract obliges MS to make its APIs public

Long-standing Microsoft critic Senator Orrin Hatch was querying AT&T's alliance with Microsoft yesterday, and there was a nasty little hand grenade for Redmond in what he had to say. Would it be a good idea to have a "third party" appointed to make sure Microsoft gave other software companies fair access to its APIs? Oh dear. If this is the way Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is thinking, Microsoft could be in for another rough ride. Hatch was questioning AT&T chairman Michael Armstrong as part of Committee hearings on competition and consumer choice in the high speed Internet market. Armstrong is in a rather ticklish position here, because earlier this year AT&T took delivery of a large pile of Microbucks while agreeing to up its order for Microsoft set-top box software to around 10 million. At the same time, AT&T has an inherited 'open' set-top box strategy (based, indeed on Java). It took delivery of this via an earlier deal with TCI, which had espoused Java while awarding MS a consolation prize of 5 million set-top boxes. So AT&T has the MS alliance and the Microbucks, but as Armstrong assured the Committee yesterday, its strategy is still, er, open. Armstrong didn't like Hatch's idea of a third party (Judge Penfield Jackson might, though) because there was no point to it. It was in AT&T interests to be open and to have competition, and here's the intriguing little nugget: AT&T's deal with Microsoft, he said, requires "as a matter of contract the timely and complete public disclosure of API." Could this be true? It quite probably is, and it only goes to show that Microsoft has at last found itself doing strategic alliance deals with a company with more attorneys than it has. So if one presumes that AT&T is pursuing the old Java-centric open strategy, rather than trying to sneak off into an MSocentric one, access to Microsoft's set-top box software APIs is going to be policed by AT&T. AT&T's cable system, said Armstrong, is open architecture and can work with any set-top box. AT&T's total unit requirement, incidentally, is way in excess of 10 million, so there really is plenty scope for competition. But the notion of Microsoft helping this competition while being observed by gimlet-eyed AT&T lawyers is both eye-rolling and heart-warming. ®
The Register breaking news

New NetWinder owner launches StrongARM-Linux server

The outfit that bought Corel's NetWinder business earlier this year has taken the wraps off the latest in the range of StrongARM-based Linux machines. The NetWinder Office Server is being aimed by Rebel.com at small and medium-sized businesses needing Internet, intranet and standard office server functions. Rebel.com? Yes, it was indeed Hardware Canada Computing (HCC) that bought the NetWinder division, but the company changed names in May, bought the rebel.com domain for $5 million, and rebranded with the aid of pictures of James Dean. It says the new name is "potentially one of the most expensive domain purchases in history," but doesn't mention how much, or if, it's paying for the late Mr Dean's contribution to the marketing. The new machines include proxy server and IP Masquerading, email, firewall and VPN features, and cross-platform file sharing and transfer with Linux, Unix, Windows and Mac. They use a 250 MIPS StrongARM SA-110 275MHz CPU, have 32-128 megabytes RAM, and up to 10 gigabyte hard drive. A twin-CPU rackmount version is also available. It'll ship in August. ®
The Register breaking news

Kingston Technology in big buy back bonanza

Four years ago, the founders of Kingston Technology sold 80 per cent of their business to Softbank, raking in a cool $1.8 billion in the process. When we met the founders at Comdex/Fall, they looked very happy indeed with this result. Perhaps they had an inkling that the very next year the memory market would take the dive it has. And now Softbank has decided to sell the 80 per cent share back to the founders for $450 million. So we expect that they're looking exceedingly happy again. Softbank's reasoning, according to the WSJ, is that it wants to concentrate on the lucrative Internet market. And according to the same report, it is now engaged in an attempt to sell off bits and pieces of the Ziff-Davis publishing empire to the highest bidder... ®
The Register breaking news

AltaVista brings free ISP model to US mainstream

The recently sold-by-Compaq search engine service, AltaVista, could be about to spark a revolution in the US Internet access market. It has announced it will be beefing up its presence in the market by offering a free ISP package. In so doing it is shifting the financial emphasis of the ISP model directly on to e-commerce. Sold by Compaq to Lycos' major shareholder, CMGI, for $2.3 billion, AltaVista has said it will give customers free Internet accounts in exchange for personal information. This is part of a growing trend toward giving away services in exchange for information on subscribers' lifestyles, buying habits, income expectations and so on. Users of the service will be the targets of tailored online advertising campaigns. While the free ISP model -- pioneered successfully over here by Freeserve -- has turned the UK Internet market on its head, this is one of the first significant moves toward replicating the model in the US. Speaking in today's Wall Street Journal, AltaVista's president, Rod Schrock, said: "Free Internet access is the fastest-growing way for users to get to the Net. We're exploring those types of access solutions to make AltaVista an ever-present service." Free local calls in the US allow home users there to stay online without incurring the sort of phone bill that have put many in the UK off widespread Web adoption. The majority of US users still have to pay a monthly subscription charge to their ISP, but AltaVista's move could signal the end of all that. The service will enter a trial phase this month. ® See also Apple's ISP plan may hit the mark
The Register breaking news

Intel to divide chip, comms lines

Intel is to make its processor and comms business separate units. The comms business, which Intel has spent $3 billion on in the last year, will now be run by John Miner. He will control its Internet server products, Lan and Wan lines, and the Dialogic business it acquired recently. Miner will assume control of its hubs and switching business too. Intel's CEO Craig Barrett said when he was in London last month that the company was positioning itself as a supplier of "building blocks" to the entire IT industry. The new Communications Product Group has been formed in a bid to ensure there is no conflict of interest with its microprocessor lines, and possibly also to fend off further action by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC). ® See also Intel: watch out for those network building blocks
The Register breaking news

Euro giants poised to pounce on US mobile outfits

This year the transformation of the mobile phone industry has been picking up momentum. The year began with the ground-breaking merger of Vodafone and Airtouch - fusing the complementary European GSM operators controlled by Vodafone with the partial US CDMA coverage Airtouch. Since January, the biggest merger splashes have been made by the Mannesmann acquisition of Omnitel (combining the powerhouse German and Italian GSM operators) and the Voicestream acquisition of Omnipoint (melding two US GSM operators; one with a strong presence in western states, one on the East Coast). Looking at sales growth and international growth prospects, the much high profile Olivetti take-over of Telecom Italia Mobile doesn't deliver as much sizzle as these two deals. The point of the Vodafone-Airtouch deal lay in the implications pointing to a future where five to ten global mobile operators would battle for supremacy by swallowing smaller, regional operators and offering cheap international roaming, streamlined billing and economies of scale. The recent deals are laying the groundwork for the emergence of these nascent mega-operators. The US scene My two mobile operator picks of January were Omnipoint and Western Wireless. Since then OMPT has tripled and WWCA has doubled in value. Their digital mobile networks are now bundled into Voicestream (VSTR). The GSM coverage of this new entity is what might be characterised as nearly national. New network coverage being currently built up in Chigaco and Dallas will improve the footprint; acquisition of Aerial or some other minor GSM player might plug the south-eastern hole; buying the GSM networks Sprint is dumping around Washington DC might be a bonus. Nevertheless, Voicestream's best shot at success is not competing directly with AT&T and Sprint in offering the widest possible national coverage - it's a little late in the game to go for that. The better gameplan lies in concentrating on the weaknesses of AT&T and Sprint. Since the original parts of Voicestream were initially regional operators, they tended to aim at reaching good coverage in key strategic areas - rather than attempting to blanket the entire continental USA and ending up with sub-standard coverage even in places like LA and New York, as AT&T and Sprint have done. The arguably superior coverage in many major markets is the first selling point. The second is the ability to offer sophisticated data features in the phones. That's something AT&T is having major problems with. Sprint is currently wrestling with its initiative to roll out nationwide CDMA data features. This comes half a decade after some GSM operators started offering mobile data features and the technology gap is commensurate. Motorola's new GSM tri-mode phone weighs little more than 100 grams and offers superior stand-by time compared to most current US handsets offering just a single digital band. Other next year's models do the same bundling of US/global GSM standards while simultaneously decreasing the weight of the hybrid models compared to existing handsets. Bundling TDMA with GSM is a bit harder - and bundling GSM with CDMA can only be achieved with substantial weight and performance trade-offs. What this amounts to is a considerable advantage to Voicestream in offering global roaming 12-24 months before other US operators - with a more attractive model range. What all of this does not mean is that anyone is going to mop the floor with Sprint or AT&T. There is no doubt that these companies are the big winners in the US mobile operator sweepstakes. A strong brand, synergy with long distance operations and true nationwide coverage are formidable advantages. But there are major shortcomings in the AT&T and Sprint programmes as well - especially in the quality of coverage and customer service. The point is that a third national operator concentrating on good regional coverage, superior data features and international roaming just may have a shot at succeeding in the high-end market. And that's where the operating profits can be squeezed from - the status-obsessed nouveau riche, freaked into luxury overdrive by the stock market gains and hopefully loading up mobile handsets with all the data and roaming extras that a handset can handle without losing the miniaturisation momentum. Moreover, the newly national Voicestream is a hot take-over candidate for the European giant operators, as well as to MCI Worldcom and possibly Bellsouth. None of the other US operators holds the same acquisition appeal to European operators, which are the most likely aggressors in the next round of consolidation. An elegy to a digital umbilicus Nextel just won't give up - mobile internet, new models from Motorola, the mandatory link-up with Microsoft, etc. As far as last gasps go, this one is a doozie. But none of this Silly Putty can plug the fault line running under the company. The digital standard Nextel is using is to mobile telephony what the dodo was to ornithology. I'm told that dodos were perfectly adapted to living in their island environment - but never developed the wit or wings to avert being clobbered to death by the first foreign organism to enter their closed ecosystem. Motorola's iDEN is an orphan standard, used by only one major mobile operator and shunned by other mobile manufacturers. We do not know the year and we do not know the quarter - but at some point the total absence of competition in the iDEN market and the barren isolation this orphan standard exists in will probably catch up with Nextel. The increasing pace of globalisation of mobile telephony looks set to accelerate the process. Without several major manufacturers goading each other into innovative overdrive (as is happening with other major digital standards) Nextel's product line-up is doomed to slip behind in competition. Key new features like voice-activated dialing, infrared link-up enabling cable-free data transfer with PDAs and laptops, predictive text input, Bluetooth, etc., are all debuting in other standards. Multimode handsets handling several standards and opening worldwide roaming opportunities are also accentuating the isolation of Nextel. The long-delayed plans Motorola has on iDEN/GSM dual-mode phones do not look convincing compared to the stampede to develop US/Europe mobile handsets relying on integration of GSM-900, GSM-1900, TDMA-1900 and AMPS technologies. These gadgets are already on the market or very near to being introduced by Ericsson, Siemens, Alcatel, Bosch, Nokia and Motorola itself. The strong past performance of Nextel does not give us any clues about how badly the lack of competition and comparatively low R&D expenditures will ultimately hamstring the iDEN standard used by this operator. Next week: Part 2... The Buck Rogers bust; a rude awakening from satellite phone fantasies ®
The Register breaking news

Toshiba denies semicon spin off

Toshiba yesterday denied it is has plans to spin off its semiconductor business into a separate company. Suggesting that it might be considering such a move emerged last week when the general manager of the strategic planning division within Toshiba's semiconductor operation, Yoshihide Fujii, said: "I personally think the semiconductor company should be spun off from Toshiba as a legal entity." However, this week Toshiba was keen to point out that Fujii's comments were entirely his own and did not represent the company's official line. Still, it remains that fact Fujii's suggestion came hot on the heels of news from Siemens that its own spun-off semiconductor business, now known as Infineon, was gearing up for its IPO, perhaps as early as October. Given both Siemens and Toshiba have both had problems making their semiconductor operations pay their way, it's not unlikely Toshiba might well consider following Siemens' lead, and that it would use Fujii to test the market's reaction to such a programme. Certainly, his vision of a spun-off semiconductor company seemed rather detailed for a "personal opinion", as Toshiba would have it. ®
The Register breaking news

FreeServe to offer Microworkz $199 Net access device

UK free ISP FreeServe is in talks with US cut-price computer manufacturer Microworkz to bring the vendor's $199 iToaster Internet appliance over to Britain. The deal, which Microworkz said is close to completion, almost certainly covers the mysterious £200 Web PC Dixons chairman Sir Stanley Kalms recently said his company would soon offer. Dixons is Britain's biggest High Street consumer electronics chain, and owner of FreeServe. The iToaster is essentially a set-top box-styled PC that runs the BeOS rather than Windows. It's based on a 266MHz Intel CPU and contains 32MB RAM and a 2.1GB hard drive. It's designed to be a very cheap and easy to use device for accessing the Web and... er... that's it. FreeServe isn't Microworkz' first ISP partner -- the company is believed to be talking to AOL, presumably to supply AOL-branded iToasters. AOL is also working with US budget PC company eMachines, but that's more to do with its CompuServe subsidiary than the main 'AOL Anywhere' strategy. Whether FreeServe's interest in the iToaster derives from AOL's connection with Microworkz -- the two companies are the best of enemies in the battle to be Britain's biggest ISP -- but it makes a great deal of sense for FreeServe to base the second stage of its strategy on supplying cheap Net access devices to the great many Britons who don't yet own a PC. Certainly, FreeServe's high-profile High Street advertising campaign is likely to put the Net in the minds of many people who, lacking a home computer, would otherwise just assume it wasn't for them. Dixons itself would love to get into cheap systems that could easily be sold without the expensive tech support overhead standard PCs usually bring with them. Kalms undoubtedly looks back on the boom years of the early 80s when he sold millions of Sinclair Spectrums with a great deal of nostalgia, and wonders if he could do it all over again with the iToaster. ®
The Register breaking news

Big Blue to put millions of $$$ Acer's way

Just 10 days after we reported that Acer had secured a massive OEM deal from Dell, it appears that the Taiwanese firm has won yet more business. This time, IBM is in the frame, with the local Taiwanese press reporting that Acer Peripherals will sell over 200,000 high-end LCD monitors to Big Blue. The deal is worth over $300 million according to the reports, with shipments starting towards the end of this year and continuing through next year. Meanwhile, figures released by the top Taiwanese manufacturers suggest that companies on the island will manufacture nearly 50 per cent of world LCD production this year, accounting for 1.6 million units. ® See also TFT shortage to push notebook prices up Acer wins massive Dell deal
The Register breaking news

Intel to push bigtime into ADSL

Sources close to Intel confirmed that it will make a major announcement today aimed at the ADSL market. According to the source, it will make and sell ADSL modems aimed at both the small and medium sized business market as well as home users. The move coincides with an announcement from Intel that it will split its business model into communication and microprocessor lines. (See separate story) The announcement is expected when Satan Clara opens for business later today. ®
The Register breaking news

Apple prepares Palm partnership

Analysis Having attempted to buy Palm Computing from its current owner, 3Com, and failed, it should come as no surprise that Apple interim CEO Steve Jobs might opt for an easier target: Handspring, the company formed last year by Palm founders Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky to create Palm-based consumer products. That at least is what the Apple rumor-mill has been turning out this week -- along with the fact that, like 3Com, Handspring passed on Jobs' offer. Again, no big surprise. Hawkins and Dubinsky formed Handspring to allow them to get back to what they both really wanted to do: run their own company and profit from their own work, Dubinsky handling the business side, Hawkins the technology. They couldn't get that kind of freedom from 3Com, and there's no reason to imagine they'd get it from Apple either. And Dubinsky once worked for Apple, back in the early to mid-80s, running part of its distribution network until the company's bosses decided to rebuild it from scratch. She calls the following period "the most miserable time in my career" -- hardly something that would endear her to working for the Mac maker again. But whatever the truth behind the rumor, it nevertheless highlights not only Apple's -- and, in particular, Jobs' -- love of the Palm, the device that got it right after it spent $500 million on the Newton getting it wrong. Ironically, by the time Jobs canned the Newton project, back in February 1998, Apple was getting it right. The MessagePad 2100 still has its fans. Still, given what it had cost to get there -- and the fact that the Palm was doing the same job, but better, smaller and more cheaply -- Jobs' logic wasn't entirely faulty. And don't forget, Graffiti, the Palm's text-entry technology was originally designed for the MessagePad, so Palm does, in part, owe some of its success to Apple. That may well underpin the ongoing relationship the two companies appear to have. There have been numerous and regular hints -- even before Jobs revealed in an interview with Fortune magazine that he'd attempted to buy Palm Computing -- that they have been working together. And co-operation is in the interests of both companies. For 3Com, Palm has quickly become one of its key earners, especially since its original cash cows, the modems it acquired when it bought US Robotics, and its own line of network interface cards, are now proving more of a burden than a benefit. The trouble is, the Palm OS has some serious competition in the form of Windows CE, and while the Microsoft product is not without its flaws -- quite a few of them, actually -- it does have a powerful brand name behind it, and it is improving rapidly. Palm needs to continue to innovate to meet that challenge, and the company knows it. Moving into mobile Net access with the recently released Palm VII is an example of what the company itself is doing, but it also realizes that it can't do everything on its own. That's why former Palm president Robin Abrams opened up the Palm OS architecture and initiated a licensing programme to encourage third parties to build their own Palm-based products and expand the platform's reach. In fact, that alone makes an Apple acquisition of Handspring seem unlikely -- why buy a company when you can simply buy a licence and do it yourself? Particularly when you can leverage your existing Newton technology -- technology that Palm would love to get its hands on -- to cut a very favourable deal. Graffiti is good, but true handwriting recognition is better. After the original MessagePad was justifiably pilloried for failing to deliver that very feature, Apple did a pretty good job getting it to work for Newton OS 2.0, and its technology would certainly form a solid base for any effort to transfer it to the Palm. Of course, Palm now has a new president, Alan Kessler, and he's yet to speak out on how he sees the company progressing Abrams' expansion strategy. Meantime, what's in it for Apple? Handheld PCs -- or 'PC companions', as Palm, rather more accurately, puts it -- are at last beginning to move out of the 'executive toy' market, and the technology they provide is finding roles in new arenas. As cellphone developer Nokia has found with its Communicator, a mobile phone/PDA combo, smart communications products are becoming increasingly popular, and it's not hard to foresee a convergence of all these wireless personal communications and information products. One of Jobs' models for his vision of Apple is Sony, and that means broadening the company's range beyond simply making and selling computers. To do that, he needs two things: a very strong brand that will support the company as it moves into areas it's not traditionally associated with, and you need products and service markets that you can use your existing expertise to leverage yourself into. Apple has the brand -- in spades -- what it needs now are those wider markets. Becoming an Internet Service Provider is one example, moving into the personal communications arena, using a mix of Newton and Palm technology is another. If the hints that Apple and Swatch are co-operating on an 'Internet Time' watch prove true, there's a third. And then there's the comment ex-Palm president Robin Abrams made at the Demo Mobile 99 conference in San Diego early last April that Palm clones would ship within six months. Given how far Apple has come with its own Palm development efforts -- if the hints emerging from Cupertino are anything to go by -- Abrams' claims seems particularly apposite. Sounds like there are going to be a lot of very interesting announcements at MacWorld Expo later this month. ®
The Register breaking news

Aum! Doomsday outfit starts selling PCs

UK national The Grauniad is reporting that Aum Shinrikyo, the cult that spread Sarin gas throughout the Tokyo subway system, is entering the cheap PC business. Don't attempt the upgrade yourself by opening the box...
The Register breaking news

Audiohighway patents MP3 digital music player

US purveyor of online music Audiohighway.com put the cat among the digital music pigeons yesterday when it announced it had been granted a key patent on portable digital audio players. The company applied for the patent, number 5,914,941, back in 1995. It describes the use of a "portable information storage/playback apparatus having a data interface" used to store and play back downloaded content regardless of the format that content is stored in. So essentially anyone who ever produces a digital audio player, such as Diamond Multimedia's Rio, now has to cough up a royalty to Audiohighway, something clearly not lost on the company. "There is an important market here," said Nathan Schulhof, Audiohighway.com's president and CEO. "I've heard reports predicting sales of portable digital audio players worldwide growing to more than 13 million units by 2002." And Audiohighway.com wants its cut. The company's claims to have invented the portable digital audio player derive from the Listen Up player it debuted at the 1997 Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. At that time the company was called Information Highway Media Corporation, the change being made when it focused its interest on its Web site business. That shift also seems to have seen the end of the Listen Up project, which may never even have made it as a commercial product. Still, Audiohighway's patent isn't quite as generic as the company appears to claim -- it clearly states, for instance, that the device must hold music in some form of non-volatile memory, so presumably any player with battery-backed RAM is safe. The patent also specifies the use of a modem within the device, rather than the use of a PC as a download go-between, and other key hardware components. ®
The Register breaking news

Softbank to dismember Ziff Davis empire

The WSJ is reporting today that Softbank has decided to sell off bits and pieces of its vast publishing empire. The reason, according to the report, is because Softbank sees bigger opportunities investing in Web ventures rather than traditional businesses like paper magazines and events such as Comdex. According to the Wally, Softbank is likely to flog off bits and pieces of the Ziff Davis empire, but will leave Register rival ZDNET intact. ZDNET has a market cap of over $1.5 billion, while its biggest rival in the US, CNET, is a mightier financial force than that. In the UK, Ziff Davis publishes IT Week, PC Magazine and PC Direct. Just a week or so back, Dutch company VNU bought CMP's UK computer magazine portfolio. ®
The Register breaking news

Plasmon buys chunk of Cygnet Storage

Storage company Plasmon PLC, which owns Plasmon Data, said today it had bought the Cygnet's 12-inch jukebook manufacturing business for $3.65 million. Cygnet will carry on making the range of 12-inch jukeboxes at its San Jose plant until the end of this year, the company said. According to Plasmon chief executive Nigel Street, the acquisition completes his own company's 12-inch product line. The company said concerns about Y2K meant that the WORM market was expanding. ®
The Register breaking news

Apple CFO predicts continued strong growth

Apple CFO Fred Anderson yesterday predicted continued year-on-year growth for the Mac maker and looked forward to significant improvements in the Christmas 1999 quarter. Anderson's comments followed the release of Apple's latest Q2 results, which saw the company beat Wall Street's earnings per share expecations by five cents, and the company notch-up computer sales-based profits of $114 million plus an $89 million sale of ARM shares. During the quarter, Apple shipped 905,000 machines, including 487,00 iMacs. That represents an increase of nine per cent and 39 per cent, respectively, on the last quarter, and an overall improvement of 40 per cent on last year's Q2. Anderson also noted that "current bookings from" educational institutions were up 22 per cent on the same period last year. That said, he didn't specify how well Apple was doing in other markets, most notably small, medium and large businesses. However, he said that, based on PC Data figures for the US retail channel, Apple's marketshare for the first two weeks of the quarter was 11.5 per cent, up from 6.3 per cent last year. In Japan, the company had 13.1 per cent of the retail market, up from seven per cent. Looking ahead, Anderson said he anticipated Apple's revenue and unit shipments to continue to increase, with a slight improvement next quarter but much better, double-digit growth in the December 1999 quarter. He also predicted the second half would show significant year-on-year growth. As per usual, Anderson wouldn't discuss unannounced products, but he did hint a major product transitions are set to take place for the December quarter, presumably as Apple rolls-out new iMacs in the run-up to Christmas, but it's possible Anderson's comment hint at the real release date of the G4 Power Macs too. He also said iMac price cuts are on the cards, based on customer demand. He also said Apple was still happy with the relatively high price of the iMac, especially when compared to the new generation of sub-$1000 and sub-$500 machines: "We sold close to 500,000 units with a $1199 iMac. We're very comfortable with iMac demand." Apple is monitoring the free PC phenomenon, said Anderson, but as yet the company doesn't feel it's a solid strategy: "We don't think most customers are interested in locking themselves into a three-year commitment to an ISP to get a free PC," he said. ® Our thanks to Mac newssite MacInTouch for the details of Anderson's comments
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Telewest to make a move on CWC

Cable & Wireless Communications (CWC) saw its shares jump six per cent as rumours circulated that the battle for the UK's largest cable company is intensifying. Banking sources indicated that Telewest Communications was seeking a loan to raise the £1 billion needed to fund an offer. Telewest's main competitor for CWC's affections is Britain's third cable group, NTL. The target company's share price ballooned on the back of the news, gaining 38 pence to close at 656 pence. This valued the company at about £10 billion. NTL share prices also rose slightly. "It looks like there's a bid battle developing over CWC between Telewest and NTL, which Telewest will probably lose because they haven't got enough cash," said one telecomms analyst, quoted by Reuters. Telewest stock was somewhat deflated, dropping over four percent to 286-1/2p. Market analysts were watching the brewing storm with some amusement, with the general feeling being that the best move for the companies would be a threesome, thus forming a company big enough to face BskyB and BT head on. "I'm working on the basis that sanity will prevail and the three of them will get together and form a major cable TV company sometime over the next six or nine months," said Nigel Hawkins, an analyst at Williams de Broe. In a separate announcement, it emerged that France Telecom is in talks with NTL about taking a minority stake in the company. France Telecom hopes to use a connection with NTL, to involve itself in deals with other UK companies. Neither company would speculate on the size of the stake or on its worth, but a spokesman for France Telecom confirmed that talks were underway, "...in order to facilitate the consolidation in the UK cable operators market." ®
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Man Utd enters free ISP race

They'll be scratching their heads in disbelief in Stretford today as news breaks that Manchester United FC is actually giving something away - for free. The world's largest - and richest - football club (that's the game where you kick the ball with your feet, hence the name football, in case our US readers were getting confused - Ed) has teamed up with UUNet to become a free ISP. It's nice to know that United can afford to give something away in light of the wranglings over Roy Keane's requests for a salary increase - which would allegedly have put him on £40,000 per week. Users will get five email addresses, 20Mb of Web space and an online newsfeed all about the club. Like most of the free services, ManUFree.Net operates a 50p per minute support line. The service goes live today. David Gill, Finance Director of Manchester United PLC, said: "The aim of the Manchester United Web site is to connect our fans both in the UK and around the world to the club and offer a comprehensive set of online services that they can enjoy." And as any Chelsea, Arsenal or Liverpool fan will tell you, this is an important service for Man Utd fans as most of them don't live in Manchester. Fans should also be able to buy Man Utd merchandise from the new service, helping them to avoid the queues at the club's souvenir shop, which has long been the Old Trafford cash cow. ®
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Freeserve price tag questioned

Yet more speculation is doing the rounds over how much Freeserve is really worth. This time it comes from Broadview, IT mergers and acquisitions specialists. It reckons that based on value per subscriber and revenue the £1.3-£1.5 billion valuation put about by many sources, including Dixons, could be flawed. In today's Financial Times, Victor Basts, Broadview's MD said: "Because the free ISP model is moving inevitably to a portal/content provider model, Freeserve must be compared with public companies with these characteristics." With 1.32 million active users claimed by Freeserve, its current valuation works out at about $1500 per head. By comparison, Yahoo is worth $1140 per head. Broadview also points out that the company's revenues are much lower than similarly valued companies. AOL has annual revenues of about $4 billion, Yahoo brings in around $300 million and Freeserve has a much smaller £2.7 million. He went on: "A comparison with the 'universe' of net portals and network companies which are publicly traded shows that Freeserve is being valued above all US companies except AOL." He concluded that for the Freeserve valuation to have any validity, the company needed to reposition itself as a portal. He argued that all free ISP's will need to become portals to attract and keep users. Repositioning would involve investment and acquisitions of companies with features that will attract business, he said. ®
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Free PC for MSN users

The great Satan of software fancies itself as a big noise on the Internet and as such is staking itself a hefty claim in the future. Anyone signing up for three year's connection to MSN will now be able to get a free PC from Microsoft. But according to Satan's spin doctors, this only applies if you're in the US. The software giant obviously feels the hardware that gets people online is just a medium through which ecommerce can take place. Three years on MSN - paid up front - comes to $647.64, according to the arithmetically superior news feed Reuters. That then gets you a Lan Plus PC, which apparently runs on a 400Mhz AMD chip. You don't get a monitor though - so this is one deal you can keep Stateside. Microsoft was one of a band of ISPs that recently started offering rebates on PCs bought by its subscribers. But after only one week of running a pilot of the scheme, Microsoft has decided it wasn't such a good idea after all. ®
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Killer monitors – the facts

Given yesterday's brouhaha over the possible health risks from monitors, The Register called upon its in-house scientist, Lucy Sherriff, to dig beneath the spin and examine the scientific evidence. Monitors produce low frequency magnetic fields and these, in turn, induce electric currents. This is an established fact. These small currents can also be induced in the human body. This too is known and widely accepted by the scientific community. What is not known is whether this has any effect on people, and if it does, what that effect might be. The research carried out on behalf of Tecno Ao indicated that prolonged exposure to monitors can influence the body's immune system by altering the production of brainwaves. John Jukes, a statistician associated with the project says that some healing effects have been reported after short term exposure to low frequency magnetic fields, such as accelerated healing of bone fractures. This he says is because the field stimulates something in the body, and in small doses this can be a good thing. Researchers at Reading University hypothesised that this stimulation could, in larger doses, actually cause harm to those exposed to it. Brainwaves range in frequency from 3Hz to 30Hz, peaking during the day at around 19Hz. When you sit in front of a computer screen for too long, your brain waves shift up in frequency. Alpha brainwaves occur at 12Hz and this is the frequency which triggers repair mechanisms in the body. The theory behind Tecno Ao's device is that constant stimulation from magnetic fields can prevent the body from producing enough Alpha brainwaves, causing a generally weakened immune system. So prolonged use of a monitor may lead you to suffer from a wide range of minor ailments such as back pain, stuffed up noses, feeling miserable, itchy eyes and so on. The Tecno Ao device contains a super-saturated crystalline solution which can be tuned to resonate at a particular frequency. In this case, it is tuned to 12Hz, and the solution reacts to the magnetic fields the same way as the human body does, and resonates at 12HZ, stimulating Alpha wave responses in the person sitting near the device. ®
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Monitor health risk is rubbish

The debate over the health implications of sitting two feet away from a computer monitor all day, goes on. Yesterday, many of the UK's national newspapers devoted many column inches to a survey which claimed radiation from monitors represented a health risk. This radiation, it was suggested, can penetrate concrete walls more than eight feet thick. And if it can blast through concrete walls, just think what it must be doing to you. Perhaps not surprisingly, the research had been commissioned by a company selling a device which it claimed could limit the damage this radiation might cause. The company is called Tecno Ao and is based in Swindon. The device costs £67. No links between the radiation alluded to and documented health problems have been made. Click here if you want to read more details of the science behind the health scare. Bob Raikes, senior analyst at Meko, said that while the Tecno Ao report demonstrates a positive effect from the company's device, it has no specific measure of a negative effect from the monitor. "It's basically rubbish," Raikes said. "As far as we can tell, this paper has not been subject to peer review. We think that they have targeted the monitor as a way of exploiting public concern over issues that have been raised in the past." Anthony Fraser, managing director of Tecno AO said: "We are not saying monitors will make you sick, but that prolonged exposure to electro-magnetic radiation can aggravate symptoms in susceptible people. 23 per cent of the population are sensitive and 24 per cent have no reaction at all. The rest of us are somewhere in between." He said that computers and mobile phones are far too useful for us to give them up, and that what we need is a way of mitigating their effects. ® Additional reporting for this story was by Linda Harrison.
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German site catches MSN running on Unix, Apache

You may have noticed that Web operations bought by Microsoft tend to implement massive server upgrade programmes shortly afterwards. Often, it is rumoured, these hapless new acquisitions don't run on Microsoft software. Well, there's apparently one law for the subs that need to be switched to NT pronto, and one for pre-existing Microsoft Web operations. We can't think why, but as far as we can see the evidence unearthed by German publication c't looks pretty conclusive. By the simple expedient of going to a non-existent page on MSN, c't's example being homepages.msn.com/nix you get an error message from Apache 1.3.6. Try using netcat on the WWW Port-80 of homepages.msn.com and you find that it's Apache running on Unix. Outstanding work, c't, - click here for the full article (in German). ®
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One2One price scares off bidders

The sale of mobile network One2One has run aground as potential buyers, France Telecom and Mannesmann, question the asking price. The company failed to spark enough interest at the current price to complete a trade sale, so it now look set for a float. Perhaps One2One's most attractive feature is that it is practically guaranteed one of the five licenses that will be issued nest year for the next mobile services generation. It has average revenues of £480 million per year, a big chunk of the radio spectrum and can handle 130 million calls a week. What more is an operator to do to get itself bought? Well, it could lower the asking price, according to analysts. The company also has debts of £1.5 billion and continues to make a loss and yet was priced at £11 billion. Speaking to the Financial Times today, Paul Sharma of Investec Henderson Crossthwaite said: "One2One would trade at a discount to Orange, which has overseas assets. We would expect it to be valued at up to £7.5 billion." Those extra billions make a big difference. In beer tokens, that is over a billion beers, even at central London prices. ®
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NatSemi rolls out Information Appliance chip

National Semiconductor, as revealed earlier today, duly rolled out its information appliance processor, dubbed the Geode. The integrated processor will be produced in a .25 micron, 270 square mm die size initially, but later in the year will move to a .18 micron, 140 mm die size. Yomtov Sidi, NatSemi's director of the project based in Tel Aviv, said that "millions" of the processors will be produced by the end of the year, but declined to give any price for the product. He said future plans for the Geode family will include MPEG4, enhanced Gfx, Lan functionality, XDSL and handwriting recognition. Sidi said that although the first family member supported USB, NatSemi has a PCI FireWire solution if necessary. The ex-Cyrix team which worked on the 64-bit x86 core will continue to work on optimising it, he said. The first Geode will run at 266MHz but Sidi claimed that processor speed was not an issue in the design. The chips will be manufactured at the Portland fab, and Sidi said his company was still in discussions about a possible fab partner. ®