12/11/2006

MOVIES VIA XBOX AND WIMAX IN WELLINGTON

A couple more stories of mine from the Herald last week. No word yet on the availability of TV and movie content via Xbox Live for New Zealand customers but I'd be very wary before pressing "download" when it does arrive. That's because it may blow your monthly data cap out of the water in one fell swoop. You'll want to be on a high data cap to be downloading significantly through Xbox Live. That said, I think it could prove to be an impressive delivery vehicle for on-demand, high-definition content.

Movies with the Xbox factor
Thursday November 9, 2006
By Peter Griffin
New Zealand's first taste of high-definition TV might arrive courtesy of Microsoft's Xbox 360 console as the software giant prepares to send high-quality video down phone lines to subscribers.
Microsoft has struck deals with CBS, Warner Bros., Viacom, Paramount, UFC and Turner Broadcasting to offer TV programmes, movies and music videos for download through its Xbox Live service.
Users generally connect to Xbox Live to participate in multiplayer games, but Microsoft is keen to open up the Xbox to other uses before the release of Sony's Playstation 3, which is being pitched as an entertainment hub for the living room.
From November 22, Microsoft will make available for download in the United States high-definition versions of popular shows such as CSI and movies such as Superman Returns and V for Vendetta.
No details of content availability for New Zealand Xbox owners have been revealed.
"They'll roll it out in the US and go from there," a Microsoft official said.
The Xbox 360 may be the first medium for those equipped with broadband connections and high-definition TV screens to view programmes in the higher quality format.
The Freeview consortium plans to have free-to-air satellite digital TV available from early next year, but high-definition broadcasts are likely to be several years away.
Video-on-demand, where video is delivered over the broadband network on a pay-per-view basis, has been suggested as an alternative to digital television and Telecom is testing IPTV, which would see programming delivered over its copper line network to broadband subscribers.
Microsoft has yet to reveal pricing for the video download service. Movies would take up about 4GB (gigabytes) on the Xbox 360's hard drive, be displayed in the 720p HD format and be available for 24 hours after download.
TV shows will be available for permanent download.
The large downloads would prove troublesome to New Zealand broadband users who are mainly subscribers on plans that have data download caps at two, five or ten gigabytes. While the Xbox 360 is capable of displaying HD content, it did not ship with a HD-DVD drive to play discs carrying the content. An external drive will be made available for those wanting to watch HD-DVD movies.
Sony will include a high-defintion drive in its Playstation 3, which goes on sale for Christmas in the US. They will not be available in New Zealand until March.

APPLE TO FINALLY GO DIRECT IN NZ?

There was much excite generated at Publicaddress.net last week when Russell Brown suggested Apple had reclaimed its New Zealand domain from Apple distributor Renaissance as a preparatory move to dumping Renaissance in favour of setting up a direct presence in New Zealand. From the emphatic response I received from Renaissance boss Paul Johnston, I think it's likely Renaissance will hold the Apple account for at least another year.

I've never dealt with Renaissance as a customer - I bought my Apple iPod in Singapore and within two months had left it on an Air New Zealand flight from Brisbane to Christchurch never to be seen again. But I've heard awful things about Renaissance and Apple fanatics are convinced they're getting ripped off by Renaissance which they claim adds a big margin onto Apple products it sells here. That may be the case. A simple comparison shows we pay more than the Australians do for Apple computers and iPods after you take into acocunt the exchange rate. Would it be any different if Apple set up shop here itself? It would if it ran a Dell-like operation, effectively running the New Zealand arm out of Australia like most IT companies do. But I don't think Apple's pricing would suddenly dip with a move to a direct model in New Zealand. What I'd like to see if Apple do take over, is the opening of an Apple store in New Zealand, probably in Auckland, and the formation of the iTunes.co.nz music store. MAybe then we'd be on a footing with other Apple users around the world

My story from the Herald on Renaissance's staunch denial they are about to be retired by Apple...

Renaissance won't bite on Apple rumour
Friday November 10, 2006
By Peter Griffin
New Zealand's sole distributor of Apple computers and the iPod music player has rejected speculation it is about to lose the lucrative account that has fuelled its growth.
Renaissance Corporation managing director Paul Johnston said speculation on the Publicaddress.net Publicaddress.net weblog and other websites, about a move by Apple to ditch Renaissance in favour of a direct presence in New Zealand, was "off the mark".
"We've already been given our indicative targets for the next 12 months," Johnston said. The targets handed down by Apple suggest Renaissance's business with the California-based computer maker is safe for at least another year.
Renaissance, listed on the NZX, would no doubt be upset to see the Apple relationship end. Sales of the iPod helped push Renaissance profits up 120 per cent to $5.1 million last year. The Apple account remains the jewel in its crown despite attempts to diversify into other areas of IT.
Shares in Renaissance closed up 1c at $1.28 yesterday.
Johnston has warned that profit is likely to grow a more modest 20 per cent this year as the iPod buying frenzy abates.
Apple has a direct presence in many of the countries in which it sells computers and iPods and even runs its own retail stores. That fact, and a recent move by Renaissance's IT department to change the administration of Apple email addresses used by Renaissance staff, has led observers to suggest Renaissance's Apple-selling days are numbered.
Johnston was aware there was a perception that Apple products were sold at a significant premium in New Zealand compared with other markets, but said it was unfair to compare New Zealand and American pricing.
"Part of the problem is that lots of people do the comparison with the US. We buy through Apple Australia."
He said the exchange rate accounted for most of the difference between Australian and New Zealand pricing, but because of its hedging "it has to be a significant shift for us to make [pricing] different".
Johnston had no light to shed on reports that the opening of a New Zealand iTunes store was imminent.

ALL GAMED OUT

The video games are arriving thick and past as the Christmas release schedule starts to kick in. Below are some of my truncated reviews from the Herald of some of the recent big titles. I'm still hooked on Flight Simulator x, which I suspect will run slightly better when I upgrade to 1GB of RAM. Some big titles are still to come including: Splinter Cell - Double Agent and Age of Empires III: The War Chiefs.

Microsoft Flight Simulator X (Deluxe Edition) (PC)
Censor's classification: G
Herald rating: 5/5Pros: Every aspect of flying is re-created to produce the most realistic simulator on the market. Choose to take off from one of 24,000 airports and take scenic flights over the world's best known landmarks.
Cons: This game is an immersive experience and you need to put in some work to get the best out of it.
Verdict: An impressive leap forward for Microsoft's successful flight simulator.

Killzone: Liberation (PSP)

Herald rating: 4/5

Pros: A third-person action fighter with impressive graphics and challenging missions. Autosave points make it ideal for short gaming bouts.
Cons: This game has a straightforward premise and a slightly arcade-like look. It's often difficult to keep track of the action on the small screen.
Verdict: Has lush graphics and sound, and a storyline that will keep both fans and newcomers interested.
Censor's classification: 16+


B-Boy (PS2)
Herald rating: * * *
Pros: Once learned, the breakdancing moves are impressive to watch and the story and arcade modes work well.
Cons: B-Boy will have limited appeal for gamers seeking the storytelling and gaming action of other genres.
Verdict: There's no shooting or punching, the aim instead is to breakdance your way through street fights. A novel idea that doesn't quite sustain a full-length game.

Test Drive Unlimited (Xbox 360)
Herald rating: * * * *
Pros: The Hawaiian island of Oahu has been mapped in minute detail giving a realistic and picturesque backdrop and plenty of coastal roads to traverse. The 90 cars available look great and handle well.
Cons: The artificial intelligence of other computer-controlled cars on the road is patchy, making the single player game less enjoyable that venturing online for group races.
Verdict: It's fun, fast and offers an exhilarating style of street racing.


Mercury Meltdown (PSP)

Herald rating: * * * *
Pros: The fluid movement of the mercury is convincing and the games levels are well structured to keep the tension high. The graphics make it one of the better puzzle games for the PSP.
Cons: Levels are variations on the same liquid theme.
Verdict: Race against the clock to save globs of mercury disappearing into a bizarre, futuristic landscape. A fun puzzler that looks great.
Censor's classification: G

2/11/2006

GOD IS DEAD...ACTUALLY HE NEVER LIVED

Or so Richard Dawkins would have us believe. I just picked up his new book The God Delusion and only 40 pages in, I'm already feeling better about my slide towards atheism. I was brought up a devout Catholic in Dublin for the first years of my life and went to a Catholic school. After arriving in New Zealand, I continued to attend church and complete religious studies, but I just wanted to fit in with the agnostic kiwis around me who never even mentioned God and associated Sunday mornings with sleep-ins and cricket in the park rather than 10 o'clock mass, as I did.

New Zealanders have a lacklustre approach to religion except in those pockets where the conservative right has had a resurgence - Destiny Church and Exclusive Brethren strongholds.

I'm almost completely in agreeable with Dawkins on his Godless theories, but something holds me back from declaring myself an athiest. Maybe I'm hedging my bets.

Dawkins has helpfully constructed a faith scale so you can rank your level of belief in the creator of the universe. I'm pegging myself at number 6 on the scale. Do I believe in God. Dawkins No 6: "Very low probability, but short of zero. De Facto Athiest. 'I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.

One step further (or higher) on the rung is No. 7: "Strong athiest. 'I know there is no God, with the same conviction that Jung 'knows' there is one."

A thought-provoking book, one I picked up to help in research for my next screenplay, which is about faith, belief and poltergeists...

Speaking of good books, here's my Pacific Journalism Review review of John Pilger's new book Freedom Next Time.

Freedom Next Time by John Pilger

Bantam Press, 2006, 356pp ISBN 0593055535

In Freedom Next Time, the renowned investigative journalist and documentary maker John Pilger writes of “empire, facades and the enduring struggle of people for their freedom”.

These are themes common to his entire body of work, for Pilger has over the last 30 years made a name for himself as a journalist on a mission to unveil the injustices of the world. In doing so, he has become so caught up in his subjects and the unfair politics of the world that it’s hard to imagine him being able to write about anything objectively.

But in the countries examined in Freedom Next Time, the under-reported facts speak for themselves with an irony Pilger no longer needs to underline.

Pilger writes of the “official” freedoms in place in the likes of South Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan, devoting five long chapters to the stories of people that have struggled for years to win freedom and by and large, been denied it.

The fascinating opening chapter “Stealing a Nation” deals with the depopulation by the British of the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean. It was a forced evacuation that passed the world by, barely reported in the media, the Chagossians kicked out of their island home in the 1960s to make way for the US and its military base.

As Pilger points out it was only thirty years after they lost their nation, when some of these “men Friday” returned from exile to their homes, that the media stumbled upon the story.

Pilger’s analysis of progress in South Africa since the fall of apartheid suggests that despite majority black rule, economic power remains in the hands of the wealthy white elite while black South Africans sink further into poverty. His evaluation of Nelson Mandela cast’s at least some of the leader’s glowing legacy in a whole new light.

The chapters on Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine are similarly filled with fascinating reading that’s nevertheless pervaded with a flat sense of pessimism.

Still, reality seldom makes comfortable material, and with its enduring focus on the dispossessed people of these countries, Pilger’s work actually does become the “beacon of light in dark times” Noam Chomsky has labeled it.

- Peter Griffin

BROWSERS AND BLACKBERRIES

My Webwalk column in the Herald looked at the various add-ons available for Firefox and Internet Explorer. With the two major browsers now pretty much identical in functionality these add-ons will become much more important in determining which browser become's the web surfer's primary choice...

Also see my story about the debut of the new Treos with Windows Mobile 5.0. I'm currently trialing the v750 and will file a report once I've sorted out MS Exchange hosting.

Peter Griffin: Browser wars - IE7 and Firefox 2.0 virtually equal
Thursday November 2, 2006
Life has just got a little easier for the world's web surfers with the release of the shiny new Internet Explorer 7 and equally good-looking Firefox 2.0 web browser.
I've been playing with the early release version of IE7 for months and really like it. Microsoft's popular browser was in dire need of a major overhaul, and that is exactly what it got. Security features are beefed up, the toolbar design improved, and Microsoft finally adds tabbed browsing, a feature available to Firefox users for years that lets you have several web pages open within one browser window for easy access.
Firefox, which maintained technical superiority over IE6 with regular upgrades, shot back this month with some tweaks to what was already a fairly comprehensive web browser. The single best new feature of Firefox is an inline spellcheck which will ensure you send literate messages when typing into web forms, blogs and webmail applications. You can download a comprehensive dictionary that is in written in "British" English.
The new antiphishing features help prevent you from falling victim to attempts by fraudsters determined to steal your personal information.
IE7 has both antiphishing protection and an inline spellcheck, so the playing field has been well and truly levelled.
After all the upgrades and redevelopment, Firefox still has a slight edge technically, but the average web browser user isn't going to notice. As Internet Explorer and its erstwhile competitor Firefox close the gap in functionality, what will ultimately determine which browser web surfers choose to use most of the time? It's the browser extension.
Microsoft and Mozilla, Firefox's developer, have the same idea when it comes to the web browser. They want to make the browser the primary point of contact with the web services you use on a regular basis.
Rather than surfing to a website, you can install icons on your browser's toolbar which connect you directly to your service of choice. Search Google and Wikipedia directly from your browser toolbar. Access file-sharing networks and organise your web bookmarks by clicking on the browser toolbar.
There are thousands of browser add-ons for both IE and Firefox. Many are free and take a lot of time and hassle out of web surfing.
With the weight of the Mozilla open-source developer community behind it, Firefox has no shortage of extensions. One I've been tinkering with recently is Foxytunes, a media player that sits at the bottom of Firefox and interacts with iTunes or Windows Media Player to access your music collection and stream content from the web. You don't have to interrupt your web surfing to change the tune.
LinkedIn puts a button on your toolbar that immediately connects you to this business networking service which is very popular in the US. There are only occasional references to New Zealand and Australia, so LinkedIn will be of limited use to you unless you want offshore contacts. But it's a good idea and a localised version would be popular.
A neat little add-on called DejaClick remembers the clickable web links on a page in an easy-to-access format. It's a great research tool for extracting links from web pages.
Torrent Search connects you from within Firefox to numerous peer to peer file sharing networks which avoids the need to open another application. Wordwiselookup acts as a dictionary and encyclopedia, a handy reference tool for checking facts, and KeyScrambler encrypts passwords entered through the browser so keyloggers can't steal them.
Microsoft has a similarly strong mix of add-ons for Internet Explorer. IE Autologin and Free Password Manager Plus allow you to safely store your numerous passwords so you don't have to keep entering them into your browser.
Yoono, which is available to both IE and Firefox, lets you search and share common-interest topics with other Yoono users - a networking and research tool of sorts. Calorie Count gives you nutritional information on your toolbar and lets you monitor how many calories you're munching.
More technical web surfers will appreciate Greasemonkey, which allows you to tweak the code behind web pages to change their format to suit you using DHTML.
All of these add-ons are free and typically only 100 to 500 kilobytes in size so make for quick downloads.


Palm gets a hand from Microsoft
Thursday November 2, 2006
Reviewed by Peter Griffin
It started the handheld computing revolution in the 1990s, but lost its advantage to eager competitors.
Now Palm is relying on former rival Microsoft to help it try to regain the dominance it once had.
Both Vodafone and Telecom this month launch, for the first time, devices from smart phone maker Palm which operate not on Palm's software, but on the Windows Mobile platform.
Palm has launched a charm offensive on mobile carriers the world over in a bid to bypass the popular Blackberry smart phone in favour of its Treo device, which acts as a phone and device running versions of popular Windows programs.
The Blackberry's addictiveness among executives, who use it to constantly stay in email contact, has earned it the nickname "Crackberry". Its rivals have geared their businesses up to try to beat it.
But Palm is one of several competitors hedging its bets. It has signed a marketing deal with Blackberry maker Research In Motion and the Blackberry Connect software now runs on the Treo.
Microsoft, too, is under pressure in the smart phone space, from the Blackberry and the Symbian platform used by Nokia.
In Europe, Microsoft's market share in smart phone operating systems fell to 16.9 per cent in the three months to September 30, down from 18 per cent in the same period last year, according to research company Canalys.
But in Asia Pacific, Microsoft is already the dominant player, holding 55 per cent market share in the third quarter, with Windows Mobile growing faster than other operating systems. Symbian held 16 per cent market share in the same period, Blackberry had 14 per cent while Palm's own software accounted for only 2 per cent.
Palm's sales director for New Zealand and Australia, Geoff Anson, said the Treo was a device that mainly appealed to business users but that all-you-can-eat, US$20 ($30) a month mobile data plans had made it popular with consumers in the US.
"The cost, return on investment and usability of data are the main drivers, plus, people just want one device that does everything well."
The Blackberry, he said, did not do that and its proprietary design meant it wasn't flexible for handing third-party software programs.
"We all know what happens to proprietary solutions. Anyone got a Wang word processor handy?"
Telecom is launching a Windows-based Treo, the 700wx, which uses Telecom's high-speed data network and sells for $999 on open term.
The 750v is being sold by Vodafone for $1299 on an open contract.
Microsoft solutions specialist Mark Bishop said any company running Microsoft Exchange Server could push email out to its employees' Windows-based mobile devices.
Small businesses and home users could instead use a hosted Exchange service.

The Treo
* Acts as a phone and runs popular Windows programs.
* Also runs Blackberry Connect software.
* Telecom and Vodafone are both offering versions of the device.