Can a Clown-Nosed Wand Move the Needle for PS3?

Sony put PlayStation 3 fans in a tizzy by whipping out its latest controller, which it calls the “Move.” It looks a whole lot like a black version of Nintendo’s WiiMote controller, only it’s got this big, clown-nose ball on the end of it.

That ball actually serves a purpose. The Move’s motion is partially registered by a camera PS3 users will set on top of the television. The camera tracks the motion of the Move visually, and the ball changes to the color that contrasts best with the rest of the room, so it will be more visible to the camera.

Sony added that nearly three dozen game publishers and developers have pledged to make games for the new controller, which should be out by fall.

Since the Wii became such a smash with flail-based technology starting in 2006, the other two major game consoles have followed suit. So now what we’re looking at is sort of a game of rock/paper/scissors.

PlayStation beats Wii on advanced motion-controlled games and Xbox on 3-D — presumably. I mean, its Blu-ray player can do 3-D movies, so why not games?

Xbox beats everyone with Natal. Can’t get much cooler than hands-free, motion controlled kickboxing.

And Wii beats everyone on sheer numbers. Those casual games sure sell to a whole lot more people than ultraviolent slashers about ancient Greek gods tearing each other’s arms off, though I do wonder what doing that would be like with a motion controller.

Listen to the podcast (13:47 minutes).

Steam Machine

While Apple’s been selling music, then videos, then apps and pretty soon books through its iTunes store, another outfit was taking basically the same business model and catering to a crowd that Apple had long ago turned its back on: gamers.

It wasn’t always this way. If you are of a certain age, then your first experience with a computer may have been playing “Number Munchers” or “Oregon Trail” on an Apple II back in the day. But since then, most computer game titles have been strictly PC. Only a fraction are ported to the Mac.

Apple’s new deal with Valve may change that. Valve runs Steam, a platform that for years has used the iTunes approach to selling PC games. Create an account with your credit card, then buy game downloads a la carte from a huge library of titles. Steam carries current releases as well as a fair share of golden oldies that will actually work on a modern computer.

Now Steam will run on Macs. Steamworks for the Mac comes equipped with Steam Play, a feature that allows play on either a PC or Mac at no additional charge.

Sounds like a good deal all around, but Wedbush Securities’ Michael Pachter had to rein in the enthusiasm with a bit of a reality check, at least as far as how much new business this will generate. He told us, “The Mac installed base is a fraction of the PC base, and it’s unlikely that more than 15 percent of gaming households own one.”

The Art of the Launch

HP CTO Phil McKinney definitely seems proud of the new Slate tablet PC his company’s working on, but he’s determined to make it dance a proper striptease before we get the full monty. It looks like we’ll be learning about the Slate bit by bit until later this year when it’s planned to actually hit the shelves — or until we get tired of waiting and our eyes wander elsewhere.

Anyway, McKinney put up a blog post recently with some thoughts on the issue of product timing. Can’t rush development, naturally, and even if development takes its time, sometimes first to market isn’t the best position to be in. That post also included some new videos, and they show us a little more than Steve Ballmer did when he briefly demoed a Slate at CES in January. One of the new videos looks like a TV commercial — a fast-cut montage of hands using the Slate to do all sorts of multimedia-y things, set to some energetic background music. Actually looks a lot like that iPad commercial.

The other video, though, is very different from anything the iPad would do, because it’s all about how the Slate uses Flash and Air, a couple of Adobe technologies the iPad won’t touch. It actually seems like Apple has had a vendetta against Flash for a while now — Macs still use it, of course, but the iPhone never has and the iPad will not. Steve Jobs has even called Adobe lazy in its development of Flash, and it seems Apple wants to see the world move on to something like HTML 5.

But that HP video makes it look like the Slate is Flash’s bestest friend ever, and it seems clear timing really was on McKinney’s mind when he posted it. The iPad’s first TV commercial debuted this week and momentum is building for its release, so it’s natural that HP would want to flash a little something.

Workin’ for the Man

The extent of Apple’s power makes it either a superhero or a supervillain of the tech world, depending on your point of view, but its strength does not supersede that of the Freedom of Information Act. That’s a fact the Electronic Frontier Foundation leveraged to pry loose a copy of the iPhone Developer Program Licensing Agreement, a super-double-secret contract that Apple makes iPhone developers sign if they want to put their wares in the App Store.

One of those developers happened to be NASA. NASA made its own iPhone app so it had to sign the papers like everyone else. But since NASA’s a government operation, it also has to abide by legitimate FOIA requests, and the EFF requested to see the licensing agreement.

What was found in that agreement was enough to make EFF attorney Fred von Lohmann call Apple “a jealous and arbitrary feudal lord.”

The restrictions spelled out in the document do seem a bit strict. First of all, shut up about the agreement — no public statements about it whatsoever. Guess that one doesn’t count if you’re FOIA’ed. Also, you can’t sell your app to other stores even if Apple turns you down; no reverse engineering on the SDK or iPhone OS; and Apple can trash your app at any time for any reason. The big kicker: If you get sued because of your app, Apple’s maximum liability is US$50. I suppose that could have been set at $1, but I guess Apple realizes how expensive lawyers are these days.

Then again, don’t all contracts sound like they were written by Darth Vader? Moreover, doesn’t Apple have the right to call the shots on its own platform? Thousands of developers have stepped up to sign that agreement, presumably with no guns pointed at any heads.

That doesn’t necessarily mean they like it, though. One of them, Detonator Games cofounder Corey Dangle, told us, “The harsh reality is that those who control the platform really control the terms of the contract. If developers don’t like the terms, they don’t have to sign, although good luck getting the contract amended unless you have some amazing leverage.” He added that he can only hope Apple decides to make its terms a little more developer-friendly in the future.

But that “Apple’s house, Apple’s rules” viewpoint is not one that EFF shares. Von Lohmann told us to think about the car industry. “If you own a car, you can get serviced from the dealer, using genuine factory car parts, and nobody says you can’t do that. But if you want to go to an independent repair shop and use other kinds of parts to modify your car, that’s your business too, and those shops are allowed to service those customers. All we’re asking here is the same level of choice.”

Scrambled Eggs is sort of the Fry’s Electronics of the e-commerce world, or at least it would be if Fry’s didn’t have Anyway, you know what I mean: huge selection, sorta feels like a warehouse, not a whole lot of window dressing, and they sell naked bits. I’m talking about guts — CPUs, GPUs, hard drives, motherboards, everything you need to build your own PC for fun and profit. Well, over the past week or so, some Newegg customers weren’t having much fun and were definitely not feeling very profitable after they opened the boxes that were supposed to contain their brand-new Core i7 Intel processors.

Inside they found no processors, but rather hunks of processor-shaped metal running at exactly zero gigahertz. The instruction manuals were blank, and when they looked closely at the writing on the boxes, they found a bunch of misspellings that would have seemed really funny if they hadn’t been tearing their hair out over such a flagrant ripoff. Fortunately, they knew just who to contact: YouTube and the news media. HardOCP was the site first on the scene, and many other reports and self-made videos soon followed.

It could have ended there with Newegg saying “Oops, our bad, egg’s on OUR face, get it? Take a refund or a real chip, your pick.” And that’s pretty much what they did — they sent about 300 apology letters and promised to make good. But the Newegg supplier allegedly responsible for giving the etailer the bum chips in the first place decided to get lawyers involved. D&H Distributing reportedly sent cease-and-desist letters to HardOCP and another tech site covering the story, accusing them of defamation and creating a minor media storm.

Turns out D&H had nothing to do with the snafu. The supplier was actually a company named “IPEX,” which told Newegg it mistakenly sent a shipment of demo units, haha. Newegg didn’t buy that. The CPUs were plain old counterfeits, it said, and it no longer does business with IPEX.

If anyone who tagged D&H as the stinker in this case knew otherwise, the company might have something of a case — but the law provides shelter for people who make honest mistakes. Either way, when you’re looking at this kind of a feeding frenzy, siccing lawyers on bloggers is just feeding the beast. By the time Newegg got around to correcting the story, it had already slipped out of the limelight, leaving D&H the worse for wear and leaving IPEX comfortably in the shadows.

Malware Sneak

Over 20 years ago, a little guy by the name of Energizer Bunny pounded his way into our hearts, and like any other rabbit, he left behind a bit of a mess that someone’s going to have to clean up. But paper towels and Fabreze won’t cut it in this case; our bass drum-beating friend has actually dropped malware into the hard drives of some Energizer customers.

In 2007, Energizer started offering this product called the Duo. It’s a charger for Energizer’s nickel metal hydride rechargeable batteries; you can either plug it into a wall socket or into the USB port of a PC or Mac. Why would you want to plug it into your computer? Well, that’s the gimmick — if you bought a Duo, you could also download some companion software that would let you monitor the recharge status of your batteries.

But Energizer has announced that software is very, very unclean — the PC version contains a dirty little Trojan called “Arucer.dll.” It’s a backdoor with full user privileges. I suppose it’s not as bad as what Sony did a few years ago with its music CDs, because this doesn’t seem to be intentional, but it really does make you question who you can trust with providing clean, uninfected software, especially when you consider how simple a battery power indicator app would be to put together. This isn’t some shady little basement operation; this is a big corporation, supposedly with the resources to hire quality programmers.

Yes, Energizer has pulled the download and discontinued the product. If you’re a PC user who’s ever downloaded it, you need to uninstall the app, reboot, and tweeze out that Arucer.dll file from your Windows System 32 directory. Then please go wash your hands.

One More D, Many More Dollars

3-D TVs were the great big thing at CES this year, but apparently they’re not just pretty wall decorations for Best Buy showrooms. Companies actually expect regular people to buy these things with real money — lots and lots of real money. A bunch of the big companies making these things are already rallying the troops by naming models and prices, and many units will go on sale in a matter of days.

Expect to pay double to triple the amount you’d pay for a similar set that shows flat images. Home theater buffs are probably already clearing off space for these things, but it might take quite a while before 3-D TV is anywhere close to common.

First there’s the economy. Word is we’re in recovery mode, but the wounds still sting, and those prices I mentioned earlier are going to give a lot of buyers a reason to take a deep breath and think twice. And it’s not just the TVs that cost a lot — you might also need to fetch a new Blu-ray player, and subscribe to some new premium cable channels, and buy a bunch of new discs. Then there are the glasses — these are not the cardboard blue-and-red doohickies from a 1955 drive-in. These are active-shutter glasses that wirelessly sync up with the TV and blink on and off hundreds of times per second. Not cheap, and everyone in your living room needs to get a pair if they want to see what’s going on.

Second, content is king, but 3-D has almost none as of yet. Those pricey cable channels I mentioned earlier? They don’t actually exist. And those discs? You won’t need much shelf space for those, because there really aren’t that many to speak of. So the first few months of your new 3-D TV’s life will be spent showing “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” over and over again.

Then there’s the whole issue of making people see what’s so hot about 3-D anyway. The TV market has made these big leaps forward before — black and white to color; CRT to flat-screen, standard definition to HD. But in each of those cases, buyers could clearly see the big difference just by casually passing by a showroom. One glance at HD and it’s clearly better than SD, same with color, and flat-screens are just a great space-saver. With 3-D, though, every potential buyer needs to don a set of glasses and hang out for a while to see what it’s all about.

So I guess 3-D TV has a tough road ahead of it. On the plus side, though, it looks damn cool.

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