Archive for August, 2010

Diaspora

Max Salzberg, Dan Grippi, Raphael Sophaer and Ilya Zhitomirskiy – can they topple Facebook? Picture: Diaspora

FOUR students from New York are just weeks away from taking on the world’s biggest online social network.

Inspired after hearing a law professor describe social networking as “spying for free”, Max Salberg, Dan Grippi, Raphael Sofaer and Ilya Zhitomirskiy have spent the past six months building Diaspora – the do-it-yourself Facebook.

In early October, Diaspora is scheduled to launch with all the hype expected of the arrival of a contender a global giant that’s spent the best part of 2010 struggling with negative publicity over its cavalier approach to users’ privacy.

Details on exactly how Diaspora will work are scarce. The team has either been too busy or too wary to give away their secrets just yet, preferring instead to update their blogs and Twitter feeds at sporadic intervals.

But next month they will release the source code for the site to developers, allowing them to pick up the Diaspora code, evaluate and modify it – and check it for privacy concerns.

They will get free and full access to the tools which built Diaspora and use them to create their own social networking site, or help improve Diaspora itself before its release to the general public.

The Diaspora team originally raised the $10,000 needed to quit their jobs and begin work on the site in just 12 days through capital-raising site Kickstart.

In six months, that $10,000 grew to more than $200,000 and free workspace and advice at Pivotal Laboratories in Silicon Valley.

Even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gave to the cause, saying he saw something of himself in the team, which has spent many cliched nights sleeping on their laboratory floors and eating pizza.

More than 31,000 followers have signed up for the @joindiaspora Twitter updates and registered their interest at the team’s blog site.

To date, it’s an amazing effort, given that all anyone’s really been told is it’s a “privacy-aware, personally controlled, do-it-all open source social network”.

What has been revealed is that users will be able to build their own social network starting with a “seed”.

From this, they can add their own networks – “hubs” – and control what information goes to what hub.

Something you say to your friends, you might not want to say to your workmates.

Things you share with your family, stay in your family.

“Once it has been set up, the seed will aggregate all of your information: your Facebook profile, tweets, anything,” the team wrote on their blog in April.

Whether it will function well enough to attract an audience is anyone’s guess.

Diaspora won’t be the first site to play the “our social network is more private than your social network card”, and it won’t be the last.

But you get enough of an idea watching video of the team’s concepts in action to realise that the idea is undoubtedly an evolution on Facebook’s comparatively one-dimensional method of sharing information.

That method works for Facebook – and plenty of other social networking sites – because it owns the information you give it.

Your personal details, photographs, artwork, likes and dislikes can all be catalogued, analysed and packaged as valuable market research for that network’s advertisers.

That’s great for Facebook, which is now valued at $33bn because of it, which in turn means it can keep on adding things like gaming, sharing and geolocation features to keep itself fresh.

But what about users who don’t care about Farmville and don’t want to have to think about whether that post their mates will find hilarious might also get them sacked?

The team Diaspora have directed most of their energy developing a user interface (UI) that makes the process of who sees what as automated as possible.

“It’s an intuitive way for users to decide, and not notice deciding, what content goes to their coworkers and what goes to their drinking buddies,” they say.

“We know that’s a hard UI problem and we take it seriously.”

They don’t have any grand illusions of jumping straight to the top of the social networking pile admitting that what users will see in October will only be “the beginning of something great, not a finished summer project”.

In fact, they’re hoping users will help make it better, faster.

But will it be a Facebook-killer? Unlikely.

The growth of Facebook is purely due to the fact that it was the first social network site that was easy for your mum to use.

It won’t be so easy to convince her to switch to Diaspora.

Diapora’s best chance lies in the possibility that one of those “seeds” that you plant can be “Facebook friends”, which according to the latest blog from the team, seems to be on the cards.

Then the two will feed off each other and the Diaspora team could congratulate themselves for building an attractive aggregator – such as the now-defunct FriendFeed – that actually works.

They’ve proved at least one thing, though – they know how to generate enormous hype about a social network that nobody really has any idea about.

All that’s left to prove now is whether they can make it work.

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Google in talks for movie rental service

Posted August 30, 2010 By David Kolle

YouTube’s fledgling movie rental program may soon be getting some Hollywood muscle in the crowded fight for domination of digital movie and television content distribution.

YouTube-parent Google is negotiating with major Hollywood studios to stream movies from their catalogues to a pay-per-view basis by the end of the year, according to a report in the Financial Times (subscription required).

The service is expected to stream movies on demand for US$5 each, according to the report, which cited sources with knowledge of Google’s plans.

Google and YouTube representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The move would put Google in competition with Apple, which is reportedly working on a new digital-video service perhaps tied to a new generation of Apple TV, and Netflix, which early this month signed a five-year deal worth nearly US$1 billion to stream movies from Paramount, Lionsgate and MGM.

YouTube has long been expected to get into the video-on-demand business, especially since Google removed video content purchases from its (now-defunct) Google Video service at the end of 2007. Google first hinted at its intentions in April 2009 when it announced plans to build payment mechanisms into its video-sharing site. Late last year, reports surfaced that YouTube was in talks with a number of film studios in an attempt to warm them to the idea of renting their films on the service.

YouTube first delved into rentals in January with a test in conjunction with the Sundance Film Festival, making five films presented at the festival to be temporarily rented. YouTube said that other films and programs will be made available for rental in the near future but did not name any partners at the time.

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Apple and Google sued by Microsoft co-founder

Posted August 30, 2010 By David Kolle

Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Paul Allen is suing nearly a dozen major companies, including tech giants Google and Apple, alleging they infringed on four web technology patents held by his company Interval Licensing LLC.Right: Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is suing nearly a dozen major companies, including tech giants Google and Apple.

Billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s research business has awoken from a decade-long slumber to seek compensation from 11 companies including Google and Apple for its “groundbreaking” contributions to the internet economy.

Interval Licensing, which owns the patents of a computer science and communications research firm shut by Mr Allen in 2000, has filed a lawsuit in Seattle claiming the companies have infringed its patents for online shopping technology.

AOL, eBay, Facebook, Netflix, Office Depot, OfficeMax, Staples, Yahoo! and Google’s YouTube were also named.

Facebook said the lawsuit was “without merit” and eBay said it would “vigorously” defend itself. Google said innovation was better than litigation.

“This lawsuit against some of America’s most innovative companies reflects an unfortunate trend of people trying to compete in the courtroom instead of the marketplace,” Google spokesman Aaron Zamost said.

Mr Allen, who co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates in 1975, created Interval Research with David Liddle in 1992.

He also owns the Seattle Seahawks American football team and the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team.

A former employee, H. Harlyn Baker, said the firm’s purpose was to develop technology with the aim of building companies.

It had more than 110 workers and helped fund outside projects, including work by Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, according to a statement announcing the suit.

“Allen sort of let it go when the dotcom bubble started to burst,” said Mr Baker, who now works at Hewlett-Packard Laboratories. “A lot of brilliant technology was developed there, so I’m not surprised Paul is trying to do something with it.”

A spokesman for Mr Allen, David Postman, said the billionaire had maintained ownership of the inventions through companies he controlled. Interval Licensing is seeking a court order to block further use, as well as unspecified cash compensation.

“We will fight it vigorously,” Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes said.

The four patents cited in the lawsuit are primarily common e-commerce applications for displaying and categorising product information.

“All of these patents appear to be lightweight inventions that are intended to improve a computer user’s online experience,” University of Missouri professor of law Dennis Crouch, said. “That said, the improvements disclosed in these patents represent important core features that internet users rely upon.”

Mr Postman said the lawsuit was necessary to protect the “groundbreaking” work Interval Research contributed to the internet economy.

“Legal risk and patent risk in this day and age is part of the process of doing business,” said Colin Gillis, an analyst at BGC Partners LP.

“The most interesting part” was that the lawsuit didn’t include Microsoft or Amazon.com, he said.

Mr Postman declined to say why Microsoft or Amazon weren’t named.

eBay said it was reviewing the complaint. Yahoo! declined to comment.

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Scientists baffled by ‘bootprint’ on Mars

Posted August 30, 2010 By David Kolle

NEW images of an ancient crater on Mars have failed to solve an age-old mystery for planetary scientists.

If anything, the hi-res images of the “Footprint Crater” – otherwise known as Orcus Patera – have puzzled Mars-watchers even further as to how the Red Planet was originally scarred with the 385km long depression.

The picture was taken by the European Space Agency‘s Mars Express orbiter and released by the ESA late last week.

It sits between two volcanoes and while the name “patera” is traditionally given to irregularly shaped volcanic craters, scientists know at least enough about the Orcus Patera to know it wasn’t formed by a volcano.

The most likely explanation is that it’s an impact crater, although given the length of the scar, it would have to have been formed by something striking the surface of Mars at an angle of less than five degrees, possibly bouncing back off the surface.

The floor of the crater dives down to 600m below surface level, while the ridges rise up to 1800m above the surrounding plains.

Another theory is that Orcus Patera originally started out as a massive circular crater, but was squashed into its elliptical form by compressional forces acting on the planet’s surface.

And yet another states that it may actually be two craters that have been joined by erosion, except that the ridges on either side of the crater suggest otherwise.

What the new images show are the existence of “graben“, massive valleys crossing the crater in an east-west direction, some up to 2.5km wide.

Smaller graben can be seen in the crater itself. Scientists believe that these could have been formed by compression in the opposite direction to that which may – or may not – have stretched the crater.

Unfortunately, graben and wrinkle ridges can be found all over the planet, which means they hold no clue for scientists trying to discover the story behind the unique formation.

All that means is the “bootprint on Mars” will continue to remain a mystery for scientists, albeit one that they can now ponder over in hi-res detail, courtesy of the ESA.

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