StumbleUpon makes stumbling easier for new users

StumbleUpon, the company that long ago figured out how we all really use the web, announced a handful of new features today designed to offer a test drive for new users, a richer experience for registered users, and better integration for web site owners. The company has had a rocky year, but these new features may be just what StumbleUpon needs to, well, keep from stumbling. HangZhou Night Net

For those who have never used it, StumbleUpon allows users to sign up, specify preferences for a wide range of topics like politics, photography, history, and web development, and then literally "stumble" through sites that other, similar users mark as interesting. Users can pick a specific category or type of media to browse (such as photos and videos), or stick with Stumbling through friends' sites to play it safe. If you're thinking "like Digg, but more fun and no rabid voting or foaming comments," you're not far off.

Bring us your tired, your hungry, your Stumbling

Until today, however, users had to register with StumbleUpon, create a profile, and install an add-on for IE or Firefox just to start Stumbling. If you're a social media pro armed with form-filling tools, this probably isn't an issue, but there are plenty of users out there not willing to sign up for yet another service that, at first glance, may sound like Google on steroids. Toss in the fact that you have to install a new piece of software, and the barrier to entry is raised even further.

Now, new visitors to will not only see a redesigned homepage that highlights popular content and ratings from the community, but they can click a "Start Stumbling" button to launch a JavaScript toolbar at the top of the browser window. No software install is necessary, and this should work in any browser, not just IE and Firefox. This toolbar is a bit less functional than StumbleUpon's browser extension, though, as users can't filter for specific kinds of content or, of course, use any of the service's community advantages. But rating sites and Stumbling for more works perfectly well, offering a slice of StumbleUpon's "best of the web" approach. The rub lies within the pseudo-toolbar's "Save" button: clicking it prompts users for registration to actually save their Stumbling and begin participating in the greater community.

This browser-agnostic tool doesn't work for registered users, though: in fact, if you're logged into the site, you'll never see it. In the coming months, StumbleUpon plans to introduce a similar tool for registered users so they can Stumble from any computer without installing the browser extension. Along with this tool, a redesign for the rest of the site will focus on user profiles and site navigation, as well as the rating and commenting systems.

Stumble right here

The other half of today's announcement is a Partner Program for web site owners to harness StumbleUpon's discovery services and the content its users create. Launched today with two partners—HuffingtonPost and HowStuffWorks—and more on the way, a new "Stumble!" badge that "premier publishers" can add to their site allows visitors to focus StumbleUpon's "show me something else interesting" approach on the current web site. Once invoked, StumbleUpon's aforementioned JavaScript toolbar appears for both registered and unregistered users, with a basic set of rating tools and a "Stumble!" button to keep the good times stumblin' at a specific URL.

After playing with this new tool at the two partner sites that went live with it today, the Stumble badge left us with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it does a good job of bringing the StumbleUpon experience to a specific site, but it also adds more clutter and yet another navigational system that, for all intents and purposes, is mostly an "I'm feeling lucky" gimmick. In an age where site operators are rolling up their sleeves and building plenty of their own "check out what else we're doing" navigation tools, this Stumble Partner Program could overwhelm users who need a paddle—not a blindfold—when sailing the Internet's seven seas.

That said, StumbleUpon does have a very healthy community and moves its fair share of traffic, so inviting that external community to come have a digital picnic at one's site may not be a bad thing for exposure and pageviews. StumbleUpon's registered user base has steadily increased to 6 million strong, despite eBay putting it up for sale less than two years after acquiring it. By opening its doors, integrating more deeply with external sites, and adopting a "try before you buy register" philosophy, StumbleUpon may very well boost its growth and, subsequently, drive even more traffic.

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Popping no-coverage bubbles in citywide WiFi networks

A Rice University graduate student working with advisors at his institution and Hewlett Packard developed and tested a technique that could dramatically improve how outdoor, metropolitan-scale WiFi networks are planned and deployed, while also reducing the cost and time involved in getting a network's footprint right. HangZhou Night Net

PhD candidate Joshua Robinson developed predictive techniques for where dead zones would occur in WiFi networks. His work allows the use of simple two-dimensional terrain, or zoning maps, with relatively little detail as a starting point, and, for a deployed network, can increase accuracy with only a few measurements per square kilometer to produce surprisingly spot-on data about where holes exist.

Robinson also found that he could predict with definable accuracy how well varying densities of WiFi nodes—the number of radios hung in a given area, on average, from utility poles or other locations—would result in dead zones.

The work described in "Assessment of Urban-Scale Wireless Networks with a Small Number of Measurements" presented at the MobiCom '08 conference, run by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), relies on analyzing the terrain of an area and then dividing coverage up into radiating sectors that have relatively similar characteristics. In practice, the number of these sectors can be reduced or increased to improve accuracy.

Dead bubbles in a sea of WiFi froth

Dead zones are the curse of city-wide Wi-Fi, as evidenced in the complaints by users of many of the earliest and largest of those networks. Robinson and his advisor's paper, released earlier this week, documents that some dead zones were as small as 10 meters in diameter with access available just beyond the perimeter—almost like bubbles of no access within a froth of WiFi.

His results defy some conventional wisdom, which says that more nodes mean better coverage. In 2005, metro-scale WiFi network equipment makers often said 20 to 25 nodes per square mile were needed; by 2007, that number had risen in practice to 40, to even 70, to ensure both seamless outdoor coverage and indoor coverage using a wireless bridge with a signal booster.

Rather, Robinson found in examining Google's free Mountain View WiFi network, above a certain low node density point, adding nodes has only a tiny, and thus expensive, additive effect in filling in holes. He estimates that quadrupling the current density of roughly 17 nodes per square kilometer would only reduce coverage from 25 percent of the network's area to 10 percent.

These results might explain the failure of many municipally sponsored, privately built networks to please residents. It wasn't that the networks were underbuilt, but that it may simply be impossible to provide the coverage necessary with Wi-Fi in the environments in which they're deployed without spending far too much.

It's not all about the nodes

Robinson told Ars that node density turns out to not be the defining characteristic of whether and how frequently dead zones occur. It's not "just because they didn't put enough nodes out, or they didn't pick the right places," he said. Some dead areas exist "not because there aren't enough nodes around, but because they're just in a bad location for getting a good signal."

Most large-scale WiFi networks are planned using a combination of wardriving-like measurement, terrain and building data, and simulation. Rough ideas are tested with small deployments, and the model corrected. Some planning software allows building material types and vegetation to be noted.

But Robinson thinks quite a lot of this could be done away with, especially for groups like the Technology For All (TFA) network developed by Rice that he's worked on, which brings Internet service to an underserved Houston area. The nonprofit doesn't have the resources to spend tens of thousands of dollars for measurement software or consultant contracts. "I wanted to show that you don't actually need all the complication, you don't need to know what a building is made of, you don't need to know what types of trees there are," he said.

He drove the streets of Mountain View and gathered 35,000 GPS-tied samples, while also collecting 29,000 samples from the TFA network. The two networks have somewhat different characteristics: Rice's Wi-Fi nodes are placed high to avoid obstructions by buildings, but signals pass through substantially more tall trees than in Mountain View. (Robinson and TFA have made these measurements available for download.)

Robinson said he took all these measurements to be able to see how well his model performed, and whether taking many measurements would provide dramatically better results than plugging a 2D map into his model.

In his paper, he notes that more than 10,000 measurements per square kilometer appear to be required to exceed the roughly 80 percent accuracy that can be achieved with his model. Going into the field and taking a few dozen samples per square kilometer and using them to correct his model's data can push accuracy closer to 90 percent.

For now, his approach and tools are more evaluative: estimating and correcting his model to figure out where dead zones are. Robinson said his next paper, already submitted, applies his model to pure planning.

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Researchers disclose deadly cross-platform TCP\/IP flaws

DoS attacks have been around ever since the first caveman hacker decided to attack the first caveman network engineer's TCP/IP network. Much like sharks, DoS attacks have survived the passage of time by being very good at what they do, and while they've spawned offspring (distributed denial-of-service attacks, or DDoS), the original version remains alive and well in the deep waters of the Internet. A team of researchers—Robert E. Lee and Jack C. Louis—now claim to have found new vulnerabilities within the TCP/IP stack that can be exploited to allow for devastating DoS attacks, from simply crashing the device in question to snarling it so thoroughly it must be rebooted before it can function normally, even after an attack has been completed. HangZhou Night Net

The problem is, Lee and Louis aren't willing to say much more than that. There's an extensive interview with the pair over at a site in the Netherlands with a name I could theoretically type, but you wouldn't remember, so I'll just hand over the URL (via Slashdot). The English section of the podcast starts around the five-minute mark, but some of you may enjoy the Dutch bits in front—I know I did. Throughout the course of the discussion, the two men detail how they stumbled on these TCP/IP vulnerabilities by accident some years ago, and what they've done since to document and explore the problem.

It's only fair, at this point, to note that Lee and Louis both come across as sober, professional individuals who are extremely knowledgable on the topics they discuss. Despite how the press may spin their statements, neither man recommends a Chicken Little type of reaction, and both speak out against such hysterical hijinks. The two have developed their scanning software (Unicornscan) and a mysterious other bit of software known as "Sockstress" since they first found hints of the vulnerability back in 2005. All we know about Sockstress, at least at the moment, is that it's designed to do "evil things" while negotiating a three-way handshake.

Whatever "evil things," Sockstress does, it's apparently quite good at them. According to the duo, they've found significant vulnerabilities in every security system they've tested, and have yet to see a TCP/IP stack that isn't vulnerable to their attack methods. Jack Louis has documented five valid attack methods, and believes 30 or more may exist, depending on the specifics of the stack implementation. Currently, the two know of no TCP/IP implementation that's invulnerable, adopting IPv6 doesn't help (and can actually make the problem worse), and there's no anti-intrusion software that can help.

What we do know is that the problem here is caused by trust. Once the three-way handshake has been completed, Sockstress is apparently free to do whatever it does with no fear of reprisal. There aren't many details available past this point, but the two do draw certain comparisons between the DNS issues we saw this past summer and this present bug. Vendor response, thus far, has been quite different in this case—according to Louis and Lee, they've had very little luck in convincing vendors that they've actually hit on a problem, despite being able to demonstrate attacks that are more than simply proof-of-concept assaults.

Unless the two security researchers have gone completely wonko, they've hit on something, and the fact that they're arguing for a calm, rational, and coordinated approach to the issue helps deflate any accusations that the men are simply after headlines. This particular boogeyman seems made of something a bit more solid than nightmares and an open closet door, but precisely what is underneath the sheet remains unknown and will stay that way through the immediate future.

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Congress acts, sort of saves Internet radio

It's not all bailout negotiations, partisan recriminations, and White House meetings this week in Congress—our elected officials also found some time to pass the Webcaster Settlement Act of 2008. Its name might suggest that the bill "settles" something, but it does not. Instead, it gives the webcasters and the music labels still more time to hammer out a royalty compromise acceptable to all sides before a crippling new rate kicks in. HangZhou Night Net

Still going…

Remember all that heat and smoke from last year's webcaster royalty inferno? Remember how even Congress got fitfully involved, threatening to pass some legislation to overturn the outrageous fees webcasters would have to pay? Remember how you thought that it was all some arcane dispute that would burn itself out soon and that couldn't possibly keep going for a year and a half? Well… it could. And it did.

The music industry and the webcasters are, in fact, still negotiating a deal that would replace the one laid down from on high by the Moses-on-the-mountain figures over at the Copyright Royalty Board. The judges—no doubt fine people who make excellent small talk and have superlative taste in wines—set a statutory rate for webcasters to pay for all that music they were streaming. It turned out to be retroactive for a few years, too, since the proceeding had taken so long. It also turned out to be really, really high.

Webcasters cried foul, especially Pandora founder Tim Westergren. The CRB rate would bankrupt many webcasters, they said. In the face of these claims (and the threat of Congressional action to overturn the CRB rate), the music labels decided to negotiate a settlement of their own with the webcasters.

Certain fee caps were agreed upon and small webcasters were given a better deal, but the big players and SoundExchange (which collects royalties for the major labels) couldn't agree on the all-important royalty rate. (A separate deal between webcasters and the songwriters was reached earlier this year.)

Congress' action this week gives the two sides more time to wrap up negotiations. The Webcaster Settlement Act of 2008 passed the House on Saturday and the Senate today, and there's no obvious reason why President Bush would refuse to sign it. The bill extends the negotiation deadline until next February; without it, the crippling CRB rates would go into effect quite soon. Pandora has already said it would go out of business when it had to make its first royalty payment under the CRB rates.

Closing Pandora's box

The bill was introduced only last week, and it came after both sides said that they were close to a deal. But, according to Pandora's Westergren, the National Association of Broadcasters tried to kill the bill when it was introduced.

"Yesterday, Congressman Jay Inslee, and several co-sponsors, introduced legislation to give us the extra time we need but the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which represents radio broadcasters such as Clear Channel, has begun intensively pressuring lawmakers to kill the bill," wrote Westergren on Pandora's blog. "We have just a day or two to keep this from collapsing. This is a blatant attempt by large radio companies to suffocate the webcasting industry that is just beginning to offer an alternative to their monopoly of the airwaves."

But the bill did pass both chambers of Congress and the royalty negotiations will continue for a few more months. While radio broadcasters may have some incentive to kill off competition, the recording industry has no desire to see these businesses fail; some money is better than none, after all.

The RIAA and SoundExchange actually worked with the webcasters to see the bill through, providing a serious lobbying counterpoint to the broadcasters. In a statement issued Sunday night, SoundExchange boss John Simpson said that "this bill favors all webcasters and simulcasters—large and small. It paves the way for SoundExchange to use the coming months to pursue helpful solutions that allow all services to focus on business development. And, although there are no agreements yet, I am hopeful."

The webcaster and the RIAA got their way; perhaps the goodwill generated by actually working together on something will now carry the negotiations through to the end.

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Activision’s secret war against pirates

The problem of piracy, in all forms of media, is a tough one. It's tough to make a dent in it by suing individual infringers, though the RIAA seems intent on trying. Activision Blizzard has been taking notes, as the software giant seems to have begun quietly suing individual citizens who have pirated copies of Call of Duty 3. Don't worry, it gets even weirder. HangZhou Night Net

When GamesPolitics first began following this story, it was assumed that the six copyright infringers who have been sued by Activision Blizzard had been downloading the games off the 'Net, but that was not the case. One of the lawyers involved with the case contacted GamesPolitics and said that she "can advise you that we have never filed any litigation against a file-sharer on behalf of Activision."

That leaves physical copies, and Activision must have had the defendants dead to rights, since almost everyone settled for $100,000, except for one who woman settled for $1,000. Only one defendant had representation. After looking at the court documents, it's clear that the story is the same in almost every case: the papers are filed, the defendant agrees to pay, and it's all over.

The gaming site cleverly named GameCyte claims to have spoken to two of the defendants, and the details provided are even odder. "Audibly shaken, our contact explained how he was scared into a costly settlement by attorneys who determined how much to sue based not on the actual material infringed, but on his purchase history, the equity on his home, and the number of cars in his driveway," the site reported. "If he were to get an attorney, he was informed, he would have to pay even more."

Both this source and a second anonymous source who was reported to be one of the defendants claimed that the settlement amounts listed above were exaggerated, although those were the numbers on file in the court documents. The sources also claimed Activision Blizzard never detailed its evidence and that Call of Duty 3 was not one of the copied games.

Ars Technica tried repeatedly to contact Activision Blizzard and the lawyers involved, but none of our requests for comment were returned. Efforts to track down the defendants also proved fruitless, but that's unsurprising: the settlement includes a legal warning against speaking about the case. Activision Blizzard's silence is somewhat confounding, though, as a series of wins against piracy is usually worth some publicity. It might even scare others away from pirating a shooter… from 2006.

So far the total reported settlements add up to $326,000, which has to be more money than Call of Duty 3 has been pulling in at retail lately. The differing amounts of the settlement are also head-scratchers, as the complaints don't detail what the defendants are actually being sued for. Why are most people settling for $100,000, one settled for $25,000, and one for $1,000?

The RIAA-style tactics here don't seem to be a coincidence. "Activision's lead attorney on the cases, Karin Pagnanelli, has worked on numerouscopyright cases on behalf of clients in themusic business," GamePolitics reported.

Further readingGamePolitics "Activision Suing File-Sharers RIAA Style?"GameCyte "Anonymous Activision Pirate Admits Guilt, Condemns 'Scare Tactics'"

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Hands on: NPR gets social with new community

NPR has taken a further step into social media by introducing NPR Community, its own social network wrapped around the organization's vast content library. Facebook and Digg certainly won't have anything to worry about, but Ars Technica signed up to see what a national public radio network is capable of when it meshes its content with worldwide community tools. HangZhou Night Net

Largely centered around an aggregate homepage, NPR Community is indeed one part Facebook and one part Digg, with decidedly fewer advertising spots and a focus on fostering positive conversation. One portion of the homepage collects the most popular, recommended, and commented stories from each section of NPR's site, and yes, you can finally comment on and vote up (or "recommend") stories.

Other portions of this page collect editors' picks from the comments and show recently active users.

"We are providing a forum for infinite conversations on," said Dick Meyer, NPR's Editorial Director of Digital Media in the company's announcement blog post. "We hope the conversations will be smart and generous of spirit […] We want NPR employees to participate and talk about their work." Clearly, this isn't just a new way to rake in more pageviews; NPR wants interaction not only between its audience, but with its actual staff as well.

Meyer conceded that NPR is a bit late to the game, though, adding that "we needed the right tools and the right philosophy to come together. Now it has." NPR hopes to get story ideas, great conversation, tough criticism, and "even the occasional compliment" from these new features, but it also exercised caution when deciding exactly which social features to bake in.

For example, users must register with if they want to comment on stories, but the profile aspect of the site is refreshingly low on the details it asks users to contribute. An area for adding things like favorite NPR shows, music, movies, and hobbies allows for showing off who you are, and the site uses some handy prediction technology to figure out that typing "Hitch" might mean that "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" is one of my favorite books.

One area of NPR's new social network that may fall a little flat is its actual "social" aspect. While users can add each other as friends and (taking a page out of Facebook's playbook) write on each other's public "wall" to leave greetings or comments for all to see, there are no tools for automatically finding other people you may already know at Other social networking sites utilize things like school databases or APIs for popular e-mail services like Gmail to automate this friend-finding process, but those features can be complex to implement and occasionally a focus for those paranoid about privacy.

Nevertheless, NPR's first attempt at infusing its content with social networking goodness is an overall success. Feedback on the announcement post is overwhelmingly positive toward the site's new capabilities, and users are quickly taking making requests for more. While the NPR Community may (for now) be Yet Another Social Network to sign up for, this one is easily worth the (miniscule) effort.

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Is New York City an anti-white space town?

The New York City Council heard testimony about the dangers and prospects of unlicensed "white space" devices on Tuesday. Speakers pro and con discussed the question of whether allowing unlicensed applications to tap into unused TV channels would pose a threat to the wireless microphone systems that Broadway production companies depend on. As Ars readers know, this debate normally rages at the Federal Communications Commission's HQ in nearby Washington, D.C. But the Big Apple's government is considering a fairly mild resolution opposing the technology. HangZhou Night Net

"Resolved," it reads, "That the Council of the City of New York urges the Federal Communications Commission to refrain from implementing proposed regulatory amendments that would allow portable devices to operate on the 'white space' radio spectrum without ensuring that such amendments will not negatively impact television broadcasters, performing artists, professional sports leagues, and all incumbent wireless microphone users."

This language is not far from the stated intentions of the FCC, as all of the Commissioners agree that, before the service is authorized on an unlicensed basis, strong precautions must be taken to make sure that it does not interfere with these systems. But the city's resolution is preceded by a tall pile of "whereas"-es that recount the litany of potential harms nay sayers warn will come with the devices.

If the FCC gives the green light to unlicensed use, "live theatre, the performing arts, film and television production companies will be unable to prevent constant interference with microphone systems, devastating those industries within the City of New York," one line concludes.

As Broadcasting and Cable reports, prominent opponents of unlicensed use testified before the Council, including David Donovan of the Association of Maximum Service Television, who warned of "devastating" interference to broadcast reception if these whitespace devices were unleashed. Wireless mics could be reduced to a state where they're "randomly functional," if they performed as poorly in actual use as they did during recent FCC tests, a Shure microphone official claimed.

Boosters of unlicensed broadband use focused on the technology's potential. Free Press Director Timothy Karr estimated that a fifth of the TV band in New York City will be "sitting idle" after the DTV transition and said that unlicensed apps "can and will meet acceptable and certifiable standards of non-interference."

A host of local supporters of unlicensed use testified as well. Dana Spiegel of NYC Wireless promised that white space devices could "amplify" the achievements of WiFi, "enabling larger scale internet broadcast, providing inexpensive or free access to whole neighborhoods from the central anchor of a park." Joshua Breitbart of the People's Production House regretted that an "otherwise forward-thinking group of legislators" had proposed a resolution "so filled with fear and confusion," but added that he wasn't surprised. "The only thing the major broadcasters and wireless microphone companies have on their side [on this issue] is fear."

And indeed, while New York City has no shortage of pro-white space activists, politically, it is starting to build a reputation as an anti-white space town. Case in point: The New York City Council item is sponsored by a hefty eleven members of the 51 person legislative body. The majority of these sponsors come from Brooklyn and Manhattan.

In fact, New York can boast of having the only member of the House of Representatives to publish an op-ed piece against unlicensed use in the New York Times. Jerrold Nadler, whose Eighth Congressional District covers very theatrical slices of Manhattan and Brooklyn, warned in February that, if unlicensed white spaces win the day, "a person walking down the block looking up an address in his new P.D.A. could easily cause a television set to go blank or silence the wireless microphones worn by performers in a Broadway musical."

On the other hand, there's also a letter by eight Congressional representatives sent to the FCC in August, which urges the agency to fast track unlicensed use. The list of signers not surprisingly includes Mike Honda (D-CA) of Silicon Valley. But it features a strong New York contingent as well, including Yvette Clark of the 11th District and Gregory Meeks of the 6th. The areas they represent, however, are a fairly long subway ride from Broadway.

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Apple preparing round of Snow Leopard beta releases

Although snow leopards don't actually hibernate, it seems like Apple's have over the last few months. Now that the iPhone 3G has been released and any updates to Apple's notebook line are almost ready to go, though, Snow Leopard may be moving towards the front of the stove. AppleInsider has gotten wind of a round of 10.6 betas that Apple is said to be readying for release to a select group of developers, but so far, the contents of the betas are relatively unknown. HangZhou Night Net

Sure, Snow Leopard was introduced at the most recent WWDC, but following the event, everyone's focus quickly shifted to the iPhone 3G and 10.6 remained a relative mystery. Apple's upcoming beta release appears to be the first such release since the summer. Both Snow Leopard and Snow Leopard Server betas will presumably be on offer, but the release is said to be fairly exclusive and most ADC members will be left out in the cold. The exact reason for the limited offering is unclear, although substantial changes to 10.6 since WWDC could lead to a somewhat buggy build that Apple probably wouldn't want to make too public.

Aside from improvements to Safari and better Exchange support, the vast majority of Snow Leopard features involve OS X's infrastructure. As a result, I think we'll be seeing a lot of Snow Leopard test releases as Apple and Mac developers cutting their teeth on the new features like 64-bit, multi-core, and Open Computing Language support. 10.6 isn't slated for release anytime soon, though, so folks have plenty of time to get used to the improvements. Maybe, if we're lucky, we'll get a few peeks behind the curtain as the testing process continues this winter and next spring.

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Gears of War 2 120GB Zune coming November 7 (Updated)

Special-edition Zunes aren't a new thing; the Joy Division Zune, for example, shipped in limited quantities just four months ago. In fact, I've stated my belief before that Microsoft is pumping out too many special-edition Zunes, but nevertheless, we have another once coming next month. Today the software giant announced that its new 120GB flavor would be coming in a Gears of War 2 special edition that would bring a whole new meaning to games on the Zune. For $280, US and Canadian residents will be able to get their hands on the latest creation from Xbox and Epic Games. What I like about this offer, beyond the fact that it brings Xbox and Zune a tad closer together, is that the design actually looks good: HangZhou Night Net

As you can see, the Gears of War 2 theme also involves the packaging (apparently, it's a collectible). In addition to the special Zune and its special packaging, the customer will also receive 244 pieces of Gears of War media, including the original game soundtrack, behind-the-scenes videos, game trailers, and concept art galleries. Microsoft has not said how many told Ars that less than 6,000 of the special-edition Zunes will be sold, but US residents can pre-order from Amazon and Wal-Mart.

It looks like Redmond is trying to leverage the fanbase behind one of the best-selling Xbox franchises to get more people interested in the Zune. One of the biggest problems for Zune sales is that few people know that it exists. Those that have tried it and used it, however, usually leave impressed, or at least with the thought there is an alternative to the iPod. Still, whether gamers are interested in GoW2 to the point that they'll buy a portable media player that reminds them of it, will be decided this year's holiday season.

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September shows upward trend for Mac OS X, iPhone usage

The latest Net Applications survey, which gathers browser data from "site visitors to our exclusive on-demand network of live stats customers," shows steady increases in those using Mac OS X to access websites in September versus a steady decline in users using Windows operating systems. Though the survey claims to reflect market share, which is normally measured in unit sales, it does use a consistent method to examine trends in user share. HangZhou Night Net

Apple's slice of this pie, though small, is slowly getting bigger.

In the last year, Mac users in the survey increased from 6.80 percent to 8.23 percent, a 21 percent gain. iPhone users also increased from 0.09 percent to 0.32 percent, a whopping gain of 255 percent—mainly due to the popularity of the iPhone 3G, posting the most significant gain between July and August this year (the iPhone's share was 0.30 percent in August). Meanwhile, Windows users have dropped from 92.42 percent to 90.29 percent. Though still holding on to the lion's share of OS users, the trend is clearly downward, mostly in the Mac's favor. It should also be noted that Linux has made significant increases, as well as some Web-enabled gaming consoles and the catch-all category "other," which includes several UNIX variants.

While Net Applications data may not reflect user share or market share accurately, the trends are clear: Macs are increasing in number. Though our economy is suffering tough times and some are predicting that it could hurt Apple, I think the opposite is true. Huge numbers of PCs are sold to large businesses, and I expect that to be a bigger downward trend in computer buying compared to consumers buying personal computers. If rumors are true, and Apple releases new portables this month at lower price points, it could make Apple's slice of the pie just a bit bigger next year.

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Pandora targeting Wiz in open-source gaming handheld war

Gamepark's open-source handhelds, including the GP2X, have gone through several revisions, all offering a fairly robust package at reasonable prices for savvy tech-heads not interested in picking up a Nintendo DS or a Sony PSP. But the devices make some sacrifices for the sake of portability, and that's something that OpenPandora is hoping to take advantage of with its new handheld, Pandora, which is now available for preorder. HangZhou Night Net

Designed specifically to improve upon GamePark's GP handhelds, which also include the forthcoming Wiz, Pandora opts not to minimize computing power for the sake of portability. The unit features an ARM Cortex-A8 600MHz CPU as well as a 128MB of RAM, 256MB of internal Flash memory, and 3D OpenGL ES 2.0 compliant hardware. The unit boasts a full QWERTY keyboard as well as two analog sticks, a directional pad, and a number of game-specific input buttons as well as a 4.3" touch-sensitive LCD screen with a resolution of 800×483. Integrated Wi-Fi 802.11b/g, Bluetooth, dual SDHC slots, and a removable 4000MaH battery round out the feature set.

To say that the Pandora is an attractive device on paper would be an understatement. The specs and capabilities of the machine would make it one of, if not the top handheld on the market. The unit will ship with an unidentified distribution of Linux, though the developers note that it will have a package manager capable of handling Debian Packages for the ARMEL architecture. Videos of the unit running Ubuntu 7 have been posted to the official blog.

Emulation is the key draw for the unit's gaming capabilities. Other videos posted to the official blog highlight working emulators for the Amiga, the Sega Mega Drive, and the original PlayStation. Given the specs and other open-source software readily available for other comparable handhelds, it's not unreasonable to expect that virtually any system prior to the PlayStation could be emulated on the Pandora.

The sole target render of the Pandora handheld.

Because of the open-source nature of the handheld, the developers have started a Developer Fund. The fund, which consumers can freely donate to, is open to help cover the costs of developers creating open-source software for the system.

As much as the prospect of the machine has the open-source community excited, though, one must acknowledge the somewhat sketchy nature of the Pandora project. The company's limited web site, currently only a single page with broken links, does little to reinforce the previously projected specs, nor does it do much to show that the product actually exists. The same target render picture that has been on display since the project began is still there: no real, live pictures have yet to be shown. Even the videos included on the web site show only screens and fragmented hardware not representative of something ready to be preordered.

Moreover, much of the Pandora's software support remains speculative. While the Wiz, Gamepark's new handheld, can easily fall back on an exhaustive, preexisting software bank, there is no precedent for what kind of software the Pandora will see. The open-source community will of course be free to create mountains of software, but, out of the gate, it looks like the Wiz will have the definitive edge in available wares.

The device is currently available for preorder at £199.99 ($329.99). Currently, the preorder promotion—which is said to be limited to 3,000 units—is only on for select regions of Europe, including the UK. The device is slated to ship in late November.

Update: A reader sent in word of another, third-party site which is allowing pre-orders elsewhere in the world with the price in US dollars. Up to date information about the Pandora can be found by subscribing to the OpenPandora newsletter.

Further reading:OpenPandora – Official announcement (press release)

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Royalty decision could impact iTunes Store sales

When it comes to music sales, physical or otherwise, everyone seems to get a piece of the pie. You've got your mechanical royalties (sometimes called publishing royalties) as well as your artist royalties, both of which can change independently based on Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) decisions and industry agreements. Publishing royalties just so happen to be in the news this week, and according to Fortune, a CRB decision that is expected this Thursday could cause the iTunes Store to raise prices, or even follow through with a (thinly veiled) threat to close the iTunes Store completely if the royalty is set too high. HangZhou Night Net

If the phrase "royalty agreement" sounds a bit familiar, it's probably due to the new mechanical royalty agreement that appeared last week. The agreement is good news for streaming music services, but doesn't cover the mechanical royalty for online sales, which is also being negotiated. Currently, the royalty is 9.1¢ per song (for songs under five minutes long), but is sometimes negotiated to a "three-quarters" rate of 6.825¢. If the National Music Publishers' Association has its way, the mechanical royalty for online sales would be raised to as much as 15 cents per song, reflecting a substantial increase.

Music publishers obviously want more money from the growing digital distribution market, but what do other industry players want? As it turns out, music labels would actually like the mechanical royalty to be lower as well, which seems surprising until you realize that higher royalties could come out of the labels' pockets as well. Represented by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the labels would like to see the royalty structure changed to a revenue basis; they have submitted a proposal calling for mechanical royalties of eight percent of wholesale revenues.

Apple is represented by the Digital Media Association (DiMA), which is, of course, asking for the lowest royalty rate of the three groups. The DiMA filing with the CRB calls for royalties of either 4.8¢ per track (which would bring royalties back to mid-1980s levels), or 6 percent of "applicable revenues," a figure that would presumably turn out to be lower than 9.1¢ per song.

It may sound like a squabble over a few cents, but in the past, Apple has said that hefty increases in royalty rates could cause the company to close the iTunes Store. The jump from 9¢ to 15¢ per song would wipe out 20 percent of Apple's profit on a 99¢ song, so the company would either have to eat the loss or raise prices, neither of which are things it wants to do. Eating the loss would cut into the margins of the Store (which aren't massive to begin with), but raising prices could cause a drop in sales, so it would be a lose-lose situation either way.

I'm not a CRB expert, so I won't try and predict what number will be handed down on Thursday. Still, it does seem to me like a jump from 9¢ to 15¢ is unlikely. In a quote in the Fortune piece, the president of the NMPA mentions that the organization was able to "beat back the proposal that could be a [royalty] cut," which suggests that publishers and the DiMA intentionally submitted proposals that were a bit on the extreme in order to establish the range. Ultimately, they want the CRB to come up with a figure that is somewhere in the middle in order to ensure extra profits for publishers but also keep sales and margins for online distributors high enough to keep them in business.

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EA cancels C&C FPS Tiberium

Originally set to be released this year, Electronic Arts has announced that it has canceled the upcoming first-person shooter based in the Command & Conquer universe, Tiberium. Apparently the publisher decided to cease development due to concerns regarding the quality of the game. HangZhou Night Net

"I've consulted with Nick Earl and Frank Gibeau at the EA Games Label, and together we have reached the conclusion that given the time and resources remaining, we will not be able to deliver this product to an appropriate level of quality," EA Los Angeles' Mike Verdu wrote in an internal memo obtained by Kotaku.

"Unfortunately, this action will result in several individuals on the team being released," he added. "We will make every effort to place affected individuals on projects within the studio—and where that isn't possible, to connect them with opportunities in other teams at EA."

The main issue with Tiberium seems to be quality, which was later confirmed in a statement made by EA spokesperson Mariam Sughayer. "The game was not on track to meet the high quality standards set by the team and by the EA Games Label. A lower quality game is not in the best interest of the consumers and would not succeed in this market."

It seems as though EA may really be sincere with their recent push to create great games. Canceling a fairly high profile game in a popular series that has been in development for almost two years is a costly move, but one that could end up benefiting EA in the future.

"Moving forward, we need to make sure this doesn't happen again," Verdu explained. "I believe we are already doing a better job of engineering success from the start. The quality bar has been raised. Now we need to step up our focus on great design and execution, catching any problems early and correcting them quickly."