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A screenshot from Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. An Elder Scrolls MMO is in the works. (Bethesda Softworks)

Elder Scrolls Online turns Skyrim world into an MMO: report

By Matthew Shaer / 05.03.12

The Elder Scrolls, the long-running RPG franchise, is finally coming online, courtesy of Bethesda Softworks. According to Game Informer, The Elder Scrolls Online will be developed by ZeniMax Online Studios, and will hit Macs and PCs sometime early next year. 

"It will be extremely rewarding finally to unveil what we have been developing the last several years," game director Matt Firor told the team at Game Informer. "The entire team is committed to creating the best MMO ever made – and one that is worthy of The Elder Scrolls franchise."

Details about The Elder Scrolls MMO remain vague. Apparently the action takes place a millennium before the events described in the recently-released – and much-loved – "The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim." The bad guy is a daedric prince with the improbable name of Molag Bal, who attempts to spread ruin across all of the land of Tamriel. 

Skyrim, Horizons readers will remember, launched last year to mostly rave reviews. "Other RPGs such as Disgaea and Final Fantasy XII may rival the total hours of gameplay one can derive from Skyrim," one critic wrote, "but they can only do so through mass quantities of grinding. What they can’t rival is Skyrim’s incalculable amount of content and the sheer variety it has to offer." 

Can't wait for The Elder Scrolls MMO to arrive? Well, navigate over to the exhaustive Elder Scrolls Wiki, which has a long entry on Molag Bal. Sample: "Molag Bal resembles a large, bipedal crossbreed of a monkey and snake, and usually comes in a form adorned with horns, claws, and a long tail." Sounds like a handsome guy. 

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Amazon is getting the boot from Target stores. Here, an Amazon Kindle e-reader. (Reuters)

Target waves goodbye to the Amazon Kindle (but Nook can stay)

By Matthew Shaer / 05.02.12

In 2010, Target began selling Amazon's Kindle line of e-readers. Although Amazon is pretty tight-lipped about sales figures, all indications are that the Amazon products – and especially the Kindle Fire – performed well for Target. Which makes it all the more strange that Target will banish all Amazon products from its brick-and-mortar outlets and online store. 

"Target continually evaluates its product assortment to deliver the best quality and prices for our guests," reps for Target confirmed in a statement this week, after the Verge first broke the news. "Target is phasing out Kindles and Amazon- and Kindle-branded products in the spring of 2012. We will continue to offer our guests a full assortment of e-readers and supporting accessories including the Nook." 

So what's behind the move? Well, as Laura Hazard Owen of GigaOm points out, it may be a simple matter of competition: In many ways, Target and Amazon, which both sell everything from deodorant to electronics, are tussling over the same turf. "After all, this reasoning could go," Hazard Owen writes, "why should Target serve as a store showroom for Amazon products?" 

Matt Arnold, an analyst for Edward Jones & Co., agrees. Arnold told Bloomberg that "the very tight alignment of Kindle Fire tablets with Amazon’s own online store, which is a Target competitor, likely justifies this decision." 

Here's another scenario: Apple is putting some pressure on Target. In January, Apple Insider reported that Apple would open a string of "stores-within-stores" in "locations which can't support a standalone Apple Store." In West Virginia, for instance, there are plenty of Target outlets, but not a lot of Apple stores. With a store-within-a-store, Apple could increase its already formidable reach. 

And Apple, with its iPad, would certainly not want to compete for space with the Kindle. 

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Meet David Mason, the hero of Black Ops 2, the latest game in the Call of Duty franchise. (Activision)

Black Ops 2 brings the Call of Duty franchise crashing into the future

By Matthew Shaer / 05.02.12

Black Ops 2 – the latest in the breathtakingly-successful Call of Duty video game franchise – is scheduled to hit shelves on Nov. 13, just in time for the holiday shopping season. Today, to help gin up a little excitement in advance of the fall launch, publisher Activision published a short trailer (video below). Unsurprisingly, the latest CoD will apparently be filled with explosions, gunfire, and grizzled, grim-voiced veterans speaking directly into the camera. 

But unlike the Vietnam-era Black Ops, Black Ops 2 will be set in 2025, in the midst of a war that has embroiled several major American cities, including Los Angeles, Washington, and New York. "No one is going to be able to call this Black Ops 1.5," Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg told USA Today this week. "There's a lot of new stuff in this game. There's a lot of new ideas. We are going for it. We are taking some risks."

The bad guy in Black Ops 2? A gent named Raul Menendez, who has control of a fleet of attack drones.

Hirshberg of Activision said that the action will flash back and forth between the present, where David Mason must protect the president, and the Cold War, where Menendez first got his dastardly start. Black Ops fans will remember Alex Mason as the protagonist from the first Black Ops. David Mason is his son. 

For this blogger, who has played through every CoD game released for the Xbox 360, what makes Black Ops 2 so interesting is the way it overlaps – content-wise – with other titles in the series. The first Black Ops was strictly a Cold War only affair. Modern warfare is traditionally the purview of, well, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the three-game blockbuster that wrapped up, in dramatic fashion, last year. 

Won't Black Ops 2 steal a little of that thunder? Will there be continuity between the storylines?

On a side note, there appear to be horses in Black Ops 2. Ridable horses. Don't believe us? Click on the video. 

For more tech news, follow us on Twitter @venturenaut.

[Editor's note: The original version of this article misstated the release date of Black Ops 2. The game will go on sale November 13.]

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On Tuesday, Facebook announced a new feature that lets users designate their organ donor status and directs them to a donation registry page. Here, Mark Zuckerberg takes questions from the media during an event at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Steven Senne/AP/File photo)

Facebook unveils organ-donor status option

By / 05.02.12

Facebook teased Monday that it was working on a feature that had "the power to save lives." Now they've taken the wraps off a new feature that, while slightly unusual, certainly makes good on that promise: an organ-donor status option. Facebook announced the move Tuesday morning, adding that it's designed to shorten or eliminate organ-transplant waiting lists.

Facebook users in the US and UK can now choose to indicate that they're organ donors, as well as specify which state they're registered in, post a message explaining why they became a donor, and give the date they registered in their state.

A Facebook status isn't a substitute for traditional consent (don't worry -- a doctor couldn't harvest a patient's organs after checking their Facebook profile). But the status option is designed to spread awareness among other Facebook users, as well as to let family members know about one's status in case they ever need to give consent. Facebook also provides a link to state organ donation registries, for those who want to be donors but didn't sign up when they got their driver's license.

Is it working? Forbes reports that organ donor designations in California are way up already -- 550 online designations by Tuesday afternoon, compared with about 70 in a normal day. And the New York Times quotes a transplant surgeon's estimate that "millions" of people could designate themselves as donors in the next few days.

The peer-pressure approach to organ donation could make a big difference: as awareness and publicity increase, the ranks of willing organ donors could grow correspondingly. The Times adds that almost 7,000 Americans die each year waiting for organ transplants to become available, so doctors consider a greater number of registered donors to be a good thing.

Facebook made the signup process easy. Just go to your Timeline, click the "Life Event" button next to the status bar, and select "Health and Wellness." An organ donation option should pop up, letting you select your status and providing a link to the organ donation registry in your state.

Of course, Facebook is no stranger to privacy concerns -- and the company is certainly breaking some new ground by asking for data about its users' health records. 

For more on how tech intersects daily life, follow us on Twitter @venturenaut.

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The Kindle Fire tablet is introduced by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos last year. (Reuters)

More tablet owners know Amazon's vision of Android than Google's

By Matthew Shaer / 04.27.12

More than half of all Android tablet activations in the US come courtesy of the Kindle Fire, the multimedia tablet released last year by Amazon. So says comScore, which released a report this week showing that the Kindle Fire accounted for 54.4 percent of all Android tablet sales – that compared to a meager seven percent share for the Xoom and 15.4 percent for the Samsung Galaxy Tab line. 

"Within the Android tablet market," comScore reps wrote in a statement, "Kindle Fire has almost doubled its share in the past two months from 29.4 percent share in December 2011 to 54.4 percent share in February 2012, already establishing itself as the leading Android tablet by a wide margin."

As PC World notes, there is a major caveat here: comScore did not include the Android-powered Nook Tablet and Nook Color from its report. The reason? ComScore says those devices are e-readers, not tablets. Still, the import of the figures is clear: When consumers pick up Android tablets, they generally don't pick up the higher-end models such as the Galaxy Tab.

Instead, they pick up bargain-priced, accessible, (mostly) full-featured tablets such as the Fire. Obviously, part of the math here has to do with the Fire itself. The Amazon device plugs into the Amazon ecosystem, and that's no small thing. But the comScore report may also represent a way forward for tablet manufacturers that are not Apple.

Instead of trying to go toe-to-toe with the iPad, these companies can undercut the iPad on price, and offer an alternative tablet experience. 

A final note here about the tablet market in general: It's still very much dominated by Apple. According to a report released by Forrester last month, about 73 percent of the tablet market belongs to the iPad, with all other competitors, including Google's Android and RIM, jostling for the scraps. 

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Watch out for those falling Zerglings! (Google)

Zerg rush! How to unlock the newest Google easter egg (+video)

By Matthew Shaer / 04.27.12

Google has a great track record with easter eggs.

There was the one about the "loneliest number". And the one about the "loneliest number plus number of horns on a unicorn" (just try it). Also the barrel roll (not for those susceptible to motion sickness). Today comes news of the newest Google surprise: a cascading, fast-moving, completely-playable tribute to the classic video game Starcraft. 

Here's how it works: Navigate over to the Google homepage. Type in the phrase "zerg rush." (For the uninitiated, it's a tactic from the strategy game Starcraft.) Steel yourself. Wait for a waterfall of Os – all from the Google logo – to fall over your search results. Now click on as many Os – otherwise known as "Zerglings" – as you can before the Os form a big pair of Gs, at which the game is over – you've lost. (As far as we can tell, there's no way to "win."

As an extra-bonus, you can share your high score on Google+, Google's social network. 

Of course, as many disappointed users have pointed out, there's no real way to beat the Zerg rush. You can click each falling Zergling into obsolescence, but eventually, too many Os will cover your screen. "You can't win, but you can share your score on Google+. I guess you can beat your friends at it, if you count that as winning," one optimistic gamer wrote on Reddit today.

Video of a typical Zerg rush below. Or you can navigate over to our list of past top Google Easter eggs.

Happy clicking. 

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Google Drive is under fire. (Google )

Google Drive says it may 'publicly perform' your files. What's that mean?

By Matthew Shaer / 04.26.12

This week, Google introduced a cloud storage system called Drive. Drive works like the popular service Dropbox: A user uploads a bunch of files and then Google hangs onto the files until the user needs them again, whether on that computer or any other. 5GB of storage is free on Google Drive – it's $2.49 a month for 25GB and $4.99 a month for 100GB. But unlike Dropbox, Drive is integrated into the Google ecosystem, so you can jump from Gmail to Google Documents to Google Drive with nary a hiccup. 

And therein lies the rub. Perhaps, many privacy advocates have argued, it isn't exactly a wise idea to hand over a bunch of data to Google, which could use it for any number of purposes. Monitor readers will remember that concern over Google's stewardship of personal data has skyrocketed since the release of an updated – and streamlined – terms of service, back in March.  

And as Clint Boulton of the Wall Street Journal points out, those concerns aren't exactly far-fetched.

Consider Google's updated Terms of Service, which states that users "give Google and (those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content." 

Those last few items obviously raise a few red flags – no one wants Google publishing or "publicly performing" their data. But in a statement today, Google downplayed the privacy backlash, saying that the legal language was only intended to make Drive easier to use. "Our terms of service enable us to give you the services you want – so if you decide to share a document with someone, or open it on a different device, you can," Google told the Mercury News

In related news, over at the Verge, Nilay Patel stacks Drive up against three competitors in the cloud storage arena: iCloud, Skydrive, and Dropbox. Patel finds that the language in the Dropbox contract is a little more vague; that Apple can delete "objectionable" material from iCloud; and that Microsoft's Skydrive takes a stronger stance against copyright violation. 

But these are just contracts, Patel continues, and "the most noble promises can easily be broken. It's actions and history that have consequences, and companies that deal with user data on the web need to start building a history of squeaky-clean behavior before any of us can feel totally comfortable living in the cloud." Amen to that.  

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A worker installs an Apple iPad advertisement in downtown Shanghai. (Reuters)

iPad a big favorite among business users: report

By Matthew Shaer / 04.26.12

Business users are helping to drive up the popularity of the Apple iPad, according to a new study from Good Technology, a research firm based in California. In a survey released this week, Good Technology estimated that 97 percent of all tablets sold for professional use in the first quarter of 2012 will be Apple iPad computers, many of them purchased by professionals in the fields of healthcare, science, and financial services. 

"Life sciences witnessed the highest rate of growth in the quarter for iPad net activations by industry, steadily increasing from less than three percent in October 2011 to nearly 14 percent in January 2012," Good Technology reps wrote in a press release. "This growth mirrors anecdotal data around proactive iPad deployments to sales forces in that industry, most notably among pharmaceutical and biotech companies."

Also increasingly popular: BYOD, or "bring your own device," activations. In this scenario, an employee purchases her own iPad or smartphone, and uses it to connect to work email servers or files. "BYOD smartphones and tablets combined with proactive, company-owned iPad deployments are driving rapid growth both the size and number of new deployments amongst our customers," Good Technology exec John Herrema said this week. 

The iPad is gaining prestige among business users. So hey, who's losing out? RIM, for one. Last year, RIM rolled out the BlackBerry PlayBook, a tablet that was supposed to appeal to professionals in the same way BlackBerry phones once did. But the device was a disaster for RIM, and even the release of a new PlayBook OS hasn't done much to buoy the RIM slate. 

Similarly, tablets powered by Google's Android have failed to catch on among the BYOD crowd. "No one in their right mind buys a device that doesn't have the same prestige for the same amount of money when they aren't getting hardware that's better. Apple still has a big lead," Leif-Olof Wallin, research vice president at Gartner, told Computerworld this week. 

In related news, by some estimates, approximately 118.9 million tablet computers will be sold this year – a veritable tsunami.

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Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks after an event introducing the new iPad. Cook this week expressed skepticism that hybrid ultrabooks/tablets would appeal to consumers. (Reuters/FILE)

Apple CEO Tim Cook: Tablet hybrids don't stand a chance

By Matthew Shaer / 04.25.12

Earlier this month, at an event in Beijing, Intel took the wraps off the "Letexo," a kind of tablet/ultrabook hybrid. According to The Verge, which first picked up on the story, the Letexo can be used like a standard tablet – or, with the help of a slide-out kickstand and keyboard, like a regular old laptop. Presumably the market here is folks who want the portability and intuitiveness of a tablet, twinned with the more practical functionality of a real keyboard. 

So is this the future of the tablet market? Microsoft certainly seems to think so. This year, the software giant will release Windows 8, a new OS compatible with both tablets and laptops. As Paul McDougall of Information Week has pointed out, a range of "laptop-tablet convertibles" are already poised to take advantage of Windows 8, among them the Fujitsu Lifebook, the HP EliteBook, and Dell Inspiron Duo. 

But Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, isn't so sure. In a conference call this week, Cook pooh-poohed the idea of these hybrid devices, arguing that "the problem is that the products are about tradeoffs. You begin to make tradeoffs to the point where what you have left at the end of the day doesn't please anyone," Cook said. And in a partial transcript provided by Apple Insider, Cook went one step further. 

"You wouldn't want to put these things together because you end up compromising in both and not pleasing either user. Some people will prefer to own both, and that's great too. But to make the compromise of convergence, we're not going to that party," Cook added. "Others might, from a defensive point of view particularly." The import of that last line should be clear: The CEO of Apple, which dominates the tablet market, is taking a shot at the underdogs. 

Of course, former Apple CEO Steve Jobs had a history of laughing off certain kinds of products, and then releasing such a device years later. In 2003, Jobs said, "There are no plans to make a tablet. It turns out people want keyboards." Cook learned many lessons from Jobs. No way to know if this is one of them. 

In March, Apple released its third iPad. The shell of the machine was a match with the iPad 2, but the new iPad shipped with a high-resolution "retina display." And reviewers loved it. "This display is outrageous. It’s stunning. It’s incredible," wrote one. Sales have been blockbuster

Do hybrid ultrabook/tablets such as the Letexo have a shot? Drop us a line in the comments section. 

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Apple earnings: In this April 28, 2011 file photo, a store employee counts cash for the sale of an iPhone at the Apple store on New York's Upper West Sides. Apple Inc., the world’s most valuable company, on Tuesday, April 24, 2012 trumped skeptics once again by reporting blow-out iPhone sales. Apple says it sold 35 million iPhones in the quarter, almost twice as many as it sold a year ago and above analyst expectations. (Richard Drew/AP/File)

Apple earnings still going strong post-Jobs

By / 04.25.12

Apple is sailing strong with Tim Cook at the helm. At its earnings call on Tuesday, Cupertino announced higher-than-expected revenue -- driven by a seemingly limitless market demand for iPhones and iPads.

Apple posted a record $39.2 billion in revenue and $11.6 billion in profit for the quarter ending March 31st -- almost doubling its profit from the same quarter last year. The company stock dipped before the announcement due to fears that iPhones weren't selling well, but then rose in after-hours trading by more than $40, to just over $600 per share. Put simply, investors were nervous that Apple might have lost some of its mojo -- but the numbers tell a different story.

The growth is coming almost entirely from the iOS side of things. Apple sold 35.1 million iPhones and 11.8 million iPads during the quarter -- an 88 percent increase over last year for iPhones, and a 151 percent increase for iPads -- largely in emerging markets. US iPhone activations have dropped (at least, if reports from AT&T and Verizon are to be believed) but CEO Tim Cook noted that sales in Asia, and especially in China, are soaring to make up the gap.

What does that mean for non-iOS devices? Mac sales are creeping slowly upward (a 7 percent increase over last year) but iPod sales are down (a 15 percent decline from last year). Cook noted during the presentation that iPad sales may have cannibalized some Mac and iPod sales, and it's probably safe to say that Apple will continue to focus primarily on iPhones and iPads in the coming months.

We also got a few hints of what Apple's future looks like more broadly. Cook said at one point, "I've always hated litigation and I continue to hate it," which some analysts took as an indication that Apple might be willing to settle some of the legal wranglings started by Steve Jobs -- although Cook went on to complain that he wanted other companies to "invent their own stuff." He also brushed off suggestions that Apple might merge the iPad with the Mac, saying, "You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those things are probably not going to be pleasing to the user." Apparently Apple is doubling down on tablets, rather than looking into convergent devices that function as both laptop and tablet. That might sting a little bit for Microsoft, since they're embracing the convergence model more or less wholeheartedly for Windows 8. Or maybe it pleases Microsoft, since it'll likely have the field all to itself.

Perhaps most significantly, Apple subtly pushed back against speculation that it's still coasting on the momentum created by Steve Jobs. CFO Peter Oppenheimer noted, "We're investing in engineering to come out with the most innovative products in the world . . . We've got some fabulous new products in the pipeline." No word on what those products might be, of course -- but Apple is clearly confident that the sales will keep on rolling in.

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