Last year, Nokia and Microsoft entered into what seemed like a mutually beneficial partnership: Nokia would make the phones and Microsoft would make the software. The results, including a couple of Windows Phone 8 devices, have not broken any sales records, but they have received high marks from critics. Still, rumors continue to percolate that Microsoft will eventually decide to make both the hardware and the software for its smartphones.
And why not? It's done something similar in the past – the Xbox 360, anyone? – and it's doing something similar right now, with the Surface tablet, a device manufactured, powered by, and sold by Microsoft. The latest snippet of gossip comes from The Wall Street Journal, which reports that Microsoft is currently "working with component suppliers in Asia to test its own smartphone design." The "Apple model," the Journal calls it.
Is the report accurate? Well, Microsoft has remained pretty coy about the whole thing.
"We're quite happy this holiday [season] going to market hard with Nokia, Samsung, and HTC," Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer recently told the Journal, referring to three companies that builds Windows Phone 8 handsets. "Whether we had a plan to do something different or we didn't have a plan I wouldn't comment in any dimension."
We're going to go out on a limb here and suggest that if Microsoft did make its own line of smartphones, Nokia, Samsung, and HTC wouldn't be particularly happy. And so obviously Microsoft doesn't have much incentive to start talking about hardware opportunities.
But we believe it's likely that Microsoft is doing exactly what the Journal suggests – laying the groundwork for a phone of its own.
After all, a pure Microsoft phone would offer the company full control over every aspect of the device – probably an alluring possibility for the tech giant.
But over at the Register, Gavin Clarke sounds a note of caution.
"Such a move will come [as] huge loss to the company, because Microsoft will need to absorb the licensing it would have charged others," Clarke writes. "The Windows Phone unit is already one of Microsoft’s most anaemic business units. It is unlikely that Microsoft will able able to bag top spot or even second place [in the smartphone market], though it might have done if it had more partners. However, breaking out and making its own phone is almost certainly Microsoft’s best option for coming third."
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Maybe you've gotten this call before, or one like it: "Hi, this is Rachel from Cardholder Services ... contact us concerning your eligibility for lowering your interest rates."
The call, according to the Federal Trade Commission, is a scam. "Rachel" won't do anything but transfer you to a telemarketer who will promise to lower the interest on your credit card -- in exchange for an upfront-fee somewhere between several hundred dollars and $3,000.
The FTC is putting a dent in those automated call. The agency announced on Thursday that it has shut down five robocall companies that participated in the "Rachel" scheme. The companies had defrauded more than 30,000 customers for a haul of more than $30 million by promising nonexistent services, the FTC said at a Chicago press conference.
The five companies are all facing complaints in US District court, where they're accused of making deceptive sales claims and violating robocalling laws. (In some cases, robocalling is okay -- such as for political campaigns and charity drives -- but credit offers aren't allowed.) The law also prohibits telemarketers from charging people money up front in exchange for a promise to reduce debt.
"At the FTC, Rachel from Cardholder Services is public enemy number one,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz in the FTC's press release.
The agency also noted that it's been getting more than 200,000 complaints each month about automated telemarketing calls, including those from "Rachel." Some telemarketers at the companies in question, it added, even promised consumers they could pay off their credit card balances two to three times faster by lowering their interest rates.
After collecting their fees, most companies don't do anything to actually lower consumers' interest rates. One of the only services actually rendered, the FTC said, is a three-way call between the telemarketer, the consumer, and the credit card company. The telemarketer requests for the credit card interest rate to be reduced -- "a request that consumers could make on their own and that invariably is denied," the agency noted.
This isn't the first time the FTC has moved to crack down on these kinds of schemes. It had filed 12 cases against robocall operators before Thursday, including groups running credit card scams. But there's more to be done, still: the five companies shut down today outsourced their calls to other companies that have the technology to make millions of robocalls a year. It'll be tough to shut down not only the telemarketers who tricked consumers, but the companies who are actually responsible for making the calls.
In the meantime, though, those who have been ripped off can breathe easier: the FTC has frozen the five companies' assets, and says defrauded consumers will get their money back.
Have you gotten calls from "Rachel" before? Share your experience in the comments section below.
[Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated that the five companies face "criminal" complaints.]
Apple has long contended that Samsung, in building its Android line of phones and tablets, stole a few design cues from the iPhone and iPad. But last month, Apple definitively lost a legal battle in the UK to prove those claims, and a British court ordered Apple to post a statement on its Website, admitting Samsung didn't actually steal anything. Which Apple has done – sort of.
In the statement, Apple included two paragraphs taken directly from the ruling, including a line that basically inferred that the Galaxy tablets weren't copied from the iPad, because the iPad is actually "cool." (We're not kidding – take a look.) Apparently unable to resist itself, the company then noted that a similar case in Germany had found Samsung guilty of engaging in "unfair competition."
"A US jury also found Samsung guilty of infringing on Apple's design and utility patents, awarding over one billion U.S. dollars in damages to Apple Inc.," Apple wrote. "So while the UK court did not find Samsung guilty of infringement, other courts have recognized that in the course of creating its Galaxy tablet, Samsung willfully copied Apple's far more popular iPad."
Needless to say, this distinctly non-apologetic statement, which was brought to the attention of the UK court by Samsung, has not made the the presiding judges very happy. According to the BBC, Lord Justice Longmore, Lord Justice Kitchin, and Sir Robin Jacob say Apple is "non-compliant," and has given the Cupertino tech company 48 hours to post a more appropriate statement to their site.
"A consumer might well think: 'I had better not buy a Samsung – maybe it's illegal and if I buy one it may not be supported,'" Jacob wrote in the ruling. "Apple itself must (having created the confusion) make the position clear: that it acknowledges that the court has decided that these Samsung products do not infringe its registered design."
In addition, the judges said, the post should not be buried in a corner of the Apple site – instead, it should appear front and center, on the UK version of the Apple homepage. Apple has agreed to make the changes.
"Personal opinion aside, the smartphone wars must stop. I wish all the parties in all this foolish litigation would simply man up, say sorry, and reach non-punitive deals with one another, so the focus could turn to products, not politics," Evans writes. "Everyone has attempted to make their point, it’s time for litigation to end."
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Verizon is rolling out a fleet of mobile charging stations to West Virginia, Ohio, and New Jersey residents affected by Hurricane Sandy. At each Wireless Emergency Communication Center, as Verizon calls the trucks, you can charge your phone or in some cases hop on a laptop to send relatives an email. You can find a full list of station locations here – and no, you don't need to be a Verizon customer to take advantage of the service.
Meanwhile, at least for the time being, charging and domestic calls are free at Verizon stores across the northeast.
"Anecdotally, Verizon Wireless service has fared better than service from other carriers in parts of New York and New Jersey, where the storm has done the most damage. But there have been complaints of poor service on Long Island, as well as in Lower Manhattan," she writes.
In related news, PC Magazine reports that Verizon has installed a temporary wireless antenna in Jersey City, which was hit especially hard by the storm. The company is working simultaneously to restore data service to other parts of the New York metro area.
"Verizon has been able to reroute and restore critical services at several key facilities that were affected by the historic flooding and subsequent power outages on Monday night," a Verizon rep told PC Magazine. "Company engineers and technicians have returned several of these facilities to normal operations, and efforts continue to restore the remaining facilities."
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At an event in New York earlier this week, Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer presided over the official launch of the Windows 8 operating system, which he called "truly magical." Reviews of Windows 8 have been pretty positive, with critics praising the speed of the software, the tiled design, and the touch-friendly interface. So let's say you're interested in picking a Windows 8 device.
Where to start?
Well, the obvious answer – and the gadget that Microsoft has put a lot of its marketing muscle behind – is the Surface tablet. The Surface is priced starting at $499 ($599 if you want the Touch Cover keyboard), and runs a version of Windows 8 called Windows RT. Microsoft hopes the Surface will compete directly with the Apple iPad, although as plenty of analysts have pointed out, Microsoft will need a more apps first.
On the desktop and laptop front, CNET has assembled a useful list of Windows 8 machines, with pithy capsule reviews. Among them: the Sony VAIO Tap 20, a hybrid tablet/desktop with a Core i3 processor, a 500GB hard drive, and 4GB of RAM. "Thanks to a built-in battery and a semiportable design, the Tap 20 might be the most distinctive Windows 8-launch PC," CNET notes.
Looking for something a little out of the ordinary? You could do worse than the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13, a 13.3-inch laptop with a multi-touch display. The "Yoga" in the name refers to the flexible screen, which bends back or even flat (images here). The price on the Yoga 13 is $1099; an 11-inch model is also available for $799.
Meanwhile, as Kevin Parrish of Tom's Hardware points out this week, Dell is rolling out a few Windows 8 devices of its own. Of particular note are the snappy Inspiron 15z "ultrabook" – a super-light laptop, basically – the high-powered OptiPlex 9010 desktop, and the XPS 10 tablet. The 32GB XPS is priced at $499, more or less in line with the Surface, and should begin shipping in late November or early December, Engadget reports.
Thinking about picking up a Windows 8 device? Drop us a line in the comments section. And for more tech news, follow us on Twitter @venturenaut.
After 1.24 billion hours of public testing in 190 countries, Windows 8 went live earlier this week. The latest version of the Microsoft operating system has been billed by Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer as a "new era for Microsoft and our customers" – a distinct "tile" interface that plays well with traditional PCs and laptops and also smartphones and tablets.
But according to a lawsuit filed this week in Maine court, in developing Windows 8, Microsoft may have stolen a few design cues from a company called SurfCast. Several years ago, SurfCast representatives allege, the company came up with a system of "dynamically updating icons" – otherwise known as "tiles." Tiles, Horizons readers will remember, are an integral part of Microsoft 8.
"We developed the concept of Tiles in the 1990s, which was ahead of its time," Ovid Santoro, CEO of SurfCast said in a statement posted to the SurfCast site. "Microsoft’s Live Tiles are the centerpiece of Microsoft’s new Operating Systems and are covered by our patent."
"SurfCast says it has suffered 'harm and injury' as a result of Microsoft's infringement," Brodkin writes. "But since SurfCast claims to have invented its tile-based technology in the 1990s and doesn't sell any products based upon it, it's hard to see how Microsoft's use of tiles in a brand-new operating system is costing the company any revenue."
Still, if SurfCast is persistent enough – and if its legal resources run deep enough – it could manage to keep Microsoft tied up in court for some time to come.
For more tech news, follow us on Twitter @venturenaut.
On Friday, Apple will begin selling its long-awaited iPad Mini – a pared-down, super-slim tablet with a 7.9-inch display and an A5 processor. The Mini starts at $329, for a 16GB Wi-Fi-only model; 4G LTE-capable versions are set to ship in early- to mid-November. Reviews of the new Apple tablet begin to leak out today. So what kind of device is the iPad Mini, exactly?
Well, let's start with the obvious: The size. As Harry McCracken of Time notes, the Mini is 0.28 inches thick and weighs just 0.68 pounds.
"That’s not just a drastic reduction from the large iPad, which weighs more than twice as much, it’s also trimmer than Apple’s smaller-screen competition," McCracken writes. "One of the persistent gripes I hear from iPad skeptics is that the existing models are too big and bulky to hold comfortably; if there were an industry award for Tablet You Can Most Easily Envision Holding for Extended Periods of Time, the Mini would be a runaway winner."
Shane Richmond of The Telegraph, in the UK, agrees, calling the Mini "the best looking tablet computer anyone has designed."
"There are plenty of people who care nothing for how a gadget looks. The specificationists are more interested in processor cores, USB ports and whether they can root their operating system. That's fine," Richmond writes. "They'll be unmoved by the sleek metal back and the chamfored edges of the iPad mini. Nevertheless, this is a device that looks and feels great."
Of course, there is such a thing as too thin, writes Joshua Topolsky of The Verge.
"I actually had a little trouble holding onto the device when I wasn't using the Smart Cover due to the back being as smooth as it is, and the frame being so thin. Maybe it's just my big hands, but I wanted a little more to grab onto. In that regard, I prefer the feel of the Nexus 7," he notes. "That problem was exacerbated by how wide the device feels in your hand, as well as the lack of a significant bezel around the left and right of the screen in portrait."
Now on to the screen. Keep in mind that as opposed to the Kindle Fire HD, which retails for just 200 bucks, the iPad Mini does not include a high-resolution display. That hasn't escaped the notice of the Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg.
"Apple insists the device does better than standard definition, if you are obtaining the video from its iTunes service, since iTunes scales the video for the device, so it will render somewhere between standard definition and HD," Mossberg writes. "It says some other services will do the same. But the lack of true HD gives the [Google Nexus 7] and Fire HD an advantage for video fans. In my tests, video looked just fine, but not as good as on the regular iPad."
Meanwhile, over at Bloomberg, Rich Jaroslovsky addresses a question we've had on our mind, too: Is 7.9 inches really enough screen space?
"I didn’t see a huge difference [between 9.7 inches and 7.9 inches] in some uses, such as watching videos or reading e-books. But I found it noticeably harder to read some Web pages, particularly those with fine print. If you’ve got eyesight at all like mine, be prepared to do a lot of pinching and zooming," Jaroslovsky says.
We'll give the last word to Scott Stein of CNET, who takes stock of the hardware on the iPad Mini.
"The venerable dual-core A5 processor has been around since 2011, and has been seen in everything from the iPad 2 to iPhone 4S, fifth-gen iPod Touch, and Apple TV. The version in the Mini most closely matches the iPad 2's, with the same 512MB of RAM," he writes, adding that "the iPad Mini is really a shrunken-down, redesigned, enhanced iPad 2."
And that's not a bad thing at all.
Monday was a tough day to be an Apple executive. The company announced that Scott Forstall, the head of the iPhone and iPad software and a 15-year veteran of the company, will leave next year. And John Browett, the company's senior VP of retail, is also leaving -- though the two departures reportedly aren't related.
Apple hasn't officially commented on why Forstall is leaving, noting only that many of his responsibilities will be distributed to several other execs including Jony Ive, the company's chief industrial designer. But The Wall Street Journal reports that Forstall's departure is probably connected to the recent bumpy launch of Apple Maps.
After Apple replaced Google Maps with its own service in iOS 6 software, many users complained that the new maps weren't very accurate and that parts of the interface didn't work well. The concerns surrounding the launch led Apple to do something it almost never does: apologize. Chief Executive Tim Cook even went so far as to suggest that customers use alternative mapping services until Apple Maps improved.
But Forstall, whose team built the Maps service, refused to sign the apology letter, the Journal says. Instead, he thought Apple should address users' concerns without apologizing (think of how the company responded to the iPhone 4's antenna issues, for example). Forstall had apparently clashed with other Apple executives before, and after he declined to put his name to the apology Cook asked him to leave. He'll be an advisor to Cook until he leaves next year, the company said.
One interesting result of Forstall's departure: in addition to giving increased responsibility to Ive and other Apple execs, the company is also creating a new "Technologies" group comprising all of Apple's different wireless and semiconductor teams. This group could help Apple to more seamlessly marry its interface and design to the chips and hardware that make up its devices; the company says the new group will "foster innovation ... at an even higher level," adding, a touch mysteriously, that the semiconductor teams have "ambitious plans for the future."
The reasons for Browett's departure are a little less murky: his tenure as chief of retail hasn't been met with much enthusiasm since he came to Apple earlier this year. Soon after he was hired, Browett instituted a faulty retail formula that led to layoffs and reduced hours among Apple Store employees. The policy reportedly didn't go over well with Browett's fellow execs, and unsurprisingly, it wasn't a big hit with the employees he was managing, either.
To be fair, Browett had big shoes to fill: he was hired to replace Ron Johnson, who served as retail head for more than a decade and came up with the idea for the Apple Store and the Genius Bar. Browett's apparent focus on profits wasn't always well-received by employees who were used to a culture that made simple customer service a priority. Apple says the search for a new retail head is already underway, and that Cook will oversee the Retail group directly in the meantime.
The high-profile departure of both executives is the biggest shakeup at Apple since Cook took the reins in 2011. It's tempting to worry that the company is losing its footing in the post-Steve Jobs era, but relax -- there's ample evidence to suggest Apple is just responding to internal power struggles so it can get back to making new products.
Readers, what's your take on the departures of Forstall and Browett? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
We'll circle back to the Nexus 10 in a separate post. For now, let's concentrate on the Nexus 4, a handset with the firepower and looks to challenge both the iPhone 5 and the extremely-popular, Android-powered Samsung Galaxy III.
Mountain View is billing the Nexus 4, which is built by LG, as the "best of Google" – a phone packed tight with Google products, from full Gmail integration to the Chrome browser to Google Maps. For some folks, of course, that's going to be a little too much Google, but for anyone who spent long hours trying to suss out the intricacies of the Apple Maps app on the iPhone 5, it might come as welcome news indeed.
The specs on the Nexus 4 are pretty impressive: A 4.7-inch display – compared to four inches on the iPhone 5 – an 8-megapixel camera out back and a 1.3-megapixel camera out front, 2GB of RAM, and a jumbo Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor. The phone will be sold without a two-year contract through the Google Play store – $299 will get you an 8GB model and $349 will get you the 16GB model. Release date is Nov. 13.
"For those of us in the US," writes JR Raphael of Computerworld, "the phone will work on either T-Mobile or AT&T with HSPA+-level 4G speeds; you'll buy the device outright from Google and then use it either with your existing plan or a new plan. You can also opt to use it with a prepaid smartphone plan – something I'd strongly suggest considering."
Raphael says T-Mobile will also sell the 16GB model for $200, with a two-year contract.
So how does the Nexus stack up against its chief rivals?
And while the Nexus "doesn't always beat the Apple A6 in the iPhone 5, it's always very close in synthetic benchmarks," Cunningham adds. "Between the two, the iPhone's dual-core A6 may have the advantage in real-world performance, since not all apps will be able to take advantage of all four of the Snapdragon's CPU cores, but we need more real-world comparison time to say for certain."
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The Google homepage today depicts a big-haired painter with a squirrel on his shoulder, a brush in his hand, and a look of bemused happiness on his face. The painter, of course, is Bob Ross, the resolutely earnest public television personality, who would have celebrated his 70th birthday today. From 1983 until 1994 – a total of 403 episodes in all – Ross hosted "The Joy of Painting," an unabashedly low-budget how-to guide.
Ross's official Facebook page calls "The Joy of Painting" "the most popular art show" on TV. And maybe it was (no statistics are provided). But for many of us, it was simply the mellifluous soundtrack – as the Monitor's Molly Driscoll notes, Ross's voice had an infamously soporific effect – to a 1980s childhood. To others, it was the program starring the dude who kindly fed a baby squirrel with the world's smallest milk bottle.
As Steven Zeitchik of the Los Angeles Times notes today, Ross was more than a painter. He was icon, an innovator, a figure of genuine cult celebrity.
"You'd watch Ross quietly at home, half-admiringly and half-ironically, thinking you were one of the few," Zeitchik writes. "Meanwhile, millions of people around the country were doing the same. Long before there was viral video, Ross was going viral."
He attended Orlando High School, and at the age of 19, he signed on with the Air Force. He was immediately dispatched to Alaska. "I was the guy who makes you scrub the latrine, the guy who makes you make your bed, the guy who screams at you for being late to work," he later said of his time in the Air Force. "The job requires you to be a mean, tough person. And I was fed up with it."
He left the Air Force in 1981, with a rank of master sergent, and studied for a time under William Alexander, the host of a television show called "The Magic World of Oil Painting." At first, he taught art for a while for an art-supply company. Then Ross got the idea to submit his own audition video to public television stations. An outlet in Virginia agreed to give him a pilot, and the rest is history.
Ross, the New York Times wrote in an obituary, was an encouraging presence, who was convinced he could teach just about anyone to paint in half an hour. His "folksy demeanor eventually came to be interpreted as a kind of reverse chic," the Times noted.
Ross hosted "The Joy of Painting" for more than a decade – more or less to the end of his life. He died in 1995.
Ross's legacy has endured. According to his official Facebook page, The Joy of Painting is carried by approximately 95 percent of all public television stations in the US, "accessing more than 93.5 million households." Foreign broadcasts reach a range of markets, including the UK, the Netherlands, Mexico, Switzerland, The Philippines, South Korea, and Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, dozens of Bob Ross instructional videos and books remain in print; a reported 3,000 teachers have been certified in the official "Bob Ross" style.
But you don't have to sign up for a class or purchase a book to learn from the master. Instead, you can navigate over to the Bob Ross topic page on YouTube, where dozens of clips of Ross – and his disciples and fans – are stored.
Bob Ross aficionado? Drop us a line in the comments section. And for more tech news, follow us on Twitter @venturenaut.