Hironobu Sakaguchi Snagged By Microsoft Xbox Shock

Hironobu Sakaguchi Microsoft Hires Final Fantasy Creator For Xbox 2 Next Gen GamesMicrosoft is teaming up with one of Japan’s hotshot video game developers to create games for its next-generation video game console, XBox2 – a sure-fire sign that it’s determined to grab a fat slice of the Japanese market.

Having created compelling games for both Nintendo and Sony in the past, renowned Japanese video game developer Hironobu Sakaguchi has been signed up by Microsoft in the hope that he’ll sprinkle some fairy dust over their next-generation Xbox system.

Sakaguchi’s new company, Tokyo-based Mistwalker, will work with Microsoft’s game studio in Tokyo to make the games.

“This is a shot across the bow that we are serious about the Japanese market,” said Peter Moore, corporate vice president of worldwide marketing and publishing at Microsoft. “This is but the first salvo in what is going to be an interesting year.”

Things haven’t worked out too well for Microsoft’s XBox so far in Japan: disappointing sales followed its launch in 2002, with just 1.7 million units being shifted in all of Japan and Asia Pacific, placing it a distant third behind market leaders Sony and Nintendo.

Microsoft hopes that the collaboration with Sakaguchi’s game development studio, Mistwalker, will send sales soaring.

“Lately, we’ve seen only sequels released on the domestic game market,” Sakaguchi said. “I want to create something gamers can immerse themselves in and recall for a long time afterward by offering a new type of fun that only next-generation machines can provide.”

Hironobu Sakaguchi Microsoft Hires Final Fantasy Creator For Xbox 2 Next Gen GamesA founding member of former video game software developer Square Co., the 42-year-old is famed for creating the role-playing series, ‘Final Fantasy’, which has shifted more than 60 million copies to date.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Sakaguchi however. His attempt to cross into film with a US$210 million (€158m/£109m) movie using state-of-the-art computer animation to create lifelike human characters didn’t hit pay dirt.

Released in 2001, “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” proved to be a box office flop and Sakaguchi resigned from Square as a result.

Microsoft is hoping that Sakaguchi’s experience in both role-playing games and high-end animation could provide the leverage to persuade gamers to upgrade to its next system, which will support high-definition TV formats and improved computer graphics.

“Sakaguchi has taken role-playing games – traditionally a niche market – and introduced them to a broad and diverse audience across the globe,” Peter Moore, corporate vice president of worldwide marketing and publishing at Microsoft, said in a statement. “We are ecstatic to work with Sakaguchi.”

The industry remains rife with rumours about when the XBox2 might finally launch, with some suggesting that it may try to surprise the gaming world by showing its Xbox 2 console well before this May’s E3 show in Los Angeles.

According to online sources, the Redmond software giant has an Xbox 2 conference of ‘significant importance’ slated for some point in March 2005.

“Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within”

AIM Sync : AOL Integrates IM Buddy Lists With MS Outlook

AOL Integrates Buddy Lists With Microsoft OutlookAmerica Online has announced plans to enable users of its instant messaging service (AIM) to see when friends and business associates are online, even if they’re not on the contact list.

From today, AIM customers can download a free beta plug-in (called AIM Sync by Intellisync) that will let users of Microsoft Outlook see which of their contacts are online and available to chat by IM.

The program works by scanning a user’s Outlook address book to find friends, colleagues and clients who are AIM users and then offering to add those names to their AIM buddy list.

Inside the Outlook program, the plug-in detects the presence of online AIM contacts, with AOL’s signature running-man icon showing up next to the address fields on e-mail messages and contact lists.

If someone’s available, a single click from within Outlook will launch an AIM session.

The AOL-Intellisync partnership reflects a push by AOL to bring instant messaging to places where users are already (virtually) hanging out, rather than forcing them to communicate directly from AIM’s software.

In January, ComScore Media Metrix says, AIM had 20 million users (nearly 40 million if AOL members are included). Rivals Yahoo Messenger had 19.6 million, and MSN Messenger, 14.9 million.

“This is just the beginning of a broader strategic approach with AIM – making sure our application is available where you are,” says Chamath Palihapitiya, the America Online executive who handles the IM service.

“The web is open … It’s not siloing yourself,” she continued, “AIM is everywhere consumers are. We want to take it to where they are.”

This marks something of a turnaround from the company’s “no freebies” glory days when AOL’s dial-up service reigned supreme and its inflated public equity enabled it to buy up the world’s largest media company, Time Warner.

But with millions of users fleeing to cheaper rivals offering faster cable/telephone connections – and the looming presence of IM-enabled VoIP services like Skype – AOL is hoping to provide its once-proprietary programming and services to free Web sites, including its own AOL.com.

The strategy appears to be aimed at replacing dwindling subscription revenue with online advertising revenue, a sector of the media economy that is expected to rise by more than 20 percent this year.

AOL Integrates Buddy Lists With Microsoft OutlookAOL has also announced a relationship with CareerBuilder.com to bring together recruiters and online job applicants. A prospective employer, who spots a job seeker’s résumé with an AIM address, can instantly send a message to that person in real time.

It’s also getting down with the youth by teaming up with the college-oriented Ruckus Network so students can chat via AIM about music, movies and other digital entertainment. Along with text, users might use AIM to swap musical play lists and video.

And they haven’t forgotten about the corporate world, with AOL announcing a partnership with Thomson Financial to let traders and brokers chat with clients or each other via AIM.

America Online
instant messaging service
AIM Sync by Intellisync

Smartball May Help Football Goal Decisions

Smartball May Help Goal DecisionsThe International Football Association Board has agreed to trial microchip technology, which can determine whether a ball has crossed the goal line.

Football’s law-making body, comprising the four British associations and four members of world soccer’s governing body FIFA, has authorised FIFA to experiment with the system at the world under-17 soccer championships in Peru, from 16 September to 2 October, 2005.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter, a strong opponent of video evidence in matches, welcomed the experiment while remaining adamant that it was not the first step on the road to introducing video replays being viewed by a fourth official.

“The board have tried to keep football with a human face and the possible errors and the only technology where the board has said yes is for goal-line technology,” Blatter said. “Now for the World Cup 2006 such a system could and should be applied when and if the results of our test are conclusive.”

Known as the “Smartball” system, the technology involves placing a microchip sensor in a ball which sends a signal to the referee whenever the ball crosses the goal line

Developed by Adidas, together with German company Cairos AG and the German Fraunhofer Institute, the Board agreed to the trial after a successful test run between Nuremburg and Nuremburg Reserves near Adidas’s headquarters.

Adidas spokesman Thomas van Schaik explained: “We are convinced in the quality of the system but we have to prove the 100 per cent accuracy of it, so that the entire football family is convinced. If not, we should not rush things.”

Goal line disputes have formed the basis of many a pub argument, with the most famous being the Geoff Hurst goal in the 1966 World Cup final – despite endless replays and lengthy analysis, it’s still impossible to be sure that the ball crossed the line.

More recently, the highly publicised Spurs ‘goal’ at Manchester United has brought the issue to the fore. Despite it being apparent to half the world and his wife that the ball had crossed the line by a metre, the referee waved play on.

Although a video replay system (like that used at cricket and rugby) would have made it abundantly obvious that the goal should have been given, football has long resisted the technology, with both fans and the governing bodies expressing the fear that it would slow the pace of the game and damage the spectacle of the sport.

Football hasn’t resisted all technological advances though, and referees currently employ a special armband, which vibrates when the linesman (or referee’s assistant, as they are more commonly known) raises his flag to signal that a player is in an offside position.

The flag and armband communicate by radio, ensuring that the referee won’t have to miss any of the action when looking for the linesman’s signals.

Although some football traditionalists will be frothing into their real ale at the prospect of new-fangled, electronic wizardly playing a part in the Beautiful Game, such innovation seems inevitable in the increasingly corporate world of international football where huge investments can hang on the balance of referee’s decisions.

International Football Association Board

Promo Only MPE: DRM Within The Music Industry

Destiny Media Technologies Updates Promo Only MPEDestiny Media Technologies has announced a new version of its proprietary anti-piracy and digital distribution system, Promo Only MPE 1.1, designed to secure electronic music distribution within the music industry.

The new system serves up a host of enhanced features including a new user interface to improve accessibility and ease of use; the ability to download entire albums and samples; improvements to the email management; higher quality previews and multi-label support.

“With the new functionality and multi label support, we can open the system up to other labels,” said Steve Vestergaard, Destiny CEO, “The system is ready for adoption by the entire music industry.”

Promo Only MPE has been developed to help the music industry combat the ongoing issue of piracy and to gain the benefits of digital technology – quicker distribution and reduced costs.

A lot of piracy originates from within the industry and, not surprisingly, those ‘Promo only, not for resale’ stickers haven’t exactly put a stop to it. DJ shedding their promo tracks isn’t new. Anyone who’s pawed through the racks in second hand music stores can attest to that.

In an industry clearly riddled with mistrust, Promo Only MPE uses a sophisticated security system that ‘locks down’ the distributed content and allows labels to track who is accessing their property.

Each song is uniquely encrypted so that only those with the MPE program can access it. In addition, an ID code specific to each individual user is applied when a song is requested; meaning that only registered users can access the song and, once installed, the ID cannot be moved to unauthorised computers.

Promo Only seems well chuffed with that fact that the MPE system has surpassed 1,500 registered users signed-on to the service – industry leader Universal Music Group (UMG) has been using the service since its launch and has distributed over 200 tracks to radio so far and Clear Channel Communications have made the system available to all of its stations across the country.

Destiny Media Technologies Updates Promo Only MPE“The new build was modified with the customers’ ease of use in mind,” gushed Dean Ernst, Director of the MPE project at Promo Only. “The response to version 1.1 has been unprecedented and reflective of the overwhelming number of users signed-on to date.”

Personally, we could think of a few DJs who won’t be too pleased to have to start messing about with DRM every time they’re sent a new release. They might just end up playing the tracks that are easy for them to access.

Destiny Media Technologies
Promo Only MPE 1.1.

Jens MP-120: Better Than iPod shuffle?

Jens of Sweden Takes on the iPod Shuffle , MP120, MP400, MP 120, MP 400Jens of Sweden has unveiled its latest cool digital music player which they reckon will give iPod Shuffle a run for its money.

The midnight black, cigarette lighter-sized MP-120 music player can squeeze in 300 tracks (depending on track compression) and a features a USB 2.0 port.

It is available for SEK 1344 including VAT (US$194/£102/€148), which the cheeky Jens claims will undercut the iPod Shuffle by a massive one krona (£0.07/US$0.14/€0.11).

“Steve Jobs claims users prefer to be served random tracks than choose from among hundreds of their own tunes. We don’t agree which is why we offer a player, that besides random tracks, also allows users to see and choose exactly what they want to hear. Given today’s prices I’m convinced we can sell more MP-120 than iPod Shuffle in Sweden, despite Apple’s advertising budget,” says Jens of Sweden chief executive and founder Jens Nylander.

We admit we’re fans of Jens. We used to have a Jens MP-130 which we dearly loved – using it to listen to music, carry data and record interviews with broadcast-quality clarity. Everyone we showed it to was wowed by it and we would in turn enthuse about it at every opportunity. How many products can you say that about?

Then some low-life nicked it when we were at the AtHome conference in Nice at the end of last year. It broke our hearts. If this player is anything like as good as our dear MP-130, it’s going to be a contender.

The iPod shuffle has a fundamental weakness that Apple tried to turn around as a benefit. It has no display. In our experience, when you’re randomly listening to selection of tracks from a large music collection or a collection of podcasts, you want to know the name of the tracks you like and the ones you hate. The MP-120 has a display.

Jens of Sweden’s earlier MP-400 player was offered in seven colours – as well as 24-carat gold – and with the MP-120 model, it is taking customisation one step further by allowing customers to choose their own headphones.

The MP-120 can function as USB file storage memory, and also has an OLED screen and dictaphone.

It supports MP3, WMA, ASF, OGG Vorbis music files, and the built-in lithium battery should give users about 22 hours’ playing time.

While we don’t think Steve Jobs will be losing sleep over this, we think this will have a ready market with those who don’t want to conform to the Apple mentality.

The MP-120 is now available on Jens of Sweden’s Web site.

Jens of Sweden

Apple/TiVo Bid Rumours Considered

TiVo jumps on Apple bid rumoursRumours pointing at Apple as a potential bidder for TiVo have given the digital video recorder company’s shares a healthy boost – and got people wondering whether the deal would be a good fit.

TiVo’s technology which allows viewers to skip ads breaks and to pause and rewind live television made it a must-have gadget, although some of the competition is catching up.

As of 31 January this year, TiVo had a subscription base of 3 million (the majority of them from DirecTV), and said it’d added around 698,000 subscriptions during its fourth quarter. And the company has said it is not for sale.

But for some, a tie-up between Apple and TiVo would be a marriage made in gadget heaven, bringing together some of the coolest gadgets – and brands – the industry has thought up in the last few years. And it is possible to see a few areas where it would make sense.

With Apple’s stock running at such a high price and TiVo’s suffering, the purchase of TiVo (the whole company is currently valued at under $400m), could be easy – almost a rounding error.

TiVo jumps on Apple bid rumoursNearly every media and technology company is aiming at the living room now, either with Media Centre-style PCs or other digital hubs to spread content such as video and music around the home.

For Apple, bringing video to its massively popular iPod would certainly be an understandable step, perhaps allowing users to dock the iPod with the TiVo and download favourite shows. But it is hard to see how popular this would be in the short term.

Neither TiVo nor Apple are commenting on the rumours. Other media giants have been floated as potential buyers for TiVo as well, and financial analysts remain split on whether any deal is on the cards.


Sony Clie PDA: End Of The Line

Sony Stops Development On Its Clie PDA RangeSony has announced that it is to end production on its Clie line of PDAs in Japan.

The move comes eight months after the company said it would stop developing new Clie models for the US and European markets, to concentrate on Japanese users.

First launched by the Tokyo company in mid-2000, Sony’s Clie handhelds gave an almighty kick up the backside of PalmOne and stirred up the market with a series of dazzling innovations.

Their last two European models, the TH55 and UX50 were both highly regarded, offering a full suite of connectivity options (Bluetooth, wi-fi, infrared) supported by Sony’s proprietary software and the huge Palm back catalogue.

In Japan, Sony had the top share of the domestic PDA market in 2003 at 32%, followed by Sharp (19%) and Casio (16%), according to information and technology industry researcher Gartner Japan Ltd.

Sony’s total retreat from the PDA market was considered a serious blow to PalmSource who have yet to match Sony’s ground-breaking designs.

This latest announcement looks like another nail in the coffin for the PDA – as mobile phones, portable media players, and even gaming consoles sport ever-expanding PDA-like capabilities, the PDA market seems to be ever-shrinking.

In an interview with PC World, Sony spokesperson Aki Shimazu said, “There won’t be any new Clie PDAs but we are not necessarily exiting the PDA business”. She also added that the company may collaborate with other companies for future devices.

Sony Stops Development On Its Clie PDA RangeOur guess is that they’re going to focus their energies on ramping up the feature list on Sony Ericsson smartphones, developing the PlayStation Portable and finally producing the iPod killer they so desperately need.

Loyal Clie users still wailing into their beers at the prospect of losing a much loved product line (that’ll be me) can draw the tiniest scrap of consolation out of the news that Sony will keep providing parts and repair services for at least another six years or so.

Shareholders at Palm will probably have even longer faces after losing such a vital licensee for their operating system. Could this be the beginning of the end for Palm?

Clie PDA

Apple Updates iPod Mini and iPod Photo, Now Direct Camera Upload

Apple Updates iPod Photo and iPod Mini ModelsApple has updated its iPod photo line-up with a new slim 30GB model, holding up to 7,500 songs, for just £249 ($475, e360) and a new 60GB model, holding up to 15,000 songs, for £309 ($590, e446)

Designed for content-hungry consumers who can’t bear to be parted from their music and photo libraries, both iPod photo models feature a high-resolution colour screen for displaying photos and (ahem) “enhancing the entire iPod music experience” (we think this translates to having some pictures and album art to look at while you’re playing songs).

Both models hold up to 25,000 digital photos and will feature the ability to import photos from your digital camera via the new iPod Camera Connector for “instant viewing and slide show playback “.

“The new slim 30GB iPod photo at just £249 lets music lovers enjoy their iPod in full colour, including album artwork along with their personal photo library,” enthused Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO. “And now you can import photos from your digital camera directly into iPod photo with the optional iPod Camera Connector.”

We welcome this enhancment, meaning that holiday won’t involve lugging a laptop around just for image downloads. Sadly, the iPod Camera Connector is not built in: it’s an optional extra that will set consumers back £19 ($36, e27.5) – and it isn’t available until March 2005.

Although the iPod remains one of the finest MP3 players on the planet, we’re not convinced that the iPod Photo is quite there yet as a photo wallet.

Unlike some rival units, there’s no built in card reader or Bluetooth support and we haven’t been able to work out if the iPhoto will be able to import – and view – RAW format files, something that would definitely create enthusiasm amongst the photographic cognoscenti. It would appear strange if they didn’t given, the impressive support that Apple’s iPhoto software has for the RAW format.

Apple Updates iPod Photo and iPod Mini ModelsThe truth is that the iPod photo seems to be far better as a versatile MP3 player and photo presentation unit rather than something for serious photographers to use for direct-to-camera storage.

However, the aggressive price cuts (rumoured to be in response to rumoured poor sales of the original iPod photo) will no doubt be warmly welcomed by consumers and ratchet up the fierce competition with main rivals iRiver and Creative Technology.

The 4GB and 6GB models of iPod mini for Mac or Windows are available worldwide immediately for a suggested retail price of £139 ($265, €200) and £169 ($322, €244) respectively, in a choice of silver, pink, blue or green.

“At this breakthrough price point, and with more than twice the battery life, the new iPod mini should appeal to even more music lovers,” said Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs.

Both iPod mini models feature increased battery life of up to 18 hours, USB charging and the same lightweight design.

All these new iPod models work with the Apple iTunes software and store, and are compatible with either Mac OS or Windows based PC, connecting via firewire or USB 2.0.

iPod photo
Creative Technology.

Google Movie Search Born

Google Adds Movie Search FeatureA handy Google search feature went live this week that lets users find showtimes at nearby movie theatres using either their computer or mobile phones and other wireless devices that use short-message services.

The service is available from any Google search box or via SMS.

So a movie hungry visitor to New York could enter their zip code in this search phrase “movie: 10122″ to get a listing of what’s playing and when at theatres in their area. If they’re looking for a specific film, typing in, for example, ‘Vera Drake in 10122′ will provide local listings and show times.

The new feature also provides information such as theatre locations and reviews, and enables users to search for movies by title, plot or genre, sortable by movie or cinema.

Other possible searches can help with recommendations or simply refresh fans’ memories (or settle late night arguments).

A query such as “movie: lick my love pump” would return with “This Is Spinal Tap (1984)”, or searching on “movie: great fights” would provide a list of films featuring lots of fabulous punch-ups. And before you ask, yes, it works for naughty words too.

The search results come with a star rating, calculated on an aggregate of online reviews, and links to critics’ reviews.

“We’ll expect more traffic flow overall in movie names,” said Marissa Mayer, Google’s director of consumer Web products. She said increased inventory will increase bidding. “We’re basically creating a new market for AdWords.”

In addition to film studios, Google expects marketing interest from video and DVD distribution companies such as Netflix, Blockbuster Online and Amazon.com, and from marketers of celebrity wallpaper, mobile ringtones and other such money-spinning merchandise.

This latest service ups the stakes in the ongoing bunfight between Google, Yahoo – and recently MSN search – as they battle to provide the most comprehensive set of Web search tools – and get a slice of fast-growing advertising revenues.


Sonus-1XT: Talking DAB Radio from Pure

Pure Digital Announces Speaking DAB RadioPURE Digital has announced its new PURE SONUS-1XT DAB digital radio, an enhanced alarm radio with unique iVOX voice feedback technology.

As well as the usual groovy DAB radio alarm features – two independent alarms, Volume Equalisation Technology (VETTM) and ‘XT’ audio quality via a custom designed speaker and active filters – the unit uses iVOX technology to tell listeners the available DAB stations as they scroll through them.

Usefully, time, alarm and setting up instructions, can also be spoken by the unit. We’ve pestered Pure for audio examples of both the female, and male voices that are available. We’re really impressed with them, as they don’t sound automated or generated, and appear to be samples that have been seamlessly joined. Below are a few MP3 format examples

The time is 3:06pm (Female)
Alarm 2 is set for 3:15 pm on weekdays only (Male)
Alarm 1 is set for 7 am on weekdays only (Female)
Preset 1 empty, press and hold to assign preset (Female)

The radio sports PURE’s enhanced SnoozeHandle technology which tells the time with a single tap – great for hungover consumers unable to lift their head off the pillow. To check alarm settings users simply tap the SnoozeHandle twice to have them spoken.

The handle also doubles up a ‘snooze’ button, and giving it a slap in the middle of the night will light up a full-screen clock.

Says Kevin Dale, president, PURE Digital: “SONUS-1XT builds on the success of our DAB digital radio alarm system with iVOX, a natural speech technology that adds a new dimension to radio listening. The combination of iVOX and our SnoozeHandle technology takes DAB digital radio to the next level in interaction.”

PURE uses its Volume Equalisation Technology to constantly monitor the audio levels of every station to ensure consistent volume when switching stations.

All the handy benefits of DAB digital radio are there, including station select by name; scrolling track info display, news and sports results; and greater station choice.

The radio also offers a nine-event timed record function for use with MiniDisc or other recording devices, a USB connector for downloading software upgrades from an Internet-connected PC, a headphone socket and stereo line-out for recording.

A custom designed 3″ drive unit and active-filters provide a full sound with an option to upgrade the unit to stereo via a matching XT-1 add-on speaker,

Pure Digital Announces Speaking DAB RadioIt looks reasonable too, kitted out in smart maple wood casework with a pearlescent white front fronted with a silver grille and control panel with scrolling blue LCD text display.

SONUS-1XT is expected to be available on the high street at around £119.99 (€173, $230)

PURE Digital