Apple Inc. has launched the latest update to its Mac Operating System (OS), offering users a wealth of patches and tweaks — most notably, enhanced security features and improved mobile synching.

The mobile synching improvements promise to get Apple’s MobileMe service out of its shell, following a longer-then-planned gestation period. Originally set for release a couple of months ago, the service has been plagued by technical glitches.

The (US)$99 per year service is designed to transfer updates made to calendars (or contact information from Web sites) from mobile devices such as iPhones to a user’s home-base Mac within a minute of pressing the ‘Send’ button.

The Mac OS 10.5.6 Combo Update is recommended for all Mac users running OS X Leopard. Get it here.

Yahoo! has started to implement new features designed to make itself more ‘sociable’ — that is, to help it compete with popular social networking destimations such as MySpace and Facebook for the attentions of a larger share of compulsive Net users.

Among the new features, the ability for Yahoo!’s approximately 275 million e-mail users to form closer online ties with their Internet friends, a photo search tool (to quickly find images anywhere in your Yahoo! mailbox) and a tool to simplify transfering information from your Yahoo! mailbox to your blog.

In addition, Yahoo! is opening up its technology platform to outside developers whom the company hopes will provide even more applications for its users — along the lines of the Google initiative that has already seen hundreds of new plug-ins developed for its Gmail platform.

“We hope opening up Yahoo! mail will have a game-changing influence on the industry,” Yahoo! Vice-Presicent John Kremer told reporters.

The financially-troubled Yahoo! is also planning to eliminate some of its less-populart online services, part of an attempt to save some (US)$400 million in costs next year.

Some U.S. cable TV customers are in for a nasty surprise this coming February 9. If they don’t already have digital cable adapter boxes, they’re going to have to have them by then to continue watching all the cable channels currently available to them.

It seems that cable provider Comcast will require nearly a million customers across Washington state to install converters — even those with newer TVs that have built-in digital tuners.

As Brier Dudley of the Seattle Times reports, that’s coming as a rather unpleasant chock to many Comcast customers:

“This is a shocker if you bought a new TV, expecting to just plug your cable into it and be all set. … [Comcast’s move is] also contrary to the message that cable companies and the government have been sending about digital TV — that cable customers can continue with their current setups.”

Even those Comcast customers who already have a digital converter box will need a new one. Comcast is going to move channels 30 through 80 on its system to digital from analogue at the same time as broadcasting goes digital.

And what, you may ask, about older analogue televisions with only antenna reception? The U.S. government is offering grants of (US)$40 per household to help defray the cost of special adapter boxes (different, again, from the new digital adapters Comcast will require in WA) to allow users to keep using their older TVs into the “digital age”.

Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) has filed its official response to the Canadian Radio Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) call for position papers on the regulation of new media — that is, Internet and portable wireless network broadcasting.

The CWTA represents Canadian cellular, PCS, messaging, mobile radio, fixed wireless and mobile satellite carriers as well as companies that develop and produce products and services for the industry.

In it’s filing, the CWTA echoes calls from other new media stakeholders, stressing, “the importance of maintaining the exemption orders for new media broadcasting undertakings and mobile television broadcasting undertakings.”

The CWTA issues a veiled warning to the CRTC to maintain it’s current hands-off stance with respect to new media:

“The growth and innovation in the wireless industry is largely the result of government policies encouraging healthy and robust competition among operators, and the Commission’s deliberate decisions to forbear and exempt the sector from regulation. This open, competitive environment has driven the industry to invest heavily in networks that reach 98 per cent of the population. These networks represent a key building block of the Canadian economy and help increase productivity for all industries.”

Upcoming CRTC hearings into regulation of new media broadcasting are being watched closely by players in that industry worldwide, as regulators in other countries are expected to take their cue from the decisions arising from the Canadian process.

The full text of the CWTA submission to the CRTC is available at the Association Web site.

A while back, I read about the Eye-Fi, an SD memory card with built-in 802.11 wireless networking capability. I admit being skeptical — WiFi inside an SD memory card? So I contacted the folks at Eye-Fi and they were kind enough to send over a 2 GB Eye-Fi card for me to try out.


The Eye-Fi comes with software loaded onto the card and a USB SD card reader. I connected it to my PC, ran the software, configured the SD card for my wireless network and configured the software to upload new images to a hidden gallery on my SmugMug account. As a final step, the software instructs you to insert the SD card into your camera and provides brand-specific information on increasing the automatic power-off time on the camera. And that’s it. Literally.

I headed out, shot some pics, came home, turned on my camera and set it on the counter. The images were automatically transferred to the designated directory on my local hard drive and uploaded to SmugMug.

So, if you’re looking for a gift for your favourite photo buff, check out the Eye-Fi. Just keep in mind that the camera must support SD memory cards, which is the defacto standard in most newer consumer digital cameras. However, some brands, including Sony and Olympus, use other standards, so you’ll want to double-check before purchasing.

We’ve all giggled at the predictions, back in the 1950s and 60s, that everyone would be driving flying cars by the turn of the millennium.

Of course, it didn’t happen — and nobody alive at the millennium was very surprised.

But, now, the nay-sayers may have to change their tune: A real, affordable (to some, at least) flying car is set to go on sale in 2009.

The rear-prop, folding-winged Terrafugia Transition flying car is expected to sell for just under (US)$200,000 and will be legal on the street as well as the airways.

Do you need a pilot’s license? Eventually, probably. But not for now — in some jurisdictions, at least. The Terrafugia is still classed as experimental. In fact, it isn’t scheduled to take its first full-scale test flight until next month.

We’ll keep you posted on Terrafugia’s retail ETA at a terminal — er — driveway near you…

Okay…’s 2008 top ten gadget gift ideas for under (US)$500 was bound to include smart phones, netbook mini PCs, pocket camcorders, GPS units and MP3 players.

But there’s also a programmable power bar that saves juice and bucks. And what about an eco-friendly keyboard and mouse cased in resilient yet stylish bamboo?

Or a tiny, wearable video cam? Or a pocket uploader that automatically posts your YouTube footage? Or a pocket projector to help you share the pics and vids on your camera or pocket player?

Even if there’s nothing there that specifically fills the bill for the problem-gift gadget fan on your holiday list, it should at least provide some inspiration for your inevitable trip to the electronics store…

Perhaps taking a cue from Nintendo’s Wii development unit — which recently launched the innovative Wii Fit controller device expanding the applications and appeal of their game console — the DS portable console team is experimenting with an expansion of their device’s capabilities which may get non-gamers interested.

Nintendo has released a new ‘accessory’ for the DS — a DS cartridge loaded not with games but with the text of 100 Classic Books and a reader application. It’s a collaboration with publisher Harper Collins.

Some observers suggest that bringing an e-book app to the Nintendo DS may be a more effective way of popularizing e-reading than the stand-alone readers launched to date by the likes of Sony and Amazon. If the reader is already in the house (albeit, in the kids’ room), parents may be inclined to say, “Why not take a flyer on the cartridge and see what it’s like?”

The reader application lets users hold the hinged DS console vertically, like an open paperback, and turn pages by brushing a stylus or fingertip across the controller pad.

The 100 Classic Books Collection is available now — but apparently only in the UK. (Which is not to say you can’t order from Amazon UK and pay the shipping…) It’s priced at about (US)$30. Additional content is available via download.

While all the market surveys show North Americans cutting back on their year-end holiday shopping expenditures and, in many cases, pooling their gift dollars on one big gift the whole family can enjoy, one traditional gift-giving favourite is actually selling better than last year.

A survey by market research firm NPD Group reveals that U.S. computer game hardware and software sales in November topped (US)$3 billion, an increase of 10 per cent over the same period last year.

NPD specifically cited strong Black Friday (the day after U.S. Thanksgiving) sales of the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft (MS) game consoles and the newly-released game title, Gears of War 2 for the increase.

How does that translate to actual units sold? MS moved some 836,000 Xboxes in November and Sony sold 378,too Playstation 3s. But Nintendo really cashed in, selling more than 2 million Wii consoles.

The Wii was so popular, in fact, that it was sold out in many online and retail stores immediately Black Friday. But, as TLP reported earlier this week, mega-retailer Wal Mart came to the rescue, releasing ‘tens of thousands’ of Wiis for sale.

Joining Gears of War 2 among the top ten game titles in November: Call of Duty: World at War, Left 4 Dead and the Wi-specific Wii Play and Wii Fit packages.

Internet security leader McAfee Inc. last week released its year-end annual cyber security study — and the tidings are neither comforting nor joyous.

One of the main overall findings of the study is that politicians and other authorities that might be acting to fight cyber crime are, instead, preoccupoied with the global economic crisis. The result?

“…The recession is proving a hotbed for fraudulent activity as cybercriminals capitalize on a climate of consumer fear and anxiety. … Unless significant resources are committed to international efforts to fight malicious cyber activity, there is a risk that cybercrime will impact consumer confidence, further hindering the speed of global recovery in 2009.”

Among the other findings of the McAfee Virtual Criminology Report 2008:

  • Cybercriminals are cashing in on consumer anxiety to profit from old fashioned ‘get rich quick’ scams.
  • Police forces on the front line often lack the specialist skills required to effectively fight cybercrime.
  • Russia and China have become key safe havens for cybercriminals while Brazil has become one of the fastest growing ‘scapegoat’ countries for cybercrime.
  • Problems are expanding exponentially — law enforcement is bound to physical national boundaries, while cybercriminals cooperate quickly and easily across borders.

McAfee CEO and President Dave DeWalt warned, “Governments need to commit to funding the resources needed to combat cybercrime. Bureaucratic bodies need to be rationalized and harmonized, and police forces need to be coordinated across boundaries. Everyone must play their part in a global battle that has only just begun and will continue long into 2009 and beyond if it’s not properly addressed.”

The McAfee Virtual Criminology Report 2008 is available for download at the McAfee Web site.

Last week I introduced the concept of cloud computing. To recap, the concept is that one can simply buy computing and storage resources as needed rather than investing in hardware and Internet connectivity.

While a few companies have been talking about cloud computing, Amazon is doing it and selling it to anyone with a credit card under the Amazon Web Services banner. To get a better understand of the future of web application development, we’ll take a look at what they offer.

Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) is a Web service that provides resizable compute capacity in the cloud. It is designed to make Web-scale computing easier for developers. To summarize, you upload one or more virtual machine images to Amazon. Then you use an API to start and stop instances of your virtual machines — and pay only for the time you use. Amazon offers several virtual computer ‘sizes’ starting at $0.10 per hour. There is no minimum commitment. You simply pay for what you use. If you design your application right, it can scale very quickly by spinning up additional instances as needed to handle the load.

Of course, almost any application requires storage space and that’s where Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) comes in. Amazon S3 provides a Web services interface that can be used to store and retrieve any amount of data, at any time, from anywhere on the Web. It’s storage on demand and, in Amazon tradition, it’s also pay-as-you-go with no minimums. The pricing model takes into account charges for storage, inbound traffic, outbound traffic, requests and whether storage is in the USA or Europe. For example, storage in the USA starts at $0.15 per GB, inbound traffic at $0.10 per GB, outbound traffic at $0.17 per GB, and requests are one cent per thousand. Prices to store data in Europe are slightly higher.

Amazon also offers a database service, a message queuing service to facilitate communication between computers in a distributed architecture and recently introduced the beta CloudFront service which looks like a very promising, easy-to-use content delivery service.

So what does this all really mean?

Amazon has removed many of the barriers to developing Internet-scale applications. Developers can start small with no capital investment and only pay for what they need, when they need it. They also have an unprecedented ability to scale applications quickly in response to increasing demand for them.

But this change also has some interesting security implications which I’ll discuss next week.

Studies by health authorities have shown that children from low-income families are more likely to be less healthy than kids from well-to-do families.

Now, a new study by researchers at the University of California, Berkley, shows that poor kids may also be intellectually disadvantaged compared to their rich counterparts.

Researchers at Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and the School of Public Health found that, “…normal 9- and 10-year-olds differing only in socioeconomic status have detectable differences in the response of their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is critical for problem solving and creativity.”

Brain wave activity in test subjects was measured with a multi-probe electro encapalograph, similar to that used to disgnose epilepsy, sleep disorders and brain tumours.

Robert Knight, Director of the Institute, said, “Kids from lower socioeconomic levels show brain physiology patterns similar to someone who actually had damage in the frontal lobe as an adult. We found that kids are more likely to have a low response if they have low socioeconomic status, though not everyone who is poor has low frontal lobe response.”

Knight suggests that poor kids may be suffering less optimal brain development than their richer peers as a result of the stress and cultural impovrishment of their environment. In plain therms: They have fewer books and, so, read less. They have fewer brain-challenging games available to them and they have fewer stimulating opportunities, such as visits to museums.

On the bright side, Knight and his colleagues believe that underprivileged kids’ brain development can be improved with the proper training. The study team is working on developing brain-exercising games designed to improve the reasoning ability of elementary school-aged children.