Weekend news roundup

7 Mar 2011

A quick glance at some of the technology stories breaking in the weekend’s newspapers, including an interesting interview with the mysterious Sean Parker of Facebook fame, is Apple an emerging phantom menace, how counterfeit game chips are big business on Dublin streets and the imminent launch of an iPlayer for radio.

Is Apple next in line for an evil empire label?

In The Observer, columnist John Naughton said forget Google, it’s Apple that’s turning into the evil empire. He said Apple commands invisible strings that link your shiny new iPad or iPhone right back to Apple HQ. He wrote that once upon a time, when Apple was mainly a computer manufacturer, people used to liken it to BMW. That was because it made expensive, nicely designed products for a niche market made up of affluent, design-conscious customers who also served as enthusiastic – nay, fanatical – evangelists for the brand.

That was a long time ago. Now, with a market capitalisation of just more than $331bn, Apple is the second most-valuable company in the world – bigger than Microsoft ($220bn), Oracle ($167bn) or Google ($196bn). The quirky little computer company has grown into a giant. But not necessarily a giant of the Big Friendly variety, as the world’s magazine publishers have recently discovered and as the music and software industries have known for some time. For Apple now controls the commanding heights of the online content business and it looks like doing the same to the mobile phone business. At the moment, it looks as though nobody has a good idea of how to stop it.

Hot chips for sale in shops a deadly game

The Sunday Independent reported that computer chips containing up to €5,000 worth of illegally copied games are being sold openly in shops around the country for as little as €50, it has emerged. The latest development in counterfeiting is costing games giants like Nintendo fortunes in lost revenue, and now the chips, with up to 100 computer games on them, are being sold openly by rogue traders around Ireland.

The games sell legitimately for between €30 and €50. The ‘R4’ chip appeared in Japan four years ago with the capacity to carry large numbers of the handheld Nintendo DS (dual screen) games. Since then, its manufacture has switched to China.

Despite lawsuits by the games giant, the R4 chip has spread around the world and is widely available on the internet and from black-market dealers around the world. Sales of the chips with the illegally copied games were filmed by actors wearing concealed cameras for a new documentary series on TV3 about Ireland’s thriving black economy.

Blackmarket Ireland, which begins tonight, shows illegal trading of a variety of goods at markets around the country and also on Dublin’s Moore Street. It shows the illegal selling of smuggled cigarettes, DVDs and music CDs from a market on the outskirts of Dublin. Gardai say a great deal of the counterfeiting and smuggling is still located in this general area, where the first video-counterfeiting operations began in Ireland more than two decades ago.

The mysterious Mr Parker

Forget The Social Network, The Financial Times gave perhaps the most insightful depiction yet of the enigmatic Sean Parker, who owns a US$2bn stake in Facebook, and who says the quote in the film about a billion dollars being cooler than a million dollars was just fiction.

Parker, the FT wrote, has the best line in the Aaron Sorkin-scripted film. When Parker, played by Justin Timberlake, meets Zuckerberg at a New York restaurant, he floats across the room, orders food for everyone, spins enticing tales and leaves with the come-on aphorism: “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.” In real life, Parker’s Facebook stake is now worth $2bn.

So it is hard, waiting for him at a “very private banquette” (as Parker’s office has specified on the booking) at the Danny Meyer restaurant in lower Manhattan, to disentangle fact from fiction. Parker is having trouble with it himself since some parts of the script, for which Sorkin won an Oscar recently, ring true. He is indeed a bon viveur who wears designer suits and at the age of 31 has just spent $20m on a carriage house in nearby Greenwich Village.

Those who know Parker say he is kinder and more sensitive than the Sorkin portrayal. Indeed, the man now perched on the banquette is friendly and solicitous and is working to offset his new reputation as, as he puts it, “an asshole”. Yet he is also more like a Sorkin character than anyone – if not the anti-hero of The Social Network.

iPlayer for radio launch is imminent

The Sunday Telegraph reported on the launch of a new iPlayer for radio. It will be the first time that both the BBC and commercial radio stations have come together on a single online radio player. Matt Deega of Folder Media, a radio consultancy, which also owns children’s radio station Fun Radio, tweeted: “Very excited about UK Radio Player launching on the 31st March. We’re very pleased with our stations’ implementation.”

The internet radio player, which will allow users to listen to more than 200 BBC and commercial radio stations, has been in development for the last two years.

Adrian Cross, leader of software development at Unique Interactive, the company developing UK Radioplayer, said that stations such as BBC Radio 1 and Classic FM, which have adopted the player, will be able to use the technology to have a presence on internet-connected TV set top boxes, such as the BBC-backed YouView platform. He said the service would also be available on mobile phones in the future.

Social media giants absent from major free speech pact

The New York Times reported that Twitter and Facebook are absent from a major free speech pact. When Google, Yahoo and Microsoft signed a code of conduct intended to protect online free speech and privacy in restrictive countries, the debate over censorship by China was raging, and internet companies operating there were under fire for putting profit ahead of principle.

It seemed the perfect rallying moment for a core cause, and the companies hoped that other technology firms would follow their lead.

But three years later, the effort known as the Global Network Initiative has failed to attract any corporate members beyond the original three, limiting its impact and raising questions about its potential as a viable force for change.

At the same time, the recent Middle East uprisings have highlighted the crucial role technology can play in the world’s most closed societies, which leaders of the initiative say makes their efforts even more important.

“Recent events really show that the issues of freedom of expression and privacy are relevant to companies across the board in the technology sector,” said Susan Morgan, executive director of the initiative. “Things really seem to be accelerating.”

But the global initiative is not. All of the participating companies are American. Also, Facebook and Twitter are notably absent despite their large audiences and wide use by activists, in the Middle East and elsewhere.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years