Weekend news roundup

11 Oct 2010

A quick glance at some of the technology stories breaking in the weekend papers.

Fancy a slice of Facebook?

The Financial Times reported at the weekend that one of Facebook’s biggest backers is poised to offer City investors a rare chance to take an indirect stake in the social networking site via the London listing of a subsidiary worth up to $5bn (£3.1bn).

Mail.ru (formerly known as Digital Sky Technologies) is Russia’s largest internet group, and also owns about 10pc of privately held Facebook. It intends to float a subsidiary – also called Mail.ru – that includes the majority of the company’s Russian assets and part of the Facebook stake. Marketing to potential investors will start as early as Monday.

Mail.ru’s largest investors are Alisher Usmanov, the Russian oligarch and Arsenal football club’s second-biggest shareholder, and two associates: Yuri Milner, the group’s chief executive and a former physicist, and Grigory Finger, a Russian businessman.

The company has hired Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley to run the listing, and held an analyst meeting earlier this month to prepare marketing material, people close to the company said.

Virtually unknown outside Russia until it purchased an initial 2pc stake in Facebook last year, Mail.ru has quietly become a fixture in Silicon Valley. It is a key shareholder of groups ranging from ICQ, an instant messaging service purchased from AOL, to Zynga, the online games provider and creator of Facebook game FarmVille.

Streets of shining light

The New York Times carried an in-depth report on the need to find better ways of feeding greater amounts of data over fibre. This means investing in researching better ways of sending signals via light. The thesis of the article is that if we don’t the internet as we know it could grind to a halt in the face of enormous bandwidth demand.

Old systems used light that was either on or off — like flashlight signals — to send information along the fibres in the binary language of zeros and ones. But light is an electromagnetic wave, so it has a whole electrical field that scientists are now putting to work to add to the information on each wavelength.

Alcatel-Lucent recently announced a system for telecommunications service providers that takes advantage of both the polarisation and phases of light to encode data. The system can more than double the capacity of a single fibre, said James Watt, head of the company’s optics division. Such a system, for example, can transmit more than twice the number of high-definition TV channels than can now be streamed concurrently.

The new equipment is part of a continued research drive to increase the capacity of each strand of optical fibre, said Keren Bergman, a professor of electrical engineering at Columbia University and head of its Lightwave Research Laboratory. “We are stuffing more information in the same space,” she said.

A fibre is no thicker than human hair, but can carry many wavelengths of laser light, with each wavelength adding to the bits transmitted per second. The bit rates now attainable are in the billions (gigabits) per second or even trillions (terabits) per second. The need for core network improvement is pressing, said Stojan Radic, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, San Diego. “We are looking at a point soon where we cannot satisfy demand,” he said. “And if we don’t, it will be like going over a cliff.”

Inspector Gadget is back – the rise of internet cartoons

The creator of Inspector Gadget Andy Heyward is back in the cartoon business, only this time it is cartoons for the internet first, according to USA Today.

Heyward sold the Secret Millionaires Club series to AOL, as part of its Kids block, where it launched in the summer. The series will move to The Hub, a cartoon channel owned by Hasbro and Discovery that launched Sunday.

Next up: cartoons with a young Martha Stewart teaching crafts and another with model Gisele Bündchen as a supermodel by day and superhero by night.

In comic books, Heyward has lined up legendary comic creator Stan Lee (Spider-Man,The Incredible Hulk, Fantastic Four) to create a superhero book for Archie comics.

Digital dashboards for interactive drivers

News that Google was creating self-driving cars collided with an interesting piece in the New York Times that revealed vehicle makers are looking to the mobile phone for inspiration for future car controls.

But by the time the new Ford Fiesta arrived in American showrooms this summer, the phone that Ford had chosen as its model looked old-fashioned alongside the latest Apple iPhones and Motorola Droids — and so did the dashboard controls.

Those outdated buttons are a glaring reminder that mobile electronics evolve much faster than automobiles. In fact, Ford had already recognised the challenge of keeping its vehicles’ controls and instruments up to date and in 2006 began to address the situation.

Ford’s goal in establishing a set of design principles for automotive interfaces that would be consistently applied to all models was to improve what it called the cabin experience. The program was given the internal code name HAL.

The company sought advice from Ideo, the design consultancy known for developing the original Apple computer mouse and shaping interfaces for Palm and other high-tech companies. Ideo’s co-founder, Bill Moggridge, now the director of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City, was one of the early prophets of what he called interaction design.

The guidelines that resulted from the program, a sort of universal logic for all the cars’ switches and systems, helped shape the dashboard controls in the redesigned Ford Edge and Explorer. The standards will apply to future Ford models around the world.

Apps: white goods of the 21st century

The Financial TimesLex Column provided an interesting analysis of Amazon’s likely success in the market for apps, the white goods of the 21st century. Lex said the social effects of the industrial age were clear as labour-saving devices began to liberate households from domestic drudgery, developing into huge consumer markets. Infomercial pitches for slap choppers and ab crunchers are the modern face of that niche-filling innovation now almost every home has a washing machine and vacuum cleaner.

For the information age, apps fulfil a similar purpose. They are cheap (or often free) pieces of software to make a specific task easier: be it finding out the weather forecast, picking entertainment or editing a photo. And there are thousands of apps to choose from as app stores connect small developers with the millions of mobile phone and computer users. Apple, which was first with the app store for the iPhone, has 250,000 apps on offer. Google is catching up fast as its open source Android software is on track to become the most popular smartphone operating system. Nokia and BlackBerry, too, are both trying to encourage app makers.

Naturally, such rapid growth is attracting competition beyond the phone makers. Verizon plans its own managed version of the Android store, both as an alternative to the freewheeling nature of Google’s shop and to take advantage of its existing customers. Amazon is also contemplating the app business.

For the internet retailer, such a move is natural. If consumers start to shop through apps, Amazon risks becoming just one retailing app among many. There is also a danger that books, music and films start to sell directly through apps, cutting Amazon out of the market. But there is also the opportunity to be the cashier. With credit card details for millions of customers, Amazon, Apple and Google can become the choice for online payments by taking the effort out of paying one’s bill.

Online news market filling up

The Sunday Business Post reported that hot on the heels of Thejournal.ie and JohnRyan’s Broadsheet.ie comes a new Irish online news site.

Newswhip.ie has been developed by a newcomer to publishing, lawyer Paul Quigley, who is currently advertising for two editors to help him. He said he was also hoping to co-operate with some of Ireland’s independent blogs and digital media creators, as well as compile news from overseas.

Quigley said he had returned from New York to set up this project, which he is funding initially, and said he would launch the site in November. He said the site would display ‘‘the brains of the Economist, the wit of Oscar Wilde and the neck of Michael O’Leary’’.

As well as breaking news, it is to contain detailed analysis, plus coverage of ‘‘digital culture and goings-on in the Irish blogosphere’’.