Weekend news roundup

9 May 2011

A trawl through some of the weekend papers’ technology coverage, including how Stanford classmates became overnight millionaires by developing Facebook apps, mobile phones that charge up through the power of speech and a review of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s new book, Ideas Man.

A class act

The New York Times carried an amazing story about how students at Stanford were told to create apps as part of their course work. No one expected what happened next.

The students ended up getting millions of users for free apps that they designed to run on Facebook. And, as advertising rolled in, some of those students started making far more money than their professors. Almost overnight, the Facebook Class fired up the careers and fortunes of more than two dozen students and teachers. It also helped to pioneer a new model of entrepreneurship that has upturned the tech establishment: the lean start-up.

“Everything was happening so fast,” recalls Joachim De Lombaert (23). His team’s app netted $3,000 a day and morphed into a company that later sold for a six-figure sum.

Early on, the Facebook Class became a microcosm of Silicon Valley. Working in teams of three, the 75 students created apps that collectively had 16m users in just 10 weeks. Many of those apps were sort of silly: De Lombaert’s, for example, allowed users to send “hotness” points to Facebook friends. Yet during the term, the apps, free for users, generated roughly $1m in advertising revenue.

E-paper phone makes its debut

The Sunday Telegraph carried a story about the PaperPhone, a flexible piece of technology that can be controlled by being bent, written on or used as a touchscreen.

The PaperPhone, built to determine how people use a flexible device, is a collaboration between researchers from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, Arizona State University, USA, and researchers from the E-Ink Corporation.

“This is the future. Everything is going to look and feel like this within five years,” Roel Vertegaal, director of the human media lab at Queen’s, said. “This computer looks, feels and operates like a small sheet of interactive paper.”

The e-paper sheet, which uses the same e-ink technology found in the Amazon Kindle e-reader, is just millimetres thick and can be used to make phone calls, read e-books and play music.

Story of an ideas man

The Observer had a review of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s biography, Idea Man, about his early days at the world’s biggest software firm. According to the review, Allen’s contributions to the partnership were as critical as those of chairman Bill Gates. Without the tools he developed, and his insight into the infrastructure that software development requires, Microsoft’s subsequent growth would have been impossible. When the Apple II arrived on the scene, powered by a processor for which Microsoft had no software products, it was Allen who came up with the solution that enabled owners of the Apple machine to run software written for non-Apple devices – a plug-in card running the CP/M operating system. It was a masterstroke that got Microsoft out of a deepening hole.

And it was Allen who pulled off the biggest coup of all in the company’s early development. When IBM was looking for an operating system to run its new personal computer, Microsoft didn’t have one; it did programming languages, not operating systems. But Allen had contacts with a tiny Seattle company that had developed a rudimentary operating system, QDOS (for “quick and dirty DOS”), and negotiated a deal to buy the rights to it, thereby enabling Microsoft to offer the increasingly frantic IBM designers a solution to their problem. The rest is history: the IBM PC became the de facto standard for a colossal industry, DOS became its operating system and Microsoft acquired a licence to print money – which it has been doing ever since.

Powerful voices

The Sunday Telegraph had an interesting story about new technology that allows mobile phone users to charge up their devices by talking. For mobile phone users, a flat battery or a lost charger are among the frustrations of modern life. Now new research promises a way to recharge phones using nothing but the power of the human voice.

Electrical engineers have developed a new technique for turning sound into electricity, allowing a mobile to be powered up while its user holds a conversation. The technology would also be able to harness background noise and even music to charge a phone while it is not in use.

However, there could be a downside to the innovation, if it gives people a new reason to shout into their phones as they attempt to squeeze in every extra bit of power they can.

Sony removes sweepstakes data from web

The Financial Times reported that Sony said it had removed from the internet the names and partial addresses of 2,500 sweepstakes contestants that had been stolen by hackers and posted on a website, and said it did not know when it could restart its PlayStation video games network.

The company, under fire since hackers accessed personal data from about 100m user accounts of its PlayStation Network and PC-based online gaming services, said in a statement details posted on the inactive website also included three unconfirmed e-mail addresses.

The data came from customers who entered a 2001 product sweepstakes contest. The list did not include information on credit cards, social security numbers or passwords.

“The website was out of date and inactive when discovered as part of the continued attacks on Sony,” Sony said, adding that the company took the website down shortly after finding out about the postings on Thursday.

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