Apple’s antics forced Amazon to raise ebook prices

Apple’s price cartel with publishers forced Amazon to raise the prices of its books and enter into similar deals with its publishers.

Russell Grandinetti, Amazon’s vice president for Kindle content told a court that strengthened by an agreement with Apple that set the prices for their respective e-books higher, publishers strong-armed Amazon into giving them similar terms.

The US Department of Justice has taken Apple to court over price-fixing, after reaching out-of-court settlements with five publishers HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Books, Penguin and MacMillian. Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs bragged about the deal in his biography and admitted that the deal meant higher ebook prices.

According to Reuters, Grandinetti sat down with Macmillan CEO Jon Sargent, who offered a stark choice. It could face a months-long delay between the hardcover debut of a book and its appearance on Kindle, or convert from the reseller to agency model, in which publishers have a heavier hand in setting retail pricing.

Macmillan and Amazon ended up in conflict and Amazon yanked the publisher’s e-books from its digital shelves.

In the end it backed down and let customers decide if they believe it’s reasonable to pay $14.99 for a bestselling e-book.

Emails emerged in which Apple co-founder Steve Jobs insisted to News Corp executive James Murdoch that Amazon’s pricing was ultimately unsustainable. Mostly because he said so. 


Leap Motion expands beta program, shows off Airspace app store

Leap Motion is still a month away from commercial release but the namesake company has announced it’s moving into the next phase of beta testing, opening up its developer program beyond the 12,000 or so people who currently own one of the little 3D gesture controllers. Although no more test units are going out before the planned July 22 launch, the move will at least give those who haven’t yet played with the device yet a chance familiarize themselves with the developer tools and maybe start building apps.

The company says more than 65,000 people had previously applied to be part of its developer program so the interest appears to be there. Now, anyone can sign up, with access rolling out over the next several weeks.

In addition to the SDK and developer web portal, those who sign up to the program will also get to test drive the Airspace app store, which is rolling out for the first time later this week, as well as Airspace Home. The latter is a desktop launcher that keeps all Leap Motion apps in one convenient place for easy access.

There are currently about 50 apps available on Airspace for early testing, and according to CEO Michael Buckwald, that number is expected to double by the time Leap Motion ships.

For now software partners already on board include 3D design software maker Autodesk, “Cut The Rope” maker Zepto Labs, Double Fine, Disney, Realmac Software, The Weather Channel and Corel. In an effort to lure in more developers the company has also setup $25 million Leap Fund, which will be used to invest in entrepreneurs and startups building interesting applications that take advantage of the controller.

The San Francisco-based will begin fulfilling “hundreds of thousands” of pre-orders starting on July 22, with retail availability at Best Buy stores across the US,, and Later in the year both HP and Asus will start offering Leap Motion bundles with select products.

Instagram to take on Vine with rumored video-sharing feature

Instagram, the Android and Apple iOS photo sharing app owned by Facebok, will soon become Instagram, the photo and video sharing app, according to new reports.

TechCrunch cites an unnamed source that says Facebook’s June 20 event is to unveil a new video option for Instagram. The app would follow the path of Tout, Vine, and Viddy by uploading short videos ranging from 5 to 10 seconds. Though this is just an unconfirmed rumor with practically no details, one would assume that, if true, Instagram would support filters on the video. The addition of video would be a dramatic shift from the mobile photography niche that Instagram has cultivated.

Google Balloons to Beam Internet Access

Google is launching about 30 superpressure balloons that will beam Internet access back to the ground.

With equal parts brevity and self-deprecation, the effort has been dubbed “Project Loon.”

Taking flight from New Zealand, the balloons will sail around the world on a controlled path. Meanwhile, they will offer 3G-ish Internet access to 50 testers located in New Zealand. Access will for now be intermittent, but Google reportedly hopes to build a fleet of such balloons, offering reliable connections to people in remote areas.

Controlled by computer servers and monitored by a small team of engineers, the balloons will traverse the stratosphere 12 miles above the ground — about double the altitude of commercial aircraft. Each balloon will be aloft for roughly 100 days and offer connectivity to an area about 25 miles in diameter.

The balloons have a diameter of about 50 feet. Dangling below is a battery of electronic equipment, including a flight computer, radio antennas and a solar panel to power everything.

Camera captures voices without a microphone

Eavesdroppers might not have to lip-read to listen in on a far-off conversation. Using a high-speed camera pointed at the throat, scientists can decipher a person’s words without relying on a microphone.

By snapping thousands of images per second, researchers recorded every wavering wobble of neck flesh that accompanied sounds floating out from a person’s voice box. A computer program then turned the recorded skin vibrations into sound waves, Yasuhiro Oikawa of Waseda University in Tokyo reported June 3 at the International Congress on Acoustics.

Standard lip-reading software tracks lip twitches, tongue waggles and jaw motions as a person’s mouth forms a word. Some programs are sophisticated enough to recognize different languages, but the computer doesn’t offer much more than a transcript, Oikawa said.

Textual information is important, but so is intonation, pitch and volume, he said. “We get a sense of a speaker’s feeling from their voice.”

Microphones have problems, too: A mic often records too much background noise — especially outside, where the whooshing whistle of the wind or the loud plop of a raindrop can drown out a person’s voice.

So Oikawa and colleagues looked for a new way to record speech that could capture vocal tones.

Using a high-speed camera, the researchers zoomed in on the throats of two volunteers and recorded them saying the Japanese word tawara, which means straw bale or bag. The team’s camera recorded at 10,000 frames per second; the typical rate for a movie projected in a theater is 24.

At the same time, Oikawa’s team recorded the volunteers’ words with a standard microphone and a vibrometer, a device that measured vibrations of their skin.

The throat vibrations recorded by the camera looked similar to the vibrations picked up by the microphone and the vibrometer, Oikawa said.

And when the team ran the camera’s vibration data through a computer program, they could reconstruct the volunteers’ voices well enough to understand the word spoken, Oikawa said. Before the end of the year, he thinks he may be able to record and play back a full sentence using the high-speed camera technique.

The technique should allow scientists to hear words even if there’s a lot of background noise, said physicist Claire Prada of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. The work is promising, she said, but “it’s still just proof of principle.”

But other scientists at the presentation seemed skeptical. Mechanical engineer Weikang Jiang of Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China noted that Oikawa did not play audio of reconstructed voices; instead he showed pictures of the sound waves. Jiang praised the work’s novelty, but said, “He didn’t show us the results.”

Next, Oikawa wants to focus the camera on a person’s cheeks to look for more skin spots that jiggle during speech. Analyzing more vibrating areas could give researchers extra info about a person’s voice, and that could improve voice reconstruction.

Faster memory could accelerate computing

An advance in a speedy type of microchip could help engineers integrate computers’ short-term and long-term memory.

For all the recent advances in the speed of computers, their command centers remain relatively inefficient. A central processor does all the thinking and quickly stores a bunch of 1s and 0s on a chip called dynamic random access memory, or DRAM. But DRAM only works when the computer is on, so it can serve only as short-term memory. Data needed for the long haul has to be stored on separate magnetic disk drives or on flash drives such a camera’s memory card.

For decades, researchers have vied to create universal memory: a chip that combines the speed and reliability of DRAM with the archival abilities of flash. The advance, published in the June 11 Nature Communications, fixes a weakness of a leading universal memory contender called ferroelectric RAM.

Although it’s fast and energy efficient, FRAM has had problems with long-term reliability. To determine whether a bit is a 1 or a 0, the chip has to apply a voltage that compromises the data. Then it must rewrite the data to preserve it. Those steps gradually degrade the storage capacity.

Ramamoorthy Ramesh, a materials scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, worked with a team of engineers at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore to develop a method for reading data without having to destroy it and then rewrite it. Their solution was to shine a very dim light at each bit-containing cell and measure the current that came out of it. The amount of current indicated whether the bit was a 1 or a 0. Most importantly, the light-shining process preserved the data, with no rewrite step necessary.

The researchers read and wrote data hundreds of millions of times with their prototype FRAM chip with no signs of degradation. In contrast, flash memory has a limit of several hundred thousand read/write cycles. “The innovative idea is the readout,” says Kang Wang, an electric engineer at UCLA. “This innovation may improve the chance of FRAM to be implemented in industry.”

Ramesh acknowledges that engineering issues and economic ones remain before FRAM transforms computing. Several other RAM technologies could serve as universal memory, including some backed by tech giants like Intel and Samsung.

Diablo III coming to PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 September 3rd

Activision Blizzard announced that its popular action role-playing game Diablo III is coming to the PlayStation 3 a while back, and now it has finally given a release date: September 3rd. In addition, the company also revealed that it is dropping the game on the Xbox 360 on the same date.

Of course, Diablo is a game made for the PC, so Blizzard will have to make some pretty serious adjustments to make it work on consoles. The company says it is tailoring the experience to a gamepad, which could lead to some fundamental shifts in the core gameplay, but time will tell exactly how it chooses to go about making it play well without changing too much about what makes Diablo tick.

Describing the reworked gameplay, Blizzard said it will feature a new dynamic camera system, a revamped user interface, and a control scheme that the company calls “intuitive.” 

Another promise for the console version of Diablo III relates to added content and fixes for bugs that initially made their way into the PC version. The company didn’t explicitly mention whether the Paragon levels, which allows players to expand their character beyond the base level cap, will be included in the console version.

As previously announced, the game is also coming to the PlayStation 4, although unsurprisingly there’s no release date for that version yet since Sony hasn’t revealed exactly when when their next-generation console is coming out. It’s also unclear if a version for the Xbox One is in the works.