THIS WEEK IN TECH

Clash of the Consoles Gets Down and Dirty

Congratulations, patient cheapskates: You’ve won the waiting game. Now you can get a well-equipped video game system for a somewhat reasonable price. The two most-advanced consoles on the market have dropped in price over the last few days, just in time for all of that back-to-school homework to get ignored.

The Sony PlayStation 3 was first, finally dipping below the US$300 price point with a new system sporting pretty much all the same features as the last model but with a smaller form factor.

Then this week, Microsoft cut the price of the Xbox 360 Elite down to the same $299. The stripped-down Xbox 360 Arcade edition remains on the market for $200, and the Pro edition will go for $250 until supplies run dry.

This could bring on a surge of buyers and give these aging consoles a badly needed second wind. Now it comes down to what games are available, and both have some good titles lined up for the coming quarters. Extra features are also a factor: The PS3 has a Blu-ray player, but the Xbox has built-in access to Netflix streams. You can get Netflix on a PS3 too, only it takes some third-party software like PlayOn. Oh, and if you want WiFi, the PS3 has it built-in. With the Xbox, you’ll need to buy an extra accessory.

But where’s Nintendo in all of this? Well, the Wii sells to a different crowd. Its technology isn’t as advanced, but that motion controller really brings in a lot of buyers who otherwise wouldn’t really consider themselves gamers. They still seem happy to pay $250 bucks a pop, so the Wii hasn’t budged an inch since it arrived.


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Snow in August

Apple has already fired off the first round in this fall’s battle of the operating systems. Last June, it said it would deliver OS X Snow Leopard this September, but apparently it finished early, and you can get it as of today, Aug. 28.

Buyers shouldn’t expect to get a huge kick in the pants in terms of new user interface tweaks. There will be a few here and there, but Snow Leopard’s real power is behind the scenes — basically, extra juice for developers to make more robust apps for the Mac platform. Apple has rewritten the Finder in Cocoa to take advantage of the modern technologies in Mac OS X, including 64-bit support. And Snow Leopard will have out-of-the-box support for Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 — perhaps part of Apple’s sneaky assault on the enterprise market.

Speaking of Microsoft, it’ll have its chance to retort in October, when Windows 7 goes on sale.

What Are You Saying?

Talent is an extremely valuable asset for any business, so when Apple CEO Steve Jobs became concerned that a competitor might be siphoning off some of his top people, he immediately did something to try and stop the bleeding. But what he tried to do might not have been legal. Lucky for him, he got shot down.

Here’s what happened, according to a Bloomberg report: Two years ago, Jobs sent a message to Ed Colligan, who was then the CEO of Palm. That was shortly after the defection of former Apple engineer Jon Rubenstein, who is now Palm’s chief. Jobs was concerned that Rubinstein might try to recruit more Apple employees to jump the fence, so he suggested to Colligan that the two companies do whatever it might take to prevent further poaching. Jobs reportedly pointed out that Apple had certain key patents and more money than Palm for things like legal fees and court costs — nudge nudge. From the looks of things, Jobs might have been proposing a collusion arrangement, which could violate antitrust laws.

But it’s all a moot point now, because Colligan apparently flat-out rejected the overture, noting that it might be illegal. The big question now is who leaked these private exchanges between rival CEOs, and why?

Tweeting on Location

Twitter lets you share everything from your deepest ruminations on the fate of humanity to updates about basic biological functions. Soon, it will also be able to tell people exactly where you’re tweeting from, using geolocation data capabilities it’s adding to the service. App developers will get a new API to incorporate the data into their wares.

This could be another step on the path toward Twitter’s golden goal of actually earning its first dollar. Geolocation data could be valuable to advertisers who want to push targeted ads on users.

It could also be valuable to thieves who want to burgle your house. That’s just one of the more alarming risks of attaching your exact whereabouts to your tweets. Twitter says it’s making the feature strictly opt-in — it won’t sneak up on you; you have to actively turn it on. But what if you forget to turn it off when you want privacy, or what if your account gets hacked and someone turns it on for you? Seriously, do you really want the world to know every time you leave your home?

Where’s the Crowd?

Though I won’t vouch for its accuracy at all times, Google Maps is usually a convenient way to get a pretty good idea of what traffic’s like on the freeways and highways. But traffic on surface streets can be just as maddening and unexpected as freeway jams, so now Google is pushing out an update to its Maps app that displays traffic data for regular streets.

How it gets the data is interesting. With freeway data, Google gets at least some of its info from other traffic services, but when it comes to surface streets, Google will cull data from the crowd. It will track people who are driving around while actively using a mobile Google Maps app on a GPS-enabled phone, then use their speed and location to figure out traffic conditions.

Don’t worry, though, Google says all the data will be anonymous. Actually, I’m aware that the very phrase “Google says all the data will be anonymous” really is enough to worry some people.

Also, the iPhone’s built-in Google Maps app will not be able to contribute data.

So getting all this information really comes down to people who a) have smartphones, b) don’t have iPhones, c) have the Google Maps mobile app, d) are using it, AND e) are driving on any given street. Seems like kind of a small subset. Even then, who’s to say that a slow driver is really stuck in actual traffic, or just trying to park, looking for an address, or following the ice cream truck?

Rough Ride

“Reserved” and “subtle” are two terms stereotypically associated with Brits, but a new TV public service announcement circulating in the UK is anything but. The PSA’s message is that using a cellphone to text while driving a car can kill, and it pounds that message home in a four-minute ad that goes into graphic detail about the possible consequences.

It starts with a car full of teens driving down a country road, all staring at the screen of the driver’s cellphone as she taps out a message. In a matter of seconds, that results in a three-car pile-up, and the ad is not shy about showing exactly what happens to human bodies during a high-speed impact. But it doesn’t stop there — it goes on and on, showing crying children, dying people, first responders racing to the scene, and finally the driver being carried away on a gurney.

The act of dramatizing a scene to discourage risky behavior can be a bit of tightrope act. Worst-case-scenario PSAs risk coming off as preachy or alarmist — especially to teen and young adult audiences, which the texting ad appears to be addressing. Then again, this isn’t quite the same as telling teens that one whiff of pot will turn them into meth-addicted derelicts by age 22. Scenes like the one dramatized in the ad have played out in the real world. A single careless moment behind the wheel can ruin or even end lives in a matter of seconds. The ad is violent and unpleasant to sit through, but only because its violence is very matter-of-fact and realistic, as opposed to the stylized, no-immediate-consequences kind of violence depicted in a lot of TV shows and movies.

In fact, with all the other noise coming through in the media, perhaps it takes something that’s really painful to watch to make any sort of impact.

Reports of My Death …

It’s an all-too-common problem plaguing the lives of our precious celebrities: A famous person wakes up in the morning, gets coffee, check his email, checks the news, then surfs on over to his Wikipedia page only to find out he’s dead again.

Wikipedia, as you know, is the online encyclopedia that anybody can edit — and anybody includes jokers who just want to start hoaxes. Actually, if you’re the victim of a false death notification, you should consider yourself lucky. Sometimes a prankster steps up and does something like falsely implicating you in the JFK assassination, and if you don’t check up on yourself, that information just hangs there and finds its way into thousands of junior high history reports.

But now Wikipedia just might temper the anarchy a little with a new law — specifically, one requiring that changes to entries on persons who are still alive must pass muster with an official editor who can check up on things before letting the edit through. In fact, the new feature is reportedly already active on the German-language site.

So I guess a little piece of Wikipedia’s freewheeling soul is dead — or perhaps it just had to grow up a little. It’s come to be one of the first places on the Web people go to learn about almost any topic you can name, for better or for worse.

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