Author: Staff Writer

HMV to shut 66 retail shops across Britain

hmv-administrationHMV’s administrators announced Thursday that 66 retail stores across Britain will close their doors over the next two months.

HMV, which entered administration in January, currently operates 220 stores in the UK. Deloitte said the affected stores employ 930 staff, but no fixed date has been set for their closure yet.

Staff quickly took to Twitter, talking about redundancies made across HMV offices and distribution centres.

Deloitte, HMV’s administrator, is in talks with restructuring specialist Hilco about a possible takeover of HMV. Hilco is said to be in talks with suppliers and HMV’s landlords, as part of an effort to save about half of the shops in the UK, Express reports.

“This step has been taken in order to enhance the prospects of securing the business’ future as a going concern,” Nick Edwards, joint administrator at Deloitte, said. “We continue to receive strong support from staff and are extremely grateful to them for their commitment during an understandably difficult period.”

HMV became a hugely profitable enterprise following the introduction of CDs and cheap video tech in the eighties. It quickly expanded around the world, opening shops in North America and on the continent. Its retail operation peaked in the naughties, with 325 shops up and running. However, HMV failed to recognise the threat posed by online distribution to its traditional retail approach and by the late 2000s it was in more trouble than it could handle.

HMV is not the first retail outfit to face collapse due to online competition. Camera chain Jessops and DVD rental business Blockbuster were forced to close last month.

The HMV stores set to close over the next two months are:

England: Ashton-under-Lyne, Barnsley, Bayswater, Bexleyheath, Birkenhead, Birmingham Fort, Blackburn, Boston, Bournemouth Castlepoint, Bracknell, Burton-upon-Trent, Camberley, Chesterfield, Croydon Centrale, Durham, Fulham, Huddersfield, Leamington Spa, Leeds White Rose, Loughborough, Luton, Manchester 90, Moorgate, Orpington, Rochdale, Scunthorpe, South Shields, Speke Park, St Albans, St Helens, Stockton-on-Tees, Tamworth, Teesside, Telford, Trocadero, Wakefield, Walsall, Walton-on-Thames, Wandsworth, Warrington, Watford, Wellingborough, Wigan, Wood Green, Workington

Scotland: Dumfries, Edinburgh Fort, Edinburgh Gyle Centre, Edinburgh Ocean, Edinburgh Princes Street, Edinburgh St James, Falkirk, Glasgow – Fort, Glasgow – Silverburn, Glasgow Braehead, Kirkcaldy

Northern Ireland: Ballymena, Belfast Boucher Road, Belfast Forestside, Coleraine, Craigavon, Derry, Lisburn, Newry, Newtownabbey

Wales: Wrexham

Alcatel – Lucent CEO steps down following $1.85bn loss

alcatel-lucentThe chief executive of struggling telecom equipment maker Alcatel – Lucent is leaving the company. Ben Verwaayen took the helm four years ago and tried to return the outfit to profit. He failed.

Alcatel – Lucent posted a $1.85 billion loss for 2012, compared to a $1.49 billion gain in 2011, so Verwaayen’s departure should come as no surprise.  Verwaayen announced his decision to step down in a statement Thursday, saying that now is the appropriate moment for Alcatel – Lucent to seek new leadership.

“Alcatel-Lucent has been an enormous part of my life. It was therefore a difficult decision to not seek a further term, but it was clear to me that now is an appropriate moment for the Board to seek fresh leadership to take the company forward,” said Verwaayen.

Philippe Camus, Chairman of the Alcatel-Lucent Board, said: “After due reflection, the Board has accepted Ben’s decision to step down as CEO.” Camus went on to thank Verwaayen for his efforts to stabilise the company over the past four years.

It remains unclear who will replace Verwaayen and he is likely to stay on until a successor is found. The company said it would consider in-house candidates as well as candidates from outside the company.

Although Verwaayen did not manage to turn things around, he can hardly be blamed for Alcatel – Lucent’s woes. The company was created following a $11.6 merger of Lucent Technologies and Alcatel in 2006. It has been downhill ever since. Verwaayen, the former head of the  BT Group, joined the company in 2008, after the previous American-led management was ousted.

Alcatel – Lucent has been trying to restructure and reposition itself in the telecom infrastructure market, but so far it did not have much luck competing against the likes of Ericsson and Huawei.

Google buys Channel Intelligence for $125 million

google-ICGoogle is continuously trying to improve its e-commerce business and its latest acquisition should give it a nudge in the right direction. The search giant bought e-commerce solution provider Channel Intelligence for $125 million in an all-cash deal.

Channel Intelligence is active in 31 countries and it offers a wide range of e-commerce services.

The company has been a partner of Google Shopping for years and the two outfits worked together on Return on Ad Spend (ROAS) and Product Listing Ads (PLA) products. In addition, Channel Intelligence offers a range of free services, including Facebook integration and product search widgets and an e-commerce back end, dubbed Shopping Engine.

Channel Intelligence announced the deal on its website, adding that all of its services will be available for years to come. The company has been around since 1999 and it tracks about 15 percent of all online transactions in the US. It is behind $2 billion in sales through referrals every year.

ICG group announced Wednesday that the transaction should be finalized in the first quarter of 2013. ICG is expected to realize $60.5 million in connection with the transaction.

“Building upon the perseverance and strong foundation laid by CI’s founder Rob Wight, I am extremely proud of the work we accomplished at CI,” said Doug Alexander, CEO of CI and President of ICG. “With the talent and hard work of the entire CI team, we successfully navigated a very complex marketplace, ending a record year that culminated in this very exciting acquisition.”

Wright said he is thrilled to see the recognition of CI’s value. He said the company’s vision was to simplify the online shopping experience and that he is very proud to see the vision executed to such a “great outcome.”

Get drunker by using diet soda as a mixer

boozebeltCutting calorie intake is a good idea, but it appears that mixing diet soda with alcohol might not be the best way of going about it.

A new study released in the journal Alcoholism, which we get for obvious reasons, suggests that diet soda can make long drinks quiet a bit more potent. Regular soft drinks stimulate the stomach in much the same way as a meal, but sugar free drinks don’t.

As every teen learns the hard way, having some food in your stomach delays emptying, hence it delays alcohol absorption as well. Since diet beverages don’t trigger the stomach to delay emptying, they allow alcohol to reach the bloodstream more quickly.

“The results were surprising,” Cecile A. Marczinski, assistant professor in the department of psychological science at Northern Kentucky University, told ABC News.  “We are talking about significant differences here. (…) Participants who drank diet soda with vodka had blood alcohol contents as high as 18 percent more than when sugar-containing mixers were used.”

Petros Levounis, director of the Addiction Institute of New York, pointed out that southern European countries have lower rates of alcoholism in spite of increased alcohol intake for similar reasons.

“They always drink while eating,” he said.

However, based on our extensive experience and field trials, we can offer an alternative explanation – people in southern European countries tend to lie more. Just ask Greek creditors.
Marczinski argued that the choice of mixer can make a significant difference and that mixing diet soda with spirits could potentially have harmful consequences.

“In the long run, it’s more harmful for your body to be exposed to a higher alcohol concentration than a few extra calories,” she said.

However, the jury is still out on Marczinski’s findings. Boris Tabakoff, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said the study involved subjects drinking three to four drinks over a five-minute period.

“Few if any bars will serve you a drink that strong,” he said. “If you want to chug your alcohol to the point of consuming the equivalent of three to four drinks in five minutes, you should not worry about calories.”

He added that alcohol is packed with calories, so calorie-conscious drinkers would be better off limiting their alcohol intake than choosing sugar-free coke or Perrier with their whisky.

Surface Pro showered with negative reviews

 

surface-pro

Microsoft’s tablet push seems to have hit yet another snag. The first reviews of Redmond’s new Surface Pro tablet are in and they are not good at all.

Envisioned as business friendly tablet with unparalleled legacy compatibility, the Surface Pro was supposed to challenge the iPad and high-end Android tablets by wooing traditionally conservative corporate customers to embrace a tried and tested platform, more or less.

At least that was the idea and on paper everything seemed right. The Surface Pro is powered by a proper x86 chip and it runs Windows 8, ensuring compatibility with legacy applications. It also has a full HD screen, physical keyboard and a pretty high price tag, which should be justified by its unique feature set. However, reviewers gave the Pro no quarter.

The Verge reckons it is still a better choice than the Surface RT, which really isn’t saying much since the RT doesn’t appear to be a good choice at all. However, consumers can get a decked out hybrid for about the same money, which led The Verge to put forth a simple question: who is it for? Oddly enough, the Apple loving New York Times was a bit more lenient, concluding that the Surface Pro could be the right machine for a lot of people.

“It strikes a spot on the size/weight/speed/software spectrum that no machine has ever struck. You can use this thing on a restaurant table without looking obnoxious (much),” wrote NYT’s David Pogue.

AllThingsD was not impressed, concluding that the Pro is too power hungry and too difficult to use in your lap. “It’s something of a tweener — a compromised tablet and a compromised laptop.”

Engadget’s Tim Stevens tried to be a bit more positive, but it soon ran out of kind things to say. “When trying to be productive, we wished we had a proper laptop and, when relaxing on the couch, we wished we had a more finger-friendly desktop interface,” he wrote.

Business Insider was blunt as usual, saying the Pro is just like the RT version, only heavier, thicker, more expensive and with half the battery life. “It looks like a tablet, but you can snap on an optional (but essential) keyboard cover that turns the Surface Pro into a pseudo-laptop. So why would anyone buy that?”

So what exactly was the Surface Pro’s undoing? Quite a few of things apparently, but most of them are not restricted to the Surface Pro – they apply to all upcoming Windows 8 tablets. On the hardware side all appears well, but vendors have to use power hungry x86 chips in all Windows 8 tablets, rather than frugal ARM SoCs employed by Apple and the Android alliance. The OS itself is bloated, hence a lot of speedy solid state storage is required to come up with a feasible Windows 8 tablet. Android and iOS are a lot leaner. Less efficiency also translates into limited battery life and bigger batteries, increasing production costs and bulk. Modern Android tablets and the iPad mini measure just seven to eight millimeters at the waistline and no Windows 8 tablet can come close to that yet.

Still, legacy app compatibility and unbeatable productivity features could easily outweigh the drawbacks? Well they could, in 2009. Countless developers have spent long hours working on productivity apps for iOS and Android over the past three years, so Redmond’s productivity edge has been blunted. BYOD is another trend that is forcing companies to rethink their approach and embrace cross-platform software solutions.

As far as legacy apps go, Windows 8 tablets seem like the obvious choice, but there are a few caveats. Windows 8 still lacks native, touch friendly apps. Most legacy apps can’t handle touchscreens very well, which means the traditional keyboard and touchpad combo is a must. With that in mind, there is no good reason for those in need of legacy support to get a tablet, as an Ultrabook or hybrid will do just fine.

Windows 8 tablets were cleverly marketed as a natural extension of ultraportable notebook lineups, so many vendors were (and still are) a lot more interested in Windows 8 tablets rather than Windows RT gear. Between Surface RT’s slow sales and the unflattering Surface Pro reviews, Redmond’s tablet strategy seems to be imploding faster than a North Korean uranium warhead.

 

 

Church of Scientology runs Apple inspired Super Bowl ad

scientology-adThe Church of Scientology ran a rather amusing Super Bowl ad in several cities and the ad was apparently inspired by Apple.

Everything, from the music, narration and the clean post-production points to Cupertino, although it’s nothing like Apple’s iconic 1984 ad. However, it is a lot like Apple’s 1997 “Think Different” spot.

The ad speaks about seekers of knowledge, freethinkers, non-conformists, rebels, artists and a bunch of other New Age woo. The only thing missing is an iMac at the end.

The ad is part of the organisation’s “knowledge” campaign, which is rather amusing as the Church of Scientology has gone to great lengths to prevent the publication of its religious texts, which are copyrighted.

But you can always Google Xenu or visit RationalWiki for more information on Scientology’s beliefs. The Church of Scientology is often accused of being a money grabbing cult. So it is not that different from Apple after all.

Much like Apple, the Church of Scientology was created to change the world and generate a bit of cash for its founder. The other version is that it was the result of a bet. However, unlike Apple, which was launched by a couple of geeks who really did change the world, the Church of Scientology was launched by L. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer who spent much of his life on the run from US authorities. It did not change the world. Also, Apple designers tend to have better taste.

It is based on Dianetics, an atrocious attempt at pseudoscience and spirituality written by Hubbard at a time when he was struggling to make rent. Apple also enjoys a cultish following, but even Tom Cruise and John Travolta would struggle if they tried to turn the iTunes Terms and Conditions into a religious text. Hubbard would not, and he would probably copyright it to boot.

 

Iran proudly shows off stealth jet and folk fall for it

iranian-fake-jet-1The Iranian PR machine pulled off another stunt over the weekend, proudly proclaiming that the country’s top boffins managed to develop a super advanced fighter jet. Dubbed the Qaher F-313, the mockup was unveiled during a ceremony to commemorate the 39th anniversary of the Islamic revolution and quite a few dignitaries turned up to spice up the show, including President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi.

State media covering the event were quick to point out that the plane was indigenously designed and produced in Iran. Vahidi said the jet could evade radar thanks to its very low radar cross section and its capability to conduct low-level operations. Press TV reports that the aircraft is similar to the F/A-18 and the F-5E/F Tiger II, although it looks nothing like the two Northrop designed planes. In fact, the mockup looks like the lovechild of an F-35 and X-36, with one small difference. Iran’s stealth jet is a fake, and a bad one at that.

The images show a tiny jet with an oversized cockpit. The canopy material seems to be plexiglass and the cockpit is just plain ridiculous. It features a mix of cheap avionics for homebuilt aircraft, including an audio panel, transponder and NAV/COM courtesy of Garmin. Basically it is the sort of thing some ultra-light enthusiast would botch together in a shed. The avionics don’t even appear to be wired. The canopy mechanism is all wrong and even the size of the cockpit is ridiculous, as it doesn’t appear to be spacious enough to accommodate a pilot.

iranian-fake-jet-2
The air intakes are tiny, the wing doesn’t look like any airfoil NACA would bless with its stamp of approval, even on a bad day. There is no engine on board, either. The skin of the aircraft also looks funny, with plenty of imperfections on all surfaces. It also features huge, fixed canards and a tiny nose, way too small to accommodate a decent radar. It looks like something straight out of a video game and we would love to meet the poor coder who is supposed to develop its fly-by-wire software.

However, in spite of everything, plenty of journalists and anti-globalist conspiracy kooks fell for it, in what can only be described as a stunning display of gullibility. Some even went on to say that Iran already has a functioning prototype, since they couldn’t tell the difference between a tiny RC model shown in a state TV video and a 5th generation fighter jet. Apparently the sound of a screeching turbofan dubbed over the footage was enough to fool them.

Iran has a long tradition of rolling out vaporware and countless paper projects. Iranian spinners often talk about fancy defence projects, including indigenous tanks, missiles and superfast torpedoes. Most of them never get built in any significant numbers, so Iran’s defence projects are a bit like Google’s Nexus gear. In this case, it’s more of a paper mache affair than a paper project.

On a related note, last month Iran announced that it managed to send a monkey into space and bring it back safely to the earth. However, western observers now claim there is no evidence that the suborbital flight was successful. Iran released some press photos of the monkey, but on closer inspection it turned out that the images show two different animals. One of them apparently bought the farm.

Surface RT faces high return rates, low sell-through

surface-rtMicrosoft’s Surface RT tablet rollout came and went without much fanfare. Although Redmond’s first crack at the tablet market received relatively positive reviews, consumers seem unfazed and many of them are choosing to trade in their new tablets.

IHS iSuppli estimates that channel shipments totaled about 1.25 million units, but far fewer have been sold. In fact, as little as 680,000 to 750,000 units appear to have actually been sold.

Mobile shopping apps only four percent of e-commerce revenue

smartphone-shoppingIn spite of the unprecedented smartphone boom, shoppers are apparently still reluctant when it comes to e-commerce apps.

According to a report compiled by Research2Guidance.com,  the vast majority of mobile shops made less than 5 percent of their total e-commerce revenue via the mobile channel.

Peugeot unveils hybrid-air powertrain for superminis

psa-air-drivetrainFrench carmaker PSA Peugeot Citroen is taking the road less travelled with its latest concept car. The company has developed a hybrid gasoline vehicle that does not rely on batteries to store energy. The PSA Hybrid Air system uses compressed air instead.

The oddly shaped concept is said to be very efficient and it should achieve 81 miles per gallon, with very low carbon dioxide emissions to boot. The idea of using compressed air to store energy has been around for ages, but Peugeot engineers believe it might give their eco-cars a competitive edge in the future.

Hybrid cars usually rely on costly and heavy battery packs to store energy. According to Fast Company, the typical battery pack used in hybrids and electric vehicles costs about $11,000. Battery packs are bulky, heavy and they have a limited lifecycle, which is not the case with a simple compressed air system.

However, there are quite a few downsides to Peugeot’s approach. Air compressors are not very efficient and compressed air can’t match the efficiency or energy density of batteries or liquid fuels. So, although compressed air is a cheap and simple way of storing energy, a lot of energy is wasted in the process.

Peugeot hopes the simplicity and low cost of its approach outweighs the drawbacks. Compressed air cars should end up a lot cheaper than battery based hybrids and the simple, low-tech approach should allow designers to incorporate it into existing cars with relative ease.

Peugeot’s compressed air technology is intended for small B and C segment vehicles, with engines up to 110 horsepower. Like other hybrid designs, PSA’s Hybrid Air features regenerative breaking and it can operate in three modes, compressed air only, internal combustion or a combination of the two for peak power.

In terms of fuel efficiency, hybrid air vehicles could deliver 45-percent savings in fuel usage and a 90-percent increase in range compared to a similar vehicle powered by a traditional petrol engine.

PSA plans to start fitting the new drivetrain to several B-segment models in 2016 and it could license the technology to other carmakers.

Nvidia reportedly working on phone and tablet reference designs

nvidia-gangnam-style-330pxNvidia has been frantically trying to carve out a foothold in the mobile SoC market over the past couple of years and with every new Tegra generation it saw its number of design wins double.

However, that doesn’t seem to be enough for CEO Jen-Hsun Huang. According to Mobile Review, the chipmaker is planning to kick things up a notch, by directly entering the smartphone and tablet business with a bit of help from its partners.

Nvidia is said to be working on reference smartphone and tablet designs. The designs will be built by contract manufacturers, under Nvidia’s direct control. The partners are apparently small regional players, basically retail chains who already offered cheap Chinese tablets under their brands. It is unclear whether traditional Nvidia AIBs will also join the effort, but it seems more than likely, as some of them have already started making inroads in the tablet space, without Nvidia’s support.

The idea seems to hold water. Nvidia could control the feature sets and performance of reference designs, while regional players could take care of distribution and retail. Nvidia partners could end up with cheap, yet competitive devices capable of taking on first-tier devices with fancier brands. The drive is said to be scheduled for May and June, roughly Computex time, and Mobile Review’s Eldar Murtazin believes tens of 7- and 10-inch tablets based on Nvidia’s reference design could show up.

Nvidia already has extensive reference design experience and plenty of partners in the graphics market, so such an approach would be nothing new for the company. However, last year Nvidia also offered Kai, a reference tablet design based on the Tegra 3 SoC. It did not find many takers. Back at CES, Nvidia unveiled Project Shield, a Tegra 4 gaming console built under its own brand, but we haven’t seen any Tegra 4 design wins yet. The chip is apparently a couple of months behind schedule, due to some technical issues which necessitated a re-spin.

We should see more Tegra 4 gear at the Mobile World Congress and Nvidia is also expected to launch a cheaper, A9-based quad-core SoC in the latter half of the year. The reference design approach could help Nvidia gain quite a bit more design wins this time around, provided it doesn’t flop like Kai.

Hard drive prices slowly returning to pre-flood levels

hddcloseupThe hard drive industry was hit hard by heavy flooding in Thailand back in 2011. Several plants, providing vital components for Seagate and Western Digital, temporarily went off line following the disaster. The shortage caused a massive surge in hard drive prices and its effects are still being felt.

Keen to provide a bit of perspective, Xbit Labs compiled an interesting chart of hard drive average selling prices, based on data from Seagate’s and Western Digital’s SEC filings over the last four years. Pre-flood average selling prices (ASPs) were between $45 and $55, but they soared to the $70 mark in Q4 2011. The recovery was painfully slow and although some rather optimistic analysts claimed the market would stabilize by mid-2012, we are still feeling the muddy aftertaste of Thai flood water.

According to the latest figures, average selling prices decreased to $62 – $63 per unit and they are still considerably higher than pre-flood prices. Prices are currently at 2008 levels, which means they are still too high for comfort. Of course, the effects of the global economic downturn and recent PC slump were not factored into 2008 pricing and ASPs should be significantly lower today, even after they are adjusted for inflation.
This is bad for consumers and system integrators alike, as they have to adjust their own margins to compensate for the higher prices.  What’s more, hard drive makers are probably not too keen to reduce their ASPs, as further cuts would negatively impact their margins while they are still reeling from flood-related losses. Western Digital CEO Stephen Milligan confirmed the company has more capacity, but it is throttling it to what it sees as demand, which is a polite way of saying WD is trying to keep prices artificially high.

It is even worse for end consumers looking to upgrade their PCs or get some cheap portable storage. Back in mid-2011, per-terabyte retail prices were at their lowest point, about €25 in European markets and a 2TB 3.5-inch drive cost roughly €50. By November 2011, per-terabyte prices hit €35 to €38 and they went on to peak at €50 to €55 by April 2012. Retail prices today are still significantly higher than in 2011 and they are in the €38 to €40 range across Europe.

Xbit also concluded that ASPs peaked in Q4 2011. In the meantime, SSD prices continued to tumble, but SSDs are still too costly to completely replace traditional hard drives. However, SSD shipments are expected to double in 2013, as they are the preferred storage option for Ultrabooks.

Hybrid drives are also entering the fray and they can be found in quite a few budget ultrathin notebooks, although their days in proper Ultrabooks are numbered. So far Seagate is the only hard drive maker to offer 2.5-inch hybrid drives in retail, but Western Digital is also entering the market and it showed off its first consumer friendly hybrid drives at CES.

Traditional hard drives are not going anywhere yet and it is evident that WD and Seagate have enough room to maintain a huge price advantage over SSDs, as they are artificially inflating prices. They can’t bridge the performance and power consumption gap, but by offering hybrid drives they can bring the best of both worlds to value-minded consumers.

 

Acer suffers in weak PC market, moves to ditch value brand

acer-logo-ceAcer is taking a beating on the back of a slow PC market and fears that it expanded too much, too quickly.

The Taiwanese outfit is the fourth largest PC maker in the world, and it peaked in 2010, when it briefly ranked second. However, things have gone downhill and on Wednesday Acer announced it expects to post a full-year net loss for the second consecutive year. It is also looking at a $120.1 million write-down on several value brands under its umbrella.

During the PC boom in the late nineties and early 2000s, Acer went on a massive shopping spree and picked up a number of value brands, including Packard Bell, Gateway, eMachines and E-Ten. The write down on said brands dragged Acer to a net loss and the company plans to discontinue the eMachines brand altogether.

Other PC makers are facing similar challenges, as they struggle to reinvent themselves and gain a toehold in emerging sectors, like smartphones and tablets. Acer has a small presence in both sectors.

The company’s phone business is practically negligible and its attempt to expand its presence in China in 2012, with smartphones based on Aliyun, a heavily customized Android-based OS, was promptly ditched after Google threatened to cancel the company’s Android license. Acer had a bit more luck with Android tablets and it is moving into the Windows 8 tablet space as well, but its efforts have been overshadowed by the likes of Asus and Samsung.

Even as it struggles to remain competitive in the PC market, burdened by underperforming value brands, Acer prospects in the heavily contested smartphone and tablet markets look even bleaker.

Brokerage houses Nomura Holdings and UBS are anything but optimistic and UBS cut its target price and maintained the “sell” rating on Acer stock after the report. Nomura was somewhat kinder, but it also maintained its “reduce” rating on Acer, Taipei Times reports.

“Longer term, we think Acer still needs to face the reality of how to rebuild the brand positioning/image for Packard Bell and Gateway amid intense competition and slowing PC industry growth,” said Nomura analyst Eve Jung.

Fixing Nexus supply problems is Google’s new priority

nexus4-ceThe botched Nexus 4 launch has already turned into a rather embarrassing episode for Google, but Larry Page is trying to reassure investors and analysts, although it could be too little, too late.

Page mentioned the problems during Google’s Q4 earnings report, but he did not say much and he did not provide any new details.