Life Hack

Activists call for a mashup-friendly

As President Obama’s $825+ billion financial stimulus package works its way through Congress, a number of groups have started to call for increased transparency in the way that data on the proposed spending will be shared with citizens.

Most noteworthy are demands from public-interest groups and academics that the the data be provided in a format conducive to user-generated mashups and remixes.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 passed through the House Appropriations Committee a couple weeks ago, and it is expected to come up for a full House vote in the coming weeks.

In addition to authorizing the spending of an obscene amount of money, the act also mandates the creation of a Web site to “foster greater accountability and transparency” in the use of those funds.

While the bill does a great job in mandating the kinds of information that will be put online (contracts, audits, inspector general reports, etc.), it is rather vague with regard to details on how the information will be provided.

The only hints include language mandating that the information be “easy to understand” and “regularly updated,” and include a “database of findings from audits,” “printable reports,” and “user-friendly visual presentations to enhance public awareness of the use of funds.”

Such statements bring to mind the possibility of yet another boring and difficult-to-navigate federal government Web site, perhaps similar to the Federal Communications Commission’s antiquated and ineffective home page, or the Federal Elections Commission’s slothlike campaign donation search engine.

mment left with the House and Senate Appropriations Committees had yet to be returned.

Read the full story here.


Business, Events

Mozilla’s Test Pilot: A Global Usability Lab for Firefox

Doing extensive usability studies has always been a problem for open source projects. Mozilla has decided to implement a new way of tackling this problem for its projects and is moving ahead with the Test Pilot project, which was first announced last year.

Test Pilot is currently only a “still-in-concept platform,” but the plan is to build a representative sample of Firefox users that will be recruited to evaluate new interface concepts and features.

As Mozilla points out in its ‘vision’ statement for Test Pilot, it’s not just Firefox that could profit from a usability lab on this scale, but every Mozilla Labs project could benefit from this wide-scale testing of new ideas and interfaces. As Mozilla’s Aza Raskin notes, most of the feedback that Mozilla currently receives is in the form of feedback from early adopters, anecdotes from users, and ad-hoc experiments.

How it Will Work

After the installation, the Test Pilot addon will gather non-personally-identifiable information from its users and then put these users into different demographic buckets. Depending on the tests that need to be run, users will be selected to participate in different experiments and will be asked to provide feedback on a regular basis. All the information gather through this plugin will be made available to the public.

This sounds like a great project, and we are happy to see that Mozilla is moving forward with this. It will probably still be a while before we see the fruits of this idea, however, as Mozilla is only now hiring a full-time developer to create the actual implementation of the Test Pilot program.



Verizon Getting On Femtocell Bandwagon With Sprint AT&T

Verizon Wireless will start offering in-home cellular base stations, known as femtocells, on January 25. Femtocells use licensed frequencies and a subscriber’s own backhaul to extend a cellular network indoors, and avoid requiring new handsets.

As we reported just a few days ago, AT&T is querying its customers about a future femtocell launch that it has been testing with its employees, and Sprint already offers the Airave extender.

Femtocells allow a carrier to fill in areas that are hard or impossible to cover with conventional base stations, such as interior rooms of a house, or homes and businesses that have the best signal propagation in directions away from where cellular towers are located. (I had Verizon service a few years in an office that was practically a bunker on its south side into a hill, and I confirmed with Verizon that facing north, there wasn’t a tower for some distance.)

Gizmodo has obtained a product manual and launch plans ahead of time, and first reported on the development.

Verizon appears to plan to offer the femtocell at a whopping $250 with no discounts for contract length or a monthly rental. Even more surprising is that the marketing sheets show no benefit beyond improved coverage. Sprint is offering—and AT&T potentially will offer—unlimited calling over femtocells as part of a $5 to $10 per month charge. (Of course, people calling from home are more likely to be within the 8 pm to 8 am or weekend unlimited calling plans, anyway.)

T-Mobile offers a competing service, HotSpot@Home, that uses unlicensed mobile access (UMA). T-Mobile’s flavor relies on Wi-Fi to carry voice and data from special dual-mode handsets, of which many models are now available. UMA handsets work at WiFi hotspots or on home or office networks. T-Mobile offers subsidized WiFi gateways that include quality of service prioritization for voice packets and battery life extension through a power-saving protocol that handsets and gateways must both share. T-Mobile charges $10 per month for unlimited calling for 1 to 4 lines on a plan. (UMA is also being used in several European countries, most prominently by BT in Britain.)

Read the full story here.




Toutvirtual Goes Agnostic On Virtualization Management

As everyone expected when server virtualization took off on x64 iron a few years back, the hypervisors that provide the ability to carve up a machine into multiple virtual machines have rapidly commoditized.

When you pay for a VM tool, you are getting all of the extra goodies, like live migration and backup and recovery, that hook into the hypervisor, as well as the ability to manage the VMs, whether they are turned on or mothballed.

Each of the key hypervisors has its companion management tool: VMware’s ESX Server has VirtualCenter, Citrix Systems’ XenServer has XenCenter, and Microsoft’s Hyper-V has System Center Virtual Machine Manager.

A number of vendors have popped up to adapt management tools for physical servers to cope with specific virtual servers or have created tools that manage one or maybe two virtual environments. Think Vizioncore and PlateSpin, just to name two. And the monstrous management frameworks from IBM (Tivoli), Hewlett-Packard (OpenView), and CA (Unicenter) are also playing here.

A relatively small startup based in Carlsbad, California, called ToutVirtual, thinks that by being hypervisor agnostic with its VirtualIQ Pro tool it can get its share – and maybe more than its share – of the hypervisor management pie. VirtualIQ Pro has just came out in its third release and spans a large number of x64 hypervisors.

Read the full story here.


Business, Events

Wiki Service AboutUs Secures $2.5 million From Voyager Capital

Portland-based AboutUs has secured a $2.5 million round of financing from Voyager Capital with the VC firm’s managing director Erik Bensonjoining its board, reports TechFlash. The company operates a wiki for information primarily about small businesses, organizations, and ‘anything that has a website’. Yes, that includes TechCrunch.

This is different from our own wiki Crunchbase, which featured detailed profiles of companies, products and people even if they don’t have their own websites.

The wiki service attracts a very decent 7 million unique visitors per month to its network of over 12 million pages, and has plans of turning it from a mere resource of information to a full-fledged collaborative work space. In that regard, it’s different from Wikipedia, although both wikis use MediaWiki to power the network.

AboutUs generates revenue from on-site advertising but also sells services like wiki page design and copywriting. According to TechFlash, who spoke with CEO Ray King, AboutUs is already running a profit from its operations, which probably explains why Voyager Capital took the risk of putting more money in the company even in the current economic climate.

We first wrote about the company back in November 2006 when it raised $1 million (the new investment brings its total funding is now about $5 million).

Read the full story here.



Skype Lite Landing On Android Phone Others Too

Skype announced on Thursday the forthcoming release of Skype Lite for Google Android and other Java-enabled phones. Skype Lite marks the communication company’s first native VoIP client for Java.

Skype is submitting the app to Google’s Android Market on Thursday morning, though it could take Google a few days to offer it for download.

In addition, Skype Lite will also be available on Thursday to about 100 models of Motorola, Sony Ericsson, Nokia, LG, and Samsung phones. The app has been available in beta form for a growing number of handsets on, and isn’t expected to change in this initial release.

Skype Lite is truly that: a back-to-basics build that allows the customary cut-rate international calling to Skype contacts, and also calling credits to non-Skype buddies using the SkypeOut service. You’ll be able to IM other Skype friends in addition, an activity best done with a data plan. Users anticipating the fuller features of the newly updated Skype for Windows Mobile beta won’t find them in this debut version.

Read the full story here.



Opera Software releases Opera Mobile 9.5 beta

It’s time that Opera Mobile got its due. Long overshadowed by Opera Mini–the light, server-fed browser for Java phones–Opera Mobile is a robust browser built on Web standards (and written with C and C++) that’s known for delivering a full Web experience to Windows Mobile and Symbian phones.

Yet even though Opera Mobile has made good as a much closer approximation of the desktop Internet experience, it traditionally hasn’t received the same developmental attention as Opera Mini. With Opera Mobile 9.5 beta, released on Thursday as freeware, things begin to change.

In many ways, this beta version of Opera Mobile is a fusion of Opera’s Desktop and Mini versions. It inherits certain tabbing, searching, linking, and saving capabilities from Opera Desktop 9.5, and Opera Mini’s search and display settings.

What follows is a full hands-on review of Opera Mobile 9.5 beta (also see the video) that takes into account the program’s newly redesigned interface, features, performance enhancements,Opera Dragonfly, issues, and what to expect from future beta builds, of which there will be several before the final release. We also won’t leave out availability and price.


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