Technology Roundup 07/08
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By Sara Wilson
William Wang saw a leaner, less expensive way to make TVs. The result? A business with a serious competitive edge.
William Wang vividly remembers what he calls the "computer wave" of the early '90s. Not yet 30, he was already an entrepreneur specializing in computer displays. Now, 44-year-old Wang is creating his own waves as the founder of consumer electronics company Vizio Inc. And it all began nearly six years ago, when he tuned in to a major opportunity.
In 2002, plasma TVs were retailing for about $8,000. By slashing expenses, keeping operations lean and outsourcing everything from tech support to R&D, Wang was able to offer a similar product at about half the price. Developing TVs with help from Gateway at first, Wang proceeded on his own in 2004 and successfully introduced his initially unknown brand to the mass market by selling through Costco Wholesale. Now even the top brands are taking notice of the Irvine, California, newcomer. "It makes me pretty proud," says Wang, who projects year-end sales of $2.6 billion. "I would never imagine four or five years ago that Sony would look at us as a competitor."
Already the leader in low prices, Vizio is ramping up picture quality and screen size, too. "We have a lot to look forward to," says founder William Wang.
New and Improved
By Lindsay Holloway
Better browsing is just around the corner as the big 4 release new versions.
In simultaneous attempts to be the biggest, baddest browser out there, the top four players have rolled out new betas.
Take Firefox: Well-liked for its programming add-ins, its bookmarking and tabbed browsing also draw kudos. Firefox 3 takes them all a step further with Places, which combines bookmarks and history into a single package. The auto-completion feature scans URLs, page titles and tags as you type in the address bar. And you can search deeper with the Find tool to highlight terms on a page.
Internet Explorer 8 offers enhanced security and greater compliance with web standards. The pre-existing Microsoft Phishing Filter gets a boost from the new Safety Filter, which provides additional protection against online threats. In the features arena, Activities lets you access external services from predetermined pages by right-clicking on an item, while WebSlices is a do-it-yourself web clip creator borrowed from Safari.
Still the fastest of the bunch, Safari is finally serving Windows users. In version 3.1, click "SnapBack" to go to the top level of your surf session or "RSS" to scan the latest news within a page. Safari 3.1 will remember the most recently closed windows if the browser crashes. Or you can opt for Private Browsing to keep your cookies, history and downloads just that--private.
Meanwhile, Opera 9.5 continues to emphasize convenience with features like mouse and password shortcuts and a more accessible text/page zoom tool. Opera Mobile 9.5 brings browsing to smartphones and pocket PCs, while Opera Mini takes the light, user-friendly features of Opera Desktop and compresses them 90 percent for a full-fledged browser on standard cell phones.
With so many niceties, it's hard to pick just one browser. But then you don't have to--they're all free.
By Amanda C. Kooser
It's about time Get your dialing finger ready, because cell phone carriers are rolling out unlimited calling plans.
Nobody enjoys running over their allotted monthly cell phone minutes and receiving an eye-popping bill. A recent price war between the major cell phone carriers has resulted in some tempting new unlimited calling plans. Verizon Wireless kicked things off early this year with a $99.99 per month plan for unlimited calls. AT&T joined in with essentially the same plan, while Alltel jumped on the bandwagon a little later. T-Mobile piled on to the heap and threw in unlimited picture, text and IM to sweeten the deal. To top it all off, Sprint is offering unlimited calls, text, data, GPS navigation, push-to-talk, e-mail and web for the same price tag. Entrepreneurs on other carriers will still have to add data and messaging services on top of their $100 unlimited talk plans.
Since all the carriers offer fairly similar pricing now, users who are happy with their current carriers should be able to switch to an unlimited plan without having to incur fees or agree to contract extensions. It makes sense if you regularly go over your monthly minutes or have a more expensive plan to accommodate your heavy cell phone use. It could also be the extra incentive you need if you've been on the fence about kicking your landline to the curb.
By Mike Hogan
Ready to Receive Keep calls alive with a go-anywhere antenna.
Dropped cell phone calls are a way of life--and they can be especially annoying for an entrepreneur on a sensitive call. But there's a cheap and easy way to improve your cell reception: Arc Wireless' Freedom Antenna claims to make reception eight times better for the typical cell phone. While that figure is hard to measure, the $31.95 device does improve reception. It boosted reception at my home base from two bars to five as soon as I plugged it in. Whether that's two times or eight times better depends on the scale being used. But since five bars is optimal, suffice it to say that the Freedom Antenna delivered as-good-as-it-gets reception to my moderately problematic location.
I also know of some dead spots in my community that block any cell phone call, and not just on my carrier. So I tried the Freedom Antenna in those places. No problem--I got four bars in one location, three in another, and more to the point, none of my calls were disrupted.
The antenna is a thin, 3-by-5-inch plastic disc with both a fold-out stand for mounting on a dashboard or office table and suction cups for attaching to a window for maximum reception. It's equipped with a 3-foot cable that plugs in to an adapter cord for your particular phone, adding another 18 inches. That's not exactly the convenience of complete wirelessness, of course, and the different connection ports on phones could be a problem. The Freedom Antenna works on all major wireless networks, but your phone simply may not have a port that accepts an Arc Wireless adapter.
You can find out more on Freedom Antenna's website or at electronics retailers that carry it, such as RadioShack.
By Heather Clancy
An automated chat agent can help reluctant online shoppers take the next step and close the deal.
GourmetStation founder Donna Lynes-Miller, 49, was tired of seeing shoppers leave her specialty foods website (gourmetstation.com) empty-handed. So two years ago, she hired Jenny to greet visitors personally and offer them extra financial incentives to complete transactions. But Jenny didn't increase Lynes-Miller's payroll costs because she isn't human--she's an automated software agent from internet startup UpSellit.com. Using a combination of artificial intelligence and web analytics, Jenny monitors each site visitor's progress. If a customer tries to leave the site without making a purchase, she pops up in an IM window to chat up the shopper without being overly solicitous. For example, she might offer 50 percent off shipping.
Since Jenny joined the team, sales of GourmetStation's home-delivered gourmet meals have increased by more than 10 percent to a projected $1.2 million this year. Shopping cart abandonment rates for the site have decreased substantially. Lynes-Miller figures that about 12 percent of her sales last year were inspired by Jenny's extra help. "With any online merchant, you do a lot of back-and-forth with the customers, but you don't get to talk to them much," says Lynes-Miller. "We were able to take away another trepidation they had."
What's more, by evaluating chat logs collected by the software, Lynes-Miller has been able to identify new product opportunities. For example, many would-be customers made inquiries about whether they could buy whole desserts rather than just individual servings. So Atlanta-based GourmetStation added a whole-dessert category. Pricing for UpSellit.com's service follows a pay-for-performance model: Your company pays a pre-negotiated fee each time the software intervenes to complete a sale. This could be a set dollar amount or a percentage of the sale.
Heather Clancy, a freelance journalist and consultant, has been covering the high-tech industry for close to 20 years. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Take a Load Off
By Lindsay Holloway
This backup drive is bigger, faster and stronger.
Not only does Iomega's new REV 120GB Backup Drive offer 50 more gigs than its pred-ecessor, but it's also faster (up to 35MB per second), allowing for fixed hard drive-like speed. The airtight, self-cleaning system is more durable and virtually maintenance-free. Available in both internal and external versions, the portable REV 120GB can back up a small office, but its bountiful storage is especially attractive to multimedia-using entrepreneurs.
Price: $480 (internal drive); $500 (external drive)
Start Your Batteries...
From the editors of CNET
Rev up your laptop's image.
ASUS Lamborghini VX3-A1 CNET's rating: 7.1 Very good
The good: Solid construction; leather detailing; cool branded extras
The bad: Kind of slow for a laptop named after a race car; expensive; poor battery life
The bottom line: The Asus Lamborghini VX3-A1 is the laptop recast as a status symbol.
It looks and feels like a luxury item--we just wish it had a bit more power under the hood.
The starting price is $3,299.