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Microsoft gives Firefox an H.264 video boost
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Mozilla is outspoken in its dislike of the patent-encumbered video technology called H.264, but Microsoft, an H.264 fan, is providing a plug-in that will let Windows 7 users use it anyway.

H.264 is a codec–technology to encode and decode video–that’s widely used in videocameras, Blu-ray players, online video streaming, and more. It’s built into Adobe Systems’ Flash Player browser plug-in, but most people don’t know or need to know it’s there.

When it comes to the flagship feature of built-in video support coming to the new HTML5 specification for creating Web pages, though, codec details do matter. Not all browsers support H.264 or its open-source, royalty-free rival from Google, the VP8-based WebM. That means Web developers must make sure they support both formats or provide a fallback to something like Flash. Otherwise they risk leaving some viewers behind.

To help bridge the divide, Microsoft has released a plug-in that lets Firefox tap into Windows 7’s native H.264 support for HTML5 video. The move could help pave over some of the new Web’s rough patches, but also irritate WebM fans who want to see the Web move to unencumbered technology.

“H.264 is a widely-used industry standard, with broad and strong hardware support. This standardization allows users to easily take what they’ve recorded on a typical consumer video camera, put it on the Web, and have it play in a web browser on any operating system or device with H.264 support, such as on a PC with Windows 7,” Microsoft said. “The HTML5 Extension for Windows Media Player Firefox Plug-in continues to offer our customers value and choice, since those who have Windows 7 and are using Firefox will now be able to watch H.264 content through the plug-in.”

According to the plug-in’s release notes, “The extension is based on a Firefox add-on that parses HTML5 pages and replaces video tags with a call to the Windows Media Player plug-in so that the content can be played in the browser. The add-on replaces video tags only if the video formats specified in the tag are among those supported by Windows Media Player. Tags that contain other video formats are not touched.” Microsoft is working on ironing out user-interface differences between Windows Media Player controls and those that would show with video playing natively in the browser.

Microsoft already had offered a related Firefox plug-in that let people watch Windows Media videos on the Web.

Mozilla is working to try to establish WebM as a required codec for HTML5, a specification standardized by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Updated 8:37 a.m. PT with download link and release note information.

Originally posted at Deep Tech

Chrome 9 beta to bring faster, fancy graphics
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Mozilla and Microsoft have been racing to see which will be the first to release a production-quality browser with hardware-accelerated graphics, but at the current rate, it could be Google’s Chrome 9 that crosses the finish line first.

Google likely will be issuing Chrome 9 in beta form soon. It had been planned for Tuesday, but Anthony LaForge, a Chrome technical program manager, pushed it back. “The crash rate [of] 400 crashes per million page loads on the browser is simply too high,” he said in a mailing list message

Hardware acceleration isn’t a simple either-or situation, but rather a long list of possible ways a graphics chip can speed up the task of painting pixels on a screen. Among aspects that can be accelerated: SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics); 2D graphics drawn with the new Canvas feature; font rendering; video decoding and resizing; the graphical formatting, transitions, and transformations of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets); WebGL for 3D graphics; and compositing different elements of a Web page into the single view a person sees.

Chrome is due for at least some of them–compositing, WebGL, and 2D Canvas, for example. However, it’s very much a work in progress: accelerated 2D Canvas is disabled in Windows XP, and a second phase of 2D Canvas acceleration is currently scheduled for Chrome 11.

WebGL holds the potential to dramatically transform the Web, most notably through 3D games but also many other possibilities such as online maps and virtual worlds. Google, with Chrome OS heightening its emphasis on Web applications as an alternative to native, is a major advocate of WebGL.

Chrome relies on the OpenGL interface for 2D and 3D graphics acceleration. That’s complicated on Windows, where OpenGL support is spotty in comparison to Microsoft’s rival DirectX technologies. Google sidesteps the limitation through a project called ANGLE that translates OpenGL commands into DirectX.

Even so, there are plenty of problems. To minimize them, Chrome will come with a blacklist to disable the feature on incompatible computers.

Also of note for Web appliction fans is Chrome 9’s support for IndexedDB, a developing standard that enables Web application storage. That could be instrumental for reinstating Google Apps’ ability to work offline, a major requirement for the success of Chrome OS and the cloud-computing philosophy.

Speaking of Web applications, Chrome 9 also comes with a new task manager to show what Web applications are running, including background applications that might not be immediately apparent.

Originally posted at Deep Tech

OoVoo Mobile takes on Qik, Fring for Android video chat
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OoVoo Mobile will connect up to six callers from desktop and Android phones.


Fring, Apple FaceTime, and the Evo’s Qik app for Android may have shone a light on mobile video chatting, but OoVoo is making good on an almost year-old promise by rolling out a new free app today that one-ups them all. Two things set the cross-platform service apart. First, in addition to two-way video chatting like Fring and Qik, it lets six callers video chat on a single line. Second, since Oovoo Mobile extends OoVoo’s Skype competitor on Windows to the mobile phone, it doesn’t restrict calls to mobile users, as does Fring.

Oovoo Mobile has most of the touch-friendly controls you’d expect, and in a clean interface design. While on a call, you can turn on speakerphone, mute the audio, and even mute the video broadcast from your end. You’ll be able to switch between broadcasting from both the front-facing and rear-facing cameras, and can add more callers during a call or before you start. In addition to video and voice calls with other mobile and desktop users, there’s also instant messaging through the app to other OoVoo users. This usually comes in handy for arranging calling times or communicating in case of a technical obstruction.

CNET got an early look at OoVoo Mobile last week, speaking with OoVoo employees we called on a mix of PCs and Android phones. The video and app were impressive overall, even if the early preview version we saw lacked some key features that are promised at launch (like the camera swap mode and landscape video support.)

Video quality varied in our demo, which we expected. Although the stream was never photorealistic, some callers looked sharper than others, and one caller was downright choppy. We also noticed some caller delay at times. These are all flaws that crop up in every VoIP service we’ve used, so we’re willing to cut OoVoo some slack for now. The quality of the phone’s camera or desktop Web cam, and the bandwidth strength will also play a role in overall quality, too, which you should also keep in mind.

What OoVoo can perfect is the way it manages videos from multiple parties. The app will let you toggle among callers’ full-screen videos at launch, but it won’t display thumbnail videos in a single layout for all active callers, and it won’t let you swipe left or right in full-screen mode to advance through the callers’ video streams. 

Pricing, competition

OoVoo Mobile is getting its start on Android phones with front-facing cameras, like the HTC Evo 4G and the Samsung Epic 4G. The company expects to have a release for the Samsung Galaxy Tab and iOS around February 2011, and we wouldnt’ be surprised if it also hopped onto more Android 2.2 phones (even some 2.1 phones with just audio calling.) The app will be free for registered users, but we could see the first advertising models applied in six months or so.

Like we said, it’s been almost a year since OoVoo first announced its intention to go mobile. That’s given competitors like Fring, Qik, and Skype plenty of time to bolster their own products. Skype’s lack of video support in its mobile apps is especially surprising, and OoVoo’s accomplishment on Android may very well spur the VoIP giant on.

However, this isn’t the first time CNET’s played with video conferencing on a mobile phone–iVisit Mobile snagged those honors over two years ago on a Windows Mobile phone.

Originally posted at Android Atlas

iPad, iPod Touch get Google Voice
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Google Voice for iPod Touch and iPad joins the iPhone app (pictured).

Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET)

It may have taken Google a year and a half to get Google Voice in the iPhone’s App Store, but it’s taken only one month longer for Google Voice to complete the expansion to Apple’s other two iOS devices: the iPod Touch and iPad.

Starting today, a Google Voice app update compatible with the iPad and iPod Touch (iOS 3.1 and above) will make it easier for U.S. users to manage voice messages and texts made to your Google Voice number.

Of course, it can’t place calls on either of these nonphone devices, but a click-to-call feature will let you initiate a call on a phone associated with your Google Voice account.

Google has made other improvements that will benefit iPhone users, too, including one that will automatically keep the service from texting your iPhone and your Google Voice inbox when you sign on. Receiving duplicate notifications to the phone text inbox and the Google Voice app was an early complaint of mine.

In addition, a new “do not disturb” feature will send all calls to voice mail, and tapping and holding a text will now give you the option to archive or delete it. 

In the past month since I’ve been using Google Voice on iPhone I’ve loved the convenience of the app, but have experienced sluggishness when it loads, some navigation lag, and oftentimes delayed incoming texts and voice mails. What’s your experience?

Originally posted at iPhone Atlas

Dictionary.com gets voice-to-text definitions for Android, iPhone
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If you can’t spell it, at least you can say it.


True story: The other day I was looking up onomatopoeia on Dictionary.com (don’t ask.) Let’s just say I didn’t quite get all my vowels lined up right the first time; trial and error ensued.

Next time, I won’t have to toil so for my vocab payoff. A new voice search feature on Dictionary.com, releasing today for iPhone and Android, will let you speak your search term into the app.

This is a boon for anyone voted least likely to win a spelling bee, or for anyone else who prefers to skip the typing.

Voice-to-text shows up in the app as a separate function on a separate screen. This isn’t a bad interface decision, but placing it on the search bar as Google does its Android search widget would make it much more accessible.

In addition to voice search, the update let you revisit definitions in a list of favorites. It also brings a feature where you can click a word to get a definition, customizable backgrounds, and for word nerds, sharing on social networks.

Dictionary.com has been downloaded over 20 million times on the iOS, Android, and Blackberry platforms. The updates will surely make the app richer on the former two; we hope BlackBerry users have a chance to benefit as well.

Facebook: Not so music-friendly, actually

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Although I was resistant to Facebook at first, staunchly clinging to MySpace until all but three of my friends ceased to use it (thereby making it all but pointless), there is one thing in particular that has kept Facebook in my favor since I made the switch. The social-networking service provides an excellent medium for sharing content, particularly quick bits of information via links posted to your Wall or that of a friend. The ability to display (or hide) photos is also quite handy.

But if there’s one place Facebook has failed to excel, it’s in the music department–MySpace has it all over its competitor in that regard. Sure, you can post Pandora stations to your wall (but only yours) and share certain specific tracks from band pages–when they exist. If not, links to YouTube videos of individual tracks work in a pinch. But the overall integration is inelegant at best, with no dedicated space for all of the music you’ve recommended in the past and limited options for posting playlists. So what’s a Facebooking music lover to do?

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Hmm…and I have to get my friends to join?

Screenshot by Jasmine France)

The seemingly obvious answer is the rally call generally applied to the iPhone: there’s an app for that. Most recently, Music WithMe updated its Facebook application to offer a more seamless, user-friendly experience. The app lets you recommend individual tracks and playlists from your own iTunes library, with the new version offering more details on each playlist and including album art for the songs. You can also listen to a 30-second preview of each track, “like” playlists and tracks, and purchase directly from iTunes.

As you may have ascertained, this option is imperfect at best. For one thing, you can share only things from iTunes, which is limiting for those who prefer to manage their music with other programs. Also, your friends can listen only to 30 second previews of a track rather than the full song. Finally, you can share only music that you have in your library, so if you just happen upon a song or album that you have yet to download, you can’t quickly recommend it to a friend or post it on your wall.

So while I appreciate the effort put forth by apps like Music WithMe to make Facebook more music-friendly, it and the others I’ve come across fall short. Is there some great method for sharing or recommending music on Facebook that I’m missing? Or are you also disappointed by the options available? Please let me know in the comments below.

Originally posted at Webware

5 apps for editing holiday video

With the digital video camera making its way into more and more homes, whether in the form of a full-featured camcorder, an ultracompact HD-only shooter, or even your cell phone’s built-in camera, having some good software on hand to edit the resulting clips is becoming a necessity. Unfortunately, most of these modern recording devices don’t come with very good editing software, and many don’t come with any at all.

Luckily, there are plenty of great apps available for turning any expanding library of video clips into a home movie worthy of sharing with friends and family. Now is the perfect time of year to pick something up for the amateur shooter in your life, or even something for yourself now, so you have time to throw something together for upcoming visits with loved ones. We’ve rounded up five great options for Windows users below below, and even one extra for those with a Mac in the house.

Google tunes up Chrome’s JavaScript engine

Google’s newest test versions of Chrome are equipped with a faster JavaScript engine, an increasingly important browser component for running Web-based programs.

The result is faster-loading pages, more powerful Web applications, and another round in the browser performance competition with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, Mozilla’s Firefox, Apple’s Safari, and Opera.

Chrome Canary uses the new Crankshaft version of Google's JavaScript engine. On Mozilla's Kraken test, where shorter bars are better, it wins handily over the current stable version of Chrome. This and other tests are on a Dell Studio XPS 16 with a 1.73GHz Intel Q820 Core i7 processor and 6GB of memory. width="341" height="340"/>

Chrome Canary uses the new Crankshaft version of Google’s JavaScript engine. On Mozilla’s Kraken test, where shorter bars are better, it wins handily over the current stable version of Chrome. This and other tests are on a Dell Studio XPS 16 with a 1.73GHz Intel Q820 Core i7 processor and 6GB of memory.

Stephen Shankland/CNET)

The new JavaScript engine works better on Google's V8 benchmark, too. width="341" height="332"/>

The new JavaScript engine works better on Google’s V8 benchmark, too.

Stephen Shankland/CNET)

On the SunSpider test, now in disfavor in some circles for being obsolete, the two browsers are tied. width="341" height="338"/>

On the SunSpider test, now in disfavor in some circles for being obsolete, the two browsers are tied.

Stephen Shankland/CNET)

Chrome’s browser engine, called V8, is being upgraded to version 3, called Crankshaft. It uses a technique called adaptive compilation that translates JavaScript into native instructions for a processor and then concentrates more energy on improving the parts of the code used most often, Google said.

“Crankshaft uses adaptive compilation to improve both start-up time and peak performance. The idea is to heavily optimize code that is frequently executed and not waste time optimizing code that is not,” Google programmers Kevin Millikin and Florian Schneider said yesterday in a company blog post.

The result: “pages that contain significant amounts of JavaScript code” load on average 12 percent faster, the programmers said. And when it comes to how fast JavaScript programs run once they’re loaded, they said, “this is the biggest performance improvement since we launched Chrome in 2008.”

JavaScript has become such a competitive feature among browsers that they’re using brand names. Up against V8 is Microsoft’s Chakra, debuting in IE9; Apple’s Nitro; Opera’s Carakan; and Mozilla’s JaegerMonkey, debuting in Firefox 4.

JavaScript performance is important, but it’s only one facet of browser quality. Others include support for new features such as WebGL’s 3D graphics; the ability to accelerate display of graphics and text; privacy and security; how fast it can handle the increasingly important CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) technology for formatting; and performance of interacting with a Web page’s DOM–or document object model, the hierarchical description of its elements.

All these areas and more are getting ever more attention. And if it wasn’t clear what’s at stake, look no further than Google’s Chrome OS and Chrome Web Store. The first is a browser-based operating system that runs Web apps only; the second is a distribution mechanism to find and buy those apps.

There are plenty of uncertainties about how well Google will succeed in its ambition to transform the Web into a foundation for applications, not just static Web sites. But there are some things that aren’t so unclear: more and more of people’s work and personal life is being spent doing things within a browser. That trend is enabled by better performance and, at the same time, encourages even more advances.

The programmers specifically pointed to improvements in Gmail loading times, which I’ve found excruciatingly slow in recent months. However, my not-terribly-reliable stopwatch tests showed Crankshaft actually slower with that site: 2.4 seconds to load on an average of five runs loading Gmail on Chrome Canary 10.0.603.3 compared with 2.1 seconds for the newest stable version of Chrome, Chrome 8.0.552.215. Given the variability in the results (less than 2 seconds to more than 3), though, I wouldn’t read too much into that result.

Of course, there are plenty of benchmarks for broader if more more artificial tests of JavaScript performance: Mozilla’s Kraken (version 1.0), Google’s V8 Benchmark (version 6), and WebKit’s SunSpider (version 0.9.1).

Here, Crankshift definitely shows a difference, except on the SunSpider test whose influence has waned as browser makers’ advancements have rendered it out of date. Bear in mind, though, that this was a test just on a single machine, a quad-core Dell Studio XPS 16 with 6GB of memory and that other machines will produce different results.

Browser benchmarks are a thorny issue. It’s always tough to represent the full breadth of computing challenges in a single convenient test, and there’s always the risk that engineers will design products for good benchmark scores even when the approach has little or no bearing on real-world work. Indeed, Firefox leveled benchmark engineering charges at Microsoft with IE9.

Chrome is gaining in popularity, on the verge of 10 percent of browser usage on the Web today for third place after IE and Firefox. It took years and a somewhat subversive effort to convince Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt that the company should release a browser, but it’s clearly a force to be reckoned with on the Net.

Originally posted at Deep Tech

Chrome Web Store a gift for developers, a sea change for users

The Google Chrome Web Store, which went live today, is a big gift to Web developers: it’s a marketplace, like Apple’s iOS App Store and Google’s Android Market, that lets developers put their apps in a place where users and buyers are likely to be looking for them. It also collects money on developers’ behalves.

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Google’s new Web Store. Looks like Apple’s App Store, but the terms are very different.

Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET)

Unlike most of the apps for iOS or Android, developers don’t really have to program a new app for the Google Web Store to get it into the market. Especially in this early stage of the store, many of the “apps” are nothing more than Web sites–just as free as the sites you get to by typing a URL, and in many cases just as unexciting.

But the store does give developers a new avenue to put their best Web work into a well-organized market, and it also goads developers to work on building HTML5 apps for the Web-centric Chrome OS Netbooks, which are expected to arrive in mid-2011. Apps you buy in the Chrome Web Store will be waiting in your account if you should get one of those Netbooks in the future.

While most of the apps currently in the Web Store are nothing more than Web links, some, like the Gilt shopping app and the Sports Illustrated sports photo viewer, feel and run like actual installed apps of the iPad variety. Set Chrome up to run in full-screen mode and you’ll not know the difference.

Google store a nonprofit?
Google Engineering Director Linus Upson told me about a few of the things that set the Chrome Web Store apart from the other big Web stores. First, he says, while the Chrome Store does collect a fee when it sells an app, Google does not aim to make its store a profit center. “We collect only enough to cover our costs,” Upson says. Also, there are several types of payments that Google can process for developers: up-front purchasing of an app, recurring subscription fees, and in-app add-on purchases are all possible. The Store uses Google Checkout to handle billing. Developers can also put Google ads into their apps–that’s where Google will make more of its money.

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The Web Store lets developers charge for apps in a few different ways.

Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET)

Since Chrome apps are really just Web pages, they should be able to work in any contemporary browser. Indeed, some of the apps I tested, including the very slick New York Times app, worked fine in Firefox (Sports Illustrated and Gilt did not). But Chrome enables some functions that won’t work in other browsers. In particular, you can’t buy an app except in Chrome. And you cannot “install” an app, since the Chrome start page on which the store installs its icons doesn’t have a standard programming interface. Upson did say, however, that Mozilla is working on an open standard for installing apps, and in conversation loosely implied that Google would either contribute to this effort or adopt its final spec.

Another big difference from Apple (and Microsoft) Web stores: There’s no pre-approval required to put an app in the store. There are guidelines, and Google may remove apps that violate these guidelines or that the community votes off the island, but basically, anyone can put anything online for at least a short while. This is how Google’s Android Market works, as well.

Where’s my cloud-based hard drive?
While Chrome (the browser and the operating system) is becoming an honest-to-goodness platform for apps, one thing it doesn’t have, that no online vendor has yet sorted out, and that is core to every other mainstream desktop computer operating system, is a file system that developers can tap into. If you “install” a Chrome app, say one of the Aviary graphics-editing apps, and you want to operate on a file stored on another service, there is as yet no standard, accepted place where users or developers can park or transfer files. To get a file from one app to another, the apps have to talk directly, and the user has to approve app-to-app communication (via oAuth or direct login).

I hear the developers of online storage services (perhaps Facebook’s Dropio team; or Dropbox) have been working on a system for this, but as Upson told me, “building a unified anything is hard, and in many cases counterproductive.” Aviary’s Michael Galpert says that, at the moment, setting up app-to-app communication for moving files around works acceptably well, but he is looking forward to a solution that’s more consistent for users.

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Our Cr-48 notebooks arrive this week.


A real threat to the old model
Eric Schmidt said at today’s launch of the Chrome Web Store that technologies have finally evolved to the point where a Web-based framework–and Web-focused hardware for it–is capable enough to be a workable productivity, social, and entertainment platform for the majority of technology users, especially those whose computers run a browser layered on top of an operating system only to run online apps and access Web sites. We’ll be getting Google’s testbed Cr-48 notebooks in our hands this week and will evaluate the hardware and the OS to see if we have, finally, reached the point where we can kiss the old software-on-operating-system model goodbye.

Originally posted at Rafe’s Radar

Mundu Radio brings Shoutcast to Android
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For Android users who like the overall vibe of good, old-fashioned terrestrial radio but would prefer not to cart around a separate device just for the pleasure of listening to ad-riddled FM, there are several solutions in the form of apps. One is Mundu Radio, a free app that packages Shoutcast specifically for the mobile platform.

The Internet radio giant is served by several third-party apps for the Android OS, but Mundu is one of the better-looking options available. Fire it up, and you’re taken to a simple home screen with four main options: listen, discover, favorites, and settings.

It’s easy to search for specific Shoutcast stations or find new ones using the discover feature, which lets you search by artist or genre to match you with a selection that might suit your tastes. There’s also the option to browse by seemingly innumerable genres, subgenres, decades, and styles of music, as well as by the country of origin for the broadcasts.

Of course, if you have specific Shoutcast stations in mind, you can enter those directly as well as save them as favorites. However, the favorites functionality could use some work, as it’s a laborious process to enter broadcasts for bookmarking. Mundu Radio requires that you type in station names and URLs yourself, rather than just find by search or browse and then have a menu option for saving the station.

Sound quality isn’t spectacular either, but that’s really a limitation of Shoutcast, not Mundu. Also, the banner adds are somewhat annoying, though expected given the fact the app is free.

All in all, Mundu Radio for Android is a solid option for users of the OS who are looking for an easy way to enjoy Shoutcast radio on the go. Some of the functionality could use some work, but the overall look of the interface is nice and, again, it’s free, so worth checking out.

Originally posted at Android Atlas