Microsoft’s Xbox One console to go on sale in China in September

— Reuters Photo

SAN FRANCISCO: Microsoft Corp will begin selling its Xbox One video game console in China in September through its partnership with Chinese Internet TV company BesTV New Media Co.

The partners will also kickstart a program to help developers create, publish and sell Xbox One games in China and other markets where the console is sold, Microsoft said in a statement.

In September last year, Microsoft and BesTV, a subsidiary of Shanghai Media Group, formed a joint venture and invested $237 million in “family games and related services.”

Last week, Shanghai’s government said console makers such as Microsoft, Sony Corp and Nintendo Co will be able to manufacture and sell consoles in China through “foreign-invested enterprises” in Shanghai’s free trade zone.

China had banned game consoles in 2000, citing their negative effect on the mental health of its youth. It temporarily lifted the ban in January.

Pirated and smuggled consoles have been available in China during the ban, but they sold poorly as Chinese gamers predominantly play PC and mobile games.

Microsoft has sold more than 5 million Xbox One video game consoles to retailers since its launch in November.

 

Gaming on the Mac

Video games were once considered as epic waste of time and energy by our parents. However, the industry has now become one of the biggest revenue generating businesses in the entertainment world.

Not only have video games become a financially contributing member to the economic society, but our hopes and dreams of becoming professional video game players have also come true; gamers now get paid to play and win for their respective gaming leagues. For a gamer, nothing could be better.

The gaming industry has grown by leaps and bounds since the start of the new millennium, and now we can choose the platform we wish to game on, as compared to the good ol’ days when we only had an Atari or a Nintendo to get our daily fix.

Games are being released on multiple platforms, from consoles to PCs and Macs. It is now easier for all types of gamers, regardless of the genre they prefer, to play a vast selection of games which are now widely available on most consoles and PC-based systems. Some developers make games exclusively for certain consoles; take the example of X-Box’s Halo franchise and the PlayStation’s very popular Metal Gear Solid franchise. Rumours do suggest that these gaming franchises would soon make an appearance on different consoles.

The same unfortunately cannot be said for the Mac. Not that there is anything wrong with the Mac system itself. Apple does have a tendency to make a sweet, sweet rig which is ideal for gamers, but not everyone can afford a powerhouse such as a Mac Pro, and buying iMacs isn’t exactly cheap either. iMacs come with restrictions right off the bat, with fewer options for upgrades and a higher price tag, so people prefer the unbranded build-it-yourself systems which tend to be cheaper and more powerful. Mac Pros are generally meant for studios and professionals not restricted by a budget, who are able to pay the high costs of getting simple upgrades. Macbook Pros are heavily underutilised for what they are capable of doing in terms of performance, and cost roughly as much as a lower-end Mac Pro tower machine would.

Keeping all of this in mind along with the restrictions placed on developers when it comes to creating content for the Mac OS X, there is a tendency for a lot of the mainstream games to not come out on the Mac. But never fear, as this is exactly why we are here. For those of you Mac lovers who are looking to get the most out of your machine gaming wise, below is a compilation of relatively newer games.

StarCraft 2

This game is the long-awaited sequel to Blizzard Entertainment’s very successful real-time strategy game, StarCraft. The story continues four years after the events of the first game (here’s hoping you all remember it, and if you haven’t played the first part then shame on you). Thankfully, they have kept the same factions in the sequel, which are the Terrans, Zerg and Protos. Blizzard decided to release the full game in three parts. Each part lets you play the campaign for a single faction. The first faction to get released was the Terran, next came the Zerg, and Protos is to follow, as the third and final part of the game is yet to be released. You can still play your favourite race through multiplayer or just a random skirmish match against the AI. Currently, the first two parts Wings of Liberty (which follows the Terran campaign) and Heart of the Swarm (which follows the Zerg campaign) are already out and are available on the Mac.

There is no need to tell you guys just how awesome this game is, since it is still one of the best strategy games out there. The campaigns and heart-pumping battles are awesome and highly immersing, keeping you on your toes at all times, but the storyline is not very strong. Having said that, should you ever feel the need to test your true skills, jump online on Battlenet and play against some pro players from around the world. The online feature makes it an entirely different game.

XCOM : Enemy Unknown

One of the best games to come out in recent years, and definitely the best turn-based strategy game in a long time, Xcom is a very challenging game, and it only gets harder as you progress through the missions. It is a highly recommended game to play. Xcom: Enemy Unknown puts us in a world being invaded by aliens who wish to purge all of mankind. Seems a bit harsh, but I’m sure they have valid reasons of their own.

Players will control an elite multinational paramilitary organisation called XCOM and are tasked with defending Earth. The player commands troops in the field in a series of turn-based tactical missions; between missions, the player directs the research and development of new technologies from recovered alien technology and captured prisoners, expands XCOM’s base of operations, manages XCOM’s finances, and monitors and responds to alien activity. Combat takes place in a turn-based tactical environment, and is a tense affair to say the least. One small mistake can mean the end for your highly-trained veteran. This game is a must play, thankfully the developers had enough foresight to release the game on Mac as well.

Minecraft

This is an incredibly addictive and sometimes annoying game. Originally launched for the PC, it is now not only available for the Mac but also for Linux systems. Also, it gets regular and consistent updates.

The game is extremely popular because it plays like a multiplayer game of Lego. Players can build castles or kingdoms to their hearts’ content, or go explore the environment for some very interesting adventures. Luckily it’s playable both online and offline.

Diablo 3

Blizzard Entertainment’s highly anticipated sequel to the successful Diablo action role playing game series, Diablo 3 introduces a ton of new features, gameplay changes, better graphics and of course another adventure to embark on. The game is played mostly online, but you don’t necessarily have to play with someone else, you can continue to play solo, or when need be ask one of your friends to join in on your game and help you beat some of the tougher bosses at the end of a level. Players will like the fact that some of the familiar faces, whether good or bad, are still present in the game.

New additions such as crafting and skill rune systems have expanded the players’ experience, without straying too far off from its roots. They’ve also eliminated the minor inconvenience of manually picking up all the loot or the tedious inventory management, making it a smarter and faster version of the series. However, the in-game auction house may hamper some of the enjoyment, but it isn’t a deal breaker. Though I personally preferred the original series, Diablo 3 is still one of the more popular action RPGs out there.

Team Fortress 2

Valve’s free-to-play team-based first person shooter (FPS) is a little older than some of the above mentioned titles, but the game’s personality and comedic take on the FPS genre keeps it fresh. TF2 lets players take control of one of the nine playable classes, to take part in a war between two organisations, RED (Reliable Excavation & Demolition) and BLU (Builders League United). This is a game to be played online and is available through Steam. It is highly recommended to play with your friends, or you can just jump onto a server and try your luck that way. In either case it’s a must play and tons of fun. If you have friends who would play the game with you, nothing could be better, as this game provides tons of comical moments and almost non-stop laughter.

Unfortunately, a lot of other mainstream and more popular games have not been released for the Mac yet. Recently, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was released for the Mac. Some games such Borderlands 2 have been ported onto Mac-based systems, but they seem to have a lot of frame rate issues. Developers are looking into those issues as well, but somehow Mac hasn’t quite been able to capture the mainstream gaming market, which seems to be heavily controlled by the consoles and PCs due to some of the reasons given above. In any case, Mac machines are a powerhouse and are known for that power, and developers are showing an interest in porting some of their titles onto the Mac.

Microsoft sets October 17th release date for Windows 8.1

San Francisco – Consumers waiting for Microsoft’s revamped version of its latest Windows operating system will be able to get the software beginning Oct 17.

The release date for Windows 8.1 is nearly a year after the debut of Windows 8, a dramatic overhaul of the operating system that has been powering most personal computers for decades.

Microsoft Corp unveiled its plans for Windows 8.1 three months ago, but hadn’t set a release date until Wednesday. At test version of Windows 8.1 that may still include some bugs has been available since late June.

Windows 8 represented Microsoft’s attempt to create an operating system that works well on tablet computers, as well as on laptop and desktop machines.

But the overhaul confused and frustrated many people, resulting in disappointing sales of devices running on Windows 8. One research firm, International Data Corp, has even blamed Windows 8 for deepening the slump in PC sales as more people rely on smartphones and tablets to connect to the Internet.

Microsoft, which is based in Redmond, Washington, also absorbed a $900 million charge to its most recent quarterly earnings to account for its expected losses from a company-produced tablet, called Surface, which relies on a slimmed-down version of Windows 8.

Windows 8.1 is Microsoft’s attempt to make the operating system easier and more appealing to use. It will be available as a free update to owners of Windows 8 machines.

The first laptops and PCs featuring Windows 8.1 already installed are scheduled to go on sale Oct 18

Intel to launch low-power version of powerful server chips

San Francisco – Chipmaker Intel Corp said it is planning to launch a low-power version of its brawny server processors, potentially heading off competitors hoping to expand into the data center with energy efficient-chips based on smartphone technology.

Intel has already launched a line of its Atom mobile chips that are tweaked to work as low-power server chips.

The announcement, which was made on Monday at an event with industry analysts and media, means Intel will go a step further by offering a low-power version of its powerful Xeon processor with built-in features including connectivity and memory.

It also reflects the willingness of CEO Brian Krzanich, who took over in May, to make major changes to how Intel approaches its different markets.

By launching lower-power chips for servers, Intel is trying to stay ahead of Advanced Micro Devices, Applied Micro Circuits Corp and other smaller rivals hoping to disrupt the top chipmaker’s dominance of the data center with upcoming components designed with low-power smartphone technology licensed from ARM Holdings.

“Intel’s announcements demonstrate they will try to defend their turf against ARM-based servers and specialty processors,” said Pat Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. “Up until today, it was a bit of a guessing game for Intel that today has at least 95-percent server market share.”

Diane Bryant, in charge of Intel’s data center business, said the new component, based on the upcoming Broadwell version of Intel’s Xeon high-performance chips, will launch next year.

Energy-sipping chips similar to those used in smartphones and tablets lack the horsepower of traditional server processors made by Intel. But data centers that combine many low-power chips instead of just a few heavy-duty processors may provide more computing power for less money and use less electricity.

Microservers have yet to gain serious traction with traditional corporate customers like banks and manufacturers, and the potential size of the market remains unclear.

The new version of Broadwell is part of Intel’s move to integrate more features onto its chips, like memory and graphics. “System on chips,” as they are known, are already widely used in smartphones and tablets, but less in the data center. Intel is also beginning to make “system on chips” for laptops.

Intel dominates the PC and server markets, but it was slow to design chips for the mobile market, where chips using technology from ARM Holdings have become ubiquitous.

Exclusive: Microsoft in talks with ValueAct over board seat

Members of Microsoft Corp’s board have held talks with ValueAct Capital Management LP in recent days over the activist shareholder’s demands to secure a seat on the company’s board, two sources close to the matter said on Friday.

ValueAct, which wants a say in the way the world’s largest software company is adapting to the new world of mobile computing, is seeking to nominate a person from its own organization, the sources said.

The news comes as Microsoft had its biggest sell-off in four years, wiping $34 billion off its market value, after quarterly results were hit by weak demand for its latest Windows system and poor sales of its Surface tablet.

San Francisco-based ValueAct, which manages more than $10 billion for clients, owned 33 million Microsoft shares as of March, which is 0.4 percent of total shares outstanding, but it is believed to be buying more.

The fund, co-founded by finance industry veteran Jeff Ubben in 2000, has made a reputation for building stakes in companies and working with management in private to change fundamental strategy. ValueAct’s other major holdings include Adobe Systems Inc, Motorola Solutions Inc and Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc.

In recent months a number of Microsoft’s top institutional investors have contacted ValueAct, expressing concern over management execution and strategy, the sources said.

High among the issues in the talks, which the sources described as ongoing, is the apparent lack of succession planning at the top of the company. Steve Ballmer has held the chief executive job since 2000 and shows no signs of relinquishing it.

Ballmer, 57, once remarked that he envisaged staying on until his youngest child goes to college, which would be around 2017 or 2018, but since then he has not publicly addressed the matter.

ValueAct and Microsoft declined to comment. The software company has previously said there is a CEO succession plan in place, but has declined to give details of it.

UNDER PRESSURE

Microsoft’s huge stock drop on Friday, prompted by its financial results and a $900 million write-down on the value of unsold Surface tablets, provoked fresh skepticism of Ballmer’s new plan to reshape Microsoft around devices and services.

“The recent reorganization does not fix the tablet or smartphone problem,” Nomura analyst Rick Sherlund said in a note to clients on Friday. “The devices opportunity just received a $900 million hardware write-off for Surface RT and investors may not even like the idea of wading deeper into this territory.”

ValueAct is thought to oppose Microsoft’s recent foray into making its own devices.

Microsoft and Ballmer have been the targets of much criticism over the past decade, chiefly for falling behind Apple Inc and Google Inc in the shift toward mobile computing.

The company, however, has not been subjected to much overt protestation from shareholders. The most public challenge came two years ago, when Greenlight Capital’s David Einhorn, who made his name warning about Lehman Brothers’ financial health before the investment bank’s collapse, called for Ballmer to step down.

Microsoft never responded publicly to that call, and the company’s board has never indicated any major disapproval with Ballmer’s performance, although it did trim his bonus last year for sagging Windows sales and a mistake that led to a massive fine by European regulators.

ValueAct may find it difficult to stir up change at Microsoft, even if it does get a seat on the board, given that co-founder and Chairman Bill Gates has long been a solid supporter of his old friend and colleague Ballmer.

Gates, who founded Microsoft in 1975 with Paul Allen, still owns about 4.8 percent of the company and is the largest individual shareholder. Ballmer, who is also on the board, owns about 4 percent.

Alongside Gates and Ballmer, seven independent directors make up Microsoft’s nine-person board. The lead independent director is John Thompson, a former Symantec Corp and IBM executive.

Microsoft’s shares closed down 11.4 percent at $31.40 on Nasdaq on Friday, but recovered slightly to $31.58 in after-hours trading, after the news that board members were in talks with ValueAct.

Nokia Phone’s potent camera is bid to regain market share

NEW YORK – One-time cellphone powerhouse Nokia Corp. is hoping to lure people back from iPhones and Android phones with a powerful smartphone camera that tops many point-and-shoot imaging devices.

The new Nokia Lumia 1020 phone is packed with innovations designed to provide sharp images, even in low light. With the phone’s 41-megapixel sensor and image-stabilizing technology, both rare in smartphones, you’re less likely to get blurry shots at night or indoors. You can also zoom in to an image and pick up details that even the naked eye will miss.

Although more expensive cameras with superior lenses can take better images, those cameras aren’t always with you. Nokia said the Lumia 1020 gives people the ability to take good pictures with a device they always carry.

Nokia said its new flagship phone will change how people take pictures, and marketing executive Chris Weber boasted that it will make point-and-shoot cameras obsolete.

But whether a good camera is enough to lure customers remains to be seen.

AT&T will offer the Lumia 1020 in the US for $300 with a two-year service agreement. That’s $100 or $200 higher than what phones typically sell for. Nokia is counting on customers willing to pay more for a phone that does more.

The phone runs Microsoft’s Windows Phone system, which is far behind the iPhone and Android devices in usage. Although Nokia, AT&T Inc. and Microsoft Corp. are planning a large marketing push in the US, no amount of marketing can overcome the fact that the Windows system still doesn’t have as many apps from outside parties as the iPhone and Android devices.

Tony Cripps, principal device analyst at the research firm Ovum, said Nokia “may still have work to do to convince prospective buyers to sacrifice favorite apps for superior imaging.” He said that leading rival devices such as Apple’s iPhone 5 and Samsung’s Galaxy S4 “effectively sell themselves, (but) the case for selecting the Lumia 1020 is less clear cut.”

The Lumia 1020 will be available in the US on July 26, with advance orders to begin July 16. Nokia said the phone will expand to China and Europe by September. Other markets are planned later.

Nokia reigned as the leading phone maker for 14 years, until early last year when Samsung Electronics Co. took the top spot. Among smartphones, the lucrative business for phone makers, Nokia doesn’t even rank in research firm IDC’s top 5. In recent years, the Finnish company has been losing share to high-end devices such as the iPhone and various Android phones as well as cheaper devices from Asian manufacturers such as ZTE.

Nokia has partnered with Microsoft and its Windows system in hopes of recapturing market share, but none of the new Windows phones have been hits. Weber said he believes the new camera will get people looking at Nokia and Windows phones again.

The camera’s 41-megapixel resolution is far higher than the iPhone 5’s 8 megapixels and the Galaxy S4’s 13 megapixels. Even point-and-shoot cameras and more expensive ones with interchangeable lenses often don’t go as high as the Lumia 1020. More pixels mean more sensors for capturing the light that forms an image.

But the number of megapixels is just part of the story. Camera sensors have a certain amount of sensitivity known as ISO. The higher the number, the better the shot in low light. The Lumia 1020 can be set as high as ISO 3200, which is higher than the typical camera phone. The camera also comes with image-stabilization technology to compensate for shaky hands. Most phones don’t have that, meaning shutters can’t be open as long without images starting to blur. A longer open shutter means more light can come in, allowing for decent shots in low light.

The Lumia 1020 won’t replace digital cameras with interchangeable lenses, known as DSLRs, even if its megapixel resolution is higher. For one thing, the Lumia 1020 lacks a real zoom lens; the zoom it offers is essentially blowing up the image. By contrast, DSLRs with a telephoto lens can let you take close-up shots from afar. The Lumia 1020 also lacks a setting for aperture, or how wide the lens is opened to let in light. Changing the aperture can affect how much of your image is in focus.

To make photos on the Lumia 1020 easier to share, the camera actually records two versions of each image. The first is in full resolution, which you can use to zoom in or crop, or download to a computer to make large prints. A smaller version, equivalent to 5 megapixels, is also produced. That’s the one you can use to post on Facebook or Instagram without eating too much of your cellular data plan. The US version syncs with Microsoft’s SkyDrive and AT&T’s Locker storage services. Otherwise, the 32 gigabytes of storage on the device will fill up in no time.

The Lumia 1020 isn’t Nokia’s first 41-megapixel phone. Its 808 PureView phone last year had the feature, too. But that phone lacks the image-stabilization technology introduced later in the year with the Lumia 920. The new phone combines the two in a shell that is made to resemble a camera. It comes in yellow, white or black.

Nokia is also selling a Camera Grip attachment for $79, offering extended battery life and a case that makes you feel as if you’re holding a regular point-and-shoot camera. With the Grip, you’ll also be able to attach the phone to a tripod.

The phone’s display measures 4.5 inches diagonally, which is larger than the iPhone’s, but smaller than those on leading Android phones. At 332 pixels per inch, the display resolution is comparable to the iPhone 5, but lags those of several Android phones.

Internet big boys take aim at Singapore’s ‘regressive’ new rules

SINGAPORE – Singapore’s move to tighten regulation of news web sites, already under fire from bloggers and human rights groups, has attracted criticism from an unexpected quarter – large internet firms with a big presence in the city-state who say the new rules will hurt the industry.

Web giants Facebook Inc, eBay Inc, Google Inc and Yahoo! Inc have said the revised rules “have negatively impacted Singapore’s global image as an open and business-friendly country”.

The comments, made in a letter to Singapore’s minister of communications and information by the Asia Internet Coalition, an industry body, are the first sign that Singapore’s success in wooing major players to its shores is not assured. Google, eBay, Facebook and Yahoo all have a major presence in the city-state.

Google said separately it was concerned about the long-term implications of the regulation – especially for local internet entrepreneurs who it said now faced greater uncertainty and legal risk.

In late May Singapore said websites that regularly report on Singapore would have to be licensed and listed 10 news sites that would be affected, based on criteria such as having 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore each month.

Websites affected by the new licensing regime would have to put up a S$50,000 ($39,300) performance bond as well as take down within 24 hours any story that authorities deemed objectionable.

“Singapore aims to be the future, but this regulation looks a lot like the past,”

Google’s Ann Lavin, director of public policy and government affairs, Southeast Asia, told Reuters.

The Media Development Authority (MDA) said the changes would make the rules governing news websites more consistent with those affecting newspapers and other traditional media platforms. But it has stressed there was no change in its content standards.

“The new licensing framework is not intended to clamp down on Internet freedom,” an MDA spokesman said in a written response to questions.

GROWING SECTOR

The Asia Internet Coalition was (AIC) set up in 2011 by Google, Facebook, Yahoo and eBay to lobby for free and open access to the Internet and promote e-commerce.

The Internet and related industries have become an important sector for Singapore, with revenues last year growing 23 percent to S$103 billion ($81 billion). The sector employs more than 144,000 people out of the city-state’s 3.2 million workforce, according to government data.

“When you look at other countries in the region it’s hard to see anyone immediately breathing down the neck of Singapore and Hong Kong,” said John Ure, executive director of AIC. “But things can change. Five to 10 years is not a long time.”

Singapore has attracted major internet companies to its shores in part because of its commitment to what it has called a “light touch” when it comes to policing the Web.

Yahoo’s popular Singapore news site was the only foreign website among the 10 listed by the MDA, but critics fear the rules could be extended to cover other websites, including those critical of the government.

A senior official at the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) responsible for the ruling, Permanent Secretary Aubeck Kam, told a gathering of the Singapore Computer Society on Thursday that the rules would not cover commentary sites, and that the government had never ordered removal of content because it was critical of the government under existing regulations.

“MONSTERS UNDER THE BED”

The new rules will come under scrutiny later on Monday, with the opposition Workers’ Party tabling questions such as how authorities would treat online news services catering to Singapore’s large financial sector and individual Facebook pages with large followings.

A Yahoo spokesman said it had no official comment on the regulation but that the AIC’s position was “broadly consistent with ours”.

Rights groups have joined local bloggers in criticizing the move. Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said that major internet companies adding their voice should give Singapore serious pause about its approach.

The government, “like a little boy in a dark bedroom, imagines that every bump in the night means there are monsters under the bed ready to pounce on Singapore’s much vaunted social stability”, he said.

Ure said the coalition’s members had been unnerved by the announcement coming “out of the blue” at a time when it had been holding discussions with the Singapore government on several Internet-related issues.

The regulations, he said, “muddied the waters” and that “anything that is seen to be a hindrance to the free flow of content and data” was of concern to his members.

“It’s particularly concerning to the AIC that Singapore should appear to be giving the wrong signal, and countries around the region that are far less open and liberal might take their cue from Singapore,” he said.

Singapore has defended the revision to its regulations, and professed surprise at the opposition.

Kam, the MCI official, said that such concerns would likely be accommodated via consultations with the 10 websites over the wording of the licenses. “There is no need to read signals because we are communicating what we think,” he told Ure during a question and answer session at the computer users’ gathering.

Lobby group Reporters Without Borders, in its latest report, ranked Singapore 149th globally in terms of press freedom, down 14 places from 2012 and below many of its neighbors.

In 2011, the city-state’s tiny opposition made big gains against the long-ruling People’s Action Party in a parliamentary election, partly by using social media such as Facebook and YouTube to reach voters.