Facing the music

National | NASA punctures a Mars myth; AOL hikes prices; and Sony offers a glimpse at the future of handhelds

Issue: "Bush wins one," June 9, 2001

Mars hill
What is that face on Mars anyway? It's nothing but a hill, scientists say, but a cult of speculators say it's something else. NASA released pictures taken in April by the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft, and they throw cold water on the curious. The shots add detail not before seen and make the terrain look less "human," possibly taking away a source of fascination for dilettantes and supermarket tabloids for 25 years. Michael Malin, principal investigator of the project, wrote in a 1995 paper that spending resources debunking the "Face on Mars" mythology was a waste of resources and scientific effort. Now the new photos show what he always expected. "I have no desire to discuss it with the true believers," he said. "They can't be convinced; they don't want to be convinced." The Viking 1 orbiter first photographed the hill on Mars in July 1976 as part of a search for landing sites. The image wasn't nearly as clear then. When the pictures came to Earth, NASA sent out the picture with a short press release: "The huge rock formation in the center, which resembles a human head, is formed by shadows giving the illusion of eyes, nose and mouth." Conspiracy theorists claimed the federal government plotted to withhold extraterrestrial evidence from the general public. Some people claimed the "face" was etched by an alien civilization. Last year's movie Mission To Mars used it as the backdrop for science fiction, making a hill on Mars the place where aliens blasted their genetic code to Earth billions of years ago. You've got bills
Users of America Online will pay more for it starting next month. The standard rate for AOL's Unlimited Use plan will jump $1.95 to $23.90 a month. Analysts say that about 22 million people will feel the increase. The price hike will make AOL among the most expensive dialup online services in the country. What customers receive for the extra money is the customized user interface that many find easy to use, along with some original content. Observers expect the lion's share of AOL users to stick around, since they pay a premium price now. The dot-com downturn has caused massive gloom about online advertising, and many companies are looking for ways to bring in more cash through subscription services. AOL's move may be part of that trend. Company spokesmen say the extra $500 million in revenue will help pay for the next software upgrade. At $23.90 a month for AOL, competing plans-ranging in price from free to $21.95 a month-start to look tempting. The NetZero service, for example, gives away up to 40 hours a month of free Internet access, though it requires an ongoing slide show of advertising on the user's screen. Among standard ISPs, Earthlink charges $19.95, Juno $14.95, and Microsoft's MSN and AT&T Worldnet cost $21.95 for unlimited service. Those with the need for speed can find cable and DSL lines that cost substantially more-if they are available in their neighborhood. For business and pleasure
Can a handheld computer be more than a business device? Sony calls its new Clie a "personal entertainment organizer." The device boasts a sharper screen and the features of handheld music players, possibly eliminating the need to carry around an extra gadget. Sony is trying to bring more multimedia into the personal digital assistant (PDA) world. The company has a long history with the most popular handheld electronic device ever-the Walkman-and wants to be a power in this new realm. The device lists for $499, which is at the high end of the market. The new Clie runs the Palm operating system and performs many of the usual PDA tasks. It has a control wheel on the side that lets users quickly flip through phone numbers, appointments, or other lists. It also has a battery that can handle 15 days of "standard use" (meaning not playing music). Through a program called PictureGear, users can compress photos and save them on the Clie. But the Clie has two big problems: It's expensive, and connectivity is difficult. A normal 56K modem is a $129.99 add-on-and nothing wireless is available. Compared to many other models, this is a drawback. The Clie is supposed to compete with the color handhelds made by Palm and Handspring's Visor line. It may not be immediately useful, but it shows where technology is headed. Instead of carrying several gizmos-a cell phone, handheld, and music player-one device will serve all needs.

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