Issue: "One nation under God," June 26, 2004

Path tracker A revolution in web marketing is underway, one in which ads are targeted to people based on their surfing habits. Some call it a way to tailor content to users. Others call it an invasion of privacy. The movement started when Google, Yahoo, and other search sites started delivering ads tailored to certain keywords. Then some regular content sites decided to adopt a similar strategy. Now upstart companies -little-known names like Revenue Science, Tacoda Systems, and AlmondNet-consult on new ways to target ads. This brings new attention to the cookie, a tiny data file used to track users on one or more websites. Cookies let marketers compile profiles based on where people visit. Ads can also be targeted based on time of day or geographic location. One version of this model is Vibrant Media's new IntelliTXT service, which scans websites for keywords and places green hyperlinks, which pop up rectangular boxes with text ads. Ads are mixed in with the page instead of shunted off to the side. A more controversial form of targeting involves spyware, which runs on often-unsuspecting users' computers and tracks their movements. While arguably legal, this is commonly considered unethical, and a small industry of anti-spyware software developers has sprung up. Path finder Finnish researchers say they've developed a specialized cell phone that can help the blind get around more easily. The gadget, which includes wireless internet, global positioning, a video camera, and voice technology, starts testing this fall. The Technical Research Institute of Finland (VTT) developed the project, known as Noppa, with help from Microsoft. The Noppa phone uses GPS to tell users their location and give directions-and the speech synthesizer can provide audible instructions. Using the internet connection, it can warn about sidewalk obstructions, find bus and train timetables, look up weather forecasts, and alert the owner to possible delays. Noppa combines several current technologies to improve accessibility to the blind, who are often set back by today's cell-phone design (which relies on a tiny screen). The Finnish developers want to let users communicate entirely by voice, instead of using buttons, with a device that accurately recognizes their commands. Since VTT is a government-sponsored center, the Noppa phone is not likely to be mass produced, but the concept could appear either as specialized phones or as "accessibility" features in common models. A variation of this idea could help tourists lost in unfamiliar cities. Bits & Megabytes » The number of high-speed internet lines in the United States jumped 42 percent last year, according to the FCC. About 28 million homes and businesses have broadband service, with cable modems serving 58 percent and DSL 34 percent. All but 7 percent of the nation's ZIP codes have one or more options. » Apple will roll out a new wireless access device in July that runs on both Macs and PCs. Named AirPort Express, the gizmo, which will sell for $129, lets multiple computers share a single broadband internet connection. The announcement follows Microsoft's decision to stop selling low-cost wireless hardware altogether. » South Korean officials searched Microsoft's local offices earlier this month, investigating accusations of illegal trade practices. The investigation concerns ties between instant-messenger software and the Windows operating system. The company claims it did nothing wrong and promised to cooperate with authorities. » Nintendo is developing a new home gaming system, code-named "Revolution," in an attempt to win dominance from Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's Playstation 2. Company president Satoru Iwata isn't giving out details, but promises "new ideas" that are more attractive than just another generation of gee-whiz graphics. He also plans a new handheld console, the Nintendo DS, which boasts two color liquid-crystal displays.

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