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It was the geek version of "American Idol" -- a team of developers won $1 million after improving Netflix's movie recommendation engine.
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New software transforms your phone into a GPS device – and a pretty good one, too

Navigon's MobileNavigator app for the iPhone has features some standalone units lack. Photo: Navigon.
As my wife will tell you, I have a comically bad sense of direction. I once got lost driving home from the mall.
This makes me a prime candidate for a GPS device. I’ve used a few for brief stints, mostly on long road trips, but never got into the habit of using one for everyday errands.
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There are a couple of reasons for that. For one, it’s a hassle to dig the thing out of the glove compartment. For another, entering an address on most of these things is a crazy-making experience.
My perspective changed recently, though, when I bought a new GPS unit for $70. Well, that’s not exactly what happened. I actually downloaded a GPS-based iPhone (AAPL) app for $70.
Yes, 70. Seven-zero. I’ll be the first to admit that it sounds crazy to pay that much for software that runs on a phone. The overwhelming majority of phone apps out there cost between 99 cents and $10.
Why would I pay so much for an iTunes download? Well, this directionally challenged consumer needed another GPS device. We had one in the newer car that my wife usually drives, where it did me absolutely no good. I had been compensating by using Google Maps (GOOG) on my phone to find my way to meetings in a pinch, but wasn’t comfortable – or safe – to keep glancing over to prepare for the next turn.
So in late August I took the plunge and went shopping for navigation software on the iTunes app store. At the time, there were two main options: TomTom’s app was $100; Navigon’s was on sale for $70. Both had gotten decent reviews, but I was drawn to Navigon’s for its ability to speak street names; rather than say, “Ahead, turn right,” it can say, “Ahead, turn right on Embarcadero.” It also has the bells and whistles we've come to expect from GPS units; points of interest, gas stations, restaurants. I decided to go with Navigon.
I was prepared to have serious buyer’s remorse. For $69.99 (plus another $30 for a windshield mount) this had to be good.
And it is. I’ve loved Navigon’s MobileNavigator software since I bought it. It’s actually better than the few standalone GPS units I’ve used. I can pull addresses from my phone’s contact list to set a destination and avoid the hassle of tapping through annoying menus. It shows me highway signs, indicates the best lanes to move into, and warns when I’m pushing too far past the speed limit. Best of all, my phone is always in my pocket – so I have navigation help even when I’m not in my car. On a hectic day trip to Southern California recently, I used MobileNavigator in a rental car to find my way from LAX to an out-of-the-way spot in Santa Monica. (Next time, though, I'll have to remember to bring the iPhone charger; by the time I got home, the iPhone's battery was all but dead.)
From the look of things, it won’t be long before a lot more phones start doubling as GPS devices. Smartphone customers seem to see value in the software. A few examples: MobileNavigator (now $90) is the #3 top grossing app on iTunes. AT&T (T) has begun selling a navigation service that works on dozens of phones in its lineup. And Motorola’s (MOT) Droid, a smartphone that’s arriving next week on Verizon’s (VZ) network, comes with free turn-by-turn directions via the latest version of Google’s Android operating system.
That’s not so great for companies like TomTom and Garmin (GRMN), who make a lot of money selling standalone GPS devices – their stock prices took a hit this week on the announcement of Google’s free software. But for wayward travelers like me, GPS navigation in phones is a killer app.
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So did President Obama's remarks last night signal a serious willingness to work with Republicans on health care -- or not? A determination to incorporate the GOP's "legitimate concerns" -- or not? It sure wasn't clear from the tone or the substance of his prime-time address, a conflicted cocktail of sour grapes and honeyed outreach to his critics.
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It looks like Ben Bernanke is right in saying the recession is ending: Today, Tiffany's advertised a $115,000 diamond and platinum bracelet in its page three New York Times spot -- and convicted swindler Bernie Madoff's Montauk beach house sold for more than its $8.75 million list price.
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Computer makers hope that stylish new laptops like Hewlett-Packard's Pavilion dm3 will lure shoppers away from low-cost netbooks. Photo: HP.
There’s going to be a PC retail showdown this holiday season. Let’s call it the netbook vs. the nymph.
In the netbook corner: the cheap, small, underpowered laptops that are all the rage lately. Asian manufacturers like Asus first introduced them, and consumers love them because they handle documents, e-mail, and web surfing for as little as $300. The
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big PC makers offer their own models, but also secretly hate that netbook fever is sucking the profits out of the industry.
In the nymph corner: a newer class of svelte yet powerful laptops that could steal some attention from netbooks. (The industry calls them “thin and light,” but hey — nymph is more fun.) Like their competition, nymphs are slim — some of them less than an inch thick — and they often eschew extras like DVD drives for the sake of portability. Perhaps best of all, they do a solid job running Microsoft’s eagerly anticipated Windows 7 operating system, which arrives next month.
Today PC heavyweight Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) is the latest to unveil several eye-catching additions to the nymph category, including the Pavilion dm3 at $550 and the Envy 13 at $1700. Both use the latest mobile processors from Intel (INTC) or Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and deftly handle tasks like 3D gaming and video editing.
What’s at stake here? Just the near-term health of the PC business.
Like most other categories, PCs have had a rough year. Penny-pinching businesses have been slow to spend on technology in a tough economy. Consumers have been shopping mainly for bargains. Meanwhile many global PC makers have cut prices to drum up sales. “The battle for market share is being fought on the price front, which will ultimately hurt the whole industry,” as First Global Research put it in a recent note.
If shoppers continue to bargain shop for netbooks this holiday season — and analysts expect they will — end-of-year growth at companies like HP, Dell (DELL), Intel, and AMD won’t look so hot. For the holiday season, says NPD Group analyst Steve Baker, “unit sales are going to be up big double digit percentages — above teens, I would think. Dollars will be pretty much flat.”
That is, unless the industry can convince consumers to spring for more powerful machines.
Leslie Sobon is trying to do exactly that. Sobon, marketing chief at AMD, has redrawn the sales pitch for computers like HP’s dm3 and Acer’s Aspire 5538, which contain her chips. Rather than emphasize stats like gigahertz, bus speed, dual-core, and the like, the new VISION strategy focuses on telling customers what the PCs can do — an approach that AMD’s research showed is sorely lacking at retail. “We’re focused on entertainment — things like photos, like Blu-ray, Hulu,” she says. “See, share, create.”
Customers are more likely to buy a better-equipped laptop, Sobon’s market research suggests, if they have a clear sense of what they’re getting for the money.
Folks like J.P. Morgan analysts Mark Moskowitz and Anthony Luscri don’t sound too optimistic about how the upsell will go over this year. “With consumers seeming to flock to low-cost netbooks, we do not expect a shift back to standard notebooks to run Windows 7 en masse,” they wrote recently.
Indeed, netbooks are getting more attractive — and more powerful — all the time. Along with the rest of its PC lineup, HP introduced two $400 netbook standouts of its own: the Mini 110 by Studio Tord Boontje, which features a lace-like, three-dimensional look; and the Mini 311, which can handle 1080p high-definition video NVIDIA’s (NVDA) Ion graphics processor.
With products like that hitting the market, there won’t be a huge shift away from netbooks anytime soon — but PC makers will take any upsell they can get.
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During his speech to Congress this week, President Obama singled out Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) for continuing the work of his late father, also a congressman, to overhaul the health care system.
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Companies can't think about using the site in the same way they conceive of traditional advertising, says Sheryl Sandberg.
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The Finnish phonemaker has watched the iPhone succeed as it loses market share in North America - now it's fighting back.
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