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Tech Times

Published:Monday | November 24, 2014 | 12:00 AM
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MOUNTAIN VIEW, California (MCT):

In 700,000 miles of navigating roads, Google's self-driving cars have encountered just about everything - including an elderly woman in a motorised wheelchair flailing a broom at a duck she was chasing around the street.

Apparently perplexed and taking no chances, the vehicle stopped and refused to go farther.

Through extensive testing covering nearly every street in Mountain View, the company's 20 or so autonomous vehicles have developed an abiding sense of caution. But Google researchers concede it will take more experience on the roads before the autos can learn to cope with every situation without becoming bewildered and shutting down, stranding passengers. When that happens now, researchers have to take the wheel and step on the gas.

One of the most surprising lessons: While hoping to make cars that are safer than those driven by people, Google has discovered its smart machines need to act a little human, especially when dealing with pushy motorists.

"We found that we actually need to be - not aggressive - but assertive" with the vehicles, said Nathaniel Fairfield, technical leader of a team that writes software fixes for problems uncovered during the driving tests. "If you're always yielding and conservative, basically everybody will just stomp on you all day."

As a result, he said, Google's cars on freeways tend to leave a shorter distance between themselves and the vehicles they follow than some driver-training manuals recommend, to discourage other motorists from darting dangerously into the space. And when it's their turn to proceed at a four-way-stop, Fairfield added, Google's cars will inch forward decisively so other drivers don't try to beat them through the intersection.

The music industry's move toward paid-subscription services, and away from discs and downloads, has been under way for several years.

Last Wednesday, YouTube joined the party - bringing with it the world's largest audience for popular music and the financial clout of its parent company, Google Inc.

The video-streaming company announced plans to launch a service dubbed YouTube Music Key that will give users access to tens of millions of songs for about US$10 a month.

The move underlined the shift toward streamed services as the music industry's future. Also Wednesday, concert promoter Live Nation announced a partnership with Vice to launch a music-themed video service for mobile phones, TV and Internet.

There is already fierce competition in this space from streaming services, including Spotify, Rhapsody and Pandora. Still, YouTube's reach with consumers makes it a powerful contender out of the gate.

- MCT

LAS VEGAS (MCT):

Amazon Web Services (AWS), which sells computing services to companies over the Internet, grew more than 40 per cent in revenue last year, the business' top executive told a Las Vegas conference this month.

Andy Jassy, the Amazon.com senior vice-president who runs AWS, didn't disclose total revenue of the unit, though some analysts expect it to top US$5 billion this year. But he did say AWS now has more than one million customers.

Jassy's comments came during his keynote address at re:Invent, AWS's annual conference in Las Vegas, which drew 13,500 attendees this year.

The nine-year-old division has been a pioneer of renting computing storage and services to businesses. Jassy pressed the point that so-called cloud computing is now the standard for business, listing company after company - big and small - using AWS.

"Every imaginable business segment is using AWS in a meaningful way," Jassy said. "Cloud has become the new normal. Companies of every size are deploying cloud applications by default."

Though deeply geeky, the business is one of the fastest growing units at Amazon, a company better known for its consumer offerings. AWS has become the leader in a business with such potential that it competes against corporate computing behemoths such as Microsoft and IBM, as well as Web giants such as Google.

SEATTLE (MCT):

Microsoft officially entered the post-Nokia smartphone era with the release last Monday of a budget-priced Lumia device.

The Microsoft Lumia 535 will sell for about ยง110 (about US$137), a figure Microsoft said would vary by market. Microsoft's previous Lumia smartphone devices - which carried the 'Nokia Lumia' name - were released in September and cost between US$259 and US$430.

Last month, Microsoft said it would start phasing out the Nokia brand for its smartphones, the latest step in integrating Nokia's phone-manufacturing business. Microsoft's US$7.5 billion deal to buy the Finnish company's handset group closed in April.

As part of the deal, Microsoft licensed the rights to use the Nokia name for 10 years on basic cellphones that lack the processing power and Internet connectivity of more advanced smartphones. Microsoft obtained more limited rights to use of the Nokia name on smartphones.

With last Monday's announcement - along with a coordinated rebranding of Microsoft's Nokia-branded social-media and Internet sites with the 'Lumia' name - Microsoft is pushing ahead with a brand it owns in its entirety.

"The Nokia brand is very strong," particularly internationally, Will Stofega, research firm IDC's programme director for mobile technology, said in an interview before the announcement. "The game is going to be for [Microsoft] to make sure people understand what they have: This is an extension of Nokia. And, hopefully, carry on the same things that people found compelling in those devices."

Microsoft's news release on the launch didn't specify in which countries Lumia 535 would be sold. A spokesman said the phone would be rolled out this month in some markets, but declined to elaborate.

In 2013, Nokia was the world's No. 2 phone manufacturer behind Samsung when including basic mobile phones. In smartphones alone, however, Nokia stood at No. 8.

The Microsoft Lumia 535 will run the Windows Phone 8.1 operating system, and features a 5-inch display and 5 megapixel front-facing camera. A separate model will feature dual SIM card capability.

The phone comes in green, orange, white, gray, cyan and black, and will be preinstalled with Microsoft software, including Skype, the Office suite and Outlook.

Windows Phone, the operating system that runs on Lumia devices, powered just 2.5 per cent of the smartphones shipped worldwide from April through the end of June, according to the most recent IDC data.

Google's Android dominated the market, with a share of 85 per cent, and Apple's iOS ran second with 12 per cent.

"They do have some distance to make up," Stofega said of Microsoft. "They are going to clearly look at (rising demand) in some of the emerging markets and see what they can do to bundle both their services and their devices" to draw customers there, he said.

Major international companies have been eager to tap the fast-growing Chinese market in particular, but have struggled to compete with local manufacturers who offer cheaper hardware.

Domestic manufacturers accounted for four of the five biggest sellers of smartphones in China during the third quarter, according to research firm Canalys.

South Korean giant Samsung was No. 2.