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4th October 2002, 02:00 AM
(An irreverent look at some of the week's Connected Home news, contributed by Paul Thurrott and Keith Furman)

We've all heard the telecommunications companies' promises about broadband rollout to the masses, but most consumers appear to be ignoring readily available broadband options. According to a study by the Department of Commerce, almost all US families live in areas where at least one high-speed Internet alternative (cable or DSL) is available, but many families see no reason to pay extra for the service. Only 10 percent of US households subscribe to broadband services, even though about half of those households have Internet access at home. In fact, the US broadband adoption rate is far lower than in other countries such as Canada, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan. The government report says that consumers will be willing to shell out the average $50 monthly fee for broadband only if more content (e.g., games, movies, music) becomes available.

Imagine being able to walk up to a soda machine and buy a drink without even taking out your wallet. That dream is becoming close to reality, thanks to new technology from innovative credit card companies. Visa recently introduced a new smart credit card with a radio-frequency chip that lets users conduct wireless transactions at vending machines, subway-fare kiosks, and similar points of sale that include touch pads for PIN entry. The service is already available in South Korea and will be available elsewhere in the near future. Smart cards have gained popularity in Europe, but Americans have been cool to the technology, sort of like the US attitude toward broadband. We're slackers.

To make its products cool with the kids again, Palm is adding two new brands to its hardware catalog. Palm designed the brands--Tungsten and Zire--to broaden the appeal of the company's PDAs, which have recently lagged in the market. The Tungsten brand will target large businesses; Zire will target consumers. Palm is expected to release a Zire device (which is obviously aimed at the Tamagotchi crowd) in the less-than-$100 range this fall. Will it succeed? With a cool name like Zire, how could it fail?

Last week, Microsoft confirmed a gaming-industry rumor that the company has purchased Rare, a well-known British game developer, in an effort to boost the Xbox's software library. Rare, which Nintendo used to partially own, is responsible for gaming hits such as Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye, and Perfect Dark. The company will develop games exclusively for the Xbox and the Nintendo Game Boy Advance, Nintendo's portable gaming system. Rare is expected to develop titles with characters that appeal to children, a market relatively untouched by the Xbox.

And speaking of the Xbox, Microsoft has also confirmed that to cut costs and thwart intruders the company has changed the video-game console's internal design. The changes, which should be transparent to typical gamers, affect newer Xboxes. To cut costs, Microsoft has replaced key components, such as the DVD drive, with newer and different brands. The company has also modified security flaws in the Xbox's original design that let intruders run pirated games by installing "mod chips." Although Sony doesn't receive the same press that Microsoft does, Sony has also made similar changes to the PlayStation 2 throughout its short lifespan. But, as you know, beating up on Sony isn't as much fun.