December 6, 2023

State of the Art: Chromecast, Simply and Cheaply, Flings Web Video to TVs

Take the story of the iTunes music store. The instant somebody offered the chance to buy songs individually, the world changed forever. Hello, music à la carte. Goodbye, Tower Records.

Now it’s cable TV’s turn.

We are engaged in a great civil movement, testing whether that business, or any business so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. The number of people who cut the cord, or cancel the satellite, in favor of getting all their TV from the Internet is still small — maybe 1 percent of us a year. But the online alternatives to cable TV are growing. And once it becomes simple and easy to get Internet video from our laptops and phones to the actual television, well, the term “TV drama” will have a whole new meaning.

Actually, that has just happened. Google’s new Chromecast gizmo is the smallest, cheapest, simplest way yet to add Internet to your TV. It looks like a portly flash drive or maybe a fat keychain — and it costs $35. That’s not a typo.

So what does it do? If you have a Wi-Fi wireless network in your home, the Chromecast can perform two useful stunts.

Stunt 1: It lets you watch videos from YouTube, Netflix and Google Play (Google’s movie and TV store for Android gadgets) on your big screen. You use your phone or tablet (Apple or Android) as a remote control.

Stunt 2: The Chromecast displays Web sites on your TV — by broadcasting from Google’s Chrome browser on your Mac or PC. More on this in a moment.

Google’s promotional videos depict a fantasy of effortlessness: a hand slides the Chromecast into an HDMI jack on the back of a big-screen TV, clicking like a key into a lock. And then suddenly everything good on the Internet seems to be watchable on that TV, to the ecstasy of many young, attractive, multiethnic couch potatoes.

The videos leave out the fact that the Chromecast requires power. You can plug it into a power outlet or a USB jack on the TV itself, but either way, the result isn’t as clutter-free as the ads make it seem. Still — $35, remember?

Then you download a setup program, introduce it to your Wi-Fi network, name your Chromecast and so on. The whole setup process takes about five minutes; a child could do it. (Adults may need slightly longer.)

To perform Stunt 1, you open the YouTube, Netflix or Google Play app on your phone or tablet. Find a video to play. A special icon appears at the edge of the touch screen, resembling a rectangle with Wi-Fi signal waves in the corner. To begin watching that video on the TV, tap that icon and choose your Chromecast’s name.

Your phone is not actually transmitting anything. The Chromecast gets the video from the Internet directly; you use your phone or tablet only to find the movie and control its playback. You can even adjust the volume using the physical volume keys on the side.

The good news: this arrangement means you can do other things on your phone or tablet during playback, like working in another app or even turning the thing off.

The bad news is that the phone/tablet is the only remote control you’ve got. So if you want to pause, rewind or mute the video, you first have to find your phone/tablet, wake it up, enter the password if required, and finally reopen the app that’s doing the playing. It’s not especially graceful.

On Android gadgets, at least the Pause button appears right on the lock screen. You don’t have to unlock the device and reopen the app.

Otherwise, all of this is effortless and excellent. Even if you can already get Netflix and YouTube on your TV because they’re built into the TV, Xbox, TiVo or Blu-ray player, you may prefer the Chromecast; it’s just much easier to search for videos, thanks to the on-screen keyboard and voice dictation. You can also cue up several videos to play in sequence. That’s especially handy for YouTube videos, which are not exactly, you know, epic in length.

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You’re the Boss Blog: How a Diner Gets the Most Out of Social Media

On Social Media

Generating revenue along with the buzz.

One of Squeeze In's Foursquare mayors, Nikki McCarroll, with son, Angus.Tourine Johnstone One of Squeeze In’s Foursquare mayors, Nikki McCarroll, with son, Angus.

Squeeze In is a modest little breakfast-and-lunch diner with four locations in the greater Reno, Nev. area. The restaurants are open seven days a week, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. While online commenters rave about the food, I can’t get over how creatively this little chain has managed its social media. It has a Web site and a custom mobile site. It promotes the business through Foursquare, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram.

“We want to reach our guests where they are: on their phones, in their homes, on their laptops or desktops, on their weekends and at their charitable events,” said Misty Young, 50, the company president. “We want to be in their heads when they think breakfast or lunch.”

The diner has a custom smartphone app. In 2010, the company invested $2,500 in building the app for iPhone, Android and BlackBerry phones. It took four months to develop and to date, 2,795 people have downloaded it. If you browse the menu on the way over, you will find app-only deals to show your server once you’re seated. The deals have been redeemed nearly 2,000 times.

Servers have been trained to offer to take a group picture if they see a smartphone on the table. This, of course, is a terrific way to generate Instagram and Facebook photos that are posted directly by guests and then linked to by Squeeze In in its Flickr photo stream (the app also has a built-in tip calculator). Everything that’s done in social media is quantified. “Our Foursquare newbie offer for first time check-ins has been unlocked 1,151 times,” said Ms. Young. “The mayor special has been unlocked 140 times. People are actively using this stuff.”

The restaurant has 6,800 “likes” on Facebook, more than 42,000 views of its YouTube videos, more than 1,000 followers on Twitter and more than 52,000 members of its Egghead Breakfast Club, a guest loyalty program that uses a customized magnetic swipe card system. The transaction data taken from the cards drive marketing and sales decisions, promotions and initiatives. The program also helps lead members to social media review sites, and the chain responds to every review posted on Yelp. Not surprisingly, if you type the restaurant’s name into a Google search, you will find it holding the top three positions. And it never pays for online advertising.

The people who work at Squeeze In seem to have a lot of fun. “For example, we created an energetic parody video just for a good time and to feature our cool staff,” said Ms. Young. “It cost us a whopping $600 to produce.” The parody video is the staff’s take on the popular Black Eyed Peas song “Imma Be.” The Squeeze In version is called “Omma Lette.” It has been viewed more than 2,500 times.

The online presence helped the chain land a spot on the Food Network’s “Throwdown With Bobby Flay.” When Ms. Young asked a producer how the network had found Squeeze In, the producer responded, “We troll the Web, and we look for and listen to what people are saying.” The Food Network exposure immediately increased revenue 25 percent, Ms. Young said, and encouraged the company to speed up its expansion plans. “It’s called social for a reason,” she said. “We’ve multiplied our Twitter presence by 450 percent in a year. We’ve run contests, promoted specials, posted photos and videos, engaged. We’ve been social to keep growing.”

Squeeze In has 270 nonfiltered reviews on Yelp, and one of the owners of the restaurant has responded to every review. “Being responsive, social, relevant and listening has been a key to our social success,” said Ms. Young, who runs the business along with her husband, her daughter and her son-in-law, all of whom own a stake in the company. When the reigning mayor of FourSquare stops by, she is treated to a complimentary mimosa (yes, Squeeze In serves liquor at 8 a.m. to people who order bloody marys or champagne with their omelettes). Customers can also get free breakfasts on their birthdays and free champagne on their anniversaries.

The chain also uses social media in its internal operations. A private Facebook group, for example, helps communications with the 96 employees and has improved camaraderie, job satisfaction and job retention. And it uses multiple public Facebook pages to engage the surrounding communities. Each of the four locations has its own page to allow for check-ins and special offers, but they also offer community information — if there’s a cat lost, they post about it; if there’s a high school production or a breakfast event, they’ll support it and post it on their fan page.

This kind of social media effort does not come free. Squeeze In’s social media efforts are handled by three people: Ms. Young, who is really the face of the company in social media; her daughter, Shila Morris; and Eva Litson, a full-time communications manager. Ms. Young estimates that she spends an hour a day on social media, mostly in 15-minute bursts, monitoring the brand across all social media accounts and engaging with customers. Ms. Morris handles day-to-day operations and monitors Yelp. Ms. Litson handles external marketing efforts, including managing the Web site, the monthly newsletter and e-mail blasts, and she reviews the metrics of all the company’s social media efforts.

Of course, none of this would matter if people didn’t like the food. “All our communications tactics are lame and ineffective if we can’t back it up at the table,” said Ms. Young.

Melinda Emerson is founder and chief executive of Quintessence Multimedia, a social media strategy and content development firm. You can follow her on Twitter.

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Microsoft, Defying Image, Has a Design Gem in Windows Phone

“GORGEOUS,” raves The Huffington Post.

“Best-looking smartphone operating system in the industry,” gushes Slate.

“Far superior to most if not all the Android smartphones,” says TechCrunch.

Sounds like the usual adulation for a gadget from Apple. In fact, they’re actually accolades for a new product from Microsoft.


Exactly. Long ridiculed as the tech industry dullard, Microsoft actually has a hit, at least with the technorati. It’s cellphone software called Windows Phone — and they need it to be a blockbuster here at Microsoft Central.

Yes, Windows and Office products are ubiquitous and highly profitable. But they’re about as inspirational as a stapler. While the likes of Apple have captured our imaginations with nifty products like the iPhone, Microsoft has produced a long list of flops, from smart wristwatches to the Zune music player to the Kin phones. Steve Jobs used to deride Microsoft for a lack of originality. In his opinion, the company didn’t bring “much culture” to its products. With Windows Phone, though, Microsoft is finally getting some buzz.

“I am a devoted Apple fan — I was in line for the iPhone,” said Axel Roesler, assistant professor for interaction design at the University of Washington in Seattle, but Windows Phone “strikes me as quite different and an advance.”

Windows Phone, which began appearing in devices last fall, certainly stands out visually. It has bold, on-screen typography and a mosaic of animated tiles on the home screen — a stark departure from the neat grid of icons made popular by the iPhone. While most phones force users to open stand-alone apps to get into social networks, Facebook and Twitter are wired into Windows Phone. The tiles spring to life as friends or family post fresh pictures, text messages and status updates.

Even so, relatively few consumers have been tempted, and sales have been lackluster. A big problem is that, initially, the handsets running Microsoft’s software, made by companies like HTC and Samsung, were unexceptional. Even more important, wireless carriers, the gatekeepers for nearly all mobile phones, have not been aggressively selling Windows phones in their stores. Most promote the iPhone and devices running Google’s Android operating system.

And so Microsoft has struck a partnership with Nokia, and executives at both companies have high hopes that their handsets will catch on with consumers. On Monday at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nokia plans to introduce a sleek metallic Windows Phone called the Lumia 900 that will be sold by ATT in the United States, according to two people with knowledge of its plans who spoke on condition of anonymity because the product has not yet been announced. Unlike other handset makers creating devices with Microsoft’s software, Nokia is not also developing Android phones.

“We are doing our best work for Windows Phone,” said Stephen Elop, the chief executive of Nokia and a former Microsoft executive.

While the customers’ verdict is still unknown, the group that developed Windows Phone has already profoundly affected Microsoft itself, influencing work on other consumer products. The next major version of software for PC’s, Windows 8, will look a lot like Windows Phone, which Microsoft hopes will help it work better on tablet devices. A Windows Phone-like makeover was also part of the new software update for Xbox, which along with Kinect is one of Microsoft’s few consumer hits.

Bill Flora, one of the designers of Windows Phone, said the care that Microsoft took in designing its products had changed vastly since he joined the company out of art school in the early 1990s.

“Now, instead of 80 percent of its efforts being unenlightened, just 20 percent are unenlightened,” said Mr. Flora, who recently left Microsoft to form his own design firm in Seattle.

THE tale of how Microsoft created Windows Phone starts with the introduction of the iPhone, in 2007. To Joe Belfiore, now 43, an engineer who oversees software design for Windows Phone, that was the spark.

“Apple created a sea change in the industry in terms of the kinds of things they did that were unique and highly appealing to consumers,” Mr. Belfiore said in an interview at Microsoft’s campus here. “We wanted to respond with something that would be competitive, but not the same.”

Microsoft had been an early player in smartphones with Windows Mobile, software that ran on devices made by Samsung, Motorola and others. But one word describes its early effort: complicated. Windows Mobile had a complex array of on-screen menus, including a start button for applications that was borrowed from Windows PCs. The software ran on sluggish devices that had physical keyboards and, in some cases, styluses.

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Bits Blog: HTC’s Decline Is Samsung’s Gain

The Samsung Galaxy Note mini tablet.Sean Gallup/Getty ImagesThe Samsung Galaxy Note mini-tablet.

Samsung Electronics on Friday posted record fourth-quarter profits, citing high sales of its Android devices, while HTC, another major Android player, reported a drop in profits, its first decline in two years.

Samsung, based in Seoul, South Korea, said its profits increased 73 percent compared to 2010’s fourth quarter. It cited record-breaking sales of its smartphones, as well as the sale of its hard drive business to Seagate.

HTC, based in Taiwan, said profits decreased 26 percent compared to the year-ago fourth quarter, citing slower sales of its handsets.

Both companies have been aggressive advocates of Google’s Android operating system, and their differing performances illustrate the vast effort it takes to remain successful in the highly competitive mobile industry.

“I think what’s wicked cool about this is this is a perfect example of the velocity of mobile, of what’s happening in the mobile space,” said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Gartner, the technology research company. “It just goes to show how quickly things change in the market, how fast people need to innovate and how hard it is to innovate.”

HTC was the first company to make a big bet on Android. It released the G1, the first smartphone running Google’s operating system, in 2007. In the ensuing years, HTC continued to ride Google’s momentum, pumping out some of the most popular Android smartphones, like the Nexus One. The bet paid off: By 2009, HTC became the world’s fourth-largest maker of smartphones, after Nokia, Research in Motion and Apple.

Samsung waited until 2010 to make an aggressive play with Android, when it released its Galaxy S smartphone, which sold 10 million units in 10 months. Samsung rolled out more products under the Galaxy portfolio, including the Galaxy S II phone and the Galaxy Tab tablet. It threw as much as it could against the wall until some things stuck. And if some products were flops, Samsung could afford losses, given its size. For HTC, a smaller manufacturer, failures would be less forgiving.

While a dramatic change, HTC’s setback is probably related to the company’s lack of interesting innovation in the last year, said Will Stofega, an analyst at the International Data Corporation.

“It’s almost like a fashion market,” he said. “They’ve had some great devices, but they didn’t have that little sparkle or pizazz.”

Mr. Stofega added that Horace Luke, HTC’s chief innovation officer, resigned in April 2011 for personal reasons. That was a tremendous loss for the company because he had overseen some of the most successful designs, Mr. Stofega said.

Victory for Samsung, now the largest smartphone maker in the world, is hardly permanent in a market that changes so quickly, Mr. Gartenberg said. “Is it a long-term strategy, and will it pay off long term for them?” he said. “What do they need to keep up the current momentum in a market that can be very very fickle, and where fortunes literally change overnight?”

If you have thoughts on how to answer that question, post them in the comments section below.

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Disruptions: Disruptions: Wearing Your Computer on Your Sleeve

Instead of going through life staring into a mobile device, people one day may be able to wear a computer.Adrian Dennis/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesInstead of going through life staring into a mobile device, people one day may be able to wear a computer.

Technology often has a way of fixing the problems it creates. Here’s one that needs solving.

The invention of the smartphone has created a world where millions of people stroll through life constantly staring into a mobile device, like Narcissus at the edge of a pond.

I know. I’m one of them.

People are not going to put these devices down in the near future. Realistically, we will become only more absorbed by the Screen. Technology will have to solve this problem. It will do so by creating wearable computers.

Wearable computing is a broad term. Technically, a fancy electronic watch is a wearable computer. But the ultimate version of this technology is a screen that would somehow augment our vision with information and media.

Over the last year, Apple and Google have secretly begun working on projects that will become wearable computers. Their main goal: to sell more smartphones. (In Google’s case, more smartphones sold means more advertising viewed.)

In Google’s secret Google X labs, researchers are working on peripherals that — when attached to your clothing or body — would communicate information back to an Android smartphone.

People familiar with the work in the lab say Google has hired electronic engineers from Nokia Labs, Apple and engineering universities who specialize in tiny wearable computers.

Apple has also experimented with prototype products that could relay information back to the iPhone. These conceptual products could also display information on other Apple devices, like an iPod, which Apple is already encouraging us to wear on our wrists by selling Nanos with watch faces.

A person with knowledge of the company’s plans told me that a “very small group of Apple employees” had been conceptualizing and even prototyping some wearable devices.

One idea being discussed is a curved-glass iPod that would wrap around the wrist; people could communicate with the device using Siri, the company’s artificial intelligence software.

The brain that brings all these things together is the smartphone, which after all is really the first wearable computer. Researchers note that the smartphone is almost never more than three feet away from its user. It is often just inches from the bed during the night as well, and has replaced the alarm clock for many people.

As a result, the smartphone is going to be the hub for our information sharing and gathering. Think of it as a force field that will engulf us wherever we are, transmitting power and Internet access to sensors and screens that are tacked to our clothing.

“Years ago, researchers envisioned these tiny computers transmitting information to the Internet,” said Yael Maguire, a visiting scientist at M.I.T. and Harvard . “It wasn’t what we envisioned, but it happened. It’s called the smartphone.”

Michael Liebhold, a senior researcher specializing in wearable computing at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif., predicts that the next step in technology is the blurring of the real and virtual worlds.

Over the next 10 years, he says, he envisions that people will be wearing glasses with built-in screens and, eventually, contact lenses — with working displays.

“Kids will play virtual games with their friends, where they meet in a park and run around chasing virtual creatures for points,” he said.

Fashion will most likely be one of the first disruptions. Imagine teenagers being able to design their own virtual clothing that others wearing heads-up displays can see.

Parents, teachers and friends could be shown entirely different outfits. For example, I could look like a giant pink cat in a bustier to my friends, but my boss would see me in a fancy Italian suit.

At least, I hope that’s what he would see.

The alternative, I’m afraid, might call for a technological solution of its own.

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App Smart: Daily Deals, Sent Right to Your Pocket

Mobile apps are now erasing even that labor. Open the free apps, and the only remaining bit of work may be opening your wallet. The bonus: mobile software makes it easier to find deals when you’re actually in a position to capitalize on them.

Groupon’s mobile app is as good as its e-mail service, which is to say spotty, but worth an occasional visit.

Groupon is the reigning king of daily deal services. Give the company your e-mail address and physical location, and it will send daily e-mails with news of offers from local businesses. The company covers roughly 175 markets in the United States, and the offers include a mix of restaurants, activities, health providers and spas.

The app is simple fare, with good graphics and an attractive layout. Flipping quickly through the offers with my thumb, it occurred to me that mobile phones were the ideal format for scanning possibly disposable information like this.

Unfortunately, because I live in a suburban town with scant Groupon coverage, too many of the offers are definitely disposable. For every deal that I could redeem with a 15-minute drive, there were at least two that required an hourlong trek. Factoring in the expense of gas, such offers usually weren’t much of a deal.

The strangest offer was $85 for a night at Mike Ditka’s Runaway Beach Club resort in Kissimmee, Fla. The Getaways section of the app, instead of the local section, would have been a far more logical spot for it.

But for people in bigger cities, Groupon can be a boon. Chicago residents were given roughly 50 offers last Tuesday, for instance, and most were a short train ride away.

The Groupon app (for Apple and Android) is mostly free of frills, although there are a few nice touches, like the one that lets you change your daily notification time so you can receive deals when you’re most likely to use them.

LivingSocial (Android and Apple), a competitor to Groupon, adds a social networking component to the deal-hunting exercise. When users buy a deal through LivingSocial, they can circulate the offer among friends. If three friends buy that product or service, the person who makes the original purchase is awarded a refund.

LivingSocial can suffer from the same geographical spottiness as Groupon. When I tested the app, many of the offers involved significant driving. Also, the app’s separate Instant deals, which typically expire within a day, appear in only around 30 markets (including two outside the United States, London and Toronto), and miss entire states like New Jersey, Florida and Michigan.

For those in LivingSocial territory, though, the mobile element adds a convenient twist to the process. Once you buy something, the app lets you post that news easily to your Twitter or Facebook feed, or e-mail it to others, and it stores a proof-of-purchase voucher page that you show to a cashier.

Of the daily deal apps I tried, Gilt’s featured the most interesting content. It’s known as “Gilt on the Go” on Apple.

The company, in its earliest incarnation, made a name for itself as a Web-only service offering steep discounts on designer women’s apparel. It now also makes local offers in 10 cities across the country and includes goods for men and children, as well as travel, food and home goods.

While the Web site sells full-price items, as well as discounted ones, the app still mostly focuses on sales.

The app, like the Web site, also mixes the day’s offers with others that are expiring soon, and each day it features a Daily Deal on one item starting at noon, Eastern time. Last Tuesday that item was a $39 sweater from Hyden Yoo, on sale from $140. (By 3 p.m. it was sold out.)

Gilt previews the next day’s offer so you can shop around for competing prices and plan tomorrow’s purchase.

While the Daily Deal section offered solid bargains, the app’s other sales were enough to warrant a daily check-in. On the day of the men’s sweater deal, for example, the app promoted 18 different sales by women’s designers, including 50 items from Nanette Lepore at half price.

The app also scores points in other ways. When viewing items, for instance, you can pinch and enlarge the photos to see the texture on a sweater. Images flip quickly from one to the next, and users can change the item’s color with equal ease.

A few other daily deal apps are worth checking, most notably the one from Amazon, which has an Amazon Deals app on Apple that features Web-only deals. The standard Amazon app on Android includes similar deals.

And because you could fill your mobile device with deal-related apps, it’s worth keeping an eye on deal aggregators, like Deals by Citysearch (Android and Apple) or Deal Drop.

Of the two, I found Deal Drop (Android and Apple) more reliable and useful. It includes offers from Groupon and LivingSocial, as well as rivals like Woot and Tanga.

A major drawback is that Deal Drop doesn’t let you sort the offers, so my thumb grew weary flicking through all of them in New York.

At that point, the only work involved with bargain hunting will be remembering to keep your cellphone nearby.

Quick Calls

Road Inc. ($10 for iPad) is a classic-car enthusiast’s dream app. See 50 autos in crisp photos, along with videos, documents and audio of each car’s engine…. Noom Weight Loss Coach (free on Android, but there is a $10 monthly subscription upgrade) from the makers of the excellent CardioTrainer (free on Android), is smartly designed, easy to use and packed with useful features.

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App Smart: Apps That Make You Feel Like Dancing

But if your partner is a mobile device, none of those obstacles apply.

Mobile apps could be the best thing to hit ballroom dancing since the hurdler’s stretch. The better ones — like LDF Hot Salsa ($1 to $3 on Apple), Pocket Salsa ($3 on Apple and $2 on Android) and Learn Argentine Tango ($10 to $13 on Apple) — offer solid, inexpensive tutorials.

And thanks to the mobile format, you can use them when no one’s watching, or brush up on your steps immediately before you try to impress a date in public.

After a few swings around my living room, I found the Hot Salsa series especially effective. There are three levels (beginner, intermediate and advanced), with each anchored by a set of instructional videos featuring Christian Gutierrez and, sometimes, his partner Lien Pham.

The videos are adequate, if slightly less than professional quality. The audio is passable, the lighting is fair and the set is a living room, complete with fireplace. The video is framed from a point that was slightly too far at times for me to see Mr. Gutierrez’s footwork clearly, although that problem was less bothersome when I tested the app on an iPad.

Aesthetics aside, the quality of the instruction was quite good. The 30 lessons featured in each app average roughly one minute each — just enough to cover one distinct movement. Mr. Gutierrez typically introduces a move by demonstrating and explaining it at full speed. He then offers a slower demonstration, along with a more technically oriented discussion.

The videos are bolstered by text explanations of each move, which I found helpful, if occasionally in dire need of proofreading. You can also add notes of your own to each lesson, which is a nice touch.

Hot Salsa also includes a “Salsa Rhythm Interface” feature for practice sessions. With this, users can customize a salsa tune according to their preferred tempo and accompanying instruments, and hear an audible count to help with timing.

Pocket Salsa offers far more instruction for less money, but it has drawbacks. With 100 videos, it teaches all levels of the dance and provides a different instructional style than Hot Salsa. Rather than introduce a move with text, for instance, Pocket Salsa’s instructor and developer, Anthony Persaud, overlays snippets of text at crucial points in the movement.

The videos are shot more cleanly than those on Hot Salsa, the audio is clearer and the lessons cover both the “On 1” and “On 2” approaches to the dance, while Hot Salsa exclusively teaches the On 1 technique. On 1 dancers start the Tango on the first beat of a measure, while On 2 dancers begin the step on the second beat.

But Pocket Salsa suffered from a nagging flaw. Even though I tested it on a strong Wi-Fi connection, the videos paused frequently to load. I switched to Hot Salsa and experienced no such problems.

Pocket Salsa users can download the videos individually and avoid interrupted playback, but that requires patience or advance planning. A single episode of five minutes needed roughly seven minutes to download over Wi-Fi. (There is one upside: If you download only some videos, you’ll save space on your device.)

Salsa students with Apple devices would do well to download both Hot Salsa and Pocket Salsa, as there are benefits to hearing the steps taught by different instructors. For those who are unsure about buying Pocket Salsa, some of the app’s videos are available to download free at

Tango fans, meanwhile, have a good option — as long as they have an Apple device. The Learn Argentine Tango series (seven volumes, $10 to $13 each) features Alex Krebs, a veteran tango instructor based in Portland, Ore. Mr. Krebs leads about 15 lessons that are roughly two minutes each, with most covering a specific movement.

In a welcome departure from other apps, Mr. Krebs also includes tutorials on the history and etiquette of the dance, and he focuses on the small details, like posture, with precision.

“We want to have the hips back over the heels and the sternum over the toes, so that we have a slight forward inclination in our body,” he says.

Students may still find Mr. Krebs moving too quickly at times, however. I occasionally wished for slowed-down explanations, with close-ups on the dancers’ feet from different angles, for instance. But in the current state of dancing apps, users should feel lucky enough to get video from a single angle with adequate sound and lighting.

Android users can expect versions of Hot Salsa and Learn Argentine Tango next year, both developers said. Meanwhile, for the non-Apple crowd, there are a few far less polished alternatives to Pocket Salsa.

Ballroom Dancing Beginners Part 1, for instance, is free — and for good reason, since it is essentially a portal to YouTube instruction videos, complete with ads. Still, it’s useful, as it catalogs passable tutorials of the major dance techniques and thereby saves you the hassle of searching.

A cast of supporting apps can also help both Android and Apple users. Learn Swing, Salsa and Tango (free on Apple or on Android, as Salsa, Tango, Swing Cha Cha) provides diagrams of the basic steps. It’s neither extensive nor especially user-friendly, but if you can figure out that Q is the developer’s symbol for quick, among other mysteries, the app will make more sense.

DanceTime Deluxe ($5 on Apple) also deserves consideration, at least for those who are using apps that don’t include rhythm samples for practicing at different speeds. DanceTime features adjustable rhythms for 23 dances, including Merengue, Bhangra and Cha Cha.

Android users get a free alternative in Dance Line, which covers 10 dance steps. The app shut down unexpectedly on my Droid Razr, however, and you can’t slow the tempo to match your dancing speed as you learn.

Maybe that’s intentional, though. If you dance fast enough, nobody will be able to figure out what exactly you’re doing with your feet.

Quick Calls

Two app developers have adopted Guitar Hero’s moving fretboard approach to help real guitarists improve their technique. Rock Prodigy ($1 on Apple), which teaches popular songs, is one of the more smartly designed guitar apps on the market. WildChords (free on iPad, with in-app purchases) is more cartoonish and is great for beginners. … With Shopkick (free on Android and Apple), you can earn rewards by visiting retailers (offline, that is).

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With New Smartphones, High Hopes for Nokia and Microsoft

Nokia’s chief executive, Stephen Elop, presented the Lumia 800, a €420 ($584) flat-screen device aimed at high-end users, and the Lumia 710, priced at €270, which is aimed at cost-conscious consumers. Both devices are being sold this month in six European countries and later this year in parts of Asia.

The smartphones are the result of an eight-month collaboration between Nokia and Microsoft that saw executives meet periodically in Iceland to oversee the project.

Analysts said the alliance could help Nokia stem its declining share of the smartphone market, where it trails Google’s Android phones and Apple’s iPhone.

“Nokia really needed this to happen today, and this is a new start for the company,” said Pete Cunningham, an analyst in London with the research firm Canalys. “This helps stop the bleeding and will help Nokia get back in the game.”

The new lineup aims to revive Nokia’s tarnished reputation as an innovative force in mobile phones, an industry it pioneered and dominated until Apple and Google leveraged more user-friendly software to wrest control of the smartphone business four years ago.

Mr. Elop, a former Microsoft executive who made the decision to enter the software alliance with his former employer last February, said the new Lumia cellphones showed that Nokia was delivering on its promised turnaround.

“This signals our intent to be today’s leader in smartphone design and craftsmanship,” Mr. Elop said.

The Lumia 800, whose design is based on Nokia’s N9 smartphone, a product of its now-defunct alliance with the chipmaker Intel, seeks to exploit the capabilities of Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system, which has struggled commercially and has only 2 percent global market share, according to International Data Corp., a research firm.

Mr. Elop said Nokia planned to introduce several cellphones in the United States, the world’s largest smartphone market, by early 2012. He did not give details on which handsets Nokia planned to sell in the United States, where it has only a 1.2 percent share of the smartphone market. He said the phones would be made to work on both the 3G and CDMA standard networks used by ATT, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile USA and Sprint.

The Nokia-Microsoft alliance is a last-chance effort of sorts for both companies to find traction and market share in the critical, fast-growing smartphone business, devices that are rapidly becoming the favored cellphone sold in many markets.

Nokia and Microsoft are being forced play catchup, as Apple, Google and Samsung, the U.S. market leader and largest seller of phones that run Google’s Android operating system, have distanced themselves from Nokia during the software transition.

Phone operators, which sell the vast majority of phones, abandoned Nokia phones bearing its in-house operating system, Symbian, during the eight-month transition.

Shares of Nokia rose 1 percent in European trading to €4.88 following the announcement. One investor said that Nokia and Microsoft must overcome skepticism surrounding the success of the venture, which faces an uphil battle to catch Apple and Google.

“I have seen no evidence that Nokia and Microsoft are making a game of it — yet,” said Jeffrey P. Davis, the chief investment officer at Lee Munder Capital Group, an investment manager in Boston. “Android is winning the mind space on the consumer front. The business world will probably follow.”

But many network operators are hoping the alliance will be successful, giving them more leverage to negotiate lower purchase prices from Apple and the makers of Google’s Android handsets. Critical for the venture will be enlisting more handset makers besides Nokia to make Windows smartphones, said Francisco Jeronimo, an analyst with IDC in London.

“Without that, the Nokia-Microsoft handsets will just be a single option or two for consumers, not enough to elevate the brand into the mainstream of consciousness,” Mr. Jeronimo said.

Samsung and HTC, a Taiwanese handset maker, produce a limited number of Microsoft phones, preferring to either use their own operating systems or marry Google’s Android operating system to their hardware. That in part is because the companies must pay royalty fees to Microsoft.

Neil Mawston, an analyst at Strategy Analytics in Milton Keynes, England, estimated that Nokia was paying $15 to Microsoft for each Windows smartphone it produces, less than the estimated $20 other handset makers are paying. The new Windows phone lineup, he said, has the potential to help restore Nokia’s fortunes in the smartphone market.

“One thing I have learned in this business is to never say never,” Mr. Mawston said.

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Glitches in BlackBerry Service Continue

The service interruptions that began on Monday and initially affected BlackBerry owners in Europe, Africa and the Middle East had, by Tuesday migrated to Brazil, India, Chile and Argentina. By Wednesday, users in North America began complaining of the same disruptions.

Earlier this week, Research in Motion, the maker of the BlackBerry, attributed the problems to equipment failures and backup systems, blaming a faulty switch that links its internal network to the Internet as a whole. The failures have left subscribers in the affected regions without access to BlackBerry’s instant messaging service and the Web.

Marisa Conway, a spokeswoman for RIM, a Waterloo, Ontario company, said that the company was aware of the problems and delays with the service.

“We are working to resolve the situation as quickly as possible and we apologize to our customers for any inconvenience,” she said. “We will provide a further update as soon as more information is available.”

Frustration erupted on social media sites like Twitter and online forums that cater to the owners of BlackBerry devices. “Uugh. If i don’t get back to you today, this is why. BlackBerry outage appears to be spreading,” a user named Diana_Knight posted to Twitter on Wednesday.

Such failures are not rare occurrences for RIM. Last month, BlackBerry’s popular messaging service, which works like phone text messaging but doesn’t incur carrier fees, crashed for several hours in parts of Latin America and Canada.

The latest blackout comes at a precarious time for the company, which is struggling to battle against sluggish sales and a tablet that landed with a thud. Dozens of sleek new Android devices are arriving on store shelves in time for the holiday season and Apple is releasing the latest version of the iPhone this Friday.

On, a popular online forum that caters to BlackBerry owners, a thread called “Enough is Enough” had attracted thousands of views and hundreds of comments by Wednesday afternoon. “This is it. This is the boiling point. Someone has to go over to Waterloo and slap those in charge at RIM,” wrote a user going by the name BlackLion15.

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App Smart: Curl Up With a Soothing Smartphone and Relax

But for every yin there is a yang. And mobile phones are no exception.

A path to a quiet mind can travel through apps dedicated to guided meditation and sleep enhancement. And fortunately, for those who need more, or better, rest, or who are inclined to still their minds for a few minutes a day, some good ones exist on all the major mobile platforms.

Simply Being ($1 on Apple, Android and BlackBerry) and Mindfulness Meditation ($2 on Apple, with an Android version in the works) are among the better ones, while Universal Breathing – Pranayama Free (free on Apple) and Pranayama Free (on Android) are useful for those who want to test the waters.

Those with pressing insomnia issues should consider Pzizz Sleep ($6 on Apple, with a Lite version for $2). On Android, the app costs $5.69 and goes by the name Pzizz, the Insomnia Solution. Another good, but pricey, option, is Mayo Clinic Insomnia Wellness Solutions ($25 on Apple).The meditation apps, though, may well be enough to get you to sleep — or at least help calm you down.

Pranayama Free is the simplest. It leads you through exercises meant to limit you to seven breaths per minute, five breaths per minute, or about four breaths per minute. When I tried it, the graphics were helpful, but the music was a tad obtrusive.

A bigger problem was that it was slow to load and not very responsive to the touch (at least on my Droid2), so it was barely more relaxing than frustrating.

I tried Simply Being not long after in the middle of a workday that had gone haywire. I was surrounded by e-mail-toting gadgets that, I was sure, were loading important messages from colleagues.

I grabbed my iPhone and opened Simply Being, and the screen offered four options for “guided meditation for relaxation and presence.” I chose the 5-minute option, and left the 10-, 15- and 20-minute options for another day.

I then chose music, rather than nature sounds, to accompany the narrative, and I tweaked the volume of each so the narrative was clearly audible.

I was braced for a narrator who had the sort of whispery, saccharine tone that’s as relaxing as a Sawzall on a steel pipe, but fortunately, the narrator, Mary Maddux, used an approach that didn’t sound like a parent cooing a baby to sleep.

Ms. Maddux’s husband and co-developer of the app, Richard Maddux, composed the admirable soundtrack.

After five minutes I was nearly asleep.

Not everyone will respond to a given narrator’s voice, so another good choice is Mindfulness Meditation, which is written and narrated by Stephan Bodian, the author of “Meditation for Dummies.”

Mr. Bodian’s narrative was thorough, relaxing and well pitched for a meditation novice like me. There is no music or sound accompaniment, but there is more content to the app than in Simply Being.

Users can choose meditations of 5, 10, 15, 20 and 30 minutes, or a simpler relaxation narrative of 10 minutes.

A guide also offers audio tips for finding the best meditation position, for instance, and there is a text-based checklist of eight factors to improve the experience.

About an hour after nearly falling asleep to Ms. Maddux’s voice, I did the same with Mr. Bodian’s voice.

That drowsiness was partly due to a bout of insomnia the previous night. Lying awake at 3 a.m., I tried Brain Wave ($2 on Apple), which features binaural electronic tones against the backdrop of nature sounds. According to the app’s description, it requires earbuds or earphones to work properly.

Brain Wave, which has attracted good ratings from iTunes users, also has programs for easing anxiety, improving mental focus and the like, but I chose the option “Deep Sleep.” It wasn’t very practical because I couldn’t lay my head to either side or the earbuds would jam into my ear.

Either because of that, or because the binaural sounds simply didn’t work for me, I felt no closer to sleep after 45 minutes. I turned off the program, pulled out the earbuds and later managed to get to sleep.

Another option is Pzizz Sleep, which uses binaural sounds, spoken words and music in new combinations each time the user opens the app. It’s a smart choice for those who tend to grow weary of repeated narrations on other apps.

The Mayo clinic app is generally good, as well. Given how much money insomniacs spend on other treatment options, it is arguably worth the $25 investment.

That’s especially true for iPad users. The app is split between a multipage stress assessment and roughly 90 minutes of videos, and the videos, especially, render nicely on the iPad’s screen. (Free tip: It’s a myth that exercising before bedtime will help you fall asleep more easily.)

For the price, though, users should be able to expect an experience that is devoid of fluff. Although many of the video tutorials are useful, including an in-depth discussion of insomnia by Mayo Clinic specialists, far too much video is devoted to a promotion of the app’s developer and the Mayo Clinic.

It’s anyone’s guess, for instance, why insomniacs would need to watch a testimonial from a mother whose son was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer at the Mayo Clinic.

It’s enough to make you mad — that is, if you weren’t already in full command of your emotions.

Quick Calls

Lose It!, a popular (and free) weight-loss app for Apple, is now available on Android. … An Android version of Poetry, a great (free) app on Apple, for lovers of verse, also recently had its debut. … Shnap (free on Apple) is a cool new photo filtering and sharing tool. Earn points by posting popular pictures of your own and rating photos of others.

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