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Tech Retrospect: Verizon snaps up AOL, and Google hits the road

In 2000, AOL bought Time Warner. Now, AOL is being gobbled up by Verizon. Also, Apple will launch its smart-home service next month and Google's self-driving cars roll out. All that and more in your look back at the week in tech.

If there was one deal that typified the dot-com madness of the late '90s, it was the merger of AOL and Time Warner. In January 2000, AOL announced it was paying $164 billion for Time Warner. That shocking sum typified the insanity of the tech bubble, and the date more or less marked the end of the line for stratospheric valuations.

This week, Verizon announced a plan to buy what remains of AOL. The price? A rather more realistic $4.4 billion. The expectation is that Verizon will make extensive use of AOL's ad sales technology, which has been making strides on the mobile and video front. This could give Verizon some lucrative income streams down the road as online content publishers need new ways to make money from their wares.

AOL CEO Tim Armstrong Rob Kim, Getty Images for AOL

However, AOL has also been shaping itself as a content company for some time now, most notably with the purchase of the Huffington Post in 2011. AOL also owns plenty of sites that cover the tech sector closely, most notable being Engadget (where I was formerly editor in chief) and TechCrunch. These sites watch everything Verizon does like a hawk, and while both have pledged continued editorial independence (which I believe), in the coming months the onus will be upon them to prove it.

Facebook takes another bite out of the Internet

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Soon we might never need to leave Facebook. Facebook

To continue on the AOL theme for a moment, in the early days of the service it tried to be your exclusive portal to an exclusive online world -- a sort of Internet Light. Ultimately it opened the doors to the rest of the World Wide Web, and from then on it was basically just another ISP.

Facebook is now climbing the uphill battle of going the other way, trying to section off bits and pieces of content within its own walled garden. This week that garden got a nice editorial infusion with the first Instant Articles. These are pieces of content, full articles hosted within Facebook. Sources like National Geographic, BuzzFeed, The New York Times and Bild are among the first to throw some words and pictures Facebook's way, enticed by the appeal of having lots of eyeballs and getting at least some of the ad revenue.

There's good news for readers, too, most notably that all articles load instantly. However, there's plenty of concern that such techniques may result in an increasingly segmented Web. Only time will tell whether this proves to be a short-lived experiment or the beginning of the end for a free, open Internet.

4K Blu-rays are coming

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Blu-ray Disc Association

Finally upgrade to a full-HD Blu-ray player? Good for you, but know now that its days are formally numbered. The Blu-ray Disc Association this week has finalized its Ultra HD Blu-ray specification, which means 4K content finally has a home on physical media. The discs will support 3,840x2,160 resolutions at 60 frames per second, enough to fill the pixels on modern Ultra HD TVs. Panasonic has already showed off a prototype player, but many more will come. And no, they won't be cheap. At least, not at first.

Apple HomeKit devices coming next month

Sarah Tew/CNET

There was a flurry of misreporting this week surrounding a supposed delay of Apple's much-anticipated HomeKit functionality. The service will bring together the disparate systems that can contribute to a modern smart home, a potentially major step toward ending the fragmentation that has stagnated the growth of that market. Apple has pledged that the first devices will arrive in June, meaning you should soon be able to tell Siri to turn out the lights.

Google's self-driving cars hit the road

Google has already logged millions of miles testing its self-driving systems, but that has always been bolted into other peoples' cars -- mostly Toyota Prii and Lexus SUVs. Now, its own cars are set to pull out into traffic on public roads. The little, two-seater clown cars will be capped at 25mph, a speed that's sure to raise the ire of anyone caught behind one, but it will lower the demands for the internal systems. If you're in and around Mountain View, Calif., this summer, be sure to keep an eye out.

Lily drone follows you if you throw it

Drones with cameras are an great way to get some great footage of yourself doing extreme events. But unless you have a friend or colleague willing to take the controls, you won't be filming much. The Lily quadcopter changes that. It locks onto a wrist-worn GPS module and follows you around like an obedient, flying dog, filming all the while.

At $999 (roughly £650, or AU$1,300), it isn't particularly expensive -- though that price has been cut in half for about the next month if you preorder one. Its release is scheduled for February 2016.

The lack of replaceable battery is a bummer, and we're told it has no ability to avoid things like trees (or, indeed, other spectators). Still, it's a fascinating concept.

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