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Week in review: Apple goes into thin 'Air'

Ultrathin laptop debuts, along with other Apple products, as Microsoft gets patent-happy. Also: Detroit auto show goes green.

After months of rumor and speculation, Apple kicked off Macworld by clearing the air about its new laptop.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs wowed the crowd during his Macworld keynote address by introducing an ultrathin laptop called the MacBook Air, which the company touts as the world's thinnest notebook.

The MacBook Air features a 13.3-inch LED-backlit screen and a full-size keyboard, and measures 0.76 inch at its thickest and 0.16 inch at its thinnest.

The MacBook Air weighs about 3 pounds, comes with 2GB of standard memory, an 80GB standard hard drive, and 802.11n wireless connectivity. It will cost $1,799 in that configuration, and shipments are expected to start in two weeks.

However, as CNET News.com's Tom Krazit points out, most people will have to make too many compromises with the MacBook Air, from lacking an optical drive, FireWire, and an Ethernet jack to the battery, which, like those in the iPhone and iPod, can't be replaced by the user.

And as News.com's Michael Kanellos points out, we've seen thinner laptops before.

Jobs also announced iTunes movie rentals, which he said has the support of all major Hollywood studios. Films cost $2.99 for library titles and $3.99 for new releases. They can be watched on any device, instantly. Renters have 30 days to watch a movie after it's downloaded, but only 24 hours to watch it after it starts playing.

News.com readers were on the fence as to whether the movie rental service would be an attractive option, with some accusing Apple of being "greedy" and others defending the convenience of the move.

"Why would I want to pay that much to download a movie that's not even fully high-def?" . "I can go to the nearest video store for the same price or less, and that's for a full-fidelity movie.

In addition, Jobs announced Time Capsule--a "backup appliance" that looks much like the Mac Mini or Apple TV. It's basically a wireless access point with a hard drive, enabling consumers to back up their notebooks wirelessly.

The iPhone also got some new features, including an application called Maps, which you can use to approximate your location. Users can also now customize their home screen and send text messages to multiple people.

Go-go green machine
Toyota Motor surprised many by unveiling a plug-in hybrid Prius on the floor at the 2008 Detroit auto show after previously resisting the plug-in hybrid movement. But there has been quite a bit of interest in plug-in hybrids from individuals and even power companies.

Plug-in proponents claim to get 100 mpg by modifying Priuses and recharging the batteries when the cars aren't being used. Toyota seems to have finally given into the plug-in pressure, starting up its own plug-in program and handing over a couple of prototype plug-in Priuses to the University of California.

Ford Motor also got into the game, showing off a plug-in Escape Hybrid. Ford is working on the plug-in technology in conjunction with Southern California Edison. The plug-in Ford Escape Hybrid uses lithium ion batteries, giving it fuel economy of 120 mpg, according to Ford.

The trend among automakers to go green apparently has engulfed Ferrari, as it displayed an F430 affixed with biofuel stickers on the hood and doors. The car runs on E85, a mix of up to 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline.

In other environmental-awareness news, IBM announced the creation of an Eco-Patents Commons--shared innovations geared at environmental sustainability --with the participation of Sony, Nokia, and Pitney Bowes.

The Eco-Patent Commons will start with a donation into the public domain of 31 patents that cover everything from a manufacturing process that reduces volatile compounds to a natural coagulant used to purify industrial waste water.

Meanwhile, venture capital investments in green-tech companies topped $5 billion in North America and Europe last year, and they show no signs of slowing down, according to quarterly numbers released by the Cleantech Group. Investing leaped from $3.6 billion in 2006 to $5.18 billion in 2007. Energy generation was the most active sector, with 172 deals, totaling $2.75 billion.

An eye on Microsoft
Keeping track of employees is apparently on the minds of top brass at Microsoft.

The software maker, which has been busy on the patent-filing front, has raised concerns with one application in particular. That application covers a means to wirelessly measure employees' metabolism, such as a person's heart rate, blood pressure, and facial expression.

The Times newspaper of London posted a story this week noting the "Big Brother" implications such a technology could have, such as notifying an employer if a worker appears stressed out or is not being productive.

However, Microsoft says this patent is more aimed at building a more useful and relevant help system into software than it is at offering a snooping tool for bosses. Of course, you never can tell where a technology will lead, and the patent could cover either or both applications.

Microsoft also hired Tony Scott as chief information officer to head management of its internal IT systems. Scott fills a position open since November, when Microsoft fired previous CIO Stuart Scott for violating company policies.

There have been a fair number of changes at Microsoft's headquarters of late, so News.com created a rundown of the people who have recently joined or decided to leave Microsoft's executive ranks.

Also of note
Oracle plans to acquire middleware maker BEA Systems for $8.5 billion in cash...Sun Microsystems will spend $1 billion to buy MySQL, the maker of a popular open-source database...Game companies Hasbro, which distributes Scrabble in North America, and Mattel, which is responsible for its overseas trademarks, have reportedly asked Facebook to remove the game Scrabulous from its application directory...Google.org launched an ambitious plan to help communities around the world use Web and communications technology to identify and warn others of outbreaks like Avian flu or disasters like Hurricane Katrina.