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Week in review: Chips down for AMD?

AMD grapples with chip challenges, Google rethinks video, and Apple's late harvest. Also: gazing into TV's future.

The chip game is hard enough without grappling with the loss of your chief salesman just as you get ready to release a long-delayed processor with a lot riding on it.

Advanced Micro Devices, which is trying to recapture market share from rival Intel, announced that Henri Richard, head of sales and marketing, will step down from his post in September. AMD characterized the move as coming on "completely amicable terms," although the company appeared to be caught a little flat-footed by the news.

An AMD representative would say only that Richard is planning to leave in September, right as AMD prepares to launch Barcelona, its quad-core server processor, which has been beset by delays and glitches. AMD could not confirm whether Richard will be present on September 10 for what the company is billing as "the most anticipated premiere of 2007." He had been expected to take part in a series of Barcelona launch events from Europe, but it is uncertain whether he'll continue with those plans.

Despite AMD's characterization of his departure, the question must be asked: Is Richard the fall guy for AMD's problems? It's not easy to assess. Clearly, AMD has underperformed during the last year or so by anyone's standards, and there's plenty of blame to spread around.

CEO Hector Ruiz confirmed speculation that Barcelona is very late--six months later than expected--after the company encountered technical glitches. The "complicated" design that AMD chose for Barcelona, its first quad-core server processor, caused more than six months of delays before the chip was ready, Ruiz told the San Jose Mercury News.

"Every time we ran into a gotcha (or a technical glitch), it created a six-week-or-so hole in the schedule as we went back and fixed it," Ruiz said. "We hoped we wouldn't get many of those, but in the Barcelona case, we got more than we thought. By the time we got through fixing them all, we were six months-plus later from where we originally wanted to be."

For the future, AMD's pretty sure we all want better graphics on our PCs and it's pretty sure we don't want to cough up a lot of money to get it. Phil Hester, AMD's chief technology officer, stopped by the Hot Chips conference at Stanford University to talk a little more about Fusion, AMD's plan to integrate a graphics processor and PC processor onto the same chip. Hester said that, by the time the chip is ready, around 2009, the growing explosion of video and 3D graphics on PCs these days will require an affordable chip that still delivers great graphics performance.

Google and the green
Google is finally rolling out an advertising format for YouTube that could succeed where many others have failed: it's not annoying. Google's YouTube features ads that are similar to a model used by TV broadcasters for years. TV viewers have grown accustomed to watching a show and seeing the image of David Letterman or some other star walk across the bottom of the screen as part of a promotion. YouTube's new ads are very similar.

YouTube's mini commercials, which are produced through Flash animation, appear at the bottom of a video, are mostly transparent and disappear after 10 seconds. Once the ad appears, a user has the option of clicking on it while the video pauses. The viewer is then taken to a "player within the player" where he or she is encouraged to interact with the advertiser's content. When the person clicks out of the ad, the video resumes.

However, some YouTube Fans find the new ads jarring, some in international quarters wish they could see them, and still others are wondering if they can make money off their own videos with these ads.

"If YouTube starts with accessory advertising while the video is playing, I leave YouTube," said one poster on YouTube's blog with the screen name "Amgervinus." Another viewer--who refers to himself on YouTube as "quepasakoolj18"--put it more succinctly in his post: "Yuck."

Google is also combining YouTube videos with Google News to offer users what it hopes will be broader perspective on news stories. The company announced on its blog that visitors to Google News will see a "Video" prefix next to news stories. Clicking on these links will take them to a YouTube page where they can watch video about the subject.

The offering is a sign that Google is looking for ways to get the most use out of YouTube's vast video library. The service may also send a message to news providers that Google is ratcheting up efforts to become the Web's main newsstand.

Meanwhile, Google acknowledged erring in the way it handled refunds last week after shutting down its video download store. The company angered some Google Video customers who had paid for movies but were locked out when the store was shuttered.

At first, the company offered to refund customers in credit to their Google Checkout accounts. That idea was widely criticized by many as being self-serving. However, Google admitted the "goof" and announced that it would give credit card refunds to anyone who had ever bought a video on the site.

After getting got a lot of flack from privacy advocates for photographing faces and license plate numbers and displaying them on the Street View in Google Maps, Google has quietly changed that policy. Now anyone, not just the owner of the face or car, can alert the company and have an image of a license plate or a recognizable face removed.

The policy change was made about 10 days after the launch of the product in late May, but was not publicly announced, according to Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience at Google. Google is not removing images proactively, and will do so only when someone notifies the company.

The coming image
For all the clout and brand-recognition that accompanies names like Sony and Samsung, it was Vizio, a virtual unknown a year ago, that topped all LCD TV makers in the second quarter of this year.

Vizio sold 606,402 TVs in North America in the second quarter, a 76 percent jump from the previous quarter, according to a report by iSuppli released Monday. That puts Vizio in first place among LCD TV vendors, with a market share of 14.5 percent, up from 9.4 percent, or fifth place.

The LCD TV maker has quickly staked out a place in the flat-panel market and has elbowed aside some of the biggest names in electronics in the process. The biggest reason for Vizio's sudden rise is its distribution strategy. At the beginning of the second quarter, the company expanded its list of retailers to include Wal-Mart Stores, Sears, Kmart and Circuit City, providing a huge boost to its shipment total.

Many of the sales have been generated by word-of-mouth endorsements. Vizio has done little in the way of advertising. But that's about to change come this fall, Vizio CEO William Wang said in an interview with CNET The company is prepping for a big marketing push when the new National Football League season kicks off next month.

Meanwhile, we've been hearing about the potential advantages of OLED (organic light-emitting diode) TVs for several years now, but when will TV manufacturers actually start selling OLED TVs and, more important, will those TVs cost way too much for the average consumer? So far, Sony has indicated that it will be the first out of the gate with an OLED TV, sometime next year, and the panels will likely be small, in the range of 11 to 27 inches wide. No one is saying how much they might cost, but some pundits think that an OLED TV of that size could cost somewhere between $800 and $1,000. Toshiba is expected to start selling 30-inch OLEDs in 2009.

There's another problem: unlike LCD (liquid crystal display) and plasma, which were completely new display technologies compared with cathode ray tubes when they first debuted, OLED TVs are a variation on the ingredients and manufacturing process used to make LCD panels. The fact that it's not a drastically new technology could mean it will have a more difficult time gaining a foothold with consumers, particularly when the price for a new OLED TV will be relatively high, at least initially.

Late-season Apple harvest
Yes, they've been on sale for only two months, but refurbished iPhones are now available for purchase on Apple's Web site. You can get both versions at a $100 discount with free shipping. That puts the 8GB model at $499 (17 percent off the original price) and the 4GB model at $399 (21 percent off). All the features are the same, including that required AT&T two-year contract--unless, that is, you can get around it. While the $100 discount may be good news to wannabe iPhone owners with smaller budgets, it sparks an interesting question: just where are the refurbished iPhones coming from?

Apple, which has said it wants to launch the iPhone in Europe by the end of this year, has reportedly chosen T-Mobile, O2, and Orange as its European launch partners for the iPhone after wrangling a revenue-sharing agreement. The four companies are set to announce their partnership by the end of the month, according to the Financial Times. The deals would require the carriers to share 10 percent of all revenue from voice and data services over the iPhone with Apple, according to the report.

Several different reports have surfaced over the past couple of days regarding revamped iPods that Apple may or may not have in the works. Other than adding color to the iPod Shuffle line, Apple hasn't done anything with the traditional iPods this year, and it looks like that's about to change.

AppleInsider believes that Apple will release Mac OS X-based iPods in September, citing unidentified sources. This particular theory has surfaced before, with many believing that Apple will introduce an iPod that looks just like the iPhone, just without the ability to make phone calls. These new iPods would have features very similiar to the iPhone but would retain the familiar click-wheel interface.

Also of note
With their new joint digital music initiative, MTV Networks, RealNetworks and Verizon Wireless are taking direct aim at Apple's iTunes powerhouse...Instead of asking participants in a test group how they liked Frontlines, game maker THQ hired technology specialist EmSense to measure their brain waves, heart rate and sweat responses while they played the military-theme game...Skype fixed a software bug that made the Internet telephony service almost unusable for two days last week.