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Tech Bits
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BlackBerry Partners makes first investments

The Associated Press

NEW YORK - Location, location, location is the theme for the first investments made by a venture capital fund set up with money from BlackBerry maker Research in Motion Ltd.

Toronto-based BlackBerry Partners Fund LP was created in May to invest $150 million in companies developing software for BlackBerrys and other phones. Co-investing with RIM were Royal Bank of Canada and Thomson Reuters, among others.

BlackBerry Partners is similar to another fund set up with support from Apple Inc. to invest in companies making software for the iPhone, but the portfolio is quite broad. That is reflected in its first three investments, set to be announced on Wednesday. None of the recipient companies makes software exclusively for the BlackBerry.

The fund is leading a $8 million round for MobiMate Ltd., an Israeli company that makes an application called WorldMate. It helps frequent travelers by keeping track of delayed flights, guiding them to hotels and suggesting restaurants. It can use information from global positioning chips to know where the user is and keep the itinerary in sync with the time zone.

Digby, an Austin, Texas-based firm, is raising $5.5 million with BlackBerry Partners as the co-lead. Digby helps retailers set up Web stores for cell phone screens, and can also guide a user to a physical store if the phone's GPS chip indicates that one is close.

John Albright, co-managing partner of the fund, said shopping on cell phones is now at the stage where PC-based Web commerce was in the '90s, and is likely to follow the same growth trajectory to hundreds of billions of dollars in annual sales.

"We believe Digby will be powering a significant part of that commerce," Albright said.

The third investment is in Buzzd, a New York-based firm that makes an interactive city guide. It, too, senses where the user is, and can recommend nearby events and restaurants. It's getting $3.2 million.

As is usual for venture funds, BlackBerry Partners didn't reveal the amounts it is investing in each startup, only the total amount raised by all investors in the round.

-Peter Svensson, AP Technology Writer.

LinkedIn reels in outside programs for Web site

SAN FRANCISCO - Following the lead of more playful Internet hangouts, LinkedIn is trying to enliven its Web site's office-like atmosphere by offering online programs made by other companies.

Eight external applications debuted Wednesday on LinkedIn, nearly a year after the Mountain View, Calif.-based company announced its intentions to welcome outside contributions.

By drawing upon other programs, LinkedIn hopes to become a more compelling place to keep in touch with business contacts or mine career opportunities. The privately held company generates revenue through advertising and subscriptions sold to employMrs, head hunters and sales representatives who want more access to LinkedIn's membership.

More than 30 million people worldwide have set up profiles on LinkedIn, which has positioned itself as an online network for taking care of business, as opposed to the frivolous pursuits that permeate Facebook and MySpace.

Having fun has proven more fruitful so far. Both Facebook and MySpace boast more than 100 million members, helped by an array of outside applications that enable people to play games with each other or share music and photos.

What's more, privately held Facebook boasts a $15 billion market value, based on a $240 million investment that Microsoft Corp. made a year ago. LinkedIn's market value has been pegged at about $1 billion, based on stakes that were sold for nearly $76 million in two investment rounds this year.

LinkedIn is treading carefully as it ushers in outside programs. The applications have to be appropriate for professional settings and are being screened to guard against some of the security loopholes that have plagued some outside programs designed for Facebook and MySpace.

The first crop of LinkedIn's outside applications include a file-management system from Box.net, business presentation software from Google Inc. and travel itinerary tools from Tripit.

The new applications aren't necessarily all about business. Amazon.com Inc. is offering a program that will let LinkedIn members share book recommendations. There are also blogging tools, including one made by Six Apart Ltd., whose board includes LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman.

-Michael Liedtke, AP Technology Writer.

Vermonters to get largest fixed-wireless rollout

NEW YORK - In many rural areas, people who want high-speed Internet access have only one option: relatively slow and expensive satellite dishes. Now parts of rural Vermont could get a new choice.

Phone company FairPoint Communications Inc. intends to beam Internet connections over radio waves to homes and business in the state, in what appears to be the largest planned U.S. deployment of "fixed wireless" technology as a substitute for wired Internet service.

FairPoint has 300,000 phone customers in Vermont, most of whom it acquired from Verizon Communications Inc. this year. Three-quarters of them will have access to broadband by the end of the year through their phone lines.

But some phone lines in rural areas extend so far from the phone company's base that the DSL broadband signal doesn't reach the subscriber. For those, FairPoint plans to use wireless WiMax equipment from Nortel Networks Corp. and Airspan Networks Inc., the companies said Wednesday.

Tens of thousands of homes and business could be offered WiMax service, FairPoint spokeswoman Beth Fastiggi said. Prices haven't been set.

Unlike cellular broadband cards for laptops, the WiMax antennas won't be portable or usable on the go. The speeds will be comparable to low-end DSL, with downloads of 1 to 3 megabits per second, Nortel said. The transmissions will have a range of a few miles, or up to 10 miles if FairPoint's tower has a clear shot to the receiving antenna.

Sprint Nextel Corp. and Clearwire Corp. are building a network in parts of the country using another WiMax variant that allows for mobile use. AT&T Inc. is using "fixed" WiMax, much like FairPoint plans to do, in two communities in Alaska.

FairPoint also bought the New Hampshire and Maine service areas of Verizon, but hasn't announced whether it will use WiMax there.

-Peter Svensson, AP Technology Writer.

Study finds videoconferences distort decisions

NEW YORK - Videoconferencing is often heralded as the next best thing to being somewhere - a cheaper, simpler alternative to traveling in person to attend a meeting. Yet a small study raises questions about whether videoconferencing distorts interactions in a subtle but important way.

The study found that doctors and nurses who attended seminars via videoconference were more likely to be influenced by the charisma of the presenter. In contrast, people who were face-to-face with the presenter were more likely to base their judgment of the presentation on the arguments that were used, the researchers said.

Carlos Ferran at Pennsylvania State University and Stephanie Watts at Boston University quizzed 44 medical professionals who took part in early morning medical seminars via business-quality video links, and 99 peers who were in the room with the presenters. The subjects were asked about how likely they would be to refer a patient to the speaker at the seminar, and how likable they felt he or she was, among other things.

In their study published in the September issue of the journal Management Science, the researchers hypothesize that a videoconference is mentally more challenging than a face-to-face meeting. That leaves less brainpower left over to process the content of the presentation. Cues we use in conversation, such as looking at people's gazes to figure out to whom they are talking, are harder to follow in a videoconference.

The videoconference participants were more likely to report that it was hard to follow what the speaker was saying, and reported higher levels of stress during the seminars.

The researchers noted that previous studies in the field have shown mixed results for videoconferencing compared to face-to-face meetings.

-Peter Svensson, AP Technology Writer.