) new iPod Nano music player has shifted to "Who's in it?" Researcher iSuppli tore apart a Nano to figure out what makers provide its parts. One big loser was Synaptics (SYNA
), supplier of touch-sensitive chips that are key to the original iPod's click wheel. In the Nano, Synaptics was nudged aside by an Apple-designed wheel using chips from Cypress Semiconductor (CY
). A winner: PortalPlayer (PLAY
), whose audio chips were in hard-drive based iPods but dropped in Apple's first flash memory player, the iPod Shuffle. A specially made PortalPlayer chip made it into the Nano.
Few who purchase a 2-gigabyte Nano (retail price: $199) will be shocked that, according to iSuppli's Chris Crotty, it has a 50% gross profit margin before marketing, distribution, and other costs. Crotty pegs the cost of parts at $90.18, plus $8 for assembly. Apple got a 40% break on flash memory from Samsung, he says. That price will challenge rivals. But it could also give them supply headaches: Apple agreed to buy 40% of Samsung's flash-chip output. Richard Branson seems less angry about oil prices than envious. Sensing massive oil-industry profits for years to come, the maverick founder of Britain's Virgin Group wants to get into the business himself. First up: an oil exploration company that will probably have an African chief executive and begin scouting in a matter of months. But the real stretch is a $2 billion oil refinery that he hopes to have running, probably in Europe or Africa, within four years. While Branson is trying to woo partners by throwing in $100 million of his own money -- and maybe more -- he admits he's entering a field where the Virgin brand won't generate much buzz. "The goal is obviously to make money," he says, "and it's quite a good hedge against rising [jet] fuel prices."
Branson figures that if prices collapse, his various airlines will benefit from lower fuel costs. That's why he's targeting other energy-dependent users as investors. But he probably won't have much luck with cash-strapped U.S. carriers. And oil experts say the high profitability of refining may well be temporary. "With the exception of the past few years, oil refining has been an industry that people have tried to get out of," says Ronald Gold, vice-president at the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation. "It's not a totally ridiculous idea, but he's coming in near the top." For the busy professional who needs help remembering the little things, there's a new flower-delivery service: SaveMyAss.com. Unveiled on Sept. 9, it sets up a schedule that can include birthdays, anniversaries, and "random" deliveries every four to six weeks. So that customers aren't caught off guard by their own acts of kindness ("you are definitely kept in the loop," the Web site assures), SaveMyAss fires off an e-mail reminder to senders before delivering a vase of long-stemmed roses or a bouquet of lilies and larkspurs to loved ones.
The venture is the latest brainchild of two cheeky entrepreneurs -- Al Lieb, the co-founder of invitation site Evite, (IACID
) and James Hong, the co-founder of online dating site HotorNot.com. "Guys -- even when they're well intentioned -- need a little nudge," Hong says. Customers are charged a $5 commission on orders ranging from $59 to $125. And if all else fails? There's a Panic Button feature, which helps gauge what kind of flowers to send with prompts such as "She's throwing things." Huey Long would be appalled. Representative Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) has proposed keeping billions of hurricane recovery money away from corrupt Louisiana and New Orleans politicians. On Sept. 7, Tancredo wrote to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), pointing to a long list of convicted state officials: "I am not confident that Louisiana officials can be trusted to administer federal relief aid." The difficulty of rebuilding without local politicians, and the negative response of state congressional delegates, will probably ensure this idea is dead. Everybody gripes about the weather, but Nissan (NSANY
) is doing something about it. Nissan uses "hail-suppression cannons" to minimize damage to cars outside its Canton (Miss.) plant, where as many as 6,000 vehicles often await shipment. The cannons emit sonic shock waves up to 20,000 feet -- in theory, scattering water drops before they can freeze. Some experts question whether it works. But Nissan says the number of storms dropped after it started using the 20-foot cannons in late 2003. Nissan contends the 50-decibel blasts are "no louder than highway noise." But after neighbors beefed, the company agreed to shorten their firing time. Richard Shoemaker speaks so softly that you may have to lean in to hear him. But as head of the United Auto Workers' General Motors (GM
) Dept., he wields a big contract. A Missouri native who at 18 followed his father into a job at John Deere (DE
), Shoemaker hit the limelight in 1998 as chief negotiator during a 54-day strike that cost GM $2 billion. Today, GM's situation is worse. Yet Shoemaker, 65, bristles at suggestions that workers should slash their health benefits to help out. The problem, he says, is GM's falling market share: "Whether you're selling cars or peanuts, if you sell less of them, you get less revenue."
The UAW is stuck, though, too. Shoemaker also deals with auto-parts maker Delphi, which may file for bankruptcy without $2.5 billion in givebacks. But Shoemaker says he is fighting something bigger: the loss of U.S. jobs to cut-rate markets: "This country is a beacon for people around the world. They come here because they want to do better." Tech companies have long bemoaned the shortage of U.S. math and science teachers. Now, IBM (IBM
) hopes to encourage some veteran employees to step into the breach. On Sept. 16, Big Blue said it would help selected workers become certified teachers. Employees with 10 years of experience and a math or science degree will be able to take certification courses while still working for IBM. They will take a leave to complete up to three months of student teaching. And IBM will give each of them up to $15,000 to cover course costs and missed salary. Finally, it will help place departing workers in teaching jobs.
Most participants are likely to be in their early-to-mid-50s, when many retire from IBM and are interested in launching a second career. They'll take a pay cut to teach, although an IBM pension and other retirement savings will help ease the blow for some participants. But education officials, such as Joel Klein, chancellor of New York City Public Schools, are ready to welcome them with open arms. Just 100 IBM employees, mostly from New York and North Carolina, will take part in the program. If it works well, "our intention is to expand," says Stanley Litow, vice-president for IBM Corporate Community Relations. That could mean hundreds of teachers from IBM's 160,000 U.S. workers. IBM obviously can't plug the shortage of 250,000 math and science teachers by itself. But officials hope its example will persuade other outfits to follow suit. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley found that eavesdroppers with a few algorithms can read your typing just by listening. Computer science professor Doug Tygar and PhD students Li Zhuang and Feng Zhou made 10-minute recordings of subjects typing on PCs. They used speech-recognition technology to categorize and "read" the taps. This works because each key makes a distinctive sound when it strikes the metal plate below most keyboards. "It's like hitting a drum," says Tygar.
Eavesdroppers presumably would bug your office or aim a microphone at a window. Tygar's team, funded by the National Science Foundation, has yet to find anyone using the technique. But he is fielding calls for keyboards that would generate random typing sounds. Silicon Valley, are you listening?