The Associated Press

Apple takes gulp of strong, glossy Liquidmetal

NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ Apple Inc. is getting exclusive access to an exotic metallic material that could provide it with shiny, super-tough computer and phone casings.

Liquidmetal Technologies Inc., a Caltech spinoff in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., filed a regulatory notice recently that it's granted Apple a perpetual, exclusive license to use its technology in consumer electronics. Liquidmetal retains the rights for other applications.

Apple isn't saying anything about the deal, and it's far from certain that the material will ever make it into its products. Though it matches the sleek Apple aesthetic, it's prohibitively expensive.

The name "Liquidmetal" brings to mind the silvery, shapeshifting villain of the "Terminator 2" movie, but the company's products are somewhat less dramatic. It mixes molten metal alloys in such a way that, when they cool, the structure of the material is more similar to glass than metal.

The materials aren't translucent, but they have other interesting benefits.

One is that they can be cast so precisely that they need little or no machining afterward. Regular metals shrink as they cool, which means they lose contact with the die and need polishing for a smoothness.

"Metallic glass" can also be very hard. Hard materials are often brittle, like glass, and that was a problem with early alloys. Liquidmetal CEO Thomas Steipp said the company has figured out how to make tougher variants, much like Pyrex glass is tougher than regular glass.

Apple is big on using metal in its designs â¿¿ virtually every Mac is clad in aluminum, except for the cheapest MacBook. It's even started making the bodies for its laptops and Mac mini desktop computers out of single, big chunks of aluminum that it then hollows out. With Liquidmetal, that time-consuming process could conceivably be replaced with casting. Aluminum is also a relatively soft metal, prone to denting, scratching and scuffing.

However, Liquidmetal is still very expensive because of it needs exotic raw materials, including beryllium. Some Liquidmetal alloys contain large amounts of platinum, which costs $1,500 an ounce. The alloys have gone into luxury watches, luxury phones, medical devices and some sporting gear, such as tennis rackets and skis, but they are far from being mass-market materials.

Steipp said he could not say what Apple might use the materials for. Neither company disclosed the value of the deal, but Liquidmetal seems to have gotten a shot in the arm from it. It hasn't filed a financial statement since last year, but Steipp, an experienced technology executive, was appointed five days after the deal was announced.

"I believe there's an opportunity for Liquidmetal to be a catalyst for changing the way that product designers think about building their products. It's that different," Steipp said. "We have to prove that, but certainly from what I've seen as technology executive evaluating the technology before I came in ... we've made a lot of progress over the last eight years."

â¿¿ Peter Svensson, AP Technology Writer

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Broadband adoption slows down, but blacks catch up

NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ The adoption of high-speed Internet service in homes has slowed to a crawl this year after a decade of rapid growth, according to two new studies. And it looks as if broadband is going to be a tough sell for those who don't already have it.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project said 66 percent of U.S. adults now use broadband at home, up from 63 percent last year. The difference is not statistically significant.

Leichtman Research Group issued a separate report that said cable TV and phone companies added a net 336,000 broadband subscribers in the April-June period, fewer than in any quarter in the last nine years. Phone companies lost a net 7,500 subscribers â¿¿ a first. Cable TV companies accounted for the growth.

Leichtman's research was based on earnings statements reported by the major phone and cable companies for the second quarter, while Pew conducted a phone survey of 2,252 people in April and May. Both reports came out Wednesday.

Of the adults Pew surveyed, 53 percent said they didn't believe the spreading of affordable broadband access should be a major government priority. Non-Internet users were even less likely to support government intervention in the industry.

That fits in with previous Pew surveys, which have shown that most people who don't have Internet service at home just aren't interested in it, particularly if they're over the age of 64. A minority don't have it because it's too expensive or not available at all.

The Federal Communications Commission's national broadband plan, released in March, found that 14 million to 24 million Americans do not have access to broadband. The plan, mandated by last year's stimulus bill, lays out a roadmap for bringing high-speed connections to all Americans.

FCC spokeswoman Jen Howard said the Pew report confirms that there are still too many barriers to broadband adoption. The agency's plan include "digital literacy" initiatives to educate people about the ways that broadband can improve their lives.

The Pew survey found one group that has signed up for broadband at a rapid pace in the past year: blacks. Last year, 46 percent of them used broadband at home. This year, the figure was 56 percent, meaning they're closing the gap with Americans at large, but there's still room for further gains.

The study found that blacks and English-speaking Latinos are significantly more likely than whites to say that a lack of broadband access is a "major disadvantage" when it comes to such things as finding out about job opportunities and getting health information. The survey was conducted only in English and did not include Latinos who spoke only Spanish.

The Pew study has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points for questions aimed at the whole sample.

â¿¿ Peter Svensson, AP Technology Writer

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EBay rolling out shopping rewards program

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) â¿¿ EBay Inc. is rolling out its eBay Bucks shopping reward program to all U.S. users of its online marketplace.

The program, which had been in a limited "beta" test, gives participants a 2 percent reward on certain items they buy through eBay.com and pay for using eBay's online payment service, PayPal. The rewards are issued as quarterly gift certificates, which can be used within 30 days when using PayPal to pay for items on eBay.

Participants can get up to $200 in eBay Bucks for each item bought on eBay, and as much as $500 per quarter. If you bought a $100 vintage toy, for example, you would earn $2 in eBay Bucks toward your quarterly total.

The program's adoption marks another move by eBay to improve the shopping experience on its main site in hopes that it will attract and retain buyers and sellers â¿¿ something it has been focusing on by implementing a slew of changes.

Marc Steffans, the program's senior manager, said eBay decided to expand the program beyond the test Wednesday because it noticed that participants often used their eBay Bucks very quickly after receiving them to buy other things. That's a sign participants were pleased to get rewarded for shopping, and it helps sellers, too.

â¿¿ Rachel Metz, AP Technology Writer

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