The NewsFuror

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Wi-fi update helps eye doctors

Thousands of residents of remote villages in southern India have easy access to eye care thanks to a specially designed, low-cost and long-distance wi-fi network.

The network allows specialists at Aravind Eye Hospital at Theni, in the state of Tamil Nadu, to interview and examine patients in nine remote clinics via high-quality video conference.

The new technology has been developed by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and at Intel Corporation in collaboration with the Indian hospital.

One of the scientists' first priorities was to develop inexpensive and robust wireless networking technology which would stand up to the demands of developing regions.

The team could have used Wimax technology for long-range wireless networking but it is expensive to implement, explained Eric Brewer, a Berkeley professor of computer science and director of the Intel Research Berkeley lab.

Instead the Berkeley scientists adapted existing wi-fi technology. The key challenge is that wi-fi is designed for short, and not long distance communication.

'Better antennas'

"It turns out that you can get the radio signal to go further just using better antennas," says Professor Brewer. "However, in doing so, you have to pick a particular direction for the signal. This long-distance wi-fi is a fixed point to point wireless technology, like microwave links.

This could revolutionise the delivery of health care services and greatly improve the quality life in the rural developing world
Professor Eric Brewer, Berkeley
Berkeley's team has built wireless fixed links between the vision centres and the hospital. "Ours is a solution tuned to the needs of developing areas; NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) don't have the resources to implement the more expensive long-distance systems such as Wimax, " says Sonesh Surena, one of Brewer's PhD students working in the project.

The innovation for the India wi-fi system was to provide high bandwidth, for high quality video imaging, over long distances.

The researchers redesigned the software, so that some of the unneeded information typically sent over a wi-fi connection was discarded.

By combining their modified software with directional antennas and routers to send, receive and relay signals, the research team so far has been able to obtain network speeds of up to six megabits per second (Mpbs) at distances up to 40 miles.

Impressive results

But the team has obtained even more impressive results: "In our current world record, we achieved almost 6 megabits/second over a distance of 384 kilometres using only one link," he adds. These tests were carried out in a project in Venezuela last summer.

Vision centres in the region are now conducting real-time eye exams with doctors in Theni, over a direct connection 150 times as fast as the old dial-up modem, which used to cost $200 a year.

The long-distance wireless link, installed at a cost of $1,800, is practically free to operate.

"With our old system we only had audio, and a little of video," says Dr Namperumalsamy, chairman of Aravind Eye Care System.

He adds: "After the scientists from Berkeley came over, we have a powerful bandwidth and we can have video conferences, we can send e-mails and documents.

"Ultimately we can reach more patients at a affordable cost so that we can serve more people."

For P Ramaswamy, an 64 year-old patient, the vision centre that was built half a kilometre away from his home has made a great difference in his life.

He now can avoid a day's travel and have his eye test done locally.

'Skillful work'

"Someone told me that you can talk to the doctor in Theni through the system and that it is very convenient. I prefer coming here," he says.

At the moment, there are nine centres linked to the hospitals at Theni, which serve more than 50,000 residents in the area. And roughly 2,500 patients per month are using the video conference to meet with a doctor.

Each vision centre is run by three paramedical technicians, so that "eye doctors can do skilful work in the hospital such as surgery", says Dr Namperumalsamy.

The current network is expected to expand in the state to include five hospitals within the Aravind Eye System Care that will be linked to 50 clinics.

They are expected to serve half a million patients each year in rural South India - most of whom have no access to eye care today.

These vision centres will positively impact the health of the Indian economy, according to a recent study by the Aravind Eye Care System. It showed that 85% of the men and 58% of the women who had lost their jobs due to sight impairment were reintegrated into the workforce following treatment.

For now, the focus is on India, but the experimental wireless networking infrastructure developed by Intel and UC Berkeley researchers could make it possible to deliver eye care services in other rural areas in the developing world.

"Wherever there's a demand for eye care or other medical services, you can easily and inexpensively install one of our networks," says Professor Brewer. "This could revolutionise the delivery of health care services and greatly improve the quality life in the rural developing world."

Sony offers cut-price PlayStation

A cut price PlayStation 3 (PS3) with a smaller hard drive and no backwards compatibility with previous consoles goes on sale later this month.

The £299 PS3 has a 40-gigabyte hard disk and will be released in Europe, Middle East, Australia and New Zealand.

Sony has also slashed the price of the 60GB model from £425 to £349, as it hopes to ignite sales.

Ray Maguire, head of PlayStation UK, said he expected the PS3 user base to double by Christmas.

Mr Maguire said the release of the 40GB PS3 was a "strategic decision" and not the result of lower-than-expected sales of the PlayStation 3.

"We have done market research, looked at fans' forums and the feedback from consumers is that they are anxious to get into PlayStation 3 but it is too expensive," he told BBC News.

Sony was the market leader in the previous two generations of console releases. However, Nintendo is now in pole position closely followed by Microsoft's Xbox 360.

We want to get the console to the next level; we have re-engineered the machine to bring the price down
Ray Maguire, Sony

More than 5.5 million PlayStation 3 consoles have been shipped worldwide, compared with more than 10 million each of the Wii and Xbox 360.

He said he expected some existing PS3 owners to feel frustrated at the price cut for the 60GB model coming just six months after the machine was first launched.

The new PS3 will be unable to play PlayStation 1 and 2 games, has a reduced number of USB ports, from four to two connections, and no slots for memory cards. It goes on sale from 10 October.

"The cost of peripherals for adding USB connections and memory stick options is low," said Mr Maguire explaining the alterations.

He added: "Backwards compatibility was reasonably expensive for us to implement and taking it out enabled us to reduce the price."

The entry-level PS3 is now the same price as an Xbox 360 Elite, which has a 120GB hard drive.

Extra expense

However, the PS3 has built-in wi-fi connectivity and a high definition Blu-ray DVD player.

An add-on HD-DVD drive and wi-fi peripheral are available to Xbox 360 owners at extra expense.

The Nintendo Wii costs £179 but does not have high definition graphics or DVD playback, and relies instead on an innovative motion-sensitive control system.

There is no confirmation on the launch of the 40GB PS3 in North America and Japan, which have their own divergent models and price points.

Mr Maguire said: "The people who want to get into new technology early are prepared to pay a premium.

"We want to get the console to the next level; we have re-engineered the machine to bring the price down."

He added: "We have invested a lot of money in reaching this price point."

Sony is still losing money on each console sold, said Mr Maguire, but would lose less money on the 40GB machine.

"We are in an investment phase," he said.

Sony was criticised last year when it unveiled its £425 price point for the PlayStation 3 with many analysts saying the firm would struggle to win over gamers.

"It has taken us that long to get the cost down, it's as simple as that," said Mr Maguire.

Games violence study is launched

The government is asking for evidence for a new study of the effect of violent computer games on children.

Psychologist Tanya Byron will head the study, which will also examine how to protect children from online material.

The review is due to be launched by Dr Byron - together with Schools Secretary Ed Balls and Culture Secretary James Purnell - at a school in east London.

The games industry's association Elspa said it would co-operate - but it was too often blamed for society's ills.

Paul Jackson, of Elspa (the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers' Association), said the body had already met with Dr Byron and would work with the government on the review.

We are very responsible and keen to ensure that our products are only played by those who they are designed for
Paul Jackson, Elspa

But he said the industry was "too often blamed for everything from obesity to youth violence".

He said: "It is just not true and it's not appropriate."

He added: "We feel quite positively about this review. It's clear the review is about making sure parents are properly informed about what their youngsters are playing and what they are accessing on the internet."

'Singled out'

David Braben, of Frontier games, asked why games were being singled out.

"A review might be useful but it should not just look at one media, especially when media are intersecting," he said.

He added: "Historically there has always been in government a Luddite sentiment - whatever the new industry is tends to take the blame of the latest ailment of society.

"We do tend to be the people who get the blame first at the moment. And that is a tragedy - because this industry is one of the most interesting media."

Philip Oliver, chief executive of Blitz games, said more education was needed for parents.

"They aren't paying attention to the certificates. That is partly because they don't understand them and have a distorted image of games - that either they are harmless or totally evil."

The review is launched a day after the British Board of Film Classification refused a certificate for Manhunt 2 for a second time.

Mr Oliver said the decision was proof "the system is working".

According to Elspa, only 2% of games released in the UK receive an 18 certificate and the average age of a gamer is 28.

'Higher standards'

Mr Jackson said: "We are a very important British industry. We are very responsible and keen to ensure that our products are only played by those who they are designed for."

Margaret Robertson, a video games consultant and former editor of Edge magazine, said the industry felt it was doing as much as it could.

"The games industry is holding itself to higher standards than the film industry. This is a solved problem.

"Allowing that, everyone is united in not wanting material for older gamers to get into the hands of children."

She added: "This report may start finding some wider ways to do that."

From Conan to Governator

When Arnold Schwarzenegger urged the Conservative Party conference to address climate change, it underlined his reinvention from bodybuilder to green campaigner and respected politician.

There he goes again - at the United Nations, teamed up with former US Vice President Al Gore to press for quick action on climate change.

He waves his hands, points his fingers, pounds the podium, exhorting another nations to follow his lead.

And there he is via satellite to Britain, a gusher of advice on how the Conservatives can win in the UK, by stressing their green credentials.

And here he is back home, meeting with members of his own political party - as the keynote speaker, the star attraction - and he tells them the last thing they want to hear. He says they will soon be obsolete - dinosaurs - unless they change.

He still mangles both the Queen's English and the breezy dialect of his adopted home

This improbable political dynamo is the 60-year-old, Austrian-born action hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The former Mr Universe looks like he's trying to live up to his old title. He is everywhere, the most famous immigrant in America and the unlikely face of a new politics.

By profession, he is a bodybuilder and a film star. He spent most of his adult life in a gym, pumping himself up while reading self-help manuals.

You probably know him as Conan the Barbarian, Kindergarten Cop or Terminator 1, 2 and 3. He was the cyborg who deadpans: "I'll be back" and "Hasta la vista, baby."

He still mangles both the Queen's English and the breezy dialect of his adopted home - that being Cal-i-forn-eee-ah. Now, of course, he's the "Governator", as T-shirts in the Sacramento airport proclaim.

Political pretzel

It was a joke when Ahh-nold was first elected governor of California, in a bizarre recall four years ago. In his first year in office, he came on strong, calling Democrats "girly men" and going after unlikely political opponents like nurses and teachers.

His approval ratings tanked. A Republican in a Democratic state, he looked like he was headed for a short-run in the electoral theatre.

But this son of a small-town police officer did what he has always done: he reinvented himself - no doubt aided by his wife, Maria Shriver, a Democrat from the Kennedy dynasty. He told voters he made mistakes and he needed to practise humility.

Talk about girly men - no more muscle politics for this muscle man. And the makeover worked; Schwarzenegger won a full-term last year by a large margin.

Since then, he has been a whirl of activity, defying expectations of both major parties. But he has also drawn fire as a political pretzel, twisted in whatever shape will keep his approval ratings high and unwilling to take truly unpopular stands.

The governor did put California on a path to be the leader, not just in the United States, but in the world in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He issued a series of executive orders and set goals that go beyond anything the European Union has yet done.

How could he possibly pull this off in California, where the car is still king, even though it's most often found in the still-life of the state's perpetual rush hour?

One way Schwarzenegger proposed is to put a million solar-energy roofs amidst the sea of red tiles that blanket the California exurban landscape.

Another way is to lure technology and venture-capital money, prompted by the governor's mandates, to come up with clean energy or else walk away from one of the world's great consumer markets.

Hummer to hybrid

There are legions of people in California working in garage start-ups, waiting to be the next Google or the next Yahoo of clean energy. The governor gave them more than enough incentive.

Keep in mind, California is growing by more than a million people a year. And keep in mind that California is not going to become a nation state of bike riders and train-takers in one, or even two, generations.

Schwarzenegger pledged to do his own part, in his own action-hero way: he converted his big Hummer to a hybrid, using a fraction of the gas that a normal Hummer would use.

The leader of the governor's own party, President Bush, has been at the centre of domestic criticism that he is foot-dragging through an epic that many people see as the issue of the day.

Just three years ago, Schwarzenegger made campaign appearances on behalf of Mr Bush, during his last run for the presidency.

In the absence of any federal initiative on climate change, there is a vigorous grass roots movement
So, it came as somewhat of a surprise when Schwarzenegger threatened to sue this very federal government if it did not take steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions. They barely talk now. And forget about any joint appearances.

The governor is more likely to show up with the one-time Democratic nominee for president, Al Gore. At the United Nations last month, it was the "Arnie and Al" show as they shared the spotlight on this issue.

"One responsibility we all have is action," said the governor, using his favourite word, and then, in case anyone missed the point, he shouted: "Action! Action! Action!"

It was the same exhortation he gave Conservative leader David Cameron on Sunday. "People want action and results," he said. "Not ideology and stalemates."

Schwarzenegger does not even try to contain his glee as he attempts to seize the leadership void. In the absence of any federal initiative on climate change, there is a vigorous grassroots movement among mayors, governors, town councils. At the head of the parade is the Governor of California.

An American Sparta

On another issue, health care, the governor has vowed to give every Californian guaranteed medical care - an audacious plan favoured by many of the state's leading Democrats, much to the chagrin of the governor's party.

Schwarzenegger is also at odds with fellow Republicans over immigration, holding himself up as a shining example of what can happen to a person who comes to this country with nothing but ambition. The immigrant-bashing that some members of his party have exhibited is going to doom Republicans with Latinos - the fastest-growing major ethnic group in America, says the governor.

Now he can get carried away, somewhat, with his zest for California nationalism. During a recent speech, he compared the Golden State to ancient Greece: "California has the ideas of Athens and the power of Sparta." The analogy ended just short of a comparison of the governor with Hercules.

For all of this, you would think that Arnold Schwarzenegger has changed his political stripes, from Reagan Republican to New Century Democrat. But no, he says Ronald Reagan remains a hero and he remains a Republican.

Still, the governor seems to be creating his own political hybrid - one that defies easy expectation. He seems to be making it up as he goes and he seems to be having great fun while he does all of this.

At the recent Republican state convention, Arnold threw down the gauntlet, telling members of his own party that they had to change or risk becoming irrelevant.

The party has lost 320,000 members in California, the nation's most populous state, since 2005, the governor said. People who call themselves independents may soon outnumber registered Republicans.

"In movie terms," he said, "we are dying at the box office. We are not filling the seats." Reaction was muted, though he was not booed. The party is in trouble, but loathe to change.

The next big indicator of how far out on this plank the governor is willing to walk will come soon with his decision on gay marriage. For the second time in three years, California legislators have approved a bill to give same-sex couples the right to marry.

Were the governor to sign the bill, some say, it would really change the views of his party. But he has indicated he will veto it, following the wishes of voters who turned down gay marriage when it was a California ballot measure seven years ago.

President Arnie?

You could probably make a case that Schwarzenegger has evolved into Euro-Arnold, in the mould of Angela Merkel of Germany. In that sense, he has simply come home politically to the secular centrism of European democracies.

Another way is to see him as pure opportunist - as many Democrats and some Republicans charge - sensing that, as he said, his party will be box office poison for some time and the only way to stay popular is to change.

No matter the motive, there may be no more unlikely or unpredictable politician in the land today than the "Governator".

So what's next? Some people want him to run for president, even though the constitution prohibits someone who is not native-born American from holding the highest office. These fans think there should be a constitutional amendment to allow him to run. Fat chance.

But in one sense - that is, the realm that the governor is most familiar - he is already president. Check out The Simpsons, the film cartoon that has done the kind of box office that Arnold appreciates.

The leader of the free world in The Simpsons is none other than President Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yes. He's back.

Sculptor fills Tate with a hole

Sculptor Doris Salcedo has unveiled a hole at the Tate Modern - the latest installation in the art gallery's Turbine Hall.

The work, entitled Shibboleth 2007, runs the full 167 metres of the cavernous hall on London's South Bank.

It begins as a crack then widens and deepens as it snakes across the room.

Colombian artist Salcedo said the work - on display to the public until April next year - symbolised racial hatred and division in society.

"I always try to relate my work to tragedy," she said.

Salcedo added: "It represents borders, the experience of immigrants, the experience of segregation, the experience of racial hatred.

"It is the experience of a Third World person coming into the heart of Europe."

'Deep as humanity'

Salcedo claims the work took her over a year to make, and apparently spent the past five weeks installing it in the Tate.

But she refused to reveal how it was achieved.

"What is important is the meaning of the piece. The making of it is not important," she said, adding that the work was "bottomless... as deep as humanity".

Tate director Nicholas Serota insisted the work was not an optical illusion.

"This sculpture has been made in the most painstaking, meticulous way by Doris and her team before it was slowly inserted into the Turbine Hall," he said.

"It has taken five weeks of work here with very considerable disruption to the hall. It's not an illusion - it's there, it's real.

"From the Tate's point of view, there were only two questions: could we realise it in the way Doris envisaged? And once the piece was created, would it damage the structural integrity of the building forever?

"The answer to the first was yes, and to the second was no."

The hole will be filled in next April.

Mr Serota added: "There is a crack, there is a line, and eventually there will be a scar and that scar will remain."

Tate staff will be on hand to warn visitors about the dangers of tripping and falling into the gap.

Game Plan remains top of US chart

Family film The Game Plan has stayed top of the North American box office for a second week.

The Disney movie took $16.3m (£8m) to hold off a challenge from Ben Stiller's new comedy The Heartbreak Kid, which had to settle for a number two opening.

Experts had expected a much stronger start for Stiller's reunion with directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly.

Terrorism thriller The Kingdom, with Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner, slipped to three with takings of $9.3m (£4.5m).

Resident Evil: Extinction, the latest zombie spin-off from the popular computer game, was in fourth spot with takings of $4.3m (£2.1m), while The Seeker: The Dark is Rising opened in fifth with $3.7m (£1.8m).

1. The Game Plan - $16.3m (£8m)
2. The Heartbreak Kid - $14m
3. The Kingdom - $9.3m (£4.5m)
4. Resident Evil: Extinction - $4.3m (£2.1m)
5. The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising - $3.7m (£1.8m)
6. Good Luck Chuck - $3.5m (£1.7m)
7. Feel the Noise - $3.4m (1.67m)
8. 3:10 to Yuma - $3m (£1.47m)
9. The Brave One - $2.3m (£1.13m)
10. Mr Woodcock - $2m (£981,634)
Source: Media by Numbers

Paramount and DreamWorks had expected more from The Heartbreak Kid, which reunites Stiller with the Farrelly brothers for the first time since the 1998 hit film There's Something About Mary.

A DreamWorks spokesman said the studio was "certainly very disappointed" with the opening.

The weekend's sixth highest earner was Good Luck Chuck, a raunchy comedy starring Jessica Alba, which took $3.5m (£1.7m), while Feel the Noise, produced by Jennifer Lopez, was in seventh.

The critically acclaimed remake of western 3:10 to Yuma was at eight with $3m (£1.47m), while a Jodie Foster's revenge thriller The Brave One came in ninth with $2.3m (£1.13m).

Mr Woodcock, starring Billy Bob Thornton, completed the top 10.

New South American bank planned

Seven South American countries will create a new development bank.

Following a meeting in Brazil, finance ministers said the Bank of the South would play a "central role in the new financial architecture of the region".

The bank will have its headquarters in Venezuela, the country that originated the idea.

The idea for this bank was first put forward by Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez, who is keen to reduce US influence in the region.

President Chavez also wants to provide an alternative to lending organisations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which he sees as biased, capitalist and imperialist.

The Bank is also part of his agenda to bring about South American unity.

Now with the agreement of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay and Uruguay, the idea has become a reality and the bank will be launched next year.

There are however some details that still need resolving.

The bank's capital is likely to start at $7bn - not all cash, but certificates it can call on when needed.

But this figure has not been agreed on by all, neither has the exact amount that each country will contribute.

Presidents of all seven nations will sign the deal at a summit in Caracas in November.

Ukraine settles Russian gas row

Ukraine has settled a commercial dispute with Russian gas firm Gazprom, averting the risk of having its most important supply of energy cut off.

The Russian firm had threatened to stop supplying its neighbour unless a $1.3bn (£650m) bill was paid this month.

But the two parties said they had reached a solution and would conclude an official agreement on Tuesday.

Previous disputes between the two have seen gas supplies to Ukraine stopped, with a knock-on effect across Europe.

Uneasy relationship

The European Commission had called for a "speedy solution" to the latest dispute after a similar row in early 2006 saw supplies to parts of central and western Europe interrupted.

The breakthrough came during a meeting between Ukrainian energy minister Yuriy Boiko and senior Gazprom executives.

"The sides agreed a scheme for paying off the debts of economic entities of Ukraine for the gas supplied this year," Gazprom said in a statement.

The dispute surrounded the payment of debts by Kiev relating to previous gas deliveries.

The timing of Gazprom's escalation of the dispute, coming two days after parliamentary elections in Ukraine saw supporters of pro-western President Viktor Yushchenko emerge in front, provoked claims of political manoeuvring.

Moscow has repeatedly denied accusations that it uses gas supplies to bully its neighbours.

Instead, it insists that price rises last year for Belarus, Ukraine and Georgia merely reflect the end of Soviet-era subsidies.

Suez to create 20,000 extra jobs

French utility group Suez says it plans to hire 20,000 extra staff next year, increasing its workforce by 14% as it prepares to merge with Gaz de France.

Suez says the jobs will be created as part of plans to hire 110,000 extra workers globally over five years.

Its long-running plans to merge with Gaz de France and create one of the world's largest utility groups were finally agreed last month.

French unions had opposed the deal, fearing job cuts at Gaz de France.

Controversial merger

The French government currently has a 79.9% share holding in Gaz de France.

It will hold a stake of more than 35% in the combined group, which will be called GDF Suez.

Suez currently employs 140,000 people worldwide, while Gaz de France has a workforce of about 53,000.

The pair's long-running merger plans had attracted controversy, with critics saying that the French government was supporting the merger as a means to dissuade Suez from merging with Italian energy company Enel.

While Gaz de France specialises in the sale of natural gas, Suez provides gas, electricity and water.

SAP buying rival for 4.8bn euros

German business software group SAP has agreed to buy its smaller French rival, Business Objects, for more than 4.8bn euros ($6.8bn; £3.3bn).

The price represents a 20% premium over Business Objects' Friday closing share price, and SAP said it hoped to complete the deal early next year.

Business Objects made sales of 885m euros last year, while SAP's turnover was more than 10bn euros.

Some analysts questioned the deal, and SAP's shares fell 5% in Monday trade.

'Strategy change'

"Together, SAP and Business Objects intend to offer high-value solutions for process and business-oriented professionals," the two firms said in a joint statement.

The move is contradictory to management's strategy to pursue organic growth...and it will put a strain on financials next year
Merck Fink analyst Theo Kitz

"Business Objects customers will continue to benefit from open, broad and integrated business intelligence solution."

Analysts said the purchase marked a change of strategy for SAP, which has previously concentrated on organic growth.

SAP aims to more than double its sales by 2010.

"The move is contradictory to management's strategy to pursue organic growth with only small fill-in acquisitions and it will put a strain on financials next year," said Merck Fink analyst Theo Kitz.

Back in August, SAP admitted accessing data from US rival Oracle.

It said the "inappropriate documents" were downloaded by its Tomorrow Now unit, but insisted it had not accessed the material.

RBS secures takeover of ABN Amro

A consortium led by the Royal Bank of Scotland has won the battle to buy the Dutch bank ABN Amro.

About 86% of ABN Amro's shareholders have accepted a 71bn euro($98.5bn; £49bn) offer to clinch Europe's biggest ever banking takeover.

The RBS consortium, which also includes Dutch bank Fortis and Spain's Santander, is now expected to break up the Dutch lender.

Last week Barclays withdrew from the bidding war for the bank.

Cash factor

The value of Barclays' offer fell with its share price this summer amid widespread turmoil in the banking sector, leaving it at a 10bn euro disadvantage to the RBS's mostly cash offer.

For Royal Bank of Scotland it looks more of a challenge, especially as it is acquiring the business most affected by the recent market turbulence
Christopher Wheeler, Bear Stearns

ABN is now widely expected to be carved up between the members of the RBS consortium.

The break-up of ABN will involve 4,500 branches across 53 countries and unravelling businesses ranging from cash management operations in Asia to retail banking in Brazil.

RBS is expected to take its wholesale and investment banking business and its Asian operations while Santander will get ABN's Italian and Brazilian units, and Fortis its Dutch business and wealth and asset management operations.

"For Royal Bank of Scotland it looks more of a challenge, especially as it is acquiring the business most affected by the recent market turbulence," said Bear Stearns analyst Christopher Wheeler.

Barclays strategy

Barclays' failure to pull off the deal will inevitably raise question marks about its future strategy.

However, many large Barclays shareholders were pleased that chief executive John Varley decided against increasing his offer for ABN.

ABN's management initially threw its weight behind the Barclays bid, but later withdrew its support, calling for a "level-playing field" between both bidders.

The bid battle has dragged on for most of the year after a legal row over the fate of LaSalle, ABN's US subsidiary.

ABN's decision to sell LaSalle to Bank of America was challenged by a Dutch shareholders' group, but the sell-off was upheld by a Dutch court.

Sarkozy seeks Airbus shares truth

Claims of state involvement in alleged insider trading at the French defence firm EADS must be fully investigated, President Nicolas Sarkozy has said.

Mr Sarkozy said anyone found guilty of fraud in the sale of shares in the Airbus owner must be properly punished.

Media reports have claimed regulators were aware of problems at EADS, but still approved suspicious share sales.

They are looking at share sales before news about damaging delays to the Airbus A380 emerged in June 2006.

This news wiped billions of euros off the market value of EADS, the Franco-German firm which owns the Airbus plane manufacturer.

Prosecutors have been investigating allegations of insider dealing in the eight months leading up to this critical announcement.

I want to know the truth about what happened concerning the state
Nicolas Sarkozy

Newspaper reports have claimed 21 former and current managers are under suspicion but stock market regulators have refused to comment on this, saying their probe is incomplete.

The role of the French government - which holds a 7.5% stake in EADS - is under scrutiny amid allegations that ministers allowed state bank CDC to buy shares from defence firm Lagardere in April 2006 despite knowing about problems at the planemaker.

Thierry Breton, finance minister at the time, said last week that he did not know about the deal and that the state's role was "beyond reproach".

Opposition calls

But Mr Sarkozy said the finance ministry's internal investigation into its conduct, announced on Friday, must get "to the bottom" of what happened.

"I want to know the truth about what happened concerning the state," he told reporters.

"If there are people who committed fraud at EADS, judicial officials must get to the bottom of it so that we know the truth and those who behaved dishonestly be punished in proportion to what they did."

Opposition politicians have called for a public inquiry into the role of the administration of former President Jacques Chirac during the period now the subject of a judicial investigation.

A Socialist Party spokesman called for the "fullest transparency and a timetable of the information that was provided to various ministers between November 2005 and April 2006".

Airbus is set to hand over its first completed A380 plane to Singapore Airlines on 15 October after a series of delays costing billions of euros.

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