Facebook's Sly-Dog Aspirations
Rule Number 1 in the PR dirty-trick playbook: Don't get caught. It's common practice for a firm to hire a PR outfit for a little image manipulation. And the way Burson Marsteller apparently went about doing that on Facebook's behalf wasn't illegal. But once it was exposed, it certainly didn't make Facebook look good. Meanwhile, Google makes music, Chrome makes it to notebooks, and Microsoft makes off with Skype.
One of these days we may see a real public clash between Facebook and Google - a huge bidding war, or maybe the launch of a real Google social network that will have the other one fighting for its life. For now, though, we get a silly little PR disaster that's left Facebook looking like it's lost its Machiavellian mojo.
It just got caught up in a dirty tricks debacle in which it looked like it was behind an effort to get influential bloggers to speak out against Google's Social Circle system.
Facebook targeted Social Circle, also known as "Social Search," by hiring a high-profile public relations firm, Burson-Marsteller. In particular, Facebook doesn't like the way Social Circle uses Facebook data in its service and thinks Social Circle is a threat to user privacy. Hearing that last bit makes me think of a glass house for some reason, but whatever. That much has been confirmed -- Facebook has acknowledged it hired Burson-Marsteller to go after Social Circle.
But Facebook has denied it told the PR firm to go about it by doing what it's accused of doing. Blogger Christopher Soghoian says he was propositioned by Burson-Marsteller to have an opinion piece basically ghostwritten for him. The firm has allegedly come on to a variety of technology bloggers with the same idea.
They contacted opinionated and influential people, and in addition to giving them a one-sided story they could investigate themselves, which is the typical PR MO, they volunteered to "assist in the draft" -- just sit back and leave the writing to them. They wouldn't initially disclose to Soghoian who their client was.
I think I might have read something earlier this week from a blogger who actually did take them up on it, though I can't remember who wrote it -- or didn't write it, as the case may be.
But to paraphrase Soghoian's reaction: "Uh ... no." However, instead of just moving on, he put Burson-Marsteller's email up on the Web for public viewing.
What Burson-Marsteller is accused of doing is skeezy, and it smells a lot like a smear campaign. Still, none of what was described above is illegal. And there's no indication Facebook was making up outright false stories about Google. In fact, the message it was trying to draw attention to was consumer privacy protections -- and while Facebook has a pretty spotty record itself in terms of privacy, that is an important issue.
And really, Facebook and Google expect nothing less than total war any day now, so sneaky little tricks are just part of the game. But if you are going to open that part of the playbook -- or hire a company that might go there on your behalf -- it's probably best not to do so in a way that can be so easily exposed.
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A Call to ARMs?
Apple rumors are born and die on about a daily basis, but once in a while one manages to stand out just because it's not about some tired subject like what shape the next iPhone will be or whether Foxconn is running out of iPad screens.
This latest one has to do with chips -- specifically the chips Apple uses in its MacBook line. Before we go further, full disclosure: This rumor was originally published on a blog called "SemiAccurate," which I salute for at least being up front about the veracity of what it reports.
Anyway, according to prophesy, Apple will ditch Intel-based processors in its MacBooks by mid-2013. Taking their place will be ARM-based processors. That's a totally different type of chip architecture. Right now, ARM chips are mostly known for powering mobile devices. For instance, the A4 and A5 chips inside various Apple mobile devices like iPads and iPods are ARM-based chips, and the Snapdragon chips you see in a million different Androids have ARM lineage.
Currently, MacBooks run on Intel chips. Very different. And maybe this would be an example of Apple going in the very same direction that Microsoft's going -- at CES last January, Microsoft wheeled out a set of half-assembled Franken-puters -- a bunch of fully functional but very messy PCs that looked like they were put together in some guy's basement. The thing that made them special was that some of them were using ARM chips to run a primitive version of Windows 8. Redmond wanted people to know its next OS would work on ARM chips as well as traditional x86 chips. That may be Redmond's way of getting its act together in tablets.
For Apple, its next version of OS X will be called "Lion," and already it's hinting that this is the OS that starts blurring the line between its mobile operating system and its desktop software. Specifically how that's going to happen will probably be explained further next month at WWDC, but what little we know now at least makes the ARM MacBook rumor plausible. Or perhaps Apple will wait until OS 11 arrives. Might happen right after this next one -- naming the thing "Lion" after a whole bunch of other big cats does kind of make it sound like the last of the line, doesn't it?
Or maybe it's all bunk. Intel and Apple seem to have done alright together -- they partnered up to make that new Thunderbolt I/O technology, and if power-sipping chips are what Apple's after, Intel did just come up with that new 3D transistor idea. And how often does Apple really want to switch teams? Didn't it do that six years ago? It's getting quieter, but every time Apple releases an update to OS X, you can still hear this bitter little scream about how Apple abandoned PowerPC and left all those customers alone in the dark to wither away and die.
That Great Big Jukebox in the Sky
Apple's plans with the future of OS X will become clearer at its Worldwide Developer Conference next month, but this week, San Francisco's Moscone Center belonged to Google. The company hosted its annual I/O conference to show off the various Google-flavored apps and knickknacks in store for the coming months, and the festivities were kicked off with the announcement of a long-awaited Google music service.
"Google Music Beta" is what it's officially called -- presumably it'll drop the "beta" eventually, though Google's known to keep some products in beta for longer than it takes a teen to get through high school. This comes along a few weeks after Amazon put out its Cloud Drive and Cloud Player, and it's here before Apple's rumored music streaming service, presumably called "iCloud."
But unlike Amazon and Apple, Google does not yet do music sales, though that's reportedly in the works. For right now, you can upload your existing music collection, however you might have acquired it, to the Google Music cloud. From there, you can stream it to other Web-connected devices, like other computers, tablets or handhelds. Devices connected to Google Music will also be able to cache recently listened-to songs, so you can still get a few tunes in if you lose Internet access.
Don't think of this as a cloud backup service, though. Once you upload your music, it technically stays in the cloud -- all you can do after that is stream it to devices. So if you use Google Music for your whole library and your computer falls into the ocean, you're not going to be able reclaim your music onto a hard drive using Google Music. Technically I guess there are ways to rerecord and encode every single song you have via streaming, but that could take months. The lesson here is that Google Music is for convenience, not disaster recovery.
Record companies are looking at Google Music with a wary eye. The service was reportedly launched without the blessings of all the major labels, though Google insists the way it works is 100 percent legal. The labels might need some more buttering up before Google launches an actual store, but for now it seems Google's confident that a personal streaming service is legit.
Google's dealt with complaining record companies a lot in the past, especially in regard to videos appearing on YouTube. If a rights holder says the a video's soundtrack violates copyright, Google will pay attention, and sometimes the video gets taken down. Apparently Google plans to be equally sensitive when it comes to pirated material in Google Music users' personal lockers -- even though they're personal, not meant for public consumption like YouTube videos.
During a Q and A session, a Google executive reportedly commented that the company will respond to requests from copyright holders who think they've been violated. That's raised questions about how rights holders would know whether a plain, DRM-free MP3 is legit or not, and how they'd get to know what's in a user's personal library to begin with.
The Book of Chrome
Later at I/O, Google further extolled the virtues of the cloud with the official introduction of the Chromebook, a laptop computer that uses Google's own home-made Chrome operating system.
We've seen the Chrome OS before -- the company's been talking about it for months now, and when it first put out the idea of a Chrome OS, as opposed to the Chrome Web browser, there was some confusion. Google already had the Android OS, and that's suitable for devices much larger than a smartphone, so where's Chrome going to fit in?
Things became a little clearer late last year with the arrival of the CR-48, a set of prototype laptops that went out to a small handful of the geek elite on a test-drive basis. This week, Google introduced Chromebooks for the masses, which will start becoming available June 15. One's an Acer model starting at $350; the other is a Samsung starting at $430. Various configurations are available in terms of WiFi-only or WiFi-plus- 3G, and Google also has plans for leasing them out on a monthly basis. Educational institutions will pay $20 per month per Chromebook, and enterprises will pay $28.
Whatever the model or configuration, users will be looking at a laptop computer that's just a little larger than what you'd think of as a netbook. But in a sense, a Chromebook fits the literal definition of a "netbook" even better than computers that actually call themselves "netbooks."
Chrome OS is an operating system that lives in the cloud. It has the kind of low-horsepower processor and RAM you'd expect from a low-priced netbook, but its data is saved and drawn from Google's central servers, not an on-board hard drive. The apps it focuses on are Google's suite of Web apps. And business users will be able to use enterprise apps on them, thanks to a partnership with Citrix and VMware.
The Chromebook boasts a very fast boot time because there really isn't very much going on under its own hood. It supports the normal lineup of peripherals -- mouse, keyboard, SD card and USB drives. And new features are being added to Chrome OS and Google's apps that will allow a certain amount of work to be done offline, so you're not completely locked off your computer when you can't get any Web access.
Chrome OS does represent a new breed of desktop OS, but it's built for a different kind of use than your standard PC, Mac or Linux notebook. If 100 percent of what you work with really is in the cloud, it's something to look into, but for now most of us tend to keep at least some of our own data in-house.
The Rich-Uncle Factor
When rumors were going around last week that someone was about to buy up VoIP provider Skype, all the talk centered around Facebook and Google. Everyone was expecting a good knock-down-drag-out, like a more fun version of that throwdown HP had with Dell over 3Par a few months ago. It'd be a face-off between Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page, and that's about as close as the tech business gets to a pay-per-view-worthy cage match.
But it was not to be, because this week Microsoft marched in with an enormous wad of cash and drove home with Skype. Fun's over.
The amount of money Redmond laid down to make the deal was kind of a shocker: $8.5 billion. Right now it's impossible to say for sure whether that price will prove to be a good deal for Microsoft, but skeptics are not in short supply. That figure represents just a little less than 10 times Skype's revenues for all of 2010, and it's about double even the highest numbers being thrown around the previous week, when it was theoretically a fight between Facebook and Google. The purchase is backed by an investor group led by Silver Lake.
So what's Microsoft going to do with its new 8.5 billion dollar phone network? The company will become its own division inside Microsoft, and its technology could be integrated into a whole lot of other properties -- like Xbox, Kinect, Windows and Outlook.
Microsoft also could build deep Skype functionality into Windows Phone 7. But Skype's already a player on a lot of other major mobile platforms, offering its services as an app. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's stated the company won't shut Skype off from competing platforms, though it could be a little awkward for those rivals to have close ties with an agent of the enemy's camp. But if Apple and Google can come together on Google Voice for iPhone, maybe peace is possible.
Aside from acquiring Skype's brand and technology, though, Microsoft also gets to give Google a hard and frustrating loss, presuming Google was interested in the first place. Before Microsoft stepped in, the Facebook/Google battle for Skype was shaping up to be this old-guard vs. young-upstart-Turk kind of situation, but then they both got beaten out by the even older guard before hostilities even had a chance to get started in the public arena.
Facebook's not a total loser in this situation, though. Microsoft is a significant Facebook investor, so there's a chance it'll share its new toy with the social network, especially if it can use Skype to burn Google in one way or another.