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The Patent World War

The Patent World War

Apple's battling Android tablets in Europe, winning an injunction in a German court that bars Samsung from importing its Galaxy tab into most of the continent. The timing couldn't be worse for Samsung -- even if it manages to change the court's mind, its European launch of the device has already been hindered. Meanwhile, Kindle goes webby, Symbian says goodbye to North America, and Anonymous is not unanimous.

By Paul Hartsock
08/13/11 5:00 AM PT

Even though Google lawyer David Drummond laid into Apple, Microsoft and Oracle in his public critique of their anti-Android patent lawsuits, it was Microsoft that really ended up tussling with the search giant on open ground. But that doesn't mean Apple and Oracle are easing up their own patent battles; so far, they're just saving their arguments for the courtroom.

Apple in particular is landing some big blows against one of Android's top device makers, Samsung. One of its targets is Samsung's Galaxy Tab, which Cupertino claims runs afoul of several of its patents. So far, Apple's managed to trip up an entire Samsung launch campaign. Just before the tablet was about to go on sale in Europe, Apple scored an injunction from a German court barring sales of the device across the entire continent -- except in the Netherlands, but Apple's hard at work giving it the business there too.

Apple's also said to be aiming its legal guns at the Motorola Xoom in an attempt to blockade that Android tablet from Europe as well.

In this particular case, though, Apple's claims have nothing to do with hardware or software. It's all about looks. Apple owns a Community design right on the iPad in Europe, which covers the appearance of the product. And of all the tablet computers out there, the Galaxy Tab might be the one that looks most like an iPad.

Still, when you get down to the appearance of something as simple as a tablet, how convincingly can you argue that one ripped off the design of another? If you're not talking guts or software, then you're talking about two flat, rectangular objects, glass on one side, metal and plastic on the back.

Yeah, they really do look a lot alike, because how else are you going to make a tablet? Are you going to make it circular? Tubular? Rhomboid? They might be about the same size, but that's just the size that fits well in human hands. Will Samsung be able to get out of this by just painting a racing stripe on the back and calling it a day?

Anyway, the court has issued its injunction, and regardless of how silly the argument may appear, perhaps Apple's real goal has been accomplished. For the price of its lawyers' fees, it's put a major banana peel under Samsung as it tries to capture European market share. At this point in the tablet game, that may be well worth the money.


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Tunneling Under

A couple of weeks ago, various iOS apps -- like Amazon's Kindle e-reader app -- pushed out updates that actually removed a feature. In Kindle's case, it took away the ability to go directly from the app to a Web page where you could buy new e-books. That little button disappeared from the face of the app, and the whole Kindle system became that much clunkier to use.

It was done to abide a rule Apple recently began enforcing. If you can buy something through a native app, Apple insists that it's handled by way of a so-called in-app purchase -- Apple handles the transaction, payment is very easy on the customer's part because it's done through the iTunes account, and Apple gets a 30 percent cut for its trouble.

If an app maker doesn't want to go along with that, fine -- nobody's being forced to pump customers through Apple's payment system and give it nearly a third of its revenues. But app makers who shun in-app purchases aren't allowed to offer an easy alternative either. They can't drop in a convenient "buy it from the Web" button, like the one that was found on the Kindle app until recently. Instead, customers have to figure it out for themselves. It's not really that hard if you know your way around the Web, but still -- clunkier to use.

But now Amazon has found a new way to counter Apple's rules by taking a page from iPhone history. Back before the App Store existed, all iPhone apps were Web apps -- that is, Web pages accessed through the Safari browser that are designed to look and behave less like pages and more like apps running natively on the phone. As long as a Web app is coded correctly for Safari, Apple has zero control over what it can do. Cupertino's tastes, sensibilities and profit motivations are irrelevant as far as Web apps are concerned.

And that's what Amazon's done with its latest Kindle app, Kindle Cloud Reader. It's a Web app you access through Chrome or Safari on a desktop, or Safari on an iOS device. You can read all your Kindle books through it just like with the native iOS app, but you can also access the Kindle store very easily, add more books, and get right back to reading.

Of course, native apps have the benefit of being usable when you don't have Web access. But Amazon's given its Cloud Reader the ability to cache 50 MB of data, so you can access quite a lot of reading material until you get back to a data zone.

Web apps may never be quite as robust as native ones, but there's a lot you can do with HTML5, and other app makers may already be thinking about following Amazon into Web territory in order to escape Apple's requirements.

Landline Disconnect

All is not well at Verizon. The company's landline phone business is fading fast, and is it any surprise? Cellphones are more convenient, they have better features, you don't have to change your number if you move to another state, and the nicer ones are basically pocket-sized computers. Plus, wireless coverage in the U.S. is nearly universal for places with much of a population to speak of. Who needs a landline?

Yeah, I'll admit that landlines sometimes sound clearer, and you don't get that crazy-making half-second delay between the time you say something and the time the other person hears it. But the trend is clearly there. Landlines are on their way out.

That's caused Verizon to have to make some cuts to its landline business, and that includes making workers in that division make greater contributions to their pensions and health plans. But the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Communications Workers of America say what Verizon wants to do would steamroll half a century of collective bargaining gains. No agreement was reached, and 45,000 Verizon workers went on strike.

Service-wise, the most widely affected regions will be the Northeast U.S. and the Mid-Atlantic. Verizon says it has contingency plans on hand that will keep service disruptions to a minimum. But I'd guess that it's kind of hard to lose 45,000 workers overnight without anyone noticing.

The fact that Verizon would want to adjust its business to deal with the changing ways people are using technology doesn't come as a surprise. It's a given that some kind of cut is going to happen when one part of your body is shriveling up and falling off. But from the workers' perspective, those cuts might be a little easier to swallow if the entire company was also suffering, and with Verizon, that's not really the case. Its home Internet service is doing fine, and its wireless business is the biggest in the U.S.

Those leading the strike aren't exactly leading Verizon's wireline workers down a very easy path either. They're getting people to walk away from their jobs in a recessed and very gloomy-looking economy with high unemployment. But perhaps considering the shrinkage of landline business across the entire market, it may be a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't predicament.

Unhedged Bets

Nokia's North American division finally got around to burying that corpse in its yard. In an interview with AllThingsD, the head of Nokia's U.S. operations, Chris Weber, said the handset maker is giving up on selling smartphones with the Symbian operating system in the U.S. market.

If you're a U.S. resident and you happen to notice this change take effect, then I guess you're paying really close attention, because it's already hard to spot a Symbian phone in the wild in this neck of the woods. The OS has been big in other parts of the world, where people are used to paying the full cost of a phone up front. But in America, customers are used to the service carrier footing most of the bill for a pricey phone and locking the buyer into a contract. Until recently, Nokia hasn't been very comfortable playing that game. Especially since iPhone and Android came around, Symbian has been in the shadows in the U.S., and now it's just going to fade to black.

But Weber didn't stop there. He also said Nokia's abandoning feature phones in the U.S. too. "Feature phones" is a nice way of saying "dumbphones" -- phones that work just fine as phones but don't have the guts or brains to run a wide selection of apps or handle the other kinds of tasks smartphones can. It's all a matter of degree, I guess, but you kind of just know them when you see them.

For example, most prepaid phones are feature phones. And Nokia has sold a fair amount prepaid feature phones in North America. But it's backing out of that game too, because selling cheap, prepaid phones was another way Nokia did business without the involvement of carrier subsidies, and starting now, Nokia needs carriers to be its friends.

Its focus on selling very expensive and very cheap phones, all without pushing buyers toward a carrier contract, was not a hit with the likes of AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile or Sprint. Those guys want customers locked in, and Nokia has decided it can't make gains in North America without appeasing them.

With this decision, Nokia's placed a very large bet on Microsoft. It's going all in on Windows Phone 7, and it'll need that platform to catch fire fast if it ever wants a real foothold in this corner of the world.

Remember, Remember the 5th of November ... or Just Go Ahead and Forget About It

Facebook has been speaking up more lately about the perils of online anonymity, stating that people usually are kinder, gentler Web users when they're made to use their real names during online interactions. This was probably not a welcome message to the hacker group Anonymous, for obvious reasons.

But certain members of Anonymous have bones to pick with Facebook that lie much deeper than the social network's stance on using an alias. Last month, a video was posted on YouTube by someone claiming to represent Anonymous, and it accuses Facebook of selling personal information to government agencies and clandestine security firms in order to help them spy on users. For that, Facebook must be destroyed, according to the video's narrator, who then goes on to explain a big Facebook attack will be coming on Nov. 5.

That's Guy Fawkes Day. And Anonymous members always run around in those Guy Fawkes masks. So this is totally legit, right?

Maybe not so much. The way that video came to public attention was a little odd. It was originally posted on YouTube over a month ago -- only this week did it start gathering widespread attention. It was promoted via a Twitter handle called "Op_Facebook," and as of Wednesday, that handle had posted exactly one tweet during its entire existence.

That's different from the way Anonymous usually makes its pronouncements. It's a pretty amorphous group without much in the way of a hierarchy, but when it wants to make a big all-points bulletin like this, it usually speaks through a mouthpiece like the AnonOps Twitter handle. And whoever was in charge of that handle this week didn't much care for the idea of attacking Facebook. Messages were posted on AnonOps stating that the so-called OpFacebook plan is being organized by some Anons, that not all of Anonymous agrees with it, and that attacking the messenger is not Anonymous' style.

One AnonOps message stated that the group prefers to face the real power, not the media it uses as tools.

Later it was reported that OpFacebook was actually an old Anonymous project intended to bring attention to what the organizers saw as the network's privacy deficiencies. But nothing ever got rolling on it, people got bored, and they gave up. But they forgot to clean up after themselves, that video was left hanging around, and suddenly there was a big panic over it.

But what if some part of Anonymous really did want to blow up Facebook? How would they even do it? The logistics would be really tricky. The site's highly fortified against DDoS assaults, so it would take an incredible amount of resources to knock it out cold. But there are other ways to screw around with a social network, including hacking into lots of users' profiles, or breaking into the site's own corporate servers and stealing inside intel.

So on the off-off chance this attack really does happen and it results in anything worth talking about, will it be fair to call it an "Anonymous" attack? If anyone can declare themselves a member of Anonymous and instigate an attack in its name, then perhaps technically you could. But it seems some Anonymous actions are more anonymous than others.


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