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MySpace Faces the Music

MySpace Faces the Music

The once-mighty MySpace has given up trying to reclaim its glory as the world's largest general-purpose social network, a title now firmly in Facebook's grasp. Instead, MySpace is undertaking a significant redesign that will put the focus on the types of users it's managed to more or less keep on board: musicians and music fans. Meanwhile, Ellison grappled with Apotheker, Firesheep exposed public WiFi and LimeWire went sour.

By Paul Hartsock
10/30/10 5:00 AM PT

Back when he looked human, a wise man once said you gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em. MySpace has taken this lesson to heart and announced it's no longer going to try and compete head-to-head with Facebook. It's giving up all illusions of being a general-purpose social network and focusing on what it feels it does best: music.

News Corp.-owned MySpace, of course, was the biggest social network on the scene back when Facebook was still limiting itself to the college crowd. But by requiring that users had .edu email addresses for its first few years, Facebook marinated in a special social goo that somehow made it the far cooler place to be. So Facebook became known as the place for adults -- first young adults, then grownups of all ages -- while MySpace was labeled as the kiddie table. That perception didn't do it any favors when child advocates and law enforcement officials started sounding the alarm about sexual predators on social networks. MySpace became a danger zone, while Facebook -- presumably full of adults who could handle themselves -- emerged relatively unscathed.

But there were a couple types of users that MySpace seemed to keep around longer than others: musicians and music lovers. Independent bands and artists stuck with MySpace, in part because it allows users to have a whole lot more creative control over how their personal pages look. This has led some misguided creative types to cause many eyes to bleed, but artists more skilled in the art of page design can visually communicate their personalities more on MySpace than through Facebook's strict blue-on-white theme. And if MySpace is where musicians and other artists put their main pages, music fans will keep active accounts.

MySpace chased the music crowd with another move a few years ago, launching an auxiliary site, MySpace Music. But now it's redesigning its main site to serve as a destination for "social entertainment" rather than straight-up social networking. Users' pages will be populated with content based on their interests. For the display, they'll get three choices: the old-fashioned MySpace design, a magazine-like grid format, or a video format. Mobile versions will be on their way later this year.

Redefining its target users is a big step for MySpace, but it's definitely playing to its strength, and considering its fast-shrinking list of active users, something drastic needed to be done. However, MySpace will remain yet another social network in which users will have to maintain profiles. Meanwhile, Facebook still has its biggest strength, its gigantic user roster, a factor that tends to snowball onto itself. And even if Facebook doesn't concentrate on entertainment specifically, it does host plenty of musician pages too, with the added benefit that everyone else is there already.


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Ran Out of Juice

Napster.com may still be a legitimate URL, but the true Napster, the renegade Napster, really died in 2001. Even after that, though, its children lived on: Grokster, Kazaa, Morpheus, Bear Share -- dozens of ways for people to swap files with each other online, and dozens of moles for outfits like the RIAA to whack. Most of the traffic on these peer-to-peer networks did not consist of free Linux distros and homemade chili recipes. People were sharing copyrighted songs, and the music industry was livid.

Now, one of the longest-surviving sons of Napster has been dealt what could prove to be a fatal blow. LimeWire has been ordered by a New York judge to stop giving out its software. That doesn't shut down the company's operations, but it does mean it can't take on new users.

LimeWire survived this long in part by at least appearing to make attempts to go legit. It opened a music store that would sell tunes for a buck or less. But the company's main role was to provide a peer-to-peer application that was mostly used by people swapping protected media, so Judge Kimba M. Wood issued an injunction barring the distribution of the file-sharing app.

LimeWire expressed hope that it could continue working with the music labels in doing legitimate business, but its above-the-table music store has never been its primary activity. If you go to limewire.com, you're not even given a link to the store -- you just get a message about the legal injunction. The store's found at store.limewire.com, but I had to Google it to figure that one out. It's clearly not a priority. And now, even if LimeWire puts 100 percent of its resources toward pumping the store's profile, most of the territory in that market has already been claimed by heavies like Apple and Amazon.

So this order may spell doom for LimeWire, though piracy still lives on. It's easier than ever to find music over newer peer-to-peer networks, and the loss of LimeWire won't change that. Still, the RIAA was happy to declare victory in this case, saying the order has finally put a stop to nearly a decade of illegal activity.

But don't despair, file-sharers. If you absolutely must have the latest version of LimeWire, I'm aware there's a very well-seeded copy of the paid version available right now through BitTorrent -- for free!

Face to Face

Anything that lets us live in the company of fewer wires is usually a welcome innovation, which is why it's great to be bathed in the beautiful, invisible glow of WiFi radio waves. Without it, we'd have to wire ourselves in every time we needed to get online. Thanks to WiFi, many a path has been safely trodden that would otherwise have ended in trips, falls, spilled soup and other disasters.

But WiFi does have its limitations. For one thing, most WiFi gizmos will really only talk to one other type of device: a wireless router. If you want to transfer data from your computer to your phone, for instance, you'll probably have to get both to talk to the same wireless router, even if they're in the same room. Computer to gaming console? Router. Home server to set-top box? Router. It's something we've learned to work with, and I can't say it's the most agonizing part of the human condition, but wouldn't it be convenient if two WiFi devices could just sit down and talk to each other without this intermediary?

The Wi-Fi Alliance just took a big step toward making that a reality. It's approved a new certification called "Wi-Fi Direct." Any device that meets this certification will be able to converse directly, via WiFi, with other certified devices. It'll use WPA2 encryption, and gaining this ability won't necessarily require all users to buy brand-new hardware, either. Just use a firmware update to teach the WiFi chip some new tricks -- and there, it's certified.

With Wi-Fi Direct, you could beam a document to a printer straight from you laptop, even if you're 100 miles from the nearest wireless router. Or you could share your computer's Internet connection with multiple other computers, creating your own network-within-a-network fiefdom. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a scenario in which this would be useful, but I support the concept of greater flexibility, so thank you Wi-Fi Alliance.

Still, the technology does raise some security questions, especially in an enterprise context. If you start turning every PC into a wireless access point, it just means that many more opportunities for a security breach, so it's something IT managers may need to keep a very close eye on.

Public Access

The work of software developer Eric Butler has made me feel the same way about using public WiFi hotspots as I do about using the hot tub in a public gym. Maybe the one you use is safe; maybe you could use it every day for a year and never catch so much as a single parasitic infection. But once you actually see what's floating around beneath the bubbles, you just start having second thoughts.

Butler is the inventor of Firesheep, a plug-in that's designed to be used with the Firefox Web browser. If you use it when signed on to an open WiFi network, you can learn quite a lot about anyone else on the network. It's a packet sniffer that can identify cookies for specific websites other users are visiting. Then it can automatically capture and use those cookies. The result is that if the guy across the room signs on to something like a social networking site, for instance, you can snoop on his traffic and fool the site into letting you sign on as him. Then comes fun, profit, whatever; it's all up to you.

This plug-in doesn't rely on some flaw in Firefox or even in the WiFi network being used, necessarily. The real security weakness that Firesheep latches onto belongs to the websites themselves. Too many of them just don't use encryption where it counts. They might encrypt the page where you actually sign on, but from there, it's back to plain old HTTP, not the more secure HTTPS protocol.

Banking sites usually use the secure protocol throughout, and some email services like Gmail do too, but many major social networking sites do not, meaning someone else on that public WiFi network you're using can catch a whiff of your traffic and impersonate you. An intrusion like that probably isn't going to clean out your bank account or anything, but it can cause some major headaches, or just make you look like a nimrod to all your friends when they read your latest status update about how excited you are to get a free iPad.

The basic strategy behind Firesheep isn't really new. Hackers have been able to do this for a long time. The plug-in just makes it way easier.

So why would Butler go to the trouble? It's all about motivation through embarrassment. Butler said he wants to draw more attention to the sorry state of Web security with the hope these lax sites will make themselves better. Social networks house some very personal information, and not providing full end-to-end encryption puts users at risk, especially now that Firesheep is running wild.

Meanwhile, there are some measures users can take for safer surfing in public zones. The EFF's HTTPS Everywhere plug-in is one, and there's Force-TLS, another Firefox add-on. Or you could just build your own trusted proxy. Realistically, though, not a whole lot of people are going to do that; they're just going to keep logging on in public spots like they did yesterday and the day before. Maybe if enough accounts are hijacked, some of the bigger sites will change their ways. Until then, though, be careful where you sign on.

Oracle's Opera

The Mark Hurd affair may be more or less over -- Hurd has a new job at Oracle, the subsequent lawsuit has been settled, and HP has its new CEO. But that doesn't mean Oracle CEO Larry Ellison is finished lobbing potshots at HP, or at least at HP's incoming chief, Leo Apotheker.

Apotheker and Ellison have a bit of a history. The former was at one time the CEO of SAP, a company that Oracle claims stole bits and pieces of its technology. SAP's characterized the incident as a series of inappropriate downloads undertaken by employees of TomorrowNow, an SAP subsidiary. Even though SAP's expressed regret over the incident, there's still much bad blood there.

In his latest accusation, Larry Ellison has stated that Apotheker himself was involved in the scheme. Oracle says it may even put Apotheker on the witness stand when it goes to court with SAP. Both SAP and HP point out that the TomorrowNow division -- the one doing the snooping -- was actually shut down before Apotheker became SAP's CEO.

It's clear that Ellison has had it in for SAP for years. Industrial espionage tends to chafe CEOs, and Ellison in particular is known for speaking his mind, or at least throwing well-placed verbal jabs that gather a lot of media attention.

But since the Hurd fiasco, it's seems Ellison's directly gunning for HP too. First he ridiculed HP's board for squeezing out Hurd over a few thousand dollars in bogus expenses, then he gave Hurd a job at Oracle, and now he's throwing stones at HP's new guy, Apotheker. Maybe he doesn't like the fact that HP's top level is now home for Oracle's old enemies, like Apotheker, as well as its old friends. Ray Lane, HP's chairman, used to be Oracle's COO.

Ellison's comments were artfully timed, though -- Oracle and SAP are scheduled to go to court next week. Incidentally, that's the same day Apotheker will officially take the wheel at HP.


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