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What's Google's Deal?

By Paul Hartsock
Aug 7, 2010 5:00 AM PT

This week, three of the biggest newspapers in the U.S. either exposed Google as a two-faced liar of a corporation, or published significant falsehoods that could seriously undermine the company and its investors.

What's Google's Deal?

Or maybe it's somewhere in between. Honestly, nobody seems to be sure what the real story is right now, and the denials are flying fast and thick.

This much we know: On Thursday, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post all ran stories asserting that Google was negotiating an agreement with Verizon under which Web publishers would be able to pay for the privilege of having their content carried faster on Verizon's network. That sort of deal would fly directly in the face of the concept of Net neutrality -- treating all Internet traffic the same, whether that traffic is going toward a blog read by all of three living souls or the biggest website in the world.

For Verizon to go for a deal like this is only to be expected -- most ISPs are against neutrality. They want to be allowed to manage their networks as they see fit.

But Google is regarded as one of Net neutrality's biggest champions. In 2006, it even urged Internet users in the U.S. to call their representatives and voice their support for neutrality on the eve of a big House vote on the issue. Cutting a backroom deal with Verizon would give the phrase "I just Googled you" a whole new meaning, and it wouldn't be very pleasant.

But Google quickly issued a strong denial, claiming The New York Times article in particular is flat-out wrong, and swearing that it hasn't had any conversations with Verizon about paying for faster traffic.

According to Google, all that's happening is an FCC-organized roundtable talk, and a lot of different companies with different interests are participating -- not just Google and Verizon, but also AT&T, Skype, the Open Internet Coalition and the National Cable Telecommunications Association. They're just banging out some rules concerning Net neutrality as a team so they can present a consensus plan to Congress.

Not surprisingly, Net neutrality proponents were livid when the news first broke, though that rage may need to be put on hold for a while until it becomes clear what actually did and did not happen.


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Day of Reckoning

Intel has finally come to peace with the FTC over allegations it was pressuring customers not to buy from its rivals, retaliating against those who did, and generally using its size and influence to behave like a little punk.

Under terms of the agreement, Intel doesn't have to admit to any wrongdoing, but it must cross its heart and promise not to pull any anticompetitive antics in the future -- stuff like paying off customers to refrain from doing business with other chipmakers, carpet-bombing its rivals with patent claims whenever they team up for joint ventures, or designing chips for the sole purpose of making it more difficult to use in tandem with a competitor's chip.

In addition, Intel has to set up a US$10 million fund to help businesses that made bad purchasing decisions due to Intel's misguidance.

This was just the latest step Intel took on its path to righteousness. It's been pounded with accusations over the last decade that it used its market-leading position to strong-arm the computer industry at the expense of its competitors. AMD has been one of the noisiest complainers, but they actually got their satisfaction last year, when Intel agreed to fork over nearly $1.25 billion, renew some key cross-licenses, and abide by a few mutually agreeable ground rules in its business dealings.

In terms of government scrutiny, though, the U.S. isn't the only one taking a close look at Intel. Just last May, the European Commission slapped it with fines totaling nearly $1.5 billion.

Even though this FTC agreement takes care of one of Intel's biggest remaining headaches, its troubles aren't over entirely. It's still at odds with Nvidia, and it still faces a lawsuit coming from the state of New York.

Can It Hold a Torch to the VIPs?

Research In Motion is a company that helped start the smartphone party back when it was just a nice, calm afternoon barbecue. Then those Google and Apple crashers showed up and turned the scene into a full-blown orgy. Now RIM knows it'll have to either get itself in the mood for some crazy times or just find some quiet place to pass out.

For months, it's been hyping big summer news, which everyone presumed to be a new phone and a major OS update. And they were right: The phone's called "The Torch," and the update is a big overhaul of the BlackBerry OS -- BlackBerry 6.

Still, a close look at the phone's stats doesn't exactly paint the picture of the quintessential smartphone party animal. The screen: 360 by 480 and 3.2 inches, so it's on the small side and definitely not the sort of super-fine resolution that top-level phones are boasting lately. The keypad: Slide-out physical QWERTY. OK, that's a selling point for some people, fair enough. It also has a capacitive touchscreen and an optical trackpad, so I guess you'll never run out of things to poke.

MicroSD support of up to 32 GB, 5 megapixel camera, WiFi and GPS -- good that all that's here; anything less would be uncivilized. Processor runs at 624 MHz. Hrm. In order to get onto the VIP lounge these days, you need to show up with at least a full GHz.

But RIM also had something to show us in software -- Version 6 of the BlackBerry OS. It includes Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and BlackBerry Messenger integration, visual voicemail, and direct access to RIM's modestly stocked application store, App World. Multitouch pinch'n'zoom is also included., and the browser finally got its much-needed update.

I'll reserve my official judgment for when I get some hands-on time, but judging from how RIM describes the Torch and BB6, it doesn't sound like a real blockbuster that could beat out an iPhone or a top-of-the-line Android on neutral territory. But RIM doesn't always play in neutral territory -- its natural habitat is corporate HQs and branch offices, where employees are handed a BlackBerry and told, "This is the electronic leash you shall wear forevermore. Learn it and like it." So if you have to have a BlackBerry because the boss says so, then at least it looks like a better BlackBerry is on the way.

BlackBerryListed

That might not apply if you happen to live or work in the Middle East, though. The governments of both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have opted to ban certain BlackBerry services on the grounds of national security. It seems the security of Research In Motion's systems threatens the security of the status quo, at least in the minds of those countries' telecom regulators.

The UAE's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority said, quote, "BlackBerry data is immediately exported offshore, where it is managed by a foreign, commercial organization. Today's decision is based on the fact that in their current form, certain BlackBerry services allow users to act without any legal accountability, causing judicial, social and national security concerns for the UAE." In other words, it's really hard to spy on BlackBerry users, so we're putting the kibosh on those services.

The UAE ban starts Oct. 11, and it covers BlackBerry Messenger, Email and Web browsing services. Saudi Arabia's ban covers the platform's IM service, and it's already started.

Naturally, RIM's not pleased about this. CTO David Yach told Reuters that they're going to have a hard time pulling the plug on BlackBerry because most of the world's governments rely on the platform to some degree.

Not sure whether he meant that the ban would stifle UAE's own government workers or that it would severely inconvenience ambassadors and visiting officials. Either way, if there's a silver lining to this for RIM, at least the whole incident has made BlackBerry look like a champ in terms of security.

Dig Out of Jail, No Shovel Required

Having a jailbroken iPhone used to mean you had not only the guts to charge headlong into the land of broken warrantees, but also an above-average talent for tinkering with complex software. It was a technological tightrope walk without a net. If you screwed up any of the many steps it took to hack your iPhone's brain, you were left with a shiny little glass doorstop.

But now, any schmo capable of directing an iPhone's Web browser to a certain site can consider himself a hacker. JailbreakMe.com is the name of the place -- go there, confirm you really want to go through with it, and bam, your iPhone is jailbroken. No muss, no fuss, no popping the case open or pasting script into the firmware code. All that's left is an iPhone unshackled from Apple's App Store, able to run software Cupertino would never dream of allowing.

And it's not just for iPhones -- iPads and iPod touches can use it too.

The site's great for those who want an easy way out of Apple's walled garden, but remember that malicious hackers may also have more opportunities with more jailbroken phones running around in the wild. If that's what you choose to do with your phone, keep in mind what Mom and Dad said about taking candy from strangers.

The way JailbreakMe.com works is clever but also a little disconcerting. It sneaks in through a flaw in the way iOS handles PDF documents. Once inside, it sets itself up with administrative privileges and jailbreaks the phone. That's fine since the site tells you exactly what it's going to do with your phone, but if evil-minded hackers were to set up another website using the same technique and get people on iPhones and iPads to visit, they could crawl inside and cause some real problems.

Apple will probably want to tackle that flaw sooner rather than later, and not just for the sake of keeping users safe from malicious hackers. It also wants to keep people from jailbreaking their iPhones even if they want to, and sealing this PDF hole shut would mean jailbreakers would have to resort to a slightly messier procedure.

Back in 2007, of course, Apple put out a software update that gave any jailbroken iPhone that touched it a fatal aneurism, but now that the Library of Congress has specifically said jailbreaking is legally OK, it's unclear whether they'd ever do that again.

Maybe when it comes time to write the next update, they could just drop in some obtuse line of code that kills jailbroken phones and call it whatever they want -- a security improvement, I don't know. If anyone complains, they just say, "Well, we didn't test it on jailbroken iPhones for the same reason we didn't test it on Roombas or IBM mainframes: Not our product, not our problem. Good day to you."

Hopefully, users are a little more savvy than they were three years ago, though. Hint: If you have a jailbroken phone, don't just swallow any update Apple sends down the pipe.

Wave Goodbye

I wasn't there, but by most of the accounts I've read, the reaction Google received over a year ago when it first showed Wave to developers was nothing short of Geek Nirvana: cheers, adulation, audience members doing the wave with their laptops. People were fainting -- had to be carried out on stretchers. Four births, three deaths. A generational turning point.

Now, though, Wave is all but forgotten. By Google's own admission, user adoption for the collaboration Web app has been less than spectacular. And now Wave is slipping away -- Google says it's stopped developing it as a standalone product.

When it comes to apps and platforms, Google's biggest successes seem to be based on concepts people are already familiar with: email, document creation, spreadsheets, maps, etc. Google comes in with a fresh interface, maybe a new killer feature, and best of all, zero charge. Wave was a strange hybrid of various communication tools. It may have worked like a dream for some dedicated users, but it may have taken a little too much time for others to wrap their heads around it.

But before it died, Wave filled out its organ donor card, and parts of it will live on elsewhere. Technologies from Wave may show up in other Google communication and collaboration projects in the future, some of which might include the company's big push into social networking and social gaming.


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