THIS WEEK IN TECH

Can Microsoft Keep Its Word?

A Toronto company aptly named “i4i” is getting its revenge on Microsoft by kicking it square in the monkeymaker. i4i has sued Redmond, claiming that Microsoft Word infringes on its patents. Judge Leonard Davis of the U.S. District Court for Eastern Texas — where else? — has given Microsoft two months to halt sales of the offending software. It’s also ordered Microsoft to give i4i a US$240 million payout.

No, your already-bought copies of Word or Office will not turn into contraband overnight once this injunction deadline kicks in, and the discs they’re saved on will not magically melt. It’s theoretically possible that Microsoft might have to call in a certain provision of Word’s licensing agreement — the one that says it can change the terms whenever it feels like it — and tell users not to use the product anymore. I’m sure that would go over well.

But it’s unlikely to come to that at all — the consequences would just be too disastrous for Microsoft to fathom. In fact, it might be best for both companies to agree on a quick settlement while it’s still possible. Janet B. Linn, an attorney with Eckert Seamans, told us the U.S. Patent Office might be changing its mind about i4i’s patent after a reexamination, but that information was kept out of the court proceedings. Taking this thing all the way through an appeals process puts both Microsoft and i4i at risk of losing whatever negotiating advantage they think they might have right now.


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Unpaid Search

Now you too can help Google become a better search engine, just like the people who actually work there. Just don’t expect to get paychecks, perks, or a desk in a playground-like office building. In fact, don’t expect so much as a kind word of thanks, or any response at all — just be a good little unpaid drone and test their new search technology. Tell them what you find out, and they’ll use your time and effort to continue raking in billions in revenue.

The new technology is called “Caffeine,” and it’s supposed to make searches faster, more accurate and more comprehensive. Google has opened a public test of its caffeinated engine, and it wants testers to pay it a visit, try a search term or two, put that same search term through the regular old decaf engine, and come up with some insight on how the results compare.

Forget about working for actual money or volunteering your time for a worthy cause. A billion-dollar international corporation needs your charity. If that’s really what inspires you, then go ahead and give ’till it hurts, I guess.

Bruised Browser

Internet Explorer, Microsoft’s Web browser, isn’t having an easy time with things lately. It can’t feel anything, because it’s a piece of software, but if it could, it would feel very lonely and unloved.

First, its own parent, Microsoft, gave it a big slap in the face in the form of a Patch Tuesday update. This particular update makes it easier than ever for Windows users to set a desktop browser other than IE as their default browser, so people who prefer something like Firefox or Opera or Safari or whatever don’t have to dig through the OS to figure out how to make Explorer go away. That move probably had something to do with pressure from Microsoft’s nemesis, the European Commission.

The second put-down came from Orkut, Google’s social network. Developers there reportedly plan to phase out support for IE6, an older version of the browser released years ago that’s still being used by a substantial portion of the Web-surfing public. According to a lot of Web developers out there, the continuing use of IE6 is holding the Web back, and creating a site that can be displayed on IE6 is a major headache, unless you want it to look like it hasn’t been redesigned since 2001. This time, though, Microsoft is standing by its browser. It says it’ll keep its promise to support IE6 until support for Windows XP expires — in 2014. Until then, it’s all in the hands of developers.

But remember, developers, that building sites that simply don’t support IE6 is not enough. You have to take an active role if you want to heal the world. So when you build your next site, program it to display nothing but nausea-inducing strobes and ear-splitting sirens when visited by Internet Explorer 6 users. It’s for the best.

Twitter Tumbles

The world was cruelly and abruptly reminded of what life was like two years ago when a DDoS attack hit Twitter recently, depriving us of the ability to communicate our every minor action and musing, at least for the span of a few hours. DDoS stands for distributed denial of service, and it’s an attack method designed to overload a site’s servers by getting an overwhelming number of computers — usually ones that have been hijacked into botnets — to access the site and send out rapid-fire “refresh” commands.

The attack brought Twitter to its knees and significantly slowed down Facebook, which blamed the whole mess on a group determined to silence a single blogger. That blogger goes by the handle “Cyxymu,” and he’s known to be a supporter of the nation of Georgia. The time of the DDoS attack happened to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the South Ossetia War between Georgia and Russia.

Political motives aside, unless you actually work for Twitter, it may not seem like such a big deal that some microblogging service was out of commission for a few hours. But the incident may have taught malicious hackers a thing or two about disrupting the ways people communicate — and what they’re actually capable of getting away with.

What They’re Saying About You

Flying a massive jetliner low and slow over New York City is a very efficient way to panic millions of people, and having an Air Force fighter follow closely behind is just icing on the cake. We know now that the incident on April 27 was not a repeat of the 9/11 terrorist attacks — it was actually just a training mission slash photo op. Someone just wanted to snap a nice picture of the plane sometimes used as Air Force One with the Statue of Liberty in the background. The problem was that local authorities and the public at large were not told about the whole thing ahead of time.

According to an AP report based on information gained through a FOIA request, the military was painfully aware of how big a PR screwup it had on its hands, almost from the first minute. That was thanks in part to the Combat Information Cell at Tyndall Air Force Base, a unit tasked with culling the Internet. Among other things, it looks at social networks and blogs to get a handle on what people are saying about the Air Force. They were watching as the tweets and updates stacked up, first expressing total panic, then rage, then disgust over the sheer stupidity of the whole thing.

But even as the military finds useful purposes for social networking technologies — for recruiting, for countering enemy propaganda and now, it seems, for monitoring public reaction to current events — it still isn’t convinced they’re safe. It’s waffled back and forth in the past about whether or not to let troops use them for what they’re actually designed to do — keep in touch with family and friends. And the Marines have made up their minds: No cybersocializing in the Corps — at least not on a government computer.

A Thinner You

Ever since it graduated from college, Facebook has really been packing on the pounds. Take a look at some old screenshots and it really jumps out at you how jowly it’s gotten. Now it’s got all kinds of apps, widgets, feeds, videos and so forth all over the interface.

That’s not so much a problem in the U.S., where home broadband connections are pretty common and people are used to dealing with heavy-set Web sites. But in other markets, where narrowband connections like dial-up are the norm, Facebook is just too hefty.

So it appears now that the site is creating a thinner, trimmer twin. Exactly what it’s up to isn’t really clear right now. For one thing, it claims that revealing the URL “lite.facebook.com” was an accident — it didn’t actually mean to send out those invitations to the test site. Some seem convinced this is Facebook’s way to reach deeper into mobile and put a dent in Twitter. Others think it’s a way to court foreign markets as well as parts of the U.S. that are still dialing up.

Whatever its main goal, it might also appeal to long-time Facebook users who miss how the site looked before it got so full-figured.

Feeding at the Trough

Meanwhile, the company itself keeps right on binge eating. Its latest buy is FriendFeed. That’s a site that aggregates your various social media feeds into one giant, never-ending social smorgasboard, so perhaps soon Facebook will be where you go to find out what all your friends are doing across the whole Internet, not just what they’re up to in Facebook’s own back yard.

Jeremy Owyang, a social media analyst for Forrester, pegged Friendfeed’s traffic before the buy at about 1 million unique visitors a month, which pales in comparison to Facebook’s estimated 250 million. Still, it’s very popular among what he called “uber social geeks,” the kind who drink their social media through a fire hose, not a sippy cup.

So how much did this set Facebook back? They’re not saying, but The Wall Street Journal cites anonymous sources valuing the deal at about $50 million in cash and stock. Not a bad payout for a small site, especially since the four founders get set up with senior roles on Facebook’s team.

But Owyang wonders whether Friendfeed could have stayed independent a little longer and milked more out of the deal. “They could have given it a couple more years,” he said. “With some marketing, they could have developed into a viable social media competitor.”

Out on Its Own

After several years of depending on Amazon to get business done online, retailer Target has decided to take off the e-commerce training wheels. When their contract runs out in 2011, Target will stop outsourcing its e-tail operations and start handling its own site in-house.

Years ago, when the partnership began, most brick-and-mortar stores didn’t know jack about how to sell anything online. They’d put up awful Web sites with bad customer service, bad shipping and tracking info, bad inventory info, and bad return systems. They may have gotten it right on their own — eventually — but all that trial and error was poison for the brand name. So a lot of those retailers partnered up with a company that already knew what it was doing: Amazon.

Now, though, Target’s had nearly a decade to study up and learn what to do, so it wants to keep its own etail house in order.

Live Hard, Sell Online

Shopping for a car online isn’t like buying DVDs. Yes, there are sites like Edmunds.com that will give you lots of information about makes and models and prices, but if you decide you really want to buy a particular car, try going to that carmaker’s Web site. Getting a price — or even a ballpark figure — will probably not get you any instant gratification. Once you pick your car and dress it up with all the options you want, the site will finish up by asking for your ZIP code and phone number. That’s so a local salesperson can call you, chat you up, and convince you to visit the dealership so you can go through the time-honored practice of dickering.

Some people love doing that — it’s a sport for them. Others would rather eat glass. In any case, it’s not very similar to the standard “point/click/have it delivered” e-commerce transaction.

But now, 225 GM dealerships in California have begun a program with eBay to make car-buying more of an online process. Customers who want to can compare pricing across models and dealerships, get trade-in values, and even check on eligibility for the taxpayer-funded “Cash for Clunkers” program. Users will see a “buy it now” price, but they’ll also have the chance to submit an offer for dealer consideration, so it looks like pro hagglers will still get to have a little fun.

Book Bind

Sony has this habit of always wanting to own a proprietary version of whatever media format it’s dealing with — Betamax, memory sticks, Blu-ray, etc. Once in a while it works, but fairly often it doesn’t, and the company has to abandon its master plan to rule the world and get back in line like everyone else.

Recently we saw an example of the company actually stepping out ahead of a major competitor on the path toward openness and interoperability. Sony’s e-bookstore will make the move to the ePub format, a widely used e-publishing standard. That means e-books bought through its online store will be readable not only on Sony’s own e-reader devices, but also on many competitors’ devices. Not all competitors, though — ePub is not on the list of formats supported by Amazon’s Kindle. Also, Amazon’s store sells in a proprietary format.

This might have the effect of backing Amazon into a corner, making it the odd man out despite its big name recognition. Then again, the iTunes/iPod connection was a somewhat closed-off ecosystem before Apple decided to start ditching the DRM. If you bought from iTunes, you had to listen on an iPod. Operating in its own little world like that didn’t seem to get in its way too badly.

But maybe that’s not an apt comparison, since the iPod has always at least been able to play plain old MP3s no matter where they came from — downloaded legally, ripped from your CD collection, or even pirated … or so I’ve heard.

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