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WEEKLY RECAP

Facebook Goes to Hollywood

Video rental stores made it so you don’t have to go all the way to a theater to watch a movie, then online video channels like Netflix and iTunes made is so you don’t even have to leave the house. The next step will be that you won’t even have to leave the warm, squishy embrace of Facebook in order to watch movies on demand.

The social network’s hooked up with Warner Bros. to provide users with streaming videos for a rental fee of three bucks. Just visit the movie’s Facebook profile, pay the toll, and you get access to the film for 48 hours. Watch however many times you want until it expires.

You can’t buy tickets to the show with real money, though. This system runs on the Land of Facebookia’s local currency: Facebook credits. It’s the equivalent of three bucks, but you have to make an exchange first.

For now, the partnership’s very limited — it’s just that one studio, and it’s just one movie: “The Dark Knight.” But Facebook’s membership list is massive, so if this picks up, it could prove to be a very big threat to every other online movie provider out there. One of those is Netflix, though its video-on-demand service isn’t exactly the same — Netflix does unlimited streaming for a flat monthly fee. Facebook’s way of doing business more resembles outfits like iTunes’ or Amazon’s a-la-carte rental options.

But the structure here might not scale up as easily as with iTunes, Netflix or other providers. With the other guys, a studio just supplies the movie, a blurb, maybe a trailer and some stills, and that’s the way it’s cataloged on that channel’s servers forever more. But the way Facebook’s doing it right now, each movie will have to have its own fan page with a Wall, a discussion board, a photo gallery, so forth. Sounds like a lot of upkeep and maintenance. If a studio’s going to eventually let Facebook do this with the same catalog of thousands of titles that iTunes or Amazon has access to, are they going to need to take on a whole team of interns to keep the hedges trimmed?

Also, it seems that as a viewer, you have to allow the movie’s page to access your basic information and let it post messages to your Wall. So it looks like Facebook isn’t going to be the place to go for your guilty cinematic pleasures, whatever those might be.


Listen to the podcast (12:49 minutes).


HP’s Alternate Operator

Next year will be a strange time for operating systems. According to a report in Businessweek, that’s the year Microsoft will finally come up with a version of Windows specifically made for tablets, instead of cramming a desktop OS into a mobile. Meanwhile, HP will be headed in a different direction: putting a mobile OS into its desktops.

By 2012, all HP desktops and laptops will come with a preinstalled version of webOS, the operating system HP picked up when it bought Palm last year. We’ve seen webOS in smartphones, a tablet’s on the way, and soon it’ll grow into full-sized PCs as well. Those PCs will still carry the latest version of Windows, whatever that happens to be at the time, but they’ll also be able to run webOS, according to CEO Leo Apotheker.

This could be a big hit among app developers, who generally haven’t acted very interested in webOS so far. For example, Apple’s iOS has more than 400,000 apps. The Android Market had about 200,000 at the end of 2010, and it’s growing fast enough that it could surpass the App Store in the next year or two. But in HP’s corner, webOS has only about 6,000 apps to its name. Kind of a vicious cycle — not very many apps are out there, so nobody buys the phones, so nobody develops for the phones, and the number can’t grow.

But HP does sell an incredible number of PCs, and once they all ship with webOS, suddenly developers will have a much wider customer base, if they figure out how to approach it just right.

It isn’t going to be enough to just dump webOS into laptops and tell users, “here, see what you can do with this.” If that’s all that’s going to happen, for most users it’ll just be a waste of disk space. It’ll need to provide an actual advantage over Windows — perhaps make it boot faster, or let it run special webOS apps that were specifically designed for a laptop or desktop version of the OS, not the Palm Pre version.

What wouldn’t be so great would be if this turned out to be useful only to people who actually own webOS phones, because despite all the effort HP has pumped into making Palm worth the 1.2 billion, those users are still few and far between.

They’ve Got Your Number

Sony’s landed some major blows against hackers in its quest to prevent customers from tinkering with their PS3s too much. But it isn’t stopping at just making sure a few sites here and there are taken offline. Nope, it also wants to know who those tinkerers are. It wants information about the people who, after giving Sony hundreds of dollars in exchange for a nice new video game machine to call their own, dared to visit a website that would teach them how to pop the hood and mess around with the insides a bit.

A brief history on the matter: In the beginning, Sony PlayStation 3 video game machines could run Linux with a built-in feature called “Other OS.” Geeks loved it because it basically let you turn the PS3 into a Linux PC, and a pretty good one at that. Then Sony changed its mind about Other OS and nuked the feature with a firmware update. Models sold after that never got the feature to begin with.

So a hacker named George Hotz figured out a DIY procedure for unlocking PS3s to let Linux and all sorts of other functions back into the machine, and he put up a website to spread the word.

That got him into a lot of trouble with Sony’s lawyers. Sony doesn’t like people unlocking their systems, and it claims that by publishing the PlayStation’s encryption keys, Hotz was enabling piracy. It’s a lot easier to pirate games with an unlocked system, and even though Hotz’s procedure lets you do lots more than just copy games, Sony wanted the site gone, and that’s what it got.

But it seems it wants more. Sony also wants to know who exactly visited that site — that would be PS3 users. Sony’s own customers. A federal magistrate has granted the company subpoena power to gain access to the IP addresses of anyone who visited Hotz’s site over the last two years. So now users might be on Sony’s legal radar for steering their browsers toward a website. Or just clicking a link, if that’s how they got there. Doesn’t matter what they did there, or what they did with the information they learned. If you visited, Sony gets to see your number.

Granted, an IP address isn’t a personal identity, and it’s unclear whether Sony intends to do the additional digging it would take to chase an IP down to an individual account holder. It’s possible that all Sony wants is a list of numbers to show the court that a lot of people visited the site, that this wasn’t just a small ring of hackers, that this was a widespread problem.

Still, knowing that a major company is digging into IP addresses of people who just visited a website registers loud and clear on the creepy meter. PS3 owners, just to be safe, here’s my advice: If you ever want to buy a new game or accessory for your PlayStation, or even turn it on to play a game, perhaps you should give Sony’s legal department a call and run it by them first to make sure it’s OK. Never hurts to ask.

Get a Room, You Two

For the last couple of years, the U.S. wireless industry has almost seemed like a two-horse race, with AT&T and Verizon way out in front and Sprint and T-Mobile biting at each other for third place. For a while AT&T had exclusive dibs on the iPhone, and to counter that Verizon became Team Android’s champion. Now Verizon has the iPhone and AT&T’s getting more serious about Android, but their status as the overall market leaders remains intact.

The other two have managed to put some good phones on the shelves too, but T-Mobile’s late entrance to 3G and Sprint’s chronic rep as an ogre in the customer service department relegated them to second-tier positions. First it was Sprint that was losing customers quarter after quarter — now it’s T-Mobile, but that could flip back any minute with these two.

Naturally, this constant, close-quarters sparring has created a great deal of sexual tension between Sprint and T-Mobile, inasmuch as a couple of telecom firms can experience that. Are these two going to get together or what? By themselves, they’ll linger as also-rans and could risk seriously falling behind the technological upgrades their bigger rivals can afford. Getting together might give them both a better shot, and according to a Bloomberg report, a merger is exactly what Sprint and T-Mobile are discussing right now, though neither company would confirm.

Sorry to have to bring this one up again, but it’s a valid question: Will it blend? That might depend on how deep and how quickly the two companies would want to integrate themselves. In the long run, they could look forward to putting together a 4G network based on the LTE standard, the same standard AT&T and Verizon are currently working on with their own networks.

But the immediate future would be a little more problematic for them. Their current 3G networks rely on two very different wireless technologies: Sprint does CDMA, just like Verizon; T-Mobile does GSM, like AT&T. Unless your phone’s some kind of dual-standard freak of nature, you can’t use it on the other type of network. So what would these two do?

They could sign off on the merger yet still keep both networks running for a while until they have a firm footing in 4G. But one company with two totally different wireless standards plus a brand-new one on the way sounds like a management nightmare, and at some point they’d probably need to abandon one network or the other.

What then? Refit all T-Mobile’s towers with CDMA hardware and force its customers to trade in their phones? Or vice-versa with Sprint and GSM? Sounds messy. And expensive.

A ‘Tweener Tab?

Now that you’ve had time to cool down from Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the CTIA Wireless conference is just around the corner, so we’ll all get the chance to look at mostly the same stuff that came out of MWC.

Actually, a few totally new products may well show up CTIA, including a few from Samsung. The company’s promised a March 22 media event, and the invite it shot out to press folks contained a large chunk of rumor mill grist.

Aside from the date, time and place, it reads, “What’s your Tab life?” followed by the numerals 78910. I guess that could be a huge typo, but it’s probably just a bit of “Lost”-style mystery baiting meant to get people talking about a million different theories on what the hell it could possibly mean. And people are talking, but only one theory seems to have any weight behind it, and if it proves true, it means Samsung’s doing something pretty unusual.

78910. A mention of the word “Tab,” as in Samsung’s Galaxy Tab. The seven-inch Tab is already out there. The company’s already shown a 10-incher, or actually a 10.1-incher, but 10’s close enough. So the thinking is that Samsung’s going to more or less split the difference and deliver an 8.9-inch tablet.

Just how necessary is that? Tablets actually come in a range of sizes — the Xoom is big, the iPad 2’s a bit smaller, Samsung’s original Tab is smaller than that, and Dell’s Streak is right on the tablet/smartphone border. But with the same company, within the same line, will an increment of about two inches really give buyers more freedom, or would Samsung just be weighing itself down with another SKU to manufacture when two or even one would do the trick just as well?

Perhaps it’s not such a bad idea. There are all sorts of different sizes of TVs, right? Vendors and consumers are still feeling each other out in the tablet market, and maybe 8.9 inches will strike some buyers as a happy compromise of portability and usablity. And it depends on what you use it for — seven inches feels like a paperback book, so that’s good as an e-reader replacement, and 10 inches feels more like a TV screen, so it’s good for entertainment. Will 8.9 inches be the best of both worlds?

For some, perhaps. Not for me. Personally, I’m holding out for a 9.27-inch screen. No more, no less.

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