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Facebook Mobilizes Its Army

Those phone rumors once again returned to haunt another Facebook announcement. For the last month or so, any time Facebook has had something new to present to the world, talk would again pick up about how the social networking site might one day decide to build its own cellphone, and the company would have to throw another bucket of ice water on everyone by saying “Uh, no” — this time in those exact words, in fact.

But the latest announcement did have to do with mobile. Specifically, Facebook is shining up its mobile apps, making them more or less equal in features and abilities across the Android the iPhone platforms, and letting third-party developers get a taste of its mobile data and activity streams. All in all, the whole thing makes Facebook mobile act a little more like Facebook desktop.

One of the big new features is Deals, a new mobile commerce feature that trims the idea of mobile marketing down to the barest essentials a consumer would want to know: What exactly is on sale near the place I’m standing right now? Post your location by checking in to any given place, and a number of nearby businesses offering discounts will pop up on the screen. To get the discount, just walk over and show your phone.

There’s more: Facebook Connect will go mobile, you can now see Groups through the mobile apps, the Android version gets Places, and third parties will be able to drink from the mobile activity stream.

Even though the announcement was all about mobile, a Facebook app for iPad was not on the agenda, and when he was asked specifically about it, CEO Mark Zuckerberg revealed why: The iPad isn’t mobile, he said. It’s a computer.

Listen to the podcast (13:08 minutes).

The Many Faces of 4G

Perhaps you’re not quite aware of it just yet, but you’re desperatelyyearning for a 4G phone. Deep down, you feel hideously outdated everytime you have to appear in public holding a phone with merethird-generation network support. I know this because the wirelesscarriers told me. The main players in the U.S. are laying downmillions upon millions of dollars to build out their 4G networks,which will promise faster download and upload speeds for cellphonesand computers.

Most of the 4G networks being built in the U.S. today rely on atechnology called “LTE,” and there’s also a little WiMAX built in. Butone company’s claimed a head start on its 4G network, and now it saysit has the biggest one in the country by far.

T-Mobile, the fourth-largest carrier in the U.S., announced recentlythat its latest network is 4G, a lot of it’s already built, and sincethe other guys are still busy tying their shoes, T-Mobile’s is thebiggest.

This is rather unexpected for several reasons. First, because it’sT-Mobile. Its customer base is minuscule compared to Verizon’s orAT&T’s, it rarely gets to sell the most interesting new phones, it wasway slow getting started on 3G, and its stores look like frozen yogurtstands. This is the company that’s supposedly leading the 4G charge?

Another reason it’s odd is because of the network T-Mobile is actuallytalking about. While the other guys sweat it out installing LTE andWiMax equipment, T-Mobile’s 4G claim relates to its HSPA+ network, andthere’s some debate about whether it’s fair to call HSPA+ a 4Gtechnology. T-Mobile’s rivals say no way, of course. To them, it’s 3G,or 3.5G. Maybe 3.7G at the outside. But definitely not a full four.Ridiculous.

But T-Mobile says it’s all about actual data speed, and under theright conditions, HSPA+ can perform pretty much on par with techmore commonly called 4G, like LTE.

The whole argument’s a quagmire, though, because at the moment, therereally are no set-in-stone standards for what can be called 4G andwhat can’t. Right now, pasting the 4G label on your technology is kindof an empty marketing gesture done to make sure nobody thinks you’relate to the party, not a framed certificate you put on the wall toprove your tech passed a standardized test.

In fact, even though other companies may spit on T-Mobile’s claim thatHSPA+ is 4G, those outfits’ own upcoming 4G networks don’t technicallymeet a more stringent definition of the term, which calls for regular– not peak, but regular — triple-digit megabit-per-second speeds.

The Blekko Brigade

Unencumbered by an attractive name, a new search site called “Blekko“has launched in beta, and its aim is to make the process of searchingthe Web a little more sanitary.

Typical search sites send crawlers to all corners of the Web, chewthrough the content with automated algorithms, and try to serve up asrelevant an answer as possible when you do a search. That’s nice, butwith all those results also comes quite a lot of garbage. SEO gamerswho play the system, content farmers fishing for clicks, even filthylittle malware sites looking to infect every sucker who stumbles in –they’re all freely floating about in the results pool, and they can bequite irritating.

Blekko’s aim is to solve this by way of slashtags. They’re used as asort of search punctuation. You can use a prefab slashtag Blekkoitself has created — “UFOs /paranormal” is one suggested by the site,if you’re into that. You can sign up and go about making your own setof slashtags, sort of carving out your own little corner of Blekko’soverall search schema. Or you can search a friend’s slashtags tosearch the Web the way he or she has organized it. If you don’t wantto screw around with slashies at all, Blekko works as a standardsearch engine as well.

When you get results, you see the standard title, blurb and URL, aswell as a few extras. If you’re signed in, you can hit a link toslashtag a given site. There are also ways of finding out the site’sSEO information and its IP address, viewing a cached version, seeing comments other users have left,and marking it as spam.

When it launched in beta, Blekko had some slashtags already whippedup. But since the site’s relying on Web users at large to do a wholelot of the legwork beyond that, it’s still pretty limited in terms of its more outstanding features. Guess that’s why we have beta,right? Anyway, the first goal Blekko’s set for itself is to identifythe 50 best sites on the Web for the top 100,000 search categories.And maybe it’ll actually get there — since the company started itswork in 2007, it’s managed to convince investors to give it $24million in venture funding.

Close Enough for Government Work

Google’s pockets are billions of dollars deep. Perhaps even moreimportantly, it has a great deal of power. I have no scientific basisfor this claim, but it could theoretically change the way we perceivethe universe through subtle manipulation of search results andsuggestive Gmail ads, and I’ve seen no proof it hasn’t already triedthat. But despite all its wealth and power, Google’s still scrappingwith the U.S. government over a measly $59 million contract.

With its partner reseller Onix Networking at its side, Google has suedthe U.S. Department of the Interior, claiming the agency unfairly favoredMicrosoft as it laid out its requirements for the new messagingplatform it was shopping for. The suit claims DoI specificallycalled for the platform to be part of the Microsoft BusinessProductivity Online Suite, which immediately took Google Apps and Onixout of the running.

The money involved in this particular contract isn’t going to make orbreak Google’s year, or quarter, or week. Even if Google wins thesuit, it may still not get the contract — maybe the DoI will findsomething technically deficient with Google’s product, or maybe itjust wants something standardized to the larger platform it alreadyhas in place.

Perhaps the suit’s more an attempt by Google to put public sectororganizations on notice that it won’t quietly skulk away if it thinksits applications aren’t being given a fair shot at government use.This single contract may not mean much, but if Google can raise itsprofile as a serious contender for government contracts in general,they could collectively make a difference to its bottom line.

That, and any day spent doing something to misqueme Microsoft even alittle bit is time well spent as far as Mountain View is concerned.

Burying Buzz

If you’re a Gmail user, I’d like to congratulate you on your recentcourtroom victory. Perhaps you saw the email about it in your inboxthis week. You’re the beneficiary of a class-action lawsuit thatGoogle recently settled, and you’re entitled to a taste of thewinnings.

Your taste amounts to this: an email straight from Google’s centralnervous system acknowledging that it screwed up. Remember, it’s not ane-mea culpa — the most powerful company on the Web did not justapologize to you, so don’t use this as an excuse to go around actinglike a pompous jerk. Google also wants to make it very clear thatyou’re not entitled to any money, if that’s what’s on your mind.

Granted, most class-action settlements do involve some amount of moneychanging hands, and this one was no different. Google had to pony up$8.5 million dollars, but that’s actually being donated to anindependent fund that promotes online privacy education.

The suit started when Google blew its foot off with Buzz, itsdisastrously embarrassing social debut last February. Buzz’s problemwas that it had no actual social graces — it would let a lot of peoplewith whom you may have had only a passing acquaintance see some verypersonal content. The backlash was fast and severe, and the inevitableclass-action suit was just now settled with that $8.5 million donationand a rare email acknowledgment that’s suitable for framing if youprint it out.

The speed at which that backlash effectively killed Buzz may haveactually been a blessing. Those who do remember it recognize it as ablack eye for the company, but the outpouring of outrage came on sofast that Buzz mercifully fizzled and died before it had a chance toestablish itself as a familiar and well-known part of Google. Thecompany will probably take another shot at the social scene, possiblyeven soon, and Buzz’s stench will still linger a bit in the air whenthat happens, but by backing away from Buzz so quickly and settlingthis case, at least Google’s made a clean mulligan out of it.

Still Litigious After All These Years

Of all the thousands of people the recording industry has sued or threatened to sue for illegally sharing copyrighted tunes over various peer-to-peer networks, the name Jammie Thomas-Rasset stands out. It’s not because she was accused of sharing a huge number of songs — the original suit only named 24. The reason you may know the name is because of the fight she’s been putting up.

Unlike the vast majority of those accused, she refused to settle for a low four-figure amount. She wanted to take it to trial. And over the last few years, she’s gone back to trial on this case — again and again. Juries keep finding in the RIAA’s favor; really the only thing that changes is the size of the penalties they keep coming up with, though they are consistent in being shocking and ridiculous.

This week ,a jury decided to fine her $1.5 million, or $62,500 per song. Hey, it was less than the figure the previous jury came up with — that one totaled nearly $2 million.

This is the third time this case has seen the courtroom, and taking Thomas to trial might have actually made some sense for the RIAA years ago, back when the suit was first filed. Here was someone who wouldn’t take the settlement offer, so if the RIAA could really nail her in court, regardless of how much money it actually collected, it would strengthen the group’s running game. If it could hold up a real-life example of someone who fought back and lost, it would make people more afraid to get involved with file-sharing networks, and those who kept doing it and were caught might be convinced to settle up for a bit more money.

Maybe it was the good fight, maybe it was evil, but at least on paper it made a certain amount of sense. Back then.

But by now, that point is moot. Between now and the time the RIAA first filed suit against Thomas, the music industry changed gears — it abandoned its strategy of suing file-sharers.

So who’s it trying to impress by repeatedly going after her? If nobody’s afraid of getting sued for sharing music anymore, why spend the resources on trying to make an example out of this one person?

Is it just doing it for the sake of collecting that 1.5 million? That would be delusional. Even if the labels eventually get some money out of her for this, maybe through some kind of life-long structured payment plan, I doubt it’ll add up to anything close to the amount of money they’ve paid their lawyers to work this case for so long.

If objective results like a big payout are unrealistic, and subjective goals like setting an example are irrelevant, what’s left? Why would the RIAA continue the fight? My only guess is that it’s all about saving face. The whole mess has turned into a pointless exercise in futility, but if they give up now, all the other kids on the playground will point and laugh and call them wimps.

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