Google and Microsoft Take It Outside

By just about any measure, the Android mobile platform is making a killing in the U.S. As of last March, comScore said over a third of U.S. smartphone subscribers use Android phones. Every major U.S. carrier supports Android phones, every major handset maker in the world not named “RIM,” “Apple” or “Nokia” makes Android phones, and the platform’s app selection is almost as ridiculously diverse as Apple’s.

But despite all that success, Android is causing a gut-full of worry for its parent company, Google. Over the last several months, some of Google’s biggest enemies — Microsoft, Apple and Oracle, to name a few — have targeted Android with claims of patent infringement. Sometimes they go after Google itself, or sometimes they go after handset makers that build Android phones, but the message is largely the same: They claim that some technology used by Android infringes on a patent they own, either because they invented it themselves or because they bought the patent from some other company.

Sometimes the fight happens in court; sometimes it’s over with a threat and a settlement. But Google’s getting sick of seeing Android picked on, and this week it publicly called out its enemies for what it called “a hostile, organized campaign against Android.”

In a company blog post, Google Senior Vice President and Chief Legal Officer David Drummond accused Android’s enemies of teaming up to buy patents at Nortel’s postmortem estate sale, as well as a few patents that Novell put on the block, just so Google couldn’t get them. He wrote that even though phone makers can use Android for free, Microsoft is trying to make Android phones more expensive to build than Windows phones by pressuring phone makers into paying Redmond licensing fees in order to avoid possible patent trouble. And he accused Google’s rivals of competing by filing lawsuits rather than making their own products better.

Microsoft was quick to slap back, though. Company officials responded within hours by posting an email from a few months ago in which a Google executive turns down a Microsoft offer to bid on the Novell patents jointly. So if Google thinks Microsoft’s playing a game of billion-dollar keep-away, why didn’t it go in for halfsies when it had the chance? It kind of made it look like one of Google’s hands didn’t know what the right was doing.

But a few hours after that, Google made its reply. Drummond said Google saw the Microsoft offer for what it was: a trick. If Google had shared rights with Microsoft, he said, it might have been able to use the technologies they covered, but it wouldn’t have been able to use the patents to protect Android from Microsoft, because Microsoft would have owned the patents too.

To that, Microsoft’s head of corporate communications, Frank X. Shaw, countered that really Google just wanted the patents all to itself.

Lawyers often prefer to save the shouting matches for the courtroom — public bickering like this may be interesting to watch, but it doesn’t do much to sway a judge one way or the other. Still, Google may have a good reason for speaking out like this.

Patent law is a tangled mess, and it’s an issue that’s gaining a growing amount of attention among investors, developers and even consumers. The more the public hears about Android’s patent problems, the less confidence they have in the platform, and that could hurt Google just as much as an unfavorable court ruling. By striking back against its opponents in a public forum like this, Google at least gets the message across that it thinks it has a strong case and it’s going to put up a fight.

Listen to the podcast (13:23 minutes).

Rat Catchers

Security vendor McAfee made a big scene this week when it sounded thealarm on what it says is a multinational data theft ring that’s beenswiping information from all kinds of organizations for something likefive years. They call it “Operation Shady RAT,” and if what they’resaying is right, the infestation is tremendous.

Some time ago, McAfee was able to analyze data from a command andcontrol server being used to control a botnet. Basically, it was thebrain behind an army of infected zombie computers. What they foundthere led them to believe they were looking at only the tip of theiceberg — that there were actually thousands of servers also being usedby the same cybercrooks to attack and spy on at least dozens oforganizations worldwide, if not hundreds or thousands.

The types of outfits that McAfee says were targeted range from Olympiccommittees to local governments, oil and gas companies, law offices,real estate firms, and the United Nations. In all, possibly petabytesof data have been stolen. So basically, if this data theft ring isactually stealing information to the extent that McAfee makes it soundlike it’s stealing information, then it knows pretty much everythingabout everything, and we can all stop having secrets from now onbecause there’s really no point.

Of course everyone wants to know who’s behind this, but with so muchdata apparently being pilfered, it’s hard to say. At a pressconference, reporters repeatedly asked whether McAfee thinks China’sinvolved, though the company refused to confirm that. But it did bringup the terms “Night Dragon” and “Aurora,” two past mass attacks inwhich China-based hackers are suspected to have been involved.

Still, it’s way too early to pin the attacks as coming from any givencountry, let alone a particular country’s government. The diversity oftargets doesn’t help. For instance, attacking various country’sOlympic committees does make it sound like a state actor was involved,though a for-profit hacker could just as easily aim to sellinformation to a government after the fact.

The New Batch

As it promised last month to a roomful of cranky investors, ResearchIn Motion has begun releasing an onslaught of new handsets, which inthe U.S. will first appear on the AT&T, Sprint and U.S. Cellularnetworks.

The stakes are high for RIM. It desperately needs a hit. Its criticssay it’s been living on borrowed time ever since iPhone and Androidarrived on the scene, and that the phones it’s put out since then havebeen either rehashes of stuff it’s already done or faltering attemptsto chase legit trends like touchscreens. The company’s taken heatabout this kind of stuff for years, but in the last few months itsstock has taken a clear downturn. Now everything RIM does just hasthis life-or-death aftertaste to it.

So, on to the phones. The names will be familiar: “Bold” and “Torch.” TheBolds 9900 and 9930 have the usual physical keypad; the Torches 9850and 9860 are touchscreen phones, and the Torch 9810 is a slider.

The designs are also very familiar. In fact, if not for those SKUnumbers tagged onto the end, it’d be easy to mistake three of these fivemodels for last year’s editions. But under the hood, there are trueimprovements. The processors in these phones are perhaps the mostnoteworthy upgrade — previously the fastest engine you’d find in aBlackBerry was a relatively twerpy little 624 megahertz chip; nowRIM’s phones sport much more respectable 1.2 gigahertz CPUs.

RIM’s also stepped up the OS from BlackBerry 6 to BlackBerry 7, whichcomes with preloaded apps and integrated productivity andcollaboration functions. But it’s still not QNX, the OS that runsRIM’s PlayBook tablet. QNX is destined for BlackBerry phones — justnot yet, apparently.

But even if RIM’s new lineup really does put it in the same league as the iPhone and top-notch Androids — at least on some levels — those latter two platforms will almost definitely swing in with new offerings of their own in a couple of months, just in time for the holidays. And there’s no telling just how much more advanced they’re going to be.

Kinking the Hose

It’s been over a year since AT&T started a trend that’s been more or less followed by two of the other major wireless carriers: tiered data pricing. Starting at the time the iPhone 4 was launched last summer, new AT&T customers had to pick a monthly wireless plan that set a soft limit on the amount of data they could use on the wireless network in a given month.

I say “soft limit” because it’s not like AT&T will completely cut you off or drop you as a customer if you run over. It’s just that they start charging you a whole lot more per megabyte until your billing cycle resets.

And now this model is being used by three out of the four major U.S. wireless providers. Verizon jumped in eventually, and T-Mobile followed the bandwagon too, albeit with its own unique twist. Sprint’s the only holdout so far.

But that doesn’t mean every single AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile customer out there is on a tiered plan. Most of the time these new policies include a grandfather clause. If you were a customer before your carrier instituted the new arrangement, you had the option of just keeping your old unlimited plan, just as long as you didn’t change anything about it. Tiers are only set for new customers — or old customers who figure a cheaper tiered plan is a better deal.

Apparently, though, even that handicap isn’t enough to bring AT&T’s network up to par. Starting in October, even those old-timey unlimited plan-havers will be restricted in a different way: throttling. If you have an unlimited plan and end up using so much data that you land in the top 5 percent of all AT&T unlimited data users, your connection speed will be choked down to a crawl for the rest of the month.

So it seems that AT&T users who are subject to these rules will soon be graded on a curve, and people who have unlimited plans but only use them to check email once every three days are the ones who get A-pluses and screw things up for everyone else.

AT&T won’t exactly be the first wireless provider in the U.S. to go there, though. Recently T-Mobile finally moved into a tiered pricing model too, but its customers can still run over that data limit all they want at no extra charge. Instead of charging more like AT&T, T-Mobile just starts throttling them at that point.

This general trend toward wireless data diets may be the result of the smartphone craze catching carriers with their pants down. They love the extra revenue data plans are bringing in, but accomodating all that traffic takes time and money, so they’re dealing with it by putting the squeeze on. But even as these networks are built out, most carriers are moving in the same direction, and usage continues to grow as well, so it’s becoming less and less likely that we’ll see a return to unlimited use any time soon.

And at this point, AT&T has a very big interest in making itself look overwhelmed. It wants to purchase T-Mobile despite some very strong resistance from critics who say that move would essentially turn the U.S. wireless industry into a duopoly. But AT&T says that’s the only way it can get the bandwidth it needs to adequately service its customers, and kinking the hose the way it’s about to with its unlimited data users certainly makes it look like the company has a problem doing that.

A Show of Its Own

Hulu’s so far made its mark by delivering studio-quality TV to the Web in a legitimate channel that manages to bring in both advertising and subscription revenue. It’s going through ownership issues right now, but if it can survive that, it could grow to be a serious threat to cable TV.

The thing with Hulu is, so far it doesn’t show you a whole lot that you can’t see anywhere else. Maybe some of those behind-the-scenes clips might be exclusives, but the real full-episode library is made up mostly of stuff that’s been on free broadcast TV or one of a few basic cable channels.

Soon, though, Hulu’s going to take the plunge into full-length original programming. This is something Netflix is working on too — it’s going to start running an original series with Kevin Spacey called “House of Cards,” and there are reports that it’s looking into a second venture as well.

For Hulu, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock will direct “A Day in the Life,” a series of six half-hour episodes profiling various famous individuals like Richard Branson, Russell Peters and Gregg Gillis, also known as “Girl Talk.”

It may not sound like a huge, “Sopranos”-grade blockbuster of a TV series, but it’s a start, and if Hulu can build on this with more original programming, it’s got a chance grow beyond its present role as an online distributor of other people’s programming. It could become a much more self-sufficient channel, offering multiple shows of its own — sort of an online-only HBO that isn’t so deeply intertwined with cable companies. Hulu’s owners are looking to sell right now, and a change of ownership into the right hands could lead to some big developments in that regard.

In fact, this transition follows roughly the same lines that premium cable channels like HBO followed decades ago. They started out with nothing but movies and sports programming, and that was novel enough at the time to give them a foothold. But as video rental and pay-per-view caught on, in order to really build a following and convince viewers to pay 10 or 20 bucks a month, they started creating original programs. The result is that now those original shows are really the only good reason to subscribe to premium channels at all.

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