Google to China: Tear Down This Wall

For lots of U.S. Internet companies, doing business in China is virtually a no-brainer — the market opens up well over a billion new potential customers. The only downside is the Chinese government’s pet peeve regarding public dissent.

It sponsors what has to be the biggest censorship operation on the planet. If you’re surfing the Web in China, you’ll see no political dissent, no porn, no talk about government persecution, no mention of certain religious groups, no nothing about anything that might in any way subvert the status quo. Chinese government censors block it all — or at least, they try to; there are ways around it. Still, those who want to do business in China are free to seek their fortunes, but they have to obey the local laws, and for search engine providers, that means censoring their search results.

For a while now, a lot of U.S. Internet companies have held their noses and gone along with it — perhaps they weren’t holding them too tightly, though, because there’s a lot of money to be had. But Google decided the government went too far when the company detected a hack attack coming from China. The attackers were apparently trying to jimmy into the Gmail accounts of certain Chinese human rights activists.

After putting a few new locks on the doors, Google gave China a hard line: “We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all.” Those were the words of David Drummond, senior vice president of corporate development and chief legal officer for Google.

So the biggest name in the Internet has just basically told the Chinese government, to hell with your censorship laws, we’re doing business our way or not at all. China’s response: Not at all, then. The government said it welcomed foreign business ventures as long as they followed local laws — when in Rome, or in this case, Shanghai, do as the Shanghains do.

Now Google’s in an interesting spot. It has very publicly stared down China’s government, and it’s getting lots of encouragement from human rights and free speech activists. But if it follows through on its tough talk, it stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue, plus whatever kind of future growth a foot in China might have promised. What does China stand to lose? Not as much, relatively speaking. Not many non-Internet companies will give a rip; they’re making too much money. In fact, China’s domestic Web giants, like Baidu, would probably benefit if Google should go home — that much less competition. On the other hand, less competition does mean less innovation, but that works both ways.

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Nexus Perplexus

First we had cellphones, then we started calling them “smartphones” if we could teach them new software tricks. Then Google started referring to its new Android-powered Nexus One smartphone as a “superphone,” and without a hint of irony, at least none that I could pick up. Next I guess we’ll have “superduperphones,” “alphaphones,” “dandyphones,” “uberphones” and “uberallesphones.” We really will be saying those words with a straight face in something like five years.

Is it such a great idea to use the Nexus One as an opportunity to stuff a new psuedo-word into the collective vocabulary? Google called it, “an exemplar of what’s possible on mobile phones through Android.” I won’t argue with that; Google is Android’s daddy, after all, and the Nexus does have a very powerful processor. But in the days since Nexus One arrived, some complaints have been springing up, and the hype seems to be deflating.

There are complaints about spotty 3G connectivity. Some say customer service and tech support are coming up short. And the way Google’s selling the thing may turn off buyers who want to touch and use the phone for a minute or two before buying. 451 Group’s Chris Hazelton thinks it may have to do with the timing of the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month and Google’s desire to ride the front of that wave of technology news. If so, mission accomplished. However, said Hazelton, “it looks like the background execution was not there yet.”

Google’s bold “superphone” proclamation also failed to send chills down Hazelton’s spine. He called the Nexus One a “very good phone,” but it’s not exactly a bar-raiser. Instead, it takes another step down the road that the rest of the pack’s leaders are also on — a faster processor, a sharper user interface, etc. For now, wireless carriers still have a lot of sway in what smartphones can and cannot do, so it’s incredibly difficult for anyone, even a monster like Google, to break out too far ahead of the rest of the pack.

A Hand Up

Palm’s webOS platform turned a year old this month, yet it still has a long way to go to catch up with other platforms like Android and iPhone. So at CES, Palm gave it a bump in hardware and service.

Both the Pre and the Pixi lines were upgraded with so-called Plus editions. For the Pre, that means more built-in memory; now up to 16 GB. It also dropped the single button it had on its face; now its only buttons are on the slide-out keypad. Both Plus editions also have a new feature that turns them into WiFi hotspots. Select the feature, and suddenly other devices like your laptop can get online wirelessly via the phone’s cellular data connection.

Palm is also building out its roster of carrier partners for its current generation of handsets. Before, you could only get a webOS phone on Sprint in the U.S.; with this new batch, Verizon makes it into the mix. AT&T also says it’s going to carry webOS devices in the future, but it’s not clear what those will be — could be Pre, could be Pixi, or could be some Palm gadget we haven’t even seen yet.

AT&T seems to be trying to diversify its portfolio lately. The company often boasts about what a wide variety of smartphones it offers, but aside from the iPhone, most of those smartphones are either BlackBerries or WinMo devices. Lately it’s made moves to cozy up with platforms like Android and webOS, which might mean that its days of having the iPhone all to itself are coming to an end.

Better Times Ahead?

Optimistic predictions won’t turn red ink into black on company balance sheets, but after so many months of gloom, it does feel a little refreshing to see a sunny forecast from a giant IT think tank.

Forrester Research says that in 2010 things will finally start looking up for vendors of IT products and services. Spending will grow 8.1 percent globally and 6.6 percent in the U.S., according to its figures. That doesn’t quite offset last year’s 8.9 percent global fall — and remember that it takes more than X percent growth to fully make up for X percent shrinkage. But let’s remember we’re trying to put one of the worst economic disasters since the 1930s behind us, and if IT really can get itself back into gear in something like one-and-half to two years, it’ll be one of the fastest-recovering industries in the world.

Not everyone’s going to be on a shopping spree, though. Large enterprises will be able to tap into a big and diverse pool of resources to get going with all that new hardware and software they’ve wanted to buy for so long. Smaller businesses, on the other hand, will likely continue having trouble getting loans in a dry credit environment.

Privacy Sucks

A wise cartoonist once taught us that on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. That was back in 1993, and it’s still possible to have a certain degree of anonymity online. It’s just that not very many people seem to be opting for it. They’re using MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, blogs, and all sorts of other avenues to share a lot about themselves, sometimes going way overboard in the process.

So was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg correct this week when he said that nobody really wants privacy anymore? He was talking at TechCrunch’s Crunchies Awards in San Francisco, and his exact words were, “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that’s evolved over time.”

This comes just a few weeks after Facebook undertook a major privacy overhaul that forced all users to review their settings. Some users found the new settings to be inherently less private, while others just found them confusing. It seems even Zuckerberg himself let a few private photos of a trip to Lake Tahoe slip into public viewing areas for a short time. Apparently, the young CEO still has affection for his teddy bear — not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But was he right about the privacy? Are we really evolving into a society of virtual nudists, where we’re all very comfortable letting everything hang out at all times? You might think so if you rely mostly on what you see on YouTube and Facebook and reality TV. The people who constantly insert themselves into the spotlight through those channels don’t seem to care at all about privacy, and that only makes sense, because they’re attention whores. Listen to that feedback loop long enough and it’s easy to conclude that nobody cares about privacy anymore.

However, we do not all wish to live as Tila Tequila lives. We still want to take part in the communication that sites like Facebook provide, we’ll be very open with our closest friends, and we don’t mind advertisers footing the bill, but we still want a tight grip on how private that communication is. In other words, we’ll be virtual nudists sometimes, but only on a secluded little beach, and even then maybe with a loincloth or something.

Zuckerberg’s comments naturally got professional privacy advocates worked into a lather, and they’d already been pretty keyed up over Facebook’s previous privacy reshuffle — EPIC had even filed a complaint with the FTC.

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse’s Paul Stephens told us that even though there are other social networks out there, Facebook is so popular that it basically has monopoly power, and it’s time to set some ground rules. “I’m not in favor of regulating everything, but in a situation like that, where an entity has market power that is so unwieldy — that’s a prime situation in which you want the government to come in and set some standards.”

Delousing the Filthy, Huddled Masses

Nobody uses the term “social disease” anymore to mean what that phrase originally meant. It’s sounded a little glib ever since AIDS came around, and really, isn’t any disease that you catch from another person a social disease? Flu, chicken pox, pinkeye, etc.?

So perhaps we need to repurpose the term to mean malware that your computer catches from online social networks. It’s beginning to be a big problem, as hackers use our trust of sites like Facebook to provide an avenue of attack. For instance, maybe they’ll post a link that looks clean, but instead it takes you to a malicious Web page that puts malware on your system. That link may even look like it was posted by someone you know, only it’s really been left by someone who hacked into your friend’s account.

So now that hackers have turned social networks’ clubhouses into disease-infested little ratholes, what are those networks going to do about it? Well, Facebook has started setting some traps. If it finds a diseased little varmint in your account, a security scan, courtesy of McAfee, checks your PC for malware. If it sees a problem, you are declared unclean and forbidden to walk through Facebook’s door until your unwanted guests have been exterminated. At the same time, McAfee will also advertise a free six-month subscription to one of its security products.

Granted, this doesn’t look like it’ll do anything to make it harder for hackers to keep posting all those malware links. They’ll just have less incentive if they know all those victims won’t remain victims for long — McAfee will scan and presumably cure them with a shot of virtual penicillin on their next visit.

But this setup raises a question about possible application conflicts. Having more than one antimalware product on your computer can cause problems — they might both see each other as a virus. The McAfee scan happens remotely, but could that scan trigger a red flag if you already have another security product on patrol?

McAfee says no way. The tool won’t conflict with anything on users’ PCs, according to spokesperson Brent Remai. But M86’s Bradley Anstis has his doubts. He told us, “Unless McAfee has tested its scanner application with every single antimalware app on the planet — and I don’t think they could possibly have done that — it’s hard to say what’s going to happen. McAfee will look at suspicious or malicious files, and the locally installed antimalware will be looking at that scanning activity, because that’s inherently suspicious.”

Also, the strategy of scanning users’ PCs rather than clearing out potential hacks before they happen seems to be a backward approach to Breach Security’s Ryan Barnett. He said it’s like giving everyone at the Super Bowl a bulletproof vest and telling them to hope for the best rather than patting everyone down for guns at the gate.

A Fembot That Knows the Art of Programmed Conversation

Somewhere out there, there are people who are very curious about a new gadget on the market called “Roxxxy.” OK, lots of people are interested in Roxxxy, but it’s mostly the kind of interest based on disgust, bewilderment or amusement — as I understand it, those feelings actually drive 80 percent of all Internet traffic.

For a small handful, though, the emergence of Roxxxy had them calculating second mortgages or whether they really need that new car. These people may work with you. They may live with you. They may even be close friends or family members. My advice is to do your best to not try and find out, and if you happen to notice them taking delivery on a large, person-sized box, just do what it takes to convince yourself they ordered a new piece of furniture.

Roxxxy — that’s with three Xes — is the latest generation in synthetic companionship. Life-sized, anatomically correct dolls with posable skeletons and strangely real-feeling skin are not new, but the company that makes the Roxxxy, True Companion, says it’s her personality that sets her apart. Apparently, she has one — or at least she has a set of software-based behaviors that enable her to say things, respond to touch and do … other stuff. And she can swap them out, too — Roxxxy is WiFi-enabled, so she can download multiple distinct personalities, which might make her even more realistic, depending on the kind of people you’re used to dating.

Perhaps it’s another example of the adult industry leading the way in a specific niche of consumer technology, just like it drove the early adoption of home video back in the ’80s. But is the technology behind Roxxxy good for anything other than a really strange Saturday night? It’s possible. Right now, certain branches of development in the field of robotics are aimed at creating helpful home assistants for the elderly and people with special needs. Some of Roxxxy’s underlying technology could relate somehow to those endeavors — though presumably those relationships would be strictly platonic.

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