Google’s Strange and Shiny New OS

Google just keeps invading new territories, and its latest target is your computer’s operating system. It’s officially released the open source code for its Chrome OS, an operating system that will turn up in third-party vendors’ netbooks. Those devices should start selling next year.

With Chrome, Google takes a very different approach than major OSes like Windows, Mac OS, or even most Linux distributions. It’s sort of like what would happen if an Ubuntu mated with a Firefox. It’s basically a browser that does not run on an operating system — it is an operating system. All its apps are Web apps, and all the data you save using it is stored in the cloud, in a state of statelessness, as Google puts it. Very little data is actually saved on the computer’s hard drive.

The advantage, as Google describes it, is that boot-up times are extremely quick. Security is also easier to handle. If you aren’t hosting any data yourself, you also aren’t hosting any malware. Finally, if someone steals your Chrome netbook, and your password is nice and safe, then you’ll be able to reclaim all your data and settings simply by signing on to another Chrome netbook — which you’ll have to buy, of course, but some data’s worth more than a few hundred bucks.

The disadvantage is that a Chrome netbook probably can’t do a whole lot if you don’t have Web access. Then there’s the matter of privacy, with all your data stored on someone else’s servers.

Either way, Google doesn’t seem to be saying that Chrome is where you should live all the time. It’s described the first batch of netbooks arriving next year as companion devices, so that thirty-pound Mac Pro of yours in the basement doesn’t have much to worry about just yet.

Listen to the podcast (16:13 minutes).

Who’s Not a Telecom?

It seems that Google’s decision to buy VoIP provider Gizmo5 is making just about everyone happy. Google’s happy, because who doesn’t like a good dose of retail therapy? Gizmo5 is happy, or at least some of its engineers are relieved that they still have a job if they don’t mind working with Google. And finally, Google’s nemesis AT&T is happy, because this just means another chance to give Google a hard time.

Gizmo5 makes software for Voice over Internet Protocol services — using your Internet connection as a phone line. Google says some of the company’s engineers will be joining the Google Voice team to improve the experience. That’s about all we get as far as specifics, but it definitely looks like Google Voice may soon become more than just a software application that uses regular phone lines.

And that gives AT&T more spitwads to throw Google’s way. AT&T has been complaining to the FCC that Google Voice is a telecom service, and as such it needs to abide regulations about connecting callers to certain rural phone numbers, even when it’s incredibly, abnormally expensive to do so. These phone numbers are generally considered to be revenue-pumping scam operations, and they number less than 100.

But Google says Voice is a software app, nothing more, and that network neutrality does not apply when you’re talking telephone networks. But adding VoIP to the mix may make Voice cross the line into telecommunications. Might depend on how it’s implemented, and we may see some amazing acts of hair-splitting very soon.

Light Legal Reading

You might be aware that lawyers charge many, many dollars per hour to work, and much of that work involves reading legal briefs. And if you’ve ever tried reading that kind of stuff, you probably understand why attorneys are so expensive. The things are so boring the only way to stay awake is the thought that you’re slowly earning yourself a new Porsche.

But it looks like Verizon’s lawyers tried to put a little more zing into their litigation, or maybe the company got a two-for-one deal when they hired a marketing team. You might recall that the carrier’s latest ad campaign shows a little snout. Its catch phrase is, “There’s a map for that,” referring to Verizon’s larger 3G coverage area, and it shows a couple of maps as visual aids — one of AT&T’s zones and one of Verizon’s. This ad was not a hit with AT&T, which thought it misled consumers so much it was worth suing over.

In its response to the suit, Verizon’s lawyers got almost as lippy as its ads, with jabs like “the truth hurts.” I know, it’s not exactly the most artful of slams, and you probably just thought of a better one right now, but this is not the sort of thing you see in a dried-up old legal document.

It appears that Verizon was well aware that this whole ad battle had stirred up some interest, so it decided to put on a bit of a show, a little courtroom bloodsport. If nothing else, the fight at least capitalized on all the attention the iPhone always draws in order to showcase a competiting network’s strength — which is probably a lot harder to sell because you can’t actually touch or feel it.

It was such a successful PR strategy that it was probably just icing on the cake that Verizon actually won in court too, when the judge rejected AT&T’s plea to boot Verizon’s snotty commercials off the air.

Verizon didn’t make any bones about its marketing … uh, legal strategy. The company’s PR rep Jeffrey Nelson told us, “In general, over the past several years, we have taken a hard look at our legal documents all across the board trying to make sure that real people can understand them.” I suppose that means lawyers and judges aren’t real people.

Dimming Psystar

I don’t know how the guys at Psystar first came up with their idea for a business model, but just for the sake of irony, let’s pretend it was Apple’s own marketing that inspired them. I’m thinking back to the original “Think Different” ad that paid tribute to the so-called crazy ones — misfits, rebels, troublemakers, the ones who aren’t fond of rules and have no respect for the status quo.

That’s pretty much exactly what Psystar is, though I don’t think the startup was the kind of thing Apple had in mind with its commercial, which uses images of Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. and the like.

The specific rules Psystar isn’t fond of are end-user license agreements, and the status quo they’ve disrespected is Apple’s control of computers running Mac OS X. For about a year and a half, Psystar has offered to sell low-cost computers with Apple’s operating system preinstalled. That goes against the OS’s EULA, which insists that OS X may only run on Apple-branded hardware, not some white box assembled from parts you get off the shelf at Fry’s.

As the old ad goes, “about the only thing you can’t do is ignore them,” and Apple’s lawyers have been paying very close attention. On top of the alleged EULA violation, Apple also claimed trademark infringement, unfair competition, and rights to creative derivative works. Then came Pystar’s countersuit, which somehow reasoned that Apple was unfairly monopolizing its own products.

The court case has dragged on for months, but Cupertino just made what could be the finishing move that puts Psystar away once and for all. Basically, Psystar’s countersuit fell flat, and Apple won a summary judgment in court. The judge came out heavily in Apple’s favor, especially in terms of the derivative works bit. Also, the judge found that since Psystar went around Apple’s code protections in order to install the software on computers that it sold, the company violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

This outcome is not surprising — people could barely believe Psystar was for real from pretty much the moment it started doing business. A damages hearing is set for Dec. 14., and reaching for a settlement seems to be Psystar’s only sensible option.

As that old Apple ad says, “the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” And if nothing else, at least Psystar managed to make a dent in the universe of copyright case law. According to attorney Timothy J. Connors, “There’s been an argument from some quarters that requiring software to be used only on proprietary hardware constituted copyright misuse — trying to extend the reach of a copyright in ways that violate public policy. That argument was mostly theoretical, because there isn’t much case law on the subject of misuse. But now that argument has been tested in court and found wanting.”

‘T’ for Trouble

If T-Mobile was a college football team, they’d be writing this season off as a “rebuilding year.” But it’s not a team, it’s a business, so I think a better word for this fall has been “disaster.”

First there was that whole Sidekick thing. Long story short, T-Mobile lost a whole lot of customers’ personal data. Might be more accurate to say Microsoft lost it — then managed to get at least some of it back, eventually — but T-Mobile took a lot of heat anyway.

Now we seem to have some employees in the company’s UK division taking a very keen interest in customer data of another sort — peoples’ personal contact information. Their game was to allegedly sell lists of names of customers whose contracts were about to expire. They’d peddle that info to competitors, who presumably might use it to contact those customers and try to get them to switch teams.

I can think of worse things that could happen to my private info than unwanted solicitation, but c’mon, who has time to deal with this crap? At least this is not part of T-Mobile’s official business plan. It’s cooperating with the Information Commissioner’s Office, and it looks like some individuals will be prosecuted.

A couple of high-profile customer mishaps aren’t likely going to kill a big company overnight, but it’s not hard to imagine that a slow errosion of goodwill could turn T-Mobile into tomorrow’s Sprint, uncontrollably bleeding customers out of every orifice. As telecom analyst Jeff Kagan put it, “It takes a long time and much effort to build customer confidence, but a very short time to lose it. We don’t yet know what tomorrow looks like for T-Mobile, but the clock is definitely ticking.”

Palm Ripe to Pluck?

The Palm Pre made a pretty big impression when it was first shown almost a year ago, and its eventual launch garnered a fair amount of buzz. But here we are five months after that launch, and the Pre has already deteriorated in price down to $80 at some locations. The webOS App Catalog has a few hundred wares by now, but that pales in comparison to platforms like iPhone and Android. And the Palm Pixi, which started at $99 when it was launched just not two weeks ago, can now be had for the price of two movie tickets and a small popcorn — it goes for $25 at Wal-Mart.

If you can get all this Palm stuff at such bargain prices, maybe someone’s thinking about buying the whole company on the cheap. That was the rumor that started late last week, and the supposed buyer is Nokia. Palm’s stock got a few percentage points of a boost, though it’s pretty much leveled off by now.

On the surface, this deal might appear to make sense. The mobile OS ocean is right now pretty diverse, and when it comes to personal electronics, most consumers and software makers have lived for years in a world where there are pretty much three main roads: Windows, Mac and Linux. So unless we’re ready to move into a brave new world of extreme OS multiculturalism, there will have to be some consolidation. So it’s not so weird that the biggest phone maker might scoop up a troubled rival.

The question is, what would Nokia do with Palm? Last year Nokia spent a lot of money to consolidate its ownership of the Symbian platform, then it turned it over to the Symbian Foundation, so would this mean the end of webOS? Or would Nokia add it to its OS stable, which also already includes Maemo, an operating system that just appeared on its N900 smartphone? Very crowded.

Palm may open a door for Nokia in the U.S., where the brand is often associated with the cheap, no-frills little free phones you can get just for signing a contract. Nokia makes nice smartphones too — they just cost $700 because they have no carrier subsidies. Owning the Palm brand may present a way out of that.

Or not, according to Roger Entner at Nielsen IAG. He told us, “With all due respect to Palm and the webOS, the answer to Nokia’s chances in the U.S. is not Palm. Having the fourth significant OS platform does not play to Nokia’s aspirations. Nokia doesn’t want to start at number four. Do they need a new generation of smartphone OS? Yes, undoubtedly, but it needs to be a generation ahead, and that’s not what we have right now with webOS.”

The New America

Back in the mid-’90s, the cutting edge of consumer technology sounded sort of like an Asimo robot being slowly murdered with a belt sander, followed by a warm salutation: “Welcome, you’ve got mail!” That’s how we got on the Internet back in the bronze age. For a lot of us, America Online was there to hold our hands and make sure the pre-Google Web wasn’t too confusing or scary.

So AOL got big enough to buy Time Warner, but it couldn’t quite get a handle on this broadband thing, where other ISPs would just sell fast Web access without a fancy little portal application to tell you what to do. I know, it’s like a house without a butler, or a meal without a finger bowl. So the service languished, everyone realized they didn’t need butlers or fingerbowls or portals, and now having an email address ending in “” is the online equivalent of having a mullet.

In fact, AOL got so feeble that Time Warner — the company it bought all those years ago — is now calling the shots, and it’s been working on plans to give AOL the boot for months. That will officially happen Dec. 9, and when it does, AOL says it will likely have to start a big round of layoffs. A third of the company — that’s 2,500 employees — will likely lose their jobs in order for AOL to save about $300 million, according to an SEC filing.

So where can AOL possibly go from here? Mainly, it needs to figure out what it is. It has lots of holdings — everything from Bebo to Mapquest to Yellow Pages to Weblogs, a family of blogs that includes Engadget. It also has some life left in its display ad business, and maybe Google and Microsoft might be interested in its search assets. AOL seems to be all over the place, and maybe when it’s out on its own and, unfortunately, several thousand employees lighter, it’ll finally be able to scratch out a new identity.

War – What Is It Good For?

The Nintendo Wii has sold a couple-few games in its existence on this Earth. But there’s only so far you can go with motion-controlled bowling and games that force you to get off your butt and onto an aerobics stepper. What people really want is to sit back and blow stuff up good, and that’s exactly what Activision and Infinity Ward delivered in “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.”

Five days after its release, Activision declared it the most successful launch in the history of entertainment — it made $550 million in its first week on the shelves. It earned more than “The Dark Night’s” first week, and more than any Harry Potter book’s launch. Xbox Live hosted 5.5 million hours of “Modern Warfare” gameplay, and that’s just one system; the game’s built for multiple platforms.

Beyond raw dollar figures, though, it’s tricky to compare game sales with movies or books or anything else. Most new games cost about 60 bucks; movies are usually around 10, plus a lot of people pre-order games, which pumps up launch figures. But let’s not be too much of a wet blanket; the game industry needs a hit badly; the recession has taken its toll.

Just like a lot of very popular games, “Modern Warefare 2” does not arrive without controversy. Unlike the “Grand Theft Auto” series, “MW2” has nothing to do with shooting at cops or beating up prostitutes. Instead you play as a terrorist. A terrorist mole, actually. As in, you’re a good guy who goes undercover with the bad guys for just one little level in order to learn their secrets, and to prove yourself you kinda sorta have to help them with a plot that involves killing civilians. Hrm. Not exactly “Wii Sports Resort.” You can skip the level if you want.

It seems the only massively popular game franchise of the decade that hasn’t kicked up a big storm of controversy has been “Halo,” because it has you gunning down a bunch of aliens, and I guess nobody really cares about aliens. Won’t somebody think of the extraterrestrials?

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