Google’s Walls Come Crashing Down

If you’ve visited basically any of Google’s major services over the last several weeks, you may have noticed a little orange box that pops up as soon as you get to the page, sometimes hanging out right over the spot you wish to click.

“We’re changing our privacy policy and terms. This stuff matters. Learn more or dismiss.”

By now a lot of people are used to seeing policy and ToS and EULA updates so often that one more notice from yet another service that they use on a daily basis just ends up in their mental spam filters. Either they really don’t care about the gory details of how Google chews up our data, digests it and excretes ads, or they just don’t want to know, ignorance being bliss and all.

If that’s you, though, plug your ears, because here’s what just happened: Starting March 1, Google began operating under a new, unified privacy policy. What used to be 60 separate policies have been mashed into a single one overnight. And under that policy, Google’s begun combining what it knows about your activities across its services. Previously, that data wasn’t shared among Google properties, but now Google Maps knows your Web searches, Contacts sees your news-reading habits, Gmail gets to know your YouTube views, etc. Anything you do with Google while signed into an account goes on your permanent Google record.

This will no doubt give Google better ad-selling leverage, but it’s telling users there’ll be some benefits for them too, mostly in the ways its services will be able to give them more personalized results. And the company’s maintained that all this data will remain in Google’s hands — it won’t sell it or give it to a third party unless there’s a court order.

But the outcry of critics began reaching a fever pitch in the days before the rollover occurred. Regulators in Europe warned Google that the new policy might be in violation of European privacy laws. They repeatedly asked Google to delay implementation while they took a closer look, but Google’s answer was a flat no. And that seemed to work. The regulators made more requests, but that only took them to the same place.

Finally, the day the policies took hold, European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding reportedly claimed the changes were indeed illegal under European law and that regulators have come to the conclusion that they are deeply concerned. Maybe if they come to the conclusion that Google needs to face hearings and pay huge fines if it doesn’t reverse itself — maybe then they’ll get some traction.

Stateside, though, the changes have been attracting negative attention from officials also. Attorneys general from three dozen states wrote to Google CEO Larry Page to tell him they’re very worried about the effects of the company’s new policy. Specifically, they want users to be able to opt in and opt out of the system at will.

But even 36 growling state AGs weren’t enough to convince Google to back down. What it’s doing may creep out some users, but privacy laws in the U.S. aren’t as strict or cohesive as those in the EU, and the company doesn’t typically back down from these situations unless it’s forced to by law. And now, in-house data sharing is the law of the land for Google.

Listen to the podcast (12:23 minutes).

Gimme Some Money

Let’s all take a moment to heap pity on those poor souls who own shares of Apple stock. Forget about the fact that AAPL is closing in on a record high of US$550 per share. And forget that about a year ago it was somewhere around $360. And never mind that two years ago it was around $220. And try not to think about how three days after the iPhone was first announced it was trading at about $94.

Forget all that. Because even though long-term AAPL holders have seen their money more than quintuple over the last half-decade, the fact is, they haven’t received an honest-to-God dividend in 17 years.

Apple just doesn’t do dividends. Whereas investors in other companies in just about every industry get a little “thanks for being a friend” bonus every quarter or year or so, Apple’s way of saying thanks is to dramatically rise in share value. Tacky, huh?

That may be about to change. Apple is getting ready to shell out crisp, clean $2 bills for every share it has out there, according to Bloomberg number-crunchers. Doesn’t seem like a lot considering that a share of Apple costs more than an iPad, but proportionally it’s about in the same neighborhood that IBM or Microsoft would offer, said Cornell’s Yaniv Grinstein.

Apple has not actually confirmed it’s about to do this, but it did indicate during its last shareholder meeting that it was going to try to be a little more sensitive to shareholder desires beyond boosting the value of their holdings.

This would be a distinct change from the Apple of a year or so ago — perhaps one of the most outstanding changes we’ve seen since Steve Jobs officially stepped down as CEO. Under Jobs’ watch, the company socked away tens of billions of dollars in cash, and now its pile is about $100 billion tall. Jobs didn’t make a lot of high-value acquisitions, and he didn’t do dividends, so apparently he believed in saving for a rainy day. It seems like Cook, though, may be more willing to throw a scrap of meat to shareholders — those unfortunate, starving shareholders.

What’s In a Name?

Proview is a financially distressed Chinese company that makes media equipment — TV, displays, so on. And it’s already caused some very costly irritation to Apple.

Pandemonium has formed around the term “iPad” — who owns the right to use it, who had the right to sell that right, and what Apple did to acquire that right.

It’s a complicated case that’s already well under way in China, home of Proview, the company from which Apple bought the rights to use the term “IPAD” years ago for a few thousand dollars. But Proview claims the deal was botched — that Apple actually bought the name from an affiliate of Proview’s that didn’t have the right to sell it. That affiliate’s name is also Proview, except it’s located in Taiwan. Like I said, complicated.

But Proview isn’t limiting its fight to China. It’s also opened up a lawsuit in California, right in Apple’s own backyard. And it’s aggressively publicizing some of the specific grievances it has about the way in which Apple bought the rights to IPAD. Not only did it buy IPAD from the wrong party, according to Proview, but Apple also deceived, defrauded and bamboozled Proview in the process.

Here’s Proview’s version of events:

At the behest of Apple, a UK company called Farncombe International made up an entirely new company, right out of thin air. Its one and only business was to snatch up rights to the word “IPAD” and deliver them to Apple. All it needed was a story and a name, so it went with “IP Application Development.”

Then, just before the actual iPad launched, Farncombe’s managing director, Graham Robinson, approached Proview Taiwan, but he didn’t do it using his own name and company — to Proview, he was Jim Hargreaves, representative of IP Application Development, a humble startup with limited means that only wanted to buy four little letters to use as a branded abbreviation for its company name.

Robinson, a.k.a. “Hargreaves,” wouldn’t say what IP Application Development did specifically, but he allegedly assured Proview that his company wasn’t a competitor.

Fast-forward a few years, and the iPad is one of the most profitable products for the most valuable public company in the world, and the relatively impoverished Proview wants its taste. It’s not uncommon practice for a company to hide its true identity when buying property from a much smaller business — if the buyer’s loaded, it probably doesn’t want the seller to know that, especially if it’s the only way the buyer can get what it wants.

But in airing what it says is Apple’s dirty laundry, Proview has proven that it’s going to be as annoying a foe as it possibly can until it gets what it wants. And if by chance it does start getting its way in court, that could severely curtail Apple’s ability to operate in places like China. Most likely, the company only hopes Apple will get so fed up that it throws a little F-U money at Proview’s feet and goes on its way. Proview does seem to bring up the term “settlement” fairly often, and given the company’s dire financial situation, we might be looking at its only viable survival strategy.

Did I Catch You at a Bad Time?

Yahoo seems to be in the throes of a great upheaval as it cleans out old leadership and struggles to figure out its own identity. But even with all that going on, there’s always room for lawsuits, especially patent lawsuits, which are very much in style right now.

Also in season is Facebook — growing larger, threatening the almighty Google, ripe with cash, and about to be more ripe with cash if its upcoming IPO pans out anywhere close to what’s expected.

Patent suit plus Facebook equals a very stylish little piece of tort, and that’s exactly what Yahoo’s threatened to do if Facebook won’t pony up licensing fees for over a dozen Yahoo patents that the search portal claims Facebook is infringing.

The patents themselves have to do with website functions — advertising, website personalization, social networking and messaging.

Big players in the mobile scene like Samsung, Motorola and Apple have been fighting a series of patent cage matches for years, and it is a highly risky contact sport. When a company starts a patent fight, the risk isn’t just limited to the possibility that it might not win and ends up wasting a bunch of money on lawyers. If things get really nasty, the defendant might manage to invalidate the patent in question, rendering it worthless. Or if the defendant happens to own a few patents itself, it could start looking extra hard for ways in which the plaintiff is infringing its own IP.

So Yahoo likely chose its timing very carefully on this one. With Facebook’s IPO just a few weeks away, it’s probably very reluctant to let anything rock the boat, and the fact that the situation’s been made public may have already done that — or at least given the boat a little nudge. We’ll have to wait and see whether Facebook decides to fight or goes for the pay-up-and-shut-up option.

Change of Focus

Focus and depth-of-field control are two of many variables photographers can adjust as they try to get the perfect shot. But what if you change your mind? What if you want to sharpen the background and dull out the foreground on a shot you took 10 seconds ago, or 10 years ago? Sorry, the moment has passed, the photo is what it is. Forget about it.

The solution to this particular type of photographic melancholia is the Lytro camera. The Lytro doesn’t look like your average pocket cam. It looks more like a monocular, or a half of an old View-Master. It has a tiny LCD screen at one end, lens on the other. Snap your photo, save it, take it home, then when you’re ready, you can use the included software to select the focus of your image. Save the original data and you can change it again and again. Focus is no longer a lifelong commitment.

It does this by using light field technology, which captures much more information than a conventional camera. It captures the color, intensity and direction of all the rays of light flowing into the camera. It has an array of micro lenses to catch light from different angles and perspectives.

Sounds very cool, but for now, the Lytro is still a long way away from being a pro photographer’s weapon of choice. Right now they’re only capable of taking images a single megapixel in size. They’re also a little on the pricey side — models start at $400.

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