ICANN Cuts the Apron Strings

According to ICANN chairman Peter Dengate Thrush, nobody but nobody controls the Internet. Not China, not Comcast, not your IT guy, not Clippy, nobody. The Final Boss of the Internet does not exist. But there does exist a nonprofit that governs Web addresses, and that’s Dengate Thrush’s organization, the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN makes sure there’s some degree of rhyme and reason to the domain names that you see in the URL bar at the top of your browser.

Since it was created in 1998, ICANN has had a distinctly American flavor. For one thing, the U.S. Department of Commerce reviews all ICANN policies. Its main office also happens to be located in California. But since the Web is worldwide, other countries have long demanded more say in the process, claiming ICANN no longer needs its U.S. training wheels.

Now, the U.S. Department of Commerce and ICANN have signed an agreement called the “Affirmation of Commitments,” which puts policy review in the hands of an independent advisory committee. The U.S. gets a representative on that committee, but now it’s just one voice among many.

The debate about making ICANN less Americentric was sometimes pretty heated, but when he spoke with us, Dengate Thrush struck a pretty sportsmanlike tone. He said, “I think the U.S. role, via government, has been absolutely critical, and in the main very well-managed. Many times I’ve said how fortunate the world has been that this has been rooted in the U.S.”

Listen to the podcast (14:25 minutes).

Even Better Than the Real Thing

When you travel for work, your boss probably hates putting you in that plane even more than you hate sitting in that plane, because business travel is really expensive. One alternative that’s getting more attractive by the day is video conferencing. I’m not talking about webcam Skype chats; this is big screen, high-resolution, low-latency video meetings that simulate actually sitting across the table from somebody.

Cisco already plays in this space, and now it’s getting in deeper by laying down $3 billion for Tandberg, a Norwegian company that makes video conferencing equipment. Under the deal, Cisco is establishing a new telepresence technology division and putting Tandberg CEO Fredrik Halvorsen at the helm.

The economy has been in the gutter over the last year, but it caught Cisco with a fat wallet, so the company’s used the opportunity to go on a buying spree. This Tandberg purchase seems to be getting good reviews. Peter Cohan of Peter Cohan and Associates told us, “Business travel is one of the first places companies cut back in the recession — and as they continue to be cost-conscious, an investment in video-conferencing equipment may seem to be a good buy.”

Rules Are Rules

Like any other communications company, AT&T hates the FCC, except for the times when it adores the FCC. An example of the former happened last week, when FCC chairman Julius Genechowski voiced some opinions that were way too pro-Net neutrality for AT&T’s liking. An example of the latter also happened last week, when AT&T asked the FCC to investigate Google for not being neutral enough.

The complaint centers on Google Voice, a new application from Google that helps organize the user’s various phone numbers into one single channel for getting in touch. It also offers cheaper ways to make international calls and text messages, though it still users wireless carriers’ networks.

Calling Google “one of the most noisome trumpeters of so-called ‘net neutrality’ regulation,” AT&T complained that Google is far from neutral when it operates outside of its own service. Specifically, Google Voice does not connect users to certain rural phone exchanges, and that, said the carrier, is discrimination.

Google acknowledged that yes, it does block calls to these exchanges, because of exorbitant rates charged to long-distance companies — such as AT&T — for connecting to those regional networks.Moreover, Google claimed AT&T was comparing apples and oranges. In an official blog post, Google’s Richard Whitt explained that, “The FCC’s open Internet principles apply only to the behavior of broadband carriers — not the creators of Web-based software applications. Even though the FCC does not have jurisdiction over how software applications function, AT&T apparently wants to use the regulatory process to undermine Web-based competition and innovation.”

Bad Joke

Regardless of how you feel about the person occupying the Oval Office, it’s against the law to threaten to kill the president of the United States. That is not a new law. It’s one of those special kinds of speech that the First Amendment does not protect, and if you go around even joking about harming the president, you’ll get a visit from some neatly dressed men who never take off their sunglasses and always seem to be talking into their sleeves.

Looks like some kid on Facebook just learned all about that. If you’ve spent more than 10 minutes on the site, you’ve probably noticed that 40 percent of it seems to be made up of inane surveys and polls. You can vote on who should win Top Chef, whether or not you think the world will really end in 2012, whether flightless water fowl ought to exist in a rational universe, and so forth.

This week, users also briefly got the chance to vote on whether or not Barack Obama should be killed. The options were Yes, No, Maybe and Yes if he takes away my healthcare. Apparently, over 700 people voted before someone reported it and the survey got yanked by Facebook, which offered the Secret Service its full cooperation.

That response earned the praise of Lon Safko, a social media consultant and coauthor of The Social Media Bible. With so many millions of users posting everything on their minds at all hours, you can’t possibly have staffers reviewing every single comment and chirp to decide whether it’s legal or not. It’s also worth noting that users quickly brought the poll to the attention of authorities and Facebook management, so there is some self-policing being done out there. As Safko told us, “Sometimes social media brings out the best in people, sometimes it’s the worst, and sometimes it brings out the stupid.”

Back to the kid. The Secret Service reportedly discovered that the survey was the creation of a juvenile — “a mistake,” they called it. They gave the kid and the kid’s parents a good talking to but said they wouldn’t press charges.

Billion-Dollar Tweets

According to the numbers being reported, some investors — intelligent people who’ve made lots of money by making good decisions in the past — think Twitter is worth $1 billion dollars. Yet at this point, a 14-year-old with a lawnmower will probably earn more money this weekend than Twitter has in its entire existence.

Twitter CEO Evan Williams has confirmed that his company recently closed a big round of funding. He won’t say how much, but the widely reported figures are around $100 million, which would put the company’s total worth at around $1 billion.

It’s raised some concern that we’re seeing the start of the next Internet bubble. Actually, $1 billion is a pretty reasonable price tag to put on Twitter if you compare it to other popular social networking tools. In fact, it’s a relative bargain — Facebook’s valuation is 10 times that, which comes down to $33.33 per face, compared to 20 bucks per twit.

On the other hand, Facebook at least has a job. It is making some revenue. Twitter has earned none thus far, so investors are betting on its ability to eventually find its way. Could be through targeted ads, display ads, who knows? Hey, it’s gotta work out — Oprah likes Twitter, and it’s funny to see all those crazy famous people tweeting all day, so the thing’s gotta be golden right?

37signals CEO Jason Fried doesn’t think that’s exactly the kind of thing you should be looking at when pumping hundreds of millions into a brand-new company. “The tech industry is starting to get in the wrong mindset again — which is companies being valued on things outside of traditional metrics like revenues or profits. Now it’s based on how much other investors want to invest or page views or celebrity usage.”

Someone to Watch Over Me

When Microsoft was pushing its Live OneCare security suite, it kind of felt like you were buying a house from a developer but renting the door locks for a recurring fee. Should an OS maker sell licenses for an operating system but then charge a subscription to make that OS secure? Wouldn’t it have an opportunity to juice customers for more money simply by creating a problem and then selling a solution?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Microsoft would ever resort to such villainy, but it was definitely a juicy target for Redmond haters and conspiracy theorists. Besides, the fact that Windows users should buy antimalware software, period — regardless of who makes it — was a soft spot Apple repeatedly mentioned in its own marketing.

So, Microsoft decided the best thing to do would be to make its AV software free. Microsoft Security Essentials version 1.0 is out, and it can be used by anyone with a non-pirated copy of Windows Vista, Windows 7 or Windows XP Service Pack 2 or later.

Microsoft does have to walk a fine line between giving its users protection and not stepping on the toes of other antivirus vendors, whose cooperation it needs. So MSE is free, but it’s also pretty bare-bones — it lacks personal firewall, backup and PC tuning features. For those, you’ve got to pay up.

Long Road to the Market

Back in early 2008, it was kind of exciting to hear about this so-called Nuvifone that Garmin was working on. They make good nav devices, so it only made sense to breed one with a cellphone. They even had some product mock-ups at the time, and back then anything with a big touchscreen like an iPhone’s was expected to be a serious contender.

Now the Nuvifone has finally gotten around to announcing a carrier, launch date and price and that’s AT&T on Oct. 4 for $300 with a contract and after a rebate. But while the Nuvifone has been in the womb, the world has changed. For one thing, the iPhone got a lot smarter and built a garden that’s now growing tens of thousands of mobile apps, and a few of them use the iPhone’s GPS for turn-by-turn directions.

It’s not just the iPhone, either — other mobile OS lines have been drawn. Android and BlackBerry have app stores, Palm is making a stand with webOS, Windows Mobile promises bigger things for the future, and Symbian is still putting up a fight. If a handset doesn’t have a popular mobile OS and an app store, then it’s not really part of the smartphone in-crowd.

So what does the Nuvifone G60 have? It seems to focus foremost on its navigation features, as one might expect. Its core is a high-end Garmin nav device, with built-in maps and points of interest. It also has a browser, email access, a camera and a full touchscreen keyboard. All its main functions seem to tie into location in one way or another.

But what about the OS? It’s a proprietary build based on “a variation of Mobil Linux,” according to Garmin spokesperson Jessica Myers. So, don’t expect the wide variety of functionality that an app store would add to the mix. Myers added that Garmin is also working on an Android phone for later next year.

So in the Nuvifone’s favor, we have the fact that so many of its functions focus on location — that seems to be the basic DNA of the device. And a good Garmin nav unit will run you a few hundred bucks, so adding a phone and a browser to it and marking it at $300 doesn’t sound like too much of stretch. But with navigation apps available for so many other phones — phones that can also use tons of other apps and happen to cost less — it looks like the first Nuvifone might be looking at a steep uphill drive.

Everything Louder Than Everything Else

Listening to loud music on an MP3 player probably won’t kill you. Maybe it will if it keeps you from hearing a fire truck or a train. But as a general rule, exposing yourself to hours of high-volume music every day doesn’t lead to death. It just makes your hearing worse and worse until you’re nearly deaf.

The European Union would rather not see that happen, so it’s updated the volume standards for portable music devices. They’ll have to maintain their default setting at 80 decibels. They’ll also have to include warnings about listening to music at high volumes in their instruction manuals.

It’s all largely in response to mounting medical evidence that prolonged exposure to music at volumes even just a little above that of a conversation or road traffic could lead to impaired hearing over the long term. It doesn’t usually manifest overnight, but as the years and the decibels pile up, it becomes more noticeable, and by then it’s too late — you’re using an old-timey ear trumpet.

Even after the rule kicks in, you’ll probably still be able to use workarounds or portable amps if you really want to crank it up.

New Wavers

When it comes to new products, Google isn’t exactly discreet. When it has a new idea, it tends to show it off long before it’s done cooking, usually because it wants some free feedback. But when it’s on to something it thinks might be extremely popular, it tends to limit availability to an exclusive, invitation-only group. It did it with Gmail and Google Voice, and now it’s doing it with Wave.

Exclusive is a relative term, I suppose. Google sent out invites to 100,000 people to try out the new service, which it admits still has plenty of kinks to work out. Those 100,000 are made up of developers, volunteers who signed up on a list a few months ago and select Google Apps users, and they each get to nominate a handful of friends to joint the test too.

So what is Wave? It’s a real-time mashup tool. It’s got the power of wikis, the power of email, of social networks, of instant messaging. It’s a platform for real-time, collaborative communications. Each wave is a complete thread of multimedia blips. Waves are shared, with collaborators added or removed at any point. It’s the hive mind of the Internet. It’s an ocean of thought and creativity. It’s a massive brain stem router with the collective consciousness of all its users.

OK, I’m just pulling words out of the air here. Haven’t used it yet. Sounds neat.

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