Separation Anxiety: Obama and His BlackBerry, Apple and Steve Jobs

There’s been a fair amount of snickering over the possibility that Barack Obama will have to give up his BlackBerry after his swearing-in next week, with the implication that it’s just a personal habit he’ll have a hard time breaking, like quitting smoking. Apparently, the security risks associated with a president using a mobile device are too enormous for the U.S. government to contain. There’s also the matter of political risks.

Since records have to be kept of everything the president puts into writing, he’d better protect himself and avoid communications that are off the cuff, like e-mail and texting. Or so the argument goes. That seems counter to Obama’s credo of openness and transparency, though, not to mention counter to his affinity for technology. Hyun-Yeul Lee, an assistant professor of communication at Boston University, offered another argument in favor of the BlackBerry: It’s important for the president to have a personal communications device because that link to his trusted inner circle will keep him grounded, she says.

We say it’s time for the naysayers in the new administration to figure out how to let the president do his work with the tools of the new millennium. Obama needs all the help he can get, even from a humble little BlackBerry.

Listen to the podcast (15:30 minutes).

Full Disclosure?

Disclosures from Apple CEO Steve Jobs have everyone talking about his health again. Last summer, people started worrying about him because he looked kind of skinny when he took the stage to make a presentation, and the guy has been afflicted with a pretty nasty form of cancer in the past, which he survived thanks to surgery.

As the sort of CEO who defines the public image of his company, his well being was a topic of big concern among shareholders, though its impact on Apple’s actual ability to develop and sell products is anyone’s guess. People talked, rumors spread, and a few rumblings in the media — like a mistakenly published obituary and a false report of a heart attack — kept the story lukewarm for a while. Then Jobs opted out of this year’s Macworld keynote, and then last week, he divulged that yeah, he has been losing some weight due to an easily correctable hormone problem.

Well, it seems that the problem is “more complex than previously thought,” and Jobs has now said he’s going to take a few months off to get better. Meanwhile, COO Tim Cook will hold the fort as interim chief.

Naturally, news of Jobs’ medical leave sent Apple stock into a tizzy, and some people think they’ve been intentionally and irresponsibly misled about the CEO’s condition. Some have indulged in some pretty graphic medical speculation. Others just hope that he gets well soon.

Getting It Right

A Harvard physicist started the week defending his research after the Times of London used it as the basis for accusing Google of damaging the environment. Alex Wissner-Gross told us on Monday that, no, he didn’t say searching Google twice generates as much carbon as boiling a kettle of tea.

In fact, his research wasn’t about how much energy it takes to conduct a Google search at all. It dealt with how much energy we use by simply visiting any Web site.

Rather than knocking Google off its “don’t be evil” high horse, the Times story provoked Wissner-Gross’ rebuttal, giving the company a chance to tell people all about the energy-saving initiatives in its data centers.

So much for Google being an easy target — looks like the Times of London only managed to shoot itself. In the foot.

Palm’s High Five

If you were at CES last week, you might have heard something about this little company called Palm. Palm used to be the one to beat back when people used personal data assistants — and they made an early dent in the smartphone world with the Treo. But more recently, Palm’s products have either been ho-hum or just plain unmarketable. So what it came up with at CES was basically the answer to whether it will sink or swim.

Palm trotted out its new smartphone, the Pre, which runs on its new webOS. First impressions were roundly positive — the company gave a presentation that left the audience ooohing and ahhhing, and there wasn’t much else going on at CES that could overshadow it.

Questions still remain about the Pre, though — like how much will it cost? It has a music player, but the phone doesn’t look nearly as media-focused as something like the iPhone — will that hurt it? And even if the Pre lives up to the hype, will one phone and an OS be enough to push Palm back into a competitive position? We shall see. Palm’s pretty late to the game, but even though many people in the U.S. already have a mobile phone, most don’t have a smartphone, and a new phone is usually kept only about 12 to 18 months.

Kicking Macworld When It’s Down

Used to be that early January was the time of year for a great tech showdown. In the San Francisco corner you had Steve Jobs doing his keynote at Macworld, and in the Las Vegas corner you had Bill Gates kicking off CES. Well, never again. Jobs sat out Apple’s final Macworld appearance, and at CES, instead of Gates, we got Steve Ballmer, who wouldn’t do so much as a two-step no matter how loudly I screamed “Dance, monkey boy, dance!” from the second row.

Yeah, times are changing, and now that Macworld is down, it seems CES is going in for the kill. The Consumer Electronics Association, the show’s sponsor, said CES 2010 will feature an area dedicated to companies that make Apple-related products.

It might be pretty easy to poach some of those companies from Macworld now that Apple is no longer part of the show. Makes you wonder if Apple itself might want to claim some floorspace at the Las Vegas Convention Center next year. But the 451 Group’s Chris Hazelton told us he doesn’t see it happening. “Given the free press that Apple receives, it might continue to get more attention by not participating.”

Talk to the Ford

Ford took a break from attending Congressional hearings long enough to show off the upgrades it plans to include in the Sync voice interface technology it codeveloped with Microsoft.

Ford’s CEO Alan Mulally went out of his way to point out that Ford was the only one of the Big Three to tell Congress it could survive without an immediate bailout. In fact, it’s at least partly because of Sync that Ford in in that position, Mulally told attendees at the International Consumer Electronics Show.

The new version will go beyond simply controlling your iPod and allowing you to make hands-free phone calls. It will offer turn-by-turn directions, traffic reports and news updates. The new Sync also will offer personalized tips for drivers on how to save gas, but probably won’t go so far as to tell you to trade in your Expedition for a Toyota Prius.

Any Browser You Want, as Long As It’s Safari

Even though Apple at least attempts to describe what developers can and cannot do when they design applications for the iPhone, it’s been a sort of trial-and-error process. Some great ideas have been kicked out of the app store after a day or so, like Netshare. I Am Rich was also a great idea — for the guy who developed it, anyway — but that one was shown the door as well.

Other software has been denied entry only because it replicated a function already provided with the iPhone’s out-of-the-box software. Until recently, that included all third-party Web browsers, but that rule has now changed. Third-party devs can now create alternatives to Apple’s mobile Safari app, on one big condition: The browser they design has to be based on Safari.

So the App Store now has a handful of brand-new browsers that are basically Safari with added features.

There’s Edge, for full-screen surfing, WebMate for tabbed browsing, Shaking Web for a steady view of the browser in a car, bus or subway train, and Incognito, for when you want to visit Web sites but don’t want to leave any evidence of having been there, you creepy little person you.

Digital Transition Breakdown

Have you noticed the little messages showing up on the corner of your television screen warning that your picture might go away come Feb. 17? If you’re among the vast majority of U.S. TV viewers, you probably just wish they would go away already — the big switchover from analog to exclusively digital broadcasts will affect you not one whit.

However, for some U.S. residents — namely those who have old television sets that require the use of rabbit ear antennas to pick up a signal, it’s a different story. If you want to keep watching TV, you need to junk the old unit for a digital model, sign up for cable or satellite service, or — and this option is the least burdensome to your wallet — purchase a converter box that costs roughly $50. If you have a coupon from the federal government, that box will cost you just ten bucks or so.

The trouble is, the feds have run out of coupons, and consumer groups are raising a hue and cry, saying the whole thing is just too confusing for people to understand. They’re asking Congress to delay the transition so more people can get educated and more coupons can be provided.

Obama has stepped in, diverting his attention from the economy and other crises, to weigh in on behalf of the rural, elderly or poor people who are using old TVs and don’t yet know about the switchover or haven’t been able to get their hands on a 40-dollar government subsidy, and can’t afford to pay full freight for a converter box, and will thus be deprived of television come February 17th. All 10 of them.

Top Yahoo

She might not have been the first choice, but Carol Bartz will be Yahoo’s new CEO following a comprehensive search. Bartz, who previously led graphics-software company Autodesk, will take over for Jerry Yang.

She’s walking into a challenging environment, to say the least. In recent months, Yahoo has been a takeover target of Microsoft — more than once. Its board tussled with activist shareholder Carl Icahn, who won some concessions and now has a seat on it, along with two of his hand-picked cronies.

To top it off, Yahoo has been sliding in terms of visitors and revenue ever since that pesky Google started stealing all of its customers. On the plus side, Bartz is known as a tough executive who isn’t afraid to make difficult decisions. Will she butt heads with Icahn? Probably, but analyst Rob Enderle guesses that if they don’t hurt each other, the two could turn out to be pals. Just like in the movies.

Victim of Its Own Popularity

Microsoft really, really wants to redeem itself with Windows 7, so when the site for downloading a beta of the upcoming operating system crashed, Redmond cringed. What happened was that Microsoft originally planned to make the beta available only to the first two-and-a-half million users — first come, first served.

Apparently they all came at once. To make amends, Microsoft got the site back up again and announced there would be no limit on the number of downloads during a period that began a week ago and will extend through Jan. 24.

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, and Microsoft got back to figuring out how to make us forget Vista ever existed.

Diminishing Returns

The more might not be the merrier when it comes to multicore processing.

Researchers at Sandia National Labs looked into the advantages of adding extra processing cores to a CPU and found that economies of scale do not apply. You can realize a speed increase from two cores to four, and also a minor boost going from four to eight. But from 8 to 16 cores, the researchers found a decrease in overall processing speed.

The main reason is that the front-side bus causes a data bottleneck as more requests try to cram through on their way to and from the cores. Well, that makes sense, I suppose. To one analyst, it was painfully obvious.

“This isn’t rocket science,” scoffed Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst for Insight 64, when we asked him to comment on the research. Maybe not, but it sure ain’t basket weaving, either.

Facebook’s Beef With BK

OK, all you vegetarians out there, I give. Meat eaters really are crass and cruel. That’s what comes of years of consuming bloody flesh.

Burger King’s ad agency apparently wanted to play up that reputation when it launched a Facebook app called “Whopper Sacrifice” that offered a coupon for a free Whopper to anyone willing to de-friend 10 of their Facebook buddies. The ex-pals would get a notification saying “You’ve been sacrificed!” that presumably would make them feel miserable if they were the sensitive type or merely insulted if they had thicker skins.

Or, who knows? Maybe there are people out there who think being shut out of a friend’s account is a perfectly understandable exchange for a tenth of a burger. Facebook had no problem with all the friend-sacrificing going on, but apparently someone pointed out that the application violated its privacy policy.

Members are supposed to be able to de-friend at will without notifications trumpeting the fact. So Facebook shut off the messages, and BK stopped the campaign, and now a whole bunch of people are hungry for the affection they lost when they decided to trade in their friends for some crappy fast food.

Also in this week’s podcast: Obama names his pick for FCC chair; Google goes after Office users; OLPC goes into survival mode.

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