Mobile Tech


Street Corners, Internal Organs, Watery Depths: Google Is Watching

Now you and your friends can play “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” with Google’s new mobile technology called “Latitude,” but you, or they — all of you, as a matter of fact — can be Carmen.

All of your movements can be geographically tracked through cell tower signals, and everyone you let in on the game can potentially be your own personal stalker, following you by smartphone or regular old PC. Google’s idea is that friends want to let friends know where they are, so they can link up more easily.

To be fair, the program does have privacy controls that let you allow different people different levels of information access. Still, the idea of adding one’s minute-by-minute whereabouts to Google’s vast storehouse of knowledge has a certain creep factor. What’s next? A Google spinoff of the Truman Show? If you knew, would you tell me?

Listen to the podcast (13:35 minutes).

Signs of Life

You know the old saying, “Doctor, heal thyself?” Well, Google’s got a twist on that that goes a little something like, “Patient, monitor thine own vital signs, then send them to your doctor electronically — using Google’s Web services, of course.”

It’s not as catchy, but Google hopes the adage will make it and partner IBM lots of money. The two companies are teaming up to create a back-end infrastructure that will allow people to monitor their blood pressure, glucose levels, heart rate, thetan levels, whatever. OK, maybe not the thetan part, but I’m sure the Scientologists are working on it.

Anyway, all that information would be collected by the little device of your choice, then shipped to Google Health, which would provide a — presumably — secure place to store it so your doctor can take a look. Privacy advocates are a little worried, because there’s currently no law that covers the privacy issues surrounding medical information in this format, but with President Obama’s focus on electronic medical records, it’s likely they will be addressed.

That’s Deep

It used to be that the oceans, as portrayed on Google Earth, were wide expanses of blue. Sure, you could make out the occasional continental shelf, and that was kind of cool.

But now Google Earth lets you explore the ocean depths with a level of detail that wasn’t possible before. The new version of Google Earth also includes Google Mars, so you can check out the Red Planet as well.

Google’s additions to the popular program aren’t entirely altruistic, though. Included with the update is Chrome, Google’s own Web browser. Also, many of the new features in Google Earth contain links to videos on YouTube, another Google property. Even if you personally believe that Google is neither evil nor stupid, you have to admit it’s tricky.

Terminate This

When Hollywood screenwriters combined enormous supercomputers with America’s nuclear weapons arsenal, it resulted in a very lucrative series of movies that aren’t all a complete waste of time to see. Of course, the premise of all those movies is that machines enslave and nearly annihilate humanity, so now that the whole computers-and-nukes thing is happening in real life, let’s hope things stay a little more mellow in that regard.

Yep, the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration has tapped IBM to design and build a supercomputer capable of running at 20 petaflops — that’s 20,000 trillion calculations per second.

By comparison, the fastest supercomputer in existence today can do only about 1 petaflop. Sequoia, as the bun in the oven is already known, will run extremely complex simulations, including simulations that will ensure the safety and reliability of the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile — if that’s what it decides it wants to do once it figures itself out, of course.

Malware Madness

Web surfers who are lulled into thinking that a well-known corporate logo means a Web site is secure should wake up and smell the coffee, suggests IBM.

In its latest X-Force Trend and Risk Report — the name itself should get you to sit up a little straighter — IBM says poorly secured corporate Web sites are becoming a top cybersecurity threat.

There are two major factors at work here: One, bugs are everywhere. Show me a software application that’s free of vulnerabilities, and I’ll eat my socks. Two, sneaky crooks are increasingly redirecting innocent visitors to corporate Web sites to devious exploits. The bad guys are getting more and more sophisticated in terms of the techniques they use, roping in many of the wary along with the naive. Malware may be the cancer of technology — which is to say, it’s likely to be a long time before it’s eradicated completely — but IBM says corporations could do a lot better job at shielding their site visitors.

Firewalls just aren’t enough. And Mark Bower, director of information protection solutions at Voltage, told us, “Instead of worrying about how to patch the holes that hackers will find a way around tomorrow, we should be focusing on protecting the data. So if it’s stolen, hacked or otherwise abused, the bad guys cannot use it.”

Malware Mistake

If Google tells you the page you’re visiting could contain malware, why wouldn’t you believe it? After all, it’s Google — it knows everything, down to what toppings you ordered on your pizza last night.

Google sullied that trust — along with the name of every site on the Internet — when a glitch caused it to issue a malware warning for the entire World Wide Web.

The culprit was a misplaced slash that functioned as a wild card, adding every Web address in existence to a list of sites known to harbor malware. The gaffe was attributed to human error, and Google tried to downplay it, but a mistake with such a wide reach is sure to erode some of your credibility, even if you are the biggest search engine-slash-advertising-delivery-platform on the planet.

Don’t be evil, says Google. And don’t be stupid, says us.

Where Am I?

About a year ago, we started hearing about a so-called Nuvifone, supposedly Garmin’s stab at the smartphone market. Haven’t heard much follow-up noise until just recently, when Garmin announced it’s partnering with Asus to develop phones.

As you know, Asus makes those little Eee PC netbooks as well as a lineup of full-sized computers. The pair hope to bring multiple Nuvifones to market this year, and they’ve promised to provide some product details at the Mobile World Congress this month.

Naturally, the Nuvifone will emphasize location-based services and navigation features.

Mobile Gold Rush

The Garmin partnership won’t be the first foray into cell phones for Asus. And, of course, it isn’t the only computer company to venture into the handset market. Apple, for one, seems to have landed on its feet — so far, anyway.

Other computer makers are trying the same stunt. Acer has some plans it’s apparently going to elaborate on at the Mobile World Congress in mid-February, and Dell is also in the rumor mill spotlight. It too is gearing up for the smartphone scene, according to a Wall Street Journal article that cited anonymous sources.

Could be a touchscreen, could be a slide-out keypad — could be both. Could be Android, could be Windows Mobile. That’s what’s so fun about rumors. Once a big paper like The Wall Street Journal publishes it, we get to speculate and chatter and criticize all we want, and as long as we sprinkle in some maybe’s and some possibly’s, nobody has to answer to anyone for anything.

The one thing we do know is that the cell phone market is dangerous, violent, unpredictable and deadly. It’s like that asteroid from “Armageddon.” Look what it’s doing to Motorola — and Motorola has as much experience in mobile phones as anyone. Any company looking to just skydive into it had better be pretty tough.

Moving On

AOL is worth a lot less than it was when Google plunked down a billion dollars for a 5 percent stake a couple of years ago, and Google has decided to walk away from the deal.

An escape clause means AOL will have to buys back its shares — but at current market value. AOL’s parent company, Time Warner, disclosed Google’s decision on Wednesday — the same day Time Warner announced fourth-quarter financial results that highlighted the clear decline in AOL’s business.

In fact, AOL’s value has slipped by US$726 million. With Google stepping back, the field might be wide open for Microsoft or Yahoo to step in. Whether there’s any chance of transforming AOL’s tarnish into something resembling gold is the big question.

Loss in Translation

Big-ticket items are the last thing people feel like splurging on right now, and the holiday sales season was pretty bad for most consumer electronics makers.

Those in Japan have been hit especially hard by the worldwide economic downturn. The yen just happens to be gaining strength, which isn’t good for Japanese businesses that do most of their sales outside of Japan.

It means all the dollars and euros and pesos and rupees and baht and whatever that people are spending in foreign markets translate into fewer yen. Things are especially hard for Panasonic, in part because it happens to be neck-deep in plasma TVs, which consumers are shunning in favor of LCDs.

Panasonic’s pain will be felt most sharply by the 15,000 employees the company plans to lay off. That’s about 5 percent of its global workforce.

Ticket to Ripoff

Several years ago, Pearl Jam famously vowed never to perform in a venue that required its patrons to buy tickets through Ticketmaster.

Being the only game in town, Ticketmaster was able to charge a so-called convenience fee that is anything but. My goodness, this company even charges you an extra fee for emailing your ticket to you — so it saves postage and printing costs, plus it gets to stick it to you for another fee.

The Justice Department got in on the act for a while but then let its antitrust investigation fizzle, figuring maybe that all those stoner rock fans would just forget or something.

Live Nation, the largest concert promoter in the U.S. and a record label of sorts, bucked the Ticketmaster trend and started selling its own tickets. Now, Live Nation appears to be on the ropes. Rumors have it merging with its monopolistic rival, and the speculation sent shares of both companies higher on the stock exchanges.

That can mean only one thing — the rumors are probably true. If that’s the case, get ready for more fees.

Dropping the Bomb

An IT contractor for the federally backed mortgage bank Fannie Mae didn’t just burn the bridge when he was fired — he tried to blow it up.

The contractor, Rajendrasinh Babubha Makwana, had been fired for making a coding mistake, but apparently he wasn’t so inept that he didn’t know how to wreak a little havoc on his way out. Makwana is accused of planting a logic bomb that was timed to go off on a Saturday, a couple of weeks after he was fired.

In the time between termination and trigger, however, another IT worker spotted his malicious script and disabled it. Good for Fannie Mae, right? Well, sort of. The company probably would have never had a problem if it followed Rule No. 1 about firing people: Take away their access to all buildings and computer networks before you have security walk them out of the building.

Heck, I’ve seen thugs escorting laid-off grannies from the building before — it’s just standard procedure. Guess Fannie didn’t get the memo.

Also in this week’s podcast: Browser alternates chip away at IE’s dominance; Nortel abandons WiMax efforts; semiconductor sales continue to slide.

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