The FCC’s High-Speed Squeeze Play

The FCC has big plans for the future of broadband in the U.S. — gigabit-per-second connections all around, vast expanses of wireless airwaves everywhere, rural access even in the booniest of boondocks, etc. But the main obstacle in its way — at least for right now — is that making that plan a reality means regulating broadband, and the exact legal power the FCC has to do that hasn’t exactly been set in stone. The FCC claims to have the authority, but a recent court ruling indicates there is a lot of room for argument there. Sure, it could try to push forward with its plans, but every move it tries to make would get bogged down in a neverending debate with ISPs and the courts.

So, the FCC has two main options ahead of it: A) try to get Congress to roll the obstacle out of the way by passing new legislation, which could take years, or B) ram through the obstacle with a Mack truck by redefining broadband as a “telecom service.” Rules about how the FCC manages telecoms are already laid out, so no waiting for Congress to act.

It’s decided to go with option B. Granted, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said the commission will be relatively gentle with broadband providers once that reclassification takes hold, but that doesn’t do much to lower ISPs’ collective blood pressure. Members of Congress, mostly Republicans, have questioned whether the FCC has the authority to do this at all. There’s going to be a comment period, and some of those comments will most likely come in the form of lawsuits.

Genachowski and the rest of the FCC no doubt saw this coming. I guess they just figured that wading through a few federal lawsuits from gigantic media corporations is still less of a hassle than getting Congress to pass a law.

Listen to the podcast (13:58 minutes).

Too Much Information

Privacy advocates are taking turns kicking Facebook in the teeth over the social network’s latest redesign, Open Graph, and the changes it brought to the complicated ways in which Facebook shares users’ information with other parties. But remember that Facebook can only give away information that you gave it in the first place, and according to a recent Consumer Reports study, we’re revealing far too much on social networks in general, and the consequences could be a lot worse than dealing with advertisements.

Nearly half of social network users list their full birthdates, which is prime rib for data thieves, and 7 percent give a home address. A fifth don’t give a moment’s thought to the security of third-party Facebook applications, and almost a third post pictures and names of their kids, which is something child predators just can’t get enough of.

But what’s a little ID theft when you get to know every detail about the imaginary farm being run by some guy you knew in middle school, right? Actually, Facebook applauded Consumer Reports’ efforts to help users protect their accounts.

But another thing concerning Facebook users right now isn’t what some shady scam artist is doing with their data, but what Facebook itself is doing with it — spreading it around the Web to its advertising and business partners, unless the user digs through an interface to specifically tell it not to. These parties might not all be on the up-and-up, and even if they are, there’s just something creepy about having that information thrown to the four winds. Facebook isn’t ignorant of these worries, at least as far as having your data wind up with scammers is concerned, but it is committed to moving ahead with Open Graph.

To Endpoint Technology’s Roger Kay, it’s not a moral question Facebook faces — it’s just business. It needs to strike a balance between a) keeping the cash flow coming by keeping business partners happy, and b) not irking users so much that they flat-out leave. This sort of thing has happened in the past. Several times in its short history, Facebook has annoyed users with some sort of change, but not to such a degree that it’s stopped growing so damn fast. Apparently Facebookers just have that high a tolerance for irritation.

But just judging from a cursory glance at headlines this week, one of which is “Top Ten Reasons You Should Quit Facebook,” it seems the blowback this time is pretty hard. Has Facebook now reached a point at which massive numbers of people really will leave? Kathy Gill at the University of Washington doesn’t think so, simply because massive numbers of people don’t pay much attention — the complainers are often the vocal minority. “In order to generate some sense of outrage about the changes, you need to mobilize the people who aren’t using the service very much if you’re looking at mobilizing by numbers.”

iPad on a Tear

It’s easy to bag on Apple’s iPad for things like having a silly name, having no USB docks for peripherals, and basically being an overgrown iPhone that doesn’t make or take calls. But like it or not, the thing is no failure when it comes to sales. Apple reported that the iPad hit the 1 million unit sales mark just 28 days after its initial launch. Remember, that’s mostly in the U.S. alone; international shipments got delayed. And it happened in less than half the time it took the original iPhone to climb that high. Yes, subsequent iPhone releases may have sold faster, but this is a brand-new product category, one that we didn’t even know we needed a few months ago — and one we still might not think we need.

OK, so tablets aren’t totally a new idea; for years we’ve had laptops you could fold over, or cut-in-half notebooks with sorta-serviceable touchscreens. Those things were real, not a hallucination. But this may well be the beginning of a new type of tablet — a type that many people might actually wish to acquire, unlike the very nichey tablets of the past.

Altimeter Group’s Michael Gartenberg told us, “If you took every vendor in the last 10 years that has tried to get into the space, added up all their numbers, you wouldn’t get anywhere close to the million Apple has sold. It’s clearly resonating with the market that counts — not the technology enthusiast but the mass market.”

Apple’s not going to have that market to itself for long, of course. Other vendors smell blood in the water, and they’re already sketching out ways to grab a bite. And there are lots of ways to get a piece that take a slightly different tack than iPad. Different form factors, different operating systems, different levels of power. There are a lot of bones with plenty of meat left on them.

But it looks like two much-talked-about non-Apple tablets we’ve seen glimpses of in the last few months won’t be making it to the feeding frenzy. A few months ago, when the iPad was still an unnamed, unverified rumor of a product, a few detailed images of a Microsoft-made Windows tablet leaked to the Web. It was supposedly called the “Courier,” and it folded in half like a book. Even though it was unconfirmed by Microsoft, and even though it would presumably be presented to compete against a product that was also unconfirmed, it looked intriguing. Dare I say, exciting.

Well, you can stop holding your breath for Courier, because Microsoft killed it in the crib. Lots of interesting-looking products are designed and scrapped all the time, of course, it’s just that with the Courier, we got to see the sausage being made. Oh well — it looked tasty.

The second mulligan looks like it might be a loss for Microsoft, but not necessarily HP. The Slate, as it was called, made a public appearance at CES last January, courtesy of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. At the time, it was said to be running a version of Windows. But HP has apparently put the brakes on the Slate project, and if it doesn’t scrap the idea entirely, it may at least take a very different direction in terms of software. Last week, HP agreed to buy Palm, and with that company comes the webOS platform. Perhaps HP has decided not to make the Slate a fully functional, flattened-out PC with a big-boy Windows operating system, and has decided instead to make a tablet running an oversized version of webOS, kind of like what the iPad does with the iPhone OS.

Book ‘Em

In the competition among e-book sellers, Google Books has sort of played the part of the funky used-book store. You can find just about any classic there and read through scanned versions of its pages, sometimes with margin notes and markings from the copy’s original owner. It also has lots of rare and downright odd books. But if you want a late-release bestseller that’s going to fit nice and neatly on your e-book reader, you may have better luck with Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Apple.

But that may be about to change. Google’s getting ready to jump into real e-bookselling with both feet, and that’s going to turn the heat up on the players already in the market.

Google seems to be taking a somewhat different approach than those three other outfits I mentioned earlier. They all make their own e-reader devices, but we may not get an actual G-Reader out of this. Google might partner with a few suppliers, but its main platform will be the Web browser.

“Google Editions,” as the store is called, will be the next step in the growth of Google Books. Users will be able to search the Google Books inventory and then download their selections for reading through a Web browser or an e-book reader.

The actual experience of using Google Editions may depend a lot on which e-reader you have. For example, the Amazon Kindle’s browser is still a work in progress, and until a new edition comes around, flipping through a Google Editions version may not be a breeze. The iPad’s browser, on the other hand, could be easier on the eyes.

Silver Streak

Judging from my own experience and that of everyone I’ve spoken to on the subject, Google’s Chrome browser is incredibly fast. At first I wasn’t sure whether to be impressed by that or not. With the virtually limitless amount of information that a broadband Internet connection puts at your fingertips, does a marginally faster browser really matter that much? Does anyone recall long trips to the library, or poring over newspapers that didn’t have search bars? Are we perhaps a little spoiled?

Yes, we are spoiled. And yes, a faster browser, whatever the brand may be, DOES still matter. It makes the whole process smoother and cuts down on the little ticks of irritation brought about by technical hiccups and hangups.

The reputation Chrome has earned due to its speed seems to be paying off. It’s growing very quickly in terms of market share, according to NetApplications. Last April, it claimed 6.73 percent of the market.

Of course, that’s less than a third of Firefox’s share, which is pretty much holding steady at 25 percent. And it pales in comparison to Microsoft Internet Explorer, which is still the market leader.

But IE is really taking a pummeling. Two years ago, it owned almost 80 percent of the market. By last year, that had fallen below 70 percent, and by April 2010 it stood just a hair under 60 percent. That’s still a majority position, but it’s clearly not a welcome trend for Redmond. Microsoft still sees something of an upside, though: Spokesperson Tarran Vaillancourt told us, “According to NetApplications, for the month of April, Internet Explorer 8 had the highest growth rate across all users worldwide, with 1.08 percent growth as compared with Chrome at 0.6 percent growth.” Microsoft has also begun issuing preview versions of IE 9 to developers.

Federal Intervention

Between rounds of rooting out terrorists, cracking down on the shady mortgage practices responsible for ruining our economy, and possibly prosecuting crimes related to the Gulf oil spill, the DoJ and the FTC may find time to investigate other pressing matters, like the rules developers must follow when they write fart apps and Netflix queue organizers for iPhones.

The two federal agencies are reportedly considering whether to launch an antitrust probe on Apple. Recently the company rattled a lot of developers who write software applications for the iPhone OS platform, which runs on iPhones, iPads and certain iPods. From now on, Apple said, apps must be natively written in a handful of approved languages; no translation tools allowed. This is all for the benefit of the user, the company insisted. Apps lose a lot in the translation — they don’t run as well, and Apple wants to protect its reputation.

But some developers didn’t see it that way. They called the new rule “draconian,” and a few said they were through with the iPhone platform altogether.

One company that was particularly miffed by the news was Adobe. Its Flash technology was one of the more popular languages that didn’t make Apple’s cut. That’s all part of a long and quite public quarrel between the two firms. Flash has never worked on the iPhone’s Safari browser, and Apple shut Flash out of iPhone app development too. More recently, CEO Steve Jobs posted an open letter on the Apple website detailing his technical criticisms of Flash. He said it was a battery drain, a cause of Mac OS X system crashes, and a proprietary technology in a world that’s trending toward more open standards. So kiss off, Flash, you’re not wanted here.

But Adobe wasn’t going to let that stand. A day later, its CEO, Shantanu Narayen, strongly defended Flash in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. Battery drain? Not true. Proprietary? You’ve got that backwards. OS X crasher? Try looking in a mirror.

Adobe’s CTO backed up Narayen with a company blog post stating, “The primary issue at hand is that Apple is choosing to block Adobe’s widely used runtimes as well as a variety of technologies from other providers.” In other words, it’s not technical — it’s just business.

So Adobe got a chance to make a defensive play, but it probably didn’t help its case much when Microsoft chimed in and more or less took Apple’s side, calling HTML 5, a rival to Flash, “The future of the Web.”

Maybe Adobe is employing other ways to get its message across. According to a Bloomberg report, it was Adobe that complained to the feds and got them thinking antitrust in the first place.

So was Apple’s block really about technological incompatibilities or a desire to wall itself off from competition? And even if it was the latter, would that really be foul play? At this point, it seems the feds are just thinking about maybe asking some questions. Jeff Gamet of The Mac Observer told us, “Unless they come up with something really interesting with this, I’d be surprised if it gets any further.”

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