Wednesday, October 15, 2008

First look: Firefox 3.1 beta 1 officially released

By Ryan Paul

Mozilla has announced the availability of the first Firefox 3.1 beta release, an important development milestone for the popular open source web browser. Mozilla aims to make Firefox 3.1 a strong incremental improvement with user interface enhancements, new features, and increased support for emerging web standards. The new beta release includes a modest handful of noteworthy changes that improve the user experience.

Mozilla had originally planned to start code freeze for beta 1 in the middle of August, but decided to delay the beta release and do an additional alpha release instead.

The beta includes Mozilla's new TraceMonkey JavaScript engine, which uses tracing optimization to deliver a massive performance boost that makes it faster than Google Chrome's V8 engine. Although it still falls short of Apple's recent Squirrelfish Extreme project, the Mozilla developers say that TraceMonkey still leaves plenty of room for additional optimization.

Although TraceMonkey is finally included in beta 1, the new engine isn't actually enabled by default. It is still under heavy development and it reportedly exhibits some bugs that could impact JavaScript reliability. To configure TraceMonkey in beta 1, browse to "about:config" and then toggle the "javascript.options.jit.content" variable.

Another major feature that is included in this release is Mozilla's new implementation of the W3C Geolocation Specification. It allows web applications to obtain information about the user's geographical location through a simple JavaScript API. In beta 1, this functionality is built on top of the Loki web service, which is supplied by Skyhook and determines the user's position by comparing local WiFi access points with information in its global reference database. For privacy reasons, the browser will automatically prompt the user before supplying a web site with geolocation data.

Several web sites already have basic support for the feature, including Yahoo's Fire Eagle and the Pownce microblogging service. We tested it with Radar, a new web service that displays news headlines and other information about things that are near the user's current location. Earlier this month, Mozilla Labs also released the Geolocation Specification implementation as a Firefox 3.0 extension called Geode so that users and developers can start testing the functionality and incorporating support for the APIs into their web applications without having to use Firefox 3.1 prerelease versions.

In addition to these new features, beta 1 also includes a lot of other improvements that we have looked at in previous alpha and nightly builds. Firefox 3.1 alpha 1, which was released in July, introduced new tab switching behavior and a new visual tab switcher with graphical thumbnails. The alpha 2 release, which was made available earlier this month, added support for the HTML 5 video element which makes it possible for the browser to natively display playable video and seamlessly intersperse it with HTML and SVG content.

Mozilla is actively working on many other features that are planned for Firefox 3.1, but haven't been fully implemented in this beta release. Future versions will include a new private browsing mode that is similar to the one in Google Chrome. Mozilla is working on some nice user interface improvements too, such as support for tag autocompletion in the bookmarking interface.

Firefox 3.1 is evolving swiftly and each new prerelease delivers impressive changes. Users can look forward to a great 3.1 release with lots of good improvements and great support for open web standards. The new beta release is available for download from Mozilla's web site and additional information can be found in the official release notes.

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OpenOffice 3.0 released amid fears of development stagnation

By Ryan Paul

The (OOo) project ranks high among the most popular open source software applications. The cross-platform productivity suite, which has been adopted by government agencies, companies, and individual users around the world, got a big boost this morning with the official release of version 3.0. The new version includes a modest assortment of significant new features and brings improved support for document standards.

One of the most noteworthy additions in this release is native compatibility with the Mac OS X platform. Users no longer have to rely on the NeoOffice port or use X11 to run OOo on a Mac. This new feature could help expand the program's market share and attract new users and contributors. When we reviewed Microsoft Office for Mac 2008 earlier this year, many of our readers expressed serious frustration with Microsoft's decision to omit support for VBA. Some Mac users who require VBA support might benefit from switching to OOo, which offers passable VBA compatibility.

OOo supports several file formats, but uses OASIS's OpenDocument Format (ODF) by default. ODF is rapidly gaining widespread acceptance and is also supported by Google Docs, Zoho, IBM's Lotus Notes, and KDE's KOffice project. ODF is increasingly being adopted as the preferred format by government agencies in many different countries. This trend has placed pressure on Microsoft, which has agreed to include native ODF support in future versions of Office.

Improvements and new features

A major area of improvement in OOo 3.0 is support for emerging document standards. OOo 3.0 includes the first major implementation of ODF 1.2, an updated version of the format that is in the final stages of the standardization process and is expected to receive ISO approval this summer. The new version of the format brings a new formula language and a new metadata system based on W3C's Web Ontology Language and Resource Description Framework. OOo 3.0 also includes import filters for Microsoft's controversial Office Open XML format (OOXML), the XML-based document format that is used in Office 2007 and Office 2008 for Mac OS X. Support for Microsoft's format will ensure that OOo users can still read documents produced by Microsoft Office users.

OOo 3.0 includes a variety of other compelling technical features, too. OOo Calc, the suite's spreadsheet program, has a new solver component, introduced a new collaborative editing feature, and also boosted the total number of columns it supports from 256 to 1,024. OOo Writer, the word processing program, added a new annotation feature and a new zoom slider.

The new version includes a few minor user interface enhancements, including a new, cleaner icon theme. The style reminds me a little bit of the Silk icon theme, but with much more vibrant coloring. Linux users will obviously prefer OOo's Tango theme, but the new default theme looks very good on Windows. OOo 3.0 also includes a new launcher that provides easy access to templates, existing documents, and all of the suite's programs. When OOo is installed on Windows, it creates a shortcut on the desktop that initiates the launcher. Users can still also launch the OOo programs individually from the Start Menu.

OOo contributor fears that development is stagnating

As the OOo project increases in relevance, some friction has emerged between the growing number of stakeholders with different agendas. Allegations continually emerge that Sun's management of the project is impeding acceptance of some third-party code contributions and is deterring additional corporate involvement. Novell's Michael Meeks, a very active developer and a frequent critic of Sun, expressed some new concerns last week in anticipation of the release.

Novell maintains an OOo patchset which includes a number of changes that developers haven't been able to push upstream to Sun's version for a variety of reasons. Many of these patches maintained by Novell provide important features that are valuable to Linux users, including support for embedded multimedia via GStreamer, faster startup time, improved Excel interoperability, support for 3D slide transitions in Impress, and support for Mono-based automation and scripting. Many mainstream desktop Linux distributions now package Novell's version instead of the one from Sun, because of these improvements.

Sun's process for vetting new features is often viewed as excessively bureaucratic by third-party contributors and some are also concerned about Sun's copyright assignment requirements. Novell's patchset ensures that the improvements made by users who are unwilling to accommodate Sun's procedural requirements will eventually reach users and don't just languish indefinitely in the bug report system. Sun has responded to concerns from the third-party developer community by improving the contributor agreement and making an effort to act on community feedback. Critics, however, argue that Sun needs to turn over control to an independent foundation so that contributors will not have to assign copyright directly to Sun.

In a blog entry published last week, Meeks published contributor statistics collected from the version control system. He says that the latest statistics demonstrate a universal decline in involvement in the OOo project, from both Sun and independent community members. He sees this as a sign that the project is no longer healthy, and he warns that the consequences could be dire if the problem isn't resolved.

"It is clear that the number of active contributors Sun brings to the project is continuing to shrink, which would be fine if this was being made up for by a matched increase in external contributors, sadly that seems not to be so," wrote Meeks. "Crude as they are—the statistics show a picture of slow disengagement by Sun, combined with a spectacular lack of growth in the developer community. In a healthy project we would expect to see a large number of volunteer developers involved, in addition—we would expect to see a large number of peer companies contributing to the common code pool; we do not see this in"

Meeks calls for Sun to distance itself from the project and establish a new governance model that is totally community-driven. "Kill the ossified, paralyzed and gerrymandered political system in OO.o. Instead put the developers (all of them), and those actively contributing into the driving seat," Meeks urges. "This in turn should help to kill the many horribly demotivating and dysfunctional process steps currently used to stop code from getting included, and should help to attract volunteers."

We attempted to contact Louis Suarez-Potts, Sun's community manager for OOo, to see if he could provide additional insight or a response to the latest allegations from Meeks, but we have not yet received a response. 3.0 is an impressive release that delivers some important new functionality, especially for Mac OS X users. The project continues to deliver a surprising amount of polish and functionality, but it still lags behind Microsoft's dominant office suite. If IBM, Sun, Novell, and other major stakeholders could work together more closely to accelerate development and lower the barriers to entry for community contributors, it would put OOo in a much stronger position to compete with Microsoft's office hegemony.

Most of the web site has been taken down due to excessive load, but download links are still accessible from the main page.

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Battlestar Galactica case mod adds a touch of class and excitement to your work day

by Joseph L. Flatley

Though there are few things as potentially cringe-worthy as a Battlestar Galactica-themed case mod (or toaster, or pumpkin), we must admit that this project is pretty impressive. Going beyond the realm of the expected (landing bay, running lights, engine pods and a suitable sci-fi paint job), this custom build rocks an array of ambitious features, including three 2.5-inch LCD screens, a 10-inch LCD on the left side panel and an automatic right side panel door (aka: "airlock"). The front of the case sports a laser-cut acrylic Battlestar Galactica logo that has been mounted to a slot-loading DVD drive (the disc appears to spin inside the logo) and the whole case is complimented by a suitably modified keyboard and monitor. If your curiosity has been whetted, hit the read link for a ton of images and blow-by-blow description of the build process ... and be sure to check out the videos after the break.

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Washington DC latest to drop Microsoft for web apps

By David Chartier

Washington D.C. has joined 500,000+ businesses and organizations in moving its communication and productivity tools into the cloud. Vivek Kundra, CTO for the District, signed an agreement with Google to migrate the organization's 38,000 employees to Google Apps, the search giant's web-based offering of communication and productivity tools. Washington D.C. is a not-insignificant win for Google, and yet another blow to Microsoft's incumbent Office suite, as a surge of web apps steadily replaces their desktop counterparts.

Kundra signed the contract with Google back in June, and it's estimated to be worth nearly $500,000 a year, according to Bloomberg. The deal will provide District employees with applications like Gmail for communication, Google Docs for word processing and spreadsheets, the recently launched Google Video for business, and Google Sites to wrap it all together with intranets and wikis.

Google Apps has seen an impressive level of adoption since launching over two years ago in February 2006 as Gmail for your domain. Six months later, Google Apps for Your Domain debuted and has since attracted customers from many industries, including GE, L'Oreal, Arizona State University, and Taylor Woodrow, a construction firm based in the UK. Over 500,000 organizations use one version or another of Google Apps, and Google claims that 3,000 more sign up every day.

Google isn't the only party encroaching on Microsoft's Office turf, though. Just over a year ago, Google's closest competitor in the online business application space, Zoho, introduced Zoho Business, a similar collection of apps for online word processing, spreadsheets, calendaring, and collaboration. So far, GE is probably Zoho's most significant win. The company first switched its 400,000 desktops from Microsoft Office to Google Apps, according to WebGuild. But in September, GE switched to Zoho due to privacy concerns, Zoho's broader application and feature base, and Google strangely pushing AdWords as a way to make money.

Zoho's release last week of a complete e-mail solution—including mobile and offline access via Google Gears (a feature Gmail has yet to support)—should make it an even stronger option. If you consider Zoho's recently launched marketplace where third-party developers can build customized applications for Zoho customers, the company now has a very broad, and more extensible, alternative to Google Apps.

In response to all this cloud computing competition, Microsoft hasn't done much and, some argue, it may not have to for a while. Office is still very much the 800 pound gorilla in this space, and a recent US study says that, while 20 percent of Americans have at least heard of online office suites, over 90 percent have never touched one. Plus, 2008 revenues from Microsoft's Business Division (in charge of, among other things, Microsoft Office) rose nearly 20 percent from 2007 to over $18 billion. To combat online offerings, Office Live Workspaces gets Microsoft's foot in the web-based productivity door, but it doesn't offer anything more than an online storage locker for sharing documents.

While Office Live Workspaces reached a notable milestone of 1 million users last month, it still requires desktop Microsoft Office software to be of much value—the very software and all the requisite overhead that an increasing number of customers—like GE—are trying to avoid.

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Cisco Embraces Linux in Battle Against Microsoft

Cisco (CSCO) and Microsoft (MSFT) both want to dominate the unified communications market, where next-generation applications ride across IP networks.

Which Linux makes the best business Windows replacement desktop?

Some of my Linux-savvy friends and I have been hashing out what the best Linux desktop would be for a SMB (small to medium sized business). Out of that conversation, Ken Hess came up with a list of ten best Linux desktop distributions that has Ubuntu at the top and Jason Perlow, while dividing distributions into community and commercial versions, also sees Ubuntu as the best Linux desktop. Ah... I disagree.

It's not that I don't like Ubuntu. I do. I just stayed focused on the full question, which was: "If an SMB wants to upgrade from XP, what Linux variants would you recommend? Consider this would be for an SMB with limited in-house tech expertise."

Note that last phrase: "limited in-house tech expertise." There goes Ubuntu. Yes, Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, does offer professional technical support, but Canonical is still new at the support business and its offerings are rather generic.

My answer is that those requirements pretty much narrow it down to Novell and SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop). Novell, and its resellers, knows support and SMB.

In particular, if I don't really know Linux that well and I'm running an SMB, I want a company that can offer me the full support package. That's more than just 24x7 phone support. Both Canonical and Novell offer that. Novell also offers other support options such as certification, training, consulting, and even retaining the services of an engineer.

I also can't help but notice that Canonical appears to be charging $900 for 24x7 support per desktop per year while Novell charges $220 for the same deal. Yes, of course, if you know what you're doing, you don't have to pay any of that. This is Linux after all. But, that wasn't the point. This is for a business that doesn't have a Linux maven on call. Once they do know how to handle Linux, then Linux's cost savings go from good to great.

Of course, SLED 10 SP 2, the latest version, isn't cutting edge Linux. The next version, SLED 11, is due out next year. But, again, what does an SMB want with cutting-edge any thing? I want the newest and neatest, your usual SMB wants a rock-solid operating system without any surprises.

Last, but never least for most businesses, SLED is the most friendly of the desktop Linuxes when it comes to dealing with Microsoft Windows servers. Many people don't like that Novell and Microsoft have gotten all buddy-buddy over the last few years, but if you want Linux and Windows to co-operate in the work place, SUSE is your best choice.

Another option for an SMB is to swing a support deal with an OEM. For example, you can swing a desktop deal with Novell and HP.

Or, while Dell would like SMBs to pay more attention to their Red Hat Desktop offerings with RHEL WS (Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Workstation) 5.1, you can also get Dell/Ubuntu support packages.

There are other options as well. More and more regional and local VARs (value-added resellers) and system integrators are offering desktop Linux support. Personally, I've always preferred working with local businesses.

But, if that's not an option, for an SMB, I'd go with Novell and SLED. It may not be an exciting choice, but it's a very practical one and for a small business, it's all about being practical.

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German court: Google Image thumbnails infringe on copyright

By John Timmer

As much as people complain about the challenges of balancing copyrights and fair use in the US, overseas courts have been happy to provide examples that remind us that some aspects of US copyright law are actually fairly liberal. The latest such reminder comes courtesy of a case in Germany that revisits an issue that appears settled in the US: the right of image search services to create thumbnails from copyrighted works to display with the search results. The German courts have now determined that this is not OK in Germany, where Google has just lost two copyright suits over image thumbnails.

This is not the first tussle of this sort that Google has been involved with. The company had initially lost a copyright case based on its creation of thumbnails from porn site Perfect 10, but ultimately prevailed on appeal in that case. Although the appeal did not clarify all the legal issues, it did determine that the creation of thumbnails fell within the exceptions granted by US copyright law for transformative use.

The search giant hasn't always had good luck in European courts, however. Last year, Google lost a legal tussle with a Belgian newspaper trade group, and was left in the awkward position of seeing the excerpts it uses for Google News content be declared a violation of copyright. Negotiations have gotten the Belgian papers' content back in Google searches, but the case is still very active; Google is appealing, while the newspapers are looking to extract a healthy fine.

The latest case to be decided combines aspects of both of these others: image thumbnails and European courts. In this case, the venue was Germany, where Google was being sued for creating thumbnails from the copyrighted materials of a photographer and a comic artist. According to Bloomberg News, Google lost both of these cases, with courts declaring that shrinking images down to thumbnail size doesn't create a new work, and thus displaying the thumbnails is a violation of copyright.

Google was, not surprisingly, unamused. A Google spokesperson told paidContent, "Today's decision is very bad for Internet users in Germany, it is a major step backwards for German e-business in general, and it is bad for the thousands of websites who receive valuable traffic through Image Search and similar services."

Although copyright holders can easily let search engine indexing bots know what files to avoid, the ruling apparently leaves them with no legal need to do so. Instead, the burden lies on the search engines, which apparently need to determine what images they discover are subject to copyright. Given the impossibility of doing so in an automated fashion, the ruling is likely to see Google radically alter its image search offerings in Germany.

Google is unlikely to be the only one with this problem, too, as those who initiate these lawsuits rarely stop at one search engine. Perfect 10 later went after Microsoft despite having part of its case against Google thrown out. Meanwhile, the Belgian newspapers, fresh off their Google victory, went after the EU itself. It seems likely that it will be a matter of time before other image search services get served in Germany.

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America May Get Broadband for Free, But Porn Will Cost You

Stacey Higginbotham

Last Friday afternoon, the FCC issued a report putting to rest worries about interference from a free wireless broadband service using the AWS-3 spectrum, paving the way for an auction sometime next year. However, opponents of the auction, including T-Mobile, aren’t going to give up without a fight.

The original proposal for the spectrum, put forth two years ago by a Kleiner-backed company called M2Z Networks, had asked the FCC for use of the spectrum in the 2155-2175 MHz band to create a wireless broadband service. M2Z offered the FCC 5 percent of its revenue in exchange for the spectrum. It also pledged 25 percent of its network for free broadband service at lower speeds. The company would charge more for faster speeds and would build out 90 percent of its network in 10 years at a cost of $2 - $3 billion.

In June the FCC issued its own rulemaking proposal, which hewed closely to the M2Z proposal. The FCC proposal would also restrict material that could be deemed obscene and “harmful” to children between ages 5 and 17 (i.e., porn) on the resulting wireless broadband network. Update: An FCC spokesman says that aspect of the proposal will likely get tweaked during the rulemaking process to allow adults to opt-out of such filters.

T-Mobile had argued against the potential auction and use of the spectrum on the grounds that it would interfere with services deployed on the neighboring AWS-1 spectrum, which T-Mobile leased for $4 billion. But it appears that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, isn’t buying into the argument now that T-Mobile’s filters have proven to be ineffective at keeping out content from the nearby spectrum. “You shouldn’t have equipment that reads spectrum you don’t own,” Martin told Dow Jones.

Damn! Who is this reasonable, carrier-smacking FCC chair? It’s nice to see a potential wireless broadband competitor making it out into the world, but the content limitations should give everyone pause. A whole mess of litigation will stand between this network and real use, as any government-created wireless broadband network should probably be free of censorship.

Meanwhile, a mess of litigation might still stand between an AWS-3 auction and the creation of a network, as T-Mobile seems inclined to release the lawyers if the FCC goes forth with its proposal. The company issued a statement from Kathleen Ham, VP of federal regulatory affairs, via email, but didn’t answer my question about suing to protect its interests directly. The statement read:

While we are glad the FCC engineers finally put their observations on the record, we have serious concerns that their analysis is flawed and relies on factors that were not the subject of the testing, while ignoring other important data in the record. In light of this, we are concerned that the result was predetermined unfairly. We and the multiple parties concerned about interference will strongly urge the FCC to provide for sufficient time for comment on their report before any FCC action on these rules.

I may have to eat my words about the unliklihood of wireless broadband competition, but I’ll wait until the networks are up and devices are out before admitting defeat.

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Bush signs controversial anti-piracy law

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush signed into law on Monday a controversial bill that would stiffen penalties for movie and music piracy at the federal level.

The law creates an intellectual property czar who will report directly to the president on how to better protect copyrights both domestically and internationally. The Justice Department had argued that the creation of this position would undermine its authority.

The law also toughens criminal laws against piracy and counterfeiting, although critics have argued that the measure goes too far and risks punishing people who have not infringed.

The Recording Industry Association of America and Motion Picture Association of America backed the bill, as did the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"By becoming law, the PRO-IP Act sends the message to IP criminals everywhere that the U.S. will go the extra mile to protect American innovation," said Tom Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Counterfeiting and piracy costs the United States nearly $250 billion annually, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Rick Cotton, general counsel for NBC Universal, said the bill would give movie and music makers more tools to fight what he called a "tidal wave" of counterfeiting and piracy of everything from medical devices to automobile parts to media by organized crime.

"That is at the core of what this discussion is about," he said. "It is not about teenagers."

Cotton said he did not expect an IP czar to be named before Bush's term ended in January.

Richard Esguerra, spokesman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said he was relieved to see lawmakers had stripped out a measure to have the Justice Department file civil lawsuits against pirates, which would have made the attorneys "pro bono personal lawyers for the content industry."

But the advocacy group Public Knowledge had argued that the law went too far, especially given that fair use of copyrighted material was already shrinking.

Public Knowledge particularly opposed a measure that allowed for the forfeiture of devices used in piracy.

"Let's suppose that there's one computer in the house, and one person uses it for downloads and one for homework. The whole computer goes," said Public Knowledge spokesman Art Brodsky.

Brodsky argued that, at best, the bill was unnecessary because the recording and movie industry had the right to take accused infringers to court.

"There's already lots and lots of penalties for copyright violations," he said. "They've got all the tools they need."

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