Monday, February 2, 2009

Google Earth, Google Ocean: mysteries of the seafloor are mapped for the first time

Bobbie Johnson in San Francisco

A coral seen off Jarvis Island in the Pacific Ocean

The undersea addition to Google Earth is expected to be a valuable tool for scientists. Photograph: Jim Maragos/AP

Since Google Earth launched in 2006 ­millions of people have used its virtual globe to "travel" around the planet without leaving home, climbing a digital version of Mount Everest and even flying into space thanks to the website.

Now the internet company plans to take on one of the last bastions of the unknown: the depths of the ocean.

At a high-profile event in San Francisco, Google is expected to announce the addition of vast amounts of underwater imagery and seabed maps to the Google Earth project.

The move will take Google Earth closer to its aim of creating a complete digital representation of the planet.

The existing site, to which an estimated 400 million people have had access, already includes three-dimensional representations of large cities around the world and includes images from street-level and aerial photo­graphy covering thousands of miles across Britain and elsewhere.

The new additions to the website are expected to include views of the ocean, and portions of the seabed. They will also ­provide detailed environmental data that will enhance information about the effect of climate change on the world's seas and oceans.

To showcase the transformation, the site's chief executive, Eric Schmidt, will introduce dignitaries including the former US vice president and environmental campaigner Al Gore, and the ­veteran ocean­ographer Sylvia Earle, who is an "explorer-in-residence" at National Geographic.

Although, so far, there has been only limited data collected about the sea floor, with just 10% of the habitat mapped at any useful scale for science, bathymetry experts said that the public's ability to "interact" with the oceans and gain better understanding, as well as see the evidence of global warming, could have quite an impact on perceptions.

"This is the part that's really exciting, for me: people will understand that we know almost nothing about a lot of these places, and Google will do it for us," said David Sandwell, professor of geophysics at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, at the University of San Diego. "There are big voids everywhere, but there are a few little spots where we know quite a lot."

The inclusion of environmental information forms the latest part of the company's plan to offer the public more data about climate change. In 2007 Google convened a high-level meeting of experts to help it develop sources of submarine information and environmental data. It seems likely that the company will later unveil partnerships with institutions in Europe and the US as part of the project.

"It's a really useful tool for scientists, to [be able to] share data on the oceans," said Sandwell. "For me, it's the detailed global tectonic structure of the sea floor … if you're a physical oceanographer, the important thing is that the currents and tides are affected by things that stick up from the sea floor."

The development has a less serious side, however. It is also believed people using the site will get the chance to take a virtual dip at some of the world's most famous diving spots, including at sites in the Bahamas, the Red Sea and the Great Barrier Reef.

Despite the project's long gestation, speculation about the precise details has grown since Google announced it would be holding the event. Many observers said they were hoping for something spect­acular. "I don't think this announcement will be confined to just Google Ocean," wrote Frank Taylor, who catalogues the development of Google Earth at "When Google makes an announcement like this, they always try to push the envelope on multiple fronts. And, with Al Gore headlining the event, I'm sure we're going to get some data about the environment."

The new system could potentially be combined with another program to let people ­"virtually" move about anywhere in the world.

At the Macworld Expo in January, Google engineers unveiled a program called EarthSurfer, which combined Google Earth with Nintendo's Wii Fit to create an exercise game that allows players movement "around the landscape" by way of balancing on a board. "You control it by leaning forward to go forward, and back to go back," said David Oster, the EarthSurfer programmer on the project at the time. "It's great stuff."

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10 lightweight apps to make older PCs fly


Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory can give your old system an injection of 3D thrills

Your desktop PC might have been slim and speedy five years ago, but keeping up with application upgrades and filling your hard drive with feature-bloated commercial tools can soon make your machine sluggish.

If your computer feels underpowered, there's no need to ditch it and reach for the credit card to buy a new model.

Instead, try our pick of free, lightweight tools and it'll soon be back to its sprightly self.

1. Word Processing - AbiWord 2.6
Boasting most of the same functionality as Microsoft Word 2003, AbiWord is free and light on its feet. Needing only a paltry 16MB of RAM, it runs on Windows 2000 upwards. You can grab an earlier version for Windows 98 if your machine is really wrinkly.

2. Graphics - IrFanView 4.23
Forget about Photoshop and even its open source rival The GIMP - IrfanView's the photo editor to choose on underpowered platforms. With support stretching back to Windows 95 it opens and saves dozens of image formats, with batch editing, cropping resizing and other basic photo manipulation tools built in.

3. Coding - NoteTab Light
Looking for a seriously lightweight coding tool? NoteTab Light does the job. A text editor that's optimised for working with HTML and CSS, it has features like code snippets, HTML tidying and auto-correction. It'll run happily on Windows 98 upwards - Windows 95 too if you use the help file patch.

4. Email - Popcorn 1.87
With even online mail providers becoming bloated and AJAX heavy, Popcorn connects direct to your POP email account - reading mail direct from the server. You can use it with your ISP's service - or online mail providers that use POP3. Popcorn's no longer under active development, but new features are moot when the basics are in place.

5. Web Browsing - K-Meleon 1.5.2
Built around the same browser engine as Firefox, K-Meleon dispenses with all extraneous frills to compete convincingly for the title of "world's fastest web browser". Standards compliant and compatible with your Mozilla Bookmarks, it'll run on a 486 PC with 32MB of RAM and, as long as you have Microsoft's Visual C++ components installed, Windows 95.

6. Video - VLC Media Player
Judging media players is difficult as they're only ever as fast and reliable as the data you try to squeeze through them. VLC Media Player is portable. though, has a small footprint and - though it will struggle to play full HD video on older systems - it's perfect for DVDs and MP3s on Pentium class computers.

7. System Maintenance - CCleaner
Even computer maintenance tools can suffer from bloat - nagging you to update or upgrade components. CCleaner does none of the above. You run it, it finds files you can delete, you delete them - job done!

8. PDF Reader - Sumatra PDF
PDFs have become the industry alternative to printed documentation - but Acrobat Reader, Adobe's free tool for opening PDFs, is something of a resource hog. Enter Sumatra PDF - nimble on its feet and stripped of bells and whistles, it's a fast loading alternative to Adobe's offering.

9. Instant Messaging - Pidgin
Multiple messaging clients scoff your system resources, so switching to a single, universal IM tool makes sense. Pidgin does the job well, with support for AIM, Google Talk, Yahoo!, MSN and more.

10. Gaming - Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory
Got a fiver to spare? Half Life, the original Quake and even Doom are still available to buy through Steam - offering gaming thrills well into their dotage. Cheapskates can choose Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory a completely free, Quake III Arena based multiplayer frag-a-thon.


Now read 10 cheap and easy upgrades for your old PC

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The Best E-Mail Program Ever

As of this week, Gmail has reached perfection: You no longer have to be online to read or write messages. Desktop programs like Microsoft Outlook have always been able to access your old mail. There is a certain bliss to this; if you've got a pile of letters that demand well-composed, delicate responses (say you're explaining to your boss why you ordered that $85,000 rug), unplugging the Internet can be the fastest way to get things done. That's why offline access is a killer feature—it destroys your last remaining reason for suffering through a desktop e-mail program.

Google's not alone in providing this option. Microsoft's Windows Live Mail, Yahoo's Zimbra, and the mail app made by the Web startup Zoho, among other services, also provide some measure of untethered e-mail access. For now, Google calls this addition "experimental"—you've got to turn it on explicitly, and the company is asking users to report any bugs—but I found it easy to set up and a delight to use.

To get offline access, you first need to download and install a small program called Google Gears (except if you're using Google's Chrome browser, which comes with Gears built in). Then, after you enable Gmail's offline capability, the system will download two months of your most recent messages, which should take 30 minutes to an hour. Now you're good to go: When you're offline, type into your browser, log in—yes, Gears enables you to log in even when you don't have a Web connection—and there's your e-mail. Though I work from home and rarely find myself away from a hot Wi-Fi connection, I shut off my router and parked myself on my couch for about an hour yesterday. I loaded up Gmail on my laptop, and it responded seamlessly—I could read, search through, and respond to any message I'd received during the last two months, all through the familiar Web interface. Eureka! I'll never again be mailless on a plane, a subway, or anyplace else where you don't have the Web but do have a lot of time to kill.

Now that Gmail has bested the Outlooks of the world, it's a good time to assess the state of desktop software. There are some things that work better on your computer (your music app, your photo editor, your spreadsheets), and there are some that work better online (everything else). Over the last few years, we've seen many programs shifting from the first category to the second—now you can get spreadsheets and photo editors online, though they're still not as good as programs hosted on your computer. But e-mail has crossed the line completely. Hosted services like Gmail are now the most powerful and convenient way to grapple with a daily onslaught of mail. If you're still tied to a desktop app—whether Outlook, the Mac's Mail program, or anything else that sees your local hard drive, rather than a Web server, as its brain—then you're doing it wrong.

The shift has been a long time coming. On July 4, 1996, Sabeer Bhatia and Jack Smith, two techies who met while working at Apple, launched Hotmail, the first free e-mail service on the Web. The date wasn't accidental—from the beginning, Web-based e-mail sought to liberate people from the strictures imposed by traditional providers (ISPs, universities, and employers, all of whom required some official affiliation before they gave you an e-mail address). Hotmail would give an inbox to anyone—you could even sign up for multiple addresses—and pretty soon it was impossible to find a soul who didn't e-mail.

But it was a terrible hassle to actually use Hotmail—which Microsoft purchased in 1997—or the rival e-mail systems built by Yahoo, AOL, and the various other Web portals that dominated the last tech boom. Back then, Web-based e-mail was a great idea executed poorly. Internet connections, Web browsers, and Web-design technologies were slow and flaky; you waited an eternity to load up a message, you could easily lose a draft of a long e-mail if something went amiss with your modem, and you had a limited amount of storage space. Web e-mail was a redoubt of amateurs. If you were serious about your inbox, you kept it on your desktop.

Desktop e-mail presented its own challenges, though. People who were serious about e-mail tended to archive all their messages. But desktop e-mail apps performed poorly when overloaded with mail; Outlook, for instance, crawled to halt if you stuffed it with just a few tens of thousands of messages, which for some people is only a few months' worth. What's more, keeping all your mail in one place was both annoying and not very safe. You couldn't easily check your messages on multiple computers. And what if you wanted to switch to a new computer? Or what if a power surge crashed your drive? As a journalist working during the Internet bust, my particular worry was getting a pink slip. If my boss suddenly asked me to turn in my company-provided laptop, all my e-mail—both professional and personal correspondence going back years—would be gone.

By the time Gmail launched in summer 2004, I was desperate for an alternative to Outlook. (I had tried pretty much every other desktop e-mail app.) From the moment I logged on, I found it liberating. Gmail's interface was quick and intuitive, unlike any other major online service at the time. (Gmail did borrow some design ideas from Oddpost, an ahead-of-its-time Web e-mail app developed in 2002; Yahoo bought Oddpost in 2004.) Gmail was the first to display multiple messages on the same subject as threaded conversations—a design idea that user-interface experts had long been saying would make e-mail easier to use. Switching to Gmail also freed me from worrying about how I preserved my mail—Google, whose servers are much more secure than my own computer, was taking care of backups for me.

What separates Gmail from its rivals is a basic design philosophy: It's built for power e-mailers. Late last year I visited the Gmail team at Google's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. Keith Coleman, Gmail's program manager, told me that from the beginning, Google aimed to build something suitable for people who got a ton of mail—because in the future, everyone will get a ton of mail. Gmail's main features are all catnip for folks who find themselves buried under the weight of their inbox. There's a search engine worthy of the Google name, a slate of keyboard shortcuts that make organizing your messages brutally efficient, and a crowdsourced spam detector that keeps out unwanted messages. Best of all, Gmail is fast—you can switch between messages and folders quicker than you can in any other e-mail program, even desktop-based systems. Coleman told me that the team is constantly measuring and tweaking the responsiveness of its interface. (The software gives coders a readout of how long, on average, various tasks take to complete.) The Gmail managers are also gaga over user-interface tests: Before instituting any major feature, developers bring users into a whiz-bang lab outfitted with cameras and eye-tracking software to see how people react to the new stuff.

Lately Coleman and his staff have been improving Gmail at a breakneck pace. They added a way to let people chat by voice and video, and they put out "themes" that personalize the appearance of your e-mail screen. Last summer, they launched Gmail Labs, a repository of add-on programs that run alongside Gmail. Offline access is one of these many Labs features; you can also add a to-do list, buttons to send people quick canned responses, a mini-program for sending text messages to cell phones, and a "gadget" for monitoring your Google Calendar and Google Docs from your e-mail. All these add-ons were created by Google programmers, but Coleman says that Gmail is also experimenting with letting outside developers add stuff. Google seems to be trying to create more than just a great e-mail program; with all these add-ons, Gmail is becoming a sort of e-mail platform whose users benefit from the best ideas in mail management.

And that gets to what's so exciting about being a Gmail user right now. The app keeps getting better. You might say that's true of desktop systems, too; Outlook is not as clunky as it was five years ago, and, no doubt, it'll be better five years from now. But so will Gmail—and because it's online, you'll get those improvements faster, and without having to install any software. Now that you can use Gmail anywhere—even when you're beyond the reach of broadband—there's no longer any reason to suffer.

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20+ Great Twitter Tools for Firefox

by Sean P. Aune

People love Twitter, and they love Firefox, so it only seems natural that there would be quite a few tools to merge these two items.

Whether you want to have a full Twitter client inside of your browser, or just the ability to share parts of a site, a whole Web page or just the URL of the site you are reading, there is a tool for you. Take a look through these 20+ tools and there is sure to be something that appeals to you.

As with all Firefox tool lists, we do recommend you don’t install all of these unless you want your browser to slow down considerably.

What is your favorite Twitter tool for Firefox?


twitter toolbar

Friendbar - See your incoming tweets right in the toolbar as well as post updates of your own. Also works with Facebook friends.

Twitter Line - Displays incoming tweets from your friends timeline in a toolbar, and allows you to post updates to your own account.

Twitter StatusBar - A discrete tool that collapses into your status bar when not in use. Just click on the “T” symbol to bring it up and send out your latest update.

Twitter Toolbar - A toolbar that allows you to post updates any time you want as you browse. Also includes pre-written messages for common sayings on the service.

TwitBin - Opens up a Twitter client in your sidebar so you can send and read tweets no matter where you are on the Web without changing tabs or windows.

TwitKit - A sidebar Twitter client that breaks down into tabs for @replies, account stats, public timeline, sending tweets, your friends’ latest tweets and a list of all your followers.

TwitterBar - Type your tweets in the address bar and press the icon at the end to send them. Also allows you to easily tweet about the page you are currently looking at by leaving it in the address bar when you type out your message.

TwitterFox - A Twitter client for Firefox that will allow you to see your friend updates, add your own, retweet, delete read tweets from your stream and more.


power twitter

BlogRovR - While mainly a tool to help you see linked blog posts as you surf the Web, you can also send out tweets about what you are reading and share them with your followers.

Clipmarks - Clip parts of a Web page that you specifically want to share, and then share them with all of your Twitter followers amongst other services.

DashBlog - DashBlog lets you easily tweet about items you find on the web such as videos, text, quotes, images and more. Also works with Tumblr, WordPress and Blogger.

Feedly - A magazine style feed reader that allows you to tweet about any post you read and find interesting.

Mahalo Share - Share sites you find interesting across multiple services including Twitter.

Power Twitter - Power Twitter adds several features such as revealing the URL behind TinyURLs, embedding of YouTube videos, showing Flickr streams and a whole lot more.

StockTwits - A Firefox add-on that works with the StockTwits site. It will turn any StockTwits tagged tweets on the site into a link back to the StockTwits site so you can follow the conversation.

Tw-autocomplete - Allows for autocomplete of Twitter usernames for @ and D messages as you are typing them on the Twitter site.

TweetStalk - Adds a “Stalk” button next to the “Follow” button on Twitter so you can follow someone without them knowing it. Can also create an RSS feed of their tweets so you can read them in your favorite reader.

TwitThat - A bookmarklet that lets you tweet about the current Web page you are reading.

TwitterEyes - An extension to be used specifically on the Twitter site that will keep track of your characters entered and assist you in shortening your message when necessary.

Twitter Search - The name says it all for this handy tool that gives you access to the real-time Twitter search.

TwittyTunes - Works with FoxyTunes to submit the songs you listen to that you wish to share with the Twitter community. If you choose not to use it with FoxyTunes, you can also post about sites and videos you are viewing.

Twitzer - Allows you to tweet messages longer than 140 characters by adding a link to the overflow text, you can also de-Twitzer text and have it displayed directly on the Twitter site

Yoono - Yoono allows you to combine various social networks, instant messengers and other tools into your sidebar, and allows you to send tweets no matter where you are on the World Wide Web at the time.

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Facebook Plans to Make Money by Selling Your Data

Written by Lidija Davis

facebook_jan_09.jpgThe Telegraph is reporting that social networking giant Facebook has new plans for generating revenue; offering its 150 million user database as a market research tool to corporations.

Starting this spring, companies will be able to selectively target Facebook's members in order to research the appeal of new products through a polling system called Engagement Ads as demonstrated at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The Evolution of Engagement Ads

Engagement Ads are not new to Facebook. Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook had begun "quietly testing" the product in August and was hoping to roll it out by the end of November.

Engagement Ads, said the WSJ, would appear on the home page of Facebook when you first log on and prompt you to interact with an ad. If you did interact with the ad, Facebook would then attempt to share your action with your friends thus "getting the ad in front of more eyeballs."

At the time, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said that ads systems are "built over time through continual tweaking." She added that Facebook's existing ad offerings were doing well but "undersell Facebook's broader opportunity."

If the Telegraph report is correct, Engagement Ads have had a massive tweak; companies will be able to pose questions to and receive feedback from selected members in real time based on user information that Facebook provides.

Randi Zuckerberg, Facebook's Global Markets Director, told the Telegraph that companies are excited about this new polling system. "It takes a very long time to do a focus group, and businesses often don't have the luxury of time. I think they liked the instant responses," she said.

Facebook's Advertising Attempts

Facebook's foray into advertising over time has been weak at best. Forrester's Jeremiah Owyang has called Facebook's marketing toolset 'confusing', adding that brands will only succeed with engagement advertising if they lean on user behaviors like communication, self-expression, and social exploration.

When Facebook launched it's much hyped advertising strategy in 2007, we had hoped it would not be met with backlash. Unfortunately this wasn't to be the case and the Beacon saga came to an end the following month with Mark Zuckerberg apologizing for the way Facebook had dealt with the situation.

It appears Facebook has run the gamut when it comes to advertising efforts. What began with fliers, display banner ads and even the very similar Facebook Polls have not yet inspired marketers to run in droves to the popular social networking site.

But could this be the year things turn around for them? Maybe. Change certainly is in the air at Facebook. Zuckerberg had noticeably dressed up for Davos, telling blogger Robert Scoble it was to denote that this was Facebook's 'intense' year. The Facebook founder bio page has had a recent addition. And as for Engagement Ads? Well, we'll just have to wait and see. What do you think?

Update: Facebook has contacted us and said that the technology demonstrated at the conference was not a new service and that there have been no changes to the company's existing polls and Engagement Ads services. We'll be making a new post later today to discuss why the prospect of this new service has raised so much interest and concern.

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End of beta is in sight for Windows 7


Windows 7 - well received

Microsoft has confirmed that it will not be releasing any more beta versions of Windows 7, with the next release likely to be the first release candidate of the eagerly anticipated operating system.

The successor to Vista has been very well received since it arrived in beta, which will come as an almighty relief to Microsoft after the failure of Vista to hit the heights that were expected for it.

"There's been such an incredible response, with many folks even blogging about how they have moved to using Windows 7 Beta on all their machines and have been super happy," said Microsoft's Steven Sinofsky on the Engineering Windows 7 blog.

"The question we get most often is 'if the Beta expires in August what will I do - I don't want to return to my old operating system.' For a Beta release, that is quite a compliment and we're very appreciative of such a kind response."

Beta refreshed

Although, Sinofsky is coy over the date for RC1 of Windows 7, he did confirm that it would serve as a refresh to the beta, adding: "We often 'joke' that this is the point of lowest productivity for the development team because we all come to work focused on the product but we write almost no code.

"That's the way it has to be - the ship is on the launch pad and all the tools are put away in the toolbox to be used only in case of the most critical issues."

The release candidate step is a key moment in the life of software, coming before a release to manufacturing and finally general release.

In time for 2009?

Microsoft has never shifted from its assertion that the release of Windows 7 is 'on schedule' meaning that it will hit shelves either at the very end of 2009 or the beginning of 2010, but the quicker the release candidate arrives the more likely the earlier date is.

"We're on a good path and we're making progress," Sinofsky insists. "We are taking a quality-based approach to completing the product and won't be driven by imposed deadlines.

"We have internal metrics and milestones and our partners continue to get builds routinely so even when we reach RC, we are doing so together as partners."

Microsoft Says Former Employee Spied On Them For His Startup Company

By Sean Fallon

The guys at SeattlePi have uncovered a bit of espionage going on in Redmond. According to Microsoft, a former employee took a position with the company in order to spy on them for his startup.

In a lawsuit filed in King Couny Superior Court in Seattle, Microsoft alleges former employee Miki Mullor, founder of Ancora Technologies Inc, sought employment with the company because he believed Microsoft's System Locked Preinstallation anti-piracy technology (SLP), infringed on an Ancora patent. During the application process Mullor claimed that Ancora was out of business—which doesn't appear to be true.

Microsoft's suit, filed last week, alleges that Mullor, as a Microsoft employee, downloaded a series of internal documents with "no bearing" on his job in the days and months leading up to the Ancora lawsuit. The documents dealt with subjects including the SLP and the upcoming Windows 7 operating system, according to Microsoft's complaint.

Interestingly enough, Microsoft has all but admitted to ripping off Ancora technology in the lawsuit citing language in Mullor's employment contract that requires patent disclosure and patent reassignment in some cases. In other words, Microsoft believes that they have royalty-free rights to the technology.

The case isn't expected to go to trial until January 26, 2010—so we will have to wait to see who emerges victorious here. It seems to me that if Mullor really felt he had a case, resorting to piracy over piracy software would not be necessary. It's not like information gained through espionage is going to be viewed positively by the courts. [SeattlePi via TechFlash Background Image via Flickr]

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Microsoft: No plans for second Windows 7 beta

Posted by Ina Fried

Microsoft has confirmed that it won't issue a second beta of Windows 7, saying that the next test version of the operating system will be a near-final release candidate.

Windows engineering head Steven Sinofsky announced the move in a blog posting on Friday, confirming that Microsoft would stick to earlier plans for just a single beta.

"The next milestone for the development of Windows 7 is the Release Candidate or 'RC,'" Sinofsky wrote. "Historically the Release Candidate has signaled 'we're pretty close and we want people to start testing the release, especially because all the features are done.'"

Microsoft released the feature-complete beta version earlier this month and general computer users have until February 10 to download the software. (Click on the video at right to hear me talk Windows 7 on CNET Editors' Office Hours.)

Sinofsky didn't say when to expect a release candidate, or the final release, though the company is believed to still be aiming to have the operating system ready to go on PCs in time for this year's holiday shopping season.

Although that is believed to be the goal, Microsoft has told partners that it is still too soon to commit for a 2009 release and it could yet be pushed into early 2010. Officially, Microsoft has said that it will have Windows 7 out within three years of the general availability of Windows Vista, which hit its two-year anniversary on Thursday.

For his part, Sinofsky encouraged people not too read to much into his posting.

"This post is in no way an announcement of a ship date, change in plans, or change in our previously described process, but rather it provides additional detail and a forward looking view of the path to (release)."

Meanwhile, Microsoft is moving ahead with plans for a second service pack for Windows Vista, which is due out next quarter, ahead of Windows 7.

During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried has changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley. These days, most of her attention is focused on Microsoft. E-mail Ina.

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Microsoft adds fancy search option for Firefox

Posted by Stephen Shankland

A Microsoft add-on for Firefox lets the browser show suggested completions of a person's search when they start typing it into the search box.

A Microsoft add-on for Firefox lets the browser show suggested completions of a search when someone starts typing it into the search box.

(Credit: Microsoft)

If you had any doubts Microsoft didn't appreciate the advantages of Firefox's ability to accommodate add-ons, you can dispel them now. The company just released one that makes Microsoft's search service work better with the open-source Web browser.

"We're happy to report that we've officially integrated Live Search into Firefox by popular demand," said Live Search Program Manager Beatrice Oltean and Senior Product Manager Debapriya Ray in a blog post Thursday.

Like Yahoo's Inquisitor, the Microsoft search add-on connects to Microsoft's search site to suggest completions of searches as people start typing them into the browser's search box.

Microsoft is vying with Yahoo and Google to claim a greater share of the search market. Those rivals are more successful at the search advertising business, which places text ads next to search results.

According to Alessandro Catorcini, lead program manager for Live Search API (application programming interface), the add-on uses Microsoft's Live Search API 2.0. That's part of a project called Silk Road.

Stephen Shankland covers Google, Yahoo, search, online advertising, portals, digital photography, and related subjects. He joined CNET News in 1998 and since then also has covered servers, supercomputing, open-source software, and science. E-mail Stephen.

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Microsoft SongSmith: Flawed music software produces comedy gold

The programme allows anyone to record their own pop songs just by singing into their computer microphone, with the software analysing the vocals and selecting the backing style and rhythm that it deems most appropriate.

SongSmith has been widely panned as inferior to Apple's popular virtual music kit GarageBand, but internet wits have discovered an alternative use for the programme and its musical limitations: creating dreadful reworkings of existing hits.

When the vocals of famous songs are run through the software, the backing tracks it adds are so unlikely that the end results often turn out as surreal reinventions of the originals.

Dozens of Songsmith reinterpretations have been posted on YouTube, including a hillbilly version of Billy Idol's White Wedding, The Beatles classic Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as if performed by a plodding hotel quartet, and a techno take on Wonderwall by Oasis.

Many of the videos have been viewed more than a hundred thousand times. The reaction from commenters has been mixed, with most appreciating the absurdity of SongSmith's efforts while others protest the "massacring" of their favourite tracks.

"Proof that computers shouldn't be allowed to make music," wrote one. Another said: "After you hear a few, your brain implodes into a sludge, and they start to sound bad-good. Or good-bad."

Beneath the dance version of Wonderwall, one commenter wrote: "This is a distinct improvement on the original."

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Intel releases Linux-based Moblin 2 Alpha for Netbooks

By Ryan Paul

Intel releases Linux-based Moblin 2 Alpha for Netbooks
Moblin 2 Core Alpha for Netbooks

Intel has announced the availability of the first Moblin 2 alpha release. Moblin is an open source Linux-based platform that Intel is developing for Atom-based mobile devices. The company hopes to attract a community of third-party developers to contribute to the platform and target it with their applications. Moblin has already been adopted by several Linux distributors, including Linpus, GoS, and Mandriva. These distributors plan to build custom derivatives on top of the Moblin core.

The new alpha release is primarily intended for netbooks, and it is being provided to facilitate broader testing of some of Intel’s enhancements. It is still at a very early stage of development, however, and its final user interface is still far from complete.

As a placeholder, it’s currently running a pretty standard installation of the lightweight Xfce desktop environment. It includes Pimlico, an open source suite of lightweight PIM applications that were created by OpenedHand. Xfce will eventually be dropped in favor of a richer and more mobile-friendly user interface that is built with OpenedHand’s Clutter framework. Intel acquired OpenedHand last year.

Moblin is largely derived from Fedora, but it has a number of customizations that increase its suitability for mobile devices, including a unique Internet connection manager and improved boot performance. It’s designed for Intel-based hardware, particularly netbooks with Atom or Core 2 processors. According to the release notes, it has been tested and is known to work on the Acer Aspire One and the Dell Mini 9. It will also boot on the Asus Eee 901, but lacks support for the Eee’s wireless hardware.

The Moblin 2 alpha source code is available from the project’s version control repository. Users can generate custom images from the source with the Moblin Image Creator tool. You can also download prebuilt installable ISO images that can be booted from CD or flash storage media. I tested it myself on my Mini 9, and I was impressed by how quickly it booted.

It’s a pretty good start, but it’s very clearly still a work in progress, and it’s not something you want to install on your everyday-use netbook just yet. Intel is doing some great work under the hood, and it’s likely that we will see those enhancements being adopted by other distros. The user experience, however, still lags behind some of the Ubuntu-based netbook distros out there, including the custom Ubuntu flavor that ships on the Dell Mini 9 and third-party options such as Easy Peasy. When Intel brings a stronger UI to Moblin, it will look a lot more compelling to developers and end users.

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Sony's Sorrows: Japan's Iconic Brands Under Fire

By Coco Masters / Tokyo

Sony Corp's Chairman and CEO Howard Stringer at a press conference in Tokyo

When Sony ends production at its Ichinomiya plant sometime during the next five months, the company will be closing the book on a symbol of its golden age. For 40 years, the assembly lines at Ichinomiya, located southwest of Tokyo, have churned out products such as Trinitron TVs that helped make the Sony brand synonymous with quality and innovation in the minds of consumers worldwide. (See pictures of the history Japan's interaction with the world.)

But Sony, inventor of the portable music player and now known for digital cameras, LCD TVs and the Playstation game machine, has stumbled in recent years. With demand for electronics collapsing as the world sinks into recession, the company finds itself not only forced to shut down Ichinomiya, but also increasingly adrift from its glory days. Last week, Sony reported it fell into the red in its latest quarter and repeated its forecast for an operating loss of $2.9 billion in the year ending March 31, its first such loss in 14 years.

Sony isn't the only iconic Japanese brand that is taking a beating. Beset by a domestic economy in recession, a yen that is gaining strength, and evaporating sales, manufacturers that have long been considered best-in-class by consumers are reeling. Toyota, the world's No. 1 carmaker by sales and profitability, recently announced it expects to post its first operating loss in seven decades for the fiscal year ending March 31.

Indeed, quarterly results emanating from Japan Inc. last week sounded like a dirge: Honda Motor lowered its profit forecast for the fourth time this year; Panasonic, the world's largest maker of consumer electronics, is slated to post a loss of at least $1 billion in its current fiscal year its largest ever; Toshiba, one of the world's largest producers of memory chips, and computer maker NEC Electronics also forecast big losses.

Throughout Japan, managers are slashing production and restructuring to try to weather the economic downturn, which economists say could continue for the next two or three years. "Demand has been falling off a cliff since the collapse of Lehman Brothers," says Hiroshi Shiraishi, an economist at BNP Paribas in Tokyo. Shiraishi says that exports declined a "massive" 15% in real terms last quarter.

Meanwhile, the government on Friday reported industrial production at Japan's manufacturers plunged 9.6% in November, the largest month-to-month drop since Tokyo began measuring such data in 1953. "The problem is very serious," said Economy Minister Kaoru Yosano during a news conference. "It's impossible now to predict when the economy will hit the bottom."

Plunging industrial output is reflected by the radical steps manufacturers are taking to try to adapt to the sharp slowdown. NEC Electronics last week said it would eliminate 20,000 jobs at home and abroad, and cut costs by $890 million overall in the coming 24 months. Sony will close up to six factories and cut 16,000 jobs from its electronics divisions, to address what JPMorgan Securities analyst Yoshiharu Izumi called the company's "emergency situation." Panasonic, which recently bought a majority stake in Sanyo, is closing three plants.

But greater reductions may be needed as the global economic slump deepens. Toyota's plight illustrates the challenges faced by Japan Inc. The company recently achieved its longstanding goal of surpassing GM as the world's top automaker — only to run head-on into a recession far more severe than anyone anticipated. With its global sales down 4% last year, Toyota has already announced a management shakeup as well as plans to temporarily close factories for an additional 11 days over the next two months. The goal is to slash output to less than half the number of vehicles Toyota was producing at this time last year.

Analysts say that Toyota may need to reduce output even more as sales in the key U.S. market, where the company generates half its earnings, continue to plummet. In the last three months of 2008, the U.S. economy shrank at its fastest rate in 26 years; consumer spending fell 3.5% after dropping 3.8% in the third quarter.

About 40% of the cars Toyota sells in the U.S. are made in Japanese factories, and "due to significant yen appreciation, those exports are not profitable anymore," says Tatsuya Mizuno, an analyst at FitchRatings. It will take Toyota time to adjust its fixed costs, since it has spent the last several years investing aggressively to increase production capacity by about 500,000 vehicles per year in the U.S. "It's increasingly clear that the driving force [behind Toyota's recent growth] was really excess consumption in the U.S.," says Izumi of JPMorgan Securities, "And that's now unwinding."

Looking at Japan Inc. as a whole, BNP Paribas' Shiraishi expects production levels to hit bottom in the second quarter of this year and that a little recovery might be seen in the second half. Shiraishi adds that manufacturers could start growing again around 2012 when a wave of Japan's baby boomers reach age 65 and begin to spend their nest eggs. "They've been saving a lot to prepare for their retirement," says Shiraishi. "That could be a stabilizing factor for Japan." One catch, he says: they probably won't buy more cars and TVs.

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We're not the bad guys: Google Earth boss

John Hanke, Google director in charge of Google Earth and Google Maps.

John Hanke, Google director in charge of Google Earth and Google Maps.
Photo: Digitally Altered Image

Stephen Hutcheon

The head of Google Earth has hit back at those who claim that the free virtual mapping program is to blame for aiding and abetting recent acts of terrorism.

Hamas militants in Gaza, who have been firing rockets into Israel, and the Pakistan-based terrorists, who stormed Mumbai late last year, are among several radical groups that have reportedly used Google Earth to help in the execution of their missions.

The Google program marries a swathe of aerial and satellite photography of varying resolution, giving users a bird's eye view of large parts of the Earth' surface - a type of perspective that until a few years ago was available only to handful of scientists and military officials.

Users can see snapshots of life on Earth that range from something as innocent as a child playing on a swing in a Sydney park to a secret nuclear submarine base in China.

"I don't really think it's tipping the balance in favour of the bad guys," John Hanke, the director in charge of Google Earth and Google Maps, said in an interview.

"The evilness is in the philosophies and the desires of those that want to do evil. They will use the tools at hand to do that, whether it's throwing a Molotov cocktail, or shooting a rifle or using some piece of technology as part of the process."

The comments made by Hanke during our interview at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California, this month represent his most public contribution yet to the debate about the use of modern information technologies by the "bad guys" - as he put it.

They come at a time when India is investigating the circumstances surrounding November's deadly attack on Mumbai, amid a chorus of calls for access to the service to be restricted or banned entirely.

In December, a petition entered at the Mumbai High Court alleges that Google Earth "aids terrorists in plotting attacks" and asked that Google be directed to blur images of sensitive areas pending all full hearing.

The Jerusalem Post reported in December that a documentary called The Field of Death posted on the Hamas military wing's website showed terrorists using Google Earth to plot a rocket attack on a fuel depot inside Israel last April that killed two men.

To avoid knee-jerk reactions, Hanke cautioned that it was important to understand if what people were doing with these tools was any different from what they would have done anyway.

"If Google Earth didn't exist, would they have used a tourist map they could have bought or was the real intelligence actually coming from an on-the-ground informant who was working in the hotel and drawing layouts of everything on a napkin?" he said.

"You have cars; you have car bombs. You have GPS transceivers that help you navigate; those GPS transceivers could be used for lots of nefarious purposes. Cell phones have all kinds of benefits; cell phones can be used to detonate a remote explosive device."

While this debate had "mostly died off" in the West, it was still a live issue in countries where the "government is used to controlling everything", Hanke said.

Often this concern was a pretext for a government trying to reassert control over its "closed information societies", he said.

"The idea that open information is valuable is more baked onto Western culture," he said.

"You have top down command and control types of governments like those in China to some extent and in Russia and legacies of that in places like India where these issues at the government level are more prevalent for us."

He also expressed the view that the concerns raised about personal privacy on the new Street View feature on Google Maps was largely tied to the novelty of the products and a lack of understanding about the nature and frequency of the intrusion. Street View is a free online feature that gives users a continuous ground-level street panorama.

"We went through a cycle with satellite imagery where it was new and there was some level of concern and then some level of hyped-up concern, I would say, about what it means," he said.

"And as people came to understand about what satellite imagery did and about what it didn't [do], that level of concern went down and, as people began to appreciate the value it brought to them, that became effectively a non-issue.

"If you know that this satellite can come over maybe once a year and it takes a picture, that's different from believing there's an eye in the skye that can follow wherever you go all of the time."

Google last year incorporated a process that automatically blurs faces of people and licence plates of cars whose photographs appear on Street View. Google will also remove "objectionable" images.

Those privacy concerns reared up again this week when it was revealed that the Street View feature on Google Maps contained an image of a man sitting on his outhouse dunny in an inner-city Melbourne backyard.

The photo was snapped by a camera mounted on the roof of one of a fleet of specially kitted-out cars that Google dispatched around the country in late 2007 and early 2008 to capture images for Street View.

Google swiftly removed the image from Street View once it was noticed, but on the internet it is almost impossible to obliterate all traces of something you don't want seen.

Google is facing opposition to its latest geo technology in Germany, where Street View has yet to be launched, and in Japan, where it was launched last year.

"With Street View, it's going through the same cycle of people understanding exactly what it is and what it isn't and ... what they shouldn't really be concerned about," he said.

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EU Plots Pirate Bay Ban and Piracy Clampdown

Written by Ernesto

In a few weeks time, members of the European Parliament will vote on the Medina report, which proposes a wide range of anti-piracy measures and regulations. The report specifically mentions The Pirate Bay, and it approves actions by national courts against the popular BitTorrent tracker.

The proposals in the report, drafted by the 73 year old Spanish socialist Manuel Medina Ortega, show many similarities to the wish lists of the RIAA, IFPI and MPAA we published earlier. The report calls for more responsibility and liability for ISPs, while copyright infringing content has to be filtered from the Internet.

Even though the European Parliament has voted against so called “three-strikes” proposals twice before, this is also suggested as a viable measure against piracy. It’s proposed that ISPs should disconnect subscribers who share copyrighted content, based on information provided by the entertainment industry.

In addition, national courts are encouraged to take action against BitTorrent sites such as The Pirate Bay. Apparently, the report deems BitTorrent sites to be illegal - which is a bold statement without any legal backup. Last year, Italy imposed a nation wide block on The Pirate Bay, but this was reversed in court due to a lack of jurisdiction; this might change if the new proposals are adopted.

In a draft of the report we read “The activities of websites that are part of the peer-to-peer phenomenon and which allow downloading of protected works or services without the necessary authorisation are illegal, and no exception can be applied to them. So the activity of internet users who send files to their peers must be regarded as an illegal act of communication to the public without the possibility of exceptions being applied.”

ISPs are further encouraged to identify and filter copyright infringing content on their networks. As we’ve said before, this might work on networks such as FastTrack/Kazaa, but it remains unclear what methods the ISP will have to implement to distinguish between copyright infringing and legal content on more tricky networks, such as BitTorrent. That will be a tough job, if not impossible. In common with RIAA recommendations, the report suggests that ISPs should be held liable for the actions of their customers.

More details are available on La Quadrature, with Jérémie Zimmermann, co-founder of the site commenting, “The Medina report is ridiculous and full of repressive measures. It is in total contradiction with what MEPs voted twice against ‘graduated response’ and with the realities of Internet. It only favors entertainment industries and doesn’t contain anything for culture, the artists, or their public.”

Of course, we encourage all of our European readers to write to their representatives in the European Parliament, as this is clearly not the right path to take.

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Think Before You Click: The Top Five Internet Scams

By: Young Money

Internet scams are by no means a recent phenomenon, but certain scams come back again and again. Here are five popular Internet scams that you should be on the lookout for.

1. Auction fraud. Sure I love cheap stuff on eBay as much as the next guy, but that ’73 Collectors Edition Elvis Plate you’re bidding on might not be that great of a deal. Fake and stolen merchandise aren’t uncommon; even a Certificate of Authenticity doesn’t necessarily mean anything. As eBay Scam Watch puts it, “If a seller is willing to misrepresent a fake item as real, then what is the big deal of throwing in an authentic looking certificate?” Another scam is the “shill” scam: A seller wanting to drive up the price on his auction may bid himself or have his friends bid, just to make you pay more. If you notice a repeat bidder on a seller’s auction history, something’s probably up. One more tip: Never wire money directly to a seller—it’s almost impossible to retrieve the money if your purchase isn’t shipped.

2. Bank fraud. “Phishing scams” are popular email scams. You’ll get an email from your bank warning you that someone has been trying to access your account. They’ll ask you to click on a link and verify your information, so the bank can take care of everything. No matter how legitimate the email looks, banks never email you asking for your information. The email is from a scammer hoping to empty your savings. The most recent scams play off government stimulus checks and EPPICards (for child support payments). Check the National Consumers League’s Internet Fraud Watch for tips to avoid such scams. Similar schemes play off mortgage and credit card debt elimination, with the scammer offering to get rid of your debt for a small fee ($1000-2000) and power of attorney authorizing transactions on your behalf. When this information (and payment) is entrusted to them, you’ll be left with nothing—except that mortgage or credit card bill they still haven’t taken care of.

3. You’ve won a FREE Xbox fraud. Pretty much any time you’re given something for nothing you should be wary. As charitable as Bill Gates is, Microsoft Corporation is a business and isn’t going to give away thousands of free Xbox’s. The email will read something like this: “Congratulations! You’ve won a FREE Xbox (or iPod, or TiVo, or some other fancy gadget)! All we need is your address and credit card information to pay the $5.99 shipping/handling!” Don’t trust it, or you’ll soon find your credit card maxed-out—and probably five or six more cards you never knew you had.

4. Charity fraud. Perhaps the most unfortunate scams in recent years have come in the wake of tragedies like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2004 tsunami. When such tragedies occur, scammers take advantage of the fact that many people who are willing to help don’t know where to donate their money. Never trust an email asking for charitable contributions before verifying the credibility of the organization. Never open attached images or files, as they may be viruses. And never provide them your personal information. If you want to help, you should preferably donate directly to big-name organizations like the Red Cross or Amnesty International, which always organize direct disaster relief funds.

5. Murder for hire fraud. One of the most twisted Internet scams it the so-called “hit man scam.” The victim is contacted and told that he/she is to be assassinated or a loved one will be kidnapped, unless the recipient wires several thousand dollars to the sender of the email. In another version the “hit man” claims to be a law enforcement official who has recently discovered the recipient’s information in a captured murderer’s pocket. The recipient is then asked to contact the “authorities” to help with the investigation. Even if you feel someone is really out to get you, if you ever receive one of these emails, contact the police—immediately.

The best way to keep your finances secure is to never give out any personal information unless you’re sure the site is reputable. If you think you’ve received a scam email, report it either to the Internet Crime Complaint Center, which also puts out yearly statistics on online fraud, or to the FBI’s Cyber Investigation Team.

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View * view my profile * view my articles * Facebook * Twitter * LinkedIn 30-Level YouTube Game Debuts

by Pete Cashmore

YouTube’s ability to embed links and annotations within videos is leading new forms of interactivity.

Take, for instance, a new 30-level “Spot the Difference” game based on the Oscars (start playing by watching the video above). By highlighting areas of the frame and linking those to different videos, YouTube user “copyrighthater” has put YouTube to a use that might never have been anticipated. The question: will these “YouTube games” ever be more than passing fads?

Facebook Founders Settle Their Feud

By Owen Thomas

After years of freezing out cofounder Eduardo Saverin over a dispute about money, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has deigned to recognize his former Harvard buddy. Why now? Perhaps to derail a forthcoming Facebook tell-all?

The evidence that the two have ended their feud, which began when they were both students at Harvard and Facebook was just getting off the ground: Saverin is now listed as a company founder on Facebook's website.

There's an excellent reason for Zuckerberg to make nice with Saverin, though: Ben Mezrich, author of Bringing Down the House, is writing an account of the founding of Facebook which relies heavily on Saverin as a source. Aaron Sorkin, the West Wing creator, is already planning to adapt the book, which doesn't have a publication date yet, into a movie.

If Saverin has made up with Zuckerberg, he may not be as willing to cooperate with Mezrich. One hopes the author got his interviews done before Saverin's name went back up on Facebook. A book proposal leaked to Gawker last year has some factual errors — Zuckerberg and Saverin dined on the yacht of then-Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy, who says he has never owned a boat. But even if it gets close to the truth of Facebook's origins, it will be embarrassing, since it claims that Zuckerberg and Saverin set up the website to meet girls. The feud between the founders was central to the plot.

It has been almost five years since Zuckerberg has acknowledged Saverin as having anything to do with the company, which Saverin incorporated and managed for Zuckerberg from their college dorm. According to Rolling Stone, Zuckerberg reincorporated the company and squeezed Saverin out after he accused Zuckerberg of spending company money on personal expenses:

In July, Zuckerberg and Saverin had a mysterious falling out. Zuckerberg has filed a lawsuit, claiming Saverin jeopardized the company by freezing Facebook's bank accounts. Saverin countersued, claiming that Zuckerberg never matched his $20,000 in seed money and, further, used that money for personal expenses. That summer, Zuckerberg transferred all intellectual-property rights and membership interests to a new version of the company in Delaware.

Saverin reportedly told Cameron Winklevoss, another student embroiled in a legal dispute with Zuckerberg, that Zuckerberg had "screwed him, too." Zuckerberg moved the company to Palo Alto, Calif., and raised hundreds of millions of dollars, making the company worth a notional $15 billion on paper. Saverin saw none of that.

With hard feelings seemingly over (possibly smoothed over by some cash or stock), Facebook flack Brandee Barker explains Saverin's official co-founder status this way:

We made the change recently to make sure Eduardo gets the credit and visibility he deserves for his contribution to Facebook.

That's quite a change from Facebook's official stance in 2007, when Barker herself denied on the record that Saverin cofounded Facebook, even though he was listed in the company's documents of incorporation.

Since the lawsuit centers around who did what for Facebook when, it seems absurd to think that Zuckerberg would publicly acknowledge Saverin with a lawsuit hanging over his head. Barker repeatedly refused to answer any questions about the status of the lawsuit. Saverin and his lawyers did not return inquiries. Now, with an ending that seems to have zipped Saverin's lips, will Sorkin and Mezrich have any story to tell?

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Why the IFPI/Eircom Anti-Piracy Deal Sucks

Written by enigmax

This week, Irish ISP Eircom and the music industry avoided an expensive legal battle, and settled out of court with a deal to disconnect alleged pirates. Eircom didn’t want to start using filtering technology to thwart pirates, so it made a deal with the labels instead - and it sucks.

Eircom, after initially holding out and maintaining its position so strongly, has now capitulated to the wishes of the music industry. It has settled with a group which runs 90% of Ireland’s music market, putting their wishes above the requirements of its own customer base, who of course, they didn’t consult about the move.

Thanks to Eircom entering into this entirely voluntary agreement, there is no need for them or the music industry to worry about any official intervention into the methods used for accusing and disconnecting subscribers. The music industry simply accuses alleged copyright infringers (via DtecNet, the RIAA and BPI anti-piracy partner), and the ISP simply disconnects them on an agreed Terms of Service violation.

A worrisome development, to say the least. The agreement bypasses the need for any legal ruling on the issue of a government-applied ‘3 strikes regime’. So, although the government may decide against this type of action for the general public, Eircom just put it firmly on the table, completely voluntarily, for all of its subscribers.

There will be no need to take alleged copyright infringers to court. The music industry knows from the US model that doesn’t work anyway, because it involves all that messy ‘defense’ stuff that people who are wrongly accused usually have the right to. Rather than face the hell of a trial (which at least they have a chance of winning), customers will be presumed guilty rather than presumed innocent. The will be no due process on the way to the punishment disconnection.

There will likely be no easy legal challenge to a user’s disconnection. Eircom will simply change its Terms of Service to include new tougher clauses which allow them to terminate the service if the connection is ‘abused’, although arguably the old TOS allows for this already. The warnings it will hand to its customers leading up to this point will be considered enough notice, as per the new TOS.

Anyone who shares an Internet connection with friends or family, or any business that has file-sharing staff (or wireless piggy-backers etc) will mean that the entire line goes down if anyone infringes, even a child. In disconnections of this type it will mean that the bill payer is being made responsible for something which happens on his connection without his knowledge.

As a carrier, ISPs are not responsible for the activities of their subscribers. The music industry disagrees. Eircom were set to challenge this in court - but with this new agreement that opportunity has been lost. The Big Four labels also insisted that anti-piracy filtering technology could be installed at Eircom, and argued that it would work. The chance to dispel this myth has been lost too.

Perhaps even worse, this might just be the beginning. The IFPI will use the Eircom agreement to force other, smaller ISPs in Ireland to reach the same agreement with them. If they succeed, IFPI will have achieved a “3 strikes” regime in a country without need for the messy business of the government getting involved with regulation, which it would otherwise be reluctant to do.

In no way does this agreement stop the music industry from getting someone disconnected AND taking a civil legal action against them.

This agreement will do nothing to change the habits of those who wish to share files. It will, however, encourage people to find a way around the measures introduced by IFPI and Eircom so the never-ending cat and mouse game continues.

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Report: Justice Department sends hoax e-mail to test workers

Posted by Elinor Mills

A U.S. Department of Justice e-mail that phished for sensitive information from federal workers was a hoax that the agency sent out to test its own security awareness, according to a report.

The e-mail, sent two weeks ago to Justice Department employees, directed recipients to a Web site that prompted them to supply account information related to the federal retirement savings program, the Associated Press reported.

"We have learned that the messages are part of a hoax invented and distributed by DOJ to test employee security awareness," Ted Shelkey, assistant director for information systems security, wrote in an e-mail to the AP on Wednesday.

Justice Department spokeswoman Gina Talamona confirmed that the e-mail was a security test.

"Scenarios are intended to represent an example of persistent cyberthreats facing today's Internet users," she told the news service. Talamona did not immediately return a call seeking comment on Friday and Shelkey could not be reached.

Updated 4:25 p.m. PST: After this story was published, the DOJ's Gina Talamona called CNET News and said the test was conducted from January 25 to January 27. "We conduct periodic exercises to test the security posture of our information a tool to train and educate employees." The DOJ has been doing it for about three years, she added.

Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service, and the Associated Press. E-mail Elinor.

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Dissecting Apple's "Multitouch" Patent: Can It Stop Palm?

By John Mahoney

The iPhone’s multitouch patents are the equivalent of a cold war nuclear arsenal—dormant for now, but Palm’s Pre is looking for a fight. Here’s why we think Apple’s multitouch monopoly won’t last.

To help guide us through, machete in hand, what is one of the more confusing jungles of U.S. law, we talked to R. Polk Wagner, a professor of patents law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He specializes in patents and intellectual property as it relates to technology, and teaches hundreds of Penn Law students every year how to decipher the Enigma-level encrypted language of patent filings. We couldn't have done it without him.

As others have thoroughly and eloquently explained this week, it's impossible to identify a single patent that has a lock on the iPhone's multitouch magic as we know it. That patent probably does not exist. But here's the key—patent wars are intrinsically cold wars. They entail both sides jacking up their arsenals (reams of legalese replacing megaton warheads) with as many patents as possible, with hopes of scaring their adversaries out of even attempting to try something. These cold wars, thankfully, rarely turn hot, but under our legal system, lack of courtroom action means there's almost no way to determine whose armada of patents actually cover what.

The meat of every patent is a list of claims, and it is the claims and only the claims that spell out exactly what can get you sued and what can't. Unfortunately for us, but very fortunately for the thousands of patent lawyers hoping to feed their families, claims are written in a language not comprehensible to normal humans. The goal is to be both incredibly vague and legally specific at the same time

"Patent claims are an attempt to use words to describe things and ideas, an imperfect way of operating. In an ideal world we'd have patent claims that look like a title record you get for your house [your property starts exactly 200 feet from this road walking in exactly this direction, etc]. But it is incredibly difficult to predict exactly what a patent will or won't cover," Prof. Wagner says.

But the old patent-law adage Prof. Wagner likes to use in class is true—"the claims are the name of the game"—and it is their vagueness in this instance that would make it easy for Palm, if their lawyers and engineers know how to talk to each other, to design itself out of a hole and bring true multitouch to the Pre.

The patent we're referring to is #7,479,949, awarded on January 20 of this year. It has a list of 20 claims but as Prof. Wagner showed us, out of the 20, 17 are "dependent," which means they drill down more specifically into features of the invention/interface/device described in their parent claim. In our quick Patent Law 101 with Professor Wagner, we learned that to legally infringe upon a patent, you need to violate an entire independent claim, which means, if you rip off one of its dependents, you're OK, you just can't rip off all of them all together.

As Engadget's legal eagle, Nilay Patel, sagely identified in his piece, considerable chunks of this patent deal with not multitouch as a whole, but one very specific use case: the iPhone's ability to lock itself into a one-dimensional scroll (vertical or horizontal) on, say, a webpage. It's based upon the first movement of your finger: move it straight up and down, and you'll only be able to scroll vertically. But just as it's hard enough to divine exactly what's going on in patents to begin with, Professor Wagner—a man with considerably more experience than I do at doing doing exactly that—says it's tough to assume that an entire patent can be distilled down to a single behavior. Here's the legalese for the scrolling behavior in claim #1, which is an independent claim with 9 sub-claims:

...A vertical screen scrolling heuristic for determining that the one or more finger contacts correspond to a one-dimensional vertical screen scrolling command rather than a two-dimensional screen translation command based on an angle of initial movement of a finger contact with respect to the touch screen display

But there's more to it. Claim # 1 is a pretty beefy paragraph, with three more important specific behaviors listed within, each of which must be ripped off to infringe on that claim. The first one sounds like the ability to know the difference between a one-dimensional scroll and a two-dimensional scroll, which unlocks both vertical and horizontal scrolling:

...A two-dimensional screen translation heuristic for determining that the one or more finger contacts correspond to the two-dimensional screen translation command rather than the one-dimensional vertical screen scrolling command based on the angle of initial movement of the finger contact with respect to the touch screen display

And the third and most interesting one, which tacks on the seemingly unrelated behavior of side-scrolling through a list of things, like Cover Flow albums:

...And a next item heuristic for determining that the one or more finger contacts correspond to a command to transition from displaying a respective item in a set of items to displaying a next item in the set of items.

What's interesting is that the only other phones on the market technically capable of multitouch—RIM's BlackBerry Storm and T-Mobile's Google Android G1—have web browsers that scroll in exactly the same manner described in the patent. But, if they don't also feature a Cover Flow-like interface for side scrolling (the G1's photo gallery uses next/prev buttons, for instance), they're legally safe from infringing on this particular claim. Even more interesting is that the Storm's photo gallery app does indeed use a Coverflow-like swipe to navigate through photos, so from where we're sitting, they could be in trouble. But as you can see, it gets that specific.

So, patent mumbo-jumbo aside, here are the keys:

1. What Apple can and most certainly is doing is patenting all of the special ways it makes multitouch magical—like the Cover Flow scrolling lists, or using two fingers to rotate an image by pivoting one around the other (which doesn't appear to be singled out in the patent in question here). Still, it's hard to assume that Apple has a patent lock on the concept of multitouch as a whole—multitouch has been around in theory for too long and it's probably too general of an idea for Apple to claim an absolute lock. Exhibit A here is Microsoft's Surface table, which is currently on sale and has plenty of iPhone-like multitouch zoom and scrolling features built right in. But Apple may just be steering clear of Microsoft, the one behemoth that can match Apple's legal might.

2. Regardless of legal defensibility, Apple's multitouch cold war is working against everyone but Microsoft. Google didn't even tempt the Cupertino warheads (I mean lawyers) with multitouch on Android, and HP gets visibly nervous even when we simply ask whether their TouchSmart PCs will support multitouch some day. Keep in mind, though, that unofficial multitouch applications exist for both Android and HP's TouchSmarts.

As Prof. Wagner points out, Apple is great at protecting their innovations. Look at the click wheel—it's without a doubt the most elegant way to navigate an MP3 player's interface, and no one has been able to mimic it exactly. Others have clickable buttons, and touch-sensitive controllers, some of which are shaped like wheels, but Apple has been able to protect the specifics of the clickwheel—all of these elements combined—that make it special.

3. Palm, however, could be the perfect North Korea in our little war metaphor—crazed enough by desperation to be the first to just go for it. Also, they've been making phone software far longer than Apple, and insinuate that they have some patent warheads of their own to train on Cupertino.

4. The truth of the matter remains, that Individual patents (and, even more so, individual claims inside of individual patents) are easy to design around if you're careful (and have good patent lawyers working with your engineers), since all it takes is one deviation from one of a patent's claims specifics to put you in the clear. But this recent filing, clearly, is not Apple's only multitouch-related patent. Many more exist, and many more are surely pending. That's where Palm's patent lawyers come in. As long as Palm (or anyone else) can walk the tightrope with Petit-worthy grace, implementing multitouch features without infringing on the exact specifics of any one Apple patent claim, they'll be OK.

But beyond that, Palm may actually use the chance to take multitouch to places we've never seen before. "Designing around patents requires innovation," said Prof. Wagner, "and a lot of times, the end result turns out better than the what was being imitated." All of this, of course, is completely up in the air for Palm. We were reminded many times that what we saw at CES was far from a production model, and a lot could change about the specifics of the Pre's multitouch when the finished product makes itself known.

From the looks of things, Apple is the Gipper, the Ronald Reagan of tech. When they don't fight, they often find a way to win (or look like they have won). And when they do fight, it takes an equally massive superpower to give them any competition.

We're rooting for Palm though, and Google and RIM too. More multitouch cellphones = more competition = happier consumers. Détente, people, détente!

Original here