Judge lets Google file brief in Vista search antitrust battle

Google has gotten an official nod to file a brief critical of Microsoft's compliance with the antitrust decree prescribed by the US government, as the search giant does not feel that Microsoft has done enough to allow third-party desktop searches to function in the same way as the integrated search in Windows Vista. US District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly gave Google the go-ahead in an order this week, despite the fact that she feels that Google's complaint has already been appropriately addressed. HangZhou Night Net

Late last week the DoJ reviewed a Windows Vista machine with beta changes meant to address concerns raised by Google. The DoJ said last week that Microsoft's compliance on the matter was satisfactory, but we believe that this battle will continue because Google does not believe Microsoft is acting fairly.

Google has been quietly fighting Vista's desktop search for months now. It started in June when the company alleged that Vista's own indexing service could not be properly disabled and that it caused system performance problems when customers used competing desktop search products, such as Google Desktop Search. Google argued that the behavior was anticompetitive because it discouraged customers from installing anything else.

Microsoft responded by promising some changes to Vista that would allow end users to select a default program to perform desktop searches, while Vista's own search results would continue to be displayed in some contexts. It also said that it would not change how the system indexed files. Much to the chagrin of Google, the DoJ accepted Microsoft's proposal.

Google was naturally irked by this and responded by saying that Microsoft's changes were not enough. Google's chief legal officer said that the changes violated the 2002 consent decree between the Department of Justice and Microsoft and limited consumer choice. In late June, Google moved to have the decree extended, because it felt that Microsoft needed to do more before the judgment expired in November. At that time, Judge Kollar-Kotelly told Google to take its complaints directly to the DoJ instead, because she did not believe Google had proper standing with their complaint.

With the DoJ and 17 states' attorneys siding with Microsoft on the matter, Google doesn't seem to have much hope of pressing the issue in terms of Microsoft's compliance with the consent decree. While Judge Kollar-Kotelly's decision is largely procedural, it is another cog in the wheel of a dispute that will likely extend beyond the November expiration of complete DoJ oversight. Google has indicated in the past that it won't give up the fight until it has run out of angles to pursue.

Apple wants to slash TV show prices in half, aggresively drive iPod sales

Last week, Apple and NBC-Universal's relationship ended in a messy split. The usual he-said, she-said followed: Apple accused NBC of wanting to double prices on some TV shows; NBC said no, they just wanted to have some flexibility in pricing. There may have been another factor at work, however: Apple's desire to cut prices drastically on TV shows. HangZhou Night Net

Sources close to the discussions between Apple and the networks told Variety that Apple wants to chop per-show prices in half from $1.99 to 99¢ each—the same price Apple charges for DRMed music. Unsurprisingly, Apple is meeting with a lot of resistance from the studios on the idea.

The iPod maker's argument is simple: lower the prices on TV shows, and you'll more than make up the difference in increased volumes. Left unsaid is how Apple believes 99¢ TV shows would help sales of iPods. With video content priced the same as music, Apple could use the cheap episodes to market the iPod as a way to stay on top of one's favorite shows, and inexpensively at that. Nate could finally catch up on That's So Raven for less than a price of the DVD.

DVD pricing is a big red flag for the studios, however. Take 30 Rock for example. The MSRP for the DVD set of the first season is $49.99, but you can find it for as little as $32.00. Under Apple's proposed pricing plan, fans of the show could grab the first season's 21 episodes for $20.79 (it costs $41.79 at $1.99 per episode). DVD extras—along with the ability to play the discs on the device of your choosing—might be enough to convince some fans to pay extra for the DVD, but others will likely opt to go for the cheaper download option. With DVD sales still a major source of revenue for the studios, fears of cannibalization will be lurking in the background of any discussions over price reductions.

NBC has pointed out that lowered prices for content work primarily to Apple's benefit. "It is clear that Apple's retail pricing strategy for its iTunes service is designed to drive sales of Apple devices, at the expense of those who create the content that make these devices worth buying," said NBC Universal executive VP Cory Shields.

NBC has taken its ball and gone to Amazon, where its programming will be available, albeit with more stringent DRM and in a format incompatible with both the iPod and Mac OS X. NBC will get its much-desired variable pricing, though.

Apple's vision for cheaper content on iTunes is going to be a tough sell to the networks. Disney and its family of networks (e.g., ABC, ESPN) may prove especially amenable to Apple's proposals given that Apple CEO Steve Jobs has a seat on the board and Disney was the first studio to hop aboard the movie train at the iTunes Store. Should Disney go along, the presence of 99¢ episodes of Desperate Housewives alongside $1.99 episodes of CSI: Miami might be enough to spur some of the other networks to go along… or leave iTunes behind.

Apple applies for patent on content popularity tracking

When you hear the words "Apple" and "patent," you usually think of some sexy, groundbreaking piece of technology that the patent is giving us a glimpse of. Unfortunately, all patents can't be that exciting, even if they are coming from Apple, although this one is somewhat interesting to those of us who are data nerds. A recently published patent application covering a way to compute the popularity of web content (particularly podcasts) offers us a peek at what Apple employees are working on. HangZhou Night Net

One thing they (or more accurately, their patent lawyers) are not working on is their art skills, as evidenced by the (hand-drawn, with a crayon) patent drawings. Fortunately, a bit more time has gone into the application itself. It outlines a method for tracking the popularity of "serial content" without using the number of purchases or downloads as a metric. Why does that matter? Well if you've got something like a podcast that's made up of multiple parts, going by the number of downloads may not do much for you.

The improved method proposed in the application involves using subscriptions to keep a better tally of the popularity. The change in the number of subscriptions could then be looked at to give an idea of how the popularity of a series of content is changing. To add a further twist, rankings can be based on "decayed subscriptions," where subscriptions are given less weights as they get older, until they reach a certain point and are no longer counted

It seems like a bit of a trivial idea to me, but I'm not a patent lawyer, so make of it what you will. In terms of usefulness, this rating system is clearly aimed at things like the Podcast Directory on iTunes. I don't know how much of this (if any) is currently being used to rank podcasts, but rankings for content are a big deal (just look at Netflix), so Apple could have a few tricks up their sleeve that require a system like this.

Man busted for using P2P to steal “identities” of dozens of file-sharers

Add one more reason to the list to tread carefully while using file sharing services—not only could you contract a virus or end up writing a four-figure check to the RIAA, you could also have your identity stolen. A Seattle man was arrested this week for doing just that, using popular P2P programs LimeWire and Soulseek to search for personal documents on other users' computers that were running the same software. HangZhou Night Net

Authorities say that the man, Gregory Thomas Kopiloff, bought over $73,000 worth of goods online using the information from at least 83 individuals between March 2005 and August 2007. He had the items shipped to various addresses, which, according to a copy of the indictment seen by Ars Technica, authorities say was meant to conceal his activities. Many of the things he purchased were electronics, such as an 80GB iPod, Shure headphones, and a Lacie 2TB hard drive, which he then resold online.

Kopiloff was able to purchase these items by digging up information from bank, tax, and student loan documents from unsuspecting LimeWire and Soulseek users' computers. He then used that information to access people's personal bank accounts, and in some cases, open up credit cards in their names. These users had unwittingly instructed the applications to share all documents on their computers, not just movie and music files. However, the indictment also specifies that Kopiloff installed the P2P software with such permissions onto "computers in his possession" so that his scheme could be perpetuated, leading us to believe that he may have worked as a computer repair tech of some sort before his arrest.

Kopiloff's scheme wasn't entirely P2P-based, though. The indictment acknowledges that some part of the personal information he obtained came from good, old-fashioned dumpster diving—that is, digging through trash to find paper documents that people have simply thrown away. The indictment doesn't say exactly what percentage of the documents were obtained through this manner, however.

The US Department of Justice says that this is the first case against someone accused of file sharing in order to commit identity theft,according to the Associated Press. Kopiloff is now being charged with two counts of aggravated identity theft, one count of mail fraud, and one count of illegally accessing a personal computer.

Patent Reform Act close to vote, Google and others weigh in on changes

Update: The House voted 220-175 to approve the Patent Reform Act today.The Senate should vote on its version quite soon. HangZhou Night Net

The Patent Reform Act looks on schedule for a vote in both the House and the Senate within the next couple of weeks, and companies are lining up to make their opinions heard. Google, for example, spelled out its position on Tuesday: it supports the legislation as a way to "defend against frivolous patent claims from parties gaming the system to forestall competition or reap windfall profits."

The problems are clear enough: patent infringement lawsuits have tripled in the last decade, patent applications are increasing faster than the number of patent examiners available to handle them, and the triple damages that can come with "willful" infringement scare many companies away from even examining the patents filed by competitors. Stir in the problem of "venue shopping" (*cough* Eastern District of Texas *cough*) and you have a recipe for some really bad patent borscht.

The Patent Reform Act has been in the works for years, and the bill is intended to fix many of these problems with the current system, which has not been substantially updated in almost 50 years. Over the last few months, the legislation has been substantially amended to address concerns from stakeholders and other members of Congress, and it now appears to be close to its final form. With votes expected soon, let's take a look at the major changes to the Act since introduction.

First-to-file

The Act will still switch the US from its current first-to-invent system to a first-to-file system like that used in the rest of the world. New in the bill now is a provision that will prevent this switch from taking place until Europe and Japan adopt a one-year grace period intended to prevent academics, small companies, and individual researchers from losing out on their inventions by being beaten to file by a large corporation.

Publication of all patents

"Submarine patents" could surface in the US long after they were first filed so long as inventors only applied for domestic patents. The Patent Reform Act will change this so that all patents will now need to be published, most within 18 months of first filing. An expected amendment could provide a bit more time for some filers to keep their work hidden from view, but the law should go a long way toward depth-charging submarine patents.

Damages

This was one area that concerned Google greatly. Under the current system, winners in some patent infringement suits could collect damages based on the entire value of the infringing invention, no matter how small a part the patent in question played. As Google puts it, "a windshield wiper found to infringe a patent should not spur a damage award based on the value of the entire car." The Patent Reform Act will allow judges to assign damages based on an "apportionment." Patent holders could collect damages only on the partial value of the infringing product.

Post-grant review

It used to be that there were two main ways to challenge a patent: litigation or a USPTO reexamination. Both were time-consuming and costly. The new bill provides for "post-grant review" during which companies can file petitions and present evidence in order to have newly-granted patents struck down. Such petitions must be filed within one year of the patent issue date (a "second window" for doing this has been eliminated from the Act).

Tax planning patents

Believe it or not, some tax preparers are currently trying to claim business methods patents on their proprietary strategies for reducing a client's tax bill. The Act would eliminate all such patents.

Venue shopping

Venue shopping would be curtailed under the Act by requiring most cases to be brought in the district where the plaintiff "resides" (or where a business is headquartered). This should help curtail the "Texas flood" of patent cases that have flowed into places like… well, Texas. Currently, patent holders can bring a suit against a company like Amazon or Google in any district where that company does business. For Internet companies, this can be any district in the US, and plaintiffs routinely seek out the most patent-friendly districts in which to file their cases.

We should know within a few weeks if these changes will find their way into US patent law, or whether the bill will be reworked once again to address concerns from patent-holding companies that the bill will lower the value of their IP.

Boon-docks may get digital cable, high-speed Internet via WiMAX

Pace Micro Technologies, a developer of digital TV technologies, announced today that it has developed a solution which provides cable TV, internet, and phone service to people who might not otherwise be in range. Once content is delivered to the home, 802.11n technology will distribute it throughout the whole house. HangZhou Night Net

Pace's solution is based on WiMAX, which is part of the IEEE 802.16 standard. WiMAX is the solution of choice for a number of reasons. First, it has range. The WiMAX Forum claims that it can carry acceptable throughput up to 30 miles, but admits that realistically, "service ranges up to 10 miles are very likely in line of sight applications," and that ranges beyond ten miles are possible but not "desirable for heavily loaded networks." Second, WiMAX has the throughput that would be required in order to deliver cable, phone, and high-speed internet; WiMAX is expected to deliver about 75Mbps of throughput per channel, although the rate drops as range increases.

Pace worked with Metalink, a wireless and broadband silicon solutions provider, on its 802.11n technology. In order to receive content, each home will be equipped with a server unit, which then connects wirelessly to a WiMAX base station by using Pace's Connections Suite Software. Once customers are connected to the station, they can spread the signal throughout their home using Metalink's WLANPlus, an 802.11n compliant technology that claims to provide "a reliable foundation for the provision of wireless triple-play and entertainment networks with multiple simultaneous HD video streams and extended coverage." I imagine this "technology" is simply an 802.11n router with some form of password protection so that your neighbor doesn't leech your video feed.

Of course, many would argue that the throughput rate of 802.11n or WiMAX is not nearly enough to deliver a full uncompressed 1080p video stream, so the company's dreams may be a bit far-fetched. Pace also isn't the first to consider WiMAX as a solution; Clearwire announced in June that it was planning to do the same thing. Still, Pace's plan should certainly help people out in the country that currently have no way of getting high-speed internet.

Get your Grooveshark on: new P2P service will give users a cut of the sales

A new peer-to-peer music service developed by a "team of enterprising college students" has a novel twist on the music sales business: give users a cut of the sales. Grooveshark is currently in beta and claims to have signed a number of independent labels up for its service. All the sales traffic will go over a P2P network, and users will be "rewarded" for sharing their music. HangZhou Night Net

P2P-based music stores are nothing new. Indeed, a number of P2P networks have tried to go legit after running afoul of the RIAA, none with any notable success. The most recent example is LimeWire, which recently announced plans to begin selling MP3s encoded at 256Kbps. LimeWire has managed to sign on a couple of notable distributors, including Nettwerk Productions, home to Avril Lavigne, Sara McLachlan, and the Barenaked Ladies, among other acts.

There are a couple of significant differences between LimeWire and Grooveshark's business models, however. First, LimeWire will start out as a direct-download site, with the P2P component coming later. Also, Grooveshark's virtual tip jar feature appears to be unique among the P2P music stores.

Grooveshark is banking on users being attracted to the idea of getting a cut of the action when someone downloads a track from their PC. At 99¢ per non-DRMed MP3, the user's cut isn't going to be much more than a few cents after the artist, label, and Grooveshark take their share, but it may be enough to convince some music fans to sign up for the service and share some of their bandwidth.

It's a novel concept, but it may have a difficult time gaining traction. Those looking to scratch the indie music itch have many other options, including the very popular eMusic, which has a large selection of DRM-free MP3 files available, as well as the upcoming Amazon DRM-free music store. The loosening of DRM restrictions from the likes of EMI and Universal gives consumers who are looking for music that will play on the devices of their choosing without restrictions new alternatives. It also makes life for upstarts like Grooveshark that much harder.

AMD sees price leaks, public support from Dell in run up to Barcelona

This week has brought a whole raft of AMD stories with all sorts of headlines swirling about the company in the run-up to next week's make-or-break Barcelona announcement. Here's a brief look at the very latest in AMD news before the big day on Monday. HangZhou Night Net

Dell sticks by AMD

In a speech at the 14th Annual Citigroup Technology Conference, Dell CEO Michael Dell insisted that his company would continue offering AMD processors. Dell cited the need for diversity in processor suppliers, as well as the complementary strengths of Intel's quad-core "Clovertown" Xeons and AMD's quad-core Barcelona. Dell, who could be citing either real in-house benchmarks or someone's marketing materials, claimed that Barcelona has a 30 percent lead in floating-point performance over Clovertown, while Clovertown has a 30 percent lead in integer.

These are all good reasons to stick by AMD, but there's another factor behind Dell's newfound love of Intel's archrival that you won't be hearing about from company executives. Namely, the fact that Dell no longer gets the steep discounts and advertising subsidies that it allegedly once received from Intel when it was an Intel-only company. In the post-Conroe world, Intel has cut prices across the board for its processor lineup. So whatever discount Dell may still get, it's not worth losing any potential business over.

AMD serves up Barcelona prices

Someone in the channel squealed, and now DailyTech has its hands on the launch prices and clockspeeds for Barcelona. In line with previous announcements, Barcelona's launch speeds top out at a piddling 2.0GHz across the board, in both two- and four-socket variants. On the two-socket side, there's the 2.0GHz (95W TDP) Opteron 2350, a processor that sells for $372 (presumably in lots of 1,000). There's also a 1.9GHz 68W part for the same price, as well as a 1.7GHz (68W TDP) for $206.

The four-socket Opteron 8000 series is significantly pricier, with the top-end 2.0GHz model going for $1,004, and the bottom-end 1.8GHz model going for $688.

AMD officially pries open ATI driver code

First on the list of AMD headlines is the major announcement that the chipmaker has finally reversed ATI's long-standing and much-hated stance toward Linux support. AMD announced on Wednesday that they would at long last provide Linux support for the HD 2000 series of GPUs by bringing the Catalyst 7.9 drivers to Linux. The company also had previously promised to support the development of an open-source driver by releasing specifications and the source code for a basic driver, a promise that it delivered on today with a formal announcement.

Today's official open-source announcement states that next week, following the Barcelona launch, AMD will not only provide the tools and information necessary to develop open-source drivers for the HD 2000 series, but the Radeon X1000 series will be supported as well. AMD also got Novell's SuSE engineers to contribute to the initial release, which the open-source community can then build upon.

As ZDNET points out, the HD 2000 series' DRM-enabling features, like the High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) protocol and others that I described in my launch coverage, won't be exposed to the open-source community. This means that support for these features will come only after a hefty bout of reverse-engineering and hacking—something that ATI users on Linux are used to anyway.

AMD miscellany: 32nm production; dissed by marketing types; a new gaming site

Theo at The Inquirer reports that AMD and Qimonda have talked the German Ministry of Research and Education into footing the US$12 million bill for some next-generation process research. The idea is for AMD's and Qimonda's engineers to work together with young German engineers in order to look at ways to simulate chips at 32nm and smaller process nodes.

Speaking of the Europeans and AMD, Frenchman and former AMD marketing exec Henri Richard has announced that after leaving AMD he's headed all the way across the street to Freescale. He can do the same thing at a different Texas semiconductor company, and he won't even have to buy a new chateau.

Also leaving AMD's marketing department prior to Barcelona's launch is VP of worldwide sales, Richard Hegberg.

I hope the seeming exodus of marketing VPs at AMD in the run-up to Barcelona isn't indicative of serious problems at the company, but I'm not going to worry about it unless a third one goes. Like they say in the military: once is bad luck, twice is coincidence, and three times is enemy action.

Last on the list of AMD news bits is the company's new gaming site, which is aimed at selling you AMD hardware. They even have a handy system upgrade tool that tells you that you need to buy new AMD products to play X or Y game, along with various community features like clan sites, forums, etc.

My favorite feature of the gaming site has to be the gray tabbed browsing box on the right, which has little white icons that you can click to move to a new tab. Where have I seen this before….?

Schizophrenia may be a side effect of complex brains

A naive view of schizophrenia might leave someone wondering why it persists in human populations. The disease has a strong genetic component, and it strikes individuals during their peak reproductive years, radically reducing their ability to function socially. Selective pressures would be expected to have reduced its incidence, yet it persists at a prevalence of nearly one percent in a broad range of societies. A new analysis in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B suggests that the disease may simply be a consequence of genetic features that are useful in building and maintaining a complex brain. HangZhou Night Net

The clearest models for this sort of behavior are the mutations that affect the hemoglobin genes, such as the one that causes sickle cell disease. In these cases, mutations that can be debilitating persist because they provide a strong selective advantage—resistance to malaria. The researchers set out to find out whether some of the genes implicated in schizophrenia were also under positive selection by looking for evidence of both selective sweeps and positive selective pressure on protein sequences. The authors looked at a panel of 76 genes that have been linked to schizophrenia; a set of 300 neural genes acted as controls. They also looked broadly at primate evolution, comparing values across the human/chimp split, those two vs. other primates, and among primates in general.

Fourteen of those genes showed signs of having undergone a recent selective sweep; this was about double the rate of the control set of neural genes; a few others showed signs of more ancient sweeps that occurred prior to humans forming a distinct lineage. One gene, DISC1, also showed powerful evidence of positive selection at the protein level. Just this week, evidence was published that suggests that this gene helps new neurons integrate into the mature brain, something that might help make sense out of the adult onset of the symptoms.

Assuming these figures hold up as more information comes in, the lingering question is what positive things these genes are doing in healthy populations. The authors explicitly suggest that the schizophrenic mind is at the extreme end of a spectrum of increased creative thought; that schizophrenics are simply thinking too far outside the box. I don't find this entirely convincing, especially given the sickle cell model, where the feature under positive selection has nearly nothing to do with the actual disease state. I expect that each gene will have its own evolutionary story, with no general theme. Still, the data look good, and the general model makes a reasonable suggestion as to why the human population is burdened with a high rate of schizophrenia.

Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 2007. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2007.0876

ISO reforms proposed in response to OOXML shenanigans

Late last month, evidence emerged indicating that Microsoft has used financial incentives to influence the outcome of Office Open XML (OOXML) fast-track approval in various national standards bodies. Although ISO ended up voting against fast-track approval for OOXML, the company's efforts have created doubts about the reliability of the standards process. In response to these revelations, Freecode CEO Geir Isene has proposed several ISO reforms and calls for an "investigation" to determine if OOXML "was unduly put on the ISO fast track." HangZhou Night Net

Isene argues that Microsoft's ability to influence the standards process at the national level reflects fundamental problems in the standards process itself. In a blog entry, Isene outlines some of the problems that have emerged in countries where Microsoft allegedly manipulated standards approval bodies, including Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Portugal, and Malaysia. "Even if this is the tip of an iceberg," writes Isene, "the examples should warrant a thorough examination of the national processes."

Isene's first suggested reform is establishing a clear process for national standards bodies. "The fact that ISO enforces no standard for national bodies opens the standardization process for manipulation or corruption," Isene argues. "I strongly urge ISO to adopt a strict policy for its members detailing the rules for how a national body shall determine its vote in ISO and that it enforces such policy vigorously." The JTC1 procedural directives already provide some guidance on the matter, but individual national standards bodies are given much latitude in choosing how they determine their vote.

The problem with mandating a consistent process for all ISO member countries is that countries have very different governmental structures and different industry dynamics. Allowing the national standards bodies to choose their own processes for determining their vote is probably necessary because no single process will work for all countries.

Isene also calls for reevaluating "the one country one vote principle." He implies that the vote of large countries—like China—should potentially carry more weight than the vote of small countries like Trinidad and Tobago, Columbia, and other latecomers.

Finally, Isene suggests that ISO "would greatly benefit from adopting the IETF requirement of two independent reference implementations for passing a standard." Obviously, this isn't applicable to all ISO standards (there are ISO standards for paper sizes, for instance), but it does make sense for technical formats and programming languages. Indeed, having support for a particular format in products created by two separate vendors before the format reaches the standards process would answer a lot of questions about the viability of the format as a standard. The question, however, is how complete the implementations would need to be before they count.

"The strength, integrity and scalability of ISO have been tested," writes Isene. "The organization's agility and adaptability will now be measured." Indeed, the ISO fast-track approval process for OOXML has revealed some weaknesses in the standardization process and illuminates the need for potential reform. The viability of Isene's reforms are debatable, but national standards bodies certainly need to make an effort to reduce the potential for direct manipulation.