Wednesday, December 30, 2009

In 2009, Web goes on a diet

2009 was, in many ways, a good year for the Web and the technologies that help us access it. Companies big and small had to re-evaluate what was important: an ethos that channeled into more focused product launches and notable improvements to existing software and services.

That refocus meant tech giants spent the early part of 2009 trimming the fat on services that were too costly to run, or simply underused. Google cut a myriad of its offerings, shelving microblogging service Jaiku, its social network Dodgeball, Google Video, catalog search, "shared stuff," and its notebook service. Yahoo followed suit, dropping the ax on its Briefcase online storage service, closing off access to its Jumpcut Web video editor, and 360 blogging tool. Yahoo also pulled the plug on Geocities--one of the Web's early relics. Other notable discontinuations include Microsoft killing off its online encyclopedia Encarta, and HP getting rid of its Upline backup solution.

Services that were not shut down saw improvements. Google's Gmail finally left beta, and gained a feature that lets users access it offline. The company also launched Google Wave--a somewhat experimental real-time collaboration service. Microsoft's Windows Live Search was relaunched as a new product called Bing, which was received well both by the press and users. Bing, along with Yahoo and Google, also integrated real-time results from social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

Speaking of Microsoft and Yahoo, Microhoo finally happened--though not as it was originally intended. In late July, Microsoft and Yahoo entered a 10-year search deal that gave Yahoo Microsoft's search engine technology, while Microsoft got Yahoo's ad sales force and partners; The result was quite different from 2008's $44.6 billion unsolicited bid that would have given Microsoft complete control of the company.

2009 also brought new location-based tools, some of which, by some accounts, are a little creepy. Microsoft's Bing got its own version of local maps, complete with a street-level view. And at the South by Southwest tech and music conference in Austin, Texas, Foursquare debuted. The service lets people show where they are to their friends, and vice versa. The month prior, Google launched a similar service called Latitude that would put a user's exact location on a map--right down to the city block. Google also expanded its Maps and Earth services, taking street view outside of the U.S., and Google Earth took users to the Earth's oceans, the moon, and Mars.

Along with search and location, 2009 was a boon year for social networks. Facebook in particular saw huge gains in its number of registered users. It began the year with 150 million users, and is now well past 350 million. That's no small feat, as recent projections boasted the much-hyped and talked about Twitter somewhere close to 60 million, up from less than 10 million at the beginning of the year. Twitter also gained some celebrity traction, netting an account from Oprah Winfrey as well as Ashton Kutcher. Kutcher went on to become the first Twitter user to hit 1 million followers, beating out news network CNN. He's since blown past 4 million.

Both Twitter and Facebook also continued to show that they are an integral part in the spread of information. Controversy over Iran's presidential elections, and the Iranian government censorship that followed made the social networks one of the few places Iranians could go to vent frustrations and pass across news tidbits that would have otherwise gone unseen. Twitter even skipped its scheduled maintenance to stay up--as per a request from the U.S. State Department. Facebook, in turn, rushed to provide support for Farsi so Iranian users could join it.

Twitter was also the first place to go to see photos of U.S. Airways Flight 1549, which had to make an emergency landing in New York's Hudson River. Nearby ferry riders snapped the first shots of the crash and uploaded them to photo host Twitpic, which ended up crashing because of the sudden, and massive traffic spike.

Besides social networks, voice services and VoIP telephony were big in 2009. E-commerce giant eBay sold off its Skype services to an investor group that now runs it as its own product, with hopes of an IPO in 2010. Google redesigned its GrandCentral service as a product called Google Voice, which was opened up to users after a year and a half of dormancy. Google also snatched up Web-based VoIP service Gizmo5, which could end up being integrated into Google Voice. Other notable telephony launches include 3Jam, which does voice forwarding and transcription, and Ribbit's mobile service. Both of those companies, along with Google, are trying to get users to manage their calls and voice mails online, functionality that is likely to expand in 2010.

Even with a flashy relaunch, Google Voice had its own share of controversy. This year the service got into hot water with AT&T. It started when Apple pulled all the third-party Google Voice applications from its App Store, along with rejecting Google's submission of its own Google Voice application. This action caused the FCC to launch an inquiry to see why the apps were removed, as well as why Google's Voice application was not allowed onto Apple's store.

It turns out AT&T was not having any part of Google's blocking phone calls to certain parts of the country that would have cost the company more money to connect users to. In late-October Google bounced back, announcing that it had limited the amount of blocked numbers to fewer than 100. Despite this, 2009 closed out without any Google Voice apps (including Google's own) making it back onto the App Store.

Finally, 2009 saw a continuation of the browser wars. Mozilla iterated on the third version of its Firefox browser several times, while Microsoft, Apple, and Opera introduced brand new versions of Explorer, Safari and Opera, respectively. Google took the crown though--it managed to jump two version numbers, going from version one to three, with version four currently in developer testing.

Chrome also jumped from being just a browser to a full-fledged operating system. In late November, Google publicly demoed Chrome OS, an instant-on browser-based operating system designed for Netbooks. Users, however won't be getting their hands on hardware that will run Chrome OS until mid- to late 2010.


China's Latest Knockoff: Ubuntu in XP Clothing

What looks like XP but perhaps behaves better? A version of Ubuntu that sports the XP user interface, currently available in Chinese for download from the Web. Whether Microsoft will attempt to assert its intellectual property rights is unknown -- and the legal status of the OS is far from clear.

Chinese-language consumers unwilling or unable to pay the cost of a legitimate copy of Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT) Windows XP now have a new alternative: a clone of the operating system that's based on Ubuntu.

Dubbed "Ylmf OS," the software is available from Rain Forest Wind Guangdong Computer Technology as a free download on a dedicated Web site.

The system is based on Ubuntu 9.10 and integrates Wine, according to the page. Also included are OpenOffice 3.1, CompizConfig Effects Settings Manager, Firefox and Pidgin for instant messaging.

Canonical, the company that serves as Ubuntu's commercial sponsor, could not be reached for comment by this story's deadline.

'I Don't Recommend It'

Uncovered last Saturday by Download Squad, the Ylmf hack is actually not the first instance of Ubuntu being made to look like Windows.

In what may or may not be a coincidence, an Ubuntu fan who goes by the name of Phrank Waldorf received considerable attention on the Linux blogs just a few weeks ago by posting a similar hack, also using Ubuntu 9.10 to emulate Windows XP.

"I don't use this. I don't recommend it, either!" Waldorf wrote. "I actually made the script as a programming exercise."

The response, however, was likely more than Waldorf had expected. Countless enthusiastic comments were left by readers on Waldorf's page, including at least one asking permission to translate it for a Chinese blog.

'Far More Interesting Work to be Done'

It's not entirely clear why Linux fans -- many of whom are overtly hostile towards Microsoft -- would want to emulate Windows with open source technology.

Indeed, in the open source community, "the general sense is there is far more interesting work to be done differentiating and competing with Windows rather than emulating it," Jay Lyman, an analyst with the 451 Group, told LinuxInsider.

It's also not likely such technology holds much promise going forward, Lyman added, "particularly as we see more support for Windows in Linux and other open source software and more support for Linux and other open source in Windows."

'A Brazen Effort'

In China, however, it seems at least possible that a Windows clone based on open source software could present a potentially more legitimate alternative to widely available pirated versions. User modification is fully expected in the world of open source software, after all.

On the other hand, can it be acceptable to use open source technology to closely mimic the graphical user interface of a proprietary counterpart? The legality is far from clear.

"Rarely does a brazen effort to pilfer the intellectual property of others appear so blatant as with the Ylmf OS product being circulated in China," Raymond Van Dyke, a partner with Merchant & Gould, told LinuxInsider.

'Clear Aim to Interfere'

"The Chinese government should proactively do what they can to squelch this obvious act of hacking and copying a well-known product covered by various patents, copyrights, trademarks and trade secrets, both in the U.S. and in China," Van Dyke asserted.

While "legitimate reverse engineering of functionalities is acceptable in the U.S., one cannot wholesale copy a protected product, although some functionalities may be worked around," he explained.

More troubling, however, is "copying the exact design or style of the product, which pirates have absolutely no excuse to copy -- apart from their clear aim to interfere with the sales of the legitimate owner or otherwise trade on the owner's good name," Van Dyke added.

Better Than the Real Thing?

"If this is an effort to pass off the XP desktop theme as the XP operating system, I don't think it is going to work," Joe Casad, editor in chief of Ubuntu User magazine, told LinuxInsider.

"The irony is that this faux Windows system will be safer, more stable and less susceptible to malware than the system it is pretending to be," Casad noted.

Still, "it never really helps to manipulate the customer," he added. "We say that every day to Microsoft, and we would certainly say the same thing to people who are trying to make money by imitating Microsoft."

If the Rain Forest Wind Guangdong company "finds that it gives them a competitive edge to distribute Ubuntu to their customers, they should just admit it," Casad concluded. "It will be better for both their users and their tech support to have menus that match the underlying system."


Monday, December 21, 2009

Intel reveals information about future Atom chips

Intel's next range of Atom chipsets seem to be ready to take Nvidia Ion head on. The new lineup will be smaller, faster, will reduce the average power consumption by as much as 20%, and are expected to be available as early as January of 2010. However the best feature of these chips is the integration of a GPU.

As previously reported, Intel's latest N450 processor and NM10 Express chipset--technology that had been previously referred to as "Pine Trail"--will be used in a new raft of Netbooks that will debut at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. Hewlett-Packard, Acer, Dell, Asus, Toshiba, Lenovo and others are expected to either announce new systems before the show or exhibit new models there.

Intel said there will be more than 80 new Netbook designs--typically priced around $350--on the way, with systems coming available by January 4.

The Pine Trail design squeezes the graphics function, previously on a separate chip, onto the central processing unit, or CPU, a first for Intel. The result--by decreasing the number of chips from three to two--is a reduction in the overall chip package size by 60 percent.

Intel expects robust growth ahead for Netbooks. Nanduri cited numbers from ABI Research that show Netbook annual shipments reaching 100 million units sometime in the next three years. Since introduction, Intel has shipped more than 40 million Atom chips for Netbooks to major PC makers.

Intel is also launching a new Atom processor with two processing cores, the D510, which it is targeted at entry-level desktops and replaces an existing dual-core Atom. Also, a new single-core D410 design is being introduced.
New Atom processors:
• N450: 1.66GHz, 512KB cache, DDR2-667, TDP: 5.5W
• D510: 1.66GHz, 1MB cache, DDR2-800/667, TDP: 13W (2 cores)
• D410: 1.66GHz, 512KB cache, DDR2-800/667, TDP: 10W
(Note: the DDR2 number suffix refers to memory speed; TDP = Thermal Design Power; W = watt.)

By providing a more integrated solution than NVidia's Ion Platform -- which offers Nvidia's mobile graphics chipsets with the the Intel Atom processor -- it is clear Nvidia has some tough competition ahead.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Could Linux Use Some Bells and Whistles?

Is Linux just too quiet to attract mainstream users who are used to the siren songs of bells and whistles? Or do Linux bells and whistles run on a frequency Windows users can't hear? "One person's 'bells and whistles' are another person's 'this is too different for me' impediment," suggested Slashdot blogger Barbara Hudson. For example, "the desktop cube just blows [Windows users] away."

With the Season of Giving hard upon us once again, it's a safe bet that many of us are thinking about glitter. Not just glitter, but glitz, sparkle and shine, jingle, bells and whistles.

Such, after all, are the qualities gifts -- and the holidays in general -- are often expected to have, and manufacturers of everything from ornaments to iPods do their best to make it happen.

What, one might ask, about operating systems? Should they, too, have shiny, splashy, gotta-have features to make them sparkle in users' eyes?

'What Are the Killer Features?'

That, indeed, was essentially the question posed by blogger Simon Brew at Linux User & Developer recently, and it's sparked quite a discussion on the blogs.

"What are the defining features and characteristics of Ubuntu?" Brew began. "Or Mandriva? Or openSUSE? What are the killer features that are born to illuminate point-of-sale material and tedious slideshows the world over?

"What's... the 'killer app' that's going to get the world excited about Linux?" he asked.

Invisible Appeal?

Brew's answer: "There aren't any. There is no single feature to adorn the covers of magazines. There's no whizzbang gadget to turn the computing world on its head," he wrote. "Instead, the major appeal of Linux, for me anyway, is that it's content to be an operating system."

That, in turn, is a good thing, he concluded: "After all, isn't the best operating system the one you hardly even notice is there?"

The topic must have struck a chord with residents of the Linux blogosphere, because many of them had a lot to say on the matter.

'I Feel the Same'

"Nice article, and I would like to say I feel the same," wrote dhysk in the comments on Linux User & Developer, for example. "Unfortunately the idea of an operating system without bells and whistles as a default [is] one that just doesn't work as a whole."

The reason, dhysk added, is that "to most people an OS IS the computer itself."

On the other hand: Linux "is what you want it to be," opined cwrinn. "I feel this is the 'Bells and Whistles' in a Linux system."

For Details