Tech Industry

Week in review: Microsoft metamorphosis

As summer sizzles, the game of musical chairs at Microsoft is heating up as well.

As summer heats up, the game of musical chairs at Microsoft is heating up as well.

In the wake of last week's announcement that Bill Gates will move away from his role as Microsoft's chief software architect, Martin Taylor, a key adviser to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, abruptly left the software maker. Taylor, a 13-year company veteran who led Microsoft's "Get the Facts" anti-Linux crusade for several years, was named in March as a corporate vice president overseeing the marketing push for Windows Live services.

Highlighting the abruptness of the departure, reports noted that Taylor had been quoted Monday in a press release announcing Windows Live Messenger, the new version of Microsoft's instant messaging software.

The departure comes after the company chose Ray Ozzie to fill the chief software architect role, and Craig Mundie to assume responsibility for research and policy matters. Microsoft also has a new internal online system aimed at tapping a broader pool of top minds to craft the company's technology strategy. All that raises the question of whether there will be too many chefs in Microsoft's kitchen.

By his nature and because of who he is, Gates has been the ultimate arbiter for technical debates at Microsoft. There is also the question of just how much ground Gates will cede to his handpicked successors. Longtime Gates associates doubt that the tech icon will step too far back.

CNET News.com readers seemed to welcome the change, saying it was overdue.

"I believe less is more," to the News.com TalkBack forum, tongue in cheek. "Let a few fellows really rip Vista apart, and maybe get a good OS. Sorry, I was being foolishly optimistic. My bad."

The company is also aiming to further democratize its technical leadership. A key part of that is a new internal communications system designed to allow workers to spitball ideas on where the company should be headed, CNET News.com has learned.

In an interview, Gates said that the system, known as Quests, is still in the early stages of development. Still, it "gets us to be really specific about the future of the home, the future of the office, the future of the data center," he said.

A little piracy, er, privacy
Microsoft is also enduring a little heat for its Windows Genuine Advantage program, which is tied to its free software downloads and updates, and checks whether the Windows installation on a PC is pirated. But some people, including some who say they own a legitimately acquired copy of Windows, have challenged the need for such validation.

Most of their criticism is directed at the way Microsoft's antipiracy technology interacts with a PC. Recently, the software maker was lambasted over its WGA Notifications tool, which it pushes out as a "high priority" update alongside security fixes.

There have also been complaints about the tool collecting information from PCs and causing system troubles. Some Windows users have started to search for ways around the antipiracy technology, setting up a struggle between Microsoft and WGA opponents.

On another front in the piracy battle, the operators of a file search engine presented more details regarding the alleged relationship between the Motion Picture Association of America and a man who admits hacking the small company's network. Valence Media, the parent company of Torrentspy.com, charges that the MPAA paid the Canadian resident $15,000 for information on Torrentspy and its executives, according to court documents.

"I contacted (the MPAA) and offered to provide it information regarding (Torrentspy.com founder) Justin Bunnell and Torrentspy," according to a signed statement by Robert Anderson, the man identified elsewhere in the filing as a "hacker." Among the claims by Valence Media is that as part of the MPAA's attempt to gather information on Torrentspy, the association hired private investigators to comb the trash cans of Torrentspy executives.

Meanwhile, major technology companies are clamoring for Congress to write uniform national privacy standards aimed at boosting customer confidence and relieving the industry from what some consider a complex patchwork of state and local laws. eBay and Hewlett-Packard executives pitched those suggestions to a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on consumer protection.

Both companies are part of the Consumer Privacy Legislative Forum, a coalition formed earlier this year, which issued a statement calling for "comprehensive harmonized federal privacy legislation to create a simplified, uniform but flexible legal framework." Such a policy should be built on concepts like notice to individuals whose information has been compromised, "reasonable" access to their personal records, data security and strong enforcement, coalition members said.

Porn to run
Many of the companies that let users display homemade videos on the Web are having difficulty keeping their pages smut-free. A weeklong review of some of the top user-generated video sites by CNET News.com unearthed scenes of beheadings, masturbation, bloody car accidents, bondage and sadomasochism.

Industry insiders say that as the sites collect greater amounts of video, tracking and purging sexually explicit and graphically violent content will become increasingly difficult. Industry insiders say that while prescreening millions of homemade videos is likely to be costly and problematic, failing to police the sites could scare off advertisers and lead to clashes with family advocates and lawmakers.

The fight against online porn may affect a broad range of less obvious material if a bill backed by the Bush administration becomes law. Under the Stop Adults' Facilitation of the Exploitation of Youth Act--or Internet Safety Act--introduced last week in the U.S. Senate, all "commercial" Web site operators who fail to flag each page containing "sexually explicit material" could risk fines, up to 15 years in prison, or both.

While backers say they are mainly targeting child pornography and trying to keep kids away from mature content, legal experts argue that displaying, for example, a news report that details a sordid sex crime, a computer animation that demonstrates condom use, or even an online lingerie catalog could be grounds for prosecution if the bill becomes law.

Meanwhile, the Australian government plans to spend about $86 million to provide all the country's families with free Internet pornography-blocking software. The first free filters should be available for download from a government portal within six months. Filtering software designed to be made available through Internet service providers will also be an option for customers of providers that offer it.

Taming the Web
The boys inside the Beltway were busy grappling with proposed legislation that could dramatically reshape the Internet.

As the Senate Commerce Committee debates a massive communications bill related in part to the divisive concept of Net neutrality, new provisions in the latest draft of the sweeping Consumer's Choice and Broadband Deployment Act would allow the Federal Communications Commission to police subscribers' complaints of "interference" in their Internet activities and to levy fines on violators.

Specifically, the bill would require all Internet service providers to adhere to what the proposal calls an "Internet consumer bill of rights." The nine principles outlined under that heading include: allowing consumers to access and post any lawful content they please; to access and run any Web page, search engine or application that they choose (including voice and video programs); and to connect any legal devices they please to the network.

Another telecommunications bill won approval from the FCC that could put new fees on the bills of an estimated 4 million Internet phone service subscribers. The FCC voted unanimously to require all voice over Internet Protocol services that connect to the public-switched telephone network--as opposed to using peer-to-peer technology, like Skype--to contribute to the Universal Service Fund.

The $7.3 billion fund, which has been a feature of U.S. policy for more than 70 years, subsidizes telephone service in rural and low-income areas. It also runs a controversy-plagued program called E-Rate that provides discounted Internet and phone service to schools and libraries.

A congressional bill that would impose strict new obligations on American tech companies doing business with "Internet-restricting countries" like China cleared its first hurdle to becoming law. The bill was proposed just days after a daylong congressional hearing at which politicians lashed out at representatives from Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and Cisco Systems for complying with China's state-sponsored censorship regime.

Under its list of "minimum corporate standards," American businesses would be barred from keeping any electronic communication, such as e-mail, that contains personally identifiable information on servers or other storage facilities in "Internet-restricting countries." The rules would also prohibit them from turning over personal information about their subscribers to governments in those locales except for "legitimate law enforcement purposes."

Also of note
IBM and Georgia Tech have coaxed a chip to run at 500GHz, a record for a silicon-based device, by dropping the temperature to minus 451 degrees Fahrenheit...Hewlett-Packard is folding the company's Global Operations unit into three other divisions as part of a massive restructuring plan announced a year ago...Opera Software released the newest version of its popular browser, which is designed to offer several improvements over its predecessors.