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Tech Industry

Week in review: Show and tell

Tech community logged plenty of frequent-flier miles this week as three conferences competed for the sector's spotlight.

The tech community logged plenty of frequent-flier miles this week as three conferences competed for the sector's spotlight.

America Online got the ball rolling at the Voice on the Net, or VON 2005, conference in San Jose, Calif., with the announcement that it will launch an Internet phone service within a month. The service will use an adapter to link ordinary handsets to a broadband connection. It will also be accessible through a PC and will be integrated with AOL's popular instant-messaging and e-mail software.

Internet phone services highlight both opportunities and dilemmas for AOL. The world's largest Internet access provider is working to offset declining subscriber rates for its core dial-up service. AOL wants to return to the good graces of parent Time Warner after the rocky merger of the two companies at the height of the Internet boom in 2000.

Even Google may be interested in the Net phone market. A team of Google honchos met with several Net telephone service providers, sources familiar with the talks said, renewing speculation that the search giant may be exploring a move into the fast-growing market.

"They were fairly aggressive about getting our opinions," said one Internet phone executive who facilitated several meetings between Google and Net phone interests at the conference.

Google product manager Eric Sachs was among nine Google employees who attended this week's conference, one source said. Sachs is a longtime friend of Jeff Pulver, founder of free Internet phone provider Free World Dialup and creator of the VON conference.

Michael Powell, outgoing chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, used the conference to do some legacy building during a "swan song" in which he bid adieu to the Internet telephone industry that was fostered by his hands-off regulatory style.

It was clear that Powell wants his legacy to include voice over Internet Protocol, software that lets an Internet connection serve as a telephone line. During his tenure, Powell consistently advocated a free-market approach to VoIP specifically and to broadband in general, which often put him at odds with commissioners from both major political parties.

Converging on business
Microsoft kicked off its Convergence conference in San Diego by unveiling the first fruits of its labor to knit together its collection of incompatible business management programs. The business unit, called Microsoft Business Solutions, represents Microsoft's foray into the so-called enterprise resource planning, or ERP, software market in which Oracle and Germany's SAP are wrestling for global dominance.

After making several acquisitions to get itself in the business applications game, Microsoft developed "Project Green," an effort that would bring the various products under a single code base in a few years.

Initially, Microsoft is focusing on drawing each of the business applications closer to other Microsoft products, namely adding business intelligence features that tie into its SQL Server database and portal services from the company's SharePoint product line. Another effort focuses on allowing the products to share a common Web services structure to connect with one another and with other software.

Microsoft is also readying a software package designed to help companies manage radio frequency identification technology. The company plans early next year to release the RFID Services Platform, a middleware product that connects the hardware that monitors RFID signals with the business software that can make sense of the information.

The product is designed for businesses that want to incorporate RFID into their own systems, as well as for other software companies that want to build a product based on Microsoft's technology. The RFID product will be built on top of Microsoft's .Net development platform and will run on a two-processor server.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates used the conference to point out that the faster pace of innovation for consumers has given individuals access to technology and communication breakthroughs, but the same advances have been slower to reach many businesses. In the consumer arena, where Microsoft faces competition from companies like Google, Nokia and Apple Computer, products are being updated rapidly, as often as every six months.

"In the business space, it's more stair step," Gates said, noting that business programs tend to get larger updates, but only every two to three years. The result is that many of the communication breakthroughs have come through consumer technologies such as instant messaging.

Game on
Microsoft was also the star at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, where it released a new set of developer tools meant to ease the creation of games for the next version of the company's Xbox video game console. XNA Studio is one of the first major products to come out of the XNA initiative Microsoft announced a year ago to standardize game development across different systems. Developers could use the same XNA tools to create games for Windows PCs, the current Xbox and future versions of the console, Microsoft promised.

XNA Studio is based on Visual Studio 2005 Team System, Microsoft's collection of code-writing tools for Windows developers who work in large teams. XNA Studio will include similar collaboration features meant to facilitate the exchange of code between programmers, designers, quality assurance testers and other members of a development project.

Microsoft offered a few details on the next version of Xbox, showing a few software and online service changes planned for the next Xbox, code-named Xenon. Mainly, though, the company stuck to big-picture themes, particularly the shift of video entertainment to high-definition content.

TV programming, DVDs and other forms of video will all be dazzling consumers with HDTV content within a few years, a Microsoft executive said, and video game creators will have to provide an equal level of visual detail and graphics razzle-dazzle to stay competitive.

Sony was also trying to get game developers' attention, assuring them that while the new Cell processor is big, complicated and shares a fair amount of DNA with IBM servers, there's no reason to be afraid of it. That's because Cell, the chip that will power the next version of Sony's PlayStation video game console, will use programming tools that developers should already be familiar with and new tools that should allow them to work smarter.

Sony has been working on the Cell, in partnership with IBM and Toshiba, for four years. Sony shared some of the first programming details on the chip, promising that Cell would adapt many existing development tools rather than force developers to learn whole new languages.

The president of Nintendo, the third member of the game console triumvirate, previewed some quirky new titles and spilled a few details about his company's upcoming machine during a speech at the conference.

Satoru Iwata said that the console, code-named Revolution, would break with Nintendo's past practices by being backward-compatible and playing games for the current GameCube. Nintendo's reliance on proprietary media formats previously has meant that each new machine rendered old games obsolete.

Apple's court win
Apple Computer has the right to subpoena the electronic records of a Web site that published items about unreleased product, a judge ruled Friday.

The judge said that Apple can go ahead and obtain records from Nfox, the e-mail service provider to Mac enthusiast site PowerPage. In the ruling, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James P. Kleinberg ruled that Apple's interests in protecting its trade secrets outweighed the public interest in the information.

"Unlike the whistleblower who discloses a health, safety or welfare hazard affecting all, or the government employee who reveals mismanagement or worse by our public officials, (the enthusiast sites) are doing nothing more than feeding the public's insatiable desire for information," Kleinberg wrote.

Apple has been seeking the right to subpoena the Mac sites to learn the identities of the worker or workers who leaked information about Asteroid, an unreleased music product. In the case, filed late last year, Apple is not suing the Mac sites themselves, but rather those who leaked the information. In another case, Apple is suing another enthusiast site, Think Secret, alleging that it infringed on Apple's trade secret in soliciting inside information.

Security's tough cell
Antivirus researchers are tracking a new Trojan horse that could prove to be a more pervasive threat to cell phones than Cabir. The malicious software, dubbed CommWarrior and described as a virus by some antivirus companies, takes aim at the version of the Symbian operating system running on Nokia Series 60 handsets.

CommWarrior attempts to spread by sending messages via Bluetooth wireless connections and Multimedia Message Service--different from the Cabir virus, which only used Bluetooth to proliferate. MMS, a mobile technology for sending text messages that can also include images, audio or video, is built into devices from Ericsson, Motorola and others. CommWarrior, however, only affects Nokia Series 60 phones.

Meanwhile, antivirus company Kaspersky Lab is preparing to release antivirus software for smart phones that use the Symbian operating system. Cell phone viruses are still relatively rare, but Kaspersky's move into mobile antivirus software shows it expects more problems in the future.

Kaspersky's Anti-Virus for Symbian OS, which is in open beta testing, enables people to set their phone to receive regular antivirus updates. Alternatively, they can download the updates manually from the WAP section of Kaspersky's Web site. The cell phone security software includes a monitor to intercept viruses as they arrive and a scanner that looks for malicious code on request.

Meanwhile, Sidekick users raged against their machines, as service provider Danger fought to isolate issues that disconnected the hip phones from e-mail, instant messaging and other data services. The severity of the issues varied widely, with some consumers reporting that they had been without service for more than 24 hours, while others reported no issues, according to a review of more than 150 posts to a Sidekick and Sidekick 2 forum.

The outages are the latest issues plaguing the mobile phone and Internet services provided by Danger and T-Mobile. Both companies have come under scrutiny as the means by which online thieves managed to steal the addresses, e-mail messages and images from the Sidekick of celebrity heiress Paris Hilton.

Also of note
Legislators in Wisconsin are mobilizing against a proposal they call the "iPod tax," in a battle over online music and movies that could soon spread across the United States...Apple Computer has sided with the Blu-ray Disc Association, as it enters the debate over which specification will become the next-generation DVD format...Sony's board of directors unanimously approved the selection of a British executive as the company's new chief executive and chairman amid a management shakeup...Web giant Yahoo is poised to launch a new digital store and music player, aiming to compete more directly with Apple's successful iTunes service.