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Tech Industry

The week in review: Judging tech

It seems the most important decisions regarding the future of the high-tech world aren't being made in the boardroom these days--they're being made in the courtroom.

It seems many important discussions regarding the future of high tech aren't being made in the boardroom these days--they're being made in the courtroom.

Dissident Hewlett-Packard director Walter Hewlett filed a lawsuit asking a Delaware court to invalidate votes cast by HP shareholders in favor of the merger with Compaq Computer. Hewlett claims that HP improperly garnered votes for its proposed merger from one of HP's largest shareholders, Deutsche Asset Management.

Hewlett charges that HP directed "enticements and coercions" to Deutsche Bank, the parent to Deutsche Asset Management, which according to the suit holds at least 25 million shares and had initially voted against the proposed merger. Hewlett's suit says that HP persuaded Deutsche Bank to change a significant number of votes in the final moments of voting before the polls closed.

This latest salvo caps a six-month crusade by Walter Hewlett that has turned an otherwise routine corporate merger into a drama worthy of daytime television. A director of the company and son of HP co-founder William Hewlett, Walter Hewlett has been at the forefront of the fight against the HP-Compaq merger, writing letters and buying newspaper ads that slam the union. Yet as votes are still tallied, the fight will no doubt continue.

In other court battles, Internet song- and movie-swappers were given new hope by a Dutch court ruling protecting the legality of popular file-trading software. In a surprise decision, an appeals court in the Netherlands overturned a lower court ruling that had held file-trading company Kazaa BV liable for copyright infringement, saying Kazaa is not responsible for the illegal actions of people using its software.

That decision--which still can be appealed to a higher court--was the first anywhere to protect a file-swapping company against copyright liability. Lawyers and file-swapping aficionados in the United States are now scrutinizing the decision to see what effect it could have in U.S. courts or in providing a safe overseas haven for the distribution of software that might ultimately be deemed illegal in the United States.

A free-speech group won a legal round in its fight against unsolicited e-mail, invoking Washington state's anti-spam law. The court granted $1,000 in damages for each of three complaints filed by Peacefire's Webmaster. The small-claims suit alleged that Red Moss Media, Paulann Allison and Richard Schueler sent unsolicited commercial messages to Haselton that bore deceptive information such as a forged return e-mail address or misleading subject line.

Washington's tough anti-spam law bans such deceptive e-mail. Enacted four years ago, the law is one of the nation's first measures that sets standards for junk e-mailers and levies stiff fines for violators. In October, the Supreme Court refused to review a constitutional challenge to Washington's law.

What's brewing with Java
As the JavaOne conference kicked off in San Francisco it was evident that Sun Microsystems has some big plans for the programming language, but there are also big challenges ahead--namely, Microsoft.

Sun's StarOffice software package--a competitor of Microsoft Office--is moving more toward the mainstream with the coming release of version 6, Sun Chief Operating Officer Ed Zander said. The software has thus far failed to grow much beyond the fringes of the computing world, but Sun hopes to change that with the next version by securing customers in big business and outside the United States.

The tough task is to get the product to customers. Zander said that testimony from Gateway executives at the Microsoft antitrust trial has revealed that Microsoft's licensing agreements make it difficult for them not to use Windows XP. And to get widespread distribution of desktop software, "you've got to get AOL or a Compaq, HP, IBM or Dell," Zander said.

Of course Microsoft is always a concern for Sun. The company unveiled new software technology it says makes Java run at least five times faster on gadgets such as cell phones, a move that could help make Java more useful and therefore thwart Microsoft's attempts to expand beyond PCs.

The technology, code-named Monty, speeds up a crucial piece of Java called the virtual machine. The virtual machine translates Java programs into instructions a computing device can understand and is a key bottleneck compared with writing software directly for the device.

With an eye toward allying against Microsoft, two rival open-source development-tool projects seek to make building Java software simpler by defining a common structure to link development tools. Each aims to create a software framework, called an Integrated Development Environment, to connect code editors, analyzers and debuggers from multiple companies so that tools will be easier to learn and use.

However, vendor politics and slightly different technology approaches have led to fears that the efforts, each meant to unify the fractious Java tools picture, could in fact lead to further splintering.

And while Java has solved countless problems for programmers, it has presented Sun with a puzzle that continues to confound the company today: how to make profits from the software that reflect its wide popularity. CNET examined this issue in a four-part special report.

Targeting piracy
Entertainment executives and high-tech executives are scrambling to show public support for new anti-piracy plans that would have a significant effect on the way consumers watch and share movies, music and TV shows. Intel and AOL Time Warner released a joint statement opposing a sweeping government anti-piracy mandate.

However, a bill has been introduced by Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, D-S.C., that would require all "digital media devices" to have built-in technology to block unauthorized copying. While few expect that bill to pass, it has put technology companies on the defensive in Washington and has increased the likelihood that some form of government-endorsed copy protection will eventually be adopted.

That bill was quickly followed by the announcement that a California legislator plans to follow suit in the House of Representatives. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who represents a Los Angeles-area district, sent a letter to fellow lawmakers asking them to support his own strict anti-piracy legislation, which he plans to introduce later this year.

A House bill would open a new front for entertainment and technology companies that are battling over how much responsibility device makers should shoulder in the anti-piracy fight.

Several government and industry leaders criticized the proposed legislation, saying lawmakers should not decide the tech industry's "winners and losers." Some on the panel suggested the bill would let the government choose the technological solution--and the companies--that would prevent consumers from downloading content such as movies for free over the Internet.

What's in store
Some of the changes coming down the pipe won't necessarily make life easier, but they are expected to ease some concerns that society faces.

Airlines and industry trade associations have augmented current airport security measures with card readers and biometric devices for airport workers. Those same programs are now being considered for business travelers, frequent fliers and other people motivated to speed through security checkpoints.

Security experts say such inspections will be widespread within five years. Offering thumbprints, palm scans or iris checks will become "second nature" for anyone passing through an airport, said Richard Gritta, a professor of transportation and finance at the University of Portland in Oregon. "This isn't a pipe dream at all."

Cell phones, fax machines and pagers are dialing through the country's supply of phone numbers. The Federal Communications Commission, aware of the dwindling supply of 10-digit phone numbers and complaints from customers forced to change numbers, has already given telecom carriers a November deadline for allowing cell phone customers to keep their phone numbers if they switch service providers.

But carriers have balked at the cost, which they put at $1 billion for the industry, and the FCC has already granted several deadline extensions to allow the carriers to make more pressing changes. Although the carriers and the FCC have focused on the cost and competitiveness aspects of the debate, some backers say there's another reason to allow people to hold on to the same number: The pool of 10-digit phone numbers is shrinking.

So, retinal scans and 12-digit phone numbers may soon become facts of life. How about airline passengers routinely flying in pilotless airplanes? Sound ludicrous? Not to Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Craig Mundie, who recently bet Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt $2,000 that the prediction would come true.

The wager is part of the Long Bets Foundation, a nonprofit that plans to collect highbrow predictions about what the world will be like years, decades and even centuries hence. In the spirit of sportsmanship, prognosticators must put their money where their mouths are--all for the sake of charity, of course, in observance of U.S. anti-gambling laws.

Also of note
Intel will bring out a new, faster version of the Pentium 4 for desktops next week, and chipsets and other technology for improving overall PC performance and cutting costs will pour out over the next two months...Consumer-electronics maker Sony said that it will be bringing two new Clie handhelds to the United States in early May...Spooked by the growing popularity of Linux and Java software, Microsoft is opening up its source code to up-and-coming programmers on college campuses...eBay has received a growing number of complaints from people who say their accounts have been hijacked and used to set up fraudulent auctions...Unlike most leading e-commerce sites, eBay does not automatically encrypt much of the data sent between customers' computers and eBay's servers.

Want more? Check out all this week's headlines.