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Week in review: Go go Google

The search giant is outgrowing expectations, while Apple releases its Leopard into the wild. Also: Finding some privacy on the Net.

Google is big and getting bigger.

Google's shares traded over the $700 mark this week, marking a new first for the Internet giant. Just a little more than three weeks ago, Google shares passed the $600 mark and analysts were speculating its shares could climb as high as $700 within the next year. Apparently, it's been a quick year.

The stock was up following reports that Google is in "serious discussions" with Verizon Wireless to put its mobile "GPhone" software on Verizon phones. For months, people have been speculating about the GPhone.

Most people believe that it's not a specific phone, but is more likely an operating system or software that integrates many of Google's mobile services, such as Web search, Gmail, YouTube, and Google Maps, onto phones made by existing handset makers. But more than simply integrating Google services onto handsets, the new Google mobile operating system is believed to be an open platform on which application developers would have free rein to develop a slew of new applications and services.

But, as CNET's Marguerite Reardon points out, Google-powered phones will be useless unless the company can strike deals with mobile operators to allow them on their networks. T-Mobile USA is rumored to be the first U.S. operator that will sign on with Google.

CNET readers expressed concern that Google's mobile applications would be limited to one or two handsets offered by a single carrier.

"Great! Another new phone designed to screw over American consumers by locking it down to just one cell phone provider," one reader wrote to the TalkBack forum. "Is Google really that insensitive to the market and to consumers?"

In another move that was anticipated for weeks, Google has unveiled a set of application program interfaces (APIs) that allow third-party programmers to build widgets that take advantage of personal data and profile connections on a social-networking site. But instead of limiting the project to its own social-networking property, Orkut, Google has invited other sites along for the ride--including LinkedIn, Hi5, Plaxo, Ning, and Friendster.

Google's version of this "write once, run anywhere" concept is called OpenSocial, a set of common APIs that will enable developers to create applications for social networks, blogs, and any Web sites that accept the OpenSocial code. Currently, developers have to write new programs for each site, even if the functionality will be the same on each site.

This announcement illustrates how Google is courting developers and possibly attempting to outdo Facebook in openness. Facebook opened up its platform to developers in June and the site was immediately flooded with all sorts of useful and not-so-useful apps. Google, Yahoo, and others have been heavily espousing the beauty of open platforms and making moves to that end.

Leopard on the loose
Some 30 months after Apple released Tiger, it released the Leopard operating system into the wild--a little later than originally planned due to the company's work on iPhone. And while it wasn't exactly iPhone Day, several hundred Mac fans lined up for the launch in the pouring rain outside the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

The line for Leopard appeared to be divided fairly evenly between rabid Apple fans and shoppers who'd figured they could stop by and pick it up quickly--and indeed, come launch time, the line moved fast as customers were ushered into a gauntlet of Apple Store employees (much like the iPhone launch in June) and directed straight to the cash registers when the doors opened at 6 p.m. (The scene was repeated in San Francisco, where hundreds of people lined up on Stockton Street to get their hands on the new OS.)

However, the installation process didn't always go as smoothly. Apple posted a support document over the weekend on its Web site addressing reports of interminable "blue screen" problems that caused some Mac users upgrading to Mac OS X Leopard no small degree of frustration.

Some attempts to upgrade to Leopard were stymied after the installation process was almost complete and users attempted to restart their machines. A long thread on Apple's discussion forums outlined the problems, in which their Macs would get hung up on the initial boot screen. That screen happens to be blue, inviting comparisons to the infamous Windows "blue screen of death" encountered when Windows crashes.

There are dozens of important new features in Leopard, perhaps most notably the Time Machine application that could make it easier for users to back up and restore their files. Backing up your files is generally a simple exercise with a external hard drive, but Time Machine is interesting because of the friendly way in which it lets you restore files, flying back in time (and space) to the last instance in which that file was saved.

So is it worth upgrading? CNET Reviews finds that Leopard's interface enhancements make productivity more pleasurable with a Mac, as more than 300 functional and fun features top off this update.

Apple sold 2 million copies of Leopard between Friday and Sunday night, which includes sales of boxed copies, online sales, and new Macs with Leopard preinstalled. When Apple launched Tiger, it took the company 39 days to hit the 2 million mark on a much smaller installed base.

By comparison, Microsoft sold 20 million copies of Windows Vista in the first month it went on sale. And as of last week, Microsoft had sold 88 million copies of Vista.

The sales numbers brought out the usual debates about which operating system is better, based on features and on the market that each commands.

"The truth is until Apple creates competition by not tying their OS with their hardware, businesses are not going to buy it," wrote one reader to the CNET TalkBack forum. "That's the only reason Apple has a low market share."

On the Hill
Good news for your pocketbook: Congress isn't planning to allow taxes on your Internet connection for another seven years. With little debate, the U.S. House of Representatives approved an extension of an existing ban on Internet access taxes until 2014. The same proposal received unanimous approval in the Senate late last week. The move comes just in the nick of time, as current law generally prohibiting state and local governments from levying the taxes was scheduled to expire Thursday.

Granted, not everyone is safe from taxes under the bill. States that already had Internet access taxes in place before the ban took effect several years ago would still be allowed to keep them through a grandfather clause in the bill. (Nine states--Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin--fall into that category.) Officials can also tax Internet services, albeit more indirectly, if they had already enacted broad-based laws on their books that tax the gross income or receipts of a business.

In other Hill business, identity theft victims would be allowed to request monetary compensation for the time they spent getting their lives back in order under a bill approved by a U.S. Senate panel. The Identity Theft Enforcement and Restitution Act of 2007 would allow those who fell prey to identity fraud to seek "criminal restitution"--that is, payouts from the offender in a particular case--for time "reasonably" spent correcting "actual" or "intended" harm.

The Senate bill transcends identity-theft-related issues, crossing over into cybercrime. It also includes rewrites to federal computer crime laws that are designed to make it easier for police to punish hackers, keyloggers, and spyware purveyors whose acts may not do quantifiable damage.

In another privacy issue, two public-interest groups are asking the U.S. government to target what they claim are "invasive" online marketing schemes--especially those involving social-networking Web sites or targeting children and teenagers.

In a lengthy new complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission, the Center for Digital Democracy and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) say they're concerned that Internet users are more "vulnerable" than ever to increasingly sophisticated advertising techniques that depend on tracking and compartmentalizing people's behavior and preferences.

Singling out Microsoft's new-at-the-time advertising ventures, they had called on the FTC to review and potentially limit online business models dependent on technologies that "aggressively track us wherever we go, creating data profiles to be used in ever-more sophisticated and personalized 'one-to-one' targeting schemes." The latest filing also reiterates a call for Congress to pass new federal legislation.

Also of note
Oracle withdrew its $6.7 billion buyout offer for BEA Systems, after the middleware maker refused to entertain its $17-a-share bid before a deadline expired...IBM detailed new products and services aimed at securing corporate networks and announced it will spend $1.5 billion on security product development and marketing in 2008...Microsoft, state prosecutors, and the U.S. Department of Justice said a federal judge needs more time to weigh whether Redmond should be subjected to a lengthier period of antitrust policing.