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Week in review: Google talks

Search giant generates buzz with some of its products--and in many cases the search giant actually transmitted the discussion.

Google generated a lot of buzz this week with some of its products--and in many cases the search giant actually transmitted the discussion.

Google launched an instant-messaging program, Google Talk, that allows text chat and computer-to-computer voice connections, a move that highlights the search giant's increasing competition with Yahoo, Microsoft and America Online. Google's Web site provides a link to download Google Talk and stated that the software "enables you to call or send instant messages to your friends for free-?anytime, anywhere in the world."

Google's messaging program is linked to the company's Web-based e-mail program, Gmail, and both are in beta. Google Talk currently works only on Windows, according to Google's Web site. People need a microphone and a speaker to take advantage of the voice capabilities.

Message boards are teeming with tips and gripes, and scores of screenshots have gone up since Google released the beta of Talk. Across the Web, many consumers hailed the software's quick download time, which takes a few seconds over broadband and about three minutes over a typical modem, according to the Google Talk Web site. They also applauded its minimalism.

However, CNET News.com readers were mixed in response to the new release. "So Google has entered the IM space--woohoo," wrote reader Toby Barrick in News.com's TalkBack forum. "Where is the innovation that Google is famous for? Heck they don't even offer video from what I've seen."

But some applauded Google's move. "I won't deny that it's extremely Spartan in its appearance, but the presentation is textbook Google elegance," wrote Christopher Hall in TalkBack. "I'm not interested in emoticons, skins, and file transfer. I need this to communicate, not fancy up like a 12-year-old girl's Trapper Keeper."

Google also rolled out a beta version of its desktop software, adding features such as "Sidebar," which offers a personalized panel of information such as e-mail, stock quotes and news. The software also includes a scratch-pad style tool for taking notes and tools for searching one's desktop and Microsoft Outlook in-box. Called Desktop 2, the software can be downloaded for free from Google's Web site.

Both offerings, notably Sidebar, have the potential to lure away current Microsoft users, analysts said. But Google--in a technique perfected long ago by Microsoft--has made software developers an important target audience as well. As with nearly all its services, Google is supporting standards and providing hooks intended to let outside developers create add-on products.

Of course, the ever-widening array of Google products has some people wondering whether the company is out to create the rough equivalent of an operating system. Strictly speaking, Google's products are not a replacement OS, but the collection of Google products serve the same purpose, said analysts. Even products that run on Windows PCs, such as Google's Picasa photo-editing software, could tie back to Google's online services.

Intel's power play
The chip giant showed off road maps of its server, notebook and desktop chips for 2006 and 2007 at its Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco, and the dominant theme revolves around reducing power consumption, a concept the company has espoused since the beginning of the decade.

Some of the future chips also reverse key technological decisions and design ideas behind the Pentium 4. Hyperthreading, one of the touted features of the Pentium 4, will not be part of a new round of chips coming in the second half of 2006, although later chips will likely include some form of threading.

Merom, a notebook chip coming in the second half of 2006, is expected to provide substantially more performance than current notebook chips. Toward the end of the decade, Intel will also come out with an ultra-low-power version of its chip for consumer electronics that consumes one-tenth of the power of chips like Merom.

The chip giant also outlined several advancements it hopes will improve the performance of next year's notebooks, including a technology that creates a deeper sleep state. The "Enhanced Intel Deeper Sleep" technology, a feature of the company's new chips, lowers a processor's voltage below the Deeper Sleep state found in Intel's current family of mobile chips.

The chipmaker said its upcoming Napa platform will include an improved graphics media accelerator, enhanced video playback capabilities, support for high-definition displays and Intel's High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection, or HDCP.

Intel is also getting behind the technology that allows the internal power wiring in a home to deliver broadband service. Along with Motorola and Cisco Systems, Intel has thrown its weight behind a group called the HomePlug Powerline Alliance, which develops standards and specifications for businesses and service providers offering broadband-over-power-line, or BPL, service into the home.

In addition, the group developed a new Implementers' Forum Board of Directors to get more industry involvement in developing and implementing standards. The group includes representatives from the sponsor companies, as well as Comcast, EarthLink, RadioShack, Sharp and Sony.

Intel is also hoping to entice consumers with the introduction of Viiv branding for entertainment PCs. Intel wants to use Viiv--it rhymes with "strive"--to reassure consumers that their PCs can easily handle digital audio and video, as well as share digital content over networks.

One feature of Viiv will be automatic transcoding--ensuring that audio or video encoded in one format can be translated into one that a person's computer can actually handle without the person's intervention. Another feature will be instant start-up and shutdown that will work as quickly as it does in consumer electronic devices such as DVD players.

Play it again, Mac
Intel plans to offer test versions of software tools aimed at allowing Mac developers to improve the performance of programs that run on its chips.

The company said this week that it plans to offer beta versions of both its compiler and its performance libraries, which contain code optimized for both digital media and scientific computing tasks.

Kevin Smith, director of the Intel compiler lab, said that Intel's tools could appeal to those who already use them for Linux and Windows-based programs. He also said that the company's compilers typically offer the best performance on its chips.

When Apple Computer announced in June that it planned to move to Intel chips, one of the companies left in the lurch was Terra Soft Solutions. The small company had carved out a nice niche specializing in selling Linux for Macs and other machines that use IBM's PowerPC chips. In the days following Apple's bombshell, Terra Soft quickly announced plans to seek out alternative hardware on which its Yellow Dog Linux could run.

This week, Terra Soft announced it has filled some of the void created by Apple's move. Under a new deal, Terra Soft will resell PowerPC-based servers from Mercury Computer Systems. Mercury's XR9 systems use the same G5 chip as Apple's Xserve, but at 2.4GHz, the chips are slightly faster than those used in Apple's top-of-the-line servers.

For those who already have Macs, Apple is offering free repairs for early iMac G5 desktops impacted by a component problem that's preventing some models from powering up or displaying images. Under a program launched last week, the company will cover repairs for up to two years from the purchase date for iMacs that encounter a video or power problem related to the component glitch.

The iMacs in question were sold from September 2004 until June 2005, so until now repairs have been covered by Apple's standard one-year warranty. The computer maker said affected systems have serial numbers starting with numbers in one of four ranges: W8435-W8522, QP435-QP522, CK435-CK522 and YD435-YD522.

Spinning the hits
On the Net, the tunes may change. But the song remains the same: cha-ching.

Warner Music Group is creating a new music-distribution mechanism that will rely on digital downloads instead of compact discs. The new mechanism will be called an "e-label," in which artists will release music in clusters of three songs every few months rather than a CD every few years.

The e-label will permit recording artists to enjoy a "supportive, lower-risk environment" without as much pressure for huge commercial hits, the company said. In addition, artists signed to the e-label will retain copyright and ownership of their master recordings.

Warner Music's move seems to be a response to the exploding popularity of music-download services and the slowly slipping sales of physical CDs. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, about 180 million songs were sold online in the first half of 2005, up from 57 million in the same period last year.

Online music is also being visited by the spirit of music video's golden age. Podcasting start-up PodShow, the love child of former MTV video jockey Adam Curry, has created a network for musicians and podcasters.

The PodSafe music network is designed to give podcasters access to music, other content and tools to create royalty-free podcasts. Musicians can use the network to promote and market their music, while listeners can access music in single-play or podcast formats.

Meanwhile, Sirius Satellite Radio has unveiled a portable music device that can store the company's programming as well as MP3 files from a PC. The S50 is designed to let people record, store and play up to 50 hours of satellite radio programming and music files.

A home dock or a car dock--the latter is bundled with the player--is needed to record the programming or play live shows. Measuring 1.9 inches by 3.9 inches by 0.7 inches, the player features a color display and voice-assisted channel navigation.

Also of note
Motorola has received regulatory approval to start selling a cell phone that runs a mobile version of Apple's iTunes software...Advanced Micro Devices is on the verge of a milestone it has sought for years: a deal that would put its notebooks into the hands of the Fortune 500...Verizon Communications is launching its co-branded Yahoo DSL service for $14.95 a month...The plug-and-play vulnerability that caused havoc for Windows 2000 users last week also holds a serious risk for some Windows XP users.