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Week in review: Microsoft goes to court

Software giant files two patent suits as Google takes aim at it. No-show Steve Jobs is main topic at Apple shareholder meeting. Also: Facebook malware.

Microsoft's legal team got a workout this week.

Microsoft filed two separate patent infringement actions against GPS navigation company TomTom. In complaints before the U.S. District Court in Washington and the International Trade Commission, Microsoft is alleging infringement of eight patents.

In an interview, Microsoft deputy general counsel Horacio Gutierrez said that the software giant has been trying to start licensing talks with TomTom for more than a year.

"They basically never were prepared to have a discussion with us with respect to licensing terms," Gutierrez said.

Although Microsoft has been on the receiving end of many patent complaints, this is only the third patent case Microsoft has taken to court.

Although Microsoft is not highlighting the issue, the patent infringement lawsuits it filed against TomTom include claims related to that company's use of the Linux kernel. While the software maker has asserted for years that Linux infringes on its patents, this appears to be the first time Microsoft has made the claim in court.

Gutierrez said that the company's legal action against TomTom over Linux was specific to that company, but he declined to say whether other suits over the open source operating system might follow.

Meanwhile, Google wants to help the European Commission prove antitrust charges against Microsoft related to the software giant's dominance of the Web browser market. The Web search giant, which recently released its Chrome Web browser, is applying to be a "third party" in the European proceedings, which will entitle it to receive access to confidential documents in the case and the ability to voice objections.

The request follows the EU's recent decision to grant third-party access to Mozilla, the organization behind the popular Firefox browser. Mitchell Baker, Mozilla's chair, voiced concerns similar to Google's--that tying IE to the Windows operating system harms competition for Web browsers and reduces consumer choice.

Microsoft also spent some time in the court of public opinion. Microsoft sparked a firestorm of criticism when it told some former employees that it had made an accounting error when calculating their severance packages and would like that money returned.

"An inadvertent administrative error occurred that resulted in an overpayment in severance pay by Microsoft," the letter states. "We ask that you repay the overpayment and sincerely apologize for any inconvenience to you."

Hundreds of readers wrote into CNET News slamming the company and an overwhelming 70 percent of some 13,000 readers who participated in an unscientific survey said if they were in that position, they would not return the money.

A couple of days later Microsoft human resources chief Lisa Brummel said the company was reversing course.

"I thought it didn't make sense for us to continue on the path we were on," she told CNET News. Twenty-five workers were overpaid and about 20 underpaid, Microsoft said.

Brummel said those overpaid received, on average, about $4,000 or $5,000 in extra pay.

Apple no-show and tell
Apple's first annual shareholder meeting in more than 10 years without founder and CEO Steve Jobs was largely uneventful, but Art Levinson, co-lead director, chairman, and CEO of Genentech, fielded questions regarding Steve Jobs' health. He said that the company believes it has satisfied all the legal requirements regarding the disclosure of material information, and that the board has discussed succession at Apple for years.

Levinson declined, however, to make any succession plan public, which some corporate governance experts have called on Apple to do in the wake of investor concern over the way the disclosures were handled. Jobs "remains deeply involved" in major strategic decisions at Apple and, if that changes, the board will inform shareholders, he said.

Apple announced the release of a public beta Safari 4 for Windows and Mac, promising a much faster browser with improved navigation and searching. The company said the newest edition of Apple's browser for both Mac OS X and Windows will run JavaScript commands 4.2 times faster than Safari 3, and also claims to deliver better JavaScript and HTML page loading than Microsoft's Internet Explorer 7 or Mozilla's FireFox 3.

Apple also added the Cover Flow interface now found in almost every piece of its software to let users scroll backward through browsing history as if they were flipping through album covers, and what appears to be Apple's own implementation of FireFox's Smart Location "awesome bar" called Smart Address Field.

A new set of leaked screenshots of Apple's upcoming Mac OS X release, Snow Leopard, appears to confirm that the most sweeping changes to the operating system won't be visible. When Apple announced plans for Snow Leopard in June, it said that Mac OS X 10.6 would focus more on improving the performance and stability of the operating system, rather than adding features.

And that seems to be the case, judging by the minor enhancements shown in the latest build. The Stacks interface will now let you navigate through folders within the Stacks view, rather than opening Finder if you selected a folder from that view. And the Trash window now has a "Put Back" feature for returning inadvertently deleted files to the original folder, apparently bringing back a feature that got left behind with the transition from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X.

Fixing a hole
A new piece of malware making the rounds on Facebook falsely warns users that their friends have had problems viewing their profiles, posing a potential threat to users' personal information. The rogue application, dubbed "Error Check System," displays an error message in the notifications section that reads "(Friend's name) has faced some errors when checking your profile View The Errors Message."

But the warnings are fake and reportedly a viral attempt to spread the application and recruit more Facebook users. Facebook users already infected by the application can uninstall it by using the Edit tab in the Applications section of their Facebook profile.

Attackers are attempting to exploit an unpatched security hole in Excel that could allow someone to take control of a compromised computer. The attack exploiting the Excel Unspecified Remote Code Execution Vulnerability requires a computer user to open an attachment sent via e-mail that has a maliciously crafted Excel document, Microsoft advised.

Microsoft said it is working on a security fix to plug the hole and will release it after it has completed testing. In the meantime, Windows users are urged to avoid opening Office files from untrusted sources or that arrive unexpectedly.

As layoffs continue apace, a new survey shows what many companies fear--exiting workers are taking a lot more with them than just their personal plants and paperweights. Of about 950 people who said they had lost or left their jobs during the last 12 months, nearly 60 percent admitted to taking confidential company information with them, including customer contact lists and other data that could potentially end up in the hands of a competitor for the employee's next job stint.

The survey also found a correlation between people who took data they shouldn't have taken and their attitude towards the company they are leaving. More than 60 percent of those who stole confidential data also reported having an unfavorable view of the company. And nearly 80 percent said they took it without the employer's permission.

Also of note
Business and personal users of Gmail suffered an outage Tuesday morning, but Google said it's fixed the problem...New Chief Executive Carol Bartz has reorganized Yahoo in an attempt to make the Internet pioneer faster, simpler, and more responsive to those who use its services...New York newspaper Newsday plans to begin charging online readers for access to its content, rejecting a trend toward free online newspaper content.