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Week in review: Morphing Microsoft

In the shadow of Microsoft's reorganization announcement last month, many may be surprised to learn that the software giant is looking admiringly at Apple Computer's success.

In the shadow of Microsoft's reorganization announcement last month, many may be surprised to learn that the software giant is looking admiringly at Apple Computer's success.

As Microsoft gears up its services push, the company has taken a hard look at Apple's iPod. Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's newly appointed services guru, pointed to Apple's iconic music player as a "perfect example" of a product that marries hardware, software and services. He also points to Research In Motion's BlackBerry, which brings together an e-mail device, server-based software and wireless data service.

In both cases, people don't think about the individual pieces of the package, he said. They just think about the tasks they want to do, such as listening to their music or getting e-mail on the go.

His comments were the first detailed indications of where Ozzie and Microsoft are headed following a company reorganization last month. The reshuffle was seen by some as an attempt to better compete against services-based rivals such as Google.

Microsoft also wants to improve its product release times. When Microsoft releases its SQL Server 2005 database on Nov. 7, it will have been five years since the last version debuted. If Windows Vista arrives as scheduled next fall, it too will follow its predecessor by five years. That's too much time to make customers wait for a new release, concedes Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

Although many Microsoft products have grown long in the tooth, the company is headed into a cycle that will see a flurry of big releases over the next year and a half. In addition to the new SQL Server, Microsoft is launching a revamp of its Visual Studio developer tools on Nov. 7. Next year will bring new, major releases for both of Microsoft's core franchises: Office and Windows.

However, the coming splash of new products could be the last such "big bang" for Microsoft. Many expect the company to offer more measured, but more frequent, releases in the coming years.

Some CNET readers weren't bothered by the long waits.

I don't mind the wait as long as the product is at least stable," wrote Thomas Miller in's TalkBack forum. "Too many software developers release software far too early...and the customers pay the price."

Microsoft's executive ranks are also undergoing changes as part of the reorganization. Server unit executive Bob Muglia will now head the Server and Tools unit, a role previously filled by Eric Rudder, who now works closely with Chairman Bill Gates. Those moves follow the resignations of two key executives. Don Gagne, director of development for Microsoft Office, plans to leave the company in December to pursue a car racing hobby. Hadi Partovi, general manager of the MSN portal, is leaving Microsoft to start his own company.

Go-go Google
As Microsoft tries to get its ducks in a row, tech challenger Google is turning up the heat on everyone--as well as taking some heat itself.

In a move that could put Google in competition with eBay, the search giant is testing a new service that would allow people to post and make searchable any type of content. A screenshot of a page for "Google Base" gives examples of items that can be posted to Google's server: "description of your party planning service," "articles on current events from your Web site," "listing of your used car for sale," and "database of protein structures."

"This is an early stage test of a product that enables content owners to easily send their content to Google," a Google spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail. "Like our Web crawl and the recently released Google Sitemaps program, we are working to provide content owners an easy way to give us access to their content. We're continually exploring new opportunities to expand our offerings, but we don't have anything to announce at this time."

Google also launched a search tool that lets people quickly get to airline flight information. Users can type in two different cities, or airport codes, in the Google search box to bring up two boxes for entering departing and returning flight dates. Below those are links to the travel Web sites Expedia, Hotwire and Orbitz. Clicking on one of those links leads directly to flight options for your selected itinerary on that site.

The move comes one day after Yahoo debuted its new Trip Planner beta, which allows people to create, share and print personalized trip itineraries. Travelers also will be able to share photos on Flickr, exchange information on message boards and read and submit ratings and reviews of hotels, restaurants and other travel-related activities and sources.

However, the search giant is getting some open-source competition on the book digitization front. Google was noticeably absent from a party held by the Internet Archive, when that nonprofit foundation and a parade of partners, including the Smithsonian Institution, Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo and Microsoft's MSN, rallied around a collective open-source initiative to digitize all the world's books and make them universally available. Some supporters of the Internet Archive, based in San Francisco, took the opportunity to criticize Google's high-profile project to scan library books and add them to its searchable index.

Tech in court
Hot-button issues in the tech community kept court dockets busy this week. Research In Motion was dealt a setback when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider an emergency appeal by RIM to review a long-running patent suit, a development that could shut down RIM's BlackBerry service in the United States.

Despite the potential threat of having to shutter its service, RIM could avoid a U.S. shutdown if it ultimately wins the case or decides to license the patent from NTP. A company executive also noted that RIM has a backup plan, or software "workaround," for BlackBerry devices and their respective servers should the company fail to convince the courts of its case.

Meanwhile, new federal wiretapping rules forcing Internet service providers and universities to rewire their networks for FBI surveillance of e-mail and Web browsing are being challenged in court. Telecommunications firms, nonprofit organizations and educators are asking the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to overturn the controversial rules, which dramatically extend the sweep of an 11-year-old surveillance law designed to guarantee police the ability to eavesdrop on telephone calls.

The regulations represent the culmination of years of lobbying by the FBI, the Justice Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration, which have argued that "criminals, terrorists and spies" could cloak their Internet communications with impunity unless police received broad new surveillance powers.

Microsoft came under renewed scrutiny when a federal judge scolded the company for devising a marketing plan that would have forced portable-music player makers to package only Windows Media Player with their products. A recent federal court filing revealed that Microsoft initially drafted a marketing agreement with language indicating that manufacturers that signed on would be barred from supplying software other than the Windows product.

"It seems to me that at this date, you should not be having something like this occur," U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said at a status conference here, adding that she found the issue "one of concern."

Who are you?
The hype surrounding technologies such as facial and iris recognition and radio frequency ID tags is prompting some countries to invest in the technology where they think it is most needed--protecting borders.

Biometrics has been widely touted as the next step in the evolution of identification and authentication systems. But despite the zealous reception that the technology has received from politicians and the general public, issues with system interoperability, privacy and data sharing must be solved before the technology can live up to its acclaim, some industry experts say.

Compatibility issues and questions of privacy are still hampering the efforts of countries looking to establish global biometrics standards, one expert said. "Where is my personal data being held? Who is it being shared with? How is it backed up and archived? Is it deleted when it becomes obsolete?" he asked.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has announced that all U.S. passports will be implanted with remotely readable computer chips starting in October 2006. Sweeping new State Department regulations require that passports issued after that time will have tiny radio frequency ID (RFID) chips that can transmit personal information including the name, nationality, sex, date of birth, place of birth and digitized photograph of the passport holder. Eventually, the government contemplates adding additional digitized data such as "fingerprints or iris scans."

Over the last year, opposition to the idea of implanting RFID chips in passports has grown amid worries that identity thieves could snatch personal information out of the air simply by aiming a high-powered antenna at a person or a vehicle carrying a passport.

To address the myriad complexities surrounding ID theft, CNET has launched a comprehensive page that includes a resource center, roundtable discussions, victims' stories and frequently asked questions. It also will include news and updates until federal legislation is enacted. It is designed to be bookmarked as a one-stop center to which readers can repeatedly turn to get the latest information, participate in various forums and help shape the debate.

Also of note
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