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Week in review: Patent woes

Telephone tech's No. 1 obstacle? Patents. Also, Apple's summer hardware harvest, and Linux spreads its wings.

After getting through funding, research and development, marketing strategies, and getting your product to consumers, here comes the hard part: navigating the patent storm.

Chipmaker Qualcomm was dealt another blow in its battle to dodge an International Trade Commission's ban on the importation of its advanced cell phone chips into the U.S. when the Bush administration refused to intervene. The ITC's decision, which was handed down in June, bans the importation of all cell phones using 3G chipsets from Qualcomm, because Qualcomm was found to have infringed on patents held by rival Broadcom.

But Qualcomm says it's not giving up. The company still maintains that Broadcom's patents are not valid. Qualcomm also said it is working closely with its customers and the operators on implementing new software that will provide a work-around to the patents.

And it said it's still working on an appeal and stay request with the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals. Last month, the appeals court said it didn't have jurisdiction in the case.

The ban would be particularly tough for all the major cell phone operators, which during the past several years have spent billions of dollars deploying their 3G networks. Public safety officials have also said that a ban on these new cell phones would hamper efforts to enhance 911 capabilities.

Another telephony player hit hard by patent problems is Net phone provider Vonage, which has been mired in a nasty patent battle with Verizon Communications and appears to be teetering on disaster as it struggles to sign up new customers. Vonage said it has completed the necessary work-arounds for the Verizon patents that a court found it infringes, but the legal drama has cost the company dearly in terms of recruiting new customers.

Vonage's legal troubles have no doubt scared off customers. During the quarter, Vonage added only 57,000 new customers. This is down dramatically from the 166,000 new customers it added in the first quarter.

What's more, Vonage, which had aggressively marketed its service by splashing banner ads all over the Internet and flooding television airwaves with commercials, has pared back its advertising budget to reduce costs. For the second quarter the company spent just $68 million on marketing, down from $91 million in the first quarter.

While many CNET News.com readers complained about Vonage's voice quality and customer service, a few readers praised the Internet phone service.

"Vonage has done a lot to spread the word about VoIP, offers some solid service and deserves a chance to grow," . "I never invested in Vonage and am only a customer, but would miss the service if it were forced to close."

Meanwhile, Microsoft won a reversal of a $1.5 billion jury verdict against it for infringing on a patent for MP3 technology held by Alcatel-Lucent. A judge tossed out the damages after finding that a jury improperly ruled that Microsoft infringed on one of two patents at issue for MP3 sound technology. The new ruling holds that one of the patents in the case was not actually owned outright by Alcatel-Lucent, and since Microsoft had a license to that particular patent through its co-owner, it's off the hook.

Apple's summer harvest
Apple introduced two new iMacs and unveiled updated software for home Mac users. The 20-inch and 24-inch iMacs are the latest editions of Apple's all-in-one iMac design. They are made from aluminum and glass, and come with a new keyboard. Both the new keyboard and the iMac itself are thinner than the previous edition. Click here for a full review of the new 20-inch iMac.

Also getting a makeover were the five applications that make up the iLife '08 suite of multimedia applications, which aim to help Mac users organize "user-generated content." Apple is skipping right over iLife '07 to release iLife '08, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said, calling the latest version "the biggest jump in iLife since we introduced it." The primary enhancement to iPhoto '08 is a new feature that sorts by events--it automatically sorts photos by date and can preview the photos in an event without opening the folder.

Apple will be releasing a completely new version of the iMovie application with the new iLife suite. The new iMovie allows you to drag and drop movie clips from your library of videos into a new movie template. You can pick how long each individual clip will run, set transitions between scenes and upload those videos to your iTunes, the new .Mac Video Gallery or to YouTube right from the menu selections.

The Mac Mini has received an update as well. The previous models came with Intel Core Duo chips. The new models get Core 2 Duos; a 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo T5600 chip in the $599 model and a 2.0GHz Core 2 Duo T7200 on the $799 unit. In addition to the faster clock speeds, adding Core 2 Duo also means 4MB of L2 cache on the $799 Mac Mini will offer better performance. Apple also added iLife '08 to both new Mac Minis, as well.

In love with Linux
As open-source aficionados gathered at LinuxWorld in San Francisco, to discuss everything from security and licensing to Windows interoperability, one thing was clear: Linux is gaining more ground in the OS wars.

Lenovo will offer a version of Linux on its ThinkPad notebooks beginning in the fourth quarter. The Chinese PC maker has selected Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 from Novell as its first supported entry into the world of open source.

Though ThinkPads have been certified to run Linux in the past, this is the first time Lenovo will support the hardware and operating system directly. Novell will be responsible for providing operating system updates to Lenovo's customers. ThinkPads with Suse Linux will be available to Lenovo's commercial customers and individuals.

Novell also joined IBM in creating an open-source desktop software bundle they claim is $300 to $500 cheaper per user than the latest office worker software from Microsoft. The "open collaboration client" includes Lotus Notes 8, Sametime instant messaging and IBM's Lotus lightweight productivity applications, which natively support the OpenDocument format. The companies developed a one-click install process for Novell's desktop Linux.

Meanwhile, Dell sees Linux as the key to making virtual machines easier to build, according to Kevin Kettler, the company's chief technical officer. Despite its recent growth, Linux is lagging in terms of the worldwide combined paid-server operating system environments by Microsoft and others. Combining the use of Linux with virtualization is not such an odd pairing. Rather, the two "play to one another very strongly," Kettler said, particularly when it comes to the re-emerging trend of virtualization.

Pairing Linux and virtualization to manage and consolidate enterprise data centers is something Dell is using back at home base. Three thousand of Dell's own servers run Linux, including its so-called mission-critical applications, such as the company's internal employee, supply chain and financial-management systems.

Google, which proudly proclaims that many of its engineers' workstations run Linux, has become a contributor of the Open Invention Network, an organization created to help take the pressure of patent litigation off Linux developers. Google's membership in the group means that it will, like other OIN members, agree to cross-license open source-related patents to other OIN members free of charge. The idea is that member companies can then freely collaborate on open-source projects and bear less of a burden when it comes to dealing with intellectual-property issues.

Also of note
President Bush signed into law the America Competes Act, which authorizes $33.6 billion from federal coffers for government-sponsored research, education and teacher-training programs in the science and tech arena over the next few years...AT&T apparently censored Pearl Jam for saying disparaging things about President Bush during AT&T's Webcast of the Lollapalooza concert...A device made to find and use open areas of the spectrum band has received a failing grade from the Federal Communications Commission.