Week in review: Spring forward, fall flat

Thanks to a decision Congress made two years ago, daylight saving is starting early--and causing headaches for IT pros and consumers.

Daylight saving time starts Sunday and promises to bring headaches to legions of computer users.

Thanks to a decision Congress made two years ago, daylight saving is starting early--a change that could cause Y2K-like troubles for IT professionals, and even for consumers. The shift, for example, could cause trouble with software set to automatically advance its clock by an hour on the old date, the first Sunday in April, and not on the new date, the second Sunday in March.

Years of fretting over Y2K often focused on the fact that many computer programs were designed to enter years in only two digits--the last two--meaning that the 2000 might be mistaken for 1900. In the end, years of planning meant that there were no major crises and far fewer headaches than had been predicted.

With the daylight saving issue, the potential impact is seen as less severe, but there has also been far less preparation than there was for Y2K.

As the new daylight saving time switch nears, businesses are finding the update process to be complicated and time-consuming, particularly for Microsoft Windows e-mail and server software. To deal with the switch, software makers have moved to provide patches meant to adjust the clocks of computers and mobile devices automatically. Those updates are critical for many business users who depend on their PC or mobile calendar to tell them where to be and at what time.

However, the Microsoft update process is proving to be a headache for the people who look after corporate e-mail servers. Many say they have had difficulty with the software patches provided by Microsoft for its Outlook and Entourage e-mail client applications, and for the Exchange server software. For it to work properly, Microsoft says, the update process has to be done in a very particular and rapid manner.

With many large companies still struggling to patch their computer systems, a backlog has emerged for customers trying to get help. In some cases, IT workers have been waiting three or four hours to get telephone support from Microsoft, whose Exchange Server serves as the official calendar for many of the world's largest businesses.

Aiming to shorten that wait, Microsoft has boosted the number of people addressing the time-change issue. The company has opened up a "situation room" devoted to monitoring customer issues and providing support to the software maker's largest customers. The main situation room will be in Redmond, Wash., with centers in Texas, North Carolina and India overseeing things in the off-hours. Microsoft has also added more than 200 workers versed in Exchange and Outlook to its phone lines.

While CNET News.com readers debated the best solution and the need for patches, some questioned the need for the daylight saving program in general.

"It's just an archaic old leftover from way back when energy was at a premium," wrote one reader to the News.com Talkback forum.

To aid consumers, CNET News.com has addressed some commonly asked questions regarding the time shift: Click here for the link.

Out of tune
You could say it was the day Internet radio died. A key Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives slammed new federal rules that would require many Internet radio services to pay higher fees to record companies.

Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) had harsh words for . It proposes raising the amount that commercial Internet radio services pay to record companies by 30 percent retroactively to 2006 and in each of the next three years through 2009. Each station would have to hand over a minimum $500 royalty payment.

The pricing inquiries arose in part because Mel Karmazin, CEO of Sirius Satellite Radio, whose proposed merger with XM Satellite Radio is being scrutinized by House members, seemed to indicate at a House hearing last week that prices would never increase, even on the combined service.

Before the CRB's new rules, which are subject to appeal, most Webcasters calculated their requisite royalty rates based on a percentage of their revenue. The CRB's decision has imperiled Webcasters by widening the gap between what Internet radio and satellite radio services must pay, RealNetworks general counsel Robert Kimball told politicians. If the decision is not overturned, "one can easily imagine Web radio looking more and more homogenized," Kimball said.

In other music news, a new version of Apple's iTunes software addresses a number of compatibility issues with Microsoft's Windows Vista, but a few problems remain. The updated version supports the upcoming Apple TV product and includes an improved album-sorting feature, but still does not fully support Windows Vista. The new download, iTunes 7.1, is available on Apple's Web site.

When Vista arrived at the end of January, Apple told Windows users that iTunes was not yet ready for Vista because of compatibility issues. In the most dire scenario outlined by Apple, users could corrupt their iPod simply by plugging it into a Vista PC running iTunes. Problems were also reported with playing back content purchased from the iTunes Store on Vista PCs, Apple said in early February.

On the tube
If you ask some TV retailers and name-brand manufacturers, smaller LCD manufacturers are driving down prices and profits for virtually all sellers and makers of flat-panel TVs.

The astonishing success of Vizio seemed to catch the industry by surprise last year, and was a boon for consumers who were in the market for flat-panel TVs but couldn't afford to spend a few thousand dollars on a premium LCD from Sony or plasma from Panasonic. But that discounting had a downside: frustration among electronics retailers and big-time grumbling from well-known TV makers like Sony.

The rapid drop in flat-panel TV prices was the topic du jour at the U.S. Flat Panel Display Conference. Most executives at the three-day conference agreed with Steven Colky, vice president of merchandising for retailer Ken Crane's, when he said, "There are absolutely too many brands on the shelf."

Consumers don't seem to mind. And they don't seem to mind some of the new options that are open to them.

AT&T Homezone subscribers are now able to program their digital video recorders from their cell phones. AT&T now allows customers of its Homezone product, a service that offers video-on-demand and other content from the Internet on TVs, to use their mobile handsets to remotely view listings and schedule or delete recordings from their DVR (digital video recorder) set-top boxes. All that is needed is a WAP 2.0-enabled handset that lets subscribers access the AT&T-Yahoo portal.

Meanwhile, TiVo subscribers now have direct access to Amazon.com's Unbox movie and TV download service on their digital video recorders. The partnership was originally unveiled last month, and a number of TiVo users have been beta testing the service since then. The Unbox's interface is now available on all of TiVo's broadband-equipped Series 2 and Series 3 boxes. Subscribers who want to use the service are instructed to log on to the Unbox-TiVo Web site from their computers in order to sync their Amazon and TiVo accounts. After that, they can purchase and download content directly from their TiVo boxes and watch it on their televisions.

Also of note
Internet phone provider Vonage has been ordered to pay $58 million to Verizon Communications for infringing on three of the company's patents...Federal antitrust officials have expressed growing concern that Microsoft is falling behind on deadlines to revise technical documentation to licensees...Microsoft is entering the IP telephony market with the public beta release of Office Communications Server 2007 and Office Communicator 2007.

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