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Week in review: Lump of coal for Microsoft

Software giant gets an unwelcome gift when a European court orders it to start offering a version of Windows without a bundled media player.

Microsoft got an unwelcome gift this week when a European court ordered the company to start offering a version of Windows without a bundled media player.

The European Court of First Instance said that Microsoft must comply with penalties imposed by the European Commission in March even as the company's appeal wends its way through the system. The Commission ruled in March that the software giant used its monopoly in operating systems to try to manipulate the markets for media players and work-group server operating systems.

It ordered the company to offer a version of Windows without its bundled media player and to share more technical details with rivals--orders that will now go into effect.

To comply with that order, Microsoft plans to release the Windows XP Reduced Media Edition in January--only in Europe. Matt Pilla, a Microsoft group product manager, said the company wanted to be as clear as possible about what customers are--or aren't--getting. "As descriptive as we can be in the name--to reduce confusion--the better," Pilla said.

In addition to lacking a copy of Windows Media Player, the new version of Windows won't be able to do things like play a CD or MP3 file or transfer music to a portable device--at least not without additional software from another company. Among the limited media features that will remain are the ability to play .wav files using Sound Recorder as well as a moviemaking program that is separate from Windows Media Player.

After a long night of digesting Wednesday's ruling, Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith spoke to CNET about why the Microsoft appeal still matters, about how the European Union order differs from past antitrust rulings and about why he thinks a settlement might still be possible.

Search for security
Google said it has fixed a flaw that could have allowed hackers to search the contents of PCs running the company's desktop search tool. Dan Wallach, an assistant professor of computer science at Rice University, discovered the vulnerability while working with two graduate students. Wallach describes it as a composition flaw--where a security weakness is caused by the interaction of several separate components.

Google also responded to calls from antivirus companies to stop the advance of an Internet worm that was using the search engine's technology to spread among online bulletin boards. The Santy worm, which searched Google for sites that use a vulnerable version of the phpBB bulletin board software, spread quickly and infected about 40,000 Web sites.

Armed with the list, the worm sent code designed to compromise the potentially vulnerable sites. If Google had been ready for the eventuality, the company could have stopped the worm cold, said Mikko Hypponen, the research director for antivirus company F-Secure.

Google set up filters to weed out the worm's queries and prevent its spread. The worm attack spotlights the dark side of Google's success: The search giant has become a target, and tool, for hackers.

From malicious hackers using Google to hunt for sensitive information to the increasing scrutiny of the security of Google's services and software, the search giant's popularity has a significant downside.

Silent fight
BitTorrent "hubs" that publish lists of movies, TV shows and other free downloads suddenly went dark in a major victory for Hollywood that highlights vulnerabilities in the technology behind the world's busiest peer-to-peer network. Last week, the Motion Picture Association of America launched a series of worldwide legal actions, aimed at the people who ran the infrastructure for BitTorrent networks being used to distribute movies and other copyrighted materials without permission.

The MPAA's actions have put pressure on a short list of large Web sites that had served as hubs for the BitTorrent community and that had operated for months or even years. Many of those sites have now vanished almost overnight, including the site that was by far the most popular gathering point for the community, serving more than a million people a day, according to one academic study.

Apple Computer jumped into the fray when it filed suit against three developers it says posted a prerelease version of Mac OS X onto the file-trading network. The lawsuit alleges that the three men posted a developer release of Mac OS X Tiger onto sites used by BitTorrent.

In the suit, Apple said the tracker on one of the BitTorrent sites indicated that more than 2,500 copies of one Tiger version were downloaded. The postings began in late October and continued through this month, the Mac maker said.

The shape of gadgets to come
After several years of bulking up to meet consumer demand for high-performance notebooks with large screens, many laptops will shed weight to dip below 7.5 pounds. New hardware, including an updated version of Intel's Centrino chip bundle, will help usher in the era of slimmer portables, which aren't expected to cost much more than heavier counterparts with equal components, industry watchers say.

A year ago, two-thirds of the notebooks on the market had desktop processors and were heavier than 7.5 pounds, said Jonathan Kaye, manager of product marketing for consumer notebooks at Hewlett-Packard. "Moving into 2005, we're going to see a shift, flip-flopping to maybe 65 percent of notebooks being under 7.5 pounds."

Meanwhile, Carlos Owens is aiming to take a big step. By day, the 26-year-old Owens is an Anchorage-area steelworker. In his own time, he's hoping to become the creator of a true "mecha"--not a robot, exactly, but a gigantic exoskeleton that can transform its wearer's motions into eight-foot strides and the devastating sweep of a steel fist.

Owens' mecha project is well on its way to completion. Its horned red head and pincher hands tower above its creator. He's hoping to finish it in time for a test spin at the local racetrack next summer, demolishing a few cars to show off its capabilities.

Down the coast, University of California researchers are tinkering with technology that will, ideally, let helicopters fly themselves. The Berkeley Aerial Robot project passed a significant milestone earlier this month, when a 130-pound model of a helicopter successfully guided itself through a course that included random obstacles that weren't on its internal map--a first, according to the university.

The project is part of a larger effort to create robots that can get to places too dangerous or difficult for humans to go. John Deere and iRobot, for instance, are working on an autonomous ground vehicle that will be able to bring supplies to soldiers at the front lines. Next year, the U.S. Army will deploy a robot car with a machine gun that will drive itself--but a human will be in control of the gun.

Also of note and Linspire unveiled a Linux-based laptop priced at $498...A program called CoolWebSearch can change Microsoft Internet Explorer's security settings and wreak havoc on computers...A teenage girl has filed suit against Take 2 Interactive for including topless footage of her in "The Guy Game."