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Week in review: On the go with Google

Google takes us from the seas to space, while tech giants grapple with security issues. Also: DTV switchover delay.

Steven Musil Night Editor / News
Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
Expertise I have more than 30 years' experience in journalism in the heart of the Silicon Valley.
Steven Musil
6 min read

Google wants to take you places you have never been before, and it's coming along for the ride.

Google Earth upped the cartographic ante, incorporating even more data from NASA, the BBC, National Geographic, and other proprietary sources to create one of the most unique map offerings ever, meshing comprehensive real-time data on Earth's surface with information on the oceans, the stars that we see, historical maps, and topographical information on Mars.

Images: Google Earth 5.0 travels oceans, time, and space

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With Google Earth 5.0, users can now explore Mars in the same way they've been able to instantly view 3D images of much of our own home planet for several years in previous versions of the software. The Mars project, which was implemented in conjunction with NASA, is intended both for casual investigation of our planetary next-door neighbor, as well as serious research. NASA and Google hope scientists and other researchers will use the new Google Earth Mars feature to share data about the fourth rock from the sun.

Additionally, the new Mars features allows Google Earth users to view much of the most recent satellite imagery from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, as well as other craft circling the planet. And users are able to add their own generally sharable 3D content to the larger map of Mars.

But will the visibility of the ocean depths on Google Earth make money directly? Not likely. But it adds incrementally to the overall utility of the software, which in the long run keeps it relevant.

Google has begun experimenting with advertisements on Google Maps and Google Earth. Since people often need to discover information about a place before going there, Google Earth and Maps could prove a lucrative endeavor. It may take years to get there, and it'll cost Google dearly in server hardware and network bandwidth, but Google has shown patience in subsidizing long-term projects.

Just because the Internet has broken down geographic barriers, don't assume the search giant doesn't care about geography. Google launched software called Latitude that lets mobile phone users share their location with close contacts. Google hopes it will help people find each other while out and about and to keep track of loved ones.

Photos: Oceans open to Google Earth

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The software spotlights Google's fixation with mapping and location technology. Location is an important part of navigating the real world, and Google clearly sees its geographic services as a way to establish a more personal connection with customers who today use Google chiefly for the virtual realm of the Internet. And of course money is involved, too: Google hopes its mapping technology will lead to location-based advertising revenue.

To protect privacy, Google specifically requires people to sign up for the service. People can share their precise location, the city they're in, or nothing at all.

Fixing a hole
More than half of the security vulnerabilities disclosed during 2008 had no patches available from the vendor by the end of the year, according to a report by IBM's X-Force research group. Meanwhile, 46 percent of vulnerabilities from 2006 and 44 percent from 2007 still had no patch by the end of 2008. X-Force documented a record number of 7,406 new vulnerabilities last year.

Overall, Microsoft is the vendor that tops the list in percentage of vulnerabilities disclosed, the report said. The Macintosh and base Linux kernel operating systems have dominated the top spots for vulnerabilities by operating system over the past three years, the report said.

However, Microsoft faced increasing heat over the security implications of a change designed to make Windows 7 less annoying than its predecessor. One of the chief complaints with Windows Vista was frustration with all the warnings that pop up to notify users that changes are being made to the operating system. With Windows 7, Microsoft has changed the feature so that users see fewer messages by default and also so they have more control in deciding how often they are notified. The problem, say some, was that by making the prompts less frequent by default, Microsoft is potentially paving the way for malicious software to makes changes without the user's consent.

Unlike with Windows Vista, where users were alerted of all major changes to their system, the default setting in Windows 7 provides users with warnings only when it is a piece of software on its own making the changes.

In response to the criticism, Microsoft said it would make changes to the way a controversial security feature works in Windows 7. While the default settings will remain, Microsoft said it would strengthen protections around the UAC feature itself. Starting with the upcoming "release candidate" version of Windows 7, changes to the UAC settings will require user approval.

Meanwhile, rival Google suffered a security black eye after it listed every site on the Internet as malware for about an hour.

Around 7 a.m. PST Saturday, every site found via Google search was flagged with this message: "This site may harm your computer." As part of Google's malware protection, clicking on a flagged site's link would pull up an additional warning. Although a link could simply be cut and paste, Google's warning was unnerving enough to keep some people from pushing their luck.

To complicate matters, after the initial problem was fixed, it took a couple of hours to iron out who actually was to blame--Google or a nonprofit known as StopBadware.org. Google eventually issued a mea culpa for mishap.

Tech and politics
With less than two weeks left before the scheduled national transition to digital broadcasting, Congress approved a delay of the DTV switchover. The House of Representatives voted 264 to 158 to push the transition back from February 17 to June 12. The Senate unanimously approved the delay last week.

House Republicans blocked an earlier attempt at delaying the transition, saying pushing back the date would create confusion for consumers and burden television stations that would have to continue broadcasting both analog and digital signals.

Democrats, including President Obama, were concerned that consumers were not prepared for the transition and that millions of people would be left without television service if it were not postponed.

So everyone is safe until June 12? Not exactly.

The Federal Communications Commission helped clarify how it will handle requests from broadcasters to turn off their analog TV signals before the new June 12 deadline. Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps said during an open meeting that the agency would carefully evaluate which stations can turn off their analog signals before the June 12 deadline.

The FCC will likely allow some stations to make the switch early, but it will try to ensure that not every station in a community makes the switch early, leaving unprepared viewers with no access to over-the-air TV.

Meanwhile, the massive "stimulus" bill that's careening through Congress spends billions of dollars in areas including green technology, energy research, and rural broadband. And Congressional leaders have made sure it comes with some strings attached.

A "Buy American" requirement remains after the Senate failed to remove it by a 31-65 vote. Net neutrality rules for broadband spending is another condition that's been imposed.

But strikingly absent is one provision that unions would seem to naturally prefer: requirements that spending be directed at unionized firms, or at least focused on jobs with minimum hourly wages. A report released by labor groups called for any stimulus subsidies to include "wage requirements" and a "prevailing wage policy" as well as an end to the practice of giving contracts to the lowest bidder.

Also of note
Google launched a mobile version of its Book Search, giving iPhone and Android users instant access to more than 1.5 million public domain books...A U.S. federal judge postponed indefinitely the coordinated patent infringement cases filed by Rambus against a collection of rival memory chipmakers...Bill Gates opened a jar of mosquitoes on stage at an elite tech conference to draw attention to the plight of malaria victims.