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Week in review: Software wars

While Microsoft sets eyes Vista, Google opens new front in battle for greater piece of software titan's territory.

While Microsoft has its eyes on Vista, Google is opening up a new front in its battle for a greater piece of the software titan's territory.

In an apparent challenge to Microsoft's Excel spreadsheet dominance, Google launched a Web-based spreadsheet program that will allow people to view and simultaneously edit data while conducting an "in-document" chat. Google Spreadsheets, which is part of Google Labs, supports the import and export of documents in the .xls format used in Excel and the .csv (comma-separated values) format.

The launch is further proof that the company is eyeing Microsoft's Office stronghold, but should Microsoft really be worried?

In March, Google acquired Writely, a collaborative word processor that runs in a browser. The company hasn't made clear its plans for that product, and it remains in the beta stage of testing. Still, as the pieces come together, there's little doubt that Google is quietly providing Web-based versions of the Office applications upon which Microsoft has built an empire.

Although Microsoft does not have a hosted or Web-based version of Excel yet, third parties already provide the online sharing capability that Google is touting with its Spreadsheets, Microsoft noted.

The move perplexed many CNET News.com readers in the TalkBack forum.

"Who uses spreadsheets? People in business," wrote one reader to the forum. "No enterprise will allow data--especially financial data--to be hosted on the servers of a company they don't have a contractual relationship with."

Meanwhile, after months of limited testing, Microsoft made a beta version of Windows Vista publicly available for download. The company kicked off what it called its "Customer Preview Program," a testing period in which the software maker hopes that millions of tech enthusiasts will kick the tires on the new operating system.

The software maker is still cautioning that Vista is not ready for the average consumer, pitching CPP as suited for developers and tech workers, as well as hard-core enthusiasts who don't mind a few bugs and have a spare machine for testing. Microsoft also recommends that those interested in CPP run its recently released adviser tool, which helps detect how Vista-ready a PC is.

However, the company dropped a feature from Vista that would have allowed people running the new operating system to keep data synchronized among multiple PCs. The software maker said quality concerns were behind the decision to drop the feature, which allowed people to keep files up-to-date across multiple Vista machines.

The decision to drop the synchronization software is all part of the company's normal beta testing, Microsoft said, but it added that it doesn't expect a lot of changes to Vista's feature set between now and the final release.

On the Hill
The U.S. House of Representatives definitively rejected the concept of Net neutrality, dealing a bitter blow to Internet companies like Amazon.com, eBay and Google that had engaged in a last-minute lobbying campaign to support it.

By a 269-to-152 vote that fell largely along party lines, the House Republican leadership mustered enough votes to reject a Democrat-backed amendment that would have enshrined stiff Net neutrality regulations into federal law and prevented broadband providers from treating some Internet sites differently from others.

The concept of network neutrality, which generally means that all Internet sites must be treated equally, has drawn a list of high-profile backers, from actress Alyssa Milano to Vint Cerf, one of the technical pioneers of the Internet. It has also led to a political rift between big Internet companies that back it, such as Google and Yahoo, and telecom companies that oppose what they view as onerous new federal regulations.

Internet companies that have been lobbying for stiff Net neutrality regulations might be having second thoughts right about now. A new proposal in the U.S. House of Representatives takes the concept of mandatory Net neutrality that companies like Amazon.com, eBay, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have publicly embraced and extends it to, well, those same companies.

If enacted, the amendment would mean that the Federal Communications Commission would regulate Internet advertising, paid placement and content deals to ensure that they take place in a neutral and nondiscriminatory way.

That might prevent Amazon from entering into an exclusive relationship with Toys "R" Us, for instance, and could let Yahoo and Microsoft force Google to accept ads for rivals on its search engines. It also could prevent Google from declining certain types of controversial or negative ads, which is the company's long-standing practice.

In other action, a U.S. House of Representatives panel approved a digital copyright bill that critics say could imperil home use of music- and video-recording devices like TiVo. The bill proposes establishing a "blanket licensing" system in which those entities would apply for and receive licenses through a one-stop shop.

Supporters of the bill argue that such an approach would make it easier for online music services to secure speedier approval for vast libraries of music, opening up the possibility for new market entrants, greater selection and lower prices. The consumer groups argued that the bill views digital recordings as falling into both categories, which could lead to "potentially duplicative fees" by forcing sellers to pay more than once for the same content.

What're you looking at?
The future of television displays and monitors is coming into focus, and you will find that some things are literally going to jump out at you. Several display companies are concocting, and in some cases already selling, monitors and other components that provide a simulated 3D-viewing experience.

Stand in front of a Royal Philips Electronics 3D monitor, and animated characters throw rose petals or dice at you. The first time you see it, you startle and jolt upward slightly. While Philips currently sells monitors with its WOWxv technology only to resorts and malls for public-information kiosks, it hopes to bring out 3D TVs in about two years. The company is currently talking with broadcasters and producers to produce 3D-optimized content; it is also negotiating with other TV manufacturers to license the technology for their own sets.

LCD TVs will be the most popular kind of TVs in the world by 2009, according to a new analyst report, meaning they will reach that status much faster than anticipated, thanks to rising sales and better manufacturing. This year, shipments of these TVs will rise by 74 percent to 46.7 million units, iSuppli said. A few months ago, iSuppli expected only 41.9 million units to ship this year.

If the trend continues, LCDs will account for 48 percent of TVs shipped in 2009, while CRTs will account for only 42 percent. By 2010, LCDs will account for 56 percent of TVs shipped. Meanwhile, sales of projection TVs and plasmas will remain a somewhat small part of the overall market. Projection TVs will account for 3 percent of the market by 2009, the same as they do now, while plasma will climb from 3 percent to 7 percent.

And if chemical giant 3M gets its way, it says it can save the world 33 million barrels of oil if LCD TV manufacturers adopt a new film it has created. The company's Vikuiti Dual Brightness Enhancement Film D400, or DBEF D400, can cut power consumption in liquid crystal display TVs by 20 percent to 30 percent without dropping brightness or picture quality, a company representative said at the Society for Information Display conference in San Francisco.

DBEF D400 essentially recycles light. In LCD TVs, a series of light bulbs or LEDs is aimed at a polarizer. The polarizer absorbs about half the light. The remaining light then goes to a layer of LCD pixels, and the light passes through another polarizer. Although the polarizers block light, they also manipulate light to create images.

Caring for your PC
AOL is preparing to enter the security fray with a new software bundle that it plans to market to the general public, not just its subscribers. The software, dubbed "Total Care," is expected to be available to software testers in the coming weeks. The product will include security and PC care features, matching Microsoft's recently launched Windows Live OneCare product and upcoming products from Symantec and McAfee.

Total Care marks one of AOL's first steps in the security space, outside of tools it offers exclusively to the millions of subscribers to its Internet service. The company is also quietly running a test of a security tool--the Active Security Monitor--that screens the security status of a computer and offers guidance on improving protection.

The revelation comes after McAfee announced plans to release four versions of its new "Falcon" security products, designed to rival products offered by Symantec and newcomer Microsoft. The four editions will vary in the number of security features they include, giving consumers the option to buy a less comprehensive package.

All four McAfee products would include the basic security features--antivirus, anti-spyware and a firewall. Additionally, all editions include SiteAdvisor, which adds ratings to Web search results, and PC health tools for tasks such as hard-drive defragmentation, he said.

Certainly, Microsoft's entry into the market for all-in-one PC care is shaking up the consumer security field. The introduction of OneCare is the starting gun for heightened competition for consumers' security dollars, with Microsoft taking on incumbents Symantec and McAfee. There's a lot at stake.

Last year, the worldwide market for consumer antivirus software reached $1.95 billion, up 17 percent year over year, according to research from Gartner. Symantec dominated the space, taking a 70 percent piece of the pie.

Also of note
The death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most-wanted terrorist in Iraq, sent political Web sites and blogs into overdrive...Apple Computer confirmed that it no longer intends to locate a call center in Bangalore, a hub for call centers in India...Air travelers starved for in-flight Internet access may soon find solace, thanks to a Colorado company that wants to offer Wi-Fi service aloft...A Silicon Valley start-up is expected this summer to show off an electric car that it says can hang with Porsches and Ferraris and has attracted investments from the founders of Google and eBay.