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Week in review: Wireless in Nawlins

Mobile phones and wireless gadgets were all over New Orleans this week, as CTIA Wireless 2005 came to town.

There's a phone over Bourbon Street, or at least there was earlier this week.

In fact, phones and wireless gadgets were all over New Orleans this week, as CTIA Wireless 2005 came to town. Although people had plenty to celebrate, not all was easy in the Big Easy.

Among the reasons for industry good cheer was a CTIA survey finding that U.S. cell phone operators added 21.7 million new subscribers last year--growth that pushed carrier revenue past the $100 billion mark for the first time.

And then there was the gadget factor. A major focus of the show was the metamorphosis of the cell phone from a simple call-making and -receiving device to a multimedia gizmo that can not only take pictures but also play music, surf the Internet and offer television shows.

The camera phone phenomenon has helped wireless data revenue double over the last two years, and carriers and handset makers show every sign of pushing the trend. Cingular Wireless, for example, announced that it will be selling the Sony Ericsson S710, which sports a 1.3-megapixel digital camera with a photo light and an 8x zoom lens, and throws an MP3 player into the mix.

Not to be outdone, Samsung showed off its p777, which Cingular also sells. The phone has a 1.3-megapixel camera, an MP3 player and enough memory to store an hour of video footage.

Still, one of the show's featured speakers threw some cold water on the merrymakers. Kodak CEO Dan Carp said cell phones with embedded cameras will go from runaway hit to small-time niche service if major problems remain unaddressed.

Carp said a Kodak market study found that most camera phone owners find their devices less than satisfying, even though they used the cameras to snap about 70 billion photos last year.

Nearly two-thirds of camera phone owners rarely, if ever, upload pictures to a computer. And 70 percent never or rarely send photos to other phones. Notoriously short battery life, poor photo quality and the complexity of printing pictures are causing major headaches for the 180 million camera phone owners worldwide, according to Carp.

"These are all warning signs," he said. "If we're not careful, imaging could fade to a niche application in phones. Some think it's happening already."

Other company chiefs seemed to agree on the danger of rushing headlong into Gizmoland without taking care of fundamentals. "We need to be challenged to simplify this business," Cingular's Stan Sigman said. "Every new idea we fall in love with. We don't need more. Do fewer, and do it better," T-Mobile's Robert Dotson added.

But hey, the cell phone industry can always look to voice over Internet Protocol, an approach being explored by Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, Nortel Networks and others. The technology seems to be doing OK by the upstart Skype, which is preparing to expand its menu of paid services.

Then again, it hasn't worked out quite so well for AT&T, whose CallVantage service had a paltry 53,000 subscribers at the end of 2004--a lesson in how millions of dollars in marketing and a well-known brand name don't always guarantee success. And there are other problems with Net-based phoning, such as potential electronic Pearl Harbor scenarios. Hmm...perhaps the best bet is that old standby: porn.

Your personal info just went data way
The issue of privacy remained very public this week, following ChoicePoint's recent data leak. The company, which compiles electronic dossiers on Americans and sells them to insurance companies, other businesses and police agencies, apologized to a congressional committee for the mishap, which so far has led to 750 known cases of identity fraud.

CEO Derek Smith told the committee that the incident "has caused us to undergo some serious soul-searching." But Smith's remorse may not be enough to soothe the fears of lawmakers, who said they may clamp new restrictions on companies that amass and sell Social Security numbers and other personal information.

Such restrictions, however, might not be applicable to companies such as Amazon.com, which has irked privacy advocates with a system it's invented to gather clues about customers' gift-giving habits. Post a review of a book or other product on Amazon.com, and the information may find its way into the company's file on you. That's one key feature of the system, anyway.

The company says the idea is to enable it to suggest future gifts and reminders to customers. But advocate groups say the system could involve profiling children, as well as exploit gift-giving and the sense of community that customer reviews were designed to engender--or worse.

"There's no guarantee that there won't be some disastrous privacy invasion coming out of this," said Karen Coyle, a spokeswoman for Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. "That's a very big risk to take with children."

Amazon spokeswoman Patty Smith downplayed concerns. Although the company has won a patent for the system, she said, this doesn't mean the system will be put into place. "It's not something we're currently doing," she said. "It's all hypothetical."

More than 100,000 alumni of Boston College may be wishing their situation was hypothetical right about now. The college is dealing with an attack on its fund-raising databases, which may have exposed the personal information of those alumni.

College representatives said Thursday that the school was the target of a virus attack on a computer housed in a campus calling center used by students to solicit donations from alumni.

Although an investigation bore no evidence that hackers may have accessed alumni information stored on the database--which included individuals' Social Security numbers and other personal details--the school decided to inform all the people whose records might have been compromised.

Spokesman Jack Dunn said the college will also purge individuals' Social Security numbers from all of its records in the future. He said schools have long used the identifiers to keep track of people in a number of ways but noted that increasing concerns over the security of computing systems used to store the information have caused the college and others to review the policy.

Developers, developers, developers
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer may not have been bellowing onstage, but the company was all about developers this week just the same.

More than 100 influential developers using Microsoft products signed a petition demanding the software company to reconsider plans to end support for Visual Basic in its "classic" form.

The developers, members of Microsoft's Most Valuable Professional program, claim that the move could kill development on millions of Visual Basic 6 (VB6) applications and "strand" programmers who have not been trained in newer languages.

The problem, they say, is that when Microsoft made Visual Basic .Net (or Visual Basic 7), the successor to VB6, it actually killed one language and replaced it with a fundamentally different one. It is effectively impossible to migrate VB6 applications to Visual Basic .Net, they say. And for VB6 developers, they add, learning Visual Basic .Net is as complex as learning a completely new programming language.

"The .Net version of Visual Basic is Visual Basic in name only," wrote developer and author Rich Levin in a recent blog. "Any organization with an investment in Visual Basic code--consultants, ISVs, IT departments, businesses, schools, governments--are forced to freeze development of their existing VB code base or reinvest virtually all the time, effort, intellectual property and expense to rewrite their applications from scratch."

Despite the outcry, Microsoft remains "firm" in its plans to end free support for Visual Basic 6 at the end of the month, S. "Soma" Somasegar, corporate vice president of Microsoft's tools division, told CNET News.com.

Somasegar said Microsoft's intention is to ease the migration of customers to Visual Basic .Net by introducing enhancements in the forthcoming edition of its Visual Basic 2005 meant to "bring back" some ease-of-use features that appeal to Visual Basic developers. The company also plans to open the VB6 Upgrade Center, an area on its Microsoft Developer Network Web site that will have technical information to help customers learn Visual Basic .Net.

Other Microsoft encounters with development this week included the release of an early version of Indigo, a new communications system intended to let Windows programs more easily connect to other software.

The software giant has also been preparing for the day when software will no longer be sold in a box. The transformation will be substantial for the company and will involve two key changes: subscription pricing; and software that's stored remotely, or "hosted," rather than installed directly on a business' own servers.

The head of Microsoft Business Solutions, Doug Burgum, said his unit is planning for a day when it delivers its software as a hosted service, but the division doesn't plan to create the infrastructure for that itself. Rather than try to develop something unique to his unit, Burgum said, he intends to work off a broader Microsoft-developed platform.

On a different development note, the GNU Compiler Collection, a key open-source programming tool known as GCC, is slated for an overhaul.

Almost all open-source software is built with GCC, a compiler that converts a program's source code--the commands written by humans in high-level languages such as C--into the binary instructions a computer understands. The forthcoming GCC 4.0 includes a new foundation that will allow that translation to become more sophisticated, said Mark Mitchell, the GCC 4 release manager and "chief sourcerer" of a small company called CodeSourcery.

A rundown on what's coming in GCC 4.0 can be found here.

Also of note
In a poll released by job board Dice, 43 percent of IT worker respondents said a lack of job security is the greatest contributor to job stress. At 20 percent, the second most cited stress factor was "always having to do more with less."...As part of a "Made for iPod" logo program, Apple Computer has been angling for a slice of the revenue from the growing array of third-party add-ons that connect to the iPod....MSN is readying its version of a system for selling text ads linked to search queries and results, a direct challenge to market leaders Google and Yahoo.