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Tech Industry

A summer garden of tech delights

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper takes on consumer woes, the price of national security and new-media annoyances.

Is it cheating if I indulged in a "catchall" column at the height of summer's dog days, when we're all fatigued from arguing over whether Barry Bonds will wind up in Cooperstown for his playing or behind jail bars for perjury (or maybe both)? If so, feel free to send me a nastygram. Meanwhile, here goes.

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More tales from our disposable society.

Nokia orders a recall of 46 million Masushita-made cell phone batteries this week. In my corner of the world, the news came across the wire as I was replacing a third broken Nokia phone in the last two years. In brief, the screen on my first phone stopped functioning (for no apparent reason). This time around, the antenna on the replacement unit came loose after the plastic housing cracked.

If you're wondering whether I'm a congenital klutz, the answer is no. At least no more than the average Joe. I suppose that you can chalk it up to regular wear and tear taking its toll on a cheapo gadget. But three cell phones in two years? C'mon guys. At this rate, the odds are that I'll nail the hat trick before the ball drops in Times Square on December 31.

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Speaking of expensive bits of metal and plastic that go bump in the night, why should a laptop computer crap out after one and a half years of moderate use?

Why some smart CEO hasn't realized the potential PR windfall that would result by extending the duration of its company's warranty guarantee remains a mystery.

This fact of computer life has long annoyed me. And I was reminded of how unfair it is when my much-aggrieved sister called last week to say her computer had given up the ghost with no warning.

I explained this more gently, but the tech industry's stingy warranty protection policy is simply the equivalent of a raised middle finger directed at the computer-using public. For the most part, it's a one-year grace period, and then you're on your own.

A brief postscript: A customer representative at Dell told my sister that the company was willing to check out the system, but it would cost a couple hundred bucks, sight unseen. And if my hunch is right, she's going to need a new motherboard, and that's going to cost another $300.

Is it any wonder, then, that there's a groundswell of disgruntled PC buyers? The University of Michigan reported earlier this week that customers want better product reliability and better customer service, according to the

Why some smart CEO hasn't realized the potential PR windfall that would result by extending the duration of its company's warranty guarantee remains a mystery. It's a golden opportunity to break away from the pack. You can't buy that kind of good publicity.

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Scenes we'd like to see: Fake Steve Jobs interviewing the real Steve Jobs.

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Five years after the courts shut down the original Napster song-swapping service, one could be excused for assuming that mainstream-content companies had since figured out how to deliver a product over the Internet to customers' satisfaction. Now a recent survey comes along from a market research firm called Parks Associates to debunk any such nonsensical notion.

The Parks report found that only one in five users is satisfied with the quality of the video content they download legally from the Internet. Among the highlights:

• 16 percent qualify the available selection as good.

• 13 percent say video downloads are sold at reasonable prices.

If the methodology is legit, it means that overwhelming majorities think the state of the art is simply pathetic. And this is for legitimate services! (If you steal content by downloading copyright material, I'm assuming that price outweighs any reservations you may have about the quality of the content you rip off.)

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I've got to stop watching Jim Cramer's show on CNBC. Each time I watch, he works me into a sweaty rage, and I wind up hyperventilating about the sheer recklessness of this TV chrome dome.

Of course, Cramer's simply a showman. Maybe the best at what he does today. Like they were when they listened to Don Imus during that shock jock's heyday, listeners are left simultaneously laughing and stewing over Cramer's rapid-fire ruminations. With Cramer, I think that part of the attraction is wondering whether the man will suffer an embolism on live TV.

When it came to tech prognosticating, he's had some good calls. Of course, that was when the market was seemingly climbing each and every day. But after a market meltdown in which the Dow has lost more than 1,000 points in a matter of weeks, his golden touch has lost a lot of luster. To be continued. Meanwhile, the only (obvious) advice is caveat emptor.

Maybe we're all suffering from the late-summer blues, but I'm astonished at the general apathy that greeted the congressional vote to update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Sure, there was predictable howling from extreme leftist loonies and ultra-right-wing whackos. But the vital center that's supposed to hold things together in this nation seemed more concerned with Bonds' assault on Hank Aaron's home run record.

The critics said this pre-Internet statute was long overdue for an update. Congress passed FISA in 1978 in the aftermath of an investigation into CIA excesses. Maybe I'm splitting hairs, but the provision was already updated many times--especially since the passage of the Patriot Act. The administration argued that Congress had to modernize FISA to account for technology changes, such as the use of the Internet to make phone calls.

Since the FISA court approves nearly every eavesdropping request from the administration, was going through proper channels such a bureaucratic hardship?

So it was that both houses of Congress this summer were ready with bills that would include what I thought were reasonable provisions governing the interception of Internet communications.

But then the Democrats went on to grant President Bush even wider powers to eavesdrop without a warrant. (Since the FISA court approves nearly every eavesdropping request from the administration, was going through proper channels such a bureaucratic hardship?) I suppose that in the run-up to the pre-primary silly season, nobody wants to get labeled as soft on terrorism.

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Just say no.

I'm as meshuga about blogs as the next columnist, but the public feuding between so-called A-bloggers over the various and sundry has attained farce status. This is getting oh so tired. The good news is that the world at large couldn't give a fig. In the small cyber echo chamber that is the blogosphere (and we need a better noun) the manic-depressive mutterings of grumpy hacks simply aren't relevant.

Guys, push away from the keyboard, and smell the flowers. It can be a wonderful world.

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After years of frenetic deal making, AT&T has grown into a $165 billion colossus. Even though consumer advocates hoped that antitrust regulators would take action, the Department of Justice nonetheless gave the company the green light. But has AT&T returned the favor in the coin of muzzling criticism of the Bush administration?

It turns out that AT&T bleeped out anti-Bush lyrics from a Pearl Jam concert streamed from AT&T's Blue Room Web site. The company claimed that it edited Blue Room Web casts only for profanity. That explanation fell by the wayside after a not-for-profit music organization called the Future of Music Coalition said it had counted 20 instances of curse words being used during the Pearl Jam Webcast that were not censored by the content monitor.

AT&T ultimately issued a public mea culpa, saying it did not intend to edit political comments. At the same time, though, the company acknowledged censoring statements in an unspecified "handful" of performances.

Was it a mistake, or did AT&T set out to silence political criticism of a friendly administration in Washington? Ultimately, it comes down to a question of credibility, and it's too much of a stretch to believe that the people who manage this megacompany had no idea what they were doing.

AT&T has gotten its way from the political powers that be. But along the way, it's forgotten the age-old lesson that with great power also comes great responsibility.