WEEKLY RECAP

Clampdown Week: iPhone vs. Pre, China vs. Web, FTC vs. Worst ISP Ever

Google doesn’t want you to use Bing to search the Web, and it would much rather see you using Gmail and Google Docs than Hotmail and MS Word. But if you want to use Google’s Chrome browser, you have to run Microsoft’s Windows operating system. Does the irony just kill you? Don’t worry — it’s all temporary. Google has released versions of Chrome for the Mac and Linux platforms.

Don’t get too excited, though; from a general-user point of view, both versions suck. They crash, they behave unpredictably, and they don’t even support Google’s own YouTube videos. And that’s not me being a critic — that’s Google’s own people talking. These are more like public alpha releases; anyone can have them, but they’re really meant for developers.

Once they’re more fully baked, though, it looks like Google will open doors to a growing legion of Mac users. Linux users will be able to get into it too, but the Linux side of this development might be most valuable to Google in terms of the netbook possibilities it opens. Netbook manufacturers are starting to warm up to the idea of installing the Android operating system — rather than Windows — onto small notebooks. And a Google-backed browser would probably mesh really well with a Google-backed OS.


Listen to the podcast (11:23 minutes).


Splashing the Pot

If you’re an American who recently won big at online poker, you may be in for a bad beat. The feds have asked banks including Citibank and Wells Fargo to freeze the accounts of two companies that process payouts for offshore poker sites like PokerStars.com and FullTiltPoker.com. Online gambling is, for all practical purposes, illegal in the U.S., and it looks like the Man is finally getting around to enforcing the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006, which states that American financial entities like banks can’t play with gambling sites or those who process their payments.

Poker enthusiasts are calling shenanigans. John Pappas, executive director of the Poker Players Alliance, argues that banks don’t actually have to comply with the Act until December 1st, so he wonders what’s really going on.

Also, lawmakers appear to have warmed a little to online gambling lately. Representative Barney Frank, for example, has introduced a bill that would end the ban and instead regulate and tax online gambling, which could help the federal budget and potentially salvage what’s left of your 401(k). Or you could lose it altogether, but how is that different from investing, really?

Spyware, Inc.

The Web in China is not the Web known to most of the rest of the world. There’s no porn, no subversive conversation, no news that might make the government look bad. What’s left is primarily a mixture of nursery rhymes, revisionist history, apolitical social networking banter, propaganda and page after page of Lolcats. Everything else is kept out by a hard-working corps of Web censors, and they apparently intend to step up their game.

Instead of merely blocking the pathways of information, they’re also taking control of the endpoints — that is, users’ computers. A new government directive requires PC makers selling products in the country to include software called “Green Dam,” which can filter out pornography and other online content the government deems inappropriate. The software is presented as a parental control feature that can be switched on or off, but many are worried it will also be used by the government to secretly monitor or just plain block certain activities.

The demand to put this software into new computers can place a company in a tough position: Either install a program that might facilitate spying and censorship and inhibit the free flow of knowledge, or just miss out entirely on a huge and growing market segment. Come to think of it, for a lot of companies, that’s probably not a tough call to make at all.

You Think Your ISP Is Bad?

When I say “Evil ISP,” the first words in your head might be something like, “Stop throttling my torrents, a-holes!” Right? Well, Pricewert is a whole different kind of nasty, if it really has been doing what the Federal Trade Commission says it’s been doing.

The FTC alleges that the ISP Pricewert, aka “3FN” aka “APS Telecom,” actively partnered with people running illegal Web operations — like child porn rings, people doing nasty things with animals, and botnet command-and-control centers. The commission says this wasn’t just a case of Pricewert looking the other way as criminals used its tubes. Instead, Pricewert allegedly sought out the scum of the planet through advertising and online forums.

So, the FTC shut it all down by getting a California court to issue a restraining order compelling upstream data centers to disconnect Pricewert from the Internet. Good riddance. That isn’t quite strong enough to convey what we really think about those guys, but we do like to maintain certain standards of propriety.

The Pre Matures

Sleeping on the streets is a time-honored tradition for a certain kind of Apple lover — the very dedicated kind, to put it in the nicest possible terms. Every time a new iPhone comes out, there they are, eagerly lining up outside stores.

That kind of consumer pull is not something a whole lot of companies can muster, though Palm gave it an honest shot last Saturday with the launch of the Pre, its new smartphone. The result was that a handful of lines did indeed form, mostly at Sprint stores in a few major cities. They didn’t snake around the block, they didn’t become media circuses, but they did happen here and there — and really, when’s the last time anyone actually lined and waited for a handset that wasn’t an i-thingy?

Safe to say Pre’s launch wasn’t a flop — but will it save Palm? The answer to that will become clearer as this quarter and next plays out.

But the Pre isn’t the only new thing happening at Palm. It also got itself a new chief executive. Jon Rubinstein isn’t new to the company — he’s Palm’s chairman, after all — but he’s now steering the ship as CEO. Meanwhile, former CEO Ed Colligan is heading off to major Palm investor Elevation Partners, where he’ll sip Mai Tais with Bono in Fiji, or something.

So, who is Rubenstein? Well, he happens to be someone who was highly involved with the development of the first iPod back when he worked at Apple. Now he’s leading a company that’s fighting for its life against the iPhone with the backing of an investment firm founded in part by a rock singer whose band once had its very own signature iPod. This is all going to make for a great HBO miniseries in about 20 years.

Steal My Sunshine

Pre earned a fair amount of basking time in the sun, but it slipped back into the shadows as Apple rolled in Monday with news about the next version of the iPhone, dubbed “3G S.” The “S” is for speed — Apple boasts that the new model handles apps faster, thanks to a processor boost. It also has a better camera, a video-recording mode, voice-control features and a built-in compass. It has more trunk space — up to 32 GB in the pricier version.

Apple also had info to share about its laptop lines and its OS X Snow Leopard upgrade.

The theme underlying everything appeared to be an aggressive stance on price. The new iPhone 3G S will sell for $200 to $300 — the same price range the now-obsolete 3G was selling in a week ago. And anyone who still wants a has-been 3G can get it for $100. The Snow Leopard upgrade for existing OS X Leopard users will cost $29. Apple expanded its MacBook Pro line to below the $1,200 mark, and it slashed the price of its MacBook Air. Careful, Apple, people will say you’re getting cheap.

Still, it’s better to look cheap than it is to look weak, which is how AT&T’s wireless network was looking by the time the WWDC keynote was over. New iPhone OS 3.0 software will come out on June 17, and it’s followed two days later by new iPhone 3G S hardware. New software features will include stuff that has nothing to do with the network it’s running on — like better landscape typing and, finally, some cut and paste. But some new features will depend on the network: namely MMS, otherwise known as picture messaging; and tethering, otherwise known as using your smartphone as a computer modem.

Unfortunately, U.S. users won’t be able to use those features right away. That’s because AT&T won’t be ready to support them. The carrier says it’ll have iPhone MMS support whipped up by later this summer, and tethering will be ready … sometime else. They’re not quite sure.

Geek freakouts predictably ensued. Once the oracles of Cupertino have blessed the masses with new features, you really don’t want to be the guy standing in the way of availability. Still AT&T swears up and down it’s working very hard on making it all happen, so you’ll get your MMS one of these days — just don’t count on sending your friends picture messages from your vacation this summer.

Get a Job, Mac

Based on this week’s headlines, you’d think the floor of San Francisco’s Moscone center was still covered with the drool induced by promises of a new iPhone. But don’t forget — Apple still makes computers. Its OS X Snow Leopard is coming this fall, and when it arrives, it’ll play nice with Microsoft Exchange.

Right out of the box, users will be able to to sync email and calendar apps in offices using Exchange servers — no extra tweaks required.

This could give Apple a real leg-up into the enterprise, so I guess that means the Mac guy on those commercials will have to get fitted for a bad suit and glasses. On the other hand, chances are a lot of IT departments might not be exactly thrilled about mixing up the technology picture by introducing another operating system.

The Carrier Giveth, the Carrier Taketh Away

Let’s talk a little more about the iPhone 3G S. If you have absolutely no interest in the thing, you can stop reading right now.

But if you are agonizing about whether to plunk down a few hundred bucks for a new phone, let’s consider the options. If you’re an iPhone 3G owner, chances are you signed a contract to get that thing, and you’re probably not eligible for a subsidized upgrade until at least December. If you want one before that, get ready to pay several hundred dollars more than the $200 to $300 price mentioned in the advertising.

I know, I know, you’re a loyal customer and you should get special consideration, and they should give you cookies and an Irish coffee and a foot massage every time you walk into an AT&T store. You and me both. But in the eyes of AT&T, what you are is an investment that hasn’t yet given it sufficient return. It paid for most of your iPhone 3G when you signed the contract, so you’re going to have to pay it back — either on June 19 with a big additional fee, or over the next few months.

One possible way around that is to just cancel your existing contract and eat the early termination fee, but that gets pretty complex, so do your own math on that one. You probably wouldn’t save a lot.

Or, you could just wait until you’re eligible for a subsidized upgrade. You’ll still get iPhone OS 3.0 software to tide you over — it’s got new features like copy and paste, and since everyone who isn’t an iPhone fan has already stopped reading, we don’t have to be ashamed about how cool we think copy and paste is.

And if you’re still just royally miffed at AT&T about the whole situation, just sit tight, because you’ll probably get the chance to jump ship to Verizon one of these days anyway.

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