Social Networking


Extreme Makeover Napster, AOL and OLPC Edition

Sure, there’s “Weeds” and “The Office,” but the studios sure didn’t throw open the vaults and let Netflix have its way with their film libraries.

Still, Netflix has scored a coup with the launch of its US$99 Netflix Player by Roku, a set-top box meant to do battle with Apple TV for dominance atop your TV set.

And let me take a minute to propose a new term to replace “set-top box,” since you really can’t put anything on top of most television sets these days. But I digress.

Aside from the cost of the box, Netflix doesn’t charge you anything extra to use it, and most of its plans allow for all-you-can-watch streaming. Now if only there were better movies to watch than “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”

Listen to the podcast (11:41 minutes).

Back to MP3s

Napster started its life distributing MP3s that were free from the shackles of digital rights management restrictions.

After it was attacked, sued, shut down and bought up, it was repackaged as a subscription music service, meaning it carried one of the most restrictive types of DRM out there.

Its music not only wouldn’t play on certain media players, but also wouldn’t play at all unless you synced your player to a Web-connected computer at least once a month to prove you were paying your bills on time.

But now, Napster has come full circle and opened a no-DRM, download-it-and-keep-it music store. Maybe it’s not a full circle — unlike the good old summer of ’99, you do have to buy the songs this time around.

AOL’s Social Makeover

AOL has thrown its hat into the social networking ring with the US$850 million acquisition of Bebo, which will form the basis for a new business unit.

Called “People Networks,” it will combine Bebo and AOL’s two chat platforms — AIM and ICQ — to reach about 80 million worldwide users.

Users will be able to use a single sign-in for both AOL and Bebo, and the social network’s content will be distributed over the broader AOL network. AOL will also integrate widget firm Goowy Media and question-and-answer service Yedda into People Networks.

With all of the buyout paperwork behind it, AOL is now concentrating on how to monetize Bebo. The network is hugely popular in the UK and has a fast-growing user base. It’s known for offering a variety of original, serial video programming, which has caught the attention of advertisers.

OLPC’s Style Makeover

Leave it to Nicholas Negroponte to take a pie-in-the-sky idea like a hundred-dollar laptop, throw it out the window and replace it with an even crazier notion.

Negroponte, the MIT Media Lab alumnus who founded One Laptop Per Child — and, curiously, the brother of former U.N. Ambassador John Negroponte — announced the creation of version 2 of the XO laptop.

The new version won’t have a keyboard — instead, there’ll be two touchscreens, and if it’s opened like a laptop, one of the screens will act as the keyboard. If it’s opened more like a book, the updated XO could be used as an e-book reader.

Negroponte also predicts that the new version will use less power than the original, and he revised his price target downward from $100 to $75. No, he wasn’t kidding.

But Wait, There’s More

When the OLPC initiative was launched, the idea was to load the computers with a special user interface that would be especially easy to use, even for a kid who’s never seen a computer before.

Linux seemed to be the perfect tool for the job, and so the user interface Sugar was born. But real-world economics and politics have not been kind to the OLPC.

First there’s the cost of an XO, which is still well over the $100 sticker price that OLPC’s founders hope one day to reach. Then there’s the matter of the OS. It seems the leaders of the developing nations that OLPC wants to sell their laptops to aren’t so sweet on Sugar.

They’d rather their schoolkids learn about computers using the same OS that most of the rest of the world uses. That’s right — Windows. To be specific, XP.

So now, kids in some of the world’s poorer regions will learn all the valuable life lessons that Windows teaches — like patience.

A Sugar version will be available as well, but a lot of open source proponents are feeling betrayed.

Security by Verizon

Verizon Business has won a massive government contract to deploy and manage a global IP network for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The contract is for a cool 678.5-million over 10 years, and to bank the bucks, Verizon will act as the primary service provider under the DHS OneNet program, an advanced next-generation network effort designed to consolidate multiple legacy networks into a new, secure IP network.

Verizon beat out AT&T and other major players vying for the deal. AT&T won a secondary contract, worth 292 million, to build out regional networks.

Jammie’s Second Chance

Last year, Jammie Thomas, the defendant in the first file-sharing lawsuit ever to go to trial, became the example the Recording Industry Association of America held up as a warning to other file-sharers.

Now, the federal judge in the case, Michael Davis, says he made a mistake, which could mean a new trial for Thomas and a serious setback for the RIAA.

The mistake was a manifest error of law in his jury instructions. He told the panel that the act of making copyrighted sound recordings available for electronic distribution on a peer-to-peer network without proper licensing violates copyright owners’ exclusive right of distribution regardless of whether actual distribution is proven.

A pre-existing case conflicts with that reasoning, but it was not cited in the Thomas trial. In that case, National Car Rental System v. Computer Associates, the court found that infringement requires actual dissemination of copyrighted content.

Davis ultimately ordered Thomas to pay more than $220,000 to Capitol Records for making a handful of copyrighted songs available online. She knowingly posted 24 songs on the file-sharing network, the jury determined, and that was the basis for imposing a penalty of $9,250 per song.

Healthy Data

Access to information can be a matter of life or death, but few people have the luxury of a consolidated medical records system.

Instead, records are housed with numerous different providers that have their own systems for maintaining and distributing them. Individuals generally have a motley collection of medical bills, test results and prescription advice, at best.

Google wants to help kill the clutter and impose some order on a chaotic system, by providing a way to store all of your health records in one place online. Google Health is the name of the free offering, which is now in beta.

Consumers can create health profiles, import medical records, track and link data for prescriptions and allergies — even search for information about a particular medical condition or locate a doctor. Medco, Cleveland Clinic and Quest Diagnostics, along with the drug stores Walgreens and CVS, are partnering with the search giant create a larger network for medical data updates.

Google is new to online medical records — Microsoft already has launched its HealthVault service. There’s also WebMD and Revolution Health, a startup from AOL cofounder Steve Case.

Video Yoga?

Another thing that may benefit your health is a lot more fun than stashing records. The Nintendo Wii has had gamers all over the world waving their arms about frantically since its release.

That counts as exercise — I guess — but it’s all just an upper-body workout. Now Nintendo has introduced Wii Fit, which just hit the shelves in the U.S.

Wii Fit comes with a balance board that interfaces with the video game console — it senses your weight and balance, and uses that data to guide you through a bunch of fitness routines that range from push-ups to yoga.

That’s all well and good, but I still recommend the Milo technique. Get yourself a baby calf and carry it up a hill every single day. By the time the calf grows into a cow, you’ll be pretty fit.

Not So Healthy

That’s it for the good health news — now for something on the darker side . . . Nanotubes — like practically everything else in the world, it seems — may cause cancer.

That’s according to a study published in Nature Nanotechnology. OK, that’s over-simplifying things. How’s this: Nanotubes produce the same sort of cancerous lesions as asbestos does when mice are exposed to it.

As you’re probably aware, asbestos is great as a flame retardant, but it’s also a pretty nasty carcinogen. Nanotubes show great promise in the production of semiconductors and structural materials, but researchers say the tiny little fibers that make up Nanotubes could work their way into peoples’ lungs and cause disease.

There’s still some ambiguity over what the findings mean exactly — the research was done on mice, not humans, and even people who work around nanotubes all day don’t usually have them injected into their abdominal cavities, which is what the scientists did to their test mice.

I’m not a doctor, but I’d advise you not to smoke any nanotube cigarettes, if you can help it.

Hurry Up and Browse

Users of Mozilla’s Firefox browser won’t have to wait long until Version 3 of the browser hits the streets.

Those who don’t want to wait, however, can just download the release candidate, which Mozilla has sent into the wild.

The release candidate has better security and memory usage than the five beta versions that preceded it. It also renders pages faster and refuses to display the contents of known malware sites.

For those who want the complete package in its final form, there’s only about another month of waiting.

Airborne Angst

U.S. consumers are mad as hell at the airline industry, and their discontent is blatantly clear in the University of Michigan’s 2008 American Customer Satisfaction Index.

The airline industry satisfaction score fell to its lowest level since 2001, dragging down the overall Index, which nevertheless managed to register a gain for the first time in a year. The results are timely for the airline industry as it faces a perfect storm: the collision of potentially stringent new regulations affecting customer service and a host of economic factors that are driving perception of that service deeper into the ground.

The airlines’ collective low score was attributed to increasing ticket costs as well as to the crowded flights, lost luggage and poor customer service survey respondents have cited year after year.

American Airlines was among the few carriers with improved scores — it rose 3 percent. However, a day after the Index results came out, it cut flights from its schedule and announced it would start charging a $15 fee for the first checked bag. That’s likely to bring customer applause to a mid-air halt.

Then there’s JetBlue. That’s the airline that forced a passenger to give up his seat for an off-duty flight attendant who got tired of sitting in the jump seat but wouldn’t let him sit there instead. Seems there was an employees-only rule.

Apparently there was no rule prohibiting them from making him sit in the bathroom for more than three hours of the cross-country flight, which was not only nasty, but also dangerous — the plane encountered some turbulence while he was balancing on the john. Does anyone smell lawsuit?

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