Facebook Groups: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors?

Perhaps Facebook hasn’t quite mastered the art of expectationmanagement the way a company like Apple has. There’s a fine balancethat has to be struck between ensuring ample coverage bypre-announcing a big, staged event and overplaying your hand by makinga fuss when what you have is probably more suited to something morecasual. Maybe a press release, a surprise launch, and then time forcake.

The new features include ways to manage groups of friends. Obviouslysome of your Facebook friends are closer to you than others, andperhaps you want to cordon off your innermost clique when it comes tocertain information you share. Now you can select who gets past thevelvet rope and who doesn’t. And you can create multiple groups — onefor family, one for work friends, one for friends you don’t want thefirst two groups to know you hang out with, so on. The groups areclosed by default, so uninvited members will have to request to joinyour group and then mournfully wait outside while you decide whetheror not to give them any validation.

There are also a few new privacy features. With one, you can downloadyour entire Facebook dossier — all the data Facebook has on you, fromwall posts to photos to videos. Another new tool lets users monitorand more easily adjust how applications and other sites linked totheir Facebook accounts use their data.

Not a bad bunch of new features, but did anyone really need to spendthe whole morning on this?It seems more like one of those things Facebook just springs one dayand explains on the official blog. New stuff — enjoy.

Then again, maybe it wasn’t Facebook’s fault. The company’s been thesubject of a million different rumors for the past few weeks. Therewas that bit about a possible partnership with Skype, which soundedinteresting. Before that, everyone was talking about a Facebook phone.Even after Facebook issued a sort of quasi-non-denial on the subject,people just kept talking about it. So when the company startedinviting people to a special event this week, expectations had alreadybeen blown way out of proportion. All it wanted to do was roll out afew nifty little new features, and suddenly everyone expected somekind of divine revelation.

Or maybe this is exactly what Facebook meant to do. The company’s hadan even higher than normal profile for the past few weeks. There wasMark Zuckerberg’s big donation to New Jersey schools. Then they calledthis big press powwow to roll out something that didn’t seem toqualify as a major leap forward for the platform. And those Skype andFacebook phone rumors — well, who knows who really started those, orwhy? But the end result of all this is that the enormous amount ofpositive exposure Facebook’s been getting over the last few weeks forits actual and supposed real-life activities has almost eclipsed thenegative exposure its founder has received due to an unflatteringportrayal in a certain motion picture. I’m not saying anything … I’mjust sayin’.

Listen to the podcast (12:19 minutes).

More Gs, Please

Verizon is schlepping right along on progress road, and right now it’s busy upgrading its network from 3G to 4G cellular data services, otherwise known as LTE, or Long-Term Evolution. More Gs means more speed for your wireless data transfers. Streaming music, sending photos, surfing the Web — if it involves data, it will move faster on 4G.

But that only works if you’re holding a 4G-compatible device and standing in a 4G zone, and right now, that’s a pretty rare condition. Not to fear. Verizon has laid out some plans regarding which cities will be wired with LTE services first: Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Miami, New York and San Francisco are at the top of the list, as well as more than 60 airports. The company hopes to have 38 markets covered by year’s end and two-thirds of the U.S. covered within 18 months.

When you can catch those super-fast 4G signals, be careful not to let yourself get too out of control. Verizon says it’s going to introduce metered plans, just like AT&T did with its new customers last summer. AT&T’s data limit — the highest amount you can exchange before you’re paying by the megabyte — is fairly generous, if you’re not into streaming music and movies all the time. But if Verizon’s LTE network is going to be a whole lot faster, it’s going to be that much easier to gorge yourself.

The devices side of the matter is a little sketchier. Sprint already has a 4G phone in its stores, but Verizon hasn’t tipped its own hand just yet. They’ll most likely be compatible with less-advanced networks also — it’s not like they’ll only work in a 4G city and nowhere else. We just don’t know what they are yet. Laptop cards will come first, followed by the obligatory deluge of smartphones and tablets.

But what about Verizon’s unicorn — the mythical Big Red iPhone? The rumors are strong as ever that it’ll arrive early next year, though nobody’s officially verified that. Assuming it does arrive, will it be an LTE phone? That would definitely make it an attractive item, and it’s pretty likely that Apple’s already working on an LTE iPhone regardless of whether Verizon’s on board — AT&T is moving toward LTE also. Presently, the two networks run on different technologies, and building a CDMA iPhone for Verizon when LTE is just around the corner seems like it could be kind of a waste of time. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Verizon would be offering a CDMA iPhone early next year, but anonymous sources do tend to tell half-truths once in a while.

Also, Android is proving itself to be a strong contender, and its rise could affect the balance of power Apple and Verizon have with each other — if that balance truly exists.

Micro v. Moto

In fact, thanks to the serious growth it’s been enjoying lately, Google’s Android plaform may even overtake iPhone someday in overall market share. But all this activity has painted a big bullseye on its forehead, and rivals are taking potshots with various patent lawsuits. Apple’s sued Android phone maker HTC, and Oracle’s sued Google directly over how it uses Java.

Most recently, Microsoft took its turn at bat, and it hit a line drive directly at Motorola, a company that’s enjoyed a comeback over the last year or so, thanks to Android. Microsoft’s complaint touches on nine patents — synchronizing email, notifying applications of changes in signal strength, and on and on. Those functions themselves aren’t at issue; it’s the code that makes those functions possible that Microsoft has a problem with. Your line of code looks too much like our line of code. The usual bickering.

But if Android is a Google invention, why’s Microsoft going after Motorola? It’s clearly an attack on the Android platform as a whole, but picking on Motorola may have been a strategic choice. Motorola is the one profiting directly from the sale of Android devices. Google has ways of making money from the fact that Android is on a lot of phones, but there’s no charge to use the OS. If Motorola’s the one that’s actually selling a box of infringing code, that’s the company Microsoft is going to want to squeeze.

Also, Motorola may just be a softer target. No doubt it has an army of hard-edged corporate litigation attorneys, but maybe Google’s is even hard-edgier. I don’t know if that’s true — I’ll let you know after I’ve sued or been sued by both.

Regardless of who’s at the receiving end, the timing of the lawsuit is curious. Right now, Microsoft has no real mobile product that plays in the same league with Android, iPhone, BlackBerry, or any other consumer smartphone. Windows Mobile is still kicking around on some special-use industrial devices, and Windows Phone 7 is scheduled to arrive next Monday, but at this exact moment in time, nothing. We’ll see if this legal play will do anything to help WinPho 7 get an early leg up.

Motorola isn’t just taking a beating, though; it’s also trying to give one. It’s jumped into the smartphone litigation feeding frenzy with its own patent suit against Apple.

Did Too, Did Not

Oracle’s more direct attack on Android received a response this week, and it looks like this one’s going to be quite a rumble.

Google’s built a triple-decker sandwich of a defense against Oracle’s claim that the Android platform has infringed several Java patents. First, says Google, the patents themselves are bunk. Second, even if they weren’t bunk, Google didn’t infringe them. Third, even if they were infringed, Oracle’s suffered no actual damage. It’s not like Oracle has a horse in the mobile OS race. So what are we doing in court?

Google also accused Oracle of pulling a 180 in regard to open source. A while back, before Oracle bought Sun Microsystems, it criticized Sun for not open-sourcing a virtual machine test kit it released. But now that Sun’s on Oracle’s leash, it’s totally changed its mind about open source.

Suing Google is sort of like poking a Doberman in the face — Google’s not only asking the court to drop the suit, but also to rule Oracle’s patents invalid, meaning they probably couldn’t be used against anyone else in the event Oracle tried slinging them all over to see what they’d hit.

The outcome of this case may ultimately depend on whether Google left Java alone when it was made to operate in Android or whether it made a license-violating modification to get it onto the platform. That might be a pretty difficult distinction to make for anyone who’s not a programmer, so this case may well linger on for quite a while.

I Have a Vision: Television

Projects like Google Religion, Google Guns and Google Giant Cars arestill in the early alpha phase, but the company does have at least onefundamental pillar of American society already covered: television.

Google TV is coming, that much we’ve known since May. What Google TVwill actually offer became clearer this week when the companyannounced some of its new content partners. Turner Broadcasting willoptimize its online content for viewing on Google TV — that includesTNT, CNN and Cartoon Network. CNBC and the NBA will have news feedwidgets. Even HBO will overcome some of its Internet fears to provideon-demand content — members only, of course.

It’s all very nice, but it also sounds a little lacking. It seems thatonly a tiny fraction of U.S. content providers are in Google’s cornerat launch for this thing. You get 800 channels in a cable subscriptionand, what, a dozen or so with Google TV? Even though Apple TV makesyou watch through an iTunes portal, at least it has a fairly widevariety of programming. Isn’t Google TV going to be horribly limited?

Well, not necessarily. Google TV will also have a regular old Webbrowser the user can cue up to surf around the open Web, meaning youcan check out the same Web TV sites you use on a standard computer.That will really widen your options, and if Google can make it workand prove there’s a revenue stream, more and more channels will jumpon board and optimize their offerings for the Google TV platform.Critical mass will be reached, and revolution will be born. That’s theidea, anyway.

But what about now? What reason would anyone have to buy into GoogleTV now if there’s so little content made just for that platform? Thehardware will have to be a decent deal in its own right. Anyone with the know-how can already send the cable box packing, hook up alow-cost computer to the TV instead, and find a lot of the shows theywant to see any time online either for free or on apay-for-what-you-watch basis. If Google TV can be that computer, then it might have a shot.

Users will have a browser, an interface and a remote control optimized for couch surfing, and an option for video conferencing right through the TV. Then you have apps that can show specialized content from partners — not a whole lot of those just yet, but more may be on the way. And you don’t have to get rid of cable — you can see your cable channels right through Google TV.

Google’s hardware launch partners include Logitech, which just this week rolled out the Revue. And it doesn’t have to be its own standalone box, either — Google TV can be built into itemslike Blu-ray players or even the TV itself.

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