The Blazing Backlash Against Buzz

Google would like you to know that it’s very, very sorry that its new Buzz social network treated your social life like Procter & Gamble treats bunny rabbits. It’s all a big misunderstanding. And by the way — no one was actually harmed, no personal data was leaked, and you’re the one who’s confused, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said at the World Mobile Congress this week.

The big complaint about Buzz — which started making headlines a day or so after Google rolled it out last week — was that it could accidentally reveal a list of the people you write to most and divulge your email address to people who shouldn’t be able to have that info. One fairly prolific blogger even accused Buzz of giving her abusive ex-husband access to her Google Reader posts and revealing her secret email address to some of her readers, a few of whom are extremely creepy and offensive people. On top of that, users have complained that turning Buzz off wasn’t a very simple matter either — sometimes it was really hard to get people to stop following you.

To its credit, Google did seem to step up with a few changes relatively quickly. But as much as Google would like to call the whole thing a mulligan and move on, some privacy advocates aren’t satisfied. EPIC has filed a complaint with the FTC urging it to require Google to make every little part of Buzz a thoroughly opt-in process — nothing happens unless and until the user says so. Also, no more using Gmailers’ address books to compile buddy lists.

Meanwhile, Paul Stephens at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse says he’s troubled by the way Google implemented Buzz. He said, “I don’t think the process that a user normally goes through would necessarily make it clear to them that they were revealing information such as their email contacts.”

The backlash doesn’t stop there, though. This is America — what would a big corporate PR debacle be without a class-action lawsuit or two? Eva Hibnick’s got you covered there. The Florida resident’s complaint alleges that Buzz violated several laws, including the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

If the suit gets certified as a class-action, I suppose that means all Gmailers can jump on board and claim their share of … something. What’s the payout for being annoyed and confused? And if there is a payout at all, why am I not rich?

Anyway, Christopher Collins, a partner at the law firm Vanderpool, Frostick & Nishanian, doesn’t see the suit going very far. It’s not easy to get class action status, he told us, and even if Hibnick goes it alone, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the U.S. Constitution don’t really cover what Google did here.

Listen to the podcast (14:46 minutes).

License Granted

The Microhoo centaur has breathed its first real breath. The idea to merge Microsoft’s and Yahoo’s search and ad capabilities to one degree or another has provoked much laughter, sorrow and angst over the past couple of years, but regulators in both the U.S. and the EU have given the deal their blessing, so it’s time to jolt this monster to life. Under the deal, Yahoo’s algorithmic and paid search platforms will transition to Microsoft, and Yahoo will be the exclusive sales force for both companies’ premium search advertisers globally. The whole thing should be done by 2012.

The quasi-marriage of the two companies will cap off a chapter in a long soap opera centering on Yahoo’s quest to regain the ground in the search market that it lost to Google over the last few years. A few seasons ago, Yahoo and Google started dating, but regulators put an end to that subplot pretty quickly.

Now that it’s real, what effect will Yahoo’s partnership with Microsoft have on Google? Probably not much in the short term. This deal’s been long in the making, so it’s not like Google’s been caught completely by surprise. In addition, it’s Google — its lead is so far ahead of those other two that a few percentage points of market share are not really going to rock its world. Greg Sterling with Sterling Market Intelligence told us, “Google has not been adversely affected by Bing’s growth, and I think it’s pretty stable. This will benefit Microsoft, but it won’t threaten Google in any kind of meaningful way.”

Still, there’s that whole China thing to consider. If Google really does pull out, that’s one less very large competitor for Microsoft and Yahoo to deal with when it comes to growing their presence in the world’s largest country.

WinMo Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

Being one of the first major players in any given market is nice for bragging rights, but the downside is that all your rivals, even the ones you don’t know exist yet, are going to use all the successes and mistakes you make along the way as a sort of public access R and D outfit. Then just when you start getting a little tired, they’ll pull the rug out from under you and leave you sprinting to catch up.

That’s kind of what happened to Windows Mobile. Microsoft has been in the smartphone software game since before most people knew what a smartphone was. It’s also let third-party developers build apps for it for years. But lately WinMo has been decidedly less impressive than the new wave of smartphone platforms led by iPhone and Android. Apple in particular was so good at marketing its iPhone apps through iTunes that it made very intelligent people completely forget that WinMo has third-party apps too — it’s just that they used to be sold in all these weird, wishy-washy little back-alley online stores where you never really knew if it was a scam or a legit business half the time.

Now Microsoft’s trying to change its image. In fact, the company has apparently decided that the very name “Windows Mobile” stinks too much to be allowed to live in the house anymore. For its next mobile platform, due out this year, it’s gone with the name “Windows Phone 7 Series.” It hosted a sneak-peek of the software in Barcelona, and it looks to be a fairly substantial departure from the old WinMo line.

They’re not calling this the “Zune Phone,” though Zune functions are built into the OS for playing media. And it’s roping in Microsoft’s gaming chops with a special Xbox Live feature. Social networking features like top-level integration with Facebook are also on the menu. The Start screen will have dynamically updated so-called live tiles that constantly keep track of things for you. For instance, if you want to stay constantly updated on your best friend’s Facebook ramblings, it’ll push all that person’s posts to its live tile. Hopefully, Microsoft thought through all the privacy implications of that one better than Google thought through Buzz. Oh yeah, and Bing gets its very own dedicated hardware button.

Reactions seemed generally positive on the new software, especially compared to the reception WinMo 6.5 got a few months ago. On the other hand, making an OS that holds up in real-world use is a lot harder than pulling off a no-hitches product demo. By the time these Windows Phone 7 Series mobile phones — sorry, that’s their name, gotta use it — by the time these things start hitting the shelves, we’ll probably have seen other smartphones pull their own updates, so let’s see how everyone’s doing next November.

Team of Rivals

It’s been a pretty good time to be a mobile application developer lately — there’s certainly a lot more demand for your skills than two or three years ago. But there’s a catch — you have to decide which mobile platform you want to build for. In this case, choice does not necessarily make life easier.

You might try iPhone — if Apple allows you into the club. Or perhaps Android — not as many users there, but definitely less picky about what kind of apps get the green light. There’s also BlackBerry, webOS, and for the time being anyway, Windows Mobile. Not sure how much Windows Phone 7 Series will cloud the picture. There are probably a half-dozen others I’m not mentioning, and they’d all love to have another great app.

But that first option I mentioned, Apple’s iPhone, is kind of sucking all the oxygen out of the room. So two dozen carriers and device makers have joined hands in prayer to create the Wholesale Applications Community, a confederation of companies that under normal circumstances view each other as hateful, loathsome enemies. While they’re all standing in Apple’s shadow, however, they’ll play nice.

Honestly, though, that’s just my reading of the situation — the WAC doesn’t come out and say they’re uniting against Apple. They’re just trying to “create a wholesale applications ecosystem that — from day one — will establish a simple route to market for developers to deliver the latest innovative applications and services to the widest possible base of customers around the world.”

Sounds very pleasant, very harmonious and cooperative, but it’s left some wondering whether the WAC might have a few too many egos in the room to get anything done. Mix in the various different platforms and technologies all the companies bring to the table — not to mention the very different technical capabilities each individual phone has — and the result could look like the UN on a very bad day.

IDC’s Al Hilwa told us, “There’s already too many platforms, and the question for these guys is, are they really introducing a new one? Are they really fragmenting by attempting to defragment? This is a problem. We need some standards and some ways to put some order to the chaos of apps on mobile devices. But that’s a Darwinian process, and I’m not sure that can be mandated by a consortium.”

The Odd Couple

But that wasn’t the only weird hookup that went on in Barcelona this week. I guess that’s just what happens on these big group trips to Spain — a little too much sangria, little too much of that flamenco guitar, and who knows, you might wake up next to someone rather unexpected, maybe even someone you usually kind of hate, a lot.

But Verizon and Skype weren’t about to slink back to their respective hotel rooms and wallow in self-pity over it. Instead they announced their new partnership to the whole world. Next month, Verizon will offer a full suite of Skype mobile services on some of its top-ranking smartphones — the Motorola Droid and Devour, the HTC Droid Eris, and the BlackBerry Storm, Storm2, Curve and Tour.

Under normal conditions, these are not two companies that would hit it off well. Skype is a VoIP provider — phone calls on the Internet for cheap long-distance thrills. And Verizon is much more traditional — land lines that are threatened by VoIP’s wild ways, as well as wireless cellular data systems that normally do not welcome all that rowdy VoIP traffic.

These are clearly not normal times. Just like you, perhaps wireless companies are getting tired of wringing every penny they can get out of their customers’ wireless minutes — unlimited talk plans are getting cheaper by the quarter. Instead, now they’re looking to wring those pennies out of you by making their add-on data plans more attractive, and of course you’ll need one if you want to take advantage of the Skype deal.

There’s also the trash-talking factor. Verizon has quite a little mouth on it — witness the ribbing it’s been giving AT&T over its network. AT&T has just decided to allow VoIP apps to run on its flagship iPhone without the help of WiFi, but it isn’t exactly thrusting it into the hands of customers. Putting a set of Skype apps on its best phones might be Verizon’s way of saying, “We can take the heat — bring it on.”

The Hangover

The gaming industry had quite a holiday party last December, but it woke up with a splitting headache in January. Year-over-year, monthly console sales were down 21 percent last month to just over US$350 million, and software took a 12 percent nosedive down to less than $600 million.

Is it the end of fun as we know it? Not quite; here’s some context.

First, 2009 was overall a lousy year for video game sales, but the bad times hadn’t really kicked off as of January 2009. The industry was actually feeding off consumers’ economic fears. Video games were looked at as a source of cheap entertainment — cheaper than a trip to Disneyland, anyway. The year wouldn’t start looking really awful for another few months.

Secondly, 2009 was sort of a roadkill sandwich served on delicious Asiago cheese bread. It finished off with a huge December — IDC went as far as calling it the industry’s best month ever. So it may take a while for all those brand-new games to lose their glow and put gamers in the mood to start off on some new post-apocalyptic, intergalactic, crime-spree adventure.

Finally, in January of 2009, every game console on the market was significantly more expensive. Then Sony cut prices on the PlayStation 3, Microsoft followed suit on the Xbox, and Nintendo hopped on with a cheaper Wii. Safe to say that unit sales didn’t fall off a 21 percent cliff; it’s just that each sale generated less revenue.

There are lots of reasons for the gaming market to be hopeful about the rest of 2010. Both Sony and Microsoft are planning major hardware add-ons for motion-sensitive gaming, and makers of smaller games for platforms like smartphones and social networks believe their niche of the industry is just getting started.

Worst-Case Scenario

A bunch of U.S. intelligence gurus got together recently to play make-believe, and they ended up scaring the crap out of each other. The big head-game, named “Cyber ShockWave,” centered on America’s cyberdefenses and how the country’s computerized infrastructure would theoretically hold up to a massive, targeted malware attack.

Participants included former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, former Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte and former director of Central Intelligence John McLaughlin. The scenario went down like this: The bad guys infected a bunch of people’s cellphones with malware. That malware traveled to their computers when they synced up, and from there it formed a botnet that bashed telecom networks with a massive DDoS piledriver.

And the bad luck just kept piling up. Blackouts hit entire regions of the nation just as a heatwave rolled in, and pipe bombs shut down a major gasline. Bad day all around.

So what would the authorities have to do under such a scenario? That’s what everyone got together to debate. Should the president order the shutdown of wireless and landline networks to stop the spread of the malware? Would he have the right to do that? And at what point should we start calling up the National Guard?

The general conclusion of the whole exercise was that the U.S. just can’t handle a cybercrisis, at least not one on the scale imagined by Cyber Shockwave. By the end of the day, air traffic was grounded, the stock market had tanked, and nobody was paying anything for anything.

The Bipartisan Policy Center, the group that organized the scenario, will present a version of Cyber ShockWave to Congress to kick off a discussion on what sort of authority and policies can be created before a real cyberthreat strikes America.

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