The FCC’s Great White Spaces Hope

The airwaves — or really, electromagnetic spectrum — are everywhere, but they definitely are not free. At least, the legal rights to use spectrum aren’t free. In the U.S., those rights are managed by the FCC, and the commission just granted wireless companies the rights to a significant chunk of unused spectrum.

That chunk, which is really a lot of chunks, is collectively known as “white spaces.” They’re the frequencies that fall in between regular over-the-air television channels. The FCC’s new rule means those spaces can be used for wireless broadband purposes. And since signals in that particular neighborhood of the spectrum can carry pretty far and wide, even through buildings, the result could resemble a supercharged version of WiFi — wider range, faster speeds, and maybe even lower costs… if everything comes together just right.

There’s still plenty of red tape to cut through and regulations that will need to be observed. For example, part of this UHF range will be reserved for the use of wireless microphones, with enough space for about 16 of them to be working at the same time. Need any more and you’ll have to make a special request to the powers that be. What’s left over can be used by white spaces devices, but they’ll need to register with a central authority that keeps a database. Who gets to run the database? Nearly a dozen companies, including Google, have applied for the job; no verdict yet.

There are also plenty of technical hurdles to overcome. Such as, if the designated white spaces are region-specific, just like TV channels, does that mean gadgets sold in one city won’t work if you take them to another? Or will they just have to be retuned? Once these issues are straightened out, though, we could start seeing the first white-space products hit the shelves in 12 to 24 months. If that’s not an invitation to check back on this in a couple years and make fun of me, I don’t know what is.

Listen to the podcast (13:34 minutes).

Pad Landing?

On Monday, Research In Motion will kick off its developers conference,and for the second time in as many months, it’s managed to kick upsome high expectations.

This time, the big talk centers around tablets. The Wall StreetJournal and BusinessWeek have reported details about a so-calledBlackPad, a RIM-made tablet that could come to market as soon as theend of the year.

Word on the screen size is that it teeters between 7 and 9.7 inches, and theresupposedly will be a built-in camera. WiFi is said to be in the mix –I know I’ll laugh if it isn’t — but according to reports, 3G is notbuilt in. You’d apparently have to tether it to a BlackBerry handsetin order to get cellular data, and that sounds like a fair enough ideaif you don’t have to pay an extra monthly fee. Hopefully, we’ll findout more on that one later.

Rumors have also touched on this supposed tablet’s supposed operatingsystem. Even though RIM just brushed up its BlackBerry OS forsmartphones, the BlackPad will reportedly run a whole new operatingsystem developed by QNX, a company RIM bought earlier this year.

So just how different will this BlackPad OS be from the standardBlackBerry operating system? It could be an entirely different animal,but RIM might do well to keep them compatible to the degree that youcan use some BlackBerry apps on the pad, sort of how some iPhone appscan run on an iPad. Perhaps by giving the tablet its own special OS,RIM is working around the problem of teaching an old OS the new trickof working on a screen that’s two or three times bigger than it’s usedto.

It’ll be interesting to see whether RIM manages to pull off a hit withthis month’s show-and-tell. Last time, in August, RIM came throughwith a new smartphone called the “Torch” and an update to its BlackBerrymobile operating system. Corporate rank-and-filers who live and die bythe BlackBerry might have gotten a kick out of it, because it was astep or two beyond a lot of the other stuff in the RIM catalog. Butnext to the smartphone in-crowders like the iPhone 4 and certainAndroids, the Torch just didn’t measure up. No revolutions to seethere.

Just a Flesh Wound

The dream of the Verizon iPhone: It’s either the worst-kept secret inconsumer technology or a hugely frustrating false alarm for AT&Trefuseniks — we’ll know for sure which one sometime around February.That’s when Verizon is supposed to start offering Apple’s smartphoneto its customers, if the latest rumor is to be believed.

Judging by the sheer anger and disgust some AT&T customers dumped on their carrier in recent months, it was starting to look like the day Verizongot the iPhone would be the day AT&T would curl up, die, and get erasedfrom all history books. There were visions of a mass exodus, with signal-starved refugees from AT&T washing up on Verizon’s shores, begging for bars.

No doubt a Verizon iPhone would be quite popular, but how many AT&Tcustomers would really jump ship? That’s the question Credit Suisse researcherswanted to answer, and the figure they came up with was 1.4 million,based on surveys, customer data, and the estimated number of peoplewhose AT&T contracts will expire in the early months of next year.

That’s 1.4 million more customers than AT&T would want to lose, nodoubt, but definitely not enough to put it on life support. In fact,these results actually helped AT&T. Credit Suisse analyst JonathanChaplin raised his rating of AT&T stock when the report wasreleased — his previous rating presumed a lot more customers wouldleave.

Also, losing a moderate number of customers might help AT&Tin other ways — namely, by reducing the burden on its network andmaking it able to give better service to the ones who stay.

North of the Border, Up Canada Way

The concept of watching movies at home has changed a lot over the last decade, and this week’s news drew a sharp contrast between the old ways and the new ways.

First, Netflix made a stab at international distribution by rolling out a Canadian service, finally bringing to life the plans it announced last summer. This is the company’s first swipe at capturing non-U.S. customers, and it’s doing business just a little differently up north.

For Canadians, there will be just one plan, which costs about 8 bucks, and it offers no DVDs by mail. Everything’s streamed over the Internet to users’ computers and a variety of Web-connected devices that can bring content directly to the TV. Netflix’s streaming library is a lot more limited than its DVD-by-mail library, but it’s something the company is pretty aggressively expanding.

It all sounds like good news for Canadian movie fans — at least the ones who are interested in getting videos over the Web. But would you expect anyone in their right mind to really go gaga over it? Jump up and down and cheer, take the time to attend the CEO’s official announcement, gush about the glory of Netflix to the press? Kind of overboard, right?

Well, Netflix apparently wanted someone out there to think people really do get that excited over a movie delivery service, so it reportedly hired a bunch of actors to swarm the announcement event, pretend they were nutty for Netflix, and give in-character interviews to the press. Later, the company apologized for faking everyone out and called the whole thing a mistake. The explanation went something like this: They had to tell the city of Toronto they were making a movie in order to get the event permit, and if you have a movie you have to have actors, and everyone knows actors are no good unless they’re given characters to play, and things just got out of hand. Whatever.

Screwball antics aside, the fact remains that Canada will now have access to Netflix streams, and the Internet cable — not the mailbox — is apparently the delivery method Netflix sees as the wave of the future.

Blockbuster Busted

Just as Netflix was making the most of its northern exposure, Blockbuster Video was gasping for breath. The company declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy this week, marking yet another milestone in the decline of the concept of leaving the house to get things you want.

Perhaps you love Blockbuster because you remember it as the first video rental store you walked into that was somewhat clean, well-lit and well-stocked, at least with the mainstream stuff. Or maybe you hate it because you remember it as the place that put the cool independent video stores out of business. Either way, Blockbuster is more a memory than a present fact of life for a growing number of people who can now get their videos through Netflix or a million other online services.

Blockbuster has tried to go with the flow over the years with new plans and services and even an online video channel of its own. But I guess that big blue movie ticket is just stuck in everyone’s mind as a symbol for late fees, unavailable new releases, scratched DVDs and that universal Blockbuster aroma, that mixture of plastic and decaying candy. There’s now enough blood in the water that Carl Icahn has jumped into the mix.

This doesn’t mean every Blockbuster in the land will shutter its doors next week, though the company is in the process of nixing a significant number of locations right now. It’s a bid to restructure the nearly US$1 billion of debt it’s bowing under, so it just might have a shot at continued existence in some shape or form.

That’ll only happen if the company can pull it together and come up with an innovative idea. Having those physical stores around is convenient if every once in a while you want a movie now and can’t get it anywhere else. But if that’s the only reason anyone actually visits those stores, it’s definitely not worth it to keep them going.

Add $50 for Full Functionality

Intel has a big new idea: Selling you stuff you already own.

OK, not really. But … kinda really.

It works like this: You buy a fairly low-priced computer with an Intelchip inside — but that chip’s performance has actually been hobbled.It’s unable to do certain things it’s designed for, like four-waymulti-task processing and using a larger memory cache. In order toun-hobble it, though, you don’t have to take it to some computer expertto have it overclocked or any weird voodoo like that. You just buy a$50 upgrade card, go to a Web page to redeem it, install somesoftware, and ta-da, you now have a whole chip, not a crippled one.

Currently, the deal only applies to a certain Gateway PC with acertain model of dual-core processor, and it’s being pitched as a wayfor users to upgrade their computers without ditching the whole thingand buying new, or even having a new piece of hardware installed.

Still, the more basic business concepts of this whole deal don’t quiteadd up for me. Intel is willing to part with the processor for acertain price, regardless of whether the buyer ever opts for theupgrade. Yet it charges more to make that processor work to its fullability, and that optimization is not realized through the exchange ofadditional goods or the performance of a true service. It’s not liketaking your car in to get it supercharged. There are no parts orlabor; it’s just … a code. The chip’s already designed and built toperform that way, so is Intel just hoping enough people decide to paythe full and fair price for a correctly functioning chip after it’salready out the door?

I suppose it could work if the margins are high enough, but the wholeprogram definitely has the potential to leave an awful taste inconsumers’ mouths. This “pay extra to make your processor work the wayit was designed to” business could easily be interpreted as a wholelot of nickel-and-diming, or as some kind of hustle to charge forsomething the customer already owns.

Then there’s the potential for abuse. Give hackers any reasonwhatsoever to shout “damn the man” and they will work long nightstrying to do just that. Once one of them cracks this code and createsa workaround, it’s going to be online for all the world to use withinminutes. And would it really be so wrong? It’s not like they’d bemessing with anything that doesn’t belong to them.

Burying the Hurd Hatchet

When Mark Hurd was ousted as HP’s CEO a few weeks ago, most of us sawa careless executive who got caught in an extremely embarrassingsituation. Hurd risked and lost his job as the head of the world’slargest computer maker over a few thousand dollars’ worth of fudgedexpense reports, which, for this guy, probably added up to way lessthan a single week’s pay.

But Oracle CEO Larry Ellison saw opportunity. He called Hurd’s 86ingthe worst HR decision since Apple gave Steve Jobs the boot back in the’80s. Ellison’s not generally known for keeping his thoughts tohimself, but in this case he backed up that statement by hiring Hurd afew days later, making him a president and board member at Oracle.

HP’s lawyers were all over that one, and it didn’t take longfor them to fire off a lawsuit. But that lawsuit died as quickly as ithad been born — HP and Oracle settled after just two weeks.

Perhaps one reason this was settled so quickly was that HP had a weakcase. It filed its suit the day Hurd was given a seat on Oracle’sboard, and it claimed that he couldn’t possibly fulfill that rolewithout dishing on HP’s top secrets. I don’t know if that’s true ornot, but unless HP could prove Hurd actually used that knowledge toscrew HP, that’s not much of an argument. Otherwise, HP could justfollow Hurd around forever and claim any job he tries to get isimpossible to do without sharing secrets.

Also, there’s the fact that as two of the biggest tech companies inthe world, Oracle and HP have done a significant amount businesstogether for a long time, and a tug of war over one guy who’s neverprovably spilled a single bean is nonsense.

Maybe another reason they called a truce so soon is because of theembarrassment factor. Between the sexual harassment charge, the phonyexpenses and the female contractor at the center of it, this was apretty smarmy affair for all involved. It definitely drew peoples’attention to HP and Oracle, but not in a way that made anyone want tobuy enterprise-class IT systems. Sometimes there is such a thing asbad publicity.

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