YouTube vs. Royalties, Spy vs. Spy, Dell vs. a Firehose

MTV pretty much gave up on music years ago in order to concentrate on how many different variations of “The Real World” and “Road Rules” it could squeeze out. But YouTube has largely picked up MTV’s slack — type in just about any video you want to see, and Google’s sharing site will play it for you.

Or perhaps not, if you’re living in the UK. YouTube is in a legal standoff with PRS for Music, a UK outfit that collects royalties for musical artists.

YouTube says PRS wants it to pay too much money each time users click on a music video of one of their artists. It also alleges that the arrangement PRS has proposed wouldn’t even specify which songs would be included in each license it wants to sell. The deadlock’s been going on for months, and YouTube has finally crimped the hose — no more music videos for UK viewers.

They’ll have to resort to music videos the old-fashioned way, which involves holding your breath and spinning in circles while listening to a tune. Works every time, and it’s usually just as good.

Listen to the podcast (15:32 minutes).

Spy Break

You’ve got to hand it to the National Security Agency. It’s gone from being a super-secret spook club whose existence nobody even acknowledged for decades to being pretty much everywhere.

It was behind the wiretapping at AT&T, it snoops through emails and eavesdrops on phone calls to grandma, heck — it even knows you’re listening to this podcast.

And it’s also the reason behind the revolving door at the helm of the Department of Homeland Security’s National Cybersecurity Center. It seems the spy agency has its fingers in that pie, too.

Cybersecurity chief Rod Beckstrom, appointed less than a year ago by then-President Bush, has called it quits, saying the NSA’s meddling had become too much. While the NSA was pushing its agenda of protecting the nation’s intelligence infrastructure, it didn’t stop to consider that the NCC’s mission is much broader than that.

Wait, did I just say that the U.S. intelligence apparatus has tunnel vision? Imagine that.

Dell’s Rugged Option

Who says Panasonic has to have all the fun building computers that can stand up to the abuse of military and construction work? Not Dell, that’s for sure. It has decided to start selling a ruggedized version of its Latitude line of notebook computers.

And none too soon, since the president’s economic stimulus plan contains lots of money for things like building bridges and roads and communications networks — all of which require a great deal of work in the field, where things can get pretty tough.

Try taking your MacBook Air out to the edge of a river or accidentally spraying it with a firehose. Like Panasonic’s Toughbook line, the Dell XFR E6400 Latitude is built to military standards for ruggedness.

One advantage Dell has over Panasonic, though, is that its components are pretty much standard with the rest of its products — so it’s a known commodity for a good majority of corporate IT departments. Admins can maintain data as they would with any Dell laptop — no special tools required.

Expanding Messages

Google has come up with another way for marketers to deliver their messages to people who are actually receptive to online advertising — consumers who, by and large, carry the entire edifice of e-commerce on their shoulders through the simple act of spending money. To encourage more of that sort of thing, Google is experimenting with expandable ads.

In a typical scenario, a small display ad will appear along with the results of a related search. A user who clicks on it will get to see more: The ad will expand to a larger, flashier format. Those who are really interested can click again to go to the advertiser’s landing page for yet more information. Unlike the pop-up ads that bedevil users who just want to get to the content, thank you very much, these expandable ads require proactivity.

Users have to click to activate them — an accidental mouseover won’t set them in motion. Google hopes that reaching a small but motivated consumer segment will be worthwhile for advertisers, and that the much larger group of surfers who aren’t in buying mode will be able to peacefully coexist with ads that don’t get in their faces.

Politicians Gone Wild

How do you halt the moral decline of society and help ensure your own re-election all in one fell swoop? Sue Craigslist, of course.

That’s the latest political tactic out of Chicago, where there’s no shortage of clever politicking. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart says Craigslist is the world’s biggest pimp, and he’s out to stop it.

Never mind that Craigslist actually helps law enforcement track down people who are using its site for illegal means, and forget that the cops routinely post their own ads on Craigslist to try to rope in a few would-be johns. And disregard the fact that you’re nearly guaranteed to lose the case because the law clearly protects the site, because it’s not about that.

It’s about upholding the law — the same way it was about upholding the law when that sheriff in South Carolina attempted to nail Michael Phelps for holding a bong up to his face.

Tweet Smell of Money

It’s going to take a lot more than 140 characters to figure out what to do about Twitter. The micro-blog site has hit its stride and captured the crown of Internet phenom, so, naturally, the smell of money is causing a lot of salivating to occur.

Google is an obvious potential buyer, and CEO Eric Schmidt’s denial of interest has done nothing to dampen the rumors that it’s getting ready to pounce. As you may recall, Google said it wasn’t really that keen on YouTube a couple of years ago — only to turn around and drop a cool $1.65 billion to snatch it up.

Of course, the world wasn’t in a recession then, and everyone was certain Google had some clever idea for turning YouTube into a big moneymaker, which we haven’t seen happen yet. Still, all that tweeting probably sounds like a siren call to someone with deep pockets. What do you think? Would Twitter at a billion be a bargain?

Lost in the Shuffle

If there’s one iPod model that’s managed to catch more guff than the old fat nano, it’s the iPod shuffle. Every since the original pack-of-gum-sized version came out, everyone has taken turns dumping on it, mainly because it doesn’t have a display — you’ve just got to guess what song you’re listening to.

Fine by me — that’s one less thing to break. The first and second-gen shuffles were tiny, tough and bare-bones — perfect when all you want is music, not some eye-candy interface. With the third-gen model, though, Apple has taken the bare-bones concept to a ridiculous extreme.

No buttons. That’s right, all you get is an on-off switch. You control the music through a mechanism on the cord of the included earbuds, which are just as cheap and uncomfortable as they’ve always been. There will be other headphone makers that sell shuffle-compatible headsets, of course, but if none of them measure up to your favorite set of third-party buds, you’ll probably just have to shell out to buy a separate control unit from Apple. Hooray for simplicity, huh?

The new shuffle is smaller in physical size but larger in storage; you now get up to 4 GB. It can do multiple playlists. And it tells you what song’s playing in a computerized voice that chimes in like a half-asleep DJ. That much is nice, I guess, but I hope this thing pulls a Coca Cola and we see a shuffle classic before too long.

Details for Developers

Microsoft is doing its best to build some buzz about its soon-to-launch Windows Marketplace for Mobile — Redmond’s answer to Apple’s monumentally successful App Store.

The Windows shop will offer devs a deal similar to what Apple gives them: that is, 70 percent of all the revenue brought in through sales of their applications. Where Microsoft will differ, though, is that it will let developers sell their apps through other channels as well.

The big advantage of the Windows Marketplace is that it will presumably gather most of the existing Windows Mobile apps under one roof — and there are already something like 20,000 of them on the market, available through a whole lot of different distribution outlets. What Microsoft doesn’t offer, though, is a popular gadget like the iPhone to run them.

Little Mistake, Big Problem

OK, so say you’re a company that sells antivirus and firewall software. Your products are going to need regular updates to keep current with the latest threats, right? So you’re probably pretty accustomed to the process of sending out patches and updates. You know what needs to be done, and you have several layers of checks and balances to make sure a simple mistake doesn’t throw the whole thing into chaos.

Like you’d never, ever, send out a patch without signing the security certificate. Well, you’re evidently not Symantec.

The maker of the Norton family of security products recently sent its users a patch called “PIFTS.exe.” But it forgot to digitally sign the certificate, and its own products tagged the update as unauthorized — which is what they’re designed to do.

That set off a bit of a panic among Norton’s users, who naturally turned to the company’s message boards for information. It also prompted someone — most likely some nefarious malware writers — to spam those message boards with nonsense posts about PIFTS.exe. That, in turn, provoked Symantec to start madly deleting posts on its boards, which resulted in howls of censorship from people who thought the company was just trying to cover up the whole mess.

Meanwhile, the malware writers got busy with their black-hat SEO tricks, moving their own malware-serving sites to the top of search results for “PIFTS.exe.” And that’s how Symantec brought a major public relations disaster down on its head.

We Hardly Knew Ye

eBay will long be remembered as a pioneer of e-commerce, but what company wants to be “remembered?” After all, if you’re being remembered, that means you’re not present — you’re somewhere else. Maybe dead.

Well, eBay’s not dead, but it doesn’t walk with the same swagger it once did, and CEO John Donahoe has outlined to Wall Street analysts how eBay is going to get its fastball back. It involves leaning heavily on its Marketplaces business, growing revenue to $7 billion.

And it wants to double its PayPal business by 2011. Certainly ambitious, but the remarks left Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Derek Brown less than floored.

“They didn’t say anything that they hadn’t really said before about the steps they were undertaking in the business,” he said. “They put some incremental color about some of the things they stated in the past.”

Still, he gave eBay grudging approval, saying the plans at least appear to be a step in the right direction.

Good Old Days

Speaking of fond memories, remember Friendster? Remember MySpace? Remember Facebook?

That’s the line of thinking that no doubt has Facebook execs waking up during the night in a cold sweat.

See, there’s this thing called Twitter, and before anyone could tap out 140 characters on a BlackBerry, it seemed, it was getting in Facebook’s face and challenging to take it down. Well, Facebook is not having it.

The social networking site has revamped its home page and added some functionality that gives it Twitter-like capabilities along with the slew of bells and whistles it already offered. Facebook hopes the move will lure businesses away from Twitter to Facebook’s more feature-rich marketing opportunities.

It’s a balancing act, though. The more Facebook and Twitter start catering to businesses, the greater the risk that ordinary users who loved them when they were nobodies will dump them for someone younger, fresher and less experienced.

Listening In

When Google says it wants to catalog all the world’s information, it isn’t kidding — and its latest product launch is evidence that it doesn’t just mean written information.

Google Voice lets users hook up all phones — office, home, mobile — to just one number. It also has a visual voicemail tool that translates spoken messages into written text — and now you can see how the whole indexing-all-the-world’s-information thing comes into play. Charlene Li, a principal analyst for the Altimeter Group, doesn’t have a problem with that.

“Google is my brain and memory,” she said. “Because the services are so good and so compelling, we’re willing to put so much of our lives in the hands of Google, and that requires a tremendous amount of trust. What’s interesting is that Google has earned that trust in many cases. We’ll see how this goes.”

In other words, Charlene doesn’t seem to mind if Sergey Brin gets his hands on her grandma’s apple pie recipe by snooping through her voicemail. Besides, it means she will start seeing more relevant ads, like for Pillsbury pie crusts and Washington apples, rather than the dancing insurance alien we all know and love.

Also in this week’s podcast: Study says Firefox is faster, less secure; Palm pulls financing from thin air; social networking outpaces email.

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