YouTube’s Identity Crisis, Circuit City’s Cash Crisis: A Week to Forget

Now you can get your fix of “Bulletproof Monk” and “American Gladiators” — all without leaving the comfort of YouTube. Yes, the king of user-generated, short-form video is now embracing the other kind: studio-generated, feature-length films.

Yes, this is the same YouTube that said long-form video was anathema to its business model. But I guess when the big MGM lion comes roaring, you make an exception. Some of the stuff that MGM will be contributing belongs on the who-cares list: dusty, old movies that never did well in the theaters or on DVD, such as the aforementioned “Bulletproof Monk.” You’ll also get to see episodes from the original late-’80s/early-’90s fixture “American Gladiators” — the original, not that new copycat thing that’s out there now.

In return, YouTube has promised to help out MGM a bit — by employing video fingerprinting technology that identifies unauthorized copies of MGM’s content, which it will promptly remove. Once again, you can only watch what the big lion says you can watch, and all is right in the world.

Listen to the podcast (13:59 minutes).

Going Under

OK, all’s not quite right with the world. Let’s get the bummer news over with: Circuit City has gone bust, and that’s just one more sign that the coming holiday season is going to be tough in a lot of ways.

The bankruptcy protection will give Circuit City some breathing room to reorganize its operations for a comeback, but whether it will be able to ride out the economic storm is anybody’s guess. Circuit City is second only to Best Buy in the electronics goods retail space, but it has clearly been struggling for the last several months.

This month alone, it announced plans to shutter more than 150 stores and hand out pink slips to 20 percent of its workforce. The bankruptcy should enable the company to continue paying its remaining employees. It also hopes to continue taking customer returns, making exchanges and honoring gift cards — but that’s going to be up to the judge.

The Power of Access

Internet service providers have been slow to bring broadband to some of America’s more rural areas, but IBM plans to address that with BPL, broadband service over power lines.

Big Blue is collaborating with IBEC — that’s International Broadband Electric Communications — on the project. The networks they’re building out use existing infrastructure, so deployment should be fast and relatively inexpensive.

More than 900 electric cooperatives in the U.S. provide 45 percent of the total electric grid and cover 75 percent of the country’s land mass, so this could be a blessing for broadband-starved Web surfers in the boonies.

Data Extortion

Hand over the cash or your customers’ privacy gets it! That’s essentially what ExpressScripts is being told. Now, you may not have heard of ExpressScripts — but it’s more than likely ExpressScripts has heard of you.

In fact, if you use a prescription drug insurance plan, ExpressScripts probably has your personal data in its files. And if that’s the case, the bad guys probably have it too.

Data extortion is actually a lot more common than you might think, but it’s usually kept under wraps while companies pay out the ransom and presumably get their clients’ data back. ExpressScripts, however, took the unusual step of bringing in the FBI and offering a reward for help tracking down the shakedown artists. So now you know about it.

Wow — G-men, data breaches, extortion attempts — kinda makes you want to reach for the anti-anxiety medication.

Trickery, Not Holography

Did you see the holograms on CNN’s election night report? If you were channel surfing, you could hardly have missed them.

As the returns rolled in, CNN broadcast so many teasers about its technology breakthrough that it looked like they might have been padding an uneventful news day with some hokey filler. In case the amazing holograms escaped you, though, here’s what you missed.

As Wolf Blitzer stood in the studio wearing an expression of eager anticipation — which for Wolf is sort of a relaxed frown — reporter Jessica Yellin appeared out of nowhere, as though Scotty had beamed her there, or, more accurately, as though she were following, and I’m quoting Yellin here, “the tradition of Princess Leia.”

Except that’s not accurate either, because CNN’s hologram was no more real than the one George Lucas gave us in 1977. It was camera trickery, folks. Better cameras, for sure, but still a trick. In fact, 30-plus high-def cameras shot Yellin from every conceivable angle as she stood in a tent at President-Elect Barack Obama’s victory celebration in Chicago.

To viewers, it looked as though a transparent Yellin with a hazy aura outlining her ghostly form had magically apparated in the CNN studio. What Blitzer saw was probably an image on a monitor. Shame on you, CNN.

Razr’s Better Days

Let’s go back to the year 2004, when smartphones were for corporate execs, government operatives, and general weirdos. No, you certainly weren’t cool at all unless you had a Razr, the slickest clamshell ever.

The Motorola handset started at US$600 back then, and it managed to maintain its popularity — if not its cool factor and price point — for years afterward. Only recently has it been unseated as the top-selling phone in the U.S.

It was probably moving so well because it had been reduced in price so much that carriers were giving Razrs away just for signing a contract. The handset that replaced it at the top is the iPhone, according to NPD Group. It’s the first time a smartphone has topped the list.

Incidentally, Apple’s handset also started out around $600, so you can expect to get your free iPhone sometime around 2011. Good luck with that.

Tether Me Up

iPhone owners, do you remember NetShare? That was the application that went up on the App Store last summer, then mysteriously disappeared, then reappeared for a few hours, then finally went away for good.

Netshare was a tethering tool. Basically, it turned your iPhone into a modem. You could connect it to your computer to surf the Web using the phone’s 3G service, no extra charge. The rumor was that AT&T wasn’t so happy about the kind of strain its network would feel if a whole lot of people did that, so it somehow convinced Apple to put the application away.

But now, AT&T has confirmed that it does intend to bless an iPhone tethering feature — eventually.

When? That’s not clear right now, but it’s very likely that such an additional service will add some extra charges to your bill. The carrier already has a BlackBerry tethering solution for 30 bucks a month. For $60, you can get the AirCard, which doesn’t rely on a phone at all.

Shameless Marketing Push

Giving away money apparently wasn’t enough, so Microsoft is now turning to an old nemesis for help increasing traffic for its Live Search.

Sun Microsystems — which is a major supporter of the open source software that goads Steve Ballmer into acting like a monkey — will offer the Live Search toolbar to everyone who downloads the next version of its Java runtime environment, a plug-in that just about everyone on the Internet uses.

You’ll have to check a box to decline the toolbar, which will have Live Search as its default setting. Microsoft is also close to signing a deal with Verizon that would make Live Search the default setting on Verizon’s phones — at least, that’s the buzz. Microsoft is reportedly offering to double what Google offered for the Verizon search deal.

Redmond Does Social

Microsoft may be trailing in search, but Windows Live is about to become the hottest social network on the Web.

Actually, we don’t think — probably no one really thinks — that Facebook and MySpace have much to worry about. But Windows Live is getting some cool stuff. The latest upgrade includes a bunch of Web 2.0-style online services, including a new set of social networking apps.

OK, a lot of these things are just upgrades — Windows Live already had e-mail and photo sharing, for example. But Microsoft is now letting users include a lot of third-party stuff on their user profile pages, and it’s supplying tools for managing user-generated content, and it’s giving everything a Facebook-like look.

And that’s just what people expect when they go online these days.

Flu Follower

Who’d have thought that Google’s data is as good at tracking disease as the data collected by the Centers for Disease Control?

Apparently, it is, Google has found, and it shows trends a lot faster than the CDC’s data, although it’s not quite as accurate. Undeterred, Google has gone ahead and launched its flu tracker, which basically plots out where cases of the flu are popping up based on the terms people enter into its search engine.

OK, let’s all game the system — everyone in Hawaii, go to Google and start entering search terms like “flu remedies,” “flu symptoms,” “chicken soup.” Google admits its flu-tracker system isn’t airtight. Still, it’s kinda cool.

Fried Spam

They don’t want to be referred to as “vigilantes,” so we’ll just call them hotshots. And here’s what these hotshot security researchers did: They took down a domain host that was serving as command-and-control for an eastern European botnet spewing spam with the best of them.

The hotshots — members of a coalition called — built their case against San Jose-based McColo and tipped off a Washington Post reporter. The reporter then took the evidence to the two ISPs that kept McColo up and running, and the ISPs pulled the plug.

Apparently egregious spamming violated their terms of service. No cops, no courts, no mess. Sounds a little like vigilantism to me. In any case, it worked. Security firms that track spam sent by botnets noticed a significant drop in volume following the shutdown.

Of course, no one’s naive enough to think the botnet or the spam will go away forever, but at least this slowed ’em down a bit.

Sale? Eew

Christmas lasts just one day. Hanukkah has eight crazy nights. But for retailers, the winter holidays go on for nearly a month, and they kickstart the season with the biggest retail party of all: Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.

That’s when they slash prices to a ridiculous degree, open the doors to shivering psychos who’ll happily line up outside at three in the morning for a discounted laptop, and then watch as mountains of old products go out the door. At least, that’s the way it works at most big-box retailers. At Apple’s brick and mortar and online retail outlets, things are a little more subdued.

You get a few bucks off an iPod, maybe a C-note off an iMac, but don’t bother looking for half-off sales — they’re just not there. This year, though, budgets are extremely tight and retailers are desperate to make sales. That means crazy deals on Black Friday, and Barclays Capital analyst Ben Reitzes thinks it’s time for Apple to have a proper blow-out.

The question is, is that really what Apple needs? It definitely wouldn’t be Apple’s style, and even though they’re hurting as much as anyone these days, they’re not exactly bleeding out. On the other hand, the iMac is almost due for a refresh, and a big sale could clear out the inventory. Better set up the ol’ tent outside the Apple store, just to be on the safe side.

Also in this week’s podcast: Best Buy feels the sting; Cisco rolls out expensive new router; VMware gives phones multiple personalities.

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