Monday, April 26, 2010

Sony Announces the Death of the Floppy Disk

Fully 12 years after the original G3 iMac dropped support for the 3.5-inch floppy disk, Sony has finally decided to stop making them. The reason is a lack of demand. The surprise is that it took so long.

If you still rely on the massive 1.44MB of space to move files quickly around between far-flung computers, don’t worry: Sony will keep the production lines running until March 2011, giving you a year to stockpile the things. You won’t be alone. Apparently, “lack of demand” is somewhat relative, and Sony sold a jaw-dropping 12 million floppies in Japan during 2009.

The 3.5-inch floppy has delighted giggling schoolboys with its name ever since its invention back in 1981 and subsequent Japanese launch two years later. Now it joins the cassette tape and the 8-track in fondly remembered obscurity.

It’s pretty mind-boggling to think that I could (and had to) boot my old Amiga from a floppy, as it had no hard drive. Back then we used to get out pirated games via sneakernet or by MailTorrent, as it was never called, and the one and a half megabytes and creaky 1000 kbps transfer rate seemed bottomless and blistering compared to the cassette tapes they replaced.

RIP, my floppy friend. If anyone out there actually still uses these fragile old things, tell us why in the comments.


Thursday, April 22, 2010

Microsoft, Facebook Partner for Cloud-Based Docs

Microsoft and Facebook announce the launch of Docs for Facebook, an online applications platform beta that lets Facebook users create and share Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents. FUSE Labs, a Microsoft division devoted to building software with a social connectivity focus, took four months to build the beta. The announcement coincides with the start of Facebook's F8 conference in San Francisco, where the social networking company is emphasizing the increasingly social and collaborative nature of the Web.

Microsoft and Facebook have launched the beta version of Docs for Facebook, an online applications platform that lets Facebook users create and share Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents. The launch represents yet another escalation in the cloud-based productivity arena, where Microsoft finds itself in competition against Google and a growing host of smaller competitors.

The announcement was timed to coincide with the opening of Facebook's F8 conference in San Francisco.

"Built on Microsoft Office 2010, the Docs app enables Facebook users for the first time to create and share Microsoft Office documents directly with their Facebook friends, using the Office tools they already know," Lili Cheng, director of Microsoft's FUSE Labs, wrote April 21 on the FUSE Labs blog.

Cheng wrote, "The fact that we've been able to adapt the Office 2010 'Web Apps' technology to work directly with Facebook truly speaks to the flexibility and power not just of the Facebook platform, but also of the Office system's rich 'contextual collaboration' capabilities."

It took four months for the FUSE (Future Social Experiences) Labs team to deliver the beta, from concept to implementation, according to Cheng,

Users can navigate to and log in using Facebook Connect. From that point, a variety of options present themselves: Users can view documents being shared by their friends, or else create or upload a document. Once a document's been created and edited, it can be shared with any Facebook friends selected via an interface on the right-hand side of the screen. The application also includes granular controls for which friends can edit a document.

In October 2009, Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie announced the creation of FUSE Labs with its focus on "software and services that are centered on social connectivity, real-time experiences and rich media," according to a Microsoft release at the time.

In an Oct. 8 internal memo leaked to several news outlets, Ozzie wrote that FUSE Labs would "bring more coherence and capability to those advanced development projects where they're already actively collaborating with product groups to help them succeed with 'leapfrog' efforts." Initial plans for FUSE Labs involved about 80 employees from Microsoft Startup Labs, based in Massachusetts, along with the Creative Systems Group and Rich Media Labs.

Ozzie's restructuring suggested an increased interest on Microsoft's part in social platforms and applications in a business context. In his internal memo, Ozzie suggested that FUSE Labs would serve as a way to quickly capitalize on social computing opportunities developed by Microsoft Research and other divisions: "The lab will prioritize efforts where its capabilities can be applied to areas where the company's extant missions, structures, tempo or risk might otherwise cause us to miss a material threat or opportunity."

Such a material threat—or maybe an opportunity—presents itself in the form of cloud-based productivity platforms. In an effort to counter rising competition from products such as Google Apps, Microsoft is introducing stripped-down, browser-accessible editions of OneNote, Excel, Word and PowerPoint for Windows Live subscribers. This new collaboration with Facebook likely represents another facet of that strategy.

Google has also been attempting to build out its Google Apps service, which has been gaining traction with a number of businesses and government agencies. On March 5, Google announced that it had acquired DocVerse, maker of an application that allows groups to collaborate online on Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents, potentially shifting the competition between the two IT titans into another gear if Google decides to integrate DocVerse's technology into Google Apps.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

BlackBerry Prepping New OS and Clamshell Phone?

If the latest rumors can be believed, the folks at BlackBerry are close to rolling out an entirely new operating system that will offer some welcome features like full multitouch functionality. BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion is also reportedly working on a new clamshell device, its second after the Blackberry Pearl Flip , that will be capable of running the new OS, version 6.0.

The Blackberry leaks come courtesy of gadget blog Boy Genius Report , which acquired images of the new phone and screenshots of the purported new operating system from an anonymous source inside AT&T.

Blackberry OS 6.0

At first glance the purported OS 6.0 home screen doesn't look all that different from the OS 5.0 interface. The new home screen features a customizable wallpaper, and transparent icons for basic functions like SMS, Mail, Web browser, calendar, and so on. However, BGR says the new home screen will be fully customizable, and the organizational structure sounds like a mix between iPhone and Android devices. Just like the iPhone, you will organize your apps onto separate pages, and then flick or navigate to the next page. This makes it possible to have numerous apps on your device, without the hassle of crowding them all onto one page. But similar to Android, Blackberry OS 6.0 will use a 'drawer' where some applications on the home screen are hidden from view. To access the apps, you slide up the apps section from the bottom of the page.

Blackberry is reportedly getting a new Webkit-based browser that includes tabs similar to the recently released Opera Mini for iPhone . There is also a new Media player that has am iPod Touch-like look to it with Cover Flow-style navigation, and a transparent overlay for touch-based playback controls.

Other interesting features from Blackberry OS 6.0 include kinetic scrolling, where the OS reacts to how fast you flick the page when scrolling, allowing you to get through a long screen of text more easily. The interface will also feature so-callled "rubber banding" where a page bounces when you reach the bottom or top of a page. Multitouch is also reportedly coming to Blackberry OS 6.0 including features like pinch to zoom, which just might raise the hackles of multitouch patent holders like Apple or Taiwan-based Elan Microlectronics .

BGR believes the new OS will be launching this summer, and says it could be ready as early as June. Those predictions seem very optimistic considering RIM just launched Blackberry OS 5.0 in late 2009.

Move Over, Pearl Flip

In addition to Blackberry OS 6.0, BGR was able to get its hands on a what it says is a new Blackberry clamshell device called the Blackberry 9670 . The CDMA handset reportedly features a 5 megapixel camera, full QWERTY keyboard, Wi-Fi connectivity, internal and external displays, and a microUSB port. There's no word on pricing or carrier, but since it's a CDMA device Sprint and Verizon are the only two contenders.

What do you think, Blackberry fans? Any Pearl Flip users out there ready to trade up for the 9670?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Google opens alphabetti spaghetti with refined spelling in search

Web queries for an illiterate age

Google has tweaked its search engine to speed up queries for users who are prone to spelling mishaps.

Mountain View said on Friday that it had made three enhancements to help web surfers input their searches more quickly and easily.

It has plumped up the automatic correction of misspelled search words to include 31 languages and improved spell correction for names. The company has also refined Google Suggest by adding a feature that searches for terms based on where someone using the search engine is located.

The ad broker launched Google Suggest last year, but at that point it only grouped searches together according to which country they originated from. The tweak enables a much more detailed search within a specific geographical area.

"Just as people in the UK often look for different things than people in US, we’ve found that people in Seattle tend to look for different things than people in Dallas," said the firm's search wonk Pandu Nayak in a blog post.

"So last week, we rolled out a version of Google Suggest that is tailored to specific metro areas in the US." ®


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Inside iPhone OS 4.0: Multitasking vs Mac OS X, Android

By Daniel Eran Dilger

Published: 06:00 PM EST
How you work on a smartphone is very different from how you work on a desktop computer. This reality is particularly true when it comes to multitasking. The approach to multitasking taken by Google's Android and Apple's upcoming iPhone 4.0 is also very different. Here's how they compare.

Desktop Multitasking

On a desktop system running Mac OS X, you don't just want to have multiple apps open and running, each with its own set of open windows. You also want lots of stuff happening in the background, because otherwise your expensive CPU and GPUs are just sitting there idle when they could be doing useful stuff.

Over the last decade of Mac OS X's development, Apple has added lots of new technologies to keep the processors working. The operating system debuted in 2001 with a fancy new compositing graphics engine, which with each new release kept giving the CPU (and later GPUs) additional busy work to do in the background, from shadows to translucency to reflections.

Mac OS X also has Spotlight indexing happening at regular intervals, and throws in automatic file system defragmentation and Time Machine backup change tracking as files are accessed, just to mention a few background features. The faster Macs get, the more extra background tasks the system can throw at the various available processor cores without causing (hopefully) any discernible slowdown for the foreground app.

Many of the new improvements in Snow Leopard were centered around managing how to most efficiently parcel tasks out to the various processor cores available in the system (Grand Central Dispatch) and taking novel advantage of the often idle GPU (OpenCL). The more a desktop operating system does in the background, the richer the experience it can offer.

Mobile Multitasking

When the iPhone appeared and debuted Apple's first mobile variant of Mac OS X, the design goals for the new operating system were turned completely upside down. When a system has to run off its own limited battery, you don't really want it to be doing lots of stuff in the background at all. You really want everything to be idle as much of the time as possible.

Of course, there's still lots that needs to be done, and in many cases, even more to do than a typical desktop. For example, there's a constant need to watch for incoming phone calls or SMS messages. This means the baseband unit has to constantly track the nearest cell tower with an acceptable signal in order to be ready to accept incoming calls or messages.

Power management certainly wasn't an entirely new idea; Apple had been selling notebooks for nearly twenty years, and had created increasingly sophisticated methods for shutting down unnecessary hardware to conserve battery life.

But on a handheld mobile device like the iPhone, there's not just hardware power management to think about. There's also a radically new user interface for working with apps. Apple invested a lot of engineering into deciding how to best deliver a mobile device that balanced features and functionality with acceptable battery life.

Not Multitasking on Purpose

A major design decision of the iPhone was to limit effective multitasking to core system apps, including Phone, SMS, iPod, Clock, and processes that supported these and similar features. When third party apps appeared with iPhone 2.0, there was no provision for running these in the background.

Apple's explanation was that enabling third party apps to run concurrently would simply consume too much battery while presenting potential security problems, and would necessitate providing a manual tool to manage background processes so that they didn't consume all available system resources.

Instead, Apple said it was working on a solution to the primary reason apps would want to run in the background: listening for external updates. Apple's strategy was delivered later than expected as it realized what a huge undertaking this would be, but the resulting Push Notification service enabled iPhone apps to seem responsive to external updates without actually running in the background, constantly polling servers for updates.

There was no technical limitation that kept third party apps from multitasking; the restriction was artificially imposed by Apple to simplify and optimize the performance of its mobile devices. By jailbreaking the iPhone, users can activate unregulated multitasking among third party apps. However, this results in battery life and performance issues the user will need to manage manually.

Apparent Multitasking

Google created multitasking for Android that works very differently than multitasking on a desktop system. In fact, they're so different that its almost confusing that both are referred to using the same word.

On a desktop system, multiple apps all open at once (in addition to background processes) are all able to do work concurrently. As the mouse moves between windows of different apps and clicks on things, events are sent to each app. They're all on and active, although tasks can sit in the background and essentially do nothing, taking up no real processing power and consuming no real memory (thanks to the mechanism of virtual memory) until the user activates them.

On Android, when a user switches from one app to another, the background app is suspended. This is like going into a coma; it's still taking up memory (which is scarce) but can't respond to anything or continue work or begin any new tasks. If the system runs low on memory, it begins saving the state of suspended apps and terminating them.

Terminated apps still appear to be running. When the user jumps to the app, it is relaunched and passed its saved state by the system so that it loads up to look like nothing ever happened and it has been actively running in the background. So far, this isn't really multitasking at all, but rather just a faster way to switch between apps that each run one at a time like the iPhone.

Costly Multitasking with Services

In order to actually do things in the background, Android apps must supply a "service" component, which spins off tasks that can continue even when the associated app is suspended. An Android service uses a client/server model to perform background tasks such as music playback or polling a server for new messages.

It's often these background services that are most likely to eat up battery life on Android phones, because they can open network connections to a remote server and keep those connections open. This forces the 3G or WiFi radio to remain constantly active, which is one of the fastest ways to drain the battery on a mobile device.

An Android service can also activate GPS to obtain regular location updates. This can be even more expensive in terms of battery life, as GPS exercises both the mobile network and the GPS antenna (as mobile signals are used to assist in the task of GPS tracking). Services can also eat up available RAM and consume CPU, but battery life is usually the primary problem.

Multitasking in iPhone 4.0 vs. Android

Apple was certainly aware of how Google had designed Android's multitasking model, and there's no evidence that Google patented the concept of services in its publicly documented, open source operating system. So the fact that Apple didn't clone Google's entire model for multitasking indicates that Steve Jobs wasn't just blowing hot air when he said Apple had studied the problem and devised its own approach to multitasking that it believed to be better.

At the same time, some aspects of Apple's new multitasking APIs are very similar in approach to Android's. According to an overview of the differences in Android and iPhone 4.0 by David Quintana, the "apparent multitasking" of iPhone 4.0, which Apple calls "Fast App Switching," is nearly identical to Android's app suspending concept described above.

When you switch from one app to another in iPhone 4.0, the previous app is held in memory but all activity is frozen. As noted earlier, this isn't really multitasking in the sense of desktop OS multitasking, but rather just an illusion that multiple apps are all running, when they're really not. They're just ready to run again as soon as you switch back: hence the name Fast App Switching.

Before Apple announced this mechanism, many iPhone programmers had expressed the idea that the system didn't really need "multitasking" as much as a "saved state" concept that would allow users to rapidly switch between apps. That's exactly what Fast App Switching does.

Just as with Android, iPhone 4.0 can reclaim memory by saving and then terminating apps that are frozen in the background, so when the user returns, the app can be reopened to the same place it was when the user quit. However, unlike Android, iPhone 4.0 presents a simple way to expressly quit a running app without needing a process management utility like TasKiller.

Because hitting the Home button no longer exits the app, Apple has now made a touch and hold shortcut that presents a red minus badge on running apps that can be used to quit them and remove them from the task tray of running apps, just like the Home button used to do. There's no manual management of apps and systems processes that could result in unanticipated problems for users.

Incidentally, this type of "apparent multitasking" is also what Microsoft plans to use in Windows Phone 7 at the end of the year. And once again for emphasis: this aspect of multitasking isn't really about running multiple apps at once as occurs in a desktop environment, it's about leaving them in memory so you can quickly switch between them.

More Efficient Multitasking in iPhone 4.0

Going beyond the apparent multitasking of Windows Phone 7, iPhone 4.0 will also support a specific set of tasks in third party apps that users will actually want to continue in the background after they leave an app. This is conceptually similar to Android's services, but is implemented in a new way. As Quintana writes, on iPhone 4.0 "background processing is however vastly different than Android."

A primary difference, Quintana notes, is that there is no concept of services in iPhone 4.0. Apps don't provide a background client/server component. Instead, Apple developed a set of rules that apps must follow in order to continue doing tasks after the user switches away from the app.

The idea of apps continuing to work after the user switches away is not new to the iPhone; it's only new to third party apps. Apple's Phone app already does this, as the company has long touted in its ads. With a call in progress, the user can hit the Home button and browse the web or look up a contact or check email while the Phone app remains on the call.

The same thing happens with the iPod app, which can continue to play music. SMS and Mail continue to get messages in the background and so on. However, this would quickly become a problem for users if all of the scores of apps they installed were all consuming resources without restriction as they checked for messages and streamed updates and continued other operations in the background.

In order to balance users' desires to do multiple things at once against users' expectations that their phone would work responsively for a reasonably long period of time, Apple defined a number of background tasks that third parties can implement, and set up rules that ensure these tasks are performed as efficiently as possible.

System-Wide Notifications as a Prerequisite for Efficient Multitasking

The first step down this path was delivered last year: Push Notifications. Rather than having apps sit in the background or spawning background services to poll remote servers for updates, Apple created a system wide service to efficiently listen for updates on behalf of the user's apps, and then present the user with notifications that the user then can act on (when convenient) by launching or switching to the app that has received the notification.

This is something other platforms don't really have in place. Even RIM's Blackberry, which is hailed for its push messaging savvy, has only recently opened up a public push messaging facility for third party apps. The result of this is that most Blackberry apps have already been designed to inefficiently poll their server for updates because unregulated multitasking was already there to allow them to do it "the wrong way." Users pay with shorter battery life.

Android apps similarly cause problems for users' battery life because they're each polling in the background rather than allowing a unified system thread to watch for updates while the individual apps all remain asleep. Apple's Push Notification feature therefore thoughtfully solved a complex problem before multitasking for third party apps was even attempted on the platform.

With iPhone 4.0, there's a second type of system level notification being added: Local Notifications. This mechanism allows apps to set reminders on a schedule that the system handles for them. Rather than being events that are pushed from an external server, they're set up by an app while it's awake, and then held and delivered on time by the system while the app sleeps.

An example might be an app that sets a reminder of a live webcast; the app doesn't need to remain in the background counting down to the notification; the system accepts the reminder and delivers it to the user at the set time on behalf of the app while the app itself goes to sleep.

Getting Things Done in the Background

While it's most efficient to have apps sleep, there are a few cases where an app actually needs to do something in the background. The most obvious involves finishing some time-consuming task such as a file upload. Users don't want to be forced to watch a progress indicator, which is what they currently have to do.

Right now, if a user quits a third party app while it's finishing an operation, the operation will fail because the app is forced to quit by the system. Apple's own apps, including Mail and SMS, can continue to send messages after the user appears to have quit the app, but that's because Apple's own bundled apps aren't forced to quit. Other apps are.

To accommodate this type of multitasking in iPhone 4.0, Apple added the Task Completion API, a feature that enables app developers to design their app so that it can request a specific amount of time to continue a task after the app is supposed to be put to sleep in the background. Once the app finishes its task or its requested time period expires, the system suspends the app as usual.

Three Special Background Tasks: VoIP, Audio, and Location

There are three other multitasking scenarios Apple supports in iPhone 4.0 which are related to ongoing tasks an app might want to do. This mechanism of granting exceptions to the "one app at a time" model for specific types of apps was anticipated in AppleInsider's earlier coverage of the development of multitasking in the iPhone OS.

The first exception API allows apps to work like the bundled Phone app: being able to accept calls and continue a call while other apps are being used. Only Apple's Phone app can place mobile calls, so this feature is called Voice over IP, as it's designed to support calls placed over an Internet connection using an app like Skype.

In order to make use of this new background VoIP mechanism, an app registers with the system and can then be suspended while the system maintains a network socket listening for incoming VoIP calls. When a call request occurs, the system wakes up the VoIP app and transfers it control of the network connection to service the call.

A second scenario is similar to the built-in iPod app: Background Audio. This allows apps such as Pandora to request the ability to continue playing a music stream even when it is not in the foreground. Apple ties the same background playback controller used for iPod to the app that has requested the use of the new Background Audio facility.

A third scenario for multitasking involves regular location updates. The new Background Location serves two types of apps that use location data: GPS apps that supply driving directions and social networking apps that use the user's location to notify their friends or suggest nearby events.

In the first case, Apple allows apps devoted to driving directions (like TomTom) to remain awake and access GPS in order to provide audible directions even when the app is put into the background. This would normally drain the battery pretty quickly, but most people who are using GPS do so in a car with a kit that supplies constant power.

On the other hand, social networking apps such as Loopt similarly need to know the user's location in order to be useful, but are not typically used in a car kit. If they used GPS, they'd nail the iPhone's battery pretty rapidly just to offer a lightweight service of limited value. In order to support these types of services efficiently, Background Location supplies them with data the phone already gets on a regular basis every time the user moves between mobile cell towers.

This update happens when the user moves between 500 and 1000 meters. When a location change is noted, the system wakes the app, updates its location, provides it with a period of time to process the change, and then suspends it again. This gets around the battery taxing use of GPS while still allowing these types of apps to work without constantly being in the foreground (as is currently the case on the iPhone).

Reasons for Multitasking Differently

In addition to increased efficiency, Apple's approach to regulated multitasking allows for simplified compatibility between devices like the iPhone 3G, which won't support multitasking, and more recent devices that do. Apps that take advantage of the new APIs simply request the ability to do things in the background, so if the hardware doesn't support it the requests are just denied by the operating system.

Google's approach with services requires a new model of client/server components. If Apple had copied that, developers would have to create one set of apps for older devices and an entirely different code base of apps for newer ones, a complex and problematic transition step given that Apple already has a vast library of existing titles in the App Store.

Additionally, much of what developers do with services on Android is already handled by the iPhone OS with Push Notifications. So implementing an Android-like services architecture for iPhone 4.0 would suggest to Android developers wanting to port their apps that they should do so using services rather than the more efficient Push Notifications, creating a problem like the one that exists on the Blackberry, where push features are largely ignored and go unused.

Unified development tools: Clang, LLVM and Xcode

This also all leads to the conclusion that Apple's design for incorporating multitasking features in iPhone 4.0 is all about doing what's best for the iPhone OS platform, rather than trying to create compatibility or similarities with other platforms that do things differently.

It should come as no surprise that Apple is not at all interested in making it easy or simple to port apps between the iPhone OS and other platforms. Doing so would only water down the advantages of the iPhone OS and encourage developers to aim at a lowest common denominator that worked across platforms rather than aspiring to take full advantage of the unique features of the iPhone OS.

This is the same reason why Apple has no interest in supporting Flash or Java as a meta-platform on the iPhone, and also why the company does not want to support third party efforts to create development tools that output iPhone apps. The Flash Professional strategy Adobe hoped to roll out will not offer its users the ability to support iPhone 4.0's multitasking features, Adobe would not be able to rapidly add these features as soon as Apple would like, nor would it necessarily even be in Adobe's interest to add them.

Apple's new prohibition of iPhone 4.0 development in languages other than C, C++ and Objective-C was largely seen as an attack on external development tools like Adobe's Flash CS5. However, observers including Rainer Brockerhoff have since noted that Apple's focus on C languages likely has more to do with the company strategy for optimizing iPhone OS development using Clang.

Clang (short for "C Language") is an open source project Apple funded to serve as a new front end compiler for (unsurprisingly) C, C++ and Objective-C code. Clang connects to LLVM, the Low Level Virtual Machine, which serves as the back end compiler for Apple's Xcode development tool for both Mac OS X and iPhone OS.

The combination of Clang and LLVM effectively replaces GCC (GNU Compiler Collection, the GPL-licensed compiler for Unix-like operating systems). Because Apple's replacement compiler tool chain is licensed under the more permissive BSD license, Apple can integrate it more closely into its Xcode Integrated Development Environment.

Additionally, Clang and LLVM enable Apple to better optimize various steps of the code compiling workflow, creating Mac and iPhone apps that are more efficient, faster, more compact, and easier to debug, due to a variety of optimizations and enhancements that the flexible, modular new compiling tools provide over GCC.

Having invested so much strategic work into Clang and LLVM, it's no wonder Apple is working to push developers to use its own development tools rather than trying to leverage emerging lowest common denominator platforms to deliver iPhone apps that aren't optimized for the iPhone or the latest features of the iPhone OS, including new support for multitasking.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Microsoft acts to avoid Windows blue screen repeat

Microsoft took steps Tuesday to avoid repeating the debacle two months ago that left Windows XP users staring at the notorious "Blue Screen of Death" error message after they applied a patch.

In February, a security update that fixed two flaws in the Windows kernel -- the operating system's most important component -- wreaked havoc when it was applied by users, who almost immediately flooded Microsoft's support forum with reports of crippled computers.

As the number of reports grew, Microsoft first stopped automatically serving the MS10-015 update, then confirmed that a rootkit caused the crashes. Only PCs that had been previously infected with the Alureon rootkit were incapacitated, Microsoft's investigation found.

Microsoft restarted distribution of the update only after it had come up with a way to block rootkit-infected PCs from receiving the patches. "If detection logic included in Automatic Update discovers abnormal conditions in certain operating system file configurations, the update will fail and customers will be presented with an error message that offers alternative support options," said Jerry Bryant, general manager with the Microsoft Security Response Team, in early March.

MS10-021, one of the 11 updates issued yesterday as part of Microsoft's monthly Patch Tuesday cycle, also fixed flaws in the Windows kernel. But Microsoft is hoping that this month's update won't trigger a repeat Blue Screen of Death.

"This security update includes package detection logic that prevents the installation of the security update if certain abnormal conditions exist on 32-bit systems," stated the MS10-021 bulletin. "These abnormal conditions on a system could be the result of an infection with a computer virus that modifies some operating system files, which renders the infected computer incompatible with the kernel update."

One security expert applauded the move.

"I give Microsoft a big tip of the hat for not taking [the February incident] as a one-off," said Jason Miller, data and security team manager at network compliance and security vendor Shavlik Technologies. "The kernel is something that if something goes bad, that's not good. Patching the kernel is not like patching a media player."

Microsoft obviously learned a lesson. Even though the February update crashed a relatively small number of PCs, the problem actually affected many more, he argued. "It may have affected just a few people, but it scared almost everyone into not patching," Miller said.

Although scattered reports of problems with Tuesday's security updates have been posted on Microsoft's support forum, Computerworld did not find any message threads describing Blue Screen of Death crashes after users applied yesterday's MS10-021 kernel update.

Enterprises should still test the update before widely deploying it, Miller recommended. "With every kernel patch, you really have to test. We're pretty adamant about that," he said.

Microsoft also urged users to apply MS10-021 to protect themselves. Although attacks had not been found in the wild exploiting any of the eight vulnerabilities addressed by the update, the company noted that users would "likely...see reliable exploit code developed for one or more of these eight vulnerabilities" in the next 30 days.

This month's security update, including MS10-021, can be downloaded and installed via the Windows Update and Microsoft Update services, as well as through Windows Server Update Services.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Google turns up the heat on Office with collaboration tweaks

Google is making a number of changes to its Google Docs offerings to make them even more attractive for those looking to make the switch from Microsoft's Office. Google's editors for documents, spreadsheets, and drawings are getting even more realtime collaboration attributes—including character-by-character editing by multiple users. Unfortunately, Google Docs is also losing a couple features, but Google believes these changes will help take it to the next level when it comes to challenging Microsoft.

Google Docs has always had easier-to-use collaboration features than much of what Microsoft has to offer. Docs has been particularly useful for individuals and small businesses who need to throw together a document quickly with geographically scattered users, but the newest additions allow users to see each others' edits on a per-character basis. This means you can watch what your coworker is typing into a document in almost realtime, and up to 50 users can be connected to a document at a time.

On top of that, Google's word processor now sports more Office-like features, such as spellcheck while you type and a ruler across the top for easier margin alignment. Spreadsheets has gained auto-complete and drag-and-drop columns, as well as an editing bar for formulas. And in Drawings, users can copy and paste their creations into other Google docs or export to standard image formats in either raster or vector (SVG) options.

Color labels in all of these Web apps show which user is entering what and where, so there's never a question as to who added certain sections.

Not all the news about Google Docs is good, though. Thanks to Google's discontinuation of Gears, those who rely on offline access to Google Docs will lose that ability as of May 3, 2010. Google is careful to mention that this doesn't affect offline access to Google Calendar or Gmail, and says the company is "working to support an improved offline access option in the future."

These changes come on the heels of Google's acquisition of DocVerse, a company that allowed Microsoft Office users to edit their documents collaboratively on the Web—Google is undoubtedly planning to integrate DocVerse's features into Google Docs. Soon after that deal closed, Google also introduced an Exchange migration tool for businesses looking to ditch Microsoft's e-mail technology in favor of Google Apps.

There are other ways for Office users to collaborate online—SharePoint is a popular solution among businesses, for example—but the functionality is still quite different from what's offered through Google Docs. And, of course, Google emphasizes that all these changes are part of Google Apps for no extra cost, while Office is $499 per user (before discounts).

The changes may not appeal to serious Office users, but it's clear that Google has decided to turn up the heat on Microsoft's dominance among casual users and small businesses.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Apple’s IPhone Software May Deliver Multitasking, Ads (Update1)

By Connie Guglielmo and Olga Kharif

April 8 (Bloomberg) -- Apple Inc. is readying a new version of its iPhone software that analysts predict will add support for multitasking and advertising, features that escalate its competition with Google Inc. for mobile users and developers.

Apple said it will hold an event today to give a “sneak peek into the future” of the iPhone operating system --software that third-party developers have used to create 150,000 applications for the iPhone, iPod Touch and new iPad tablet.

Since the iPhone’s introduction in 2007, customers and developers have criticized its inability to run more than one third-party program at the same time. Speculation about the ad system, meanwhile, was spurred by Apple’s January acquisition of a mobile ad network called Quattro Wireless. That deal came after Google agreed to buy market leader AdMob Inc.

“This just gives Apple developers a new way to make money in the nascent market for mobile ads,” said Shaw Wu, an analyst with Kaufman Bros. in San Francisco. He recommends buying Apple shares, which he doesn’t own personally. “It’s just a lot easier for developers when you have the infrastructure, and that’s what we think Apple is doing.”

Natalie Kerris, a spokeswoman for Cupertino, California- based Apple, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Apple fell $1.05 to $239.55 at 9:39 a.m. New York time in Nasdaq Stock Market trading. The shares have more than doubled in the past year.

Apple regularly updates the iPhone software. The company first opened up the operating system to outside developers in 2008, giving them a way to create applications for the device. Apple also added business features that year, including support for corporate e-mail systems.

Developer Ranks

Today, Apple has more than 100,000 developers, who get a 70 percent cut of revenue when their apps are sold through the company’s Apps Store. The apps run on the more than 70 million iPhones and iPod Touch players sold over the past three years.

There are also more than 3,000 applications available for the iPad. Apple sold at least 300,000 iPads in the first day of its U.S. debut last weekend.

While a new ad platform wouldn’t add much to Apple’s coffers, it could attract developers looking for easy ways to make money from their programs, Wu said. That includes programmers who offer free apps. Wu estimates that 30 percent of the apps available today are distributed at no cost.

Apple’s potential ad platform, which the company’s fan sites have been calling “iAd,” comes at a time when Google is trying to complete its $750 million takeover of AdMob.

FTC Scrutiny?

U.S. regulators sought sworn declarations from Google’s competitors and advertisers as part of their probe of the deal, a sign the Federal Trade Commission may challenge the takeover on concern it will reduce competition for Internet advertising on mobile phones, people with direct knowledge of the matter said last month.

U.S. mobile ad revenue will rise to $720 million in 2010 from $330 million last year, Kelsey Group estimates. Sales may climb to $3.1 billion by 2013, the Chantilly, Virginia-based research firm said.

So far, Google has been “ahead of the curve” in serving ads tailored to mobile users’ location and demographics, said Michael Boland, a senior analyst at Kelsey Group. “It has a very large competitive edge -- it has been very forward- thinking.”

Android Software

Google has its own phone operating system called Android, which is used by companies such as Motorola Inc. and HTC Corp. The Mountain View, California-based company also sells a handset under the Google brand called the Nexus One.

Apple will likely use some of the location information it collects from users to send more targeted ads, said Richard Doherty, an analyst with Envisioneering Group in Seaford, New York. A newspaper might serve its own national ads through its app, as well as relying on Apple to deliver ads that are specific to a user’s location. That way, an Apple user who lives in Portland, Oregon, will see ads for a local store, instead of something for a New York boutique, Doherty said.

Advertisers may be able to buy ads through Apple directly or through the content providers, Doherty said.

The revised iPhone software will probably be a precursor to a new model, said Gene Munster, an analyst at Piper Jaffray & Co. in Minneapolis. Apple, which updated the iPhone in July 2008 and then again in June 2009, will likely release a new version this summer that’s smaller than the current 3GS models, he said.


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Google Android Hits Massive Growth Spurt

Observing Android is kind of like watching a child's early years: We've seen it since the beginning; we've always known it's been on the brink of a massive growth spurt. But that hasn't made it any less impressive to see how quickly it's matured.

All right, so the two scenarios aren't exactly the same. Android's formative years involve less spit-up, for one, and the parent-child attachment is slightly less strong (full-fledged Android fanboys notwithstanding). Still, Google's mobile operating system has been growing at a breakneck pace, and from the looks of it, its mobile market peers are starting to struggle to keep up.

Google Android Growth

First, the big picture: Android, according to a new analysis by metrics firm ComScore, has recently commanded an extra 5.2 percent of the overall U.S. mobile market. The analysis compares data from November 2009 with data from February 2010, the most recent complete month available.

n that same time span, Apple's market share remained essentially flat, dropping by about 0.1 percent. Microsoft and Palm, meanwhile, both lost market share, dropping by 4 percent and 1.8 percent, respectively. The only platform other than Android to expand its userbase was RIM, which increased its market share by about 1.3 percent.

That's a lot of numbers, I know. But the trends here are what really matter: Month after month, Android is making leaps in its reach. And month after month, the competition is failing to match its growth.

Now, Android's still the small fry in this giant bag of hamburgers: Google's OS is sitting at about 9 percent of the total U.S. mobile market, compared to 42.1 percent for RIM, 25.4 percent for Apple, 15.1 percent for Microsoft, and 5.4 percent for Palm. Keep your eye on the rates of change, though; those figures are what give us an educated glimpse into the future. Just ask

The Android App Question

Regardless of market share, an area in which Android is often criticized is its App Market selection. Some argue the platform's roughly 30,000 apps can't compete with Apple's 100,000-strong selection.

The disparity, too, may soon become far less pronounced. According to a report published by independent analysis center AndroLib, Google's Android App Market just wrapped up a hefty month of growth. In March alone, AndroLib reports, 9,329 new apps were added into the platform's official shelves. That's nearly 70 percent more than were added just one month earlier.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Numbers alone don't mean much when it comes to something like app selection. Is the difference between even 10,000 apps and 50,000 apps truly noticeable to us as consumers? Of course not. But for those who focus on such figures as a measure of a platform's worth, the shift may be well-worth noting.

All in all, it's an awful lot of change for Android -- hey, I told you it's like watching a child grow up. And if you think it's bad now, just wait till our little operating system hits puberty.

JR Raphael frequently covers mobile technology for both PCWorld and eSarcasm, his geek-humor getaway. He's on Facebook:


Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Test Driving Apple's Game Changing iPad

After a couple of days with Apple's new tablet, I'm convinced that this device is the real deal.

Having used the iPad for a couple of days now, it's clear that the product is a game changer. I suggested in a recent column that the tablet had the potential to kill netbooks. After bringing the iPad with me on a recent trip, I firmly believe that it will replace my laptop in a number of instances, as well.

Out of the box, it's immediately clear just how sleek and elegant the device is. No surprise there, of course. When it comes to design, Apple always bests the competition. Once turned on, the brilliant screen reveals the device's various functions, highlighting the ways in which the iPad will help us re-think portable computing.

The iPad makes content consumption easy and fun. Sitting back in your chair in what I call the "lean back position," the iPad is perfect for surfing the Web, checking e-mail, watching movies and TV shows, playing games, and reading books. Seventy percent of what we do on a computer already involves consuming content. The lean back is a more natural way to view most of the content we encounter in our digital lives.

The iPad delivers a great experience in each of these areas. This alone will make it hard for competitors to top the device. Add to that a plethora of apps created specifically for the iPad, and it becomes clear that the device is more than simple a giant iPd touch. It's a new kind of portable computer that could cause a paradigm shift in mobile computing, making the tablet the preferred method for accessing and consuming digital content for many mainstream consumers.

The device is also versatile enough to deliver a solid experience in "lean forward mode." When we sit at our desk and create content, we're primarily hunched over our keyboard writing documents and working with spreadsheets. Apple was smart enough to create a new version of Pages, Keynote, and Numbers, specifically for the iPad. With the optional keyboard dock, the device can also be used to create content. Reading e-mail on the tablet is a delight. The screen makes it possible to read long messages on a single page. The virtual keyboard makes it easy to respond to e-mails, even for someone with fat fingers, such as myself. However, if you are working with large documents or spreadsheets or creating a graphics-based project, you'll probably want to stick to the desktop or laptop.

Apps At launch, there were about 1,400 iPad-specific apps available. By the end of April, I bet that number will be well over 5,000. Even without seeing one in-person, developers understood the device's potential, lining up to create new and innovative apps for the platform. I downloaded the ABC app, which gave me instant access to many of the network's most popular shows through its dedicated player. The CNN site has already taken advantage of HTML5, makng it possible to view CNN videos on the iPad. The optimized versions of USA Today, Time Magazine, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, make it clear that the publishing world is backing the iPad in a big way.

The complaints about the iPad's lack of support for Flash are certainly legitimate, but Apple's decision to make HTML5 the cornerstone architecture for delivering video on the device could cause the entire industry to shift in that direction. In fact, content delivery networks like BrightCove have created tools to convert Flash video into HTML5 for customers.

There is some real innovation happening in the games space, as well. I downloaded the iPad version of Scrabble and found that it could be played with iPhones and iPod touches through the Bluetooth feature. You place the iPad down on the tablet between yourself and a group of friends. The iPad serves as the board, and everyone around the table uses their iPhones and iPod touches to create words, which magically show up on the iPad in the center.

In fact, all of the games I tested for the iPad were stellar. Racing games come alive, and first-person shooters seem almost like 3D. Casual games like solitaire and Bejeweled are more fun to play on the iPad's larger screen. A game/learning tool called The Elements demonstrates how the iPad could impact education. In fact, we're already hearing stories about colleges that are going to make the iPad a part of their curriculum next fall.

Books and Movies
When reading books, the difference between the iPad and the Kindle is huge. With the iPad, books include color images. Reading Winnie the Pooh to my granddaughters, I was able to share all of the full-color images they are used to seeing in the hardcover version of the book. I fully expect publishers to utilize the technology to create multimedia books in the near future.

Reading magazines like Time, Newsweek, The New Yorker is very much like reading their hard copy counterparts. All of the color art, charts, and photos are in tact, and after a while I forgot that I was reading an electronic copy. The experience is incredibly similar.

And if you have ever watched a movie on an iPhone or iPod touch, you know that the devices deliver very good video experiences. I pulled up the Michael Jackson movie, This is it, on the iPod touch and the iPad, watching them side-by-side. Guess which experience was better. I did this little experiment on a flight back to San Jose. People around me stopped to see what I was doing. When they saw the iPad, they all agreed that they would prefer to watch the movie on that device.

Changing the Game
There are some drawbacks, however. The screen is sharp and clear, but it still reflects images in bright light. More than once I could see myself reflected back completely in the screen like a mirror. And since the iPad uses fingers to navigate through programs and menus, it collects smudges fast. I had to carry a glasses cleaning cloth around with me.

Because of the iPad's weight (1.5 pounds), it can get tiresome if you hold it in one position for a long time. When I was on the couch, I had to hold it on my lap or rest it on my leg. When watching a movie, I put it in the cradle. I did the same when I ate alone and wanted to read. The iPad is a great dining companion.

In the couple of day I had the device, I found it a powerful and natural way to consume digital content. It delivers a great Web browsing, book reading, game playing, and all-around media-consuming experience. The iPad is still a bit pricey for mainstream consumers, but I think it will still manage to pull in a lot of people. And having used it on a trip, I can attest that it would be a marvelous gadget for travels who spend a lot time on planes and in hotel rooms.

It may take some time for the iPad to find its true audience, but it will likely eventually become Apple's fourth billion dollar business. The halo effect alone will be massive. Millions of people will enter Apple stores this year just to play with the iPad, giving the company a chance to sell them on other Apple products.

I look forward to spending a lot more time with the iPad in the future. I sense that it's a product I'll want to use a lot both on trips and at home. And when it's not in use around the house, it will also function as our family's digital picture frame. The potential for the iPad seems virtually limitless.