The US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit has issued a decision upholding Federal Communications Commission rules on unbundling, saying that the telecoms will have to continue offering access to their networks to some competitors at discounted rates. This allows companies such as Covad Communications to offer DSL and other information services to local businesses.
In 2003, the FCC made an unpopular change to its telecommunications policy, allowing the telecoms to stop leasing their local lines to competitors. This had the effect of constricting consumer choice, as telecoms could freeze out competing DSL providers from leasing their lines. The rule change did not apply to business customers, which prompted the telecoms to sue in an effort to have that portion of the rules reversed.
DSL providers such as Covad, Speakeasy, Earthlink, and others are able to continue offering services in some areas via dedicated-loop DSL. In the nascent days of broadband, dedicated-loop was the primary method of delivering ADSL. It uses a dedicated line that does not require voice services, but fell out of favor once DSL providers were able to use voice lines from the local telecoms. When the FCC changed its rules, dedicated-loop DSL made a comeback.
The FCC likes the concept of competition, but applies it in a manner many find unsettling. It is happy to hand the cable companies and telecoms monopolies over their cable and new fiber networks, saying that competition exists when the consumer has a choice between cable or DSL. Unfortunately, many US residents lack access to more than one type of broadband (I can get cable, but not DSL in my Chicago neighborhood), and others are stuck with dialup.
Competition for broadband is important, and it lurks large in the background of the discussion about network neutrality. The way the US broadband industry is regulated, consumers who might see some traffic throttled on their networks may not have another broadband provider to turn to if they don’t like a tiered Internet.
The court’s ruling is good news for business customers will be able to pick and choose from telecommunications services providers. It’s a pity that American consumers do not get to enjoy the same degree of choice.
There's been a lot of talk about the Mac OS X kernel in the past few months. When Avie Tevanian left Apple in March, there was much speculation that Apple had plans to abandon the Mach microkernel that underpins Mac OS X, and that Avie helped to develop many years ago. There were two lines of reasoning to support this, both pretty silly.
The first was that, with Avie out of the picture, Apple was finally free to remove the Mach albatross from around its neck and switch to a better kernel. This scenario doesn't hold up to much scrutiny. Apple is not the kind of company that would intentionally handicap its flagship software product in order to avoid hurting someone's feelings. With the possible exception of Steve Jobs himself, no one at Apple gets that kind of kid-gloves treatment.
The second theory is that Apple decided to abandon Mach first, which made Avie so upset that he decided to leave the company. This is perhaps the least likely explanation for Avie's departure. Avie's career path is not mysterious or odd, and it leads directly to his departure.
As a student, Avie helped develop Mach. Steve Jobs recruited him and he began his career at NeXT, where the NeXTSTEP OS was also based on a Mach kernel. When Apple bought NeXT and Jobs took over Apple, Avie was put in charge of the Mac OS X effort. After the launch of Mac OS X and a few follow-up releases, Avie was promoted to a position with the words "chief" and "officer" in the name, presumably as a reward for his successful stewardship of the Mac OS X program. Finally, Avie cashed in several million dollars worth of Apple stock options and left the company to "pursue other interests." Now he's on the board of directors for Tellme Networks, a pre-IPO telecom startup.
That's practically a textbook technology career success story. I don't see any need to imagine drama or conspiracy to explain any of the steps. The scuttlebutt from inside Apple itself backs up this straightforward interpretation of events. Whatever the situation is with Mach in Mac OS X, I'm convinced that it has nothing to do with Avie's departure, and vice versa.
Why all the Mach hate, anyway? Over the past year, there's been a lot of virtual ink spilled about Mac OS X kernel performance. But drawing good conclusions from benchmarks is notoriously difficult. Is Mach really a problem, or is it just a red herring? The debate continues.
Meanwhile, Apple's kernel has faced political as well as technological criticism. Shortly after the first Intel-based Macs shipped, Darwin hackers noticed that the source code for the the x86 version of the Mac OS X kernel had not been released. It remains unreleased to this day. So far, the only official statement from Apple is that there is no official statement yet.
Finally, although this is only tangentially kernel-related, there's been a lot of speculation that the upcoming Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard will run Windows in some fashion. Some say it'll be virtualization, others say that Apple will implement Windows APIs directly in Leopard. Still others say this is all a pipe dream and that Windows on the Mac will be handled by a non-beta incarnation of Apple's existing Boot Camp dual-boot solution. Apple's technologically vague statement that it will "include technology in the next major release of Mac OS X, Leopard, that lets you install and run the Windows XP operating system on your Mac" doesn't really help settle things, unfortunately.
As Summer 2006 gets into full swing, leading up to Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in August, there's quite a rumor storm brewing around the Mac OS X kernel, that most mundane of OS components. Granted, most of the rumors appear misguided or even ridiculous, but let's not lose sight of the big picture. It appears that something is going on with the Mac OS X kernel. Regardless of the individual quality of the rumors, their proliferation is a sign in and of itself. Maybe it's just a sign that people wish something would change in the Mac OS X kernel. But these rumors have been fed by Apple's own strange behavior surrounding the kernel source, so it's not all one-sided.
Early on, I dismissed each of the kernel rumors individually, much as I've done above. But collectively…I don't know, I'm beginning to think that there's just too much smoke here for there not to be a fire somewhere. So what is going on with the Mac OS X kernel? Where is the x86 source? Is it really (according to the leading theory) being held back in an attempt to thwart hackers? (You know, the hackers who already have Mac OS X running on generic PC hardware. Those hackers.)
We're all so used to seeing intellectual property owners being totally stupid when it comes to the piracy issue, but I'm willing to give Apple the benefit of the doubt here. Of all the things that could possibly mitigate the spread of Mac OS X on generic PC hardware, keeping the kernel source closed seems pretty low on the list. It's happening already, with no kernel source available. Hell, it happened even before Apple released the firmware update that enables Boot Camp to work. The cat's out of the bag. Surely Apple sees that.
Nevertheless, I remain convinced that there's something going on with the Mac OS X kernel. The most logical reason that I can think of for Apple's refusal (thus far) to publish the source code to the x86 version of the Mac OS X kernel is that the kernel shipping today in the x86 versions of Mac OS X Tiger is an evolutionary dead end, and therefore not worth the effort to pretty-up and publish.
Presumably, all of the major work on Mac OS X, the kernel or otherwise, has long been focused on Leopard. Now imagine that the Leopard kernel has significantly diverged from the Tiger kernel. Maybe it's a new kernel entirely, or maybe it has significant changes to support virtualization more efficiently, or something in between. Apple seems to be holding its cards close to its chest until WWDC. In the meantime, pushing out the source to a soon-to-be defunct incarnation of the Tiger kernel might not be along the critical path. Better to simply stall until August.
That's my optimistic theory, anyway. "Cool kernel changes coming, just wait!" But I also have a darker theory. It's also possible that Apple is considering a major change in its Mac platform strategy and does not want to drop the bomb until WWDC. This could also be something good, but my intuition tells me that any major Mac strategy change at this point is just as likely to be bad. Not "Mac OS X cancelled, Apple moving to Windows" bad, more along the lines of "Apple switching to x86" bad. That is, short-term upheaval and pain for the promise of long-term gain.
I'll be very surprised if there’s no big kernel-related technology or announcement at WWDC. That said, I don't see any pressing need for major kernel shenanigans in Leopard, just more of the same kinds of improvements that came in Tiger. Maybe no big announcement really would be the best possible outcome. But I find it hard to explain away the recent noise and odd Apple behavior surrounding the issue. Hmmm…
ColorWare, a company known to many Mac users as a haven for getting your multi-colored Apple product fix and making sure it looks hot (instead of that janky paint job you would've done yourself in your garage) has begun shipping glossy, colored MacBooks in 23 different, delicious-looking flavors that span the rainbow so nearly anyone can find something they like. Personally, I about had an Applegasm on the spot when I saw this MacBook (pictured to your right) in a deep plum color called "Prowler." Rawr.
Each new machine ships in approximately 2 to 3 weeks after you order it with your favorite color, and you can order each of the three base configurations exactly as you would get them from Apple. Hell, you can even configure them with different RAM and hard drive specs too! The only catch? The extra US$650 you'll be spending on a ColorWare MacBook for the luxury of non-monochromatic plastic. And you guys thought the US$150 "black tax" was a bit much! The machines run from a base US$1749 to $2149. Hey, at least shipping seems to be cheap (less than US$10 just now when I ran through the checkout process).
ColorWare makes use of their special "X2" coating process that involves a thorough cleaning of the case, painting to the customer's desire, application of scratch-resistant coating, and then an ultraviolet curing process that ensures that the color won't be going anywhere anytime soon (such as your lap) and color clarity.
As a side note, I had always been slightly disappointed that Apple's version of the black MacBook had to be matte and not glossy, but ColorWare has a black glossy MacBook that looks just as sleek as I had hoped the "real" Apple one would be. But seriously, that Prowler-colored MacBook has me hot and bothered enough to make me juuuuuuust slightly want to sell my MacBook Pro and order a new MacBook from ColorWare, six-hundred and fifty dollar (*gulp*) color tax be damned! Or, I could just pay a US$449 color tax and have my MacBook Pro painted instead. Hrm…
A vote on one telecommunications bill that seeks to address Net Neutrality is expected later this week, but just what will be voted on is far from clear. Dubbed the Communications, Consumer’s Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006 (S.2686), the Senate bill backed by Ted Stevens (R-AK) could be voted on as early as this Thursday, June 22. The vote would take place in the Commerce Committee’s weekly session, a necessary step before reaching the attention of the full Senate.
Stevens’ bill takes a studied approach to Net Neutrality, literally. The bill’s current form would authorize the FCC to study the issue of Net Neutrality for a period of five years in order to separate reality from the rhetoric, as it were. The FCC would also handle complaints of abuse during that time. But Stevens’ ranking colleague on the Commerce Committee, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI), has said that this is too little, and Inouye has offered his own legislation as a tactic to push Stevens into a compromise.
Thus for Stevens, the issue is one of bringing Inouye on board. A loyal Republican, Stevens largely backs the White House’s position on the issue, believing that the FCC itself is already equipped to handle complaints of abuse and that new laws are not truly needed. As a general opponent of "government interference" in business, Stevens is also a firm believer that it would be inappropriate for the FCC to prevent internet service providers from developing new services, such as Quality of Service (QoS) enhancements.
A new draft of the Stevens’ bill looks to strike a balance between his concerns and his hopes to see this legislation through, making good on comments he made last week. The draft of the legislation aims to protect consumers’ rights by forbidding the blocking of any traffic or application, while stopping short of instructing companies on what they can and cannot do with "their networks." This approach differs from so-called strict Net Neutrality by essentially leaving businesses untouched. Proponents of this approach believe that it would protect consumers by securing access to all public Internet traffic and services, while opponents argue that internet service providers could simply impair the performance of the public Internet to their own advantage. At the heart of the matter is bandwidth. Would internet service providers have to effectively downgrade Joe Consumer’s bandwidth in order to sell his neighbor a "quality of service" add-on that would prioritize his own traffic? Stevens believes that this latter concern, while important, is already under the purview of the FCC.
One competing House bill, the Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act (HR 5417), would make it an antitrust violation to "block impair, discriminate or interfere with anyone’s services or applications or content," but the bill also addresses the kinds of service improvements that Stevens would rather not touch. For example, this House bill would make it illegal to offer Quality of Service improvements for specific data types unless those improvements were available universally (that is, you can’t favor your own VoIP service to the exclusion of others). The bill’s fate is looking grim, however, as a competing bill passed a House vote earlier this month. The Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act (COPE Act) is quite similar with respects to the Network Neutrality provisions in Stevens’ new draft bill, and it also leaves businesses largely untouched. An amendment that would have made the law more strict was shot down 269 votes to 152.
Should Stevens’ new bill make it out of committee, we believe that it would likely pass in the Senate, meaning that the House and Senate would have largely similar bills that could be reconciled and then put into law by the end of the year. If this happens, "public Internet" protections will likely be encoded into law, but the more divisive topic of service "innovation" would be left largely unaddressed. Call it Net Neutrality Lite, if you will.
Not content with making little girls cry, Apple’s legal eagles have set their sites on even more insidious prey. Yes, that’s right, dear reader, the lawyers that Jobs built are swooping in and saving us all from cute babies in iPod outfits:
Using the iPod name to sell baby clothing is an insidious and very real threat against the iPod market share… Founder of iPodMyBaby, now the violently named iPopMyBaby, David Schroeder is keeping a stiff upper lip. ?We received a letter from Apple to change our website address. We own the iPod baby clothing space, which probably scares Apple a little bit as we are selling thousands of iPod baby outfits and they aren?t selling any at all.?
To be fair, Apple’s slavering legal hounds put the smack down on the “iPod” name, rather than the concept of cute little babies in iPod outfits. Apple protects its beloved iNames™ with a fierceness that would do a mama bear proud, and–cute babies or not–the hammer’s gonna fall when someone tries to iSteal™ or iUse™ one without permission from the Big Fruit. That being said, anytime one combines lawyers and cute babies, one has to understand that the side holding the leash on the lawyers runs a major risk of getting tongues stuck out at them in the court of public opinion.
In closing, I would just like to point out that “iPod Babies” could be a breakout hit on Saturday morning cartoons, much like Muppet Babies was in the glorious 80s. Any entertainment moguls, aspiring or otherwise, are free to use this idea with no compensation to yours truly. Provided you can get past the attack lawyers, that is.
*Images from iPopMyBaby.com
Representatives from 34 European countries have endorsed a new initiative intended to make the Internet more inclusive. The European Union’s ambitious plan calls for the expansion of broadband availability and public web site accessibility.
Despite a 2002 resolution issued by the European Parliament to ensure that all government web sites adhere to W3C accessibility standards by 2003, poor accessibility support still largely precludes the use of public web sites by disabled Europeans. A recent study that examined 436 European public sector and governmental web sites determined that only three percent were in compliance with the W3C’s minimum level accessibility standard. With the new “e-inclusion” initiative, the governments of Europe are reaffirming their dedication to achieving accessibility standards compliance, this time by 2010. European governments are also keen on expanding the availability of broadband Internet service and ensuring that coverage is available to at least 90 percent of the region within the same time frame.
Other issues addressed by the e-Inclusion initiative include the implementation of computer literacy and technical skills programs targeted at the "digitally disadvantaged," as well as ongoing evaluation and review of electronic accessibility regulatory issues.
In evaluating the feasibility of the ambitious e-Inclusion program, one must recognize that these plans do not constitute legislation. Individual governments that do not comply will not receive punishment or censure, and there don’t appear to be any compelling incentives to actively promote compliance at this time. In light of the lofty accessibility promises issued by well-meaning politicians in the 2002 resolution, it is hard to take the e-Inclusion initiative seriously. Talk is cheap, but the extensive reconstruction of critical web services infrastructure is costly and difficult. In an interview with Out-Law.com, European Commission spokesman Martin Selmayr discusses the 2002 resolution and the absence of penalties for noncompliance:
Commission spokesman Martin Selmayr told OUT-LAW today that there would be no penalty for Member States that fail to act. “There is only the moral sanction of being last in class,” he said, pointing out that peer pressure can be an effective motivator within the EU.
The Resolution of 2002 was “a political signal to say that something must be done,” he explained. “We’re doing this. Parliament has asked; now states have agreed.”
The W3C’s web accessibility guidelines primarily address the needs of disabled individuals, like blind users that require screen reader technologies, or users with cognitive impairments that can’t process visual media fast enough to interact with animated page elements. Accessibility standards compliance should ultimately be ubiquitous, but the deficiencies of web development technologies and incompatibilities between browsers make it difficult to properly accommodate the needs of disabled users.
The concept of web accessibility encapsulates a lot of different ideas and principles and it also extends beyond the scope of impairment and disability concerns. The W3C accessibility standards also include recommendations on how to make web content viewable in browsers that do not support graphics or color, and on devices with small screens. As mechanisms for Internet access become less homogeneous, and users begin to depend on other kinds of interfaces and technologies, developers and site operators will have to better accomodate those users. By further separating content from presentation, web content producers can facilitate more sophisticated automation and make it possible for content to be viewed on a wide range of devices that can’t simulate the desktop computing experience.
In the long run, the need to provide content in a mutable and display-neutral format will probably lead to ubiquitous accessibility compliance to an extent that just isn’t realistic now. Despite the challenges associated with improving the accessibility of current web sites, the EU’s efforts will undoubtedly raise awareness of this important issue and provide companies and government agencies with a reason to keep accessibility in mind when building new Internet service infrastructure.
Some days it feels like Apple really just likes messing with us technology news sites. Somewhere there must be a large, extremely sleek boardroom with an iMac in it where the bigwigs gather, giggle over all our coverage, and then insidiously plot something that we would surely never see coming. We were understandably all about Boot Camp when it first came out, but within five minutes we were over it and in love with the newly released and beautiful virtualization software Parallels. Parallels is the genius behind such marvels as the SmackBook and this lovely beast, both of which are made possible by the fact that, unlike Boot Camp, Parallels runs multiple OSes simultaneously via virtual machines. Parallels has some other compelling advantages, like being able to access all your files, not just the ones that happen to be the appropriate partition.
But since Apple released Boot Camp, nobody has given much thought to Apple making Windows available to the Mac-lovin' public by any other means… until now. Go to Apple's Get a Mac site and if you have sharp eyes, you'll notice that as Apple sings about the wonders of Windows on your Mac, they don't so much as breathe the words "Boot Camp." So how is all this Windows-y goodness brought into your life? From Apple's own mouth:
Third-party software solutions such as Parallels Desktop for Mac help make it possible.
Wha—? Huh?? Even we tech sites going ga-ga over Parallels can't give them the tremendous publicity and credibility that Apple offers up freely with that one little sentence. Apple is saying use Parallels. Wow, even in italics, it looks strange.
To be fair, as Boot Camp is a free download, Apple isn't making piles of cash off the Mac's zoomy new dual-booting ability. Still, it's not really like Apple to say "One of the great features of our machines is that you can buy third-party software to do things with it that you can't do out-of-the-box!" We can't really help but wonder what Apple is thinking here. It makes a lot of sense for Apple to make side-by-side OS X/Windows functionality part of the greater Apple collective. Is there going to be some kind of collaboration with Parallels? Is a buyout in the works? Hopefully they won't pull another Konfabulator maneuver this time. Given the strangeness going on in the intellectual property world right now, not only could a move like this burn through an impressive amount of goodwill, it might make the Apple legal team break a sweat while flexing their muscles.
First off, the find: a species of bird (Gansus yumenensis) that dates from 110 million years ago was only known by a single, partial leg sample. Five samples have now been found, and these provide a nearly complete picture of the animal. The birds came from an aquatic environment, and appear adapted to it, with webbed feet and other features that resemble modern birds such as ducks and grebes. Notably absent, however, were any remains of the skull. All the artistic renderings of the possible appearance of this bird that you can see in press reports are just making stuff up when it comes to the animal's head.
As with many significant fossil finds, this one has triggered the use of the term "missing link" in more than one report in the popular press. In reality, the fossils fill in some details, but not a critical missing gap. The key link between dinosaurs and birds, the Archaeopteryx, was first discovered nearly 150 years ago, and dates to 40 million years before Gansus. Between Archaeopteryx and the mass extinction that brought the age of dinosaurs to an end, the avian lineage developed a lot of branches. After the extinction, only the relatives of Gansus remained. The new fossils are important because they open a window into the time period when modern birds developed, and tell us something about the environment in which they arose.
And that environment was pretty clearly aquatic, as the webbed feet of Gansus were preserved in some specimens, and the bone structure of the legs is well adapted to swimming. This leg structure is the opposite of the one found in some of the contemporaries of Gansus, the Enantiornitheans, or "backwards birds." The backwards leg structure was better adapted to perching in trees. Ironically, when this branch of the bird lineage joined the dinosaurs in extinction, the modern descendents of Gansus wound up taking over their space, and re-developed the ability to perch, albeit with a less efficient leg structure.
For those of you without a subscription that allows access to the original article, you're not missing much unless you're an expert on bird anatomy already. Here's a typical section of the paper: "The caudal cervical and 10 thoracic vertebrae of Gansus are plesiomorphically not heterocoelous. The thoracics are excavated by deep, emarginate, craniocaudally elongate, lateral pneumatic fossae." We here at Nobel Intent will stick with "looks like a duck."
Last Thursday, a new, unpatched vulnerability was discovered in Excel 2003 which could allow for a hacker to hijack a PC. Some have already reported that this flaw is currently being exploited in the wild.
In order to exercise the vulnerability, one must open a fake Excel document which is actually a cleverly disguised trojan virus known as Mdropper.j. The virus then installs a downloader by the name of Booli.a onto the unsuspecting user's system. Booli.a takes advantage of an undocumented Excel flaw so that it can install a downloader and commence with other malware-related activities.
According to Mike Reavy of the Microsoft Security Response Center, users should be extremely careful when opening unknown attachments.
"Here's what we know: In order for this attack to be carried out, a user must first open a malicious Excel document that is sent as an email attachment or otherwise provided to them by an attacker, Note that opening it out of email will prompt you to be careful about opening the attachment. So remember to be very careful opening unsolicited attachments from both known and unknown sources."
While the initial report claims that this exploit can be found in Excel 2003 SP2 running on Windows XP SP2, security researchers haven't ruled out the possibility that the vulnerability could exist in other Microsoft software such as prior versions of both Excel and Windows. The attack may also be able to target Word as well.
Microsoft has not said when it will be releasing a patch for Excel, but Windows Live Safety Center now has the ability to detect the Mdropper.j trojan.
When ABC introduced a bold plan to offer free streaming video of its most popular shows with only minimal commercials, the network was entering uncharted waters (and we all know what happens when you swim in uncharted waters). The questions were legion: would people want to watch Alias on their PCs? Would the streams cannibalize television viewership? Could ABC make any money with only four commercials per episode?
Well, the official results are in, and it looks like ABC has knocked one out of the park. In its first month of operation, the new service offered more than 11 million unique streams. Perhaps that doesn’t sound like much, but compare it with Disney’s (ABC’s parent company) iTunes offerings. For the last nine months, Disney had made most of the same shows available through iTunes for US$1.99 (though these are commercial-free). In that period of time, Disney sold 6 million downloads—nothing to sneeze at, certainly, but nothing close to 11 million per month.
Which approach makes Disney more money? It’s impossible to say without seeing the numbers, but consider some basic math. iTunes pulled in US$12 million from the sale of all those shows, but Disney received only a portion of that money. For the streaming service to pull in the same amount of revenue over the same time period (assuming that it holds constant at 11 million viewers a month), each commercial could be billed at only three cents per viewer. Because Disney actually gets less than $12 million, the real number would actually be less than this. The point is that it wouldn’t be particularly hard for Disney to make at least as much revenue with the streaming model, and consumers seem to like it.
Advertisers should like it too. It turns out that advertising recall was much higher among the streaming video viewers than it was for television viewers of the same shows. That could well be because the streaming shows only feature four unskippable commercials an episode, meaning that viewers are paying more attention to the screen (each commercial is only thrity seconds, so there are no multiminute breaks that encourage you to look away, mute the sound, go to the bathroom, or grab a snack).
So does this mark the beginning of the end for broadcast television as we know it? Not exactly. ABC found that the streaming service did not cannibalize television viewership of the shows, probably because people still prefer to watch video on their televisions instead of their PCs. The service makes it simple for people to catch up on episodes that they may have missed, however, or for curious viewers to check out a few minutes of the show to see if it’s to their liking. The strategy seems to have plenty of upsides for the network, and we can only hope it becomes widely imitated.