Android Emancipation and the Sweet Smell of WiFi: The Week in Tech

If you want a G1 Android phone but you can’t bear the thought of using a carrier with pink logo, help is on the way. You can now get a version of the HTC handset that’s both SIM-unlocked and hardware-unlocked.

But in order to get one — and, yes, they really are limiting quantities to one per customer — you have to jump through some hoops.

First hoop: Cough up 400 bucks. Second hoop: Become a certified Android developer. Don’t worry, this does not require an advanced degree. It’s sort of like becoming a priest online. Any weirdo with a modem can send someone US$25, fill out an online questionnaire, and magically acquire the spiritual authority to perform marriages — or, in this case, to develop Android applications.

Then you may have your unlocked G1. Seriously, though, Google is recommending that you buy this thing only if you really do plan to develop apps, or you’ve just got some very geeky hobbies. If that’s the case, more power to you.

Listen to the podcast (13:26 minutes).

What’s That Smell?

How’d you like to walk around with the distinct odor of hotspot all about you? Soon, thanks to Novatel, wherever you go, anyone within 30 feet of you will be able to catch a whiff of your WiFi. The wireless MiFi device is about the size of a wallet, and it turns you into a walking hotspot.

It uses 3G cellular networks just like your typical AirCard, but instead of hooking up just one laptop, the MiFi will act as a router and connect multiple devices: your computer, your iPod touch, your WiFi-enabled camera — anything.

You can let other people use it too, provided they’re close enough. You could become very popular, depending on what kind of parties you take this thing to. The big question that remains, though, is what various carriers will charge for a subscription.

Martin’s Circle of Enemies

Poor Kevin Martin just can’t catch a break. The guy — OK, he’s actually the chairman of the FCC, a significant break indeed for a 41-year-old who looks like he’s 17.

Still, he’s had a rough time lately. First, he was raked over the coals by a congressional committee, then hammered by The Wall Street Journal, which accused him of engaging in cronyism, and then chided by the secretary of commerce. That all happened in the course of a week or so, and the guy probably won’t have a job anymore after Jan. 20.

In the latest incident, commerce secretary Carlos Gutierrez criticized Martin’s decision to auction off a part of the wireless spectrum with a set of conditions attached. Those conditions would seem to favor one particular company, but what got Gutierrez’s goat was that they also diminished the potential value of the license at auction.

Now, I don’t know if you heard, because President Bush just learned of it himself last week, but the country’s in a recession, and the government can use all the money it can get.

Pieces of Yahoo

Microsoft may be truly, madly, deeply uninterested in acquiring Yahoo, despite all the woulda-coulda-shoulda antics from investors who regret summer’s lost opportunity, but that doesn’t mean the two companies’ names can’t be mentioned in the same breath anymore. If only.

Microsoft’s decision to hire a former big shot in Yahoo’s search division to head up its own Internet operations got people buzzing about some kind of deal again. After serving Yahoo for 10 years, Qi Lu left the company in August — right around the time Microsoft gave up its acquisition bid in the face of Yahoo’s determined resistance.

Yahoo then quickly struck a search deal with Google, which also later fell through. Lu will report to CEO Steve Ballmer starting in January. We think Lu’s hiring means Microsoft may still be interested in picking up a piece of Yahoo come next year — that is, if there are any pieces left.

Home at Last

The PlayStation 3 might look like a pretty well-to-do machine, but until just the other day, it was homeless. Home is an online virtual world for the video game console that Sony promised many, many months ago, but then delayed several times.

Well, now it’s here, and PS3 players can create avatars, wander around and interact with each other in a virtual world, and watch everyone from video game publishers to energy drink brewers happily shill their wares. So now PS3 has a home, and we’re very happy that it’s pulled itself together, but the question remains how often gamers will want to visit.

PS3 folks are often what you might call hard-core gamers — they want loud sound, intense graphics and lots of adrenaline. Will they want to visit a happy fantasy land like Second Life in between rounds? We shall see.

The Price of Popularity

The Kindle e-book reader may just be this holiday season’s Tickle-Me-Elmo for grownups, or at least very literate children. They’re already out of stock, and no more will be coming until next year, according to Amazon.

Sorry, Toys’R’Us can’t save you this time, and you can’t very well line up around Amazon’s distribution centers like you can at Best Buy. If you want to try your luck on eBay, get ready to pay big. It seems Amazon wasn’t counting on the Kindle being quite as popular as it’s become this year, thanks in part to an endorsement from Oprah, She Who Must Be Obeyed.

So, will 2009 be the year when people stop claiming that e-books give them headaches and the things finally catch on in a big way? We’ll see — if and when Amazon follows through with a Kindle Version 2, which has been expected for quite some time.

All Grown Up

Google’s Web applications have sort of a Peter Pan thing going on: They never seem to grow up. For example, a child born on the same day that Gmail went live would be pretty much ready for kindergarten now, and Gmail is still in beta. It’s also one of Google’s most popular products.

But if Google moves at a glacier pace on Web apps, then perhaps its client applications are a different story completely. For example, its Chrome browser spent only three months in the beta tank, and Google has just now rolled out a full release after some final tweaks made it more stable and faster.

So if the dozen or so browsers out there already aren’t really doing it for you, here’s one from a company that’s grown rich by tracking your behavior and serving up ads. Is it free? Of course it is.

Firefox Gets Foxier

With a new JavaScript engine and improved privacy settings, Mozilla’s Firefox browser is headed into its next beta. Firefox 3.1 beta 2 features speed improvements comparable to the boost the browser got between its second and third editions, says the company.

The changes also add more granularity to the history deletion tools, allowing users to select specifically what portions of their browsing history to remove. That means if you spent the last couple of hours at, say, — or, let’s be fair — you can snip those records right out of your history.

Be sure to leave on the list, though. It’ll make you look smart.

Nibbling at Apple

Here’s another way to look smart: Sue Apple for insisting that people use Mac hardware to run Mac software — and win. Of course, if you lose, you look really, really dumb, which is how Psystar has been looking pretty much since it arrived on the scene earlier this year.

Psystar is the little Florida startup that built a Mac clone, installed OS X on it, and offered it for sale for a few hundred dollars less than a real Mac. After watching for a while with eyebrows we can only imagine raised to their scalps, Apple attorneys decided to sue Psystar for copyright infringement. Psystar countersued, accusing Apple of monopolizing the Mac market.

I’m not kidding. That case got thrown out on its ear, and now the plucky Psystar folks are back with a new legal strategy. Their latest claim is that by embedding code that won’t let Apple software run on non-Apple hardware, Apple is violating its own copyright provisions.

Apparently, there are at least a few lawyers who think this approach might work, making Psystar look very smart. We’re betting Psystar will get the dunce cap, and those lawyers will get their fees anyway. They’re no dummies.

4G Battle Begins

Verizon is getting ready to go a few rounds with Clearwire in the high-speed wireless arena.

The telecom’s chief technology officer let it be known that its long term evolution service will be available late next year — not in 2010, as originally planned. Clearwire has a head start with its WiMax service, though. It’s already rolled out in Baltimore, and TechNewsWorld reviewer Walaika Haskins gave it a big thumbs up.

Clearwire is actually a new entity with an old name, following a merger with Sprint Nextel. The deal included investments from a lot of other heavy tech hitters, including Comcast, Intel, Time Warner, Google and others, so Verizon has got its work cut out for it. No matter how this particular battle of the titans shapes up, one thing seems certain: 4G is on the way.

Wikipedia Killer

The Scorpions haven’t gotten this much press since, well, probably since the cover of their “Virgin Killer” album first hit the streets in 1976. And just how is a German ’80s hair band related to the Wikipedia controversy boiling in the UK?

The controversy stems from a complaint over the photo that appears on the “Virgin Killer” cover, which is a naked girl in her early teens, at best. Someone saw the cover art on Wikipedia and complained to the Internet Watch Foundation, a nongovernmental entity that nonetheless holds a lot of sway in Great Britain.

Once the foundation placed Wikipedia on its blacklist, ISPs across the country blocked access to the site. Many editors couldn’t even sign on in order to edit.

A few days later, the foundation backed down, deciding that since the image has been around since 1976 and nobody has done anything about it, there was probably no point in breaking Wikipedia over the issue.

Tech President

Yes, it still feels good to say “President-elect Obama,” but the “elect” part is getting old already. Obama has announced a massive public works proposal that’s designed to put a whole lot of people back to work in jobs that could do a lot of good things for the country, not the least of which is rescue the economy from the mess it’s in.

And the tech sector could see a big lift if the program goes through. Among a lot of other things, Obama hopes to expand access to broadband Internet, make government buildings more energy-efficient, improve IT systems at healthcare facilities, and upgrade computers in schools.

Here are the two trillion-dollar questions, though: Will Congress pass it? And will it work? There’s a good chance it will, says Denis Pombriant, managing principal of the Beagle Group. “Government-sponsored demand will do the pump priming needed to put momentum back into the economy,” he says.

As 2008 winds down, I have to say that “out with the old and in with the new” never sounded better.

Also in this week’s podcast: Salesforce integrates with Google App Engine; Sony hands out holiday pink slips; Notebook batteries get greener.

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