Mobile Tech


When the Gadget Police Come Knocking

The saga of the leaked fourth-generation iPhone continues to unfold, but now the story’s less about the phone itself and more about Gizmodo, the Gawker Media blog that drew massive amounts of attention and Web hits by showing it to the world.

Recall that last week, Gizmodo’s Jason Chen appeared in a video on the site, holding and handling an unreleased version of Apple’s smartphone. It had apparently slipped through Cupertino’s fingers by way of an absent-minded engineer at a bar. Another guy at the bar found it and sold it to Gizmodo, the blog had itself a huge trafficgasm by publishing the details, and it gave the phone back to Apple when asked nicely.

The story doesn’t end there, though — authorities think a crime may well have been committed somewhere along the line. That’s why Jason Chen’s home was raided recently by REACT, the Silicon Valley High Technology Task Force. That’s right — Inspector Gadget is real, and he works for the Santa Clara County DA. They took a bunch of Chen’s computers and are reportedly holding them in Limbo until they figure out how to proceed.

The law that may have been broken here concerns the receipt of stolen property — Gawker paid 5 grand for the phone knowing it probably belonged to Apple. The reason the authorities grabbed Chen’s gadgets was to find out exactly how the transaction unfolded.

But what may make this case very tricky is the existence of shield laws that protect journalists’ unpublished information and confidential sources. Section 1524 (g) of the California penal code prohibits issuing search warrants to obtain any of that information. That’s the law Gawker Media’s COO Gaby Darbyshire pointed to in Chen’s defense, and legal experts ECT spoke with agreed.

Sandra Baron at the Media Law Resource Center told us, “The standards for obtaining source and other materials from journalists is a stiff one in California, and by engaging in this search and seizure, law enforcement has undermined the very protections that the law seeks to provide journalists.”

Listen to the podcast (11:55 minutes).

Graphic Exposure

Facebook’s latest raft of platform changes, Open Graph, gave users new ways to express their approval for things they see all over the Web, but Sen. Charles Schumer of New York has found nothing at all likeable about the new system. He now wants the Federal Trade Commission to play referee in regard to what sites like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace do with users’ private information.

Online social networks can help keep friends in touch, he said, but, “it’s vitally important that safeguards are in place that provide users with control over their personal information to ensure they don’t receive unwanted solicitations. At the same time, social networking sites need to provide easy to understand disclosures to users on how information they submit is being shared.”

If social networks seem like they edge out a little more user privacy with each upgrade, it’s not because they’re run by a bunch of voyeurs and gossip-mongers. It’s because they like money, and advertisers will pay to know more about users. For example, one of the changes Facebook recently made was to provide user data to select third-party websites. It has begun sharing personal profile information to which users previously had the ability to restrict access, according to Schumer. The senator has support from colleagues like Senators Al Franken, Michael Bennet and Mark Begich, and he wants the FTC to investigate the situation and come up with some reasonable ground rules.

Facebook defended itself by saying member privacy is an utmost concern and that none of the changes it recently made removed or reduced users’ control over their personal info.

But other privacy rights advocates say Facebook’s short track record includes some significant demerits, and that it’s making changes so fast that it’s difficult for users to keep up, learn about a new system every time one’s launched, and maintain the level of privacy they’re comfortable with.

Palm Palmed

During Palm’s many financial flits and flails over the past few months, the big game was to guess what company — if any — was going to end up buying the troubled smartphone maker. Lots of names came up, from Nokia to Lenovo to Microsoft. One name I don’t recall ever hearing was HP, but lo and behold, it will soon be the proud owner of Palm and its webOS platform, for which it’s agreed to pay $1.2 billion.

Things have been heading downhill for Palm for a while now, but the real railroad spike in the coffin was its Q3 financial results, released in March. In short, sales of Palm handsets stunk. Even in the darkest times, Palm CEO Jon Rubinstein has always expressed confidence in the company’s ability to weather the storm, and it looks like this purchase will keep Palm afloat for a while — just not as an independent company. Now it’s the smartphone annex to a hardware superpower.

If you believe the product reviews, Palm has a decent platform with its webOS. It’s just been marketed poorly, and fixing that will cost money that Palm by itself didn’t have. Never fear — sugar daddy HP is ready to open the wallet even further to get Palm products back in the game. According to HP’s Todd Bradley, “We intend to invest heavily in product development and to market aggressively.”

If HP can make things work, it will have bought itself an established foothold in the smartphone market, a place where it’s been pretty weak in recent years. Even Dell is getting in on smartphones.

A couple questions stick out, though. For one thing, what about apps? If HP makes its big smartphone move on the Palm webOS platform, it can’t just latch onto an established, open apps market the same way Android phonemakers can. It’s stuck with an OS that’s relatively weak in the third-party software department. If buying Palm is like buying a fixer-upper house, the app situation may be the cracked foundation that needs work.

Also, this may complicate HP’s relationship with Microsoft. HP does offer some devices running on Windows Mobile, and Microsoft is now heavily promoting its brand new WinPho7 platform. Now that Palm is going to be HP’s in-house mobile platform, anything HP does with webOS will compete with a longtime partner’s efforts.

Old and Leaky

On the one hand, it sounds like a pretty obvious and transparent sales ploy; on the other hand, I suppose it makes sense: Old software is less secure, so get new software. That’s according to a report from Microsoft researchers, who say Windows 7 and Vista SP2 have the lowest infection rates of any Microsoft OS. That’s based on data from 500 million computers worldwide.

One part of the “Microsoft Security Intelligence Report” focused on Microsoft’s browsers. No surprise: Internet Explorer 6 gets hit with cyberattacks four times more often than new versions. If you’re an IE user, just upgrade already — it’s free.

Microsoft’s two newer OSes, Vista and 7, are far more secure than Windows XP, which is nearing its ninth birthday but is still in use at a lot of businesses. Two factors that played a big part in slowing businesses’ migration to newer versions of Windows were a) the recession, and b) bad Vista mojo.

That slowed migration isn’t good news for Redmond — it’s in the business of selling new software, after all, so this security concern might work to motivate sales. But newer versions of software aren’t the only thing needed to keep the bad guys out of your system. Donald Retallack of Directions on Microsoft told us, “Newer versions of their operating systems have less vulnerability than older ones. However, the newer breeds of malware are becoming more specific, targeting company servers, for example.” He added that many attacks are also built on social engineering techniques to trick the user into clicking on something they really shouldn’t click on.

Fresh Berries?

One mobile OS that’s just begging for a good makeover is Research In Motion’s BlackBerry platform. That’s exactly what the users were expecting to see this week at RIM’s WES conference, but the first thing they saw when they got up Monday morning was a couple of new phones.

The BlackBerry Bold 9650 and the Pearl 3G were the new items on display, as was a new Voice over WiFi technology. Lots of phones can use VoIP applications to hold conversations over data connections instead of gobbling up talk minutes, but RIM’s Voice over WiFi is a little different. The phones will automatically connect to whatever familiar WiFi network is within reach to carry on conversations, so if users happen to visit several different corporate campuses with different networks, their connections remain constant. Also, users can leverage their workdesk phone numbers and extensions on their cell phones for a nice little unified communications setup. These are features aimed to please Research In Motion’s enterprise roots.

But despite RIM’s new toys, its stock began drooping that morning. Apparently what the CrackBerry-addicted masses were really pining for was word about the next BlackBerry OS and Web browser. Soon after, RIM execs told them what they wanted to hear.

The new OS will apparently feature a webkit-based browser, Flash and HTML 5 support, and some sort of social networking aggregation feature. It’ll work better with touchscreens, too. Expect to see it in the third quarter of the year. The renovation won’t come a minute too soon — according to ABI’s Michael Morgan, RIM had over half the U.S. smartphone market in the beginning of 2009. By the end of that year, it had slipped to 42 percent.

Gaming’s Day in Court

Some video games today contain extremely high levels of violence and gore. They’re really no different than movies — filmmakers have been dumping buckets of guts onto audiences since before any of us were alive. And, like movies, video games now have a rating system. E for Everyone, M for Mature, and a couple of stages in between.

Lots of video game stores have policies in place that ban the sale of M-rated games to minors. The state of California, though, wanted to go one better on that and pass a law specifically forbidding the sale or rental of violent games to kids. It wouldn’t be just a violation of store policy — it would be a criminal offense, kind of like selling booze or cigarettes to anyone who’s underage.

But video game vendors didn’t want to see that happen. It’s not that they all love the idea of 5-year-olds playing “God of War III”; they just didn’t want to see police cracking down on a store clerk just because he forgot to card a kid over a game that’s about as violent as anything on network TV after 10 p.m.

Courts have struck down the proposed law, but the government of California keeps appealing it, and now the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case, dubbed “Schwarzenegger v. Video Software Dealers.”

I’m not sure what the Vegas odds are on how they’ll rule, but a decision on another case that the court handed down recently may be very telling. In the case U.S. v. Stevens, the court decided eight to one that the distribution of dogfighting videos could not be banned. Dogfighting itself may be illegal, but selling videos depicting it? No problem. If eight out of nine S.C. justices think that selling videos of real-life violence against animals is OK, they may think banning violent games is an even greater reach.

Lawrence G. Walters of the Walters Law Group told us, “Here we’re talking about cartoon avatars and CGI representations of violence. The arguments are not nearly as strong as in the Schwarzenegger case. In light of Stevens, it would be very difficult for the state of California to prevail.”

On the other hand, the California law doesn’t seek to ban the distribution of the games period — just their sale to minors. Things tend to get a little choppier when children are involved.

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