Wireless Networking


Sprint Steps Up to the 4G Plate

At the CTIA conference this week, Sprint launched an attack in the Battle of Who Has More Gs. Its upcoming EVO smartphone will hit the market this summer with 4 whole Gs — that’s one more G than most of the best smartphones out there have right now.

In this case, “G” stands for “generation,” and the EVO 4G smartphone works on a fourth-generation network. There are various flavors of 4G, and Sprint’s flavor of choice is WiMax. The network’s been working on WiMax for a while now, trying to build networks in major cities across the U.S., and its goal is to make its WiMax service available to 120 million people in the U.S. by the end of the year.

Sprint’s already been offering WiMax dongles for laptops. Stick a special thumb drive into your computer and you can go online anywhere, as long as you’re in a WiMax city. With the EVO, though, it’s making its WiMax push into cellphones, and the specs on this thing make it sound like a pretty serious piece of hardware. It’s an Android phone manufactured by HTC with a 1 GHz processor and built-in hotspot functionality, which means up to eight other devices can use this thing’s WiMax connection to go online — fire extinguisher not included. The display’s pretty big at 4.3 inches, and it has two cameras: a little 1.3 megapixel still cam and an 8 megapixel autofocus camera that can shoot HD video. And you don’t have to stay in WiMax territory to use it; it’ll work in 3G-only zones as well.

We’ll be keeping an eye on this as it gets closer to market, but the EVO was definitely enough to impress Wall Street. Sprint shares were up almost 3 percent at the close of trading the day it made its announcement, which was an otherwise down day for the general market.

Listen to the podcast (13:21 minutes).

The Sino-Google War

After months of giving the Chinese government the stinkeye, Google has finally gone ahead and backed up its threats with some action. Internet users in China no longer get results from Google’s censored Chinese site; instead they get redirected to Google Hong Kong, which does not have to filter its results at the whim of the Chinese government. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean millions of Chinese Web surfers were suddenly showered with a rich cascade of counterrevolutionary ideas and Western weirdness. The Great Firewall of China stepped in and blocked a lot of those results just as effectively as Google used to do on its own; it’s just that now the government’s doing the legwork, not Mountain View.

It’s hard to say exactly how long Google’s leaders have had moral qualms about voluntarily restricting Chinese users’ access, but the battle went public a few months ago, when Google said it discovered that China-based hackers had broken into its system, allegedly to dig up info on some Chinese human rights activists. Harsh words were spoken, feelings were hurt, and Google began talking about taking some rather drastic steps. It got a good amount of moral support from high-ranking U.S. government officials, and pretty soon Google’s options became clear: either A) do something that’s going to really jeopardize its potential for growth in a huge market, or B) back down and look like the world’s wimpiest Web player for talking so big and then doing nothing.

The Hong Kong Redirect, which I’m told is also a kung-fu move, is a form of option A. Google stopped short of pulling all of its business out of China completely, though it’s clear that many of its existing Chinese business relationships will become at best strained after this decision. For example, mobile device deals may be in jeopardy, stunting the growth of the Android operating system.

The upside is the possibility that Google’s stand against censorship could earn it a great deal of goodwill and spark some sort of turning point that slowly loosens the Chinese government’s grip on what kind of information it allows its citizens to see. That’s quite a tall order, but I suppose that if any one entity could spark a trend like that, it might be Google.

That scenario would require other major Internet companies to follow Google’s lead, though, and so far it’s been pretty quiet on that front. There are probably a lot of heated conversations going on behind closed doors right now, but it’s a tough question: Take the moral high road or go for what could be a huge business opportunity in China now that Google’s in a weak position. These are corporations, after all. They’re legally required to be greedy in order to benefit shareholders, and anyone with a 401(k) benefits from that little rule.

To be fair, most U.S. Internet firms are giving Google an obligatory and totally noncommittal golf clap. For example, a Yahoo spokesperson told us, quote, “Yahoo is committed to protecting our users’ rights to freedom of expression and privacy, and we are a cofounding member of the Global Network Initiative.” However, the company sold its Chinese business to Alibaba in ’05, and it holds a minority stake in that operation, so how much power it has to protect those rights is unclear.

At least a couple of U.S. firms decided to really go for it, though. GoDaddy.com and Network Solutions have decided to stop registering domain names in China due to what they felt were overly intrusive demands on the part of the Chinese government. Officials there stepped up the amount of personal information they required from the companies’ customers. GoDaddy said it made 1,000 phone calls to existing customers to get that info, and only about 20 percent responded. So they threw up their hands and said enough is enough. GoDaddy might like to put lots of semi-naked women in its commercials, but that kind of personal intrusion is just too creepy.

GoDaddy and Network Solutions’ decisions may not be directly related to what Google did — Network Solutions actually pulled out late last year — but their actions are getting a lot more attention now that Google’s done what it’s done.

These sorts of public scraps may be a feel-good story for freedom of speech advocates, but it’s no sure bet that any of this will ever compel China’s government to back down or change its mind on the whole censorship thing. Instead, these sorts of incidents may prove to China that it doesn’t really need the involvement of U.S. companies and that it can do just fine with home-grown businesses.

Randy Kluver of the Institute for Pacific Asia told us, quote, “China has for years needed access to Western companies and decided to cater to them as much as possible. What we are seeing now is a significant reversal in power dynamics. It is not so much that they are cracking down, but rather waking up to their power.”

Shaky Palm

One of the most important players in the original smartphone revolution was Palm. When it created the old Palm Treo, it was one of the first times a company got a phone to mate successfully with a PDA in a marketable device. A handful of other players had their own smartphones as well, and pretty soon we were seeing them hanging from geeks’ belt clips everywhere.

That part of the revolution’s over, though. Now smartphones are moving into a phase of expansionism. People who a few years ago wouldn’t dream of owning one now do. The lines of competition are forming around platforms that look a lot like the old Mac/Windows/Linux boundaries — only now the names are “iPhone,” “Windows Phone” and “Android.” BlackBerry’s got a firm foothold too, I should add, and Nokia’s just gigantic outside of the U.S. smartphone market.

Where does that leave Palm? It’s got its investors, like Elevation Partners, but Palm itself is out there all by itself, and it’s pretty small — it’s not the cellphone tentacle of some much larger techno-beast. And without that weight behind it, it’s becoming more and more apparent that Palm just does not have the muscle to push its webOS platform onto the main smartphone stage. Its most recent sales projections were so poor that its stock immediately tanked by 30 percent and raised serious questions about its ability to survive much longer unless some larger company should buy it.

In making a fresh start with webOS and the Pre, Palm actually succeeded rather well in making friends among wireless carriers. Just half a year after it started with Sprint, it expanded to Verizon, and this week, AT&T announced it too will carry Palm’s latest webOS phones.

But that Verizon deal hasn’t really caught fire. Perhaps it’s point of sale: Although the Pre display seems to be the centerpiece of every Sprint store, Verizon stores seem to shine the spotlight mostly on the Droid. It’s also going to be hard for Palm to get much attention in AT&T stores — the shelves there are already piled up with competing smartphones. In fact, on the very same day AT&T announced plans to carry webOS phones, Palm’s news had to share the stage with the announcement that it would carry the Dell Aero — and it’s an Android. By the time the Pre and Pixi Plus actually hit the shelves, there’s no telling what state Palm will be in.

It’s hard to blame this misfortune on the company’s technology. WebOS and the Pre received generally positive reviews upon their release, and since then Palm has followed up with a more powerful version, as well as a cheaper model, the Pixi.

However, it’s been slow to take on third-party application developers, meaning its app selection fell way behind the competition. It’s a deadly Catch-22 — not many app developers want in on a platform that has too few users, and users won’t buy a phone with a weak app store.

Also, Palm’s timing and marketing have been pretty off-key. The reawakening of a sleeping giant is nice and dramatic, but the fact that it was napping in the first place probably cost it big. Azita Arvani of the Arvani Group told us, quote, “The old Palm devices had great loyal followers, but it seemed like too much time passed before the new Palm was reborn, and meanwhile, they lost those customers. And I don’t think the company did enough to … connect up with the positive aspects of the old Palm brand. Instead, they went for a more technology-based branding that may have enticed those of us in the industry, but didn’t connect up with the consumers.”

Still Kicking (Each Other)

In case you forgot that Viacom is still going after Google with a billion-dollar lawsuit, you now have the opportunity to take a good, long snort of both sides’ dirty laundry. Court documents from the ongoing, three-year-old lawsuit emerged recently, and they make both parties look pretty rotten.

It all started, of course, when Viacom accused Google’s YouTube of hosting a significant number of copyrighted videos owned by the media corporation. Viacom called it fostering piracy; Google claims it takes down offending content whenever it gets a notice.

One of the smokiest guns to emerge from the court papers is an email Viacom cited as evidence that in the early days of YouTube, the site’s founders knew its business model was sustained by pirated content and that Google was well aware of how dirty it was when it bought it. It’s a 2005 email from YouTube cofounder Steve Chen to fellow cofounders Jawed Karim and Chad Hurley, in which Chen spanks Karim for putting stolen videos on the site. Quote, “We’re going to have a tough time defending the fact that we’re not liable for the copyrighted material on the site because we didn’t put it up when one of the cofounders is blatantly stealing content from other sites and trying to get everyone to see it.”

Google bites back in other documents. One of the main defenses the company is putting to work is the safe harbor provision of the DMCA. Basically, the DMCA doesn’t require all Web sites to monitor and pre-approve every little bit of content that users post, but if you get a takedown notice for carrying copyrighted stuff, you have to comply, which Google says it does.

But Google says some of the clips Viacom’s complaining about are ones that it explicitly authorized YouTube to show. In fact, according to Google, some of the clips were covertly posted by Viacom personnel using phony email addresses and public computers at Kinko’s. They’d even intentionally scratch up the videos to make them look leaked. All part of a marketing ploy or something — if it’s true.

Lose the Glasses

3-D is a hit on the big screen, and companies like Sony and Samsung want to make it a hit on the medium screen in your living room too, whether you like it or not. But Nintendo sees potential for 3-D on the very small screen as well. It says the next generation of its DS handheld gaming device, the 3DS, will play 3-D games, and what’s more, you won’t have to wear special glasses.

And that’s pretty much all they’re saying about it. Oh, it’ll still run non-3-D DS games, and there will be a demo this summer at E3, but the real head-scratcher here is how they’re going to pull off glasses-free 3-D.

Regular 3-D imagery works by showing each eye slightly different images, either with polarized lenses or active-shutter glasses. Without the glasses though, things get tricky. But the technology does exist. Autostereoscopic displays approach 3-D; one method requires a special sort of glass to be used; the other does not. Long story short, you see a slightly different image on the screen depending on the angle you’re looking from. Since each eye sees a different image, the 3-D illusion is created.

Another theory is that Nintendo will do this using sensors and accelerometers to tell which way the device is oriented, then change the viewing angle of the object on the screen to correspond with that. Not exactly the kind of 3-D you saw in “Avatar,” and definitely gimmicky, but kind of cool to look at for a few seconds.

1 Comment

  • "It’s hard to say exactly how long Google’s leaders have had moral qualms about voluntarily restricting Chinese users’ access, but the battle went public a few months ago"

    what in God’s name are you talking about? don’t you remember how Google famously proclaimed, when it very first went in to China, that "some evil is better than all evil", that it is less evil to provide some search results than to provide none at all?

    its not hard to say exactly how long they have been upset by this; since before day 1

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