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An office app usability rant leading up to an iWork tip

A few days ago, I was listening to episode 36 of the MacBreak Weekly podcast. After a very good discussion of the usefulness of 256kbps audio encoding, the panel sunk its teeth into the pros and cons of Microsoft Office's new ribbon user interface. The idea behind the ribbon is that icons on the screen represent various actions, and as you click on the ribbon, more related icons/actions are revealed. So at any one time, only a subset of the possible actions is visible. This is supposed to be easier to work with than the standard menus and toolbars that we're used to. I'm highly skeptical, because I've always disliked the way that toolbars take up half the screen in Microsoft Office, especially under Windows, and I have no idea what most of the icons are supposed to mean anyway. HangZhou Night Net

But I'm reserving final judgment until I get the chance to work with the ribbon for a bit. I can't blame Microsoft for trying something new, though. When writing some text in the new NeoOffice, I was plagued by the little squiggly red lines under many words. Usually, I turn spellcheck-as-you-type off; after all, I am a Published Author and no computer—not even a Mac—is going to tell me how I can and can't spell words in the English language. That's what editors are for.

However, in this case, NeoOffice didn't just flag names and unusual words as spelled incorrectly, but also a lot of very common words. It's entirely possible that I don't spell as well as I think I do, but I'm pretty sure I know how to spell "and." Could it be that NeoOffice was using a different language than English to spell check my document? But where on Earth do I get to set the language for my text? It took me several minutes to find out that it's under the "character" menu. The logic behind this is probably that you may have a word or a sentence in a different language than the rest of a paragraph or the rest of the document, so it can't be a document or paragraph setting. But I'm pretty sure many people aren't going to look under the character menu when their spell checking is out of whack. Interestingly, in the old version of Word for Mac that resides on my system, this setting is easily found under the tools/language menu.

Apple's take, on the other hand, is slightly different: they use an inspector. For those of you unfamiliar with inspectors: they're little windows containing various settings that you can bring up and close as required. Inspectors are used in iWork, along with separate inspector-like windows for fonts and colors. After getting used to this system, I always found it to work well. The different inspector modes are accessible using icons—but only a few of them, so it's humanly possible to remember their function—there's no artificial difference between paragraph and character settings: everything is simply found under the big T for text.

There's just one little thing that always bugged me about the inspector: often, it's necessary to switch between different inspector modes frequently, which can get annoying. Turns out that as of Keynote version 1, which I've had since 2003, you can bring up multiple inspectors (under the "view" menu), so you can have immediate access to two or more different modes without the need to switch.

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Diplomats force IPCC to water down report on climate change

More climate-change politics this morning, I'm afraid. As you might be aware, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the multinational UN organization that is tasked with the problem of climate change, is in the process of releasing its fourth assessment report on the "global present state of knowledge on climate change." HangZhou Night Net

The IPCC has three working groups, that deal with "The Physical Science Basis," "Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability," and "Mitigation of Climate Change." These three groups can be summed up as "How is it happening," "What happens when it happens," and "How the hell do we stop it or deal with it?" Working Group I has already released its outline, and there are draft copies of their part of the report that have leaked onto the internet. Working Group III meets at the end of this month in Bangkok, and Working Group II, who have been meeting in Brussels, released their summary this morning. This summary is intended to distill the contents of the 1,500-page scientific report down to the point where it can be easily read and understood by policymakers.

But the release of that summary has not been without incident. Although the scientists behind the document were happy with their effort, they encountered fierce diplomatic pressure from a number of countries to tone down their language. The problem arises from the use of common language to describe scientific certainty. If one were speaking to another scientist, then they might describe certainty of outcome as a percentage; a 90 percent certainty, for example, or a 99 percent certainty. As the IPCC summaries are meant for politicians, very few of whom appear to have anything more than rudimentary scientific knowledge, these percentages are translated into plainer English.

The heart of the problem has been the successful efforts by delegates from China and Saudi Arabia to change language describing how many natural ecosystems around the world are already being affected. Originally, it was reported that there was "a very high confidence" that areas around the globe "are being affected by regional climate changes, particularly temperature increases." "A very high confidence" translates as a 90 percent certainty, but under political pressure, this was downgraded to "a high certainty," meaning only 80 percent. Other parts of the report were also watered down, causing outrage amongst the scientists who authored the report.

It would be naive of me to expect that such a thing would not or could not happen, but I can't get away from the feeling that this is more than a little shortsighted on the parts of those nations that are downplaying the problems we face. Editing a word or graph out of the report is not going to stop the Himalayan glaciers from melting, leaving China with a freshwater shortage. It's not going to stop the northward spread of tropical diseases into Europe, and it's not stopping the Gulf region of the US from being battered by tropical storms of increasing intensity. You can lie to yourself that your shoes are on fire all you like, but when the flames start licking at your navel, did it really matter?

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Bill may require call center employees to disclose location

"Hello, my name is John, and I'm speaking to you from Bangalore, India, today. How can I help you?" That's a phrase that we may start hearing when we make calls to customer service centers, if a recently-proposed bill by House Representative Jason Altmire (D-PA) goes into effect. The bill, HR 1776, is titled "Call Center Consumers Right to Know Act" and would require call center employees to state their physical location when a customer calls in. HangZhou Night Net

As the title indicates, the bill is designed to make customers aware of the widespread nature of call-center outsourcing. Once discovering that a large majority of their calls are being redirected overseas, customers would theoretically be more willing to take action and let companies know how they feel about the hot issue of call center outsourcing that is often blamed for a portion of lost jobs in the US.

The bill's introduction undoubtedly comes from good intentions, but seem like a roundabout way of addressing an issue that is clearly important to certain members of Congress. Many Americans are already painfully aware that their calls are being directed overseas, and such a requirement would only confirm this knowledge. However, the bill might encourage customer pressure on companies to change their outsourcing ways or risk losing business. But it's not clear how many Americans would actually use this knowledge to alter their own buying habits—how many consumers say they'd like to support American clothing businesses but completely ignore "Made in [Country]" tags when it comes down to saving money?

Similar bills were introduced by Senator John Kerry (D-MA) in 2003 and again in 2004 by Representative Ted Strickland (D-OH), but both stagnated in Congress. Altmire's bill is still in the very early stages of the process and has not yet been scheduled for debate in the House.

New bill lets colleges use federal funds to fight P2P

Representative Ric Keller (R-FL) feels that colleges in America are teaching students more than literature, history, and computer science. They are alsodens ofthievery, places where students learn to steal "billions of dollars in intellectual property from hardworking people whose jobs hang in the balance." Rep. Keller is talking about illegal file-swapping, of course, and his new bill (HR 1689) could give schools more money to combat the P2P scourge. HangZhou Night Net

The bill is called the "Curb Illegal Downloading on College Campuses Act of 2007." It amends the Higher Education Act, a bill that supplies federal money to universities, allowing that money to be used for programs that reduce illegal downloading of copyrighted content.

The goal is to free up university money that would otherwise be spent on bandwidth costs and to keep networks more secure by keeping out viruses that may attach themselves to P2P files. The bill notes that "computer systems at colleges and universities are intended primarily to aid in educating and increase research capability among students and faculty;" clogging a campus network with BitTorrent traffic does not fall under the school's educational mandate.

The Higher Education Act (HEA) generally allows schools to spend the money they receive only on certain prescribed areas such as financial aid grants and Pell loans. The new bill would allow that money to be used for more things, but does not contain a request for additional funding. Whether schools would be interested in using a limited pool of federal money to police student file-swapping remains to be seen.

There'sno guarantee that the bill will make it to a vote, of course. It has already been shunted to the House Committee on Education and Labor, and might languish there until the end of this Congressional term except for the fact that the HEA needs to be reauthorized, and soon. The HEA expires this summer, and Congress will certainly find a way to extend it yet again or fully reauthorize it, since few things look worse than cutting massive student aid programs.

Campuses have come under plenty of scrutiny in the past few weeks, with the RIAA and the MPAA calling schools out for high levels of illicit P2P usage. Individual representatives in Congress have also taken an interest in the issue; can it be long before the carrot of additional funds for security is supplemented with the stick of penalties for not addressing the problem?

EMI goes DRM-free on iTunes Store

Update HangZhou Night Net

Apple and EMI announced today that the music label will begin selling all of its music through the iTunes Store, DRM-free. During a press conference in London this morning, EMI said that all of its unprotected tracks will be available worldwide from the iTunes Store starting in May for $1.29 and that customers will be able to upgrade their already-purchased EMI tracks for 30¢ if they so choose.

EMI and Apple said that the bit rate of EMI's tracks will be bumped up as well. EMI's catalog will now be available as 256kbps AAC files, upgraded from 128kbps. "We believe that offering consumers the opportunity to buy higher quality tracks and listen to them on the device or platform of their choice will boost sales of digital music," said EMI CEO Eric Nicoli during this morning's press conference. Customers who are not interested in the higher-quality, unprotected AAC files will still be able to buy protected tracks at 128kbps for 99¢ apiece.

EMI said that the iTunes Store will be the first to carry its higher-quality, unprotected music. The company will also be selling unprotected music videos through iTunes with no change in price, and plans to continue selling full upgraded albums at the existing wholesale prices.

It appears as if EMI and Apple are using the excuse of upgraded sound quality for the reason behind the individual track price bump, and not the lack of DRM. Whatever the true reason for the price bump, this ultimately breaks the (up until today) very consistent pricing scheme of the iTunes Store, and opens up the doors for other artists to start pricing their tracks differently—DRMed or not. One side effect: other music labels may now feel pressure to join EMI in dropping DRM through iTunes. There is no doubt that the rest of the Big Four will be watching this move very closely.

Original story

EMI will announce on Monday that it will be freeing much of its catalog from the shackles of DRM. The Wall Street Journal, citing "people familiar with the matter," reports (sub. required) that Apple CEO Steve Jobs will be present at the announcement in London and that the music will be sold through the iTunes Store and possibly other online outlets.

The news comes less than two months after Apple published Steve Jobs' famous open letter on the issue of DRM. In his missive, Jobs laid the blame for the DRM mess squarely at the feet of the music industry and said that he would gladly sell unprotected music if only the record labels would agree.

Jobs noted that if DRM requirements were removed, "the music industry might experience an influx of new companies willing to invest in innovative new stores and players." (Jobs also argued that interoperable DRM schemes are inherently less secure than closed systems—a questionable assertion, at best.)

EMI and the other Big Four labels have been beset by falling revenues over the past few years. Digital downloads are growing, but not quickly enough to offset the large declines in CD sales. Suggestions to drop the DRM have been widespread, and the recent formation of a licensing authority—Merlin—which combines a bunch of independent labels into a "virtual fifth major" have increased the pressure for change.

In early February rumblings were heard that EMI was thinking about ditching DRM, but EMI was unable to entice the likes of Apple, Microsoft, and others. As it turned out, EMI wanted a considerable advance payment to offset what it perceived as a "risk": selling DRM-free music online. EMI's position was simple: if they sell music without DRM, then users will find trading it that much easier. What this view ignores is the fact that DRM-free music already flows online, on P2P networks and USENET, among other places. This happens (in part) because CDs are, by and large, free of DRM and easy to rip.

When more details of the announcement become available Monday, we'll update here as necessary.

The $300 Mac

HangZhou Night Net

You have to wonder if anyone at Apple foresaw the unintended consequences of using a modified version of OS X on the Apple TV. It's likely that hacks were expected. Certainly, that is one theory behind the Apple TV "repairing" itself and disabling modifications, but whether or not it was foreseen by Apple, the next logical step in hacking the Apple TV has taken place. Via Apple TV Hacks, there is now a how-to for running OS X on the Apple TV.

Semthex wrote a processor emulation for the kernel, to sidestep the hardware restrictions that previously disallowed Mac OS X from running on the Apple TV. AppleTVHacks.net was only too happy to help out, and when it turned out we needed more testers we launched a competition to get some. Within hours we had hundreds of eager Apple TV hackers submit entries.

The process is not simple, requiring the removal of the drive from the Apple TV, connection to a Mac, installation of OS X, and modification of files including the kernel of the Apple TV OS. For those who are curious, there some Xbench numbers too, and the discussion thread for the project can be found here.

Not surprisingly, the Apple TV does not make a great Mac. The Apple TV has only 256MB RAM, a 40GB hard drive, and no optical disc. The Apple TV's Pentium-M derivative is woefully underpowered compared to a Mac Mini with a Core Duo. However, the Apple TV does have discrete graphics, an Nvidia GeForce Go 7300/7400, compared to a piece of cardboard in the shape of a graphics card for the Mac Mini (also known as integrated graphics). Still, even at twice the price, the Mac Mini is the far better deal if you are looking for a Mac.

But what if you are looking a Mac to sit next to the TV, one that can do everything the Apple TV can do, and run OS X, all for half the price of a new Mac Mini? Finally, an Apple TV for the rest of us.

Legal guitar tabs return to the web

Wisconsin: it's home to broomball, sharp cheddar, and (strange but true) cranberry bogs. This last week, the Badger State added "home of legal guitar tablature service" to its list of distinctives.Madison-based Musicnotes announced a licensing agreement with the Harry Fox Agency that will bring legal, ad-supported tabs back to the 'Net. HangZhou Night Net

Tablature is a simplified system of guitar notation that is useful for players who can't read the standard notes and staff. Enthusiasts across the Internet created tens of thousands of these tablature files and sent them to sites like the Online Guitar Archive (OLGA) until the music industry cracked down on the practice.

Claiming that they alone have the right to reproduce music (even if that music iswritten downby volunteers), the Music Publishers Association and its licensing subsidiary the Harry Fox Agency managed to shutter the major tablature sites in the US last year.

Now, under a new agreement reached with Musicnotes (one of the largest publishers of sheet music), Harry Fox will allow the company to offer tablature so long as it splits its advertising revenue with the music publishers. The new service will launch this summer at MXTabs.net, which Musicnotes recently acquired.

"Musicnotes proves the viability of a copyright-friendly, ad-supported guitar tab web site," said Gary Churgin, the CEO of Harry Fox, in a statement. "HFA has expanded its licensing and royalty distribution capabilities to support this kind of service, and we will continue to adapt to new licensing opportunities and models such as this to provide the most comprehensive service for our publishers."

There's one major snag, though: even though a deal is in place with Harry Fox, each copyright owner still needs to agree before Musicnotes can put tablature from their musicians online. This means that the archive will likely develop in a piecemeal fashion as publishers sign on.

In addition, the site will be making its money from users, who create and edit the tabs in question. Users get free access to legal tabs, while Musicnotes and music publishers get the cash. Will guitar players want to donate their time and energy to propping up The Man? Probably, if the site is slick, enough publishers sign on, and everything is fast and simple to use. The success of sites like YouTube is proof that plenty of people are willing to work for free when it comes to content they love, and this looks to be the only way to do it legally in the US at the moment.

Interview with Guitar Hero producer Daniel Sussman

Fair warning: we had these questions answered by Harmonix producer Daniel Sussman before theRock Band announcement. That means that he alludes to a big announcement we already have. Outside of that, there are some solid answers about the franchise here. HangZhou Night Net

Guitar HeroII for the 360 hits retail tomorrow, and many places already have it for sale. Expect our thoughts once our copy comes in.

Opposable Thumbs: Guitar Hero took off in a huge way. I know many people who bought a PS2 simply to play the game after they tried it at a party, and I know even more people who are now willing to sell their PS2 now that the game is coming to the 360. Of course, that success brings attention, and both you and Red Octane have since been acquired by MTV and Activision, respectively. So what does that mean for Harmonix and Guitar Hero? Are you still involved in Guitar Hero, or is it a case of building a boat and then letting other people sail it forward?

Daniel Sussman: We are still involved with the Guitar Hero franchise, though as it grows, we're more than happy to hand the reins to other developers so that we can pursue our own dream projects. The really exciting thing for me is that the music game, as a genre, has a full head of steam. Guitar Hero really broke the door down and now we're very excited to see what other developers bring to the table. No bullshit.

Q: There is a sense among many gamers I've talked to that while the game play updates in Guitar HeroII were all great, the song list wasn't quite as varied and interesting as the first game. Now that the game is coming to the 360 is there any chance of getting the Guitar HeroI tracks using the multiplayer modes and game updates from Guitar Hero II?

A: First off, I love the Guitar Hero II song list and think that, with the extra 10 songs, there is actually more variety than in the first title.We’ve gotten some feedback that maybe we skewed too metal on the sequel, but it has to be said that the GH2 song list runs the gamut from The Police to Lamb of God. That’s a really wide spread.With respect to song downloads, I will say that you are not the only person to have the idea of releasing GH1 songs for download.A lot of people are watching with intense curiosity as to how the first songs are received.It is really a brand new opportunity for record companies, bands, and developers–it's very exciting.

Q: I was playing Amplitude with some friends on the PS3 a few days ago, and they are all big Guitar Hero fans, but have never seen the earlier work Harmonix has done. Any plans to bring Frequency or Amplitude to the Live Arcade or as PS3 download? The games could find an entire new audience through that channel.

A: It makes me sad that those early titles are hard to find. Sony owns the Frequency/Amplitude brand and would have to revive them.I think we'd be willing to play a role.I wonder how Sony would feel about releasing one of their titles on Live Arcade …

Q: The upcoming Every Extra Extend Extreme apparently uses the custom soundtrack feature of the 360 in conjunction with the game play, altering how the game runs based on whatever song you play. Did you ever considertrying to incorporate custom soundtracks into Guitar Hero for 360? Perhaps using some kind of synthesizer-mapping programming to dynamically create a chord set for a custom song?

A: Yes, we did consider this. The fact is, a lot of effort goes into crafting each song, making it playable, and making it feel guitar-y and musical.I'm very proud of the job our audio team did and find it difficult to believe that we could have found a way to do that programatically.I think that all of the organic micro-decisions that our audio team made on a daily basis played a huge rule in what made Guitar Hero fun in the first place.

Q: What do you see as the best platform for rhythm games at the moment? When can we expect to see a Harmonix title on the Wii?

A: Rhythm games really transcend the console details as they don't necessarily need tons of CPU mojo to run. The gameplay itself is pretty straightforward, most of the time. Each platform brings something unique to the table, whether its physica gaming for the Wii, a great online infrastructure with the XBOX 360 or awesome programming power and graphics capabilities with the PS3.

Q: Do you ever bump into anyone from Konami and have an awkward moment? They have to be a little bitter about the success of Guitar Hero.

A: I still have tons of friends over there. No hard feelings …

Q: What's the next big thing we can expect from Harmonix?

A: We're working on the game we're dying to make. We've got big partners in MTV and EA. Stay tuned for more info …

Q: Lastly, what would your dream project be?

A: Like I said in the earlier question, I’m working on my dream game now. I’ll also say that I consider myself really lucky to have had an opportunity to have worked on some really fun games, from Frequency to Guitar Hero.

Whatever could it be? We'd like to thank Daniel Sussman for his time, and we can't wait to see what the franchise is like on the 360.

China: Better at censoring blogs than malware

Security research firm Sophos has just released new malware statistics. For the first time, China tops the list of countries hosting malware-infected web sites. That honor has traditionally gone to the US, which was the leader in 2006, but China has now pulled ahead with 35.6 percent of all infected sites. HangZhou Night Net

As Internet activity and economic growth skyrockets in China, the country is quickly becoming a malware powerhouse. An earlier Sophos report claimed that 30 percent of all malware written in 2006 originated from China, with 17 percent of that 30 percent devoted to stealing the passwords of online gamers. This stands in contrast to Brazil, where malware authors were mostly interested in gathering online banking information rather than games logins.

The US comes in just behind China, hosting 32.3 percent of all malware-infected sites, and Germany is a distant third with 7.5 percent. Russia, which hosted nearly 10 percent of all such sites in 2006, now hosts less than 5 percent of them, a drop of 50 percent in only a few months. This does not necessarily mean that Russia has suddenly grown more law-abiding, though, only that malware is skyrocketing.

Not that all malware is bad: Sophos notes that a 20-year old German man turned himself in to federal authorities last year after receiving a virus-encumbered message that claimed to be from German authorities. The man, who had child porn on his PC, promptly gave himself up, believing that investigators were on to him.

Sophos expects malware to enjoy healthy growth in 2007, saying that "we expect to see even more devious attempts to steal information with the end goal of financial gain."

But even items not designed for financial gain—like chain letters and e-mail hoaxes—are still going strong. The most popular (by several orders of magnitude) remains the Hotmail hoax, which warns users that their accounts could be terminated unless the e-mail is forwarded to 10 other Hotmail users. The fact that such a transparent ruse can achieve so much success is a reminder that general technical savvy on the Internet remains low.

Even more bizarre is the second-most popular hoax, the "Olympic Torch" e-mail that warns readers about a new virus. "It is a virus that opens an Olympic Torch which 'burns' the whole hard disc C of your computer," says the note.

The only upside to the report is that, should China or the US ever enter a conflict in which they need to call on the resources of thousands of Internet crooks, each country apparently has an inexhaustible supply of field-tested talent.

Science and the public purse

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the good news for UK scientists in the annual budget, who are seeing their funding raised by more than 20 percent over the next few years. At the time, I was broadly supportive of that announcement, but the emphasis on applied and translational research gave me pause. HangZhou Night Net

I had the fortune to hear Dr. Elias Zerhouni, head of the NIH, speak this weekend, and if anything it has further strengthened my misgivings over Gordon Brown's plans. One point that his speech drove home was on the NIH's determination to continue funding basic science as a priority over applied or clinical research, with good reason. Although the various institutes that make up the NIH have a combined research budget of around $28 billion, the pharmaceutical and biotech industries spend roughly twice that amount each year on research, but with very little spent on basic science.

Leaving out the argument that sometimes comes up—suggesting that federal funding of basic research amounts to a subsidy for industry—it seems clear to me that it's perfectly right for governments to pay for research that is both important and noncommercial. Expecting it to turn a profit as well is, in my opinion, asking academia to put extra constraints on what it does well, and trying to compete with companies that do it better, because that's all they do. Asking scientists to apply for grants based on applied research with links to industry means asking them to understand the market for commercial products in addition to their science, an unreasonable request.

Public funding of basic research is even more important when it comes to other fields of research, such as those funded by the NSF in the US, and the other research councils in the UK, but here there's an added problem, one that my colleague Dr. Timmer touched on yesterday. If the public can't see that they are getting their money's worth or don't understand why it's important to study certain topics, then the funding is quick to dry up.

Here at Nobel Intent we like to think that we're doing our own tiny part to improve the dissemination of exciting and interesting research, but for the academy as a whole, there's a long way to go yet.

Apple Store seems to hint at Macs with quad-core CPUs

Update: as noted in the comments, looks like I was right. It now says (italics are mine): HangZhou Night Net

Every new Mac features powerful dual-core or quad-core Intel processing, the world's most advanced operating system, and more.

End update.

Ever-diligent AppleInsider noticed that the Apple Store page for Adobe's Creative Suite 3 says:

Every new Mac features powerful dual-core or quad-core Intel processors, the world's most advanced operating system, and more. Build your Mac to your exact specifications, or start with our recommended configurations that are optimized for Creative Suite 3.

Could this mean that Apple will be releasing Macs with quad-core CPUs soon? That's one explanation. Another would be that the distinction between a quad-core Mac (with two dual-core CPUs) and a Mac with one or two quad-core CPUs is lost on the Apple Store copy writer. Or Apple may want to sell a Mac with a single four core CPU rather than dual dual-cores like the current Mac Pro.

Many people seem to think the move to octo-core is a no-brainer. I'm sure there will be a Mac with eight cores in it at some point in the future, but adding cores is far from a magical panacea that makes performance effortlessly go through the roof. There are two reasons for this: in order to keep the additional cores filled with instructions and data, ideally the bus and memory speeds should go up along with the number of cores. Better caching and software tricks can help here, but at some point, a task or set of tasks will be bus-bound rather than CPU-bound and extra cores won't add more performance.

The other issue is the software. There are two ways to gain performance from extra cores: by running more stuff simultaneously, or by splitting one task up into sub-tasks that can run on different CPU cores in parallel. The former is what happens on servers, where each core can tend to a different request. On desktops, the move from one to two cores made multitasking a more pleasant experience, but few people run so many applications at the same time that four or even eight cores increases performance for software that isn't multi-core aware. Fortunately, a lot of (Apple) software is multi-core aware these days, so encoding video, rendering image effects and the like goes faster as the number of cores goes up. However, the application writers are going to find it harder and harder to split the work their applications have to d/ into smaller and smaller pieces, and the overhead of managing the parallel operation will only increase.

Bottom line: in a few years, a "core myth" could be filling the shoes of the only recently abandoned gigahertz myth—for now, I'll be salivating over the prospect of imminent octos like everyone else, though.

Vonage hangs up on Verizon patent infringement with new agreement

Vonage has signed an agreement with a VoIP network services provider to carry calls placed by Vonage customers, giving the troubled VoIP provider an out on two of the three Verizon patents it was found to have infringed. According to a Form 8-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Vonage and VoIP, Inc. have inked a two-year contract under which VoIP, Inc.—likely under its VOICEONE brand—will provide network services for Vonage customers. HangZhou Night Net

Last month, a federal jury found that Vonage's VoIP services infringed on three patents owned by Verizon after deliberating for less than a day. Two of the patents cover connecting VoIP calls to public switched telephone networks (PSTN); the third covers VoIP calls made using WiFi phones. While the jury found that Vonage did not knowingly infringe on Verizon's patents, it did award the telecom $58 million in damages.

When the federal judge overseeing the case issued an injunction against Vonage a couple of weeks later, concerns about the company's viability increased. The judge will rule in the next couple of weeks on whether to enforce the injunction immediately or allow the case to make its way through what could be a lengthy appeals process.

By signing the agreement with VoIP, Inc., Vonage has provided itself with a measure of protection against the injunction. VoIP, Inc. owns its own network, describing VOICEONE as the "first, seamless nationwide IP network." Perhaps most crucially from Vonage's standpoint, VoIP, Inc. claims to own the intellectual property around its network and services.

After the two-year agreement has run its course, the companies have the option of continuing it on a month-to-month basis.

All of this comes at a price to Vonage. With the threat of a permanent injunction hanging over its head, the company was not in the strongest of bargaining positions. The agreement has to be a bitter pill to swallow for a company that is still experiencing high levels of customer churn and has yet to make a profit. The terms of the deal have not been announced, but whatever the terms may be, the agreement represents an additional, ongoing expense for Vonage.

Despite the financial concerns, it was a necessary move for Vonage. The agreement all but kills the threat of a shutdown of Vonage's network, giving both the company and its customers (me, for one) some peace of mind.

Update

After the story ran, Ars was contacted by a Vonage spokesperson that claimed that the agreement with VoIP, Inc. has "nothing to do with the patent situation." She described the deal as another termination deal similar to those Vonage has signed with other carriers, reiterating that the agreement was unrelated to the Verizon agreement. However, an unnamed source at VoIP, Inc. suggested to TelecomWeb that Vonage would indeed be using its network to carry its calls, while refusing to speculate about the patent dustup.

Joost 0.9 for Mac “biggest release yet”

By now, many of you have been able to score invitations from various friends and strangers to try out Joost on your Macs, the P2P video service once known as The Venice Project. Well, the Joost team has pushed out another version today, bringing the software to version 0.9 and the "biggest release yet." Considering that it's the second release for the Mac, that's… pretty impressive, I guess? HangZhou Night Net

What can be found in Joost 0.9 that wasn't there in Joost 0.8? The Joost team has now redone the registration and login process for when you first start up the program, as well as moved the invitation system to the program itself—not just the web site anymore. The "invitation" widget is located in the "My Joost" area, if you're just dying to check it out. The Joost team has also added a standby mode to the program, which pauses all video and minimizes the program to your taskbar. This sounds like the perfect emergency strategy for those times when you're watching Joost on your computer at work and the boss comes by.

Other improvements to the software include how Joost handles poor network performance. In an attempt to make your viewing experience better, Joost "will attempt to retry and restart streams that have become stalled." They've also done a little bit of spring cleaning to the user interface and the addition of a dialog box when you enter into window mode—they're well aware of the text squishing problem, and still appear to be perplexed by it.

On top of all of that, Joost has added the ability for shows to have "overlays," which is extra content that may come with various shows, and a "considerably improved" channel catalog. Some less exciting updates include the addition of an age warning, rewind and forward seeking additions, and the addition of an RSS reader (of all things) into the software.

All in all, it is indeed quite a hefty update even if most of the added functionality don't change too much about how the user views the content. The file is 17MB from Joost's website and you must still have an invite in order to participate in the beta. Oh, and please, don't start sending me e-mails asking for invites this time!