Alternate Mac browsers get a bump: OmniWeb and Opera

Two Mac browsers became update buddies this week, bringing much joy to the growing contingency of Mac users who don't belong to the Firefox and Safari clubs. First, OmniWeb got a bump to version 5.6 yesterday. As noted by The Omni Mouth blog, users who have been running the sneak peeks may not be so impressed, but for everyone else, 5.6 brings a lot of welcome improvements. HangZhou Night Net

Most importantly, OmniWeb sports a new rendering engine thanks to being based on a new version of WebKit. There are a number of WebKit-related improvements too, including the use of the WebKit icon database, improved JavaScript and plug-in performance, and improved Flash performance.

OmniWeb users can now also see inline PDFs (woohoo), spoof themselves as the iPhone's browser (useful for seeing iPhone-specific pages), and a new software update interface. The release notes for 5.6 provide all of the gory details for those interested. There's a 30-day demo for those of you who want to try it out, but otherwise the popular software runs for $14.95 new, with a $4.95 upgrade charge. Oh yeah, and OmniWeb 5.6 is Leopard-ready.

The second browser that got an update this week is Opera. Opera's update isn't Mac-only, but for all versions of the browser—Mac, Windows, Linux, Mobile, Mini—you name it, Opera's got it. The major update to Opera is that it now carries a new feature: Opera Link. This syncs all of your bookmarks with the server so that all versions of Opera have all the same stuff. No longer do you have to keep your laptop and desktop updated manually to match each other, nor do you need to remember what that one site was from your Opera-enabled phone. It's all right there, all the time.

This functionality is mirrored in a number of extensions for other browsers, such as Google Browser Sync for Firefox. But if you haven't checked out Opera in a long time (I hadn't for several years, until this morning), it might be worth a look just to see what Opera has changed over the years. Personally, I kinda' like it.

Possible UK P2P legislative crackdown faces privacy, technological hurdles

A Labour Party politician in the UK has threatened legislation to crack down on file-sharing if British ISPs don't take measures of their own. Concerned that ISPs aren't doing enough to stem the traffic in copyrighted video and music, parliamentary Undersecretary for Innovation, Universities, and Skills Lord Triesman believes that laws mandating a crackdown may be the only option. HangZhou Night Net

Lord Triesman's comments come in the wake of this week's arrest of the administrator of popular P2P site OiNK and the seizure of its servers. OiNK was shut down after a two-year investigation by the IFPI and UK music trade group BPI.

Lord Triesman holds out hopes that negotiations between rights holders and British ISPs will produce some sort of voluntary agreement in the near future. "Our preferred position is that we shouldn't have to regulate," he told the BBC. "If we can't get voluntary arrangements, we will legislate."

Predictably, the BPI is over the moon at the thought of tough copyright legislation. "We greatly welcome the government reiterating its view that ISPs should work with us to tackle the problem of internet piracy, or else face legislation," BPI CEO Geoff Taylor told the BBC.

At the other end of the spectrum, the UK-based Internet Service Providers Association is vehemently opposed to any such legislation. While pointing out that the group is opposed to copyright infringement, a spokesperson told the BBC that any such legislation would be infeasible. "ISPs are no more able to inspect and filter every single packet passing across their network than the Post Office is able to open every envelope."

Actually, it may not be that far-fetched. Deep packet inspection tools have become increasingly sophisticated. DPI products from the likes of Procera Networks and Ellacoya are capable of extracting IP addresses, filenames, and URLs, as well as filtering out BitTorrent traffic for up to 900,000 simultaneous users—all in real time.

P2P traffic blocking can be much more subtle than that, as the recent discovery that Comcast isdisrupting BitTorrent traffic indicates. Using a DPI tool from Sandvine, Comcast at times sends forced TCP reset packets, which have the effect of disrupting P2P transfers in certain situations.

There are difficulties standing in the way of the kind of monitoring envisioned by Lord Triesman, however. As is the case with the kind of video fingerprinting tools envisioned by a new copyright consortium, DPI tools can't tell the difference between legitimate and infringing content. There's also the matter of privacy. Although UK residents have proven themselves willing to accept a large degree of closed-circuit TV monitoring, the thought of having all of their traffic thoroughly checked by their ISPs for copyright infringement is likely to be as appetizing as a pub restroom on a Sunday morning.

Vonage, Verizon bury the patent hatchet

Vonage and Verizon have announced that they have reached a settlement in their patent dispute that saw Verizon win a $58 million judgment after a trial earlier this year. Under the terms of the agreement, the exact amount of the payout depends on how the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit rules on Vonage's request for a rehearing on two of the three patents in question. HangZhou Night Net

Should the full Court decline to take up the case, Vonage will owe Verizon $120 million. If it agrees to rehear it, the payment will be capped at $80 million. Vonage currently has $88 million in escrow, meaning that its maximum additional liability will be $32 million.

Two of the three disputed patents cover translating between IP addresses and phone numbers; those are the two still in front of the appeals court. The third patent, which the appeals court remanded back to the lower court for a retrial, covers the concept of connecting a wireless device to a VoIP network. Vonage had argued that none of the patents would pass the new obviousness standard mandated by a recent Supreme Court ruling, but the settlement means that the obviousness of the patents may never be tested in court.

"We're pleased to put this dispute behind us and believe this settlement is in the best interests of Vonage and its customers," said Sharon O'Leary, Vonage chief legal officer. "This settlement removes the uncertainty of legal reviews and long-term court action and allows us to continue focusing on our core business and customers."

This marks the third patent dispute settlement for Vonage this month. A couple of weeks ago, the VoIP carrier and Sprint settled another patent dispute for $80 million. That agreement also gave Vonage full access to Sprint's voice over packet patent portfolio. Vonage also settled another infringement lawsuit in the last few weeks, this one filed by Klausner Technologies.

Unfortunately, Vonage is not out of the woods yet. Last week, AT&T decided to attempt to extract its pound of patent flesh from the VoIP provider, filing a multimillion-dollar patent infringement lawsuit. The AT&T patent in question covers a means of enabling access to an Internet phone system via a standard phone; Vonage may decide to try and settle this instead of taking its chances in court.

It's great for Vonage to get its IP mess sorted out, but with only $276 million in cash on hand as of June 30, these settlements are taking a heavy financial toll on the company. If the VoIP company is unable to stem its loss of subscribers and stabilize its operations, resolving the patent situation won't make much difference to its outlook.

VMware Fusion 1.1 release candidate boosts Unity, (almost) Leopard support

Since this week is Leopard week, this is also software update week. The VMware crew released the 1.1 beta just a month ago, and now the 1.1 release candidate is ready for your grubby little hands. Or eyes. Whatever. HangZhou Night Net

New in the Fusion 1.1 release candidate, aside from obvious Leopard compatibility, are a number of improvements to Unity (the feature that allows you to run Windows apps seamlessly as if they were Mac apps). "My Computer, My Documents, My Network Places, Control Panel, Run, and Search are now available in the Applications menu, Dock menu, and the Launch Applications window," writes VMware. Performance to window-dragging and resizing has also been boosted, as well as support for 32- and 64-bit versions of Vista.

A number of Boot Camp compatibilities have been added too, including using Vista installed on Boot Camp as a virtual machine. 2D drawing performance on Santa Rosa Macs has been improved, and a handful of bugs have been fixed. "Fixed issue where VMware Fusion would use more memory over time." That's helpful. (Check out the whole list of improvements on the detailed release notes.)

VMware is careful to note that this release of Fusion 1.1 works well with pre-release versions of Leopard, and that the company plans to test it with the final version when it goes on sale tomorrow. This is Build 61385 by the way, for those keeping score. The release candidate is already ripe for download, but don't worry—if you don't own a copy of Fusion, you can get an expiring beta serial number to try it out. So go at it. It's 165MB, so that means if you're on my horrible Internet connection, it'll be a while.

1Password 2.5 lands with new UI, iPhone sync

After releasing a beta earlier this month with some slick new features, Agile Web Solutions dropped an official 2.5 update to 1Password today. The Keychain replacement and identity management utility packs a digital ton of new features and changes from the top down–so many that we're surprised this isn't a full 3.0 release. HangZhou Night Net

The most obvious changes on first run are 1Password's refreshed UI and a name change from 1Passwd to 1Password (we imagine 1Passwd was causing some confusion among those who don't play close enough attention). The app has a much more polished feel both for sidebar entries and individual item view. A new Wallet entry in the sidebar now handles storing credit card information (instead of storing card numbers in identities) at the request of many users who want the flexibility of using more than one credit card with their identities.

Just like we saw in the beta, 1Password 2.5 includes a clever new feature that can build a powerful, secure bookmarklet for the iPhone's Safari that contains all of a user's login and identity information. A new button in 1Password's toolbar makes setup a cinch, and the bookmarklet itself requires a password and auto-locks after a minute (for obvious security reasons). We've poked around with this feature and must say, it's pretty slick. It's definitely nice to have all that stuff while on the go.

For those who don't own an iPhone or prefer having web access to all this login and identity information, Agile Web Solutions will soon debut a new 1Password web portal called "my1Password." Users will be able sync their 1Password data for free and access all their items from any Internet-connected browser. my1Password isn't quite ready for prime time yet, but invites should be going out soon (hint hint guys!).

Plenty of other changes, including a reworked code base and a greatly-improved form filler, round out an impressive 1Password update. More information and a demo is available from Agile Web Solutions, while single and bundle licenses start at $29.95.

Bovine power may greet some delayed OLPC laptops

The official launch of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Project's XO laptop has been pushed back after additional production delays. Production was originally expected to begin in this month, but will now start in early November. HangZhou Night Net

In an interview with Reuters, OLPC chief technology officer Mary Lou Jepsen has stated that the delays were the result of "last-minute bugs" that have already been resolved.

This latest delay will have a negative impact on OLPC's Give One Get One (G1G1) initiative, which allows consumers in developed countries to obtain a single XO laptop by donating the cost of two XO laptops. The G1G1 initiative will still be rolled out in time for the holidays, but availability of XO laptop units will be limited as a result of the production delay. Jepsen encourages G1G1 consumers to order early, since the available units will move quickly.

The G1G1 program is seen as a change in strategy for OLPC that was made necessary because sales to governments have been slow. OLPC is also looking for handouts from major donors. In the wake of price hikes which have brought the cost of an XO laptop to $188, potential government buyers are unwilling to commit to purchasing XO laptops in bulk. OLPC is altering its approach to compensate for the tough sales environment and no longer expects participating governments to shell out for the previously-stated minimum of 1 million laptops.

Although OLPC is having difficulty making sales, there have been some positive changes lately. Some countries that have been playing hard-to-get have now reconsidered and are once again negotiating with OLPC. In India, for instance, where an education minister once referred to the laptops as "pedagogically suspect," OLPC has managed to get a pilot test program running and is now working with local governments in the country.

Image courtesy of the OLPC Development Site

In related news, the OLPC project is considering the use of cows to provide power for the laptops in India. In a mailing list post, Arjun Sarwal of OLPC India describes how the cow-powered generator that is being developed by OLPC. "We plan to drive a dynamo (taken from an old Fiat) through a system of belts and pulleys using cows/cattle," wrote Sarwal. Citing the lack of water sources, consistent sunlight, or strong wind, Sarwal decided to use cattle, since they are present in great abundance in India. "The solution is of course not a one-for-all solution, but is an example of how locally available mechanisms can be leveraged to charge the laptops."

Despite delays and climbing prices, interest in the OLPC project remains high. It's unclear, however, whether or not the OLPC project will continue to look compelling as other low-cost mobile computing products begin to reach the market. The Asus Eee PC release, for instance, was officially announced earlier this month. Asus offers the subnotebook for as little as $299 and is already selling it in bulk to governments.

Comcast’s growth slows as pressure from FiOS, U-Verse ratchets up

Comcast reported third-quarter results on Thursday morning, and despite meeting the average analyst expectations for earnings per share and beating the sales forecasts, the market saw fit to punish the stock price. Harshly. HangZhou Night Net

Management's short-term business outlook wasn't all flags and trumpets, as a weak economy and determined competition from satellite and telecom service providers bit into Comcast's subscriber growth. The company still grew its customer base, but the growth in revenue generating units (RGU) was 6 percent slower this time than it was a year ago. The company lost a total of 65,000 cable subscribers while adding 450,000 new broadband customers to bring its total number of high-speed Internet subscribers to 12.9 million. Unfortunately for the company, growth is slowing, as that 450,000 was 16 percent less than the same quarter last year.

It looks like the vaunted "triple-play" packaging has picked most of the low-hanging fruit already. One triple-play customer adds three RGUs—one each for voice, data, and video services. Last year, cable companies were fairly unchallenged in three-way offerings, but as Verizon and AT&T roll out high-speed networks capable of streaming a full range of video services into the home, that monopolistic advantage is getting lost.

Staring at the RGU data doesn't account for what Comcast calls "advanced services," though. High-definition services, DVRs, and on-demand programming doesn't affect the RGU count, but does improve the profit margin per customer. And advanced digital customers are much less likely to leave Comcast for greener pastures—just like triple-play subscribers.

The company now plans to push single-service and two-service packages a bit harder after seeing the success their competition has had with smaller package offerings. Comcast is also expanding the bandwidth available for high-def programming in a couple of ways. That's done mainly by converting two or three low-demand analog channels into one digital as opportunities arise. Looking further out, there are two trial markets up and running for switched digital video, which holds the promise to loosen the bandwidth crunch enormously.

The quarter itself was okay but nothing more. As for the loss in subscribers, the telecoms are clearly having an impact and we'll see how long the satellite providers can keep up their aggressive pricing. I think an 11 percent price drop is really excessive and would expect a correction as the shock and horror of this lukewarm report wears off.

Cosmic cold spot ascribed to phase transition

Back at the end of August, Chris Lee described a discovery that was a bit of a stumper. The WMAP probe, which has been refining our picture of the cosmic microwave background, found what appears to be a cosmic cold spot: an exceptionally large area of space that’s apparently more or less empty. The probabilities of this occurring by chance are vanishingly small, and it has left cosmologists scratching their heads. HangZhou Night Net

A number of them apparently stopped scratching and started calculating, and the fruits of some of that labor are being released by Science today. The authors of the paper have done calculations that suggest the cold spot is a remnant of an exotic form of phase transition that took place early in the history of the universe. This is something that has been kicked around by the theorists for decades, but hasn’t been observed as of yet.

The idea behind the phenomenon is that, at very high energies, some particles become “symmetric”—they are functionally interchangeable, and can’t be distinguished. As the universe expanded after the big bang, it gradually cooled, diluting the average energy density. This cooling should sporadically drop the energy below the point where some forms of symmetry are maintained and, because of the irregularities in the universe’s cooling observed by WMAP, the breaking of symmetry should happen unevenly.

The net result is that neighboring areas of the universe will be at states above and below the symmetry point. This creates a situation vaguely analogous to the phase change between liquid water and ice, where there is a fundamental discontinuity between the two regions. In the cosmic version, the phase change boundary should cause significant changes in the wavelength of light that crosses it, potentially creating a relatively “cold,” or red-shifted, patch in the microwave background (hot patches should also occur).

How likely is this exotic explanation? Compared to the obvious alternative explanation—a combination of instrument error and random fluctuations—pretty likely, according to the authors. They did a Bayesian analysis of the probabilities of both, and found that the phase shift was a more probable solution. In addition, the work suggested that phase changes should cause only one cold spot large enough to detect at the resolution that we’ve currently achieved in our measurements of the cosmic background radiation.

The phase change explanation also provides two testable predictions, namely that we’ll find more of these when we get better resolution maps, and that a certain amount of polarization should be detectable in the area at the edges of the cold spot. The size of the cold spot also places an eye popping number on the energy at which the phase change took place: 8.7 × 1015 GeV. The Nobel Intent staff was unable to think of a reasonable analogy to describe how energetic that is.

Four Leopard eve updates for your Macs: iMac, iLife, GarageBand, iDVD

With Leopard appearing on doorsteps and retail stores within the next 24 hours, Apple showed that it has had more than just 10.5 on its mind over the last few weeks. Apple has graced us with not one, not two, not even three, but four software updates from the mothership itself! HangZhou Night Net

First we have the iMac MXM update that folks were rumoring about not so long ago, which fixes Boot Camp issues on some rev. a 24" iMacs. Oddly enough, the update lists "products affected" as Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, Boot Camp, and iiMac [sic] (Late 2006 24-inch). There is no mention of whether the update fixes issues for OS X 10.4 Tiger. The update is a paltry 403KB and is available on Apple's website.

Update number two is "iLife Support 8.1.1" which offers the following improvements:

This update supports system software components shared by all iLife '08 applications, improves overall stability, addresses a number of other minor issues, and supports general compatibility issues. It is recommended for all users of iLife '08.

iLife Support 8.1.1 is a 6MB download available via Software Update or through Apple's download section here.

The final two updates are to iDVD (6.0.4) and GarageBand (3.0.5) which both improve stability and "support compatibility with OS X 10.5." The GarageBand update weighs in at 14.4MB while the iDVD counterpart sits at 6.5MB. Both iDVD areis available via Software Update (even if you are running 10.4) or on the web.

Go forth and update, and make sure you let us know how it goes in comments!

Leopard backpedals again: No more iPhone note syncing (Updated)

Looks like Apple now believes that it has said a little too much with the new Leopard feature pages. Yesterday it backpedaled on letting us use an AirPort Disk with Time Machine, and now it appears as though all references to the iPhone have been removed from the "300+ new features" page. HangZhou Night Net

This includes something we talked about in a report last week: the 300+ features page had confirmed fueled assumptions that the iPhone would sync Notes with Leopard's Mail. It's gone now. Erased from existence, just like any trace of Time Machine and AirDisks. If you're still holding out hope, it's a good thing we saved a screenshot.

So what's the deal with this new feature edit? Has the previously-assumed Notes syncing feature been stricken off the iPhone's firmware to-do list? Or is Apple simply trying to stick to its MO in keeping most new iPhone features under wraps until they're ready to roll? Even more important: can we ask any more questions in a single paragraph? Honestly we aren't sure, but we will continue to keep our feelers out for developments.

Update

Gruber and commenters are right: Apple never confirmed that Leopard's Mail would sync notes with the iPhone Notes application. At best this is an assumption I and many others made due to the similarities in the name and UI of "Notes" between implementations in the new Mail and the iPhone. There are at least two other reasons I think many people hope this happens though.

The first is that many other smartphones sync their respective notes with some kind of desktop counterpart. Windows Mobile phones (and BlackBerry too?) sync notes to Outlook, and even third-party apps for the Mac will sync notes from Windows Mobile and BlackBerry to Entourage and Yojimbo. The fact that the iPhone doesn't (yet) in light of Mail gaining a Notes feature simply feels like a glaring omission. The second is that, put simply, being forced to drill in and out of folders (between e-mail and notes) in Mail on the iPhone is absolutely mind-numbing. I would go so far as to call it virtually useless, especially since you can't create a "note" on the iPhone and save it in the proper Notes folder for Leopard's Mail to pick it up, i.e., it isn't a two way system for now.

So even though nothing is confirmed, I'll be very surprised if Apple doesn't bring syncing to notes in Leopard's Mail and the iPhone's Notes application within the next one or two iPhone/Leopard software updates. This wouldn't need to be a Mac-only feature either, since the iPhone could sync notes with Outlook on Windows.