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Google eyeing video game ad acquisition Google is always looking for new sources of advertising revenue, and if the rumors are true, their next ad frontier may be video games. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Google is in talks to acquire Adscape Media Inc., a private company that sells software that integrates ad placement in games. The deal could be finalized as early as next week. While Google has declined to comment on the subject, it did say that the company is “always considering new ways to extend Google’s advertising program to benefit our users, advertisers and publishers,” and that “in-game advertising offers one such possible extension among many others.” The move would parallel Microsoft’s $200 million purchase of the in-game advertising company Massive last year, an acquisition that some insiders say beat Google to the punch. With both Google and Microsoft taking an interest in in-game advertising, the idea is moving further into the gaming mainstream. The chairman of Adscape, Bernard Stolar, was once an executive at Sega and also worked for Atari and Sony Computer Entertainment American (SCEA). His company is already working with major game publishers to integrate online advertising, and Google would like to have a slice of that profit pie. Is the world ready for Google ads popping up in virtual worlds? Gamers who are concerned that the behavior of Google AdWords could pick up confusing and potentially embarrassing ads probably have nothing to fear—Google’s primary interest is in becoming a premier broker of advertising content, not changing the rules of the game. It’s not likely that Google will start scanning through gamers’ web browsing history to find suitable ad matches, like spyware sometimes does. While nothing technically prevents in-game ads from behaving like this, the potential backlash and legal ramifications will discourage it. When asked, most gamers say that they wouldn’t mind ads in games where it makes sense, such as in racing or sports simulations that feature virtual recreations of places that feature ads in real life. If anything, it might be more jarring to see ads for “Generic Cola” instead of Coke on the racetrack, or on the boards in a hockey rink. However, seeing ads for that same beverage in a fantasy role-playing game would be unforgiveable, and one hopes that such a horror will never happen. Still, one has to raise the question: has our society become so saturated with advertising that companies must constantly look for new places to place it? One wonders if the scenario from Futurama where companies embed ads directly into people’s dreams is really so farfetched. Hockey boards didn’t always have advertising, after all.

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Free speech wins out in online anonymous criticism case What happens when you’re upset about a business dealing with Massachusetts real estate developer Paul McMann? One anonymous critic put up a web site about the man, inviting other people to share their own stories. McMann wasn’t real pleased about this development, and he filed suit against the anonymous proprietor of the site and issued subpoenas to learn his (or her) true identity. An Arizona judge has just ruled that McMann is not able to use the compulsory discovery process to unmask his accuser unless he can show that his anonymous opponent actually committed a crime. The saga began back in Massachusetts, where McMann first filed suit agaist his detractor in early October. In his complaint, a copy of which was seen by Ars Technica, McMann told the court that he was being defamed. He specifically pointed to statements on the web site which said that he “turned lives upside down” and that people should “be afraid. Be very afraid” of McMann. He also claimed that the site was damaging his career in real estate; one potential lender and another potential business partner both told McMann that they were not interested in working with him after seeing the site. At the end of the month, Judge Joseph Tauro tossed the case. He pointed out that the two statements cited by McMann could hardly be considered defamation because “these two statements are not provable as true or false, but rather are opinions.” The judge recognized that such cases could easily be used to identify critics, even if such critics had done nothing illegal. He also dismissed McMann’s claim that a photo of McMann published on the website was a violation of McMann’s personal copyright (the photo has apparently been replaced by the picture of a grinning jack-o’-lantern). A week later, McMann refiled his suit in Arizona. The nonprofit group Public Citizen helped in the defense of the Arizona case, and they claim that McMann made no mention of the Massachusetts case. The state of Arizona was a strange choice, as McMann did not live or do business there and had no reason to think his anonymous critic did, either. It was apparently chosen because the paulmcmann.com site was registered with Domains by Proxy, which is based there. McMann’s attempts to learn John Doe’s identity from Domains by Proxy were unsuccessful; the company told him that he needed a court order. On January 18, Judge Christopher Whitten sided with Judge Tauro and dismissed the case. Whitten ruled that “the Plaintiff must show that its claim would survive a Motion for Summary Judgment before being entitled to discover the identity of an anonymous speaker through any compulsory discovery process.” In other words, McMann had to provide solid, upfront evidence of illegal behavior. “This victory is a win for the First Amendment right of free speech on the Internet,” said Public Citizen attorney Greg Beck. “The Court correctly recognized that people’s right to speak anonymously online should not be violated without good cause.” The two decisions reinforce a set of recent rulings on Internet anonymity. At the end of 2005, for instance, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled that anonymous bloggers should receive strong protection from exposure, and also ruled that a plaintiff would have to pass the “summary judgment” test before a subpoena would be authorized. But those who have been criticized find it hard to resist trying their luck in the courts, even though many such cases turn out to reveal nothing more interesting than the hourly rate charged by the plaintiff’s lawyer.

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Zune 2.0: The Empire strikes back Microsoft hopes to launch the Zune in Europe before the end of 2007, the company told Reuters over the weekend, and hinted that there would be "more devices, more features" by that time. Acknowledging that Apple is a tough competitor in the music-player market, Microsoft’s marketing director Jason Reindorp said that the company was still happy with the Zune’s launch numbers and hopes to sell 1 million units by June. What’s in the future for the Zune? Here’s what we know from comments both public and off the record from Microsoft sources. Speaking at the Midem Music Expo in Cannes, France on Saturday, Microsoft’s media business chief Chris Stephenson also indicated that more versions of Zune are on the way. These will include a flash-based version of the player, which is currently expected to arrive in the fourth quarter of 2007. Sources say that the flash-based Zune will compete against the iPod nano and other diminutive flash-based players. Sources tell us that Microsoft also hopes to roll out a 12GB model if the NAND flash memory market can make the jump. The irony in this is that the next jump in NAND flash storage will likely be caused by the success of the iPod nano, which is already driving a significant portion of all NAND flash memory sales. Stephenson also said that he envisions the proliferation of music "filling stations"—retail locations that already host WiFi hotspots—where Zune users could fill up on music over the air. He also said that the company is looking into more ways for users to "cache and download on the go." This all but confirms the company’s plans to fully enable WiFi in the way that many potential buyers have hoped—the ability to purchase music directly from the Zune. Also rumored is the possibility that Microsoft will enable full sharing of subscription music over WiFi, despite recent reports that users can’t even share all songs under Microsoft’s current three-play limit. Other Zune rumors include the possibility that a pocket version of Internet Explorer will run on the next version of the Zune. Apple’s upcoming iPhone will allow web browsing via WiFi, as does the Sony PSP. If WiFi ends up becoming fully-enabled on the Zune for music purchasing and sharing purposes, it would only sense to enable web browsing via the Zune as well. Reindorp said that the company was not trying to play catch-up with Apple in a market where the iPod is so entrenched, but attempting to give the Zune a name for itself. "We are very realistic, we have what is essentially a three-year plan to firmly and solidly get on the radar," he told Reuters. Microsoft seems to acknowledge its slow start with the Zune, but like the original Xbox, has big plans for sneaking the Zune in as a big player in the future.

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Parallels acknowledges SWsoft ownership What do Parallels and enterprise virtualization software maker SWsoft have in common? More than we thought, it turns out. Parallels acknowledged today that the company is, in fact, owned by SWsoft, an acquisition that happened three years ago before most of us had ever even heard of Parallels. Does this public disclosure mean that anything will change for Parallels—seemingly the public favorite for virtualization software on the Mac these days? Marketing manager Ben Rudolph told Ars that the answer to that is a big fat "NO." "Parallels will still have its own brand, site, and team," Rudolph told us. "We will simply be leveraging SWsoft’s substantial experience, talent and resources to make our products even better, and get the out the door even faster." But why did Parallels and SWsoft keep the partnership a secret for so long? "We have different skill sets and different approaches to virtualization, so we wanted to make sure that we maintained our own identities so we could stay focused," Rudolph said. "Now that we are moving to server virtualization, and SWsoft is expanding its virtualization management tool sets, there's a lot more overlap, so we wanted to be sure to let customers know that we're a 'one stop shop' for virtualization. We have their needs covered top to bottom, be it server or desktop, Windows, Linux or Mac, hardware virtualization, OS virtualization, or virtualization management." SWsoft CEO Serguei Beloussov acknowledged to Fortune that the next version of Parallels, expected to be released this spring (we assume he is referring to the next "major beta" that we discussed with Rudolph at Macworld), will "by coincidence" make it easier to run OS X on non-Apple hardware. This would be, of course, a move that Apple would not be thrilled about, but an inevitable (and tempting) development now that Macs share similar processor structure to their non-Mac bretheren. VMWare CEO Diane Greene told Fortune that they face the same temptations and challenges with Apple: "We were trying to do it the way they wanted to, but in hindsight we should have just gone ahead. I wonder what Steve Jobs is going to do, because there is so much pressure to run Mac OS on non-Macs." All this being said, it seems that we (as consumers) have a lot of exciting things to look forward to in the world of virtualization on the Mac this year. Parallels seems intent on keepin' it real with the small-company feel, but for how long can they keep up that front while the software continues to gain momentum and, with it, an inevitably large user base?

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Open Source Development Labs merges with the Free Standards Group The Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) and the Free Standards Group (FSG) have agreed to merge to form the Linux Foundation. Comprised of 70 member organizations, the Foundation seeks to protect the Linux platform from fragmentation by providing its members with a venue for collectively building the future of the open-source operating system. Initially founded in 2000 to facilitate dialogue between companies and organizations with a vested interest in promoting Linux, OSDL employs several developers, including Linus Torvalds. OSDL has undergone numerous changes in the past few years to combat its declining relevance as major companies and individual Linux distributors have pursued collaboration on their own terms. The broad collaboration between key players in the Linux industry and increasing adoption of the Linux operating system are perceived as signs that the original role and function of OSDL has been fulfilled. OSDL restructured once in August 2005 and then again in December 2006, laying off employees both times. During the 2006 layoffs, OSDL CEO Stuart Cohen voluntarily resigned in order to pursue other interests. Initially created to promote free standards and consistency on the Linux platform, FSG’s most important endeavor is the Linux Standard Base project, which seeks to standardize the structure of the open-source operating system in order to improve interoperability between distributions. The new Linux Foundation benefits from the funding and direct involvement of a diverse assortment of relevant industry participants, including Linux distributors as well as major companies like IBM and HP. The goals set by the Foundation seem to encapsulate a selection of the most important responsibilities of OSDL and FSG, but with a slightly different angle. The organization will provide legal assistance and financial sponsorship to open-source developers, manage the Linux trademark, coordinate standardization efforts, and promote collaboration between its members to make Linux more competitive in the operating system market. In a press release issued yesterday, the organization says that it plans to provide “a comprehensive set of services to compete effectively with closed platforms.” Foundation chairman Jim Zemlin (formerly the executive director of FSG) says that “The Linux Foundation helps in the next stage of Linux growth by organizing the diverse companies and constituencies of the Linux ecosystem to promote, protect, and standardize Linux.” Some aspects of the Foundation’s agenda are distinctly competitive and reflect a desire to mobilize against anti-Linux campaigns orchestrated by companies like Microsoft and SCO. The Foundation hopes to serve “as a neutral spokesperson to advance the interests of Linux and respond with authority to competitors’ attacks.” A merger between OSDL and FSG seems like a practical way for both organizations to adapt to the realities of the modern Linux industry. The establishment of the Linux Foundation will hopefully enable OSDL and FSG to continue serving their traditional roles in a manner that is more appropriate for the current industry environment. With broad support from major industry players, the organization certainly seems to have the mindshare it needs to meet many of its goals.

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Ruckus Networks’ free, ad-supported college music service goes nationwide Ruckus Networks, which bills itself as the "premiere digital entertainment service for universities," has inked an agreement with the major record labels to offer free music downloads to college students in the US. The service will be ad-supported and open to anyone with a .edu e-mail address, although faculty, staff, and alumni will be charged $8.95 per month for the service. The tracks themselves will be DRMed WMP files; in other words, not iPod- or Zune-friendly. In addition, students will be restricted to listening to their free downloads at their PCs. The ability to move tracks to a PlaysForSure-compatible digital music player will cost students $4.99 per month. Along with the music, Ruckus also offers social networking features including shared playlists, message boards, and song recommendations. In order to launch the free service, Ruckus had to convince the record labels to lower their wholesale prices according to the New York Times. The labels went along, assuming that college students would rather download music from peer-to-peer networks or other sources than pay to get it from legitimate sources. "This is a major milestone for Ruckus, but much more importantly, for the growing community of college and university students and faculty we have been interacting with for the past three years," said Michael Bebel, president and CEO of Ruckus. "We look forward to providing the same great user experience with an incredible library of content, to an even greater number of users nationwide." Opening up the service to college students across the country marks the latest evolution in the Ruckus business model. Initially, the company charged universities to offer its music service, including a Ruckus server located on the campus network. That model had limited attraction for the schools, so Ruckus decided to stop charging them and rely solely on advertising while still requiring the installation of a Ruckus server on campus. Will the ready availability of free music catch the attention of college students nationwide? In its press release, Ruckus offers an enthusiastic quote from a Northeastern University student: "You can’t beat free when it comes to downloading music," according to Matt Hitch. "Lots of my friends at other schools always talk about how great the Ruckus service is, and I’m really happy I can use it now too. The Ruckus service has a great music library, it is easy to use and it’s going to get a lot more popular now that it is more widely available." Here’s a reality check for Ruckus and Hitch: students at Ruckus-enabled universities haven’t found the service very compelling. A semester-long trial of Ruckus’ free service at American University in 2005 bears this out. 41 percent of the students there said that American University should only offer Ruckus to those who opt in. Perhaps more telling, almost half the students didn’t even bother to use the service, despite the fact that it was free. Those results demonstrate that "free" is only half of the picture. Ruckus—and the record labels—are missing the other half of the picture, usability. What good is music—free or otherwise—that you can’t listen to where you want, how you want, and on the device of your choosing?

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iTunes DRM called out by France and Germany Apple is being challenged once again to open up its DRM by consumer groups in Europe. This time, Germany and France have joined the slowly-growing number of countries who are asking Apple to allow the protected songs purchased from the iTunes Store to be played on other music players besides the iPod. Norwegian Consumer Ombudsman Bjoern Erik Thon told the Associated Press that France’s consumer lobby group, UFC-Que Choisir, and Germany’s Verbraucherzentrale are now part of the European effort to push Apple into an open DRM system, with more countries considering joining the group. By now, everyone who owns a digital music player of any sort is painfully aware that buying music from a particular online store locks them into that platform. Apple, the current market leader in both online music and digital music player sales, has been particularly stubborn about allowing its protected AAC files to be played on anything but iPods. However, the company has been under some fire over the last year due to those restrictions, first with France and then Denmark looking to open up restrictive DRM schemes (including, but not limited to iTunes). Neither of those forced Apple to open up their FairPlay DRM, but last June, Norway ruled that the iTunes-iPod tie-in was unreasonable. Norway’s Consumer Ombudsman gave Apple a deadline of June 21, 2006 to come up with a solution, but the deadline then got pushed back to August 1, 2006. Norwegian consumer groups were unimpressed by Apple’s response. Norway has now given Apple a new deadline of September of this year to change its policies, and the pressure on Apple will likely grow in the months leading up to the deadline. "This is important because Germany and France are European giants. Germany, in particular, is a big market for digital music," Thon said to the AP. Who will be next to join the group and how will Apple respond to the growing pressure?

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Powering up the nerves Much of the activity of the nervous system is transmitted through axons, the long processes that extend out from a nerve cell's body and allow it to transmit information over long distances. In adult mammals, sensory axons may extend for meters, from the cell bodies near the spine out to the periphery of limbs, where they mediate the sensing of touch, heat, etc. Not surprisingly, given their great distance from the cell body, the ends of these axons need to act nearly independently of the control of anything happening in the cell body. The cell body can ship it raw materials, but the synapses at the far ends of the axons are otherwise on their own. That should provides enough background to understand some recent results pertaining to Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease. Despite the unusual name, CMT Disease is fairly common, affecting roughly one in 2500 people, in which it causes the loss of sense and muscle control in distal limbs. A number of causative mutations have been identified; in general, these affect the production of the myelin that insulates the axons, allowing electrical charges to travel down the nerves unhindered. But the most common mutations reside in the gene MFN2, which appears to have nothing to do with myelin. Instead, MFN2 is involved with controlling the behavior of the mitochondria, the organelles that provide most of the power for cellular functions. What goes wrong when MFN2 is mutated? The researchers put fluorescent tags on mitochondria in normal and MFN2 mutant cells, and found that the mutation caused the mitochondria to form large clusters of mitochondria. In nerve cells, these clusters of mitochondria did not migrate down the axon away from the cell body. The authors suggest that, in CMT Disease, the synapses at the far end of the axons never get enough mitochondria to supply a nearby energy source that's sufficient for them to perform their normal activity. As a result, the synapses fail, and disease results. In short, CMT Disease is the result of a broken shipping system within the axon.

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“Spam King” sued by MySpace MySpace has just filed suit against well-known spammer Scott Richter, operator of OptInRealBig.com. MySpace, which bills itself as a “leading lifestyle portal” that helps people make “a positive impact on the world,” is unhappy with Richter’s alleged spamming of its membership, and has filed a federal lawsuit against him in US District Court in Los Angeles. The suit alleges that Richter sent millions upon millions of “bulletins” to MySpace users between July and December 2006. These bulletins were hawking products like ringtones and polo shirts, and many were sent from accounts without the knowledge of the owner. MySpace claims that Richter got the account information through phishing then used the accounts to disguise the origin of his spam. MySpace hopes to bar Richter and any companies that he is affiliated with from ever using MySpace again. If history is any guide, though, the case won’t stop Richter’s activities, even if MySpace comes out victorious. Under a 2004 settlement with then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, Richter’s company paid a fine and agreed to a set of conditions, including these: They must retain and provide to the Attorney General detailed customer information and purchase records;They must retain and provide copies of all advertisements they send, all complaints they receive, and the names of all agents and employees;They are prohibited from using false identifying information when registering domain names;They are prohibited from deceptively routing e-mails through IP addresses that are not their own. These conditions made traditional e-mail spamming a bit more difficult, and then Microsoft got involved and wrangled a $7 million settlement from Richter. He pledged to clean up his act, and in fact was removed from Spamhaus’ ROKSO list of known spammers in 2005 after several months of good behavior. But can the leopard really change its spots? With the rise of MySpace, Richter and company apparently saw a new way of reaching millions of people without resorting to e-mail and without violating the court agreements he had signed to date, and MySpace claims that Richter has now returned to his old ways. Of course, if you’re a regular MySpace user, bulletin spam is one of the least horrifying things you’ll see on a daily basis.

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Google’s anti-phishing plugin leaked passwords A recent press release from web security provider Finjan Inc. has exposed a security flaw with Google’s anti-phishing browser extension for the Firefox web browser. Apparently, the extension accidentally gathered some users’ e-mail addresses and passwords. Finjan informed Google of the problem earlier this month before making their findings public, and Google has since released an updated version of their plugin that fixed the problem. How did an anti-phishing plugin wind up exposing user names and passwords to the general public? Google’s software used a public blacklist, available from Google’s servers, which listed sites that were fraudulently pretending to be banking or other financial institutions. Unfortunately, some of these sites embedded usernames and passwords directly into the URL—obviously phishing sites didn’t have concerns about security—and were thus viewable by anyone. The fix was a simple one and merely involved Google stripping out any user information from the URL before posting it to the blacklist site. Still, the fact that a tool designed to help stop online fraud could have accidentally revealed sensitive user information is somewhat disquieting, especially given the fact that many people reuse the same passwords for multiple sites. Finjan recommends that home users disable features found on many web toolbars that enable URL sharing or forwarding, although this would impact many of the latest “social software” utilities that have been popular with Web 2.0 fans. Also, they strongly suggest—and this is always good practice—that users should never use the same password for more than one site. Corporate users are told to use “proactive” protection for their web security solution, as antivirus and URL filtering software by themselves may not be enough.

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