Short Takes: Week of May 5

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Advanced "Athens" PC to Debut Next Week
Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard (HP) will unveil a new prototype PC design, code-named Athens, next week at the Windows Hardware Engineering (WinHEC) trade show in New Orleans. The Athens PC is designed as a platform for collaboration and communications, and it sports advanced voice, video, and text message capabilities, the companies say. The Athens PC will debut at Bill Gates' WinHEC keynote and then be touted in press briefings over the course of the week. I'll have more info about this design soon.

Rambus Faces Antitrust Investigation
Oft-reviled memory maker Rambus has found another detractor: The federal government, whose Federal Trade Commission (FTC) this week began its antitrust case against the company. The FTC says that Rambus deceived competitors and partners into adopting its RAM design in order to illegally gain a monopoly in key computer chip technologies. As a result, Rambus is set up to earn billions of dollars in undeserved fees, the FTC says. "Rambus seeks to cling to a potential fortune in royalties that it acquired not through competition, but through deception," FTC Deputy Competition Director Sean Royall told a federal judge this week. Rambus says it simply wants fair compensation for its inventions, but here's what really happened: After patenting its RDRAM memory type in the mid-1990's, Rambus joined an industry standards body that was working to standardize a then-new memory type called SDRAM. Armed with knowledge of the discussions about the competing memory type, Rambus secretly began applying for patents that covered technology used by SDRAM. After SDRAM, and not RDRAM, took off in the market, Rambus started approaching SDRAM makers about royalties. And now, unsurprisingly, here they are in court. I've never liked Rambus for various reasons (their RDRAM has always been over-priced and offered questionable performance), but these secret tactics make the company seem even more appalling. Shame.

Microsoft Preps Passport Upgrade
This summer, Microsoft will unleash a new version of its Passport Internet authentication system that exposes Passport's functionality as XML-based Web services. Currently, Passport uses old-world Web technology like cookies, HTML Redirect and Javascript to handle authentication automation, but the new version will use Web services standards like WS-Security, which offers encryption and digital signature functionality. And by exposing Passport functionality as XML, developers will be able to seamlessly integrate applications and services with Passport authentication, a process that was possible, but more difficult, in the past. Furthermore, developers will no longer need to worry about security and user identification issues when dealing with Passport. The new Passport version will also signal the arrival of Trustbridge, Microsoft's upcoming authentication server that will let enterprises bind internal users on Active Directory with Internet-based authentication schemes like Passport and with other enterprises on different networks.

US Lawmakers Take on Spam Crusade
Our buddies in the US government have finally turned their attention to the growing spam menace, with two lawmakers announcing this week that they will introduce tough anti-spam laws. Why the sudden desire to fight spam with legislation? "You've got people with higher visibility now complaining about all this unwanted email, and that's what it took," says Montana senator Conrad Burns. Joining Burns is Oregon senator Ron Wyden, who says spam has reached a "critical mass" and believes that Congress could pass anti-spam legislation this year. Meanwhile, in Virginia, Governor Mark Warner recently signed into law two bills that make that state's laws against spam the toughest in the country (which, frankly, wasn't difficult). Now, Virginia can seize the assets of spammers if they are convicted of sending misleading spam to consumers. However it all shakes down, one thing is clear: We need to do something about spam, and we need to do it now. It's nice to see some legal stirrings.

Apple is Developing Windows iTunes
As numerous readers have pointed out, a job posting on monster.com seems to indicate that Apple will indeed develop a Windows version of iTunes, the digital audio management tool Apple supplies for free to Mac OS X users. The question now, of course, is whether the Windows iTunes version will offer all the functionality of the Mac version, or if Apple will limit the product to simply accessing the iTunes Music Store and playing back the downloaded music. I hope it's the former and not the latter: Apple iTunes is one of the most elegant media players around, though it's gotten bloated and more complicated as Apple's added features over time. Still, it's simpler than most, and should provide decent competition for Windows Media Player if Apple does it right and gives it away for free.

Microsoft Antitrust Problems Not Over in Europe
Microsoft's never-ending antitrust problems are continuing in Europe, with senior European Union (EU) official stating this week that the software giant has yet to resolve concerns the EU has about the way the company does business in Europe. Indeed, Philip Lowe, who runs the European Commission's competition division, says Microsoft would have already faced a "negative decision" if the company had not agreed to talks. Europe, you may recall, is investigating charges that Microsoft's server and media player software violate antitrust laws there, and apparently they do, or this investigation would have ended years ago. Originally slated for completion by August 2002, the Microsoft investigation has apparently spiraled out of control, and now EU regulators say they don't know when it will all end. If found guilty of violating European antitrust laws, Microsoft could be fined up to 10 percent of its global annual sales, a figure that would exceed $3 billion. This leads me to believe that the company will eventually agree to a few concessions.

IBM Debuts First Itanium Server
Once derided as the "Itanic," Intel's 64-bit Itanium family is suddenly on a roll, and this week IBM announced the release of its first Itanium 2 server product, the eServer x450. This machine sports up to 16 Itanium 2 (or, interestingly, 32-bit Xeon) processors and the new PCI-X bus technology. IBM offers the system with Windows Server 2003, naturally, but the most interesting feature might be its support for both 32-bit and 64-bit architectures. "Intel and IBM are excited to continue working together to deliver highly scalable platforms for both 32-bit and 64-bit applications," says Mike Fister, the senior vice president and general manager of the Enterprise Platforms Group at Intel. "The eServer x450 is ready for customers to deploy now and also provides ISVs a key industry reference platform for application development and tuning. Platforms based on the Intel Itanium 2 processor deliver outstanding performance, reliability and scalability with added costs savings."

HP Debuts First XP 64-Bit Workstation
This week, HP announced the volume availability of the first-ever Intel Itanium 2-based workstations running Microsoft Windows XP 64-Bit Edition Version 2003. HP is offering two designs, the HP Workstation zx2000 and Workstation zx6000, which offer support for 1 and 2 processors, respectively; and 8 and 24 GB of RAM, respectively. As Microsoft notes, Windows XP 64-Bit Edition Version 2003 is a high performance platform enabling the next generation of powerful Windows-based applications for Itanium 2 workstations. The platform is designed to address the most demanding engineering, scientific, and digital content creation applications. And it's priced to match: The HP workstations s

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