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Windows Azure, Microsoft's cloud computing platform, weathered a series of outages this week. (Reuters)

Windows Azure outage: Leap year was to blame, Microsoft says

By Matthew Shaer / 03.01.12

At around 9 in the evening on Tuesday, a series of outages roiled Windows Azure, a popular cloud computing platform run by Microsoft. According to the Register, the blackouts continued well into the next day, with some users reporting problems as recently as Wednesday evening. It was a "meltdown," to borrow the terminology of one popular tech blog. 

Now, Microsoft says it has sussed out the source of the problem – and it all has to do with the wonky 2012 calendar. 

"While final root cause analysis is in progress, this issue appears to be due to a time calculation that was incorrect for the leap year," Bill Laing, a Microsoft executive, wrote on the Azure blog yesterday afternoon. "Once we discovered the issue we immediately took steps to protect customer services that were already up and running, and began creating a fix for the issue." 

Laing acknowledged that "some sub-regions and customers are still experiencing issues," but he said Microsoft was working to address the problem. As of yesterday, Azure service had been restored to the "majority" of customers, Laing added. 

Not that all users were easily comforted. IDG highlights today a series of complaints on the Azure forum, including this one, from an especially dyspeptic customer: "I can't imagine the damage this has done to companies with large scale customers. I mean we have chosen Windows Azure due to the redundancy... How can we explain this to our customers?"

As Charles Babcock of Information Week noted, the outages also served as further evidence of the occasional instability of the cloud.  

"This incident is a reminder that the best practices of cloud computing operations are still a work in progress, not an established science. And while prevention is better than cure, infrastructure-as-a-service operators may not know everything they need to about these large-scale environment," Babcock wrote. 

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Apple is expected to unveil the iPad 3 at an event in San Francisco next week. Here, the iPad 2. (Reuters)

iPad 3: Will Apple unveil an 8GB edition of its popular tablet?

By Matthew Shaer / 03.01.12

Next week, at a press event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in San Francisco, Apple will almost definitely take the wraps off a new iPad. Smart money is on a top-flight tablet with improved cameras, more powerful processors, and a high-resolution "Retina Display."

But according to one source, Apple is also prepping a bargain-priced 8GB iPad 3, which would compete with devices such as the Kindle Fire and Barnes and Noble Nook Tablet

RELATED: 20 iPhone tips and tricks everyone should know

Apple currently sells three versions of the iPad 2: a 16GB unit for $499; a 32GB unit for $599; and a 64GB unit for $699.

Beginning with the iPad 3, Apple will shift course, eliminating the 64GB tablet and introducing an 8GB iteration. So says the Taiwanese newspaper DigiTimes, which has published a report this week alleging that Apple will also roll out an 8GB iPad, in order to "cover different segments and to defend against Windows 8-based tablet PCs." 

There is no confirmation from Apple; DigiTimes, a source of much Apple gossip, says the scuttlebutt comes from sources in Apple's "upstream supply chain." So yes, we take the whole thing with a grain of salt. All will be revealed next week. But it's certainly worth noting that the Kindle Fire, which is priced at a very accessible $200, has sold well for Amazon – already, a Kindle Fire 2 may be on the way.

Apple would be remiss if only kept its eye on the top reaches of the tablet market. Right? Drop us a line in the comments section, and let us know what you think. And for more tech news, follow us on Twitter @venturenaut

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Microsoft launched a consumer preview of Windows 8 today. Here, a Microsoft store in San Diego. (Microsoft )

Windows 8 launches in preview mode

By Matthew Shaer / 02.29.12

Microsoft today took the wraps off Windows 8, the latest iteration of its popular operating system, and the first to be designed as a cross-platform OS – on traditional desktops, laptops, and on tablets. Users interested in getting a sneak peek of the OS, which will likely launch later in 2012, can navigate to this page, and download a preview version of the software. 

"[The preview] represents a work in progress, and some things will change before the final release," Microsoft's Kent Walter wrote in a blog post today. "This means you’ll encounter some hiccups and bugs. One of the great things about widely releasing a preview like this is that it gives us a chance to get a lot of feedback through telemetry, forums, and blog posts on where we can smooth out some of the rough edges."

Windows 8 has been described as a mash-up of "Windows Phone, iPad and traditional desktop Windows." The OS features the Metro interface, a tiled-layout intended to appeal to users accustomed to uncluttered smartphone and tablet screens. Microsoft clearly hopes Windows 8 will appeal to a fresh generation of users. 

Of course, as Edward C. Baig notes at USA Today, "the stakes for Microsoft and the entire computing ecosystem are enormous. This new era is built around tablets as much as traditional laptops and desktops, and multi-touch as much as the keyboard and mouse. At the same time Microsoft marches toward Windows 8, archrival Apple is revving up a new version of Mac OS X called Mountain Lion," Baig adds

Like Windows 8, Mountain Lion, scheduled for launch this summer, incorporates several features from the mobile sphere. Among them: a "Game Center" and a new "Messages" program – an app that appeared first on the Apple iPhone. In other words, both Mountain Lion and Windows 8 demonstrate the increasing convergence of mobile and desktop operating systems – a trend likely to continue apace for next few years. 

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Google's new privacy policies go into effect this week. (Reuters)

Google privacy changes go live tomorrow

By Matthew Shaer / 02.29.12

On Thursday, Google will enact its new, streamlined terms of service and privacy policy, which the search giant said would make for "a simpler, more intuitive Google experience."

The trade-off: Google will now collect and compile user data from all of its services, in order to provide what it calls improved search results. 

The catch: Users can't opt-out of the new policy (although, Hayley Tsukayama points out today at the Washington Post, users can simply choose not to sign into Google before entering information into search fields). 

"The result," Doug Gross notes over at CNN, "encapsulates perhaps the most basic conundrum of the modern Web. More information means better service (and potentially, more targeted advertisements). But that service (in this case more accurate search results, more interesting ads and new features that work across multiple sites) requires you to give up some of your privacy in return." 

Privacy – it's been a sticking point since Google first announced the new changes, back in January. Competitors such as Microsoft were quick to pile on, as were politicians. "The lack of opt-out means users cannot pick and choose which data they want integrated into their Google profiles," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, noted at the time. 

This week, on the eve of the implementation of the new privacy policy, Google is under attack from a French agency called CNIL, or Commission nationale de l'informatique et des libertés. As PC World reports, CNIL, an independent organization, has sent a letter to Google CEO Larry Page, complaining that the new terms of service do not adequately explain how Google plans to use the personal information it collects. 

CNIL asked Google to hold fire on the new policy until the organization has a chance to vet it; Google has refused, writes Mark Hachman of PC World.

For more information on how the new policies will affect you, check out this post at the official Google blog, and keep your eye on Horizons for further updates.  

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The iPad 3 will likely be unveiled at any event in San Francisco, on March 7. Here, a customer tries out an iPad 2 at a store in China. (Reuters)

Apple schedules iPad event for March 7

By Matthew Shaer / 02.28.12

Apple sent out invitations to the likely unveiling of its iPad 3. The event arrives a week from Wednesday. 

The company has issued a limited number of invitations for a private event in San Francisco on March 7. "We have something you really need to see. And touch," the invitation reads. That's a pretty vague description, of course, and Apple has not officially confirmed the launch of a new iPad. Still, the rumors have reached fever pitch, and the timing is right: Apple, which updates its big products every year, last unveiled a new tablet in March of 2011. 

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Also, the invitation has a giant picture of a touch screen, and the familiar glossy black of the iPad frame, so we can all be reasonably sure that Apple isn't planning on introducing a new laptop. (Interestingly, there is plenty of speculation that Apple may be planning to introduce both the iPad 3 and a new Apple TV, possibly with Siri capabilities. But those rumors are a little murkier – take them with a grain of salt.) 

What kind of features will be included on the new iPad, you ask? More powerful innards, probably, along with a better set of cameras. And almost definitely a better screen – odds-on favorite being the same high-resolution "Retina Display" used in the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S. Meanwhile, over at Macworld, Lex Friedman and Dan Moren have forecast a price cut on the iPad 2, which currently starts at $499. 

"A discounted iPad 2 still might not get as cheap as the Kindle Fire," Friedman and Moren write, "but a $300 iPad 2 with limited storage space might look awfully appealing to folks over any of the numerous, interchangeable, and bland tablet competitors in the market."

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Eric Schmidt speaks at the Mobile World Congress in Spain this week. (Reuters)

Eric Schmidt: Google hoping for an Android 'in every pocket'

By Matthew Shaer / 02.28.12

Google chairmen Eric Schmidt says 2012 will be the year of the Android

Speaking at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Schmidt told attendees that Google was now activating 850,000 Android handsets a day – so fast, Schmidt joked, that "we’ll need to produce more people soon." Schmidt added that "if Google gets it right, there will be an Android in every pocket, according to Ingrid Lunden of TechCrunch, who was on hand for the event. 

As recently as December, Google was activating 700,000 Android devices a day, up from half a million in June and 400,000 in May. At some point, of course, the number of activations is going to hit a terminal velocity. So what happens then? Well, Schmidt said, manufacturers will produce cheaper devices, in an attempt to open up whole new markets. 

"Next year's $100 phone is this year's $400 phone," Schmidt said (hat tip to CNET for the quote). "Many people are working on [smartphones] in the $100 to $150 range. When you get to the $70 point you get to a huge new market."

That huge new market would presumably comprise folks in the developing world – or in the US – who previously balked at the $200 price tag on most modern smartphones – a $200 that does not include the price of a two-year data and voice contract. This plays into why Google started Android in the first place. In 2007, the company introduced its cellphone operating system has a way to excite Americans – but also to prepare for the next billion Internet users, people that would not use Google through a computer because they could not afford a computer. 

Android! Everywhere! All the time! That's the idea behind a pair of new Google goggles, allegedly bound for shelves in the US by the end of the year. As we noted last week, Google is said to be prepping a pair of augmented reality, Android-powered glasses, which would allow users to receive real-time information on their surroundings. 

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Laptop encryption has been the subject of several recent court rulings involving defendants' Fifth Amendment rights. Pictured, Drake University student Srikant Mikkilineni (who is not part of these cases) stands with his laptop in the school's law library. (Charlie Niebergall/AP)

Encrypt your computer, get out of jail free? Not quite.

By Jeff Ward Bailey / 02.27.12

It's common these days for prosecutors to use the contents of computer hard drives as evidence in cases involving financial and computer crimes. Take the copyright cases from the early 2000s, for example, when the RIAA showed that defendants had downloaded songs to their computers without paying. But last week, the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit set a precedent that could make it harder for the government to prosecute based on electronic evidence in certain cases.

In a nutshell, the court ruled that decrypting the contents of a hard drive can, under certain circumstances, amount to giving testimony. Since the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution protects against self-incrimination, the court concluded, defendants can't be forced to decrypt hard drives to provide potentially incriminating evidence against themselves -- unless prosecutors can prove beforehand that they know what's on the drives. (In theory, government hackers could still attempt to gain access on their own, but well-encrypted drives can take decades to break through brute force.)

In this case, the defendant -- referred to as John Doe -- was suspected of possessing child pornography and compelled to testify before a grand jury in exchange for immunity. The prosecutors had seized encrypted hard drives belonging to Doe, and ordered him to decrypt the drives as part of his testimony. He was told, however, that his immunity did not cover the use of evidence against him. In other words, he could still have been charged based on what was on the hard drives.

Doe refused, invoking his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, and was put in prison for eight months for contempt of court. The Circuit Court's ruling vindicates Doe's actions, reverses the lower court's decision to hold him in contempt, and confirms that it would be unlawful to force him to decrypt the hard drives.

There's an important distinction to be aware of here: in Doe's case the prosecutors didn't know what, if any, data, was stored on the seven disks. Thus, the court concluded, Doe's compliance in decrypting the drives would be akin to giving testimony against himself in court. The full verdict includes this line: "We conclude that the decryption and production would be tantamount to testimony by Doe of his knowledge of the existence and location of potentially incriminating files; of his possession, control, and access to the encrypted portions of the drives; and of his capability to decrypt the files."

Things would be different if the prosecutors knew for sure what information on the drives and whether it was authentic. In that case, decrypting the files would be the equivalent of handing over a key to a safe, which is not covered by the Fifth Amendment. An example of the latter case occurred just a few days earlier in US v. Fricosu, when a judge ordered the defendant in a bank fraud case to decrypt her laptop computer so that prosecutors could use its contents as evidence against her.

It's important to note that the outcome of the Doe case doesn't mean that criminals can escape prosecution in all cases just by encrypting digital evidence. If prosecutors can show that they have an idea of what's on a drive, as they did in the Fricosu case, a court can still demand that the drive be unlocked and the contents used as evidence. But in murkier circumstances, defendants can't be required to incriminate themselves by decrypting a drive.

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Nokia is the top Windows Phone 7 vendor in the world, according to a new report. Here, a line of Nokia phones. (Reuters)

Nokia now No. 1 vendor of Windows Phone 7. Will its gamble pay off?

By Matthew Shaer / 02.24.12

Late last year, Nokia took the wraps off the Lumia 710 and Lumia 800, the first two Nokia handsets to run the Windows Phone 7 operating system – and the first fruits of the much ballyhooed relationship between Nokia and Microsoft.

Today comes news that just a couple months later, Nokia is already the largest Windows Phone 7 vendor in the world, topping former title-holder HTC. 

According to Strategy Analytics, 2.7 million Windows Phone handsets were shipped globally in the fourth quarter of last year, a 36 percent from the quarter before. Of those 2.7 million handsets, 900,000 were sold by Nokia, giving the Finland-based company a 33 percent share of the overall Windows Phone market.

Translation: More Windows Phone devices are shipping, and more of them are being shipped by Nokia. 

"An expanded portfolio of Windows Phone 7 models, such as the Lumia 800, an increased retail presence and highly visible marketing campaigns across several European and Asian countries drove Nokia's growth," Strategy Analytics exec Neil Mawston said in a press release this week (hat tip to CNET for the quote). 

About a year ago, Microsoft and Nokia announced their plan to team-up on a range of new smartphones – Microsoft would develop the software, and Nokia would manufacture the handsets. Over at TechCrunch, Matt Burns sees the relationship as shaping up nicely. 

"[T]his as much about Microsoft as it is Nokia. The partnership is nearly perfect. Microsoft knows software and Nokia knows hardware. Take the Zune: fantastic software hampered by just average hardware that had limited market distribution," Burns writes today. "Likewise, the Nokia N8 is one of the finest phones I’ve ever felt but the Symbian OS made it unsellable."

Separate, Burns adds, "these two companies were being pushed out of the mobile race. But together, they’re a major force."

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According to a new rumor, Apple may alter the loading dock on its next iPhone. Here, the iPhone 4S. (Reuters)

iPhone 5 could get smaller dock: report

By Matthew Shaer / 02.24.12

The white cord and 30-pin dock: They've been a fixture on the Apple iPhone since the launch of the first-generation device, in 2007. But according to the tech site iMore, Apple is considered ditching the old dock, and replacing it with a smaller connector, which would purportedly debut on the iPhone 5 – a handset expected to launch later in 2012. 

The reason for the purported change-up, Rene Ritchie of iMore writes, "isn’t anything political, like a new desire to conform to an outdated micro-USB standard, but typically Apple: to save space inside the iPhone 5 for what are now more important components." Not that the current dock connector takes up gads of space. But in a relatively slim handset like the iPhone, every inch and ounce counts. 

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iMore, of course, does not specify the source of the rumor – presumably it came from somewhere up the Apple supply chain. And Apple is staying mum. Still, the gossip provides some interesting grounds for speculation: What if Apple does ditch the current dock, in favor of what Ritchie calls a "micro dock"? As Adrian Kingsley-Hughes of ZD Net notes, it could alter the entire Apple eco-system. 

"[Y]ou might be thinking that Apple won’t do this because it would make a whole raft of accessories obsolete," he writes. "Well, yes, but you can never guarantee that an accessory built for one device will work on a new device anyway, so this is a moot point. It might make it harder for manufacturers to who make things like docks because they’re have to somehow cater for two different connectors, but again that’s not an insurmountable problem." 

In related news, buzz around the next iPad – presumably called the iPad 3 – continues to ripple across the tech press this week. It's a good bet that the next Apple slate will have a "retina display," a better processor, and maybe even 4G support. But it probably won't look a whole lot different than the current iPad 2: images recently posted by MacRumors show a very familiar casing and frame. 

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The FCC is worried that Lightsquared's network would interfere with GPS devices. Here, Del. Joel May (left) and Del. Scott Surovell discuss a bill that would regulate GPS tracking devices. (Bob Brown / Richmond Times-Dispatch / AP)

Lightsquared: what happened, what's next, and why it matters

By / 02.23.12

It would have been a stirring success story: an upstart company building its own wireless network to compete with telecom giants Verizon and AT&T. But things aren't looking great for Lightsquared.

The company's plan was to build a wholesale 4G network -- a system that would bring fast Internet access to the entire United States -- using a combination of land-based towers and satellites. The company has already launched a satellite into orbit, paid for frequency to be used for the project, and even struck a $65 million deal with Sprint to build and operate its network for the next 15 years.

Now, a technical hiccup could bring it all to a halt.

It turns out that the frequencies on which Lightsquared would build its network bump up against those currently used by many consumer GPS devices. The portions of the spectrum are close enough, in fact, that this week the FCC rejected Lightsquared's application to build its network, saying that it would cause "irrevocable issues" with GPS equipment.

Let's back up for a second and look at how "the spectrum" works. Radio signals -- including wireless data -- can be broadcast only across a finite amount of the electromagnetic spectrum. The FCC (and equivalent departments in other countries) makes sure that services such as TV, cell phones, and GPS don't interfere with each other by occupying overlapping portions of the spectrum. In this case, Lightsquared and GPS manufacturers share adjacent (but not overlapping) portions of the spectrum. So what's the problem? The FCC states that in practice, the airwaves are close enough that Lightsquared's network would interfere with some GPS devices.

Lightsquared isn't going down without a fight, however. According to the Wall Street Journal, it's looking to strike a deal with the Department of Defense, which owns a portion of the spectrum farther away from GPS signals. An LTE network on those frequencies wouldn't cause any interference with GPS. But for the deal to work, Lightsquared and the DoD would basically have to swap frequencies -- and the DoD hasn't given any indication that it's interested in trading. If the deal falls through, Lightsquared will have to look elsewhere -- or to try to sell off its spectrum.

Readers, what's your take on Lightsquared? Do you think the DoD will bite -- or balk -- at the proposed deal? Will a wholesale 4G network ever get off the ground? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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