Features

Who let the dogs out?

National | Sony unleashes a computer pup; computer titans keep their eyes on Linux; what's in Napster's future?

Issue: "President Bush?," Nov. 18, 2000

Robopooch
At least paper training will come easier: Sony plans to unleash a robot dog name Aibo this month. He packs a built-in camera and voice recognition, enabling him to "respond" to his own name. Aibo is equipped for touch, sight, hearing, and balance, and learns behavior patterns over time: He'll raise his paw when owners call for him or sit on command. Aibo is already a fad in Japan, where a previous model sold out quickly. Sony programmed it to fool owners into thinking the dog thinks for itself as it performs random, programmed movements. The robot becomes more active or passive depending on how much attention it receives. Aibo also comes with an on-board calendar to remember his owner's birthday. A camera helps keep it from bumping into walls and takes pictures on command, which are stored on a detachable memory stick. Sony is quick to remind people that the dog may dance for you, but he won't fetch your slippers. This is still a toy, not a motorized servant out of science fiction. "We do not intend to develop slaves to do some work," Sony Corp. executive vice president Toshi Doi told the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo. Still, Aibo is more complex than Poo-chi and other comparatively inexpensive computerized dogs on the market. Even though few can afford such an expensive toy, Sony released Aibo partly to show the public the future of electronics. The company compares this to the early days of the Walkman. Over time, the technology will become more complex. In a few years, your toddler may be carrying on a spirited conversation with his teddy bear. Linux: Will other users flock to techie playground?
Not long ago industry hype touted the Linux computer operating system as the free software that would smash Microsoft Windows' hold on the world's PCs. The buzz has died down, but the product's spread continues. Linux's programming instructions are open to the public (it's "open-source" software), allowing any smart techie to tweak it. This makes Linux forever a work in progress. Linux software's advocates claim the program is more stable and crashes less often than Microsoft's operating system. Detractors say it is a user-unfriendly nightmare that runs far fewer software packages than Windows. Some members of high tech's Old Guard are building a Linux lab where programmers can test software on large computer systems. IBM, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, and NEC have pledged several million dollars to build the Open Source Development Lab near Portland, Ore. This move lets the big corporations keep an eye on the latest Linux developments and possibly influence its future. Last month Microsoft placed a small bet involving the upstart operating system. It bought a $135 million slice of Corel Corp., a Canadian firm known for WordPerfect, which has a big stake in Linux development. Together they will work together to develop applications based on Microsoft's new .NET strategy, which is supposed to move software off the hard drive and onto the Internet. Bill Gates & Co. will probably not be doing much with Linux anytime soon. Unlike the work at Microsoft and Apple, Linux development is done to meet the needs of techies, not necessarily users. For Linux to spread far and wide, it needs more than a reputation for stability. Unless people find it easier to use than Windows and Mac OS, they won't switch. Napster: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em
Napster, the website industry critics deride as a massive music piracy scheme, may have walked the plank: The people behind the controversial music-trading software cut a deal with Bertelsmann, one of the corporate giants that was suing it for copyright infringement. The estimated 38 million users may soon see a whole new Napster. According to the plan, Bertelsmann's BMG music division will help turn Napster from a free-for-all into a new membership-based distribution system that will guarantee payments to artists. The record company will drop out of the lawsuit once the new system starts. Now Napster's future is more of a mystery than ever. The company is still waiting for a a federal appeals court ruling on whether it can continue operating pending trial in a suit filed by Bertelsmann, along with Sony, Warner, EMI, and Universal. Napster currently works on a setup known as peer-to-peer. You put some of your favorite songs in a directory on your hard drive, and then fire up the Napster software. Other people can download your picks from your system while you find new additions to your own collection. This world of easy distribution was supposed to help groups unsigned to record labels, yet the lion's share of the traffic is already released hits. If Napster manages to wriggle out of its suit, it could survive as a smaller service that could pitch itself as the Internet's answer to MTV. Those who want to download music without paying for it aren't limited to Napster. Various other pieces of software let people grab MP3 files from one another. Since the principle behind them, file sharing, is basic to the Internet, they aren't likely to be easily banned. The major record labels are trying to hold on to billions of dollars in music rights that they see threatened by college students on university networks. Even if Napster switches sides, the war won't be over.

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