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What people want?

National | Ford pushes diesel fuel, the music industry pushes DVDs, and states push for stripped-down Windows

Issue: "Welfare to work," March 16, 2002

Cleaner cars
Diesel fuel may have a reputation for being noisy and dirty, but Ford wants to sell diesel-powered cars-for the sake of the environment. The automaker's chief operating officer, Nick Scheele, says newer diesel engines offer high fuel efficiency and will help deal with supposed global warming. Whether Americans want to use the fuel is another question. Mr. Scheele said that diesel engines today are cleaner than previous models that spewed black smoke and gave off a strong odor, although they still have a high sulfur content and particulate emission. That's what makes environmentalists and some state governments skeptical of the fuel. Strict California environmental laws may keep diesel out of the mainstream. Mr. Scheele said the state's strict air-quality regulations keep automakers from producing diesel-powered cars. While federal regulators generally support diesel, environmentalists oppose it. Even if consumers accept diesel cars, they may find the fuel expensive and difficult to find. Some industry watchers worry that diesel fuel may be in short supply later this decade as new EPA standards take effect. Sulfur content in diesel is to be strictly capped by 2006, and refiners may cut down on the fuel to avoid the hassle. But in spite of the debate, American consumers seem to have little interest in any alternative fuel systems. While electric and national gas systems have received much research and discussion, they have yet to become mainstream. For example, Bloomberg reports that Honda sells less than 1,000 natural gas Civics annually. Cleaner audio
Ready to replace your CDs? DVD Audio has some believing that the familiar discs will go the way of LP records and 8-track tapes. The new format promises higher highs, lower lows, and better surround sound. Panasonic claims the new DVD-Audio format will do to music what regular DVD did for movies. It boasts better quality without the "clean" sound that many say detracts from digital recordings. "Now for the first time it sounds like what we're doing in the studio," said Elliot Scheiner, a recording engineer working with Panasonic. DVD Audio uses discs that resemble a compact disc or the DVDs that play movies. Since DVDs hold seven times as much data as CDs, they can carry more music and additional channels of music for high-end sound systems. Home stereo equipment that plays DVD Audio is available for $300 and up, though only about 200 titles are available. Unfortunately, most standard DVD players can't play DVD Audio because the format is so new. Panasonic says that automakers may start using DVD Audio as a factory-installed option within 18 months. When compact discs arrived in the early 1980s, they were an expensive audiophile phenomenon, but quickly caught on due to their small size and quality. By the end of the decade, the LP record was en route to extinction and CDs were displacing compact cassette as the portable format of choice. The development helped the music industry because fans bought new copies of their favorite albums. Now DVD Audio faces the competition of music that is passed around for free over the Internet. Cleaner Windows
Microsoft's antitrust battle with the federal government may be over, but an old nemesis hasn't given up the fight. Nine states are still waging a legal war against the software giant, and Stephen D. Houck, the attorney who was once the top courtroom lawyer for the states, said he is now working part-time on the case for free. According to court documents, he made a surprise appearance last month to interview Jim Allchin, Microsoft's top Windows executive. Mr. Houck now practices with a private firm in New York and claims he doesn't represent any Microsoft rivals. Microsoft continues to oppose efforts to force the company to sell its Windows software without its Web browser, Internet Explorer. "Forget about any business thing," said Mr. Allchin in a videotaped deposition. "Technically I just couldn't do it." The states say that if they win, Microsoft would only be forced to make one stripped-down version of Windows. They also demand that the operating system include the Java programming language, a move Microsoft officials called too expensive. As Microsoft continues its fight, lawyers from both the company and the Justice Department defended their settlement before U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, who can approve or reject the deal. The agreement would prohibit Microsoft from punishing partners who use non-Microsoft products, require it to disclose some of its software blueprints so other developers can make compatible software, and allow consumers to more easily remove nonessential Windows features.

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