Internet phone service may soon explode across the country. A federal judge earlier this month barred state officials in Minnesota from forcing upstart Internet phone company Vonage to pay the same taxes and public-service "obligations" as local carriers. The ruling means Internet phone companies can continue to offer unlimited calling plans for around $30 to $40 a month.
The ruling comes as Comcast and Time Warner plan to roll out Internet phone service to their cable modem users in the coming months. New York's Cablevision Systems offers unlimited local and long-distance service on Long Island for about $35 a month. Traditional phone companies are responding with lower prices and flat-rate plans.
Subscribers to Internet phone services can use ordinary landline phones, but their calls are sent as data "packets" and transmitted like e-mail or Web pages. Internet phone providers add one controversial feature: the option of picking any area code. A user in Texas can have a phone number that's local to Alaska or California, for example. Some complain that this can mess up 911 systems and give con artists an easy tool. c
MICHAEL ROBERTSON WANTS to smash windows, but he's not a vandal-unless you ask Bill Gates. The dot-com millionaire who created the "Lindows" operating system is waging a guerrilla marketing war against Microsoft.
Lindows is a variant of Linux aimed at nontechnical users, and it sells for $49.95 on the Lindows.com site. Basic PCs with the software pre-installed sell for about $200. But Lindows has become known more for Mr. Robertson's war with Microsoft than for its affordability.
Mr. Robertson, for instance, is funding a $100,000 hacking contest against Microsoft's XBox. The winner will be the user who first gets the game machine to run Linux by circumventing Xbox's built-in security system.
Mr. Robertson's Lindows.com insulted Microsoft further by setting up a website that offers to process claims from a $1.1 billion settlement of a class-action lawsuit against Microsoft in California. Microsoft called the site deceptive and demanded that Mr. Robertson take it down, but he loudly refused.
Microsoft, meanwhile, took the San Diegobased startup to court, claiming the name "Lindows" is too close to its Windows trademark. A federal jury in Seattle will hear the complaint later this year.
Lindows is trying to reach a nontechnical public that wouldn't normally use anything but Windows. It needs publicity, and Mr. Robertson generates a lot. But the public will decide whether Lindows can ever be a serious competitor to Windows. c
BITS & MEGABYTES
Sony plans a new Playstation next year that offers much more than the latest video games. The new PSX system combines a TV tuner, DVD player, digital photo album, music player, and a
TiVo-like video recorder. Sony bills the device as an all-in-one home entertainment center that plugs into an ordinary TV.
Polaroid, still smarting from the downfall of the instant photo business, wants to bounce back from bankruptcy with new digital processing kiosks. The company says it offers a faster, more convenient way to print photos from digital cameras. Polaroid's new photo printers can spit out a 4-by-6-inch print every two seconds-and the technology will eventually be available for home use.
Nokia wants to know why two mobile telephones caught fire in the Netherlands. Engineers will look at battery problems that may have led to burns on a woman's face and a boy's leg injury. Nokia also warned customers not to use batteries from other manufacturers.
Apple's new version of Mac OS X, nicknamed Panther, promises faster file searching and an easy new way to see all open windows. Steve Jobs, Apple's CEO, pledged more than 150 new features to its operating system (which is due out this week) and said competitors will take years to catch up. This addition includes better security, simpler font management, a new videoconferencing program, and improved spam filtering.
Microsoft plans to make Windows more hacker-proof with a major update early next year. The software giant says this free upgrade will reduce the tricks that attackers use to harm computers. The service pack will combine all previously released patches into one simple bundle.