Features

Quick change

National | Technology

Issue: "Darwin's meltdown," April 3, 2004

Quick change

Forget that word Gigahertz when thinking of a computer chip's power. That's what microchip makers want people to do as their marketers play down that once-dominant statistic.

Intel, following competitor AMD, will no longer name its new processors according to speed. Whether a chip runs at 3 GHz or 10 GHz, the number will be included as one feature among many.

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For nearly a quarter-century, processor speeds, computed first in megahertz (MHz) and then gigahertz (GHz), were the unquestioned equivalent of the batting average in baseball or the SAT among college applicants. To determine a model's capabilities, users first looked at the key standardized metric.

But speed is no longer most users' top priority. Features like wireless connectivity, DVD editing, and portability are now greater concerns. While users once considered PCs obsolete after three years, some people may keep a machine running twice that long before feeling they are behind the times.

Not long ago, a slower computer was noticeably weaker and less flexible than speedier, more expensive models. Today, the typical PC sells with a processor running 2 GHz or more, which is more than enough power to run most software. Only certain tasks-like compiling software code or encoding video-need the extra boost.

Mario's revenge

MICROsoft won the antitrust war in America, yet faces humiliation from a little-known overseas bureaucrat. Mario Monti, the European Union's competition commissioner, won member nations' backing for a potentially massive fine after negotiations to avert sanctions collapsed.

Mr. Monti's agency can fine antitrust violators as much as 10 percent of annual global revenue-and Microsoft expects to take in nearly $36 billion this fiscal year. So far, the panel has never dealt punishments this large; the current record was a $568 million judgment against Roche Holding, which it accused of fixing vitamin prices.

Yet an anti-corporate, anti-Microsoft, and perhaps anti-American atmosphere could lead to a historic penalty.

The charges against Microsoft are not likely to merit much concern from the typical PC user. Critics say the software giant used its monopoly power to push Windows Media Player, the multimedia software that is part of its operating system, and gain market share for its network server software. Last year, EU officials also started investigating charges that the company wants to break into the instant-messaging and mobile-phone businesses.

The battle over Media Player is also spreading to the United States. Competitor Realnetworks sued Microsoft for allegedly monopolizing digital media. Microsoft is also waiting for a U.S. appeals court to decide whether the sanctions in its antitrust settlement were adequate. The company also promises to cooperate with Japanese authorities who raided its branch offices on suspicion of antitrust violations.

Bits and megabytes

Critics of electronic voting bought full-page newspaper ads demanding a paper trail for November's ballots in Maryland and Florida, two states that intend to use the controversial technology. The manufacturer asserts that paper records are possible (since every unit includes a printer), but also insists that its e-voting computers are safe and have never recorded a single inaccurate vote.

Google's dominance of internet searches may startle even its biggest fans: Three-quarters of all U.S.-based queries last December used the company's database. The figure, reported by comScore Media Metrix, includes those sent directly through google.com or from other sites that integrate Google's index-which lists nearly 4.3 billion web links-on their own pages. Yahoo and Microsoft, now underdogs in the market, are looking for ways to make their search engines more useful and amiable.

AOL launched a bill-paying service last month that connects to 2,500 utilities, credit-card issuers, and other companies. It doesn't process any transactions; instead it points users to the biller's own online payment system. Subscribers can user their AOL ID for their accounts and get due date reminders in their e-mail.

Sony will launch a "personalized radio service" this spring that lets users legally download songs and news updates on their cell phones and PDAs. Subscribers will be able to hear streaming music stations-or pay about a dollar per track to select their favorites from a library of up to 500,000 songs. Sony claims the sound quality will be like that of an FM radio station.

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