Dial Zero
A look at what's surprising, silly, scary or stupid in telecommunications and data

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Verizon may get an iPhone, or an iPhone competitor

Some publications have suggested that Verizon is talking to Apple about making a version of the iPhone to run on Verizon's existing CDMA network. USA Today reported this in a story earlier this week, and the New York Times echoed it, even as it noted why this idea makes no sense. CDMA is essentially a US technology used by Verizon and Sprint. The rest of the world operates on a standard called GSM. That’s partly why Apple chose to work with AT&T (a GSM provider) in the first place.

What’s more, Verizon will begin upgrading next year from CDMA to a fourth-generation network using a different technology called LTE. It would be odd, at best, for Apple to invest in a CDMA phone that has limited distribution now and will work on a network that is being phased out in the next 12 to 18 months. In a recent earnings call, Apple COO Tim Cook noted that CDMA has a limited lifespan, and Verizon Chairman Ivan Seidenberg told The Wall Street Journal that he didn’t think Apple ever intended to make a CDMA phone.

Apple, as it negotiates with AT&T on an extension of the carrier’s iPhone exclusive, may be looking for some leverage by making a Verizon CDMA phone seem plausible.

There have also been reports that Apple and Verizon would be likely collaborators on a fourth-generation iPhone, made to work on the carrier’s LTE network, which will come online next year. This is pretty straightforward. When Apple creates a 4G/LTE phone, it will want the broadest global reach possible for it, and Verizon will be the largest LTE operator in the US.

The question is timing: Verizon only expects to reach 25 to 30 markets next year, so many analysts believe this 4G iPhone looks more likely for 2011 — which, coincidentally, is how long AT&T would have the current iPhone if it is able to extend its exclusive deal with Apple.

Verizon’s more intriguing discussions may not be about the iPhone, per se, but other devices in Apple’s pipeline, such as a multimedia device larger than the iPod touch. BusinessWeek first reported on this aspect of the discussions. People familiar with the discussions say it is in the early stages — and this, too, could be part of an Apple effort to wring concessions from AT&T in its renewed agreement on the iPhone. But one could imagine Verizon being especially excited about getting a new hit Apple device to itself.

Verizon doesn’t want the risk of attaching its fate to any single device, however iconic. That is one reason it has been building a deep partnership with Microsoft. The Wall Street Journal reported that Verizon has been working for several months on Pink, a Microsoft project to launch a touch-screen multimedia cellphone on Verizon early next year.

It would combine music and video functionality — which Microsoft has from its Zune player — along with other software that would form a new platform that extends Windows Mobile. The inclusion of the Windows Marketplace for Mobile, Microsoft’s new app store, is also likely.

This project is drawing on the new hardware and software expertise Microsoft has from acquiring Danger, which created the T-Mobile Sidekick. All of this might be too little too late with Apple having staked out such a lead with the iPhone, but it’s an ambitious new project. (info From The Wall Street Journal)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Arkansas Health Dep't phones are sick

Some telephone calls to the Arkansas Department of Health have been ringing through to non-governmental residential and cellular phone numbers as the department receives calls about swine flu.

Department spokeswoman Ann Wright said it appeared that the agency's call forwarding system wasn't working correctly. Many staffers have been working at an emergency operation center at the department's Little Rock headquarters, requiring them to leave their desks and work there. (info from The Associated Press)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cablevision new high-speed champ, beating FiOS

Cablevision plans to announce today the fastest Internet speeds available from any cable or phone company.

Starting May 11, the cableco will offer speeds of up to 101 megabits per second downstream throughout its service area, and 15 Mbps upstream. Cablevision has three million subscribers in the New York metro area.

Cablevision also plans to double the downstream speed of its Wi-Fi Internet service up to 3 Mbps for free. Cablevision offers wireless Internet at several Wi-Fi hotspots in New York's Long Island, Connecticut and Westchester service areas, and in parts of New Jersey.

Cablevision is competing against Verizon, which is rolling out its fiber-optic FiOs service in New York City. At present, Verizon's top Internet speed is 50 Mbps per second with a starting cost of $140 a month plus a free wireless router. Cablevision is offering its service at $99.95 a month.

The second fastest Internet speed offered by a cable operator is up to 60 Mbps from Charter Communications, but currently it's only available in the St. Louis area. (info from The Associated Press)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Apple will allow fake farts on iPhones, but not fake baby shaking

Apple removed a 99-cent iPhone game called "Baby Shaker" from its iTunes store Wednesday after its theme -- to quiet a crying baby with a vigorous shake -- prompted protest.

"Baby Shaker" displayed black-and-white line drawings of a baby. The iTunes description included the line, "See how long you can endure his or her adorable cries before you just have to find a way to quiet the baby down!" Once the iPhone owner finishes shaking the device, the on-screen baby is depicted with large red X's over its eyes to represent sleeping.

Public outcry came from organizations including the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome and the Sarah Jane Brain Foundation, condemning Apple for approving the game's sale.

The application was designed by Sikalosoft. "Baby Shaker" was deleted from its Web site Wednesday afternoon.

Apple spokeswoman Natalie Kerris said "Baby Shaker" went on sale Monday, and confirmed that Apple removed it Wednesday. She would not comment on why the program was initially approved for sale nor about how many people downloaded the game. Apple itself screens each iPhone application, a process some prospective iPhone application developers have complained can take weeks or months. Others have said Apple gives little feedback when it accepts or rejects a program.

Apple has rejected apps that let iPhone users throw virtual shoes at President George W. Bush or watch clips from the "South Park" cartoon. It has accepted numerous programs that simulate flatulence. (info from The Associated Press)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

District Attorney sued for going too far in fighting teen "sexters"

The practice of teens taking naked photos of themselves and sending them to friends via cellphones, called "sexting," has alarmed parents, school officials and prosecutors who fear the photos could end up on the Internet or in the hands of sexual predators. In a handful of cases, authorities have resorted to what one parent here called "the nuclear weapon of sex charges" -- child pornography.

But some legal experts say that in Wyoming County, Pa., District Attorney George Skumanick has expanded the definition of sexting to such an extent he could be setting a dangerous precedent. He has threatened to charge kids who appeared in photos, but who didn't send them, as well as at least one girl who was photographed wearing a bathing suit. One of the accused is 11 years old.

In a recent court session, photos of semi-nude or scantily clad teenage daughters were stacked before Skumanick as parents surrounded him. He said the images had been discovered on cellphones confiscated at the local high school. Parents were told they could either enlist their kids in an education program or have the teens face felony charges of child pornography. "We could have just arrested them but we didn't," said Skumanick.

"The whole tawdry episode seems to call for a little parental guidance and a pop-gun approach, not a Howitzer approach with a felony prosecution," said Louis Natali, a law professor at Temple University.

The sexting case in Tunkhannock, Pa. is being closely followed by juvenile justice authorities. Many prosecutors say pornography laws should be used to protect children from adults, not from other children. In some cases, teens could end up listed on sex registries if convicted of child pornography. Others say that if charges are made, they should be limited to kids who actually distribute the photos.

Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union and a group of parents sued Skumanick in federal court, alleging he violated the freedom-of-expression rights of three teenage girls. The ACLU also says that Skumanick is interfering with their parents' rights to raise them as they see fit. Skumanick says he plans to appeal and says he didn't have to offer the education courses as a way out. "We thought we were being progressive."

Some see Skumanick's alternative of offering classes as appealing. "You don't want to tag them with a scarlet letter for the rest of their life," says Shannon Edmonds, a staff attorney at the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, about charging teens with sex crimes.

Sexting came into the spotlight in this rural town, population 1,900, in October. A female student in the Tunkhannock High School cafeteria saw a boy scrolling through his cellphone and spotted a nude photo of herself, according to Skumanick. When the girl became upset, the school took the phone and called the police who, in turn, handed it to the district attorney's office.

Skumanick says he was troubled by the photo, and what worried him most was an incident in Ohio where the mother of a teenager blamed sexting for her daughter's suicide last year. The girl, Jessica Logan, had sent nude photos of herself to her boyfriend and later hanged herself after being harassed by schoolmates when the boy allegedly sent the images to his friends.

MaryJo Miller was dumbstruck when she opened a letter that said her daughter, Marissa, had been "identified in a police investigation involving the possession and/or dissemination of child pornography."

As Skumanick contemplated what to do, the school turned up several other phones with nude or semi-nude photos of students. One showed an image of a 17-year-old girl in a towel wrapped just below her breasts. The girl, who asked not to be identified, said she sent the photo to her boyfriend about a year ago to make him jealous when she heard he was interested in another girl.

Another confiscated phone had photos of a 17-year-old girl that she described in an interview as "semi-nude pictures, underwear and stuff like that." The girl, who took the photos herself, was debating whether to send them to her boyfriend when a teacher took the phone.

Skumanick thought he had enough evidence to charge them as juveniles on pornography violations -- not just for sending the photos, but for appearing in them, too.

With the help of school officials, Skumanick convened a series of assemblies, from fifth-graders to seniors. For the youngest students, he asked them to conjure how they would feel if their grandparents saw a photo of them that is "not nice." He warned the older students that sexting could damage their college or job prospects and could result in felony charges.

At one of the assemblies, a student interrupted and accused Skumanick of trying to ruin the teens' lives. "This isn't a debate," Skumanick told the senior boy, who was escorted out of the auditorium.

Skumanick also worked with area youth officials to offer the teens a class in lieu of charges. Patrick Rushton, education manager at the Wyoming County Victims Resource Center, culled course outlines for both boys and girls from educational Web sites on sexual harassment and violence. His curriculum included material on "what it means to be a girl in today's society" and a poem, "Phenomenal Women," by Maya Angelou.

On Feb. 5, with the course outline mostly in order, Skumanick sent a letter to parents of the students involved, saying their children had been "identified in a police investigation involving the possession and/or dissemination of child pornography." The letter summoned the parents to a Feb. 12 meeting at the Wyoming County Courthouse.

MaryJo Miller was dumbstruck when she opened her letter, which targeted her daughter, Marissa. Skumanick later told her he had a photo of Marissa that showed her from the waist up wearing a bra.

Marissa and her mother say the photo was snapped at a slumber party more than two years ago when Marissa was 12. Neither Marissa nor her mother knows how it got circulated but they don't see the photo as explicit. "It was like an old grandma bra. Nothing skimpy," says Marissa.

Marissa and her parents joined a group of about 50 others at the courthouse. Before showing the photos, Skumanick explained his offer to the crowd, answering one father's question affirmatively, that -- yes -- a girl in a bathing suit could be subjected to criminal charges because she was posed "provocatively."

Skumanick told them he could have simply charged the kids. Instead, he gave them two weeks to decide: take the class or face charges.

He then told the parents and teens to line up if they wanted to view the photos, which were printed out onto index cards. As the 17-year-old who took semi-nude self-portraits waited in line, she realized that Skumanick and other investigators had viewed the pictures. When the adults began to crowd around Skumanick, the 17-year-old worried they could see her photo and recalls she said, "I think the worst punishment is knowing that all you old guys saw me naked. I just think you guys are all just perverts."

Skumanick dismisses the criticism, saying that no one could see photos of teens who weren't their own children.

In the end, parents enrolled 14 teens in the course. But the parents of three other girls, including Marissa Miller, recruited the ACLU's help to sue Skumanick. At a hearing March 26, a federal judge indicated he thought the girls may be successful in their suit and temporarily blocked Skumanick from filing charges, pending a June hearing. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Friday, April 17, 2009

TXT MSG can save stolen car

A text-message to your stolen car, ordering it to shut down, is being heralded as a new way to thwart auto thefts. Engineering students at Canada's University of Saskatchewan say they have developed a program that integrates cellphone technology and the computer system on most cars.

Michael Siourounis and two classmates devised the system as a project for their senior-year studies. "You text your vehicle and inform it that it has been stolen," Siourounis explained. "It will actually initiate a sequence of events that causes the car's internal computers, that we don't modify at all, to think that the car has overheated."

Shae Pederson, one of the other engineering students on the project, said the first signal to the engine tells it to go into a limited power mode. Pederson said the reduced power provides a measure of safety to the driver.

"That 30 seconds gives them the time — the thief or whoever — time to pull over. And then after that it will shut the car down right away."

The next signal comes from the car back to the cellphone, the students said.

"Then an onboard GPS unit on our device texts you back the location of the vehicle," Siourounis said. "So then you can send the police to go recover it or go get it yourself," he added.

Siourounis said the prototype cost about $600, but expected the price would come down if it were commercialized. (info from CBC)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Moto accuses ex-CFO of destroying evidence against him

Motorola alleged in a court filing Wednesday that former Chief Financial Officer Paul Liska wiped his laptop and potentially destroyed evidence related to the pending wrongful termination lawsuit.

It's the latest shot in an increasingly ugly legal battle between the embattled cellphone maker and its former financial chief at a time when the company is trying to resurrect itself.

Motorola claims Mr. Liska has yet to provide an accounting of the documents he took, and requested the Circuit Court of Cook County, Ill., delay the discovery process until the court settles the issue. Liska's attorney declined to comment.

Liska questioned the rapidly changing financial forecasts for Motorola's troubled mobile devices business, which sank from a top-tier player to an also-ran over the last few years.

Motorola claims Liska was fired because he was "erratic, unprepared, abrasive, divisive -- and often simply absent and "unavailable.'" Back in February, the company said it replaced Mr. Liska because it had postponed the spinoff.

Moto is dealing with this drama even as co-Chief Executive Sanjay Jha attempts to orchestrate a comeback on the back of Google's Android mobile platform. Jha is attempting to turn around years of little innovation which turned its once flagship Razr phone into a bargain bin device.

With the recession and growth slowing in the cellphone business, Moto is getting squeezed. In the fourth quarter, its cellphone sales fell by half and it posted an operating loss of $595 million. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Mobile digital TV coming to NC

CBS affiliate television station WRAL announced that it will launch mobile digital television (DTV) broadcasts to consumers this summer, making Raleigh, N.C. the first US market to commercially deploy mobile DTV.

The station is working with technology vendors LG Electronics and Harris to create a system that will use WRAL's digital spectrum to deliver both linear programming and interactive data to Capital Area Transit buses serving passengers throughout the capital city. Beginning this summer, CAT bus passengers will be able to watch WRAL's programming throughout the day. Passengers will also get city-oriented news briefs, real-time weather and other information on digital screens in the buses.

That WRAL would be the first station to declare its plans is not surprising, as the station has long prided itself on being a technology vanguard: it launched the first commercial HDTV broadcasts in the US in July 1996, and began doing field tests of mobile DTV last summer.

LG is providing mobile DTV receivers, flat screen monitors and project development and support, while Harris is supplying its complete "MPH platform for ATSC Mobile DTV", InfoCaster digital signage systems and development and support services. Microspace Communications Corporation will provide wireless networking and digital signage system management, while Digital Recorders, Inc will provide integration of the communications systems on the CAT buses.

The first mobile DTV-capable bus in Raleigh is expected to be fully operational this summer, and additional buses will be equipped and rolled out over the next twelve months. (info from Boradcasting & Cable)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Burglars caught while homeowner watched them on webcam. One robber was a friendly neighbor.

Last October, burglars stole thousands of dollars in jewelry and rare coins from Jeanne Thomas's home in Boynton Beach, Florida. Then, other things began to disappear: a crock pot and the ice cream maker.

So, Thomas bought a video surveillance system to monitor her home while at work using a live video feed over the Internet. Her husband, Tony, thought she was nuts for spending $250 on the system, telling her she would never catch anyone.

Initially he was right. Mrs. Thomas would come home from work and watch hours of uneventful footage (though she did catch her dogs jumping on the sofa). She stopped watching for a while.

But on Wednesday morning, she logged onto the system from her office in Fort Lauderdale. "It was the strangest feeling," she said. "I had a feeling something wasn't right. When I went on, I saw a person standing in my house."

She quickly called 911.

Two men had broken into her home through a doggy door for her Golden Retriever. Thomas watched as the men wandered around her home and took her flat screen television, safe and a gaming machine. She described what she saw to the 911 dispatcher. "The cat is freaking out. The dogs are hiding."

One of the burglars took a bag of shredded cheese from the refrigerator and could be seen on the video stuffing cheese in his mouth.

None of them noticed the small camera that resembles an air freshener. "They walked right up to it and didn't know what it was," said Thomas.

The men kept walking in and out of her bedroom and could be seen taking her son's Wii system and other items from her home.

Thomas kept begging the dispatcher to send police. Within a few minutes, 18 officers from the Boynton Beach Police Department arrived and surrounded the house.

"You could see them on the video freaking out," said Thomas. "They darted around the house trying to figure out how to get out."

One of the men could be seen throwing down a bag that Thomas said was filled with jewelry and other valuables before fleeing the house. They were arrested as soon as they left the home.

According to Boynton Beach police, the men, Curtis Williams and Steven Morales, told police that two other men who were in a house down the street were also involved in the burglary. One of men in the house, Scott George, said he was waiting for the other men to finish the burglary and was going to help load the stolen items into his truck and drive away. He told police exactly what items they were looking to steal.

The fourth burglar was identified as Jonathan Cruz, a neighbor. Thomas said she has known Cruz since he was 8 years old and remembers him helping with neigborhood Easter egg hunts. Her husband would often give him rides to school when he was younger. As an adult, he would wave hello. Thomas never suspected he was involved with the first burglary.

All four men confessed to the burglary. They were charged with burglary and attempted grand theft and taken to jail.

The system now seems like the best investment Thomas made and hopes this will be a lesson for burglars. "You never know who is watching you," she said. (info from Palm Beach Post)

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Alltel Spinoff Windstream Sues Alltel Owner Verizon

Arkansas telco Windstream sued Verizon Wireless last week, accusing Verizon of overcharging it $7 million for calls connected through its network.

According to the complaint, Windstream is disputing the charges incurred when customers of other telcos call Alltel customers using Windstream’s networks, i.e., “transit traffic.” Those charges have been lumped in with what the complaint calls “legitimate traffic,” or calls directly from Windstream to Alltel subscribers.

“Since 2006, Windstream received monthly invoices from Alltel (the ‘Invoices’). The Invoices should contain billings solely for Legitimate Traffic,” the complaint says. Windstream says it has paid the invoices but is now seeking damages to recoup the $7 million it says it was overcharged.

What gives the lawsuit an Oedipal aspect is that Windstream is the landline phone company spun off from Alltel, a wireless company now owned by Verizon. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Monday, April 06, 2009

ISPs face Fed fight

Telcos and Cablecos are preparing for a fight as regulators begin work Wednesday on a national broadband strategy that could bring major changes to how Internet services are delivered to American homes.

The $787 billion government stimulus package requires the FCC to provide a plan for how potentially billions of future taxpayer dollars should be spent to build or upgrade Internet access across the US.

The agency will map out how the US can ensure that every American not only has access to broadband, but has service that runs much faster than what's available today. It will also look at how to update policies that haven't kept pace with the way Americans get phone, cable TV and Internet services in their homes.

Implicit in the review is that the federal government plans to invest more money in broadband infrastructure than the $7.2 billion promised through the economic-stimulus plan. Rules for how companies can apply for those stimulus funds are expected in the next month or so.

The FCC plans to examine issues ranging from how to define faster, next-generation broadband to what sort of rules should be applied to guarantee delivery of Internet traffic. It will examine competition between Internet-service providers and what can be done to provide incentives for building broadband infrastructure.

The FCC is required to turn in its plan next February, and will begin Wednesday by opening up the issue for comment.

The plan will raise thorny issues about what sort of requirements, if any, should be imposed on Internet-service providers to share the networks they have built with government help. Phone and cable companies argue that such requirements would likely stifle investment and be counterproductive.

Phone and cable companies, which provide a vast majority of the Internet access in the US, plan to lobby the agency and Congress to ensure that the FCC's plan doesn't require more stringent rules, particularly on how they manage their networks.

Internet-service providers want to control their systems so that big users don't hog bandwidth and slow service for others. But consumers and companies that want to offer services such as online video don't want those services blocked or hobbled.

Future federal funding for expanding broadband access likely would come through changes to the Universal Service Fund, a $7 billion annual program designed to subsidize phone service in rural areas and to low-income Americans. The Obama administration says the fund should provide money for broadband, not just phone service. But any changes to the program are sure to be controversial; rural phone and wireless companies could receive significantly less revenue from the fund if changes are made. Stimulus funding, meanwhile, is an important first step to getting broadband out to more areas where there is little or no Internet service. Most of the $7.2 billion set aside for high-speed Internet in the stimulus plan will have been spent before the FCC produces its wider plan for how the US. should invest in broadband. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Like Y2K, 4/1/09 was no big deal

Back in the 1990s many tech experts predicted that when the calendar showed the first day of the year 2000, computers would choke, elevators would halt, credit cards wouldn't work, phones wouldn't ring and maybe rockets wouldn't launch.

In reality, 1/1/00 was pretty much the same as 12/31/99.

April 1 of 2009, a much-hyped date when a sophisticated computer virus was set to potentially cause havoc, came and went without incident.

The Conficker computer virus, which has infected several million computers since November, was programmed to seek new instructions beginning Wednesday. That triggered speculation about what would happen, leading to media reports that Conficker could launch a massive cyber attack or do something similarly nefarious.

But security experts said there had been no Conficker-related activity. So far, Conficker has done "nothing," said Alfred Huger, vice president of engineering at computer-security company Symantec Corp. The non-event raised criticisms that efforts to use Conficker to spread awareness of cyber threats spun out of hand.

"It's really complicated and media outlets have a hard time understanding it," said Rick Wesson, chief executive of security company Support Intelligence LLC. Mr. Wesson has called Conficker a "digital Pearl Harbor."

On Wednesday, he said that he used that language to get people "to wake up" to the threat posed by cyber criminals, which aren't as obvious as threats in the physical world.

The hype around Conficker picked up in January after a self-proclaimed cabal formed to hunt down the virus's creator. It reached a new level in February, when Microsoft Corp. offered a $250,000 reward.

"In the post mortem of all of this, we're hoping this is an incident where we raised awareness of a very serious issue and that this wasn't crying wolf," said Jose Nazario, manager of security research at Arbor Networks Inc., a member of the cabal.

Security researchers say Conficker is more sophisticated than most viruses and they caution it could still cause trouble. But ultimately, Conficker will most likely be used for the same criminal purposes as other viruses. Security experts add that consumers who have up-to-date antivirus software are at little risk from Conficker and that most businesses deal with similar threats every week. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Panasonic lawyers lose April Fools' fight

April Fooler Michael N. Marcus Rejects Panasonic Gag Order, Urges People to Attend Free Speech Rally at Patrick Henry Memorial in Virginia

Michael N. Marcus is an author, businessman and April Fooler. Born in April, Marcus says April Fools' Day and Halloween are his favorite holidays. For nearly ten years, he's "pranked" electronics manufacturer Panasonic in early April, but this year his perennial victim has gotten tough, and has threatened court action to block the pranking. Marcus remains defiant despite the threat.

Marcus is president of AbleComm, Inc., a Connecticut-based supplier of telecommunications equipment. The company's main phone system brand is Panasonic. Marcus said, "I also own some Panasonic stock, and I review Panasonic electronic products on my GottaGet1 blog. I have a lot of respect for the company, but that doesn't mean I can't have some fun with it."

Marcus continued, "Since the mid 1990s, I've distributed an April Fools' news report about a mythical press conference that took place at a non-existent hotel, where fake people announced fake corporate policy changes and fake new products. For those who were in on it, It became an eagerly awaited annual tradition. Lots of people love my spoofs, but gullible victims, of course, don't. Some of my fake news has actually become real news in later years."

The annual custom reached a new height in April, 2008. Marcus realized that the public and the news media were becoming increasingly sophisticated and skeptical of "news" distributed with a 4/1 date. So, to enhance credibility, he skipped the first of the month and distributed a spoof two days later.

Early on April 3, 2008 he launched a 90%-false press release. The press release contained several revelations, but the most important was that Panasonic would be manufacturing cellphones with plasma video displays. A few months earlier Panasonic demonstrated the world's largest plasma TV, so Marcus decided they should also have the smallest.

Through very lucky timing, a few days before the "news" went out, AT&T had announced their Mobile TV service for watching shows and sports on cellphones, which added usefulness and legitimacy to the fictitious device.

Within a few hours, the story was picked up and published by websites around the world. Many news writers added original material to demonstrate their extensive knowledge of the phony subject; but only one of them called Marcus to check on the story, and Marcus told him that it was a spoof.

Mobileburn.com was particularly fanciful in enhancing the fake news. They said "Panasonic took the stage at CTIA 2008 this week with partner AbleComm to announce that it has been working with AT&T to develop plasma displays for mobile phones, for use with the carrier's new Mobile TV service." There was absolutely nothing in the news release about an appearance at the CTIA event or Panasonic "working with AT&T.".

Crunchgear.com had a headline that read, "AT&T wants Panasonic to develop plasma screens for cellphones." The news release never said that, and neither did AT&T.

Some people at Panasonic laughed as expected, but some, particularly new employees who were unaware of the tradition, were upset. One outraged exec sent an email saying that Marcus caused "people to lose thousands of productive working hours." Panasonic demanded that the news distribution service that Marcus had used issue a retraction -- and this added fuel to the fire.

The retraction generated more coverage of the fake news, and personal insults, Marcus explained. "Several websites that received the retraction accused me of forgetting what day it was. One critic with dubious credentials said it was a "late, poorly executed April Fools' joke," and another called me an April Idiot. Actually it was not late, and it was extremely well executed, and my mother didn't have any stupid kids."

"There's certainly no rule that limits hoaxing to one day per year," Marcus continued. "No one who was filmed for TV's Candid Camera on 3/20 or 10/15 objected because it wasn't 4/1. Similarly the celebrities who were victims on the MTV show Punk'd may have grumbled, but not because they were not punked on the first day of the fourth month. And the subjects of "Stuttering John" interviews on The Howard Stern Show didn't check the date before deciding to participate."

Many of the websites that ran the news of the retraction, but had not run the original fake news, ran it with the retraction, thus increasing the circulation and readership of the spoof.

Some victims were complimentary.

Dailytech.com said, "Yesterday AbleComm sent out a press release that was all very believable talking about how Panasonic was going to be using small plasma displays in a mobile phone designed to be used on the new AT&T Mobile TV service launching in May. The release was professional, interesting and all very plausible replete with quotes from Panasonic and all. It didn't take long before the story was all around the internet…"

Some websites were actually suspicious of the retraction. Phonemag.com said it "Looks like someone let the plasma cat out of the proverbial bag too soon, and is now desperately backtracking to try to salvage a business relationship. It's unclear whether this was a deliberate or accidental occurrence, though the release was sizable and contained multiple quotes from all the parties involved which lends weight to the idea that it was an authentic document prematurely distributed."

In anticipation of another April Fools "attack" this year, Panasonic's law firm Katz, Honigman, Shapiro and Flynn sent a registered letter to Marcus last week warning him against further spoofing. The attorneys told Marcus that "unless you agree to restrain yourself, Panasonic will go to Court to obtain a restraining order against you."

Years earlier, Panasonic's in-house legal department had warned Marcus not to contact the then-new head of Panasonic's Business Telephone Systems division, and Marcus refused to obey.

Now in 2009, Marcus is once again making a stand for freedom of speech and freedom of fun.

He said, "It's ridiculous that the company that I have invested my money in, and that makes products that I sell and recommend, will spend money and time merely because they have no sense of humor. I will not be silenced. I will not obey a "gag order" even if they convince a court to issue one. We are living in dark times, and Panasonic and the rest of the world need to lighten up."

"Freedom of speech is a fundamental part of American culture," Marcus emphasized. "In 1791 it was guaranteed in the very first Amendment of the U. S. Constitution. Even earlier, in 1215, free speech was included in the British Magna Carta, and the caliph Umar incorporated free speech as part of Islamic law in the 7th century."

Marcus invites all supporters of free speech, both serious and spurious, to gather on April 1 at 2:00 p.m. at the Patrick Henry National Memorial in Virginia, about 35 miles south of Lynchburg.

Patrick Henry is known for his immortal words supporting the American Revolution in 1775: "I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!" The rally will take place at the Orator's Stage, near Henry's grave and law office. All attendees will be allowed five minutes each to address the audience on any topic. While there will be no censorship, Marcus urges that speakers "keep it clean" because there will probably be children in the audience. The address is 1250 Red Hill Road, Brookneal, VA 24528.

Marcus noted, "My former spoof victims and passive co-conspirators have been eagerly waiting to see what I would devise for this year. I won't let them down and will not be intimidated by lawyers. I'm reminded of what John Belushi said in his Bluto Blutarski role in Animal House: "Over? Did you say 'over'? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!"

The merry prankster proclaimed, "I proudly reiterate the defiant words of Bluto Blutarsky. I say to Panasonic and to its uptight attorneys, Hell no!"

"It's time they realize that pranks, spoofs and put-ons are part of normal American life, and should be responded to with a smile, not an injunction," Marcus concluded. "Besides, most people know not to believe anything they read on the first day of April."

Michael N. Marcus is author of the recently published I Only Flunk My Brightest Students: stories from school and real life, Phone Systems & Phones for Small Business & Home, and The AbleComm Guide to Phone Systems, all available at Amazon.com and BarnesAndNoble.com.

(Patrick Henry painting by George Matthews from the U. S. Senate website. Michael N. Marcus photo by Cloe Poisson. © 2008 The Hartford Courant.)