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The prospect of billions of dollars in online advertising revenue? It makes strange bedfellows.

Joining others lobbying to cram ads into the spaces between TV channels, Google and Microsoft are advising on a massive US database that will list nationally available TV frequencies.

The world's largest software and search companies Wednesday announced the formation of the White Spaces Database Group with PC and broadcasting hardware and services specialists Dell, Hewlett Packard, Motorola, Comsearch, and NeuStar.

The consortium will offer "perspectives, and some specific recommendations, about the technical requirements we would like to see adopted for the database," Google said.

Google said it would advocate that the white spaces database use open and non-proprietary data formats and that administration of the database be "open and non exclusive". Google added: "We don't plan to become a database administrator ourselves".

Microsoft said it too is committed to the use of "open and non-proprietary data formats" as this is a principle of the group as a whole. That's a surprise, as the company's track record in information and data technology has been around proprietary databases and once-closed document formats.

The united front could have its limits, though, and the coming months will test the companies’ level of commitment to their high principles.

The White Spaces Database Group comes after months of concerted lobbying of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) by Microsoft, Google, and the other companies to make unused TV frequencies - white spaces - available for internet access by PCs and other devices.

The effort has pitted Microsoft, Google, and Co. against powerful interests, in the form of the broadcasting giants NBC and Fox and country music icon Dolly Parton. They claimed devices using white spaces could interfere with reception of their TV programs and other wireless gadgets.

The FCC last November ruled against broadcasters and said it would open up white spaces, but in a concession to their concerns, it stipulated the need for an online database that devices accessing the spectrum must read in order to find out what channels they are allowed to use. The database should be built and run by a third party and will be selected through a "public process."

A database is essential owing to the fact TV white spaces use different frequencies in different locations. In New York, for instance, channel four is used by a TV station and channel six is white space. But in Connecticut, channel four is a white space and channel six is used for TV.

Typically, when it comes to lobbying around government contracts and procurement on a grand scale like this, IT vendors push their own product agendas. For example, in the case of government use on personal productivity and access to information in the past, Microsoft has pressed hard for the use of Windows and Office, while almost everyone else has advocated Linux, OpenOffice, and the Open Document Format (ODF).

It'll be a test as to whether the group can resist the fault lines of Windows versus Linux and open architectures that are not just favored by Google but are also supported in the PC world on servers from HP and Dell.

Microsoft will likely do everything it can to ensure Windows is used, as its corporate belief is in Windows all the way. For Google, it will be a point of principle to keep the system open. Also, while Microsoft is no slouch on databases and data warehousing with SQL Server, Google has experience in databases thanks to its Bigtable technology.

The hardware providers will be less committed, although the broadcasting market Motorola serves has a habit of going against Windows while Dell and HP can support both Windows and Linux on their servers and through consulting.

NeuStar and Comsearch are likely to be the database operators, so the pick of database technology could - potentially - come down to them.

It'll be interesting to see how battle lines are drawn within the group, and whether a united front is maintained externally or whether two groups of lobbyists begin to emerge - one advocating Windows and the other "open" systems - to influence the FCC bureaucrats.

Obviously, there’s a lot of passion and a certain amount of liberal application associated with the word "open." For example, Microsoft has claimed its Office Open XML used in its Office software is "open," but it's not been adopted by IBM, Red Hat, Novell, and others who believe ODF is the one, true XML document standard, because of the way it's architected and been developed.

Given the fundamentally differing philosophies of the software and web giants involved, and the fact that the database is a key part of the FCC's ruling, there's a very real prospect that should unity break down and divisions emerge, the entire white spaces initiative could hit a wall or be scaled back unless there's a compromise.

How far this happens will depend on how focused everyone is on those online ad dollars. ®

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