Strange New World: Tech Picks of the Week

As banks turn borrowers away, cyberspace doles out loans.

ByJONATHAN BLUM and DAN EVANS

June 20, 2008 — -- Our trip this week through this strange new world of ours has brought us a brand new Web browser, news of the future of satellite radio and a new way to get a loan without a bank. And, no, we're not talking about the Mob. Here are our picks of the week.

There has been real progress in social lending sites and, considering the credit crisis, we think it's a particularly good time to cover this innovative end of the Web. Social lending is a classic Web concept, circa 1999: The idea was that lenders and borrowers would find one another online and that borrowing money could be accomplished at favorable rates and without all the stupid bank fees and fancy suits. But complexities in getting the system to work and a lack of money kept the system from running properly.

But, apparently, not anymore. It seems like there are plenty of these social lending sites out there. And we will keep the news here simple: Considering that Alan Greenspan might have trouble getting a loan these days, it's interesting to see that one part of the credit business actually works. Web sites like LendingClub, Zopa, Wesabe and Fynanz all specialize in peer-to-peer lending and may be the place to turn if the banks won't help you.

Last week, Federal Communications Commission chief Kevin Martin announced he was satisfied that the $3.8-billion merger of the country's only two satellite radio companies, XM and Sirius, would be in the public interest. While this does not guarantee that the merger will be approved, it's now going to be a close vote.

There are five members on the committee and at least two of the other commissioners have been against the merger from the beginning. XM and Sirius have pledged to provide 24 channels of minority programming and non-commercial programming and freeze their prices for three years. But will that be enough to sway the committee? If this merger does not happen, many experts are predicting that satellite radio may have tough times ahead.

OK, people, if you're still using Internet Explorer, it's time to change. Mozilla has just released the latest version of its uber-popular Firefox browser and it is great. There hasn't been much of a face lift from a visual standpoint, but the back end is great. In fact, they worked on it for three years and fixed more than 15,000 bugs.

What you will immediately notice is the way the browser is automatically able to figure out where you are headed, based on your browsing history. It does this by using what Mozilla's phenomenologist Mike Beltzner has coined "frecency" — a combination of frequency and recentness — to determine the best suggestions. The search bar is now resizable and you can divvy the space between the location and search bar. The best part of Firefox is all of the customizable extensions you can use. For example, we downloaded Speed Dial, which lets you have your nine favorite sites thumbnailed on your home page at start up.

We really like the browser but apparently we're not the only ones. In the first 24 hours of its release, the new Firefox was downloaded 8.3 million times. Mozilla says it is checking with the Guinness Book folks to see if this is a world record.

Jonathan Blum and Dan Evans co-host "Strange New World," a weekly syndicated radio show. Blum hosts the blog Blumsday.com and Evans is a features editor at PC Magazine.

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