August 2001

Real World
Web-wide World
Wired World
Wireless World
Hard World
Soft World

Real World

  • According to recent reports on a ministerial conference in Beijing, China has come up with a ten-year plan that will make IT a compulsory subject for some children as young as five. Another target is to have ninety percent of schools wired up to the Internet by the year 2010.

    However, a report in PC Pro this month also states that the number of Chinese getting online is currently slowing. This is seen as a response partly to high ISP (Internet Service Provider) charges, and partly to an increasingly hardline approach by the state to sites with banned content: "...the authorities are known to scan for blacklisted words such as Taiwan and Tibet..."
  • A Physics professor at the University of Virginia has reported around 100 cases of suspected plagiarism, after writing a program to compare all submitted papers against current and old papers. The program was set up to flag matches of strings six or more words long, and to raise a query on papers giving matches on five hundred or more words (so presumably someone, somewhere is now writing a program to automatically modify papers to defeat these criteria...).

Web-Wide World

  • *FOCUS*

    Pre-release versions of Windows XP (Windows' next generation operating system) contained a technology called 'Smart Tags'. This technology converts certain words in a downloaded web page into hyperlinks.

    For example, suppose that you downloaded into your browser a webpage containing the words "the Siamese is a grey cat with blue eyes". If 'cat' was a target word for the Smart Tags functionality, each instance of this word could be made a hyperlink to www.supercats.com (say). In principle, if you were unaware of the operation of Smart Tags, you might never know that the page sent to you didn't originally have this link.

    Microsoft has since decided to pull Smart Tags from the initial release of Windows XP (although it is included with Microsoft Office XP). The removal of Smart Tags from XP seems in part to have been in response to widescale hostility from websites owners, complaining that their content was being hijacked. Things weren't improved, of course, by the fact that the hyperlinks Smart Tags added were to Microsoft-approved sites.

    The general idea behind Smart Tags, however, isn't just being exploited by Microsoft. Recently we have heard of 'Top Text' and 'Gator', which operate on much the same principle.

    'Top Text', developed by Ezula, operates exactly like Smart Tags in that it replaces target words with links. These target words are purchased by advertisers, who use them to link to appropriate pages on their sites. Sneakily, Top Text is installed onto a PC when the user installs an entirely different product called KaZaa, a peer-to-peer file sharing program similar to Napster.

    'Gator', the product of the company Gater.com, offers various functionality to the web surfer, providing price comparisons, automated form-filling, etc. However, like Top Text and Smart Tags it also tampers with the content of web pages - in this case by replacing banner advertising with adverts of its own.

    One of the main lines of criticism levelled at these products has been that they in some way infringe the intellectual property rights of the owner of the website that is being amended. But it is not clear to what extent this criticism is justifiable.

    Consider the following as an analogy. In my house I have various text-books, in which I tend to scribble notes and references. It seems unintuitive to think that in doing this I have infringed the author's rights - such rights typically relate to the receiving and issuing of copies of works, not to what befalls the individual copies. But applications like Smart Tags are in a similar position. They just add notes and amendments to local copies of information.

    This suggests that applications like Smart Tags shouldn't be criticised on the broad principle proposed. But of course these applications can be criticised in other ways. In particular, they can be criticised for doing what they do without one's explicit consent.
  • In an unusual case heard by WIPO (the World Intellectual Property Organisation), an individual has been allowed to retain possession of the domain 'armani.com' even after the clothing design giant Armani attempted to gain control of it. The reason for the individual's success is simple: his name is Anand Ramnath Mani (A.R.Mani), and unlike the numerous scammers who have changed their names by deed poll for just such purposes, Mr Mani has extensive proof of his life-long moniker. At present there is no site up at www.armani.com, but we await its coming eagerly.
  • One of the reasons that a lot of the dot-coms died in the last year was a drop in their advertising revenue. Surviving giants like Yahoo are also suffering from this malaise (although if you use Yahoo you'll note that it is now stuffing in ads wherever it can find a few free pixels). But as we have noted before, this does not mean that the amount of advertising on the web is decreasing. In fact all of the marketing pundits suggest that e-advertising is still showing strong growth.

    What explains this apparent contradiction? One point is this: the Internet is growing faster than the the expenditure on advertising. Hence on average there is less revenue available for any given website to tap into. Another point is that the advertising market is dynamic, and swayed by trends. So while there are going to be losers - like Yahoo - there are also going to be winners. Such winners include the excellent, but austere search-engine Google, which this month admitted that it has been in profit for the last two quarters.
  • Things aren't looking very good for 'online currency' sites, at the moment. The most high profile of them - Beenz - ceased trading on the 26th of this month, and the gift-certificate purveyor Flooz has just announced that it is to file for bankruptcy. One of the reasons for the latter's demise is thought to be a 300,000 USD (United States Dollar) credit card scam perpetrated by Russian and East European crooks.

Wired World

  • The Financial Times has been reporting this month that NTL and Telewest have long-term plans to merge, which would create a single, giant cable company. In the short term, the two companies are running a joint marketing campaign in favour of broadband, and are reportedly considering jointly purchasing their set-top boxes from manufacturers.
  • This month's media virus of choice has turned out to be an even damper squib than Code Red (for a sarcastic look at the Code Red hype read http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/55/20908.html). Even worse, it doesn't even have a cool name. The so-called 'Win32.Invalid.A@mm worm' is borne by an email that purports to be from Microsoft, containing a patch against another, ficticious worm. When the attachment is run, the usual unpleasant things happen to your executable files, and the worm emails itself off to your friends and family. Or at least, it did until recently. Unfortunately, the worm was designed to use a particular mail server on the Internet, and this mail server has now been secured against it.
  • There's a fairly interesting - if very long - discussion-list conversation on SlashDot about a current spamming situation (http://slashdot.org/articles/01/08/31/012255.shtml). It seems that an ISP in America tried to cut off a commercial spammer 'MonsterHut', but was unable to because MonsterHut has been granted a restraining order pending a judicial review of the case. The discussion covers the various aspects of this case, and more general points about spamming.
  • Verisign, the company that ultimately controls the registration of .com domains, has been flipping back and forth on plans to release 'dropped' domains (ie. domains given up by their original owner). Because certain domain registrars were overwhelming the registration system in order to obtain particularly lucrative dropped domains, Verisign first decided to stop releasing any dropped domains, but has now decided to release a huge batch using a new system. A very readable account of all this activity can be found at http://www.ecommercebase.com/article/540 (this is the fifth article in the series - links to the previous four can be found at the bottom of the page).

Wireless World

  • Internet consultants Gartner are warning that inadequate security on wireless networks is already leaving lots of business open to attack. There are a number of reasons why wireless networks may be more vulnerable than wired networks. Firstly, hackers may be able to access the networks without getting into company buildings. Secondly, the encryption on some wireless networks is a little weak. Thirdly, employees frustrated by their IT department's sluggishness are apparently taking things into their own hands and installing them themselves (without configuring them correctly, natch).

Hard World

  • The totemic 2GHz Pentium 4 processor was released this month, and it is expected that we'll see 999UKP (United Kingdom Pound)machines - albeit otherwise very basic ones - sporting the chip fairly soon. If you're looking for a 999UKP machine, however, then the Athlon 1.4GHz chip still offers the best value for performance, especially after AMD recently dropped its recommended prices drastically.

Soft World

  • The 'gold code' of Windows XP, Microsoft's new operating system release, was finalised this month. Even the finalisation of the code was milked by Microsoft for maximum publicity, so expect wall-to-wall nonsense when it comes to the final launch date on October 25th (if you can't work out how many days that is from now, there's a helpful countdown on the Microsoft site at http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/).

    Generally speaking, XP is designed to combine the stability of Windows 2000 with the user-friendliness of Windows 98. With the stability issue its main selling point, Microsoft is trying hard to find a way to say that XP is a drastic improvement over 98 without implying that 98 was drastically worse than XP.

    Note that if you're planning to upgrade to XP - especially if you're going to use Office XP on top of it - your system will probably need at least a 400MHz chip with 128MB of RAM. Due to the bloatedness (ahem, 'increased feature set') of XP, Windows now requires a bigger engine to go at the same speed.
  • A quick but blatant plug for our website: a series of 20 lessons on Microsoft's new programming language C# can now be found on our website here: http://www.softsteel.co.uk/tutorials/csharp/index.php.

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