December 2001

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

Real World

  • Last month we covered the US Department of Justice's proposed settlement with Microsoft in the anti-trust case. As we noted at the time, nine of the states involved in the trial refused to endorse the DoJ's proposal. This month these recalcitrant states decided to stir things up by releasing their own suggestions.

    The states' proposals - available in their entirety at: http://www.ccianet.org/legal/ms/statefiling.pdf make for some quite amusing reading. Whereas the DoJ's proposals sought merely to rein Microsoft back, these seek clearly to reverse the advantages Microsoft gained through its years of throwing its weight about. The nine states are mad as hell, and they're not taking it any more.

    Some of the highlights of the states' proposals are: a requirement to release Internet Explorer as open source software; a requirement to distribute Java with all Windows operating systems; a requirement to licence all Microsoft technology covering interoperability with Windows operating systems; enforced compliance by Microsoft with open industry standards. The following excerpt gives a taste of the paper's pugnacious tone:

    "In a market in which timing is so important, it is all too likely that delaying one's rivals by begrudging compliance with the obligations of the Final Judgement - punctuated by occasional acts of outright non-compliance - could well be profit-maximising behaviour. One prudent and highly effective means of avoiding this situation is to make clear in advance that a pattern of significant, material non-compliance will lead to serious consequences, and thereby reduce the likelihood that such non-compliance will ever be an issue."

    Microsoft has, as expected, struck back at the proposals, suggesting that the nine states are in the pockets of anti-Microsoft companies. For all the continuing war of words, however, it seems unlikely that the aftermath of the antitrust case holds any real threats for Microsoft. But we'll have to wait until next March to find out, as this is when the courts address the proposals.
  • For some time now the European Union has been kicking around drafts of its Communications Data Protection Directive. According to a news report from The Register, however, (http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/6/23268.html) the version to go before the European Parliament proposes to ban almost all email 'spam' (unsolicited commercial email). This is despite the best pro-spamming efforts of some countries, most notably the UK.

    According to the Reg's report, the Directive also contains a condition requiring site owners to pre-warn users of any cookies that the site may set. We have been trying to get a copy of the draft Directive to check out this last condition, since it raises a number of important issues, but without success. We'll report more when we manage to track it down.
  • At last the Softsteel team has identified a media-created social-grouping to belong to. We missed out on being Yuppies, never managed to catch the Clapham Omnibus, haven't ever driven White Vans, and were just embarrassed by New Laddism. But - at least assuming that we can all limbo our way under the 'young' part - we're all definitely 'Yetties': Young Entrepreneurial Technocrats.

    As good Yetties, we are apparently ambitious and gadget-happy; we live and breathe the dot-com world; and we're socially liberal.

    The 'Yettie' tag has been coined by some American bloke called Sam Sifton. He gives a number of examples of Yettie-related slang, in most cases only managing to sound rather like a befuddled and elderly vicar trying to get to grips with youth culture ... oh, it's no good, we've just completely lost interest in the whole pointless nonsense.

Web-Wide World

  • Google - currently the web's leading search engine, found at www.google.com - has publicised various statistics about the year's common queries (although as no rude words appear in any of the lists we can assume that a certain amount of Bowdlerization has taken place here). From these lists we have culled the following interesting facts.

    The most searched-for woman was the lovely and nearly talented Britney Spears. The most searched-for man was Nostradamus, who just beat Osama Bin Laden into second place. In the fields of news provision and e-tailing (online retailing) the winners were, respectively, CNN and Amazon. Nokia pipped Sony to the post as the most queried brand, and the most pressing topic in the world of sport was, once again, the pert and naturally buoyant career of Anna Kournikova.

Wired World

  • The 'Liberty Alliance' (covered in newsletters passim) is planned to be the non-Microsoft version of Microsoft Passport - an authentication and authorisation server for the online environment. This month its chances of challenging Microsoft received a boost when seven major new members joined up. These members include Hewlett Packard, AOL, and a "major commercial bank" which is currently remaining anonymous. Read more about the Liberty Alliance at http://www.projectliberty.org/
  • This month's virus of choice is the 'Goner' worm, whose success has been tinged with something of the surreal, as it has the feel of something cooked up by a computer lab as a benchmark for viral obviousness. One can imagine the project briefing going something like this:

    "Right, lads, we want a good old fashioned email worm that people have to consciously execute, none of this malconfigured MIME-type exploit nonsense. And the message to persuade them to run it should read as though it's written by a sub-literate 14-year old hacker. This will give us a zero baseline - a virus so dumb that it will fail to spread beyond one or two people."

    The actual message sent with the virus fits these requirements pretty well, featuring a number of grammatical problems and a misspelling:

    "How are you ?

    When I saw this screen saver, I immediately thought about you I am in a harry, I promise you will love it!"

    It seems, however, that nothing short of physical restraint can stop people clicking on a beguiling executable attachment. And thus it came about that the Softsteel office received about six copies of this virus - a new record for us.

    If you have managed to click on the Goner virus attachment (gone.scr), then you need to go to http://www.symantec.com/avcenter/venc/data/w32.goner.a@mm.html to learn how to remove it. The actual payload of the virus isn't too high, but it does try to remove certain firewall and anti-viral applications, and if Internet Relay Chat (IRC) software is installed, it makes use of that to propogate itself.
  • The UK Government is currently making noises promoting the use of the Internet in education. One aspect of this is that 50 million GBP has been earmarked to help put the National Curriculum online (see http://www.nc.uk.net/home.html). In addition, Barbara Roche - the Minister for Women - has suggested that busy women should be able to communicate with their kids' teachers by email. By some odd oversite, however, 50 million GBP has not yet been promised to pay teachers for the extra time required to answer such emails.

Wireless World

  • Most wireless Local Area Networks (LANs: small computer networks) are built upon the 802.11b standard, which provides connections at 11 Megabytes / second (Mbps). There are currently some security holes in this protocol, but a fix for them has been agreed by the appropriate standards body (the IEEE), and should be available from kit manufacturers at some point. The fix uses 'Fast Packet Keying', invented by RSA Security, which allows for a more random sequence of encryption keys for each packet of information sent.

    Confusingly, the IEEE 802.11a standard is more advanced than the 802.11b standard, providing connections at up to 54 Mbps. 802.11a is not yet legal in Europe, but this is expected to change soon, once a number of technical issues have been ironed out. In anticipation of this change, Intel has started shipping kit which will support either 802.11a or 802.11b.

    The IEEE has also just announced the final approval of its 802.16 WirelessMan standard. This is designed for Metropolitan Area Networks (ie. more geographically dispersed networks), providing a broadband 11-66 Gbps connection.
  • It has emerged that certain Nokia phones - the 6210, 3310 and 3330 - contain a bug making them susceptible to an attack using a malconfigured Short Message Service (SMS) message. The dodgy SMS crashes such a phone pretty thoroughly, so that it requires a new SIM card before it can be turned back on. Later Nokia models are not affected by the bug, so if you have an old version either upgrade or avoid making geek enemies.
  • Orange has started to introduce GPRS (General Packet switched Radio Service) to some non-business customers. As has been noted in newsletters passim, GPRS has a number of advantages over the standard GSM (Global System for Mobile communication) networks. It is somewhat faster, and 'always on', meaning that you don't have to negotiate a lengthy dialup sequence. GPRS is also currently offered by Vodafone and mmO2 (BT Cellnet as was).

Hard World

  • Computers have various ways to talk to peripherals like printers, keyboards, etc. Universal Serial Bus (USB) sockets are designed to provide useful functionality like 'hot-swapping' (being able to change the peripheral while the computer is running).

    USB 2.0 is the upgraded version of USB, and peripherals which support it should start to be available in the new year. Because USB 2.0 supports a much higher data rate than USB 1.0, it will be able to carry video streams, making it useful for connections to camcorders etc (which at the moment generally use the IEEE 1394 serial bus). In an important announcement this month, it was also reported that USB 2.0 will support direct connections between peripheral devices, rather than always requiring a computer as a 'host'.
  • There is an interesting article in this month's online Economist, concerning the serendipitious process which lead to the creation of very high capacity hard drives. Of course, it's only 'interesting' in that special sense that applies uniquely to stories covering giant magneto-resistant hard-drive heads. But we liked it. So strap on your propellor-driven physics head and see http://economist.com/science/tq/displayStory.cfm?Story_ID=885080 for more.

Soft World

  • Opera - the 'third browser', the Liberal Democrats of the browser world - reached a version 6 release for Windows this month. For those of you who haven't tried it, Opera has many nice features, such as the ability to keep track of all the browser windows it has open, allowing it to reacquire state after an operating system crash. Learn more about Opera at http://www.opera.com/, where you can also download a free version, or pay 39 US Dollars to get a version which is entirely free of advertising.
  • People using Internet Explorer 5.5 and 6.0 (especially the latter) should install the latest IE patch, available at: http://www.microsoft.com/windows/ie/downloads/critical/q313675/download.asp. This will protect you against some recently discovered exploits.
  • We should probably also mention the latest patch for Windows XP, although this has been given extensive publicity in the standard media. The patch fixes a rather nasty hole in a protocol used by the Universal Plug'n'Play feature of XP. (Plug'n'Play is designed to make it easy for you to add new devices to a network, but in XP it seemingly also makes it easy for others to take control of your computer remotely). For more information on this, see http://www.microsoft.com/technet/security/bulletin/ms01-059.asp

Link Building Information