July 2001

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

Real World

  • There have been a number of articles in recent months describing a simmering 'cyberwar' between American and Chinese hackers. It makes for a good story - of the Tom Clancy variety - set against the backdrop of the diplomatic coolness between the two countries. What's more, there is apparently some truth in it, with attacks going back and forth between US and Chinese sites.

    Simultaneously, however, there has been something of a war of words by commentators on the story. The sceptical side of the story suggests that the whole thing was kicked off by a speculative and under-researched article in Wired News. According to this line, the article was then seized on by hacking headbangers, who proceeded to turn it into something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Sadly we can't offer an independent view on these reports, but the sceptical side does make a powerful case, and seems depressingly plausible.
  • One of the IT stories to make the mainstream news this week relates to the arrest, on behalf of Adobe, of Dmitri Sklyarov, a Russian PhD student. Skylarov was arrested in the US, under provisions in the controversial Digital Millenium Copyright Act, for revealing details to a security conference of ways to evade the encryption in Adobe's electronic book reader.

    What makes the case poignant is that Skylarov's work was developed to allow blind people to access the text encrypted by Adobe - making it difficult to portray him using the typical 'mad hacker' stereotype. After ensuring Skylarov's arrest by tipping off the authorities to his whereabouts, Adobe then realised the PR disaster it was facing. Its subsequent attempts to have Skylarov freed, however, were unsuccessful.

    Following the arrest, there have been real-world demonstrations, and protest sites like http://www.boycottadobe.com/ have been springing up.
  • Freeserve and AOL have just started a fight about VAT payments. Freeserve, whose network equipment is located in the UK pays VAT at the usual 17.5 percent on user subscriptions. But AOL, whose equipment is located abroad, avoids this charge and saves itself an estimated 30 million pounds annually. Not surprisingly, Freeserve is unhappy at this state of affairs, and is threatening to relocate to Algeria (which may not be an idle threat, given that Freeserve's parent company Wanadoo already has operations in Algeria).

Web-Wide World

  • We have covered Microsoft's .NET project in detail elsewhere on the Softsteel website (here). In essence, .NET describes an infrastructure for distributing an application's functionality over the Internet.

    It is interesting to watch the 'open source' community's reaction to the .NET project. On the positive side, .NET is built to a surprising level on open standards. On the negative side, it is proposed by Microsoft, whom open source evangelists tend to view with visceral loathing.

    Various announcements this month suggest a 'holy way' brewing in the open source community. Two projects have begun, aimed at developing .NET applications in an open source way: the 'Mono' project (http://www.go-mono.com/) to write .NET development tools for Linux machines, and the 'DotGNU' project (http://dotgnu.org/) to emulate the kind of 'web services' that Microsoft currently offers. However, these attempts have attracted various critical articles, such as this one, by Nicholas Petreley, located at: http://iwsun4.infoworld.com/articles/op/xml/01/07/23/010723oppetreley.xml.
  • Internet-surfing cricket fans will be pleased to hear that you now can keep up to date with Australia's latest demolition of England over the Internet, courtesy of your very own desktop Richie Benault. Channel 4, the provider of this application, promises that Richie will alert you whenever anything important happens, as well as throwing in the occasional 'cheerful comment'. Desktop Richie is available at: http://www.cricket4.com/tv/richie.html.

Wired World

  • This month's media virus of choice has been SirCam (although at the time of writing it is somewhat eclipsed by the overblown hype about CodeRed). It displays a number of improvements over previous viruses, as well as some genuinely nasty behaviour.

    SirCam's main feature is that when it gets into your system it emails out copies of documents in your 'My Documents' folder to random people on your email list (attaching itself to these documents). As these documents may be confidential, the virus can easily invade privacy. Cleverly, SirCam also uses as a subject line the name of the attached document, thereby making infected emails harder to identify.

    For some reason, SirCam's most destructive behaviours are controlled by chance. For example, there is a 1 in 20 chance that an infected computer's hard-drive will be destroyed on October 16th. So perhaps this is a good time to reiterate some well-worn advice: don't click on unexpected email attachments. Not even just to see what happens.
  • According to Oftel's recent MORI poll, last year saw a 'massive rise' in the number of households connected to the Internet, with a reported further 4 million households going online, bringing the total to around 10 million. The explanation being touted for the increase is the availability of unmetered connections.
  • A number of stories have emerged over the month concerning the evil that is Unsolicited Commercial Emails (or 'spam'). If you have an email account you will no doubt fall victim to the mindless spammers, who not only perpetuate a low-grade tackiness with their postings but also slow down the Internet, bring down networks, etc.

    As reported previously, a UK MEP Michael Cashman, has been making representations in Europe in favour of spammers. Whilst most MEPs favour 'opt-in' lists, where you have to explicitly request to be deluged with junk, Cashman favours 'opt-out' lists, where you first get the junk then spend fruitless hours trying to get yourself off the list (because everyone hits the server at the same time trying to get removed, so the server falls over).

    Anyway, Cashman has now released an attempted justification of his actions - for a report of this plus criticism see http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/6/20470.html. And if you wish to reply to Michael, do feel very free to drop a line to: joek@michael-cashman-mep.new.labour.org.uk or mcashman@europarl.eu.int.

    In the meantime, so hassled by spam is Hotmail (free web-based email provider) that it seems possible to have anyone's email account closed down simply by making an accusation that they are spamming. The staff apparently don't have time to verify these claims, so they are taking the easy way out by closing down any account attracting criticism.

    An interesting account of one man's attempt to attract, and then stop spam is given at http://www.cnet.com/software/0-3227888-8-6602372-1.html?tag=ld.

Wireless World

  • DoCoMo, the Japanese owners of the i-Mode platform for mobile phones (the successful, but geographically localised competitor of WAP), has agreed to give 217 million dollars of free transmission to its users, to make up for the junk mail they are receiving. The trouble, apparently, stems from the fact that i-Mode phones have default email addresses based upon their phone number, and this makes it easy for (evil) spammers to generate lists of email addresses.
  • The telecoms giant Marconi took a huge hit on the stock market at the start of this month. Following its announcement that it is to shed 4000 jobs, its value went down by 3 billion pounds, the value of other telecoms companies also suffered, and the FTSE index itself lost 47 points. The aftershocks of this event have since been rumbling along, with the board coming under intense pressure from shareholders who have seen the value of their stocks drop to under 10 percent of their value a year ago.
  • On a more positive note, however, there are advances being made within the mobile gaming industry. For example, mobile games firm iFone (http://www.hifone.net/services.html [note - this link is no longer supported]) is planning a number of multiplayer games - including iSoccer - to run over the faster 'always on' GPRS networks that are nearly upon us. Mobile gaming is one of the telecoms companies' big hopes of clawing back all the money they spent upon the 3G licences.
  • The Mitsubishi Trium Mondo (see http://www.trium.net/products.asp?action=getMore&id=33 [note - this link is no longer supported]) was launched this month. It is a Microsoft Pocket PC- based mobile phone that looks rather like an Ipaq handheld with phone tech bolted on. Working over GPRS (at least as soon as GPRS is generally available), it is faster and more efficient than standard GSM phones, and integrates with Microsoft products like Word and Excel.

Hard World

  • Chip update. Intel's desktop Pentium 4 processors are starting to pull away from AMD's Athlon chips, at least in terms of chip speed. The latest P4 is now at 1.7 GHz, with the latest Athlon at 1.4 Ghz. The overall performance of these chips, however, is still comparable, and the P4 is much more expensive.

    AMD is also making moves into the Enterprise server market, releasing a dual-processor Athlon server (a snip at 3507 pounds + VAT). The new AMD 4 chip for laptops is also being talked of approvingly.
  • July 9th's Guardian ran an interesting story about the 'Simputer', an invention of three Indian scientists. Its aim is to bring Internet connections to the masses by providing a dedicated and cheap Internet machine. The main point of interest, in a country with high illiteracy rates, is that the machine includes support for translation to a variety of Indian languages, and reads out pages to the user.

Soft World

  • There's an interesting article at http://www.joelonsoftware.com/stories/storyReader$368 making the case that good, robust software takes 10 years to build. It claims that part of the reason for the dot-com collapse, has been the mistaken view that applications can now be built in a much faster 'Internet time'. If it's right, then the best years for Internet applications are still ahead of us, and there is hope for slow-burning technologies like WAP.
  • Microsoft's forthcoming operating system 'XP' is supposed to come with an anti-piracy device - Windows Product Activation. The general idea is that when you install a copy of Windows XP, you will be able to access the Microsoft servers over the Internet to get an 'activation key'. This key is to be loosely based upon the details of your computer's hardware, so that minor updates to the hardware won't require new activation, but installations on brand new machines will.

    Each new 'build' (test version) of XP has featured some level of product activation, which hackers have quickly attacked. In the latest builds, however, removing the product activation has proved very difficult. Unfortunately, however, a new approach has now been shown to defeat all the product activation code tried to date. Essentially this spoofs the details of the machine's hardware, allowing any machine to look just like the original machine on which the product was activated. According to commentators, this now raises a question over whether XP will feature product activation at all.

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