January 2002

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

Real World

  • As 'partners' in the DTI's UK Online for Business program, Softsteel recently sent two representatives to London to participate in the latest meeting. The purpose of this meeting was to discuss what kind of things the partnership might do to improve its work in spreading the IT message to the masses. Unfortunately, the brief time alloted for discussion didn't succeed in throwing up many proposals that were both widely acceptable and concrete ('improve intraPartner communications' was the usual kind of thing). We can, however, report that the refreshments were ok.

    We did learn about a new initiative of the British Chamber of Commerce, backed by UK Online for Business - the 'eBusiness clubs' network currently being introduced. Backed by a mixture of private and public money, the idea is to provide forums for networking and the dissemination of good practise for local businesses. Initially, sixteen such clubs are being set up, but this number is planned to grow once these have bedded down.

    The shiny new UK Online for Business website is available at: http://www.ukonlineforbusiness.gov.uk/. The eBusiness clubs website can be found at: http://www.ebusinessclubs.co.uk/.
  • From a column in a recent PC Pro comes a cautionary tale for booze-addled geeks everywhere. The tale concerns an IT consultant who became annoyed at a company he believed was refusing to pay him money owed. After a drinking session, this consultant hacked into the company's network, altering various data and sending some dubious emails through the company mailing lists. Although the consultant pleaded guilty in the subsequent trial, and offered full cooperation, he was still sent down for nine months.
  • After Douglas Alexander (the e-Envoy) mentioned in a speech that employees could get tax relief for home broadband connections, we chased this up immediately. Amusingly, we learnt from a top man in the tax office that whilst this relief was available in principle, it wasn't yet in practice, since the rank and file tax officers hadn't actually been told about it.

    Now, however, it seems that the workers have been let into the secret. As well as there being a tax exemption for standard dialup accounts where

    "these Internet costs are met solely for the purpose of enabling the employee to carry out the duties of the employment at home, and [where] the private use is not significant compared with work use",

    there is an exemption for a broadband connection where

    "there are significant employment duties to be carried out by the employee at home on that Internet connection and [where] the cost is not greater because there is private use"

    Allow us also to share with you the near poetic covering note we received from the tax office:

    "Attached is guidance note. The availability of the exemption from employee benefits tax for Internet connection in the prescribed circumstances derives from the relaxation introduced in Finance Act 2000 with effect from 2000-01 tax year, ie from 6 April 2000."

Web-Wide World

  • For those of you who are at all worried about online privacy, a very serious security hole has been discovered by Richard E Smith. This results from the facts: i) that instances of Windows Media Player have codes which uniquely identify them; and ii) that arbitrary web pages can get at these codes using a very simple piece of Javascript. Together, these mean that a user can be tracked across arbitrary websites if each pulls out the unique Windows Media Player code. Note that this is just the kind of thing that the privacy preferences stuff in Internet Explorer 6 was supposed to stop.

    Smith provides a nice demonstration of the problem at http://www.computerbytesman.com/privacy/supercookiedemo.htm, and also gives a brief explanation of how to fix the problem. Note, though, that if you are using an old copy of Windows Media Player, you may need to update it before you can apply the fix (alternatively, you could just uninstall Windows Media Player and do without).
  • With very little fanfare or consultation, Nominet (the ICANN-official registrar for .uk domains) has released the '.me.uk' second level domain. The idea behind it is to provide a home for individual websites - for instance, you might have www.fredbloggs.me.uk. At the moment, however, the main traffic in the domain seems to have been people registering 'novelty' domains like, ahem, 'bugger.me.uk'.

    Nominet's move might have been prompted by the release of the competing top level '.name' domain, run by Global Name Registry (http://www.nic.name/). Individuals registering for with this domain can get a 'three-tiered' website address, such as www.fred.bloggs.name.
  • At the start of the year the Public Record Office unveiled a new web site containing full details of the UK 1901 census. Unfortunately the site, which was picked up and promoted by the mainstream media, proved such an hit that it fell over almost immediately under the weight of traffic. At the time of writing, attempts to access the site at http://www.census.pro.gov.uk/ bring up an apology screen, which says that the technology is being updated.
  • For no compelling reason, we decided this month to collect, for your edification and amusement, a few links to humour sites. The Onion - http://www.theonion.com - sets out to satirise the American media, and usually contains some good material. Charlie Brooker's TVGoHome - http://www.tvgohome.com/ - provides fortnightly parodic TV listings, and has now spawned an actual hard-copy book. The Landover Baptist Church - http://www.landoverbaptist.org/ - is crude, but some of its articles - aimed squarely at US bible-belters - are pretty funny. Finally, User Friendly - http://www.userfriendly.org/static/ - is a daily cartoon strip found to be amusing by dweebs, geeks, nerds and, on occasion, us.
  • Kodak has learnt the hard way that automated, online trading increases the efficiency of bad business as well as good. Its mistake was to offer on its website a camera for just 100 GBP, when the actual price it intended was somewhere nearer the pre-sale price of 330 GBP.

    Of course, just the fact that the camera was advertised for 100 GBP didn't mean that Kodak had an obligation to sell it at that price. The price of goods for sale isn't fixed until a contract has been formed between the buyer and the seller, and this happens when the buyer makes an offer which is accepted by the seller. However, in the case of Kodak, the automated technology behind the site happily sent out confirmation orders to buyers, and the small print in these confirmations even made reference to 'this contract'. So Kodak's subsequent attempts to wriggle out of the deal never looked very plausible.

    Nobody knows how much Kodak has lost in this instance, as it's not saying. But given that up to 10,000 orders could have been placed, and the actual selling price could have been hundreds of pounds lower than the desired selling prices, it could be a significant amount. For more information on the case, see the website set up by those whom Kodak tried to cheat of their cheap cameras: http://www.kodakcamera.co.uk/

Wired World

  • In the October 2001 issue of this newsletter we noted that the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) was considering whether it could endorse as standards any technologies which were less than freely available to all developers. Some of the W3C's members - primarily those from IBM - were then making the case for including technologies covered by "Reasonable, Non-discriminatory" (RAND) licences. Others were spitting blood, and vowing to ditch the W3C if it went down this route.

    The W3C has now responded to the RAND issue, and instead of tackling it head-on has opted to drown it in bureauocracy. Faced with a potentially acceptable technology which is covered by a RAND licence, the W3C will now bud off a subcommittee, which will have 90 days to consider the licencing issue. Any positive recommendation of the subcommittee, against the background of anger that will almost certainly be raised, will then have to be endorsed by both the W3C Director and the appropriate Advisory Board. Basically, it seems to us that the W3C has just come down against the proposal to allow RAND-covered tech, but has done so in a face-saving way.
  • Those who use the various P3P file-sharing utilities on offer (KaZaA, Gnutella, etc.) may be exposing their systems to high levels of risk. For some time now there have been claims that a worryingly high percentage of the files available using these applications are infected. But recent reports also reveal that some of the file-sharing programs themselves are bundled with a low-level trojan. For more details, see http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/4/23532.html.
  • Early in the month the news sites were full of talk of a '.NET' virus. Given that .NET is the platform on which Microsoft wants to build the new Internet, full of distributed applications and personalised services, this seemed quite a story. It turns out, however, that the 'Donut' virus isn't anything new in the way of viruses at all - it just chooses to attach itself to .NET files (files which contain MSIL code, for the more technically minded), and propagates itself in the usual way.

Wireless World

  • There was a recent story in PC Pro that users of 'instant messaging' software ICQ can send out free SMS messages. Furthermore, the ICQ help page suggests that it works with BT Cellnet, One-2-One, Orange and Vodafone. But can we get it to work? No we can't. We did get in touch with ICQ to raise the issue with them, but they just sent us back an email suggesting that we look at the help pages.

    Anyone desperate to send free SMS in the UK should probably look at Genie instead: http://www.genie.co.uk/

Hard World

  • January saw the introduction of the new Intel Pentium 4s, running at the faster speeds of 2.2GHz and 2.0GHz. More important than the speed increase, however, is the fact that the new P4s benefit from a thorough redesign (in particular, the circuits are etched at a 0.13 nanometer width rather than the frankly obese 0.18)

    The general industry feedback on the new 2.2GHz P4 is that in performance it is similar to - possibly just shading - the AMD AthlonXP 2000+ (which, as mentioned in previous newsletters, actually runs at a clock speed somewhat lower than 2 GHz). But as the AMD chip is still cheaper for what you get, we would still advise going with that. However, the new manufacturing process of the P4 range now means that it has more room to improve than the current version of the Athlon, and this raises the possibility that Intel just might pull away in the coming year.

Soft World

  • A 'release candidate' for Java 2 Standard Edition 1.4 is now available at Sun, http://java.sun.com/j2se/. This Java platform, the principal rival to Microsoft's .NET platform, promises a whole lot of extra goodies over the 1.3 release, including new Swing classes and inbuilt support for Kerberos. We haven't had a chance to look it over yet in person, but the folks at Extreme Tech have. The following URL points to the first of two in-depth articles: http://www.extremetech.com/article/0,3396,s%253D1455%2526a%253D21660,00.asp.
  • The noise coming out of Microsoft at the moment is that it is renouncing its old, lax ways with security, instead making this its number one priority. For instance, in Big Bill's recent biannual email to his troops he states that:

    "Trustworthy Computing is the highest priority for all the work we are doing. We must lead the industry to a whole new level of Trustworthiness in computing."

    It has also been reported that Microsoft is shortly to halt all software development for a month in order to track down bugs. It will be interesting to see if this current PR drive is the start of a genuine change in culture, or will just fizzle out when something more image enhancing comes along. Most commentators assume the latter, but it's a fascinating thought that Microsoft could one day become a byword for secure systems.
  • Along with the news that the Chinese government is rejecting Microsoft in favour of indigenous developers, come reports that the Korean government is buying 120,000 copies of a local variant of Linux to migrate 23% of its civil servants away from Microsoft products. Cost and nationalism seem to be the drivers here, rather than security issues.

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