July 2002

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

Real World

  • This month saw Lord Currie installed as the first chairman of the Office of Communications - Ofcom - which is to replace a number of existing telecoms regulatory bodies. At the time of writing, the Ofcom website (http://www.ofcom.gov.uk/) contains only helpful links to these soon-to-be-subsumed bodies. But Lord Currie's contact details are available at http://www.business.city.ac.uk/about/email_contacts.html, qua his role as Dean of the Cass Business School.
  • The Indian Internet Service Provider (ISP) trade association is, reportedly, considering plans to set up a toll payable by large US websites - Yahoo, MSN, etc. - that want to export their data to India. If all the Indian ISPs agree to the plan, and the US sites resist the tax, then the average Indian user will find it difficult to access these sites. Or at least, they will until the various projects to create a secure Peer-to-Peer browser bear serious fruit.

Web-Wide World

  • It came to light this month that Yahoo's web-based email service has been engaging in some heavy-handed attempts to stop 'cross-site scripting' attacks. These attacks work by embedding code (javascript, say) in HTML-emails. When the recipient of the email then brings it up in his web browser, the code runs and does whatever unpleasant thing it is supposed to do.

    Yahoo's solution to such attacks has been to replace words commonly used to run code with alternatives. So, for instance, the word 'javascript' became 'java-script'. Unfortunately, Yahoo's parsing wasn't particularly well constructed, and has had some unfortunate consequences. One of these, pointed out recently by Need To Know (http://www.ntk.net/) was based upon the string of letters 'eval' being replaced by the string 'review', regardless of where the initial string is found. This led to the word 'medieval' being commonly rendered as 'medireview', and because of articles being emailed between scholars this latter word has now appeared in websites and taken on a life of its own. It's still quite funny to try a Google search on 'medireview' and see the results, although many are now being cleaned up in response to the publicity surrounding the issue. Also, Yahoo now seems to have updated its parsing to avoid the error.

    For the list of Yahoo's verboten words (no longer completely accurate), and their replacements, see http://www.ntk.net/2002/07/12/yahoo.txt
  • 'News for Nerds' site Slashdot recently hosted a useful discussion about which are the best sites for developers / programmers (see http://ask.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=02/07/20/0124243). If you're into programming at all, then you should find it pretty helpful: we did.

Wired World

  • Even after our criticisms of Verisign in the May issue of the newsletter, the company still shows no sign of wising up (you know, it's almost as if they don't even read our newsletter). The latest issue to stoke the ire of online folk is its proposal to set up a domain 'wait listing service' (WLS) to be administered by a company - SnapNames - with which Verisign has a close business relationship.

    At present, when you buy a domain (myDomain.co.uk, for instance), you get use of that domain for two years, plus an option to renew. If someone else wants your domain (but doesn't want to buy it from you), then they must wait until you fail to renew it, at which point the domain 'drops', and becomes once more available for purchase. Some domains which drop are deemed to be more valuable than others, and various companies, including SnapNames, provide a service where they attempt to grab the domain for a client as soon as it drops. Typically the client doesn't pay anything if this attempt fails.

    The WLS that Verisign is proposing would undercut these name-grabbing services by allowing a client officially to 'reserve' a name at any point prior to its dropping. This reservation wouldn't affect the current owner's right to renew, but it would give the reserving client first refusal if the current owner failed to do so.

    So what's wrong with this proposal? Well, firstly it would remove services from a number of different registries and put it in the hand of a single company with whom Verisign has a close working relationship. So there are worries about competition, and favouritism. And secondly, the planned cost of reserving a domain is to be 35 USD a year, even if the domain never drops. So the new service would be more expensive.

    We could, perhaps, live with these worries if the WLS would be a significant improvement over what there is now. But it's quite hard to see how it would be. For it seems that the following will be consequences. Firstly, the new system will primarily benefit those individuals or companies for whom a speculative 35 USD a year per domain is little financial burden (ie. rich folk). Secondly, there will shortly be new services offered whereby people grab fallen *reservations* rather than fallen *domains*.

    More information about the proposed WLS is available at: http://www.icann.org/bucharest/wls-topic.htm. This page was prepared for a meeting of 28th June, at which the Internet Corp for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) board requested further information about the WLS. At the time of writing, the ICANN Names Council (an ICANN committee) has come out against the proposal. But there is an ongoing debate within ICANN over the extent to which it ought to be acting as a regulator.
  • After last month's stuff about Palladium, you might be interested to read Microsoft's new white paper about it, available at http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/features/2002/jul02/0724palladiumwp.asp. We hope to write some fairly detailed in-depth stuff about Palladium soon, but this is waiting on more, and precise details on how it is to be implemented.

Wireless World

  • For a short while this month, 'warchalking' became one of the techy ideas to break out of nerddom and into the mainstream media. In case you missed it, the idea is to create a set of simple signs that can be easily chalked up on public walls, and which convey information about nearby wireless access points. So, for instance, a sign might signify the nearby presence of an open wireless access point, along with a logon name. For more information about warchalking, consult the weblog of one of its inventors at: http://www.blackbeltjones.com/warchalking/

Hard World

  • There's an interesting story doing the round of the news sites, about a chemical engineer creating a microchip not out of silicon, but out of 'chicken feathers'. It should be pointed out immediately that the feathers are blended and molded into appropriate shapes, rather than being used whole in some kind of 'smart quill' technology.

  • The reason that the feather-based material works, apparently, is that feathers are full of tiny air-filled holes, which offer very little resistance to electrical currents. On the basis of the same principle there are ongoing attempts to seed silicon with tiny bubbles, but evolution has so far done a better job than the research projects.
  • For a while now, Playstation owners have been able to buy 'mod chips', allowing them to defeat certain Digital Rights Management (DRM) features built into Playstation games. As is usual with such technology, a mod chip allows a user to take what seems fairly justifiable action against corporate control-freakery (such as circumventing the geographical 'zoning' of games), but also supports straightforward software piracy.

    Initially, Sony turned a blind eye to mod chips. But at the start of this year it decided to crack down, and there was a legal test-case in the UK which outlawed them on the basis of the Copyright and Patents Act 1988. This month there were two more such test-cases, one in Canada, and one in Australia. In the former the defendant was convicted for selling mod chips, a result that Sony has naturally applauded. In the latter, however, the judge ruled that the mod chips were not illegal, given certain technical facts about the precise wording of the relevant Australian copyright law (see http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/federal_ct/2002/906.html for the full finding).
  • Case Western Reserve University in the US is at the forefront of IT provision for students, and is currently wiring up its 16,000 computers to a 1-gigahertz ethernet network. As the CNN article says (see http://fyi.cnn.com/2002/fyi/teachers.ednews/07/21/high.wired.campus.ap/index.html), this is about a thousand times faster than your average broadband connection; fast enough to support full-screen, high-definition video with high-definition audio. The University apparently isn't entirely sure what the network will be used for, but is confident that it will promote all kinds of new and exciting applications (although, for some reason, everyone that we've mentioned this to has come up with the same idea: pornography).

Soft World

  • Earlier this month, Forgent Networks Inc. made public its claim to hold a patent on the use of the Joint Photographic Experts Group (JPEG) image compression algorithm. The scope of the claim is wide, and includes: "digital cameras, digital still image devices, personal digital assistants (PDA's), cellular telephones that download images, browsers ... other devices used to compress, store, manipulate, print or transmit digital images".

    Since JPEG is one of the two main image formats used on the web (the other being the Graphics Interchange Format: GIF), this patent claim has the potential - if upheld - to cause all kinds of badness. Reasons to take it seriously include online reports that Sony has paid Forgent 15 million USD for the licencing rights. But the JPE Group is fighting back by claiming that there is sufficient 'prior art' to invalidate the patent.

    This fuss over JPEG mirrors, to some degree, a similar fuss over GIF. Back in 1994, Unisys revealed that it held a patent on a compression algorithm underpinning GIF. On the basis of this patent, Unisys subsequently levied a tax on programs - such as Paint Shop Pro - which used the protected algorithm to create and manipulate GIF images. Ironically, part of the then backlash against GIFs was a movement to ditch them in favour of JPEGs. The other response was to create a new image format - the Portable Network Graphics (PNG) format - designed to avoid all known patent issues. Current browsers support the PNG format (albeit in most cases patchily), so PNG is currently getting good press as an alternative to JPEG. Of course, given the nature of US software patent law (which is mostly crazy), PNG could always turn out to be vulnerable at a later date.

    The website to keep an eye on, if you're interested in the JPEG issue, is: http://burnalljpegs.org/index.php.
  • Staying in the same kind of area (albeit with a shift from the visual to the aural): the open source audio compression format "Ogg Vorbis" has just been released at version 1.0. Ogg Vorbis has been created as a patent-free alternative to the proprietary MP3 format, but according to reports it produces somewhat higher quality audio. It is currently supported by a number of popular audio players and applications, such as WinAmp and GoldWave. The homepage is: http://www.vorbis.com/.

    As a quick personal aside: there are all kinds of arguments on either side of the 'proprietary' vs 'open source' debate, as to who makes better software, what economic models are sustainable, etc. But at a visceral level, this author has to root for the geeks over the suits, especially when they provide the following reasons for the name of their compression format:

    "An 'Ogg' is a tactical maneuver from the network game 'Netrek' that has entered common usage in a wider sense. From the definition:

    To do anything forcefully, possibly without consideration of the drain on future resources. ... 'Whoops! I looked down at the map for a sec and almost ogged that oncoming car.'

    Vorbis, on the other hand is named after the Terry Pratchett character from the book _Small Gods_. The name holds some significance, but it's an indirect, uninteresting story."

    Surely nobody this geeky could be the bad guys.
  • And in further, not-unrelated news, RealNetworks - the company behind RealAudio and RealVideo streaming media - has announced that it is to release its new 'Helix' platform as software open source. The unique selling point of Helix is that the platform supports all of the main streaming media types, including Windows Media and Apple Quicktime files. This means that a single server will be able to stream the different media types - an improvement on the present situation, in which a separate Microsoft server is required for Windows Media files. There's more information about the Helix platform at: http://www.helixcommunity.org/
  • New Scientist is reporting on efforts in China to create a replacement for the Windows 98 operating system, to run all the Microsoft Office suite. It is expected that the Chinese OS will be based upon a local flavour of Linux incorporating the open-source Windows emulation software WINE. The full story is available at: http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99992573.

Link Building Information