March 2002

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

Real World

  • An article in one of this month's Guardian Online supplements argues that the next big thing in book publishing is to be 'publishing on demand'. Instead of books always having to be produced in large print runs, they will be put together in response to individual orders. Furthermore, it will be possible to put together collections of papers, anthologies, etc., to make these books personalised.

    What makes all this possible seems to be the success of digital technology in the print industry. Whilst there may still be economies of scale in producing large numbers of books at once, the computerised processes that control the content of each book can be easily changed from book to book.
  • The most recent proposals on EU software patents going through the European Commission would make them significantly more difficult to achieve than in the US. A key requirement is that the software make 'a technical contribution to the state of the art'. This is bound to upset some big-name companies, so watch out for the lobbying (sadly, such companies include our own British Telecom, which is currently pursuing an absurd case claiming a patent on hyperlinks).

    To read about the kind of public feedback the EU received about software patents, look at For a recent polemical piece by Richard Stallman, the uberguru of the free software movement, see,,t269-s2107481,00.html
  • At the time of writing, ITV Digital is nearing collapse. If it goes, this will mean that the UK will have no major commercial, terrestrial, digital network (and possibly far fewer football teams, given the contract between the Football League and ITV Digital). This also puts into some doubt the Government's plans to switch off analogue TV by 2010.
  • The Microsoft antitrust case is still rumbling on, with the nine states in the rebel alliance holding out against the proposal presented by the State Department. The question currently at issue is whether it is possible or practical to pull apart Windows into separate bits, to address the 'commingling' of operating system and middleware practised by Microsoft. Microsoft claims that this decomposition isn't possible, and even if it is, it would lead to a doomsday scenario of Microsoft having to support several thousand different versions of Windows (i.e. the different possible combinations of the pulled-apart bits). The states, of course, claim that it is both possible and practical, and they have made a small breakthrough in persuading the judge that they should have access to the Windows source code.

    Interestingly, Microsoft has just released the source code for its .NET infrastructure without being prompted to do so. This isn't a conversion to open source software yet, however, as the terms and conditions of the licence prevent any real reuse of the code.

Web-Wide World

  • (Another story culled from the Guardian Online supplement, which has been running some good features recently). There is a huge Internet game currently being played, called EverQuest ( EverQuest is a role-playing game set in a 'virtual world' called Norrath, which can support hundreds of thousands of users. The internal currency of the game is the platinum piece, which players can exchange inside the game for virtual goods and services.

    Because of the popularity of the game, real currency markets have been created outside it, in which platinum pieces are exchanged for dollars (such markets are officially frowned upon, but history suggests that it's almost impossible to stop strong demand from getting together with plentiful supply). By looking at the goods, currency and prices within the game, and converting them to dollars using the going exchange rate, you can come up with a general value for the wealth of Norrath. Amazingly enough, it turns out that Norrath is the 77th richest nation in the world. This means that Norrath isn't quite as rich as Russia, but it's somewhat richer than Bulgaria.
  • It was remiss of us to cover PayPal last month without noting the problems some people have found with it (although it's hard to tell whether the number of critics is more than you would expect from a company that has millions of customers). For a searing indictment of the seamy underbelly of PayPal, go to
  • There are reports that AOL - the large Internet Service Provider which is part of the huge AOLTimeWarner group - is planning to swap over from Microsoft's Internet Explorer to the open source Mozilla browser in AOL 8.0. The reason suggested for this change is one of control - if AOL can tweak the client software as well as its servers, then it can make the two interoperate very efficiently.
  • There is a trial currently under way in the US, questioning whether the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) unconstitutionally violates the US constitution's guarantee of free speech. The CIPA seeks to protect children from online pornography, and the court is discussing whether, and to what extent, this is possible.

    The figures that stick out in reading about this trial are those advanced by expert witness Christopher Hunter. His studies suggest that filtering software (like Net Nanny, Cyber Patrol, etc) block - on average - only 69 percent of porn sites, whereas their ratio of false positives (benign sites that are mistakenly blocked) runs at 21 percent. These aren't good figures.
  • The Scientologists - a bunch of well-known fruitcakes - recently used the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to make Google ban from its index a site which was critical of them. The tactics used by the sinister weirdos was to claim that the critical site, by quoting small excerpts from their 'religious' texts, was infringing their intellectual property. Although it seems likely that this restriction would be overturned by a court, the banned site - which is based in Norway - would have to fight the case in the US, and against an opponent which is not only large and powerful, but as mad as rats in a sack.

Wired World

  • ICANN, the body that is now in direct control of managing the basics of the Domain Name System (e.g. which top level domains, like .com and .org, there should be) is not particularly well liked in the world of the web. It is generally viewed as being mostly unaccountable to Internet users, and therefore susceptible to pressure from powerful interest groups.

    ICANN's recent actions in its board meeting in Accra, Ghana, have not improved matters. At present, 5 out of its 19 directors are elected from the general Internet community. However, ICANN has now decided that in future it will have no elected directors, citing problems with organising fair 'at large' elections. One of the currently elected directors, Karl Auerbach - who has also instigated legal proceedings in order to get access to ICANN's corporate records - has written that ICANN has become "a paternalistic oligarchy".

    For up-to-date news and comment on ICANN, see

Wireless World

  • The movement towards 'web services' is a movement towards a more sophisticated interoperation of computers over the Internet. Although Microsoft has been in the forefront of this movement, Sun Microsystems has been fighting back with its Sun Open Net Environment (Sun ONE), and has recently announced that it is working to extend this platform to wireless handheld devices. Sun's Java 2 Micro Edition is becoming increasingly popular in handhelds, so it will be interesting to see whether Sun beats Microsoft in this market.
  • When you take your mobile phone outside your operator's network coverage, you can generally continue to make calls. The reason for this is that the various network operators have 'roaming' agreements with each other - reciprocal arrangements to handle each other's calls.

    Similar arrangements are also starting to appear for wireless Internet access. Most of the 802.11 wireless networks that are springing up are private Local Area Networks (LANs), which provide Internet connections to their users only. However, if a group of these wireless networks allow 'roaming', then so-called 'mesh networks' can be built up, whereby users with mobile devices can get Internet access across an extended area.

    For an example of (open source) software that allows this kind of set-up, see

Hard World

  • We don't really have any real hardware related stories this month, but if you would like an interesting, in-depth and entirely spoof insight into the back-end kit used by search engine Google, then see For some reason we can't get this page to work on Internet Explorer, but it comes up fine in Opera and Netscape.

Soft World

  • Sellers of software face a threat from pirates, who copy and redistribute software without paying the copyright holder. Short of giving up and going home, there are two main responses to this threat. The first is to laud and encourage these 'pirate' redistributers, and then build a business on selling services associated with the software product. This is the model associated with the free software movement.

    Alternatively, you can try to build copy protection into your software. One interesting approach to this relies on the move towards distributed applications working over the Internet (as exemplified by Microsoft's .NET project). The idea here is that if you have local control over a crucial part of a distributed application, then you have full control over who can run the application.

    The more traditional approach to copy protection is to distribute software with crucial elements disabled, and then allow people to download keys to unlock the disabled parts. The trouble with this approach is that pirates will attempt to pick the lock, and can then distribute 'cracks' for the disabled software. However, this copy protection approach is becoming increasingly sophisticated, and it may be that such cracking is destined to become prohibitively difficult. See for an example of a sophisticated approach along these lines - their white paper is well worth a read.

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