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January 06, 2004
[ Move Along Now Please! Nothing To See Here ]

Folks, another year, and this website is now officially moved. Please come visit. Same content, same bloke blathering on. The only downside: For now no email subscriptions. Maybe now is the time to take the plunge into RSS?

December 31, 2003
[ A Way Forward For RSS Content ]

RSS is one of those technologies that's hard to explain to casual users of the Internet. When you tell them they can have their news and site updates in the form of a feed, direct to their desktop, they usually ask

a) can't I do that already? I thought I could do that already.
b) you mean like email? I don't want more programs on my computer. Or
c) OK, sounds good but what kind of things can I get?

Don't get me wrong. RSS, or something like it, is the future. But it's a hard sell to folk who haven't downloaded a program in their life (more people than you're care to imagine; I wonder what the stats on that look like), or to folk who are so worn out by spam they don't want to sift through more bits and pieces arriving on the computer. But even if people do like the sound of it, RSS still doesn't lend itself to grabbing information. It's great for folks looking to read what other people are writing, or even keeping up to speed on general news, but it doesn't quite have the customisation necessary to lure ordinary folk. Not everyone considers reading blogs in another format to be their idea of fun.

This may be changing (not the idea of fun, the customisation of RSS.) Klips, an RSS-type desktop feed from Serence, have introduced modules that include feeds of more specific, user-defined data, allowing you to track selected currencies, UPS and FedEx packages and stocks. (While I love the design and simplicity of Klips, I don't think they work for large bodies of information, such as blogs and news, so expect to see Klips move more and more in the direction of small clumps of changing data, such as traffic reports, flight departure and arrival times, or hot deals, scattered around your desktop.)

RSS could do a lot of this too, but so far hasn't. You can harvest a lot of information via RSS but most of it is passive: You can't tailor it too much. Either take the feed or don't. This will change, and already is beginning to, thanks in part to a guy called Mikel Maron from the University of Sussex. He's come up with a way to deliver some of the personalized data from your My Yahoo! account to an RSS feed, a neat trick that arose from his university studies. (If you're interested in the technical aspects, here they are in PDF form.) So far his feed -- which is not related to Yahoo! in any way -- can handle market quotes, weather and movie listing, depending on how you've configured your Yahoo! account. But of course his approach offers great potential for funnelling all sorts of personalized data straight to your RSS browser. Let's hope Yahoo! support, or even buy, Mikel's efforts.

(Thanks to Chris Pirillo's LockerGnome RSS Resource for pointing out Mikel's site.)

December 30, 2003
[ Goodbye To The Browser? ]

Here's some more interesting end-of-year stuff from Nielsen//NetRatings: a report issued today (PDF file) says that three out of every four home and work Internet users access the Internet using a non-browser based Internet application, particularly media players, instant messengers and file sharing applications. “With 76 percent of Web surfers using Internet applications, functionality has grown beyond the browser to become a fundamental piece of the overall desktop,” said Abha Bhagat, senior analyst Nielsen//NetRatings. “It's become harder to distinguish when you're on the Internet, blurring the lines between what's sitting on the desktop and what's coming from the World Wide Web.”

According to the report, the top five applications are Windows Media Player, AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, MSN Messenger Service and Real Player. Of these top five applications, Windows Media has the largest active user reach at 34 percent. AOL Instant Messenger was next at 20 percent, followed by Real Player also at 20 percent, MSN Messenger Service at 19 percent and Yahoo! Messenger Service, which reaches 12 percent of the active user base.

Interesting. But what does it actually tell us? First off, we shouldn't get confused by the data. This doesn't mean that folks are eschewing the browser, just that a lot of other programs are also connecting to the Internet (where is e-mail in all this?). Second, if Real Networks and MSN Messenger are anything to go by, a lot of these programs access the Internet without the user doing anything (or even knowing about it) so does this actually count? Lastly, there's been plenty written already about how Microsoft is moving past the browser to incorporate similar functionality into its Office and other products -- say Microsoft Word 2003's Research Pane, for example -- so it's clear the big boys would have us move to more proprietary, locked-in environments, which all of the top five applications have in common. We're not so much witnessing a demographic change as a deliberate shove by the main players.

My wish list? I'd like to see all of these players stop hoodwinking the end-user by loading their programs into the start-up queue automatically (you know who you are). It's deliberately misleading (read: sleazy), it hogs resources and it skews data like Nielsen's. I'd also like to see AOL, MSN and Yahoo all agree to share their instant messaging lists so folk like me don't have to use great alternatives like Trillian to pull together our disparate buddy networks (Trillian will lump all your different Instant Messaging accounts into one easy to view window, minus all the ads and annoying pop-ups).

I see no danger in the browser gradually being phased out for plenty of web-related tasks. But, if the Internet has really become 'part of the desktop' let's try to make it a place where ordinary folk can hang out without too much hassle.

[ Online Holiday Spending Throws Up Some Kinks ]

I think we might have said this last year (and the year before) but this holiday appears to have been the Big One for spending online. According to a report by Goldman Sachs, Harris Interactive and Nielsen//NetRatings ('the eSpending Report') the total amount spent online was $15.8 billion, up a whopping 37% from 2002. (They don't say this was in the U.S., but I'm assuming it is.)

There's some interesting ticklers in the details too: While every category went up, a lot more was spent on practically everything except music this year. While folk seemed to spent a lot on clothes ($3.1 billion spent, up 40% over 2002), the biggest increase was in DVD and video ($1.4 billion, up 58%), a jump that could be explained largely by the rising popularity in DVD players, one of the biggest selling consumer items this year.

But it's the meagre 20% rise in online music spending that gets me. They splashed out only $790 million this year -- a bit more than half of what they spent on books or video. Now while some of this discrepancy may be blamed on the rise of the DVD -- they weren't available in such numbers last year, they're usually sold in the same store as music CDs -- it doesn't really hold water when you compare it to the books category, which has been available for years online (at least 1996, if not earlier) and yet also showed an impressive 39% growth, with folk spending $1.4 billion on tomes this year. Could this either be a sign of the lingering appeal of online file sharing, suspicion about the spread of 'hobbling technologies' that restrict usage of CDs, or a growing lack of interest in what is on offer at current prices?

I've asked Nielsen for more data, so perhaps there's another explanation for this.

December 29, 2003
[ Some (Not So) Light Reading ]

For those of you easing back into work after the holidays, or stuck in the office before the New Year partying begins, here are some suggestions for Internet reading.

The future of Microsoft: Is 2004 going to be Redmond's swansong? Some people think so, including The Inquirer, which says that the company's flat first quarter earnings are a sign "it is running low on wiggle room, the core customers are negotiating hard, and Microsoft is giving way". Interesting, if somewhat aggressive, reading. For the usual Slashdot discussion of the topic, go here. Certainly it's going to be a difficult year for Microsoft, and one way the company may go is to try to further lock in users to its formats -- Word, audio, Excel, whatever -- and to lock other software companies out.

That's also the tack that veteran commentator Steve Gillmor believes Apple is taking with its iPod. He points out that what was once a MP3 player is now threatening to be a lot more than that, from a PDA to a video device (to a handphone, as well). But Gillmor also points out that this is part of a bigger battle to try to establish one kind of Digital Rights Management over another. (This basically is a legal and software trick that limits your freedom to copy or alter files, whether they're music, words or pictures. Say your version of Microsoft Word supported DRM, you may find yourself unable, say, to copy a document you're viewing, or to save it in another format, or, more insidiously, unable to access a Word document composed in a non-Microsoft program, say, Open Office. DRM effectively removes the kind of supremacy you've enjoyed over what you own: In music, for example, DRM would mean you rent rather than own your CD collection.)

Gillmor discusses Apple's approach, which is slightly different, but with seemingly similar goals: To lock the consumer into using a proprietary format. I think consumers will -- and should -- fight any attempt to limit access to their files, whether they be music, words, pictures or movies, tooth and nail. Legitimate fears of piracy and security should not allow any corporation to dictate the size or make of wall protecting us (look at e-voting for the lessons we should learn on that.). This year will define where we go on this issue. Or as Mr Gillmor says: "With the election looming as a referendum on issues of security, rights and opportunity, and the Internet emerging as a major player for the first time, DRM may be democracy's Last Waltz."

December 27, 2003
[ ]

If you were one of the few who didn't get an iPod in their stocking this Christmas, don't despair: Designtechnica Articles is reporting strong rumours that Apple may launch a $100 iPod next month. While current iPod units start at $300 and are based around a 10 to 40 gigabyte hard drive, the budget priced iPods are expected be Flash Memory based -- and so will not store so much. ThinkSecret, meanwhile, says the new iPods will be smaller in size, hold either 2 or 4 gigabytes of music, and come in different colours -- including stripes.


If it's true, it will be a smart move for Steve Jobs. While the iPod has been a big hit this holiday -- the BBC says UK stores are having problems keeping up with demand -- there is still a big market of folk who cannot afford the $300 or more for an iPod, leaving the field open for other manufacturers.

December 24, 2003
[ Spam As Revenge? ]

Is spam being used as a business weapon to damage a competitor's reputation? Florida-based North American Liability Group, an insurance company, said yesterday it had "become aware that an unauthorized spam email was sent out about the Company by an unknown third party". A press release issued by the company said it "has discovered that someone who identified himself or itself as "RB" sent a spam email which contained information which did not come from the Company, was never approved by the Company and in fact, contained inaccurate information about the Company." It seems the company has no idea who RB is (and the company doesn't say what the spam contained: Either way, given public impatience with spam, it's not likely to enhance the company's image.)

What benefit could RB possibly derive from such spam, unless it was to discredit the honest folks at North American? A disgruntled employee? A rival? Certainly spam is a potent way to damage reputations: I recall a year or so back trying to find out who sent out spam in the name of TemplateStyles.com. The company itself denied all knowledge, but some angry respondents were suspicious, pointing to the lack of proper information about the company on its website. A year on it seems the site is now up for sale, so either the doubters were right or the spam killed off the company's chances. Either way it brought home how easy it would be to dent a reputation by sending out spam in someone's name.

Then there's the Spam Slur: A few days back I started receiving an email alleging that some German individual "is a knave" who apparently does not deliver goods he has contracted to deliver. (I'm afraid I foolishly deleted several copies of the email, which was clearly sent out in spam-like quantities.) No one can trace the source of the slur, but the target is bound to have felt some pain at being labeled a knave. I haven't been called that since school.

[ Ho, Ho, Ho, Tis The Season Of The Online Scam ]

Phishing -- the art of depriving folk of their sensitive password data and then using it to empty their pockets -- has become the scam du jour of the holiday season. The Anti-Phishing.org website says it has seen 'dramatic' growth in November and December of email spoofing (emails claiming to be from, for example, your bank) and general fraud activity. (Anti-Phishing is an industry group founded by Tumbleweed Communications, a builder of anti-spam software.) For example:

-- More than 60 unique new phishing email fraud attacks have been launched against consumers in the last 2 weeks
-- Over 60 million email fraud attacks are estimated to have been sent out in the same period - timed for the peak of the holiday season
-- eBay customers were the most highly targeted by scammers, with 24 unique email fraud attacks over the past 60 days
-- Online financial institutions, including banks, Visa and PayPal, represented the largest target group with 35 unique email fraud attacks reported over the past 60 days

It seems that phishing has been remarkably rewarding for the scammers involved. The Anti-Phishing Working Group reckons an average of 5% of recipients respond to such emails, resulting in financial losses, identity theft, and other fraudulent activity. And, perhaps worse, this "activity threatens the integrity of companies that do business online". (I'm assuming they're talking about banks, eBay and other folk who rely on ordinary folk to maintain their faith in the security of online commerce.)

There are a number of ingenious scams that play on the holiday theme -- which also highlight that it's not just banks and big-ticket items that the phishers are targeting. One example is a fake online Christmas card, designed to compromise AOL accounts. In this scam, the recipient receives a spoofed email from the "AOL Hallmark" team, and is asked to visit a website to pick up his/her card. In order to access the site (which is run by the scammer), the user is asked to log in to his or her AOL account, thereby divulging the account name and password. The compromised account can then be used, anti-Phishing says, to launch further phishing attacks, virus attacks, spam, or other nefarious activity.

Clearly this sort of thing is going to grow, becoming more sophisticated as users wise up to the scams. Recent emails now play upon the growing awareness of scams by claiming to be from your bank, warning you about such scams and telling you to ignore other emails. They then, of course, go on to tell to visit the legitimate website to confirm your password. (The main component of this trick is that 90% of the email is genuine, in that the images are all from the bank's website, and if you hover your mouse over the link you're being asked to visit, it may well look genuine too. What you're actually seeing, is a clever ruse: the real website is buried at the end of the link, hidden after a lot of empty space. So checking that sort of thing is no longer enough. It should go without saying that you shouldn't react to any email that requires you to do anything with your password. For a good resource on such scams, check out Codefish.)

In the end all this will help educate users about the Internet and improving their own security. I don't see it doing any serious damage to online commerce, at least in terms of undermining public confidence. I do believe, however, that we've seen only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the sophistication of scammers, and banks and other online institutions must improve their awareness of the threat, as well as protect and educate their customers.

Have a phishing-free Christmas.

December 22, 2003
[ The iPod Battery Controversy Hits The Mainstream ]

The discussion about iPod batteries has entered the mainstream. You may recall posts on this blog a few weeks back about two brothers who took their complaint that Apple would not replace their worn out battery -- saying the warranty had expired, and suggesting they buy a new iPod -- public, via a video posted onto the net and public defacement of Apple billboards. I tried to get a comment from Apple at the time, but felt they had less of a case the more I looked at the story: It turned out that Apple did replace batteries (for $99, which would give you a refurbished iPod) or alternatively, you could do it yourself with third party batteries, saving yourself up to $40.

Now The Washington Post has written up the experience of the Neistat brothers, and presented it as an example of the disposability of electronics, and of irate consumers fighting back.

It's a great piece. Trouble is, I don't think the story is quite as simple as that. First off, there's some suggestion the brothers haven't been completely upfront. According to one academic who briefly hosted their video on his server, Dave Schroeder, there are some holes in their version: He says Apple began offering the replacement program nearly a week before the brothers' website was registered (ipoddirtysecret.com, on November 20; Apple's replacement program was announced on November 14). As Schroeder acknowledges in his letter to the Washington Post (posted at Slashdot), it was 'coincidentally close', but was before Apple had was aware of the brothers' video. (The Post article says the Apple announced expanded warranties for new iPod owners to purchase for $59, and also introduced a new $99 battery-replacement mail-in service for others "days after the movie made the rounds" of websites like Schroeders. The Neistat brothers themselves are more cautious on their website, saying "After we finished production of the film, but not necessarily in response to it, Apple began offerring a battery replacement program for the iPod for a fee of $99 and an extended warranty for the ipod for $59".)

But did the brothers know about this before they posted their video? Schroeder says yes, saying he agreed to post their video on condition the brothers post a link on the same site to the Apple replacement program, something which he says they never did. (Schroeder has kept a record of their communications here.) If this is true, I don't see any way one can link the Neistat's campaign with Apple's decision to offer a refurbishing service.

But what about the allegation that Apple is building in obsolescence into what are already pricey gadgets, using batteries that die after 18 months and steering punters into replacing the whole unit for $400, while making it hard to replace the batteries without damaging the unit? not everyone agrees it's hard to replace the battery: Here's an example of one user who felt confident her mother could do it without help. But I have to say, I've fiddled around with my iPod a bit, trying to get the back off according to instructions, and would conclude that my mother wouldn't enjoy doing it. It's certainly tricky, and hard to do without scratching the iPod body.

My conclusion? I think Apple have been remiss in a) not introducing a refurbish program earlier, b) not making it easier to replace the batteries, and c) not immediately guiding the brothers to websites which sell do-it-yourself batteries. While the iPod is beautifully designed, I can't really see a reason for not including screws in the casing.

But having said all that, I think we must be careful about guerrilla consumer actions such as those undertaken by the Neistat brothers. We may not not yet know the whole story (I've emailed both them and Apple asking for more information), but so far it seems that their campaign may have misled hundreds of thousands of users by not including, either in it or on websites where it was posted, information about alternatives to buying a new iPod. Consumer activism should not copy advertising. It should be informative, not deceptive.

December 19, 2003
[ Note to loose wire readers ]

Note to readers: I'm afraid I've not been able to update this site for a day or two now due to problems with the hosting servers. For those of you reading online, I suggest you move your browser/bookmark to the blog's new home, loosewireblog.com; for those of you accessing via RSS, to switch to the new feed, and for those of you receiving this by email, to either switch to RSS or to have patience: I'll be setting up an email subscription to the new site shortly.

December 17, 2003
[ CD-Rom Business Cards. Huh? ]

I know I may be missing something here, but what is this all about business cards on a CD Rom? Newsweek reports increased sales of these things -- either full size or credit card sized and shaped -- which people hand out at trade shows: "General consensus in the biz world: why spring for color brochures at $5 a pop when CD cards average a buck each? For much more cash—$3,000—New York’s HYLife Productions can squeeze up to eight minutes of video on its cards."

I have to say I have enough problems with real business cards that aren't the right shape or where the text is the wrong way up. Out here in Asia these small CD sized name cards came and went -- at least in my line of work -- a few years back, and I'm pretty sorry to hear that they may be making a comeback. First off, how exactly is 100 MB of Flash really going to help? And if the ones I received are anything to go by, folk would usually jazz up even the most basic contact details with fancy graphics so you could forget about simply copying and pasting the salient details into Outlook. Sorry but I'd rather the guy say 'Here's my name card but I'll email you my vCard". Or "Are you all Bluetoothed up? Let me beam it to you now." Or, if you like the guy and want to make a firm commitment, ask him: "Are you on Plaxo?"

Sure, I can understand the use of CD-Roms to hand out data about reunions, parties and whatnot, but most folk who would know what to do with that sort of thing are wired, so why not email it to them? I already have way too many CD-Roms in my den; the last thing I want is funny shaped ones to add to them.

[ The Virtual World Gets Surprisingly Lifelike ]

The Sims Online - an Internet-only world where ordinary folk can take on another persona and interact with other folk virtually -- seems to be exhibiting all the signs of the real world, with a twist. Salon carries an article about a Sims community called Alphaville, and some of its citizens, including an academic called Urizenus (in real life, Michigan philosophy professor Peter Ludlow), a young man (or, possibly, a boy) called Evangeline, allegations of extortion, and the possible existence of a virtual brothel.

The story is well worth a read (subscription or day pass only), if only for its glimpse on the moral responsibilities a corporation running a community may have. If someone opens a virtual brothel for online folk to indulge in a little cyber-sex, is the company managing that world -- in this case Electronic Arts -- guilty of prostitution? And what happens if there's evidence the 'madam' of that brothel, and some of its employees, are underage? And then, exploring the matter further, is Electronic Arts guilty of censorship by terminating the account of the academic who chronicled such allegations in his online newspaper, Alphaville Herald? And if there's (ultimately) real money involved, should the police be called in to this virtual world?

I'm not surprised a philosophy professor is interested in these kind of issues. Going back to the early days of the Internet, the virtual world has a habit of impinging on the real. In that sense there's nothing different between real estate and virtual estate. If humans interact on it, it's turf and it needs to be policed. It will be interesting to see how EA handle this case, and whether they start patrolling their creation more thoroughly. And if they do, will it cease to be economically viable?

More discussion on this on Slashdot. Here's an 'interview' by Ludlow with Evangeline (parental discretion advised, via Boing Boing Blog)

[ The Future Of The Net ]

Newsweek takes a look (via TechDirt) at a future Internet controlled by corporations and governments through Digital Rights Management, secure chips and micropayments. It's an interesting article, and makes me ponder some interesting supplementary questions:

Are spammers, for example, the enemy of ordinary Internet folk, or virtual Robin Hoods eluding corporate control of the web? We all hate them now, true, but may we look back on them -- at some future point when corporate and governmental control dominates the web -- as tolerable evidence of the Internet's chaotic freedom? By trying to push them off the Internet through legal means, are we just tying our own future in knots?

Another thought: are micropayments the saviour of small business on the Internet, or just a trick by big corporates to tie us into their trickling subscription model? Living in Indonesia -- banned by PayPal and many smaller online sellers, which won't accept any payments from such a lawless country -- I know a little of what it feels like to hostage to the bigger e-commerce sites, because they're the only ones to accept my dollar. In the future, will it only be the big companies who have the risk models and infrastructure to do online business in a world of online IDs, DRMs and micropayments?

I'm confident that the anarchic tendencies of the Internet will undermine many corporate efforts to lock in customers: The online music site that thrives will be the one with the broadest range of file formats and the smallest limitation on how those files are used, stored and copied. Methods to cripple or limit use of software will always be cracked. Indignation will limit the advance of chip-based IDs -- in your computer, around your neck, in your handphone.

But I think those of us calling for regulation, standardisation and crackdowns on the Internet to make it safe for the ordinary user need to think harder about other threats to its future, in particular anything that punishes or banishes anonymity, anything that discriminates against the user accessing the web based on his/her point of entry (country, state, neighbourhood) and, in particular, any corporate which tries to set up tollbooths to grab a nickel every time we do something we used to be able to do for free.

December 16, 2003
[ The Year Of The Worm ]

Nothing new in this, but a fascinating summary of this year's viruses, and a sober reminder of how tricky it's all getting: F-Secure's review of 2003 makes for interesting reading. This for example, on how the Slammer worm caused so much network traffic:

In theory, there are some 4 billion public IP addresses on the Internet. The Slammer worm was released on January 25, 2003 around 04:31 UTC. By 04:45 it had scanned through all Internet addresses - in less than 15 minutes! This operation can be compared to an automatic system dialing all available phone numbers in the world in 15 minutes. As on the net, only a small number of phones would answer the call but the lines would certainly be congested.
Or the Bugbear.B worm, which tried to steal information from banks and other financial institutions:
To this end, the worm carried a list of network addresses of more than 1300 banks. Among them were network addresses of American, African, Australian, Asian and European banks. As soon as this functionality was discovered, F-Secure warned the listed financial institutions about the potential threat. The response time of the F-Secure Anti-Virus Research Unit was 3 hours 59 minutes from the detection of the worm to the release of an anti-virus update. F-Secure also published a free tool to clean systems affected by Bugbear.B.
Or Sobig.F, which waited for a couple of days after infecting a machine and then turned affected machines into e-mail proxy servers:
The reason soon became apparent: spammers, or organizations sending bulk e-mail ads, used these proxies, which Sobig had created, to redistribute spam on a massive scale. Computers of innocent home users were taken over with the help of the worm and soon they were used to send hundreds of thousands of questionable advertisements without the owner being aware of this.

It is likely that there's a virus writer group behind Sobig. They planned the operation, then used the worm to infect a huge number of computers and then sold various spammer groups lists of proxy servers which would be open for spreading spam. It was clearly a business operation.
A great read, and fodder for a novel were it not just the start of a difficult time for the Internet.

[ More On Google's Masterplan ]

BusinessWeek pick up the theme of Google taking on the world. With the ability to track shipments and airplanes in real time via Google, the search engine keeps eyeballs on its website longer. But "Google is providing this new shipment tracking service even though it doesn't have a partnership with FedEx. Rather, Google engineers have reprogrammed it to query FedEx directly with the information a user enters and provide the hyperlink direct to the customer's information."

But, BusinessWeek point out, "with every new service, Google takes a slice of someone else's pie. Its ability to find pizza places within any given Zip code ultimately eliminates the use of YellowPages. Using it to find word definitions diminishes the business proposition of online dictionaries."

The argument goes that "Google becomes the omnipresent middleman and a clear and present danger to just about any company that relies on the Internet for commerce." But where is the revenue? I think BusinessWeek is right in saying the money will be in providing the gateway to those sites. Most folk I know go to Google first, indeed have it as their homepage. The more you can access from that fast-loading, uncluttered page, the more you'll use it as your homepage. Who cares where you go next?

It has nothing to do with stickiness in the way we used to think of it. Google doesn't need people to stay at Google. But folk like UPS and FedEx need to have the link with Google -- especially if their competitors have it. For them Google becomes their customers' first stop. Whether it's cinema tickets, airline tickets, packages or whatever, Google will act as a kind of fast-searching gatekeeper for other sites. Those other sites may not have much choice -- they don't already, with the site: hack on Google working as a better search engine for individual sites than the site's search page -- but they'll all draw benefit. And presumably Google will collect a toll, in advertising or something else.

It's the New Portal: Empty, except for what you need, and fast.

[ Nokia Sets An Example For RSS ]

Here's a sign of what a company can do with RSS, winning fans, distributing information and building bridges. Technical consultant and blogger Russell Beattie points to a wonderful page by Nokia, containing all of Nokia's documents, announcements and toolkits via a bunch of different RSS feeds.

As Russell says, "There's sooooo much to be gleaned from Nokia's site it's incredible." He points to just one document, a presentation Music, video, streaming contents services Demand in Asia Pacific which has some fascinating facts about current mobile data services world wide:

  • Approx 1 billion SMS/day globally

  • Mobile ring tones are already a USD 3-5billion business

  • UK ring tones market will overtake the CDs singlesmarket 2003

  • UK: over 780 million WAPpage impression /month in June 2003 (130% growthin 9 months)

  • Est~10 millionmobile Java downloadsglobally / month in June 2003

  • Over 75 operators have launched mobile Java services

  • Over 140 operatorshave launched MMS(Aug 2003)

  • mmo2 reportsapprox 5 MMS /monthsper active user

  • Over 20 operatorshave launched mobile video content services (MMS video, streaming)

There's enough there for a dozen columns. But what I like is that Nokia have taken the trouble to present all this information in an accessible way. My grumble with Nokia until now is that their sites are not intuitive -- unlike their cellphones -- but you can't say that anymore. I wish more companies would do this kind of thing. It's not rocket science but it is helpful.

[ Zone Labs Snapped Up - Firewalls R Us? ]

My favourite firewall, Zone Alarm, is being bought by another firewall maker, Check Point Software Technologies [CNet News.com].

It looks to me as if there's quite significant consolidation within the security software industry, not just from the point of view of big guys buying the smaller guys, but of companies trying to create products that offer an all-round 'security solution'. Symantec have long peddled this type of idea, but in their 2004 editions have increased the coverage to include cutting out spam, spyware and even pop-ups. With Check Point focusing on server-side software it makes sense that they grab Zone Labs, whose strength is software for desktops and notebooks.

Expect to see software companies trying to push more integrated software that offers this kind of overall solution to corporates and to ISPs. While it obviously makes sense for companies to farm out these kind of problems -- viruses, spam, any kind of disrupting influence on their networks -- Internet Service Providers will doubtless see a market to sell something similar to the individual user, keeping such rubbish out of their inbox and away from other subscribers.

My only worry is that such 'packaged solutions' may not offer the best individual component: Just because a company makes all the products you need, doesn't mean they're all great. I use Norton Antivirus but stick with Zone Alarm because it tells me more about what's going on.

[ Are Privacy Fears About RFID Tags Just Hype? ]

Reports that delegates to the World Summit on the Information Society conference in Geneva were unwittingly wearing RFID tags which could have tracked their movements, attendance at meetings or seminars, visits to the john etc etc has raised some debate about RFID (Radio Frequency ID), privacy, security and the rights of the individual to know what the tag around their neck actually tells people about them.

My posting, which didn't actually make any specific comment about the news, prompted this from Mike Rowehl of Bitsplitter who says, among other things, that "surre, there are plenty of issues to be worked through with RFID, but it’s hardly the boogeyman that everyone makes it out to be. A cell phone can just as easily (and in the future, more easily most likely) be used to determine a users location".

Actually, Mike, I'm not sure that's right. Cellphones work in large areas, and can narrow the location of a phone (and its user) down to quite a small area, but RFID works in small, enclosed areas. As one of the delegates, Olivier Piou of Axalto told the conference last Friday:

Wireless technologies also present a similar threat to privacy: while it is relatively easy to turn off a cellular phone (because all of them have an ON/OFF button!), radio-frequency identification systems - also known as RFID or contactless systems - are activated from a distance. It becomes so very easy to install a reading antenna, in the subway or in any place like in this conference room, to detect who is there without awareness and consent.

Numerous books and movies have predicted that our civil society would not be wise enough to protect its basic universal human rights in this digital age. However, the more we have powerful tools available to us, the more we have the duty to use them for the best of humanity. This is why I wanted to raise your awareness today.

This is why also, we at Axalto believe that it is essential that digital identity be designed to ensure trust and confidence in modern digital systems, and that it be combined with conventional physical identity into a secure portable object that citizens can voluntarily present to be identified, to authorities in the physical world and to on-line services in the virtual world.

That this comes from an industry insider -- Axalto is the new name of Schlumberger unit SmartCards, of which Olivier Piou has been president since 1998; he has been in the smart card business since 1994. (Smart cards are microprocessor cards used mainly for ID) -- should give some weight to concerns raised by the use of RFID at the summit. That the summit itself, supposedly concerning itself with the information society, should not be more aware of a) the privacy aspects of its tags and b) unable to answer questions raised by privacy advocates, does not inspire confidence.

While I don't agree with the more outlandish claims that RFID is a new kind of big brother, there's little doubt in my mind that it's a technology which needs some serious attention before it can be deployed in public.

December 15, 2003
[ loosewire blog notice -- We're Moving ]

My apologies for moving again, but we're gradually relocating the loosewire blog to new premises. This URL is the best one to use: loosewireblog.com. The new site uses TypePad, which offers greater flexibility for categorising and archiving posts. Let me know what you think about the move.

If you're an RSS feed user, please change your feed to this one (right click, copy the address, and paste it into your newsfeed reader. (I'm using Luke Hutteman's excellent SharpReader).

Email subscribers will be catered for, although I'm not quite sure how at the moment. Those who can, I'd encourage to take the RSS feed and then unsubscribe from the mailing list. Let me know if you have problems doing so.

I'll keep this site going a while longer, but will have to stop at some point.

[ Getting Dumb With PowerPoint? ]

I'm a fan of Edward Tufte, the guru of charts, but I'm still not sure about his view of PowerPoint. The New York Times Magazine has another article on his recent polemic against Microsoft's presentation software. Tufte claimed, as the NYT piece says, that Microsoft's ubiquitous software forces people to mutilate data beyond comprehension, infusing PowerPoint with ''an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.''

Not that Microsoft gets it either: NYT quotes Simon Marks, the product manager for PowerPoint, as saying that the opposite is 'data density', shoving tons of data at an audience. You could do that with PowerPoint, he says, but it's a matter of choice. ''If people were told they were going to have to sit through an incredibly dense presentation,'' he adds, ''they wouldn't want it.''

NYT's conclusion: If you have nothing to say, maybe you need just the right tool to help you not say it.

[ RFID Secretly Tags The Internet Summit ]

The Washington Times has an interesting piece about the the Internet and technology summit in Switzerland last week. Delegates, it says, were unknowingly bugged with RFID tags, according to researchers who attended the forum.

RFID is Radio Frequency ID, which means the tags could have contained and given off all sorts of information, including the wearer's exact location. The badges were handed out to more than 50 prime ministers, presidents and other high-level officials from 174 countries, including the United States. Researchers questioned summit officials about the use of the chips and how long information would be stored but were not given answers.

The three-day forum focused on Internet governance and access, security, intellectual-property rights and privacy.

[ Beware The Granny Spammer ]

Here's a different take on the spam wars: the granny spammer. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution tells the story of Flo Fox, a graying grandmother in a "What Would Jesus Do?" T-shirt who uses a couple of shopworn computers to out millions of junk e-mails for merchandise ranging from land in Belize to blessed coins.

What I found interesting about the story, apart from the granny bit, is that the spammers interviewed say they have established Internet accounts in countries where spam isn't controlled, though they won't say where. "You're not going to stop it," one of the spammers is quoted as saying. "Most of us go offshore now. You have to hide where you are." This is where Asia comes in, big: Korea, China, India, Pakistan and possibly Malaysia top my list of suspects.

(More discussion about the people in question, by people who apparently go to church with them, on Slashdot, the place where everybody knows your name.)

[ Windows 98 - Is Microsoft Really Dumping Users? ]

This from reader Jim Erlandson on Microsoft's declining support for Windows 98:

"Windows 98 support isn’t dropping off the face of the earth according to Microsoft. $35 per incident phone support is. How many people do you know who have spent $35 for a phone call to Microsoft lately?

And a quote in C|Net indicates that security updates will probably still be released as needed. The company's policy would not ordinarily call for Microsoft to provide any security-related patches, but in an e-mailed statement, the company said it would evaluate future threats as they emerge.

"In addition to the robust set of third-party security products we encourage all Windows customers to use, including antivirus and firewall products, (after Jan. 16) we will evaluate malicious threats to our customers' systems on a case-by-case basis and take appropriate steps," Microsoft said.

That bit about “more than 80 percent of companies surveyed were still using Windows 98 and/or Windows 95.” would be more interesting if they quoted percent of desktops. By their method, a company with thousands of Win XP machines and a single Win 98 box in the basement running the boiler would add to that 80 percent number – but not in a meaningful way."

Thanks, Jim. All good points.

December 13, 2003
[ More Search Tools ]

Search seems to be this week's Thang. eWeek reports that Groxis is about to launch a new version of its desktop software that can retrieve results from multiple search engines and instantly categorize them. Rather than returning a simple list of results, Grokker 2 groups them into various categories that are displayed in a visual map of icons, allowing users to drill down to find specific sites or content.

In Version 2, eWeek says, Grokker has its own intelligence engine that analyzes content in order to categorize it on the fly. It also pulls search results from significantly more sources of information. Don't expect Grokker 2 to be cheap: Grokker 1 cost $100 for a single user license.

[ Google The Portal? ]

At what point does Google stop being a search engine and start being what we used to call a Portal? Or has it already happened? Yesterday it announced a new search feature for tracking shipments via Federal Express and United Parcel Service. Type in your tracking number into Google and it will take you directly to the relevant company's webpage, CNET reports.

The new "Search by Number" feature also brings up information linked to other kinds of numbers, such as patent numbers, equipment identification numbers issued by the Federal Communications Commission, and airplane registration numbers from the Federal Aviation Administration (for checking flight delays).

As Gary Price of ResourceShelf points out, offering such specialized information is not new: Ask Jeeves has been working on something called Smart Answers, AltaVista on Shortcuts for even longer. It's intriguing that what folk a few years back thought would be popular -- lots of noisy graphics and titbits of news in an all-flashing, all-dancing big brand portal -- is being overtaken by something very, very simple: a quiet, white interface that lets you find what you want, whether it's a recipe or a patent, fast. I kinda like that.

December 12, 2003
[ Another Kind Of Popup? ]

Maybe it's been around a while, but I only spotted it just now: a new kind of contextual, but only mildly relevant, pop-up link advertising. OK, that's not what it's called, but it describes it pretty accurately. It's called IntelliTXT and it comes from a company called Vibrant Media; it appears as a hyperlink to a word like any other hyperlink but it's in green. Nothing too weird there. Then you notice text appearing in a little help box thing: It's not a pop-up ad, exactly, but then it's not exactly what you expect either, as in a link to a site directly related to the word in question.

Here's an example, courtesy of InfoSync World: the word 'mobile' on this page for example, has a link and pop-up box that says 'Windows Mobile--Your stuff, now available on the fly. Software for Smartphone, Pocket PC, or Pocket PC Phone Edition. Click here to see it for yourself!' which then takes you to a vibrantmedia page (which seems to be a broken link at time of writing).

The word Internet, meanwhile, offers you 'DIRECWAY - Internet Access -- Surf the Web via satellite. Available nationwide. Only $69.97 down and $99 a month. Includes the Direcway System and professional installation. Always on connection requires no phone line'. That link does, after a lot of waiting while the request goes through the Vibrant Media servers, take you to a Yahoo webpage where you can subscribe to Direcway, if the feeling so takes you.

This is cheeky, though perhaps not offensive. What's also cheeky is that you don't have any easy way of telling where the link might be taking you: Right-clicking on the link appears to be disabled. Neither can you view in the status bar of your browser the link in question: instead there lurks more text along the lines of the above.

This reminds me of something called RichLink from Sentius, which does pretty much the same thing (well, officially, 'software that automates the management of links and metadata to deliver point-of-interest content to end-users at the word, phrase, and metadata level for any Web application'). If I recall it used to provide medical definitions for the Reuters Health website.

Too early to make a judgement, but my first stab is that in a world increasingly annoyed by popups, the danger of alienating readers with links that aren't anything more than ads of questionable relevance seems to be quite high.

[ Windows 98 Users Face A Scary Future ]

A by-product of Microsoft's decision to phase out support for some of its 'old' products, citing Java-related legal issues: users are going to be very exposed to viruses and bad stuff like that. Ottawa-based AssetMetrix Research Labs found that more than 80 percent of companies surveyed were still using Windows 98 and/or Windows 95.

"On January 16th, 2004, Microsoft Windows 98 enters the non-support portion of its support lifecycle. Windows 98 is considered obsolete, and security-based hot fixes will not be generally available for users of Windows 98 or Windows 98-Second Edition," eWeek quoted Steve O'Halloran, managing director of AssetMetrix Research Labs, as saying.

This is daft. According to some reports, Microsoft doesn't need to do all this until next September, raising suspicions that it's just trying to make Sun -- owner of Java -- look like the evil wolf, and to force buying folk to migrate to XP. If any of this is true, I'd like to see Microsoft agree to provide security updates for at least Windows 98 users for as long as they can. I can't see Sun, or the courts, objecting to that.

[ Phone Commercials And Sloppy Eaters ]

Alan Reiter, the camera phone guy, has some interesting stuff to say about how phone companies are shooting themselves in the foot with dumb commercials that only reinforcing perceptions that camera+phone=public menace. He points to a TV commercial of a girl snapping a guy eating pasta like a slob, and then sending it to the guy's fiancee. (I don't know how this mini-story ends, but I assume the message is: "Buy a camera phone and avoid foolish mistakes like marrying a guy who doesn't eat nice".)

Anyway, Alan asks, "Wouldn't you think that with all the money the handset vendors and cellular operators can spend on advertising and marketing, they would be able to come up with commercials that not only target the right demographics, but also wouldn't wave a red flag in front of people who want to ban phones?" I agree. The ads I've seen in this part of the world only convince me that marketing folk haven't got a clue about what users could do with these gadgets and so build their commercials around nonsensical scenarios involving butterflies, ocean-going yachts and beautiful people in tight sweaters. I think municipalities should ban the commercials, not the phones.

[ Use Your Phone As A Barcode Scanner ]

infoSync World reports of new software that allows camera phone users to take a picture of a barcode and then, say, retrieve information about the product: whether it's cheaper elsewhere, dietary information, or downloading music samples from a poster advertising a new album.

The product, ScanZoom, is made by US-based software company Scanbuy. The article points out that a similar technology is already available in Japan, where phones can recognize e-mail addresses, web site URLs and telephone numbers through their embedded cameras.

[ Logitech, the Bluetooth Hubster ]

I'm still playing with mine, but on the surface Logitech look like they may be the first to fashion a real Bluetooth hub for the PC. The problem has been to develop a dongle, or some other widget, that can easily turn a non-Bluetooth PC into one that can easily recognise and deal with other Bluetooth devices. I've tried a lot and have yet to find one that works seamlessly. (The word 'seamlessly' and 'Bluetooth' don't usually appear in the same sentence.)

Meanwhile Logitech has announced that its own candidate, the Bluetooth Wireless Hub, now works with the latest Bluetooth phones from Sony Ericsson and Nokia; new PDAs from Toshiba, HP, and palmOne; as well as hands-free headsets from Sony Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia. It's worth checking out, although one word of warning: As far as I can work out, the hub will only work if you connect it directly to a USB port -- and not to an external hub. If your PC only has one or two USB ports, and you're using a lot of (non Bluetooth) USB gadgets, that can be a major no-no.

December 11, 2003
[ A New Search Toolbar -- From Copernic ]

This from the folks at Copernic, who produced a wonderful search engine called, er, Copernic, that has, perhaps, been overtaken by Google: introducing Copernic Meta, "completely new search software that can search multiple search engines in under a second directly from the Windows desktop bar or an IE browser".

The file is a tad over a megabyte, and installs both into Internet Explorer and your taskbar (the bit at the bottom of the Windows 98/XP screen). Type a phrase in there and it will search nearly every search engine, and throw up a melange of results familiar to anyone who's used Copernic the program. It's elegant, configurable -- and free.

[ Music Formats And The Death Of Ownership ]

One thing I still don't quite get is how online music will work in the long run -- who will own it? What will happen to it if the company you bought the songs from goes bust? And what happens if you're not near an Internet connection?

None of these issues seem any clearer with the announcement by the world's largest software and music companies, who on Wednesday, according to Reuters (via Techdirt), issued an initial set of technology specifications in a bid to create a system in which users would share customized Internet links, called "content references," instead of swapping song or film files directly.

From what I understand this would be like accessing a file on the Internet via hyperlinks -- basically how you use your browser now -- for which you would pay, either by subscription, or each time you listened to it, or whatever. I know it's a knee jerk reaction but to me this all sounds dumb.

A subscription approach may work for certain products -- movies, say, which folk may only want to watch once -- but music is a movable feast. We want to listen to it on the road, in the gym, in the bath, at the top of a mountain, on a long air/road/boat/train ride. Music, almost by definition, is not a static product. What's more, clearly this new approach is designed to squeeze more money out of the punter. For what? Do we actually end up owning the music, getting great sleeve notes, a product with lots of memories attached to it? Almost certainly not. It's a dripfeed revenue model, where we pay cents, thinking we're saving dollars, whereas all we're doing is paying a toll for something that once upon a time we could actually buy and keep. Or am I overreacting?

December 10, 2003
[ Camera Phones. They're Catching On ]

Further to my Loose Wire column last week about camera phones, here's some evidence to back up my shock assertion that they're catching on. The Register quotes market watcher Canalys as saying almost as many as shipped in the last quarter as shipped in the whole of the first half of 2003.

By 2006, over half of all mobile phones shipped will include cameras, Canalys reckons.

[ Worm Hits Diebold's Windows ATMs ]

It's not happy days for Diebold, the company behind ATMs and electronic voting. Its e-voting machines have been the source of much controversy -- earlier this month it withdrew its suit against people who had posted leaked documents about alleged security breaches in the software. Now its automatic teller machines have been hit -- by viruses.

Wired reports that ATMs at two banks running Microsoft Windows software were infected by a computer virus in August, the maker of the machines said. The ATM infections, first reported by SecurityFocus.com, are believed to be the first of a computer virus wiggling directly onto cash machines. (The Register said in January that the Slammer worm brought down 13,000 Bank of America ATMs, but they weren't directly infected: the worm infected database servers on the same network, spewing so much traffic the cash machines couldn't process transactions.)

But how can an ATM get infected? SecurityFocus says that while "ATMs typically sit on private networks or VPNs, the most serious worms in the last year have demonstrated that supposedly-isolated networks often have undocumented connections to the Internet, or can fall to a piece of malicious code inadvertently carried beyond the firewall on a laptop computer." In other words: the folk who write worms are smarter than we are.

[ The Mob Moves In ]

You know if AccountancyAge are reporting it, there's money involved. According to the bean-counters, organised crime is looking at how it can make money from spam and virus writing, which means attacks may become less common than now but more dangerous. Quoting Russian antivirus expert Eugene Kaspersky, the latest MiMail worms were the first in a new type of attack aimed at deriving financial profit from viruses and malware.

Recent MiMail variants collected and forwarded PayPal account details to the worms' creators. 'The business of the mafia is business, and there could be a lot of money to be made from malware and spamming. As they consolidate control, the business of hacking and virus writing they will squeeze out independents. Spam will be an early target,' he said.

What's the interest for the mafia? Stealing commercial valuable secrets, bringing down networks for extortion, grabbing money from PayPal accounts.

December 09, 2003
[ Do You Know Anyone Who Buys From Spammers? ]

There's another campaign on the road: This time it's telling you not to buy anything advertised on spam. I don't know anyone who would do this kind of thing, but there you are. According to Mike Adams ("President & CEO, Arial Software, LLC, Permission Email Pioneer and founder of the "Spam. Don't Buy It." public education campaign") says: "While Internet users are rightfully raising their voices and urging legislators to outlaw spam, few users examine their own contribution to the problem. It is true that the primary blame for spam falls on spammers, but it is equally true that spam wouldn't exist at all if Internet users stopped buying products offered by spammers."

His argument: "Every user's inbox is a reflection of what Internet users are buying through spam. No spammer sends emails in the interests of the public good: they do it for profit, and that profit is only generated when Internet users open spam, read spam, and buy from spam. To stop spam, we have to stop buying from spam. That's why I have created the "Spam. Don't Buy It." campaign, to help educate Internet users on their role in the ongoing spam problem."

Actually, the website does have some interesting bits. I'm just not quite sure what a "Permission Email Pioneer" is.

[ Spam Law Passed, Not Many Impressed ]

The U.S. Congress has passed the anti-spam bill, after the House voted to approve minor Senate amendments, The Register reports. Not everyone thinks it's a good idea. The Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act does more harm than good in the fight against spam, according to critics.

The bill criminalises common spamming tactics, such as using false return address. But it overrides Californian laws which had allowed spam recipients to sue spammers. The bill requires online marketeers to act on requests to "opt out" of future emails, unlike European Union legislation which requires them to seek the permission of consumers first.

The Can-Spam Act is expected to be signed into law by President Bush before the start of next year.

[ Anti-Spam Mail Service Aliencamel Adds Humps ]

One anti-spam service I tried a few months back was Melbourne-based Aliencamel, which I thought was good but not perfect, have just announced some new features which may make the product more competitive in a tight marketplace. Aliencamel works as a mix of different anti-spam and anti-virus elements designed to keep out the riff-raff so you only download what you want.

The new version turns Aliencamel into a kind of email account in its own right, including the ability to preview email in a web browser before tagging it as spam or downloading via your normal email program, full webmail access to your mailbox, as well as disposable email addresses you can use to deal with suspect web sites and third parties you're not sure about. On top of that the service's Pending Email Advisory -- a sort of floating alert that lets you know of new email that is suspect without actually sending it to you -- changes to reduce frequency of advisory emails.

Most important, I think, is the fact that Aliencamel are going to embrace Bayesian filters -- the simple method of assigning a probability of spamminess to emails by looking at the innards of the email (content, header, HTML code) and comparing it to other emails it has looked at. I adore Bayesian filters (I still use POPFile) so I think it's great that Aliencamel are moving in that direction.

(Aliencamel, by the way, is an anagram of clean email. It took me months to get it.)

[ The Phone Of The Future? ]

What will the handphone of the future look like? Sony reckons it will combine the functions of a mobile phone with an easy interface for remote access to computer files, The Asia Times reports. Here's what Gizmodo say it will look like:

The interface will allow users to virtually transfer picture, music and text files so they can be viewed from computers outside the home or office. The handset is smaller than a cellular phone and uses IP (Internet Protocol) for conversations. It also has the ability to interact with a PC via a wireless or infrared connection. (Somehow I doubt we're going to be using infrared in the future, but there you go.)

[ What Will Keep The Wi-Fi Customer Satisfied? ]

Wi-Fi Networking News talks about hotspots, and how providers are having to fight to keep their customers in a competitive market. Hotspot operators who charge, they say, are going to have to offer something unique beside Internet access if they want to attract customers. "Higher bandwidth than business-DSL or T-1 may have to be part of it."

I guess so. Most Wi-Fi spots are mere loss-leaders, ways to get people into your establishment and keep them there. Folk who charge may have provide other services to go with it: nice work environments, free coffee, printers -- or else be in places where there's no competition, like truckstops.

[ A Way To Marry Offline And Online Shopping? ]

Further to my post about the perils of offline browsing and online buying, here's a possible solution, from Wi-Fi Networking News: Software that lets PDA users check out details and reviews of a book while in the bookstore. SmartWorlds' free software lets PDA users (customers can borrow a PDA and scanner from staff) shop and learn more about books while they're in a bookstore: Users are connected to Amazon.com's site where they can read reviews of the book, check pricing, and see other books recommended by readers.

Here's the neat bit: In Boston, where the service is in place, the Trident bookstore is considered an affiliate of Amazon so if users of this service later buy one of the books they browsed for on Amazon, Trident earns a commission. Whether other bookstores are brave enough to do this I'm not sure, but it's a possible answer to the problem outlined in the earlier post. The beauty of it is that the bookstores play to their strengths: a great, comfortable place to browse and hang out, and the unmistakable allure of allowing customers to have that book in their hands, right now.

[ Buying Online And Its Impact ]

I usually agree with Mike of TechDirt, but the trend he points to here worries me: browsing for what you want to buy offline (i.e. in shops) and then buying online. All well and good if you're talking about big brick and big mortar department stores, megamalls etc, but what about the small corner store or bookshop? That kind of approach is just going to accelerate the destruction of the small vendor.

CNET quotes a study that "while nearly half of those surveyed use the Internet to look for products and then buy them either in a store or through a catalog, 45 percent are buying online after researching gifts in stores and catalogs". If everyone did that, there would be no stores to do your research in. For sure, folk are not going to buy something that's much more expensive, but they should consider the longer term impact of where they buy. As a former bookseller, I know customers don't think that hard about what life would be like without a bookshop until it's too late to stop buying their fare at the big mall at the end of the street.

[ Coke Gets Into The Online Music Game ]

It's kind of interesting how many players want to play the online music game. Coca cola, has just joined the fray, according to The Register, meaning there are now online music sites owned by Apple, Microsoft, Dell, HP, Napster, Pepsi, Coke and possibly Wal-Mart. Coke will go live in the UK next year, promising over 250,000 songs from 8,500 artists at a cost of 99p each. The new service will be run in partnership with music distributor OD2 - Microsoft's European DRM supplier.

I wonder how all this is going to pan out. All these sites use various kinds of Digital Rights Management -- DRM -- and formats -- MP3, WMA, etc -- which is going to make it hard for punters to use them on different gadgets (and even different desktop programs). Indeed, that's the point: As The Register rightly points out, these new players in the game aren't interested in getting into the music industry, they're interested in getting new customers to use their hardware, or, in the case of soft drink manufacturers, to buy their primary product.

December 08, 2003
[ Plaxo Gets Lax? ]

Sometimes things change, and it's hard to stay on top of them. Plaxo is supposed to help with this -- an Outlook plug-in (i.e. a little piece of software that attaches itself to Outlook) which will update your contacts with other Plaxo users you know, and vice versa. Nice idea, and on the whole they did a good job of executing it. But now things are changing in PlaxoLand, and I'm not sure I'm on top of them anymore.

There are privacy issues: who exactly gets to see your data? And then there's the money issue: how is Plaxo going to make money out of it? These sort of things worry folk: David Coursey, a columnist like myself but with more readers, trashes Plaxo, as does Mike in his excellent TechDirt blog. Plaxo was fine when people you knew added themselves and shared their info, but what happens, as Mike points out, when complete strangers do it?

I started to get peeved when I noticed that insurance salesmen started adding their contacts to my Plaxo setup. Surely that couldn't happen? I thought folk needed permission to do that? I asked Plaxo about this a few weeks back and was told: "If you are a Plaxo user and someone sends you a Plaxo card, there is a link in the notification to add them to your address book. They are only added if you explicitly click on this link." But I'm not sure that's true. I'm a journalist so I've got a lot of people in my address book I couldn't identify in a police line-up, but I'm pretty sure I didn't let some of this pondlife into my Outlook.

Bottom line: Plaxo need to address this and other issues before folk believe them. Sure, 800,000 people are using it in over 200 countries (how many countries are there? I thought it wasn't much more than that) but they'll leave in droves if they feel their privacy is being compromised.

[ Stop It Before It Starts ]

A program I've found highly useful of late is Windows Startup Inspector. It does something Windows XP should do, but doesn't: Allow you to decide what programs do and don't start when Windows does. It sounds dumb until you realise that most programs these days -- including a lot that should know better -- automatically load themselves, or bits of themselves, into memory when you boot up. It can seriously slow down your computer, and there's no straightforward way to fix the problem in Windows XP. It's a bit like the next door neighbour cadging a lift to work everyday without asking.

Startup Inspector lists all these annoying programs, and will even try to tell you more about them than merely their name, via an online database of some 3,400 known programs. I have disabled about half of the programs that have loaded themselves uninvited and it definitely helps, even when you've got lots of memory to play with. They hog memory, but they also take time to load. Even sneaky little programs like RealNetworks' Tkbell.exe (a silly little reminder program) will try to reload itself automatically into your start-up queue whenever you use the RealPlayer (my advice: don't use it if you can possibly help it.)

Windows Startup Inspector is Freeware. If you like it you can make a donation to the author, through PayPal. Or you can buy his laptop, which he seems to be selling on eBay. Hard times for software authors?

[ 2003, Year of the Spiral of Evil? Or Just The Start? ]

MessageLabs, who track this sort of thing, say that spam and viruses hit all time highs in 2003. Not surprising, but the figures are pretty shocking, revealing the symbiotic relationship between spam and viruses -- what I called in a recent WSJ/FEER column The Spiral Of Evil (no, it doesn't seem to have caught on). Here are the figures:

Two-thirds of all spam coming from open proxies created by viruses
Ratio of spam to email is 1 in 2.5 – up 77 per cent in 12 months
Ratio of virus to email now 1 in 33 – up 84 per cent

Basically, this means that virus writers are hijacking innocent computers and turning them into open proxies -- a sort of free sorting office for spam, churning it all and in the process hiding the original sender from anti-spammers.

Here's the link: Highlights of 2003 include Sobig.F breaking the world record in August to become the fastest spreading virus ever with one million copies stopped in a day by MessageLabs. MessageLabs also reckon that 66% of spam was coming from computers infected by viruses such as Sobig.F. At its peak, 1 in every 17 emails stopped by MessageLabs contained a copy of the SoBig.F. By December 1, more than 32 million emails containing the virus had been stopped by MessageLabs, putting Sobig.F at head of the Top 10 Viruses List for 2003.

[ Kazaa Gets Tough --- On Copyright Infringement ]

The irony is not lost on those writing about it: Sharman Networks, owner of the music-swapping program Kazaa (a Napster imitatator) is closing down Kazaalite K++, a version written by other folk that was designed to do what Kazaa does without all the spyware and adware. They complained about it infringing copyright, or something.

The irony continues: Although the main download site is down, users can apparently still obtain copies via the Kazaa network: In other words, use the Kazaa program to find the 'illegal' version of Kazaa to download music (illegally).

What strikes me is on the discussion sites (here's Metafilter and Slashdot), you realise just how many other similar programs there are to Kazaa, or Kazaalite. I guess online music swapping in one form or another is going to continue as long as there are clever programmers out there.

December 07, 2003
[ More Readers Than You Can Poke A Blog At ]

I was looking for a new RSS Reader today -- RSS is a format that allows, usually, bloggers to have their blogs fed directly to interested subscribers in a format that's simple and accessible. Rather than visit the blog the reader just opens their email, or, more commonly, a special program called a Reader, and reads the updates from there.

Anyway, there are a lot of readers out there. A lot. Even since the last time I looked a few months back. I won't recommend one, but you should check out FeedDemon, NewzCrawler. But there are dozens more: Abilon looks cute, as does RSSNewsTicker, which is less of a reader and more of a ticker scrolling across your screen.

The creativity in the blogging and RSS field at the moment is extraordinary. Very impressive.

[ Update: DVD Burners, Going Even Cheaper ]

Further to my column last week about how DVD burners may be worth investing in, Slashdotters are debating their rapidly falling prices -- in some cases to below $100. The discussion is here; the original article reviewing sub-$100 burners is here.
Having just spent more of my weekend than is healthy backing up my MP3 collection (20+ gigabytes) I have no doubt about their appeal for storing large quantities of data. That collection went onto six DVD discs. If I'd done the same thing to CD-ROM it would have taken, er, a lot more.

December 06, 2003
[ Update: The Anti Anti iPod Backlash ]

 More on the Neistat Brothers and their complaint about an iPod battery. Seems there's something of a backlash brewing by folk who feel they didn't have much of a case. (beautiful website, that one, by the way).
Note to subscribers to the blog. For now I'm sending these updates directly to you since there appears to be a problem with the Bloglet email handler. Please reply to me directly if you don't want to receive the updates. I'll let you know when things are back to normal.

[ News: Yahoo Proposes A Way Out Of Spam ]

 At last, someone is doing something about spam. Part of the problem behind spam is that email allows sleazier folk to fake where the email is coming from (the 'From' part of the email's address fields, or header.) But if email didn't allow that, and authenticated a sender before passing it on to the recipient, you might kill off spam in a second.
The problem has been implementing something like this. How do you get everyone to agree on the new system? Yahoo, Reuters reports, reckons it has the answer: architecture where sending an e-mail message would embed a secure, private key in a message header. The receiving system would check that against the sending domain's public key. If the public key is able to decrypt the private key embedded in the message, then the e-mail is considered authentic and can be delivered. If not, then the message is assumed not to be an authentic one from the sender and is blocked.
Yahoo says it can make the system work even if only a few major email providers adopt it. Given Yahoo's size in the email world that may not be so hard. Yahoo is making the technology available for free, so that while it may cost money to implement, it doesn't leave any one player with a proprietary technology dominating the industry. (I guess spam costs Yahoo so much money it has figured it's cheaper to give away a new system if it gets rid of spam.)
It'll be interesting to see how far this goes before another big player, say Microsoft, tries to stomp on it.

December 04, 2003
[ Note: Apologies to Subscribers of Loose Wire Blog ]

 Folks, my humble apologies to those of you who haven't received your blog update for a while. One subscriber alerted me to the problem and I believe I've fixed it. For those of you who haven't been receiving anything for a few weeks, I won't bombard you with back-issues, but please visit the site as, apart from a few days in October, it's been updated several times a day.
As usual, please feel free to email me with questions, suggestions, or comments you want either included in the blog or in the letters page of the Far Eastern Economic Review, Loose Wire's home. And, if you don't get anything for a day or two, send me an email.
For those of you who prefer it, there is an RSS feed available on the site. It's the same as this, but as an RSS feed, obviously.
Thanks for reading.

[ News: Wi-fi For Truckers ]

 Interesting piece from the New York Times about Wi-fi for truckers. Turns out they like Wi-fi because it's spreading to truckstops and their "cabs are not only workplaces but often sleeping quarters as well".
Truck stops have offered various Internet options for years, but the connections have often been slow and expensive, and required drivers to go inside. In turn the connections, available by subscription for terms from 15 minutes to a year, provide a new source of revenue for the truck stops.
What I like about this idea is that it expands the technology beyond its traditional white-collar borders. Plus it would help make a really good sequel to 'Convoy'.

[ Update: More RIAA Suits A-flying, More Lawyers A-leaping ]

 The Recording Industry Association of America Inc is not letting up. IDG News reports that the RIAA is firing off a new wave of lawsuits and lawsuit-notification letters to users alleged to have illegally distributed significant amounts of copyright-protected music files online.
The group is filing 41 new lawsuits and sending 90 lawsuit-notification letters this week, adding to the 341 lawsuits filed and 308 notification letters sent since September. The RIAA has settled with 220 file-sharers as a result of lawsuits, lawsuit-notification letters and subpoenas. In addition, 1,054 users have submitted affidavits as part of the RIAA's amnesty program.
The party is definitely over. But while clearly the RIAA doesn't worry too much about the negative publicity from all this, I suspect they may be winning the battle but not the war. Buying music online will not properly take off until users know that the music they buy will be nor more restricted than the CDs they buy in shops, as to where they can play, how long they play it, where they can copy it to, and whether it's theirs to sell on to someone else. Until that happens everything between now and then is an experiment.

[ Update: Wendy, Greg and Mimail ]

 Got my first Mimail-L virus email this morning. The social engineering is excellent. The header looks credible, the subject and address line plausible and the email itself is readable, literate and, while pornographic, a compelling storyline. It also got past my Bayesian spam filter which is unusual.
My conclusion: this could be a nasty one.

December 03, 2003
[ News: More Worms ]

Watch out for Mimail.L. During 1st and 2nd December 2003, MessageLabs has intercepted a number of copies of a further variant of the Mimail email worm - W32/Mimail.L. 
Here's what to watch out for:
The worm arrives as an attachment to an email with the subject line Re[2]. The emails arrive from spoofed addresses, disguising the true identity of the sender, such as:
The worm is self-propagating, and spreads by sending itself to emails harvested from infected machines.
Email characteristics
Subject line: Re[2]
Possible message texts:
Hi Greg its Wendy.
I was shocked, when I found out that it wasn't you but your twin brother!!! That's amazing, you're as like as two peas. No one in bed is better than you Greg. I remember, I remember everything very well, that promised you to tell how it was, I'll give you a call today after 9.
(remainder of text removed)
Good afternoon, We are going to bill your credit card for amount of $22.95 on a weekly basis. Free pack of child porn CDs is already on the way to your billing address. If you want to cancel membership and your CD pack please email order and credit card details to..(list of email addresses)
(remainder of text removed)
Attached file: test.exe

[ News: Squeeze More Out Of Your Gadget ]

 If you're trying to get more out of your PDA, phone, Treo or whatever, here's the blog for you: MobileWhack.
MobileWhack is a repository of hacks, hints, tips, tools, stories, news, ideas, and wishes for and around the mobile device you're actually using. The raisons d'etre are to be useful, to inspire, and to delight.
Actually there's some useful stuff in there. A post yesterday, for example, explains how to use your Treo 600 as a wireless modem.

[ News: File Sharers Beware ]

 File sharers beware: there's nowhere to hide, even in supposedly 'anonymous' filesharing networks. The NewScientist.com news service reports that Japanese police have arrested two people suspected of distributing pirated films and computer games through a program called "Winny", which is meant to hide the identity of a user from everyone else on the network.
It is unclear how the two suspects were traced but their arrests have raised concerns about the security of the Winny network. According to the Japanese Association of Copyright for Computer Software around 250,000 regularly use it to trade files. Interest in anonymous file sharing networks has grown rapidly since the US music industry began taking legal action against individual users as part of a controversial attempt to stamp out illicit online music trading.
This is the first time anyone has been arrested in relation to use of this type of secretive trading network. The most popular file-sharing networks provide little or no secrecy for users who can easily be traced through their computer's internet protocol (IP) address.

December 02, 2003
[ News: More Money Fighting Spam Than Making It? ]

As I've suspected, there's more money made in protecting us from spam than from spam itself. According to a report by Ferris Research quoted by TechWeb news, revenue for vendors selling anti-spam products will be approximately $130 million in 2003 and soar 200% in 2004 to a whopping $360 million.
Revenue generated by spammers in 2003 will be roughly $130 million while their profit during the year will range from $20 million to $30 million. Peanuts. Small potatoes.

[ mobile clogging ]

I read a lot about folk who blog from the road so i thought i'd try from my cellphone. This is it. I wish i had something to say but i don't.

[ Update: Diebold Confirms Dropping E-voting Suit ]

 Diebold, the electronic voting company and the subject of a recent Loose Wire column, have confirmed that they've decided not to sue folk who published leaked documents about the alleged security breaches of electronic voting. 
AP reports (no URL available yet) that a Diebold spokesman promised in a conference call Monday with U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel and attorneys from the Electronic Frontier Foundation that it would not sue dozens of students, computer scientists and ISP operators who received cease-and-desist letters from August to October. 
Diebold did not disclose specifics on why it had dropped its legal case, but the decision is a major reversal of the company's previous strategy. Ohio-based Diebold, which controls more than 50,000 touch-screen voting machines nationwide, had threatened legal action against dozens of individuals who refused to remove links to its stolen data.

[ View: Why Are Printers So Tricky? ]

 I've written before about how printer manufacturers gouge us by selling us cheap printers but expensive cartridges. But either I'm missing something or these guys won't stop at anything to make a bit more cash: I noticed for the first time yesterday that, with my HP DeskJet 640c, if I change the settings to print from colour to black (or vice versa) the software will automatically change my Draft output setting to Normal -- meaning I'll use more ink. Where is the justification for that? I can't think of any, but I bet I'm not the only one who only notices the change after I've printed a page or two -- if then. Sleazy.
Remedy? Bypass the HP printer software entirely using something like FinePrint -- it also helps you print more onto less paper. Oh, and refill your cartridges using the wonderful Inke. Then the printer manufacturers end up being the patsies, selling you a cheap printer but not making any money off you with overpriced ink.

[ News: New Windows Is Out. Sort Of ]

 Psst! Wanna buy the latest version of Windows, years before you're supposed to? Head off to Malaysia's Johor Bahru, where CDs containing software Microsoft has code named "Longhorn" are on sale for six ringgit ($1.58).
Reuters reports that the software is an early version of Longhorn demonstrated and distributed at a conference for Microsoft programmers in Los Angeles in October, according to Microsoft Corporate Attorney Jonathan Selvasegaram.
"It's not a ready product," he said from Malaysia. "Even if it works for a while, I think it's very risky," to install on a home computer, he said.
Actually, this happens all the time. I've seen early versions of new Windows products all the way back to Windows 95 dotted around Asia. Most are a nightmare to install, and I'd steer clear of them if I were you.

about loose wire
musings, snippets, grievances and links on personal technology by dow jones columnist jeremy wagstaff. I want to hear from users -- technology-related stories, complaints, thoughts, ideas, brickbats -- so please email me

my columns appear in
The Far Eastern Economic Review and
The Wall Street Journal Online.
both are owned by Dow Jones.

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companies, PR agencies etc, please send relevant news, pitches, product review requests here. happy to hear from you, but I stress the word 'relevant'.

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