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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.


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.

see below for subscription links -- sorry, but the columns are only available to subscribers.

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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