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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 9, 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 8, 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 7, 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.

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

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