Monday, 28 February 2005 18:00

News Roundup 28 Feb 2005


Europe reviews Microsoft's compliance with antitrust ruling

The European Commission is consulting with the computer industry over the next week on whether Microsoft is complying with last March's antitrust ruling against the company, a commission spokesman said Friday.

The New York Times reports (26 Feb.) that in addition to fining the company a record 497 million euros (US$656 million), the commission ordered Microsoft to offer a second version of its Windows operating system for the European market that does not have Microsoft's Media Player software program built into it.

It also ordered Microsoft to make more technical information about Windows available to rival software developers, so they can build programs that work well with Windows, which runs over 95 percent of the world's personal computers.

The NYT reports that Microsoft insisted Friday that it had already complied with the commission's ruling. "The protocols are available today, as is the new version of Windows, which is now available to PC makers," said Microsoft's spokesman in Brussels.

He added, however, that the new version of Windows was not yet for sale to consumers because the commission had not approved the name of the new operating system. Last month, Microsoft said it wanted to call this version Windows Reduced Media, a name the commission rejected on grounds that it played down the new version in favor of Windows with Media Player attached. The unbundled version of Windows will contain a replacement music and video player like Real Networks' Real Player or Apple's QuickTime.

The paper says that one of the conditions in last March's antitrust ruling was that the unbundled version of Windows could not be put at a commercial disadvantage to the bundled version, meaning that it could not be more expensive or offer fewer options than the old version.

But it is not just the "reduced" name the commission objects to. The commission also opposes the fact that the new version of Windows actually tells users that the software will not work properly. "They will have to change it," a person close to the commission's competition arm said. Microsoft, he said, is effectively telling consumers they have bought a dud, the NYT reported.

Market rumour: IBM ditching Itanium altogether

IBM is not only discontinuing support for Intel's Itanium processor in a new generation of server technology, it's going a step further, dropping Itanium servers from the product line altogether, sources familiar with the situation said, according to the New York Times (25 Feb.).

The paper says the world's largest server maker, which favors its own Power processor family, has never been enthusiastic about Itanium the way chip co-developer Hewlett-Packard and some other Itanium allies have been. But what support IBM now has, in the form of its x455 server, likely will come to an end.

The NYT says a source familiar with the situation said IBM won't release a server using Intel's next-generation Itanium processor, code-named Montecito and expected to boost performance significantly upon arrival at the end of 2005. Montecito has dual processing engines, or cores, and each core is able to process two simultaneous instruction sequences, called threads.

IBM didn't respond to requests for comment. Intel declined to comment on IBM's product plans.

IBM remains a major supporter of Intel's Xeon processor, a server-oriented member of the x86 family of chips such as Pentium. The company is building servers that support as many as 32 dual-core Xeon processors--specifically, the "Potomac" version that will include 64-bit features that permit easy use of large amounts of memory.

Ceasing chipset development doesn't preclude IBM from selling Itanium servers, bit would need to use a server design from another source--either a comparatively neutral supplier such as Intel or an IBM rival that offers Itanium chipsets: HP, Fujitsu, SGI, NEC, Hitachi or Unisys, the paper further reports.

Google unveils movie showtime Search

Google has said movie showtimes are now available on its leading web search engine and can be accessed via personal computers or mobile phones and other wireless devices that use short-message service.

According to a 25 Feb. report by the New York Times/Reuters, the new feature also provides information such as theatre locations and reviews, and enables users to search for movies by title, plot or genre.

Competitor Yahoo, which is making a big move into entertainment, offers such data as movie showtimes, theatre locations, reviews and ticketing purchasing through its Yahoo Movies section.

The NYT says users of web-enabled mobile phones also can use Yahoo Movies to search by movie name or to find out what's playing at nearby theaters.

Google, Yahoo and most recently Microsoft's MSN internet unit are battling to offer the most comprehensive Web search products since those services fuel fast-growing advertising revenues, the paper reports.

Cell phone makers: style or tech?

After years of running in the same direction toward smaller mobile phones with color screens and built-in cameras, the world's handset makers need to find new ways to make their phones sell, analysts have said, according to a New York Times/Reuters report (25 Feb.)

The paper says some go for fashion and design, other opt for style and many Asian vendors continue to rely on their technological edge to maintain or grow their share in the fiercely competitive 684 million units a year handset market. Color and cameras have become standard in most phones sold in developed markets such as North America, Europe, Korea and Japan, so now handset makers are placing new bets on what will sell.

Several handset makers, including Nokia, Sony Ericsson and Motorola, have chosen to make special music playing phones while design is also playing an increasingly important role in an attempt to stand out from the crowd, the paper adds.

"When the mobile phone technology starts to stabilise, you have to start thinking about other elements, such as design. Technology alone is not enough. At one point, the arms race of having a camera with 3, 5 or 15 megapixels becomes irrelevant,'' said mobile phone market analyst Ben Wood at Gartner research.

The NYT says the fundamental challenge handset makers face is that the basic technology needs to be identical, because the devices must connect to the same wireless networks and mobile services.

Cosmetics can be much more than a new curvy shape of a phone model, however, said Motorola Chief Executive Ed Zander. Good design allows easy and simple access to mobile phone and Internet services from any place.

"The next round is about software differentiation. Over the next five years it will be about secure, virus free, protected applications and services,'' he told Reuters at the 3GSM mobile communications trade show in Cannes last week.

Not technology, but simplicity is one of Motorola's four design rules.

However, not all mobile phone vendors believe the technology race is over just yet. While Nokia, Sony Electronics and Motorola announced music deals with Microsoft, Sony and Apple, their South Korean rivals Samsung and LG bet on technology improvements by making sharper displays, better cameras and speakers and smaller phones, the NYT/Reuters report.

Samsung, for one, showed off small models for third generation (3G) wireless data and voice networks and handsets with rotating displays for yet-to-be-launched digital TV.

Hotmail glitch snarls pay service

About 200,000 customers who pay Microsoft for premium Hotmail e-mail accounts have been experiencing problems including slowdowns and an inability to access some e-mails, the company has said.

The problems began last Tuesday and were being resolved Friday, according to Microsoft's lead product manager for the company's MSN online division, adding that the glitch was caused by a server problem, and that the system was not attacked.

According to the NYT/AP, earlier this week, some customers who pay for services such as Hotmail Plus and MSN Premium complained that they couldn't see some e-mails, had trouble logging in and were experiencing slowness.

US-based Microsoft has about 190 million Hotmail customers, mostly using the company's free service.

Firefox security upgrade

Mozilla has released an updated version of its popular Firefox browser, version 1.0.1. The release includes several fixes to guard against spoofing and arbitrary code execution and changes designed to boost the stability of the browser.

The Register reports (25 Feb.) that the update addresses a recent security flaw involving download dialogue boxes and a code injection vulnerability as well as a number of other bugs. The Mozilla Foundation has also changed the way its browser renders international characters in domain names in order to guard against possible phishing risks.

The Register says that an unintended result of the IDN (International Domain Name) standard means domain names can be registered with certain international characters - which look like other commonly-used characters - in order to hoodwink users into believing they are on a different, trusted site. As such, the feature creates a new wheeze for phishing attacks. Microsoft doesn't support IDN in IE but every other browser manufacturer does, obliging them to act after security firms highlighted the issue last month.

According to The Register, rather than disabling IDN, the Mozilla Foundation has settled on a temporary workaround where International Domain Names are displayed by Firefox 1.0.1 as "punycode" by default so that spoofed websites are easier to spot. Mozilla does not see this as a permanent fix, and it's unlikely to placate some critics who are urging browser manufacturers to stick by IDN.

Although the latest Firefox release is essentially a minor update users moving up to 1.0.1 are advised to uninstall 1.0 first, an installation snag that has been around since the early days of Firefox, reports The Register. Firefox 1.0 has been downloaded 27 million times since its December 2004 release.

XP deloaded? MS tightens screws on loose product keys

Microsoft is tightening the screws further on pirate copies of Windows by disabling internet activation of XP product keys for software distributed by all of the large OEMs, reports The Register (25 Feb.), saying that the move, however, doesn't take the company anywhere close to universal compliance, and seems more intended to reduce casual copying and leakage from the PC channel.

The Register says that the latest move, which was first revealed by Aviran Mordo early last week, places restrictions on a mechanism used by OEMs to bypass Product Activation. They have previously been allowed to do this for their customers, but this meant that stolen or leaked Certificates of Authenticity (COAs) could be used to activate unlicensed copies of Windows. So for example, says The Register, a small operation might sell quite a large number of machines with 'preinstalled Windows', but only pay for quite a small number of licences from Microsoft, or none at all, making up the difference with hot COAs.

The procedure affects the top 20 OEMs from 28th February, says The Register,and will be extended to all other OEMs who've been using this activation method over the rest of the year. People who need to activate a lot of products in their line of work (e.g. service engineers) are likely to be less than ecstatic, it further reports.

Spam controls imperil e-mail reliability

Sometimes the only way to know whether an e-mail got through is to call. Just ask Ashley Friedlein, who runs E-consultancy in London. He never heard back from a correspondent in the United States, a subscriber of Verizon Online. So he phoned and learned his e-mail was never received.

The New York Times/AP report that users can blame the mishap on increasingly aggressive spam controls employed by Verizon and other e-mail operators.

As spammers identify new tricks for sneaking their junk past software sentinels, service providers' technical parries could put even more legitimate mail at risk.

Spam and spam-fighting have, in some cases, eroded the reliability of the mail system,ac cortdsing to one industry expert who said that now a lot of mail gets filtered out.

The NYT says a lot of spam simply ends up in junk folders that recipients never check. But sometimes service providers reject such messages outright, meaning recipients have no control even if they turn spam filters off. In such cases, senders don't always get non-delivery error messages, even though internet standards encourage them.

In the US., most of the recent complaints have been directed at Verizon, though the company denies it has changed its policies, leaked excerpts from an internal memo that circulated late last year talked of new techniques that might disrupt legitimate e-mail.

Verizon spokeswoman Bobbi Henson confirmed the memo's existence but said it contained inaccuracies and had been retracted.

Five Verizon customers have jointly filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging Verizon breached its contract by failing to provide a dependable e-mail service. A Philadelphia-area law firm is seeking arbitration, arguing that it lost potential clients, the NYT reports.

Verizon offers a completely unfiltered e-mail account upon request but few have opted for it.

Nonetheless, some service providers are becoming more aware of the risks, and in response, Microsoft and Yahoo say they now have mechanisms for quickly refining filters should users start reporting mail in spam folders as "not junk."

VoIP carriers launch international peering network

Internet calls to landlines could get even cheaper, following the launch of an international peering network of VoIP providers. Fourteen companies have signed up to the free-of-charge interconnection service including (Sweden), (Switzerland), Magrathea Telecommunications (Great Britain), (Denmark), MS Networks (Luxembourg), sipgate (Austria, Germany, Great Britain) and SIPphone (USA).

The Register reports (25 Feb.) that the service is brokered by which has built a central database of VoIP telephone numbers. is brainchild of a small German company, netzquadrat, which was set up by the founders of German VoIP provider sipgate/nufone.

According to The Register, so far 100 million phone numbers have been registered in the database from 160,000 different dialing prefixes in eight countries, and talks with more VoIP providers are under way.

Member companies have signed a Memorandum of Understanding that ensures the non-profit character of the venture and which makes clear that the members disclose bilateral agreements about how the want to charge for the interconnection.

The Register says that how much customers benefit from the better peering arrangement also depends on each provider in the network. According to Michael Robertson, SIPphone CEO, the system will simplify interconnection between VoIP providers around the globe and that it will hasten the advent of free calls, the inevitable result of VoIP, he says.

Bank of America loses tapes of Visa Card records

Bank of America haa said that it has lost computer backup tapes containing personal information about 1.2 million federal employees, including some senators, with Visa charge cards issued by the bank.

According to the New York Times (26 Feb.) a spokeswoman for Bank of America said the bank did not believe that the information had been stolen or had fallen into the hands of people using it to commit fraud. There has been no suspicious activity on any of the affected accounts.

The paper says the cards were issued to government employees who need to travel or make purchases on government business. About 900,000 of the cardholders are employees of the Defense Department. Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, was one of the cardholders.

The bank sent letters yesterday to those whose data was on the lost tapes, providing a telephone number for questions or problems. The bank said it did not think it needed to change those account numbers.

Bank of America declined to provide many details about the incident, citing security concerns, said the NYT., adding that the bank had said the tapes were part of a shipment in late December from a bank facility to another location meant to house backups. A few days after the shipment arrived, the bank discovered that a small number of the tapes were missing. The bank then notified the Secret Service, which has legal responsibility for credit card theft.

The NYT says the incident comes at a time of increasing attention to the risks to people when information about them held in corporate databases falls into the wrong hands.

Choicepoint, a company that sells personal data to landlords and employers, said last month that it had inadvertently sold personal data on 145,000 people to thieves last year. The information was used to steal the identities of at least 750 people, reports the paper.

Higher tax payments push MCI Loss to US$32 Million

MCI, the subject of a bidding war, has released an earnings report that gave the outside world a glimpse of what its suitors, Qwest Communications and Verizon Communications, are fighting for.

The New York Times report that MCI said it lost US$32 million, or 10 cents a share, in the fourth quarter last year, compared with a profit of US$22.2 billion in the last quarter of 2003. The loss, which was mostly a result of higher tax payments, was far less than the US$3.4 billion MCI lost in the third quarter of 2004.

While MCI's finances have largely stabilised, according to the NYT., the report raised some questions about why it has become the latest belle of the rapidly consolidating telecommunications industry. Revenue fell 10 percent, to US$5 billion, in the fourth quarter from the same period in 2003, largely due to declines in MCI's consumer division. For all of 2004, revenue dropped 15 percent, to US$20.7 billion.

MCI expects revenue to fall another 10 percent to 14 percent this year, or US$18 billion to US$19 billion. The company said the declines were mostly due to its reduced presence in the consumer market. The company also budgeted US$1 billion for capital expenditures, about what it spent last year.

The paper says that Michael Capellas, the chief executive, reiterated his support for MCI's agreement to sell itself to Verizon for US$6.75 billion. Mr. Capellas, speaking to investors on a conference call, said, "We will do our utmost to drive that through."

He added that MCI's board members "will honor our fiduciary responsibility" to study a revised bid from Qwest, which on Thursday offered US$8 billion in cash and stock for MCI.


System pumps music around house

Keeping the tunes going at a house party -- even different songs in multiple rooms -- gets a lot simpler with a new digital music system that lets you wirelessly tap into music stored on a computer.

The New York Times/AP report (26 Feb.) that the stylish, well-conceived Sonos Digital Music System is designed for audiophiles with a large digital music collection that they want to access in high fidelity through something other than PC speakers.

While other so-called home media receivers also tackle this problem, they tend to additionally handle video and digital images.

Sonos sticks to music, and makes the streaming process seamless and relatively simple. Sonos' US$1,199 starter system includes software for tracking and cueing up music, two wireless hubs called ZonePlayers with built-in amplifiers that channel the music to speakers, and an iPod-like controller unit.

Sonos, reports the paper, comes with the sort of options common to Windows Media Player or similar digital music software and high-end portable players. Users can select tracks by artist or album or genre, control audio settings, equalizer, and organise and save playlists, among other features.

The NYT says that while Sonos is designed to support up to 32 ZonePlayer units at once, Windows XP only allows for 10 per computer used (additional controllers cost US$399).

Mozilla 'mocked by wider world'

An exuberant Mozilla Foundation has been brought back down to earth with a bang by the world's internet organisations, The Register in the UK says (25 Feb.).

According to The Register, flushed with the success of its Firefox browser, the Foundation has clearly come to believe it is an important voice in the internet community. But following a hasty decision regarding the resolving of Internationalised Domain Names (IDNs), it has been publicly criticised by the groups representing domain registries in both Europe and Asia, as well as the US-based internet overseeing organisation ICANN.

The Register says the issue stems from a security warning over IDNs, in which a group of so-called security experts at "discovered" a problem which the rest of the internet community had been aware of for several years and created guidelines to deal with it.

Put simply, says The Register,the method by which the English-based domain name system is expanded to encompass different languages from around the world provides a window of opportunity for others to mislead people. By using numbers and letters similar to others, it is possible to make people think that a domain they click on is in fact a different one.

According to The Register, with IDNs this potential for confusion is increased as domains are rendered in different nationalities' own languages. To get from one language to another, more additional numerals and letters are added. Thanks to add-ons within browsers these strange combinations are rendered into decipherable letters. But at the same time, a strange combination can be used to give a misleading impression. Shmoo managed to create an apparent link to "" that actually went to its own domain.

Unfortunately, within a week Mozilla decided that the only solution was to decide to disable support for IDNs, the Register reports. It was a short-term solution to "protect our users", the foundation said, and it made it clear what would need to change in order to support to be restored: "If people want to see full, unrestricted IDN back in Mozilla and Firefox, the best way is to put pressure on the world's registrars and registries to fulfil their obligations to their customers - both domain owners and internet users - and commit to implementing the ICANN guidelines."

But, The Register says the world's registrars and registries didn't agree. CENTR - the Council of European National TLD Registries - called Mozilla's post a "hasty ill-considered response". Centr represents "over 98 per cent of domain registrations worldwide" and "believes such strong reactions are heavily detrimental to the effort to introduce non-English languages and scripts to the internet, and could have lasting repercussions on the ongoing effort to internationalise the DNS".

The Register says that browsers could - and will - be a major driving force in making IDNs work without security concerns. Everyone needs a browser to access the internet and despite the fact that it remains difficult for North Americans to understand that the rest of the world speak different languages, if they wish to remain in the market, browser manufacturers need to actively work towards incorporating different-language domains, the publication added.

According to The Register, the real scandal is that despite numerous very intelligent people working on this problem, and despite the fact that a multi-lingual internet is an inevitability, the industry has still to get on, work together and come up with a widespread, accepted solution.

McAfee's mediocre Q4

Security firm McAfee has just reported reduced fourth quarter revenues but predicted rosier times ahead following its decision to sell off two flagging division last year. For the quarter ending 31 December 2004, McAfee reported revenues of US$244m down from US$272m in Q4 2003. Pre-tax quarterly earnings came out at US$24m (the firm is still assessing its tax bill) while Q4 2004 operating profit fell to US$38m from US$50m in the same quarter last year.

The Register says that McAfee expects that the filing of its 2004 Form 10-K will be delayed beyond the mid-March 2005 deadline to the end of March while it sorts out "internal control deficiencies" that have left it unable to report as scheduled.

For the full financial year, McAfee reported revenues of US$911m and pre-tax earnings of US$317m. McAfee IntruShield intrusion prevention appliances were a star performer, says The Register, with revenue growth of 55 per cent year over year. McAfee's consumer anti-virus business also did well though this revenue stream is threatened by Microsoft's decision to enter the market later this year.

The Register says that looking ahead, McAfee said it expected to book sales of between US$920m to US$960m in full year 2005, compared to analyst estimates of around US$860m.

Orange smart phone details leak

Mobile phone network Orange's next smart phone has made its web debut in the form of an allegedly leaked photo of the handset, reports The Register (25 Feb.).

The Register says the SPV C550, as it's being dubbed, appears to be the successor to the current SPV C500, made by Taiwan's HTC, which calls it the Typhoon. The C550 also appears to be an HTC product, an updated version of the manufacturer's Amadeus music-oriented handset, better known as the T-Mobile SDA Music.

The report says that certainly, the leaked picture - assuming it's genuine, of course - shows a keypad and control layout that matches that of Amadeus. However, CoolSmartPhone's published specification, suggests that the C550 is a kind of Amadeus 2.

The Register says that according to the site, the new smart phone will sport a 240 x 320 LCD capable of displaying 262,000 colours. There's a 1.3 megapixel camera, along with 64MB of RAM and a Mini SD slot for extra storage. The handset offers the usual USB, infra-red and Bluetooth connectivity.

Apparently, the hints are that Orange is preparing a May 2005 release date for the new handset, claims The Register.

China favours EVD over DVD

China has formally declared its Enhanced Video Disc (EVD) format the national standard for digital video discs, its Ministry of Information Industry (MII) has said.

Work began on EVD in 1999, according to The Register (25 Feb.) with funding from China's State Trade and Economic Commission and MII, with a view to creating an alternative to DVD. Crucially, EVD frees Chinese player makers from the licence fees that must be paid to make DVD-branded machines.

The Register says the format will allow domestic manufacturers to "shake off their previous dependence on foreign technologies", as the Communist Party newspaper, the People's Daily, put it at the time.

Like DVD, EVD video data is compressed, but according to the format's developers, Beijing-based E-World and US digital video technology company On2, it is capable of displaying HDTV images, a feat currently not possible with the established standard.

Disk drive shortage cramps EMC style

A widespread disk drive shortage continues to cramp EMC's style, with the vendor saying its financial results could be affected because of the lack of hardware.

The Register says (25 Feb.) that EMC has just warned financial analysts not to expect much near-term drive supply improvement. Companies such as EMC and IBM have complained of insufficient Fibre Channel drives for storage systems and servers and higher than expected prices for the components. The high prices, in particular, could hurt EMC's bottom line.

The drive shortage is caused by two main factors, according to The Register - a number of vendors upgraded their product lines at the end of 2004 and have struggled to put out enough of the new kit. In addition, hardware demand has gone up in recent months.

The Register says that customers can expect continued delays when ordering servers and storage systems, and they'll also likely see the vendors trying to offset the higher drive prices by charging more for high-end kit.

VIA unveils chipset

VIA has launched its first chipset pitched at AMD's Turion thin'n'light notebook platform, days after it said it had shipped more than 100m chipsets for AMD processors.

The Register says its latest offering, the K8N800A, is Turion-ready, according to VIA, even though AMD has yet to say just what that Turion encompasses. The Register adds that Intel's Centrino, with which Turion is clearly intended to compete, at least has the advantage of being both a brand and a core-component bundle. Somehow AMD's packaging of CPU and wireless adaptor - if that's what Turion is, and not just a new mobile CPU - doesn't seem sufficient to warrant the term 'platform'.

Still, it does provide motherboard and notebook vendors with a choice of system logic, particularly now that VIA is offering such a part in addition to ATI, The Register adds.

Nvidia's 'world's fastest' notebook graphics chip

Nvidia has extended its notebook-oriented graphics chip range, adding what it claims is the "world's fastest mobile GPU" to the line-up.

The Register reports (25 Feb.) that the GeForce Go 6800 Ultra builds on the already-available GeForce Go 6800 by upping the core clock speed. Nvidia didn't put a figure to the core's clock frequency, says The Register, but it did say the 6800 Ultra can churn out processed pixels at the rate of 5.4bn a second - 50 per cent more than the vanilla 6800's 3.6bn pixels per second score.

The report says that the new chip offers a higher vertex processing rate, too, but with only a 20 per cent improvement: 565m vertices per second to the older part's 470m vertices per second.

Both parts run a 400MHz RAMDAC, and support 700MHz DDR and DDR 2 SDRAM, and 1.1GHz GDDR 3 memory. Both offer a memory bandwidth of up to 35.2GBps.

The Go 6800 Ultra supports DirectX 9.0's Shader Model 3.0, along with Nvidia's customary array of trademarked technologies, such as UltraShadow II, Intellisample 3.0, PowerMizer and PureVideo, the company's HD video processing system.

The Register says that Nvidia's "world's fastest" claim and offer of "performance that is unmatched by any commercially available mobile GPU today" will no doubt be tested by independent reviewers in due course. However, the chip itself is now available, shipping first in Dell's new Inspiron notebook, the gamer-oriented XPS Gen2.


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Stan Beer


Stan Beer co-founded iTWire in 2005. With 30 plus years of experience working in IT and Australian technology media, Beer has published articles in most of the IT publications that have mattered, including the AFR, The Australian, SMH, The Age, as well as a multitude of trade publications.



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