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The week in review: Record labels on the defense

Just months after scoring key courtroom victories against online music swapping, record labels themselves face legal scrutiny over plans for online services.

Just months after scoring key courtroom victories against online music swapping, record labels are now facing legal scrutiny over the music industry's own plans for online services.

The U.S Department of Justice is growing suspicious of the labels' increasing power, and antitrust investigators are beginning to invite start-ups to closed-door discussions in Washington, D.C., to determine whether the labels are violating antitrust laws.

After years of tension between record labels and frustrated digital music companies, antitrust authorities jumped into the debate last week. The DOJ sent civil investigative demands to several parties as part of a preliminary antitrust investigation--a probe that could derail the recording industry's precarious foothold in online music distribution.

Several state attorneys general are also keenly watching the labels' online ventures for signs of anti-competitive behavior. They could eventually file their own lawsuit against the record labels--or a class-action suit on behalf of consumers.

Despite the legal scrutiny, the recording industry plans to continue experimenting with new technology it hopes can smother online song swapping by targeting music traders' computers directly.

In other music news, Amazon.com is offering to plug customers into new music before it hits store shelves. The Web superstore will stream the entire contents of prereleased CDs to customers after they order the physical CD from Amazon. The offering, which will include only a small number of titles initially, is designed to allow customers to listen to prereleased music while they wait for the actual CD to be released and delivered to their door.

In the chips
Intel is winding down its consumer electronics division as the company continues to pare back to its core chip business. The company will sell the existing product inventory, which should last through the first part of 2002. In addition, Intel will not come out with its Web Tablet Internet accessory, a prototype of which was shown at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. Similarly, the Dot.Station, a countertop Internet appliance, will fade away.

The chipmaker recently began examining a move from using aluminum and copper wires for moving data inside computers to using fiber-optic strands. Fiber could be used to connect components, researchers say, but it could also eventually replace wires inside chips. Designers are faced with the conflicting goals of shrinking chips and simultaneously adding more transistors to boost performance. Adding transistors means increasing the electricity required to run a given chip.

Unfortunately, shooting more power through a smaller chip increases signal interference, cuts down on battery life in notebooks, and leads to more manufacturing defects. Optical connections, which use laser light beams rather than electrical impulses to transmit signals, could solve some bottlenecks because they can run on less power.

For Advanced Micro Devices' upcoming Hammer chips, it's all about the connections. One of the major performance enhancements of Hammer will derive from how the chip connects to other components. Right now, chips communicate to the outside world through a series of buses, or data paths, which often run slower than the processor.

By contrast, Hammer will speed up and eliminate many of those paths. A memory controller, a piece of silicon that connects the processor to main memory, will be integrated into the processor, eliminating one bottleneck. Chips inside a multiprocessor server or workstation will be able to communicate through HyperTransport links, a high-speed chip interconnect technology from AMD, rather than through the oft-crowded common thoroughfare of the chipset.

Security alert
An anti-terrorism advisory group called on Congress this week to create a panel to protect against potential attacks on the Internet's infrastructure. The group outlined recommendations to the House Committee on Science, asking for the establishment of a cybersecurity panel, with representatives from 23 federal agencies, to address terrorist threats to computer systems in the wake of last month's suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The call to action is one of many that lawmakers are making as security takes precedence in an increasingly cautious America. Because many vital U.S. systems--including the electric power grid, railways and stock exchanges--rely on computer networks, many lawmakers fear terrorists may aim at these networks.

The need for such a panel may prove necessary as the number of Internet attacks reported by companies looks likely to double in 2001. The Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) Coordination Center counted nearly 35,000 attacks and probes in the first nine months of this year. At the current rate, the CERT Coordination Center's tally should top 46,000 by the end of the year, doubling the nearly 22,000 incidents counted last year. Each "incident" corresponds to a report filed by a company or organization struck by an intruder, worm, virus or other Internet attack.

Computer worms are likely to become a more damaging combination of virus writing and hacker exploits. Security company Symantec predicts that by next year, the "blended" threat of computer worms could be enough to cause a serious Internet slowdown. Antivirus experts at Symantec have already developed an algorithm to prove that by removing human interaction from the virus equation, every PC connected to the Internet could be affected by a single worm within 20 minutes.

Special focus
Microsoft will formally release the long-awaited Windows XP on Thursday. Despite its relatively benign appearance, the new operating system carries monumental significance for the high-technology industry and the Internet. CNET News.com examines the multifaceted strategy from legal, economic and practical perspectives, presenting a different angle in each of the seven business days leading up to the release.

Also of note
Use of e-mail could skyrocket as an ever-widening anthrax investigation turns "snail mail" into a suspicious and potentially lethal form of communication...Apple Computer on Tuesday will unveil a new device--"hint: it's not a Mac," according to the invitation; sources say it is a digital music device...Apple Computer updated its iBook and PowerBook G4 portable lines Tuesday, beefing up features and holding to recent price cuts...Internet giant America Online announced the availability of its AOL 7.0 software, an upgrade that comes as competitive pressure from Microsoft heats up.

Want more? Check out all this week's News.com headlines.