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Tech Industry

Week in review: Big boy blues

Two of tech's biggest names hit stumbling blocks, as Microsoft mulls plans that may delay a major OS upgrade and Oracle learns that its PeopleSoft takeover may be slipping away.

Two of tech's biggest names hit stumbling blocks this week, as Microsoft mulled plans that may delay its next major operating system upgrade and Oracle learned that its PeopleSoft takeover effort may be slipping away.

The world's largest software maker is considering updating Windows XP before it releases "Longhorn," a major overhaul of the industry's dominant operating system. Issuing an update to XP would represent a significant shift for the software maker, which for months has insisted that it had no plans to create a separate version of Windows before Longhorn.

A company executive confirmed to CNET News.com on Thursday that Microsoft is now discussing a product internally referred to as "Windows XP Reloaded." However, Directions on Microsoft analyst Rob Helm said that any new version of Windows is likely to slow Longhorn's arrival.

"There's one Windows team and there's one core group of people" developing it, Helm said. "If they do plan an interim release, it will have an impact on the schedule. How much will depend on what's in it."

Meanwhile, Oracle's hostile $9.4 billion takeover bid for PeopleSoft ran into trouble as the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit to block the acquisition. Oracle vowed to challenge the move. In reaching its decision, the agency said the combination of Oracle and PeopleSoft would hurt competition in the market for software sold to large businesses.

Industry watchers had largely expected the deal to ultimately be blocked, given an earlier recommendation by the Justice Department staff to nix the bid. However, Oracle said its board of directors had met and decided to "vigorously challenge" the Justice Department's lawsuit.

Tech's day in court
In California this week, a jury unanimously dismissed claims that IBM endangered two of its former employees by knowingly exposing them to hazardous materials that eventually gave them cancer.

The verdict marks a significant victory for IBM and the computer industry, which for years has faced allegations of unsafe working conditions in plants. As the first such complaints against IBM to go to trial, the case became the latest flashpoint for the issue, with the potential to affect the outcomes in hundreds of similar pending lawsuits. More than 200 similar suits against IBM have yet to come to trial.

In other legal news, a long-simmering dispute between two organizations that control Internet domain names and addresses became public after VeriSign filed a lawsuit, claiming it had unlawfully been prevented from adding new features to .com and .net. The suit asserts that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has transformed itself over the last six years from a modest technical coordinating body into the "de facto regulator of the domain name system."

A focus of VeriSign's suit, which lists 43 pages of grievances, is the company's controversial and currently suspended Site Finder service, which redirected expired or nonexistent .com and .net domains to VeriSign's Web site. Last fall, ICANN ordered VeriSign to halt Site Finder, which had drawn fire from some network administrators and software developers who said it was disruptive.

Meanwhile, a document released by the Federal Trade Commission could add weight to accusations that some dynamic RAM manufacturers may have conspired to fix prices during 2001. The commission made public a November 2001 e-mail from a Micron Technology executive that could suggest three memory makers were in accord on raising DRAM prices during that year.

The e-mail, a portion of which was cited in an FTC administrative judge's 348-page initial decision in a separate case, described efforts by Micron and competitors Infineon and Samsung to boost prices on DDR SDRAM (double data rate synchronous dynamic RAM). "Subsequently, in a November 26, 2001, e-mail, a Micron manager named Kathy Radford described the efforts of Infineon and Samsung to raise DDR prices and stated that Micron intended to try to raise its prices to all of the (original equipment manufacturer) customers," the decision said. "Radford then reported that '(the) consensus from all suppliers is that if Micron makes the move, all of them will do the same and make it stick.' Prices did, in fact, increase in the months after Radford's e-mail."

Security spotlight
Security companies and experts gathered at the RSA Conference 2004 in San Francisco to discuss how to stop hackers from breaking into office and home computers.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates previewed several new features that will be added to Windows XP as part of a major midyear update to the OS. Among the enhancements in Service Pack 2 will be an expanded firewall and a pop-up ad blocker within Internet Explorer.

The company also showed publicly for the first time the Windows Security Center, a dashboard within Windows XP and a part of SP2 that will serve as a centralized place to view security settings and get advice on how to remedy PC vulnerabilities.

Gates also predicted the demise of the traditional password because it cannot "meet the challenge" of keeping critical information secure. "There is no doubt that over time, people are going to rely less and less on passwords. People use the same password on different systems, they write them down and they just don't meet the challenge for anything you really want to secure," he said.

Meanwhile, security officers used to the conference to warn that patching software is still a key concern and far too difficult, with many companies left vulnerable because they are lagging behind on applying critical updates. Data culled from the networks of a vulnerability firm's clients shows that it takes a month to cut by half the number of vulnerable computers connected to the Internet.

That's far too long to wait to fix the worst security flaws, said Gerhard Eschelbeck, chief technology officer at Qualys. "What the data is telling us today is that we have a cycle of fixing vulnerabilities...that leaves up open to significant exposure," he said. "We need to make every possible effort to shorten the cycle."

Also of note
Intel is aiming to curb the desktop PC's thirst for power, in a measure that could help companies and individuals save on monthly electric bills...Technical limitations have long frustrated attempts to deliver broadband Internet access over power lines, but the idea is once again sparking interest as its backers tout improvements...Flash memory maker M-Systems has signed a contract to provide storage products for future versions of the Xbox, bolstering speculation that Microsoft may ditch the game console's hard drive.