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Week in review: Longhorn on Tiger's tail

Battle of the operating systems heats up as Apple unleashes Tiger and Microsoft shows off some of the beef to expect in Longhorn.

The battle of the operating systems heated up this week as Apple Computer unleashed Tiger and Microsoft showed off some of the beef to expect in Longhorn.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates gave computer makers a brief look at Longhorn, but acknowledged that many of its key features will not be evident until much later test versions of the new Windows. A fraction of the new features will make it into an initial beta this summer. Microsoft wouldn't say when a subsequent beta, with more new features, will arrive, but Gates said the company is still focused on trying to release the final version of Longhorn in time to make it into PCs sold for the holiday season in 2006.

The company demonstrated a new XML-based document format, code-named "Metro," that it will use in Longhorn to both print and share documents.

Among other features Gates discussed was the ability of PCs running Longhorn to take advantage of storage that combines traditional hard drives and nonvolatile flash memory. By using flash for frequently accessed information, laptop PCs will be able to get much better battery life given that substantially less power is used accessing flash than is needed to spin a hard drive.

Laptops are also expected to benefit from the addition of a "mobility center" that will serve as a single control panel for all manner of laptop-related settings. The concept is similar to the Security Center that Microsoft added to Windows XP with Service Pack 2. Microsoft also detailed a broader effort to add touch-screen abilities to Longhorn-era laptops. Mitchell demonstrated the way that finger-based input could be added to traditional laptops, as well as to Tablet PC machines that allow for stylus input.

On the responsiveness front, Microsoft is inching toward its goal of replicating the "instant-on" experience customers have become used to with consumer electronics. When a laptop user pushes the power button in Windows XP, it goes into a near-shutdown "hibernate" state in which all information is saved onto the hard drive. With Longhorn, the default will be to keep the same information in memory, a so-called "suspend" state that uses somewhat more battery power but allows for quicker resume times.

Although Microsoft is recommending that computers be pretty modern to fully run the next version of Windows, Longhorn will probably also run on a good number of older machines. However, Longhorn is going to look and run quite differently on older systems.

Computers with a 3GHz processor and 512MB of memory, for example, will get all of the bells and whistles, including fancy graphics and the ability to handle multiple video streams. According to its early testing, Microsoft says that older PCs--probably those with as little as 128MB of memory--will be able to run Longhorn, but the OS may not look like it does on a newer, more powerful machine.

Apple harvest
While Microsoft was showing us what we could expect next year, Apple released its new operating system, Mac OS X 10.4, or more simply--Tiger.

The highly anticipated launch attracted crowds to Apple stores worldwide. Apple used the release to launch the new Apple store in Birmingham, England--only the second in Europe. While the store didn't attract opening crowds of the size seen at its brethren store to the south in London last November, Birmingham's Bullring shopping center saw its share of Mac fans camping out for the grand opening of Apple's retail outlet there on Friday.

An hour before the scheduled release, more than 400 people had lined up outside the store. Most of those waiting said they were looking forward to features such as Spotlight and Dashboard. Some of the laptops in the line, in fact, were already running development versions of Tiger.

Promising more than 200 new features, Tiger has been one of the most anticipated software offerings of the year.

Typically, new operating systems from Apple don't generate this much buzz because the company comes out with one just about every year. But new features such as Spotlight, a desktop-search technology, and Dashboard, a new way to access information, got people talking as the release date neared. Spotlight is considered the most important of the new features because it promises to let people search their hard drive for files just as they would search for a Web page using Google.

However, corporate customers that use Cisco Systems' virtual private network technology to connect to their company's network while on the road will have to a wait to use Tiger. Cisco confirmed that Tiger won't come with support for Cisco's VPN client. Cisco is advising users of its VPN client to delay upgrading to the new operating system until support is ready--sometime in May.

Apple also introduced upgraded models of its Power Mac G5 desktop that come up with to 8GB of 400MHz DDR SDRAM and a graphics card with up to 256MB of video memory.

The top model in the series has two 2.7GHz processors, each with an independent 1.35GHz front-side bus for bandwidth of up to 21.6 gigabytes per second, the company said. The computer, which supports Apple's 30-inch cinema high-definition display, comes with a 250GB hard drive and starts at $2,999.

Wild, wild Web
Security researchers have discovered an attack aimed at would-be visitors to Google.com, one that attempts to download malicious programs onto the computers of people who simply mistype the search giant's Web address.

According to security specialist F-Secure, unsuspecting Web surfers may be bombarded with various types of Trojan horse threats, spyware and backdoors when they go to "Googkle.com." The scheme is meant to take advantage of sloppy or hurried typists, given that on most keyboards the letter "k" key sits next to the "l" needed to type "Google."

Another security company warned that an unpatched flaw in some versions of the Netscape browser could let an attacker into vulnerable systems. The vulnerability is "highly critical," according to an advisory released by the security company Secunia. Version 6.2.3 and 7.2 of Netscape are affected and other versions may also be susceptible, the company said.

The flaw could allow a hacker to launch a buffer overflow attack, which could crash the browser or enable the attacker to execute code on the compromised system. A patch has not been created, according to Secunia. A Netscape representative recommended on Wednesday that people upgrade to version 8.0 of the software.

But there was good news for Internet users: The end is coming for viruses sent by e-mail, security experts at a London conference predicted, saying the problem has had its day. The most severe issue Internet users now face is the growing problem of spyware, said some attendees at the Infosecurity Europe conference, noting that the malicious software is ready to fill the void.

Dan Hubbard, senior director of Websense Security Labs, said the number of e-mail-borne viruses is falling and will continue to do so. David Perry, global director of education at antivirus software maker Trend Micro, said the age of e-mail viruses has simply come to an end.

Gadgets in focus
Hewlett-Packard hopes to shake things up with a slew of new television models that boost visual fidelity by incorporating the company's "wobulation" technology. The set of new entertainment products includes high-definition microdisplay rear-projection TVs, HD plasma displays and three HD liquid-crystal displays.

The rear-projection TVs incorporate the wobulation technology, which jitters the projected image in a carefully controlled way that effectively replaces a single pixel with four. The new HP televisions also adjust the image to a room's ambient lighting using a "photorealistic sharpness enhancement" and a 3D color enrichment system.

While the HDTV market seems to be exploding, the digital-camera industry appears to have reached maturity early, and the heady growth rates are expected to slow. Shipments will be strong in the next couple of years but then will dip over the long term, research firm IDC's forecast in a report.

Indications are that the market will peak prematurely, missing the opportunity to replace film cameras as the predominant method of taking photos. Instead, the market will be made up of a more diverse range of devices with photo capturing abilities, such as cell phones and other combination devices.

Despite the health of the market, a new organization of digital photographers is hoping to convince camera makers to unlock their proprietary file formats. The OpenRAW Working Group called on camera makers to open up the tightly guarded RAW formats prized by serious photographers. Lower-quality JPEG shots already are recorded in an open, standard format.

At the moment, Canon, Nikon, Sony and many other manufacturers permit their customers to save uncompressed photographs only in custom, undocumented formats that have begun to worry digital photographers. In a few years, camera makers may stop supporting RAW formats used by older models--potentially rendering vast image libraries unreadable.

Also of note
Microsoft began selling the long-awaited 64-bit editions of both Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP Professional...In a move that could rankle privacy advocates, Microsoft is adding the PC equivalent of a flight data recorder to the next version of Windows, in an effort to better understand and prevent computer crashes...Microsoft's Gates slammed the federal government's strict limits on temporary visas for technology workers, saying that if he had his way, the system would be scrapped entirely...Netscape pioneers Mike Homer and Marc Andreessen are back on the start-up scene, launching a TiVo-like online network for distributing and viewing public TV, radio and grassroots media...A plan to shuttle commuters from city to city aboard five- and six-seater aerial taxis could be off the ground by next year...A case of bank fraud involving an India-based outsourcer has rekindled a debate about using overseas contractors for tasks involving sensitive data.