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The week in review: Security concerns

Security issues continue to plague the technology world, from new worms cropping up in Europe to Web site hacks here in the United States.

Security issues continue to plague the technology world, from new worms cropping up in Europe to Web site hacks here in the United States.

Worms come in all shapes and sizes, and when they come bearing a picture of teen pop star Britney Spears, security experts are put on high alert. The bug, labeled variously as "VBS/Britney-A" and "VBS-BRITNEYPIC.A," is considered low-risk because it infected a small number of computer users in Europe after it was initially detected Thursday, computer experts said. Because Spears is often one of the most popular search terms online, security industry experts worry that an e-mail bearing the star's name--complete with its destructive payload--could spread widely.

Another worm disguise this week came in the form of a song. Songs found on file-swapping networks and played on a number of popular Internet media players, including Microsoft's Windows Media Player or RealNetworks' RealPlayer, could potentially carry a worm. That's because the players provide the ability to embed Web addresses and scripts--key ingredients in self-propagating, hostile code. Reports of the potential problem have raised old concerns about the ability of malicious file-swappers to "poison the pool" of files traded on swapping networks.

The New York Times' internal operations network was on the receiving end of an unauthorized visit by Adrian Lamo--the curious hacker who has hit such high-profile companies as Yahoo, Microsoft and Excite@Home. Lamo said he viewed employee records--including Social Security numbers--and accessed the contact information for the paper's sources and columnists, including such well-known contributors as former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, former Marine Col. Oliver North, and hip-hop artist Queen Latifah.

Microsoft this week continued its search for better security. The company announced that its Windows.Net Server, the successor to its Windows 2000 Server operating system, will not ship during the first half of 2002, as the company had earlier indicated. The company now hopes to issue the first release candidate--or near-final testing version--sometime in the summer and a final version later in the second half of the year. Conceivably, many customers might not receive the product until next year.

Analysts said that Microsoft might use the extra time to improve .Net Server's security features, in response to Chairman Bill Gates' "Trustworthy Computing" initiative. In a mid-January e-mail to Microsoft employees, Gates said the company must make security a top priority, even more than new product features.

In other Microsoft security news, the company said it would deliver the first major update to Windows XP as early as the third quarter. Microsoft plans to present some significant technology enhancements, along with the bug fixes that it typically includes in updates or service packs to operating systems such as Windows NT and 2000. A service pack is a cumulative collection of fixes and updates for a desktop operating system that otherwise would be available as separate downloads.

Windows XP Service Pack 1 will also deliver support for technologies that could allow PC makers to devise computers that go beyond more staid desktop and notebook designs. Service Pack 1 will introduce support for Mira "smart" display devices, the Tablet PC, and the multimedia-oriented Freestyle graphical interface.

In the chips
The Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco gave us a peek at the next generation of PCs. A year and a half from now, desktops and notebooks should be noticeably different.

Intel is trying to usher in design standards for computers that would result in more stylish and versatile machines. Wireless networking, for instance, will likely be a standard feature in mainstream computers by the second half of 2003, and both notebooks and desktops will be smaller and lighter by then. Further out, desktops will accept plug-in devices, and notebooks may integrate a second screen for calendaring or paging.

Intel is also focusing on communication devices. During the next 10 years, the chipmaker will turn its research and manufacturing expertise toward driving down the cost and size of radios, optical networking equipment, and other communications devices to the point where communication nodes will become omnipresent.

A year from now, for instance, laptops will contain chips that will let consumers more easily transfer from wired to wireless networks. Five years from now, radios will be so small they'll be tucked into a corner on a microchip, drastically reducing the cost and size of cell phones. Optical connections will be used inside computers to reduce power and heat.

In the near term, Intel plans to come out with a new version of the Pentium 4 code-named Prescott, which will enhance desktop performance through hyper-threading, among other changes. And although Intel spent considerable energy in 2000 and 2001 devising low-energy versions of its Pentium III chip for slim notebooks, it won't do the same with the Pentium 4.

Shutting down
StreamCast Networks' Morpheus--a file-swapping service that many have said would be impossible for courts to shut down--shut out its users this week, citing "technical problems." Computer users trying to log on to the service were greeted with a message telling them to upgrade their software to connect, although no newer version of the software was available.

StreamCast blamed Kazaa, another file-swapping company that had provided the basic software that served as the foundation of the Morpheus program. Kazaa and fellow software licensee Grokster have recently upgraded their software, while StreamCast has not.

The glitch is raising new questions about the future of the Net's free-music bonanza. Although the nature of the problem remains unclear, the shutdown has led StreamCast to consider dropping its current software. Such a move could create the biggest rift in the file-swapping world since a federal judge effectively shut down Napster last year.

In an interview, StreamCast Chairman Steve Griffin said the company in the next few days plans to release a new version of Morpheus based on Gnutella, an earlier open-source peer-to-peer alternative that has so far trailed in popularity.

And finally, Excite@Home went out of business Thursday, marking the final chapter for a networking and content giant that just a few years ago had a market capitalization of some $35 billion and was considered a serious rival to America Online. Far worse than the typical dot-com flameout, Excite@Home's demise affected thousands of employees and cost investors billions of dollars.

Were you able to keep up with the saga that was Excite@Home? Read the inside story you may have missed here in a exclusive package on the company, its challenges, and its eventual downfall.

Merger madness
The war of words is picking up as the clock ticks down toward the vote for the proposed merger of Hewlett-Packard and Compaq Computer. Dissident HP board member Walter Hewlett said HP CEO Carly Fiorina and Compaq CEO Michael Capellas stand to reap a windfall $115 million from a proposed compensation package pegged to a successful deal between the two companies.

In rallying people to her side, Fiorina urged shareholders to "focus on the reality of the industry" when considering the proposed merger. At an analyst meeting, Fiorina painted a stark picture of the information technology industry, arguing that growth is slowing and companies will need scale to compete. Fiorina said the IT sector would face slower growth, price pressure, and increasing customer demand "with or without this merger."

But opposition to the merger is mounting. HP workers in Idaho are against the mega-merger by more than a two-to-one margin, according to a survey commissioned by merger opponent David Woodley Packard, son of HP co-founder David Packard. The survey builds on an earlier Field Research poll taken last week in Corvallis, Ore., and virtually mirrors the results of that survey.

Also of note
Apple Computer was awarded a technical Grammy by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for its contributions to the music industry and recording field...eBay is updating its privacy policy and user agreements, making it easier for the company to disclose members' personal information or to ban people from the site...America Online's sales tactics have landed it in federal court, where it stands accused of billing customers for unordered merchandise hawked in aggressive pop-up advertisements on its Internet service...The U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal in a case involving an attempt to shut down an adult Web site by the city of Tampa, Fla...An international array of environmental groups is charging computer makers and their consumers, along with the United States government, with using Asian nations as a dumping ground for hazardous electronic waste.

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