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The week in review: XP coming early?

PC buyers may be greeted with Windows XP, Microsoft's long-awaited new operating system, far earlier than they expected.

PC buyers may be greeted with Windows XP, Microsoft's long-awaited new operating system, far earlier than they expected.

Microsoft has given PC makers the green light to ship Windows XP as soon as one full month before the operating system's official Oct. 25 launch date. Computer makers plan to debut PCs and notebooks with the new operating system in late September, a move that could help jump-start stagnant sales.

How soon customers could receive the PCs from the manufacturers is not clear. The early release would benefit Microsoft by beating any possible injunction that would delay the new operating system's debut, analysts said.

Getting Windows XP to market may have been behind Microsoft asking the Supreme Court to take its antitrust appeal. The action could make it more difficult for the Justice Department and 18 states to seek an injunction against the upcoming operating system.

Andy Gavil, an antitrust professor at Howard University School of Law, said that as the clock ticks down on Windows XP's launch, "the longer the government waits, the more difficult it will be to stop" the new operating system's release.

Regardless of the launch date, PC makers that ship Windows XP with icons on the desktop will have to include at least three Microsoft-mandated icons. In addition to MSN Internet access, Microsoft revealed restrictions that compel PC makers to place icons for Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player as well as the Recycle Bin on PC desktops.

Separately, Microsoft is managing to keep mum that a final version of its Internet Explorer 6 browser is nearing completion. In a memo, the Internet Explorer team called a recent test, or beta, version of IE 6, "what we expect to be the final build for the Internet Explorer 6 release." The e-mail, to beta testers, requested final comments and suggestions by Aug. 7.

The IBM PC at 20
IBM wasn't the first company to sell a personal computer when it introduced the 5150 in August 1981, but its entry is credited with igniting the PC era. CNET examines the past, present and future of the PC in a special report.

IBM's introduction of the 5150 PC has been viewed alternately as a stroke of brilliant technological foresight and the biggest business blunder of the 20th century. Either way, it is safe to say that the world would be a vastly different place--though not necessarily a better one--had IBM not jumped into the PC market.

Participants in the project to develop the first IBM PC say they were concerned less about making history than about making deadline. But one decision did wind up changing the world--or at least the computer world. IBM opted to build its system using off-the-shelf parts, a radical departure from the way things traditionally got done at Big Blue.

With history behind us, numerous emerging technologies have the potential to influence the future course of PCs, but in the collective opinion of a variety of industry researchers, designers and analysts, PC changes will be adjustments, not radical alterations. PCs might come with a flat screen and a digital pen, but they'll still be used for writing letters, balancing the checkbook, checking e-mail, shopping online, playing games and editing photos.

Worms and viruses
A new worm, similar to Code Red but perhaps more virulent, began spreading across the Internet, infecting systems and potentially leaving them vulnerable to further attacks. "Compared to last week's (Code Red) attacks, this one is hitting harder," said one security expert.

The new worm does more than just overwhelm networks. After it infects a computer server, it reboots the computer and leaves behind a "back door" that could allow a hacker to gain control of or access the infected systems. The worm claimed two major victims this week, as Microsoft confirmed that some servers running its MSN Hotmail service were infected and express-shipping giant Federal Express said the worm interfered with some deliveries.

Viruses have a new address: PDF. Adobe's popular PDF file format has generally been considered immune to viruses. But a new virus called "Peachy" carried by programs embedded in PDF files raises concerns that the format itself could become susceptible.

Fortunately, those who are simply viewing a PDF, or Portable Document Format, file aren't vulnerable. The virus spreads only by way of Adobe's Acrobat software--the program used to create PDF documents--not through Acrobat Reader, the free program that is used to view the files. Peachy exploits an Acrobat feature that allows people to embed other files within a PDF--attachments that can be opened only by people using Acrobat.

On the move
Things move pretty fast in the tech world, including customers--if you aren't watching closely. A growing number of online companies are ambushing competitors through software that puts ads where marketers want them most--in front of customers visiting rival Web sites. It's called getting "Gatored," after one of the most popular applications underlying it, and some Web sites are out to restrict the practice. But for others it's fast becoming an effective way to feast on competitors in their own front yard.

These ads find their way onto browser windows through "plug-ins" that come bundled with certain software downloads. Several companies are behind the practice, including the eponymous One online executive referred to Gator and other such programs as "hijackware," applications that easily whisk consumers from a point of sale at one site to a competitor's site.

PC maker Gateway is evaluating whether to close all of its overseas units and has already submitted a proposal to close its British and Irish operations. Gateway notified employees that it is considering closing its manufacturing plant in Dublin as well as its sales, service and marketing operations throughout Britain and Ireland.

In other news, Napster's new CEO is floating a new price for the file swapper's planned subscription service, saying that downloading will soon cost "about $5." Konrad Hilbers did not give details on when the subscription service, long slated for release sometime this summer, would launch. But he said the monthly fees would be approximately $5.

Former CEO Hank Barry said earlier this year that subscription prices would likely range between $4.95 and $9.95, depending on how much music subscribers wanted and on whether they wanted the ability to burn CDs or move the music to portable devices.

Napster also shed some light in new court documents on the song-swapping company's bitterness at being forced to deliver its new product under such tight supervision.

Also of note
Metricom unplugged servers that help run its Ricochet high-speed wireless Internet service, silencing a 17-city network that will likely be auctioned off for just a fraction of its $1 billion price tag...Apple Computer quietly settled a lawsuit against a former worker who allegedly posted company secrets on the Internet under the pseudonym "worker bee"...IDC has yet to release its final second-quarter figures for PC shipments, but the market researcher is already offering a more dire prediction for market growth.

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