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Tech Industry

Week in review: Access restricted

Ideally, technology is supposed to be about helping individuals do more, but sometimes it's also about getting people to spend more.

Ideally, technology is supposed to be about helping individuals do more, but sometimes it's also about getting people to spend more.

Microsoft confirmed this week that the next version of Office will run only on the latest versions of its operating systems: Windows 2000 with Service Pack 3 and Windows XP. Early participants in beta testing of Office 11 found that they had been dropped from the program if they had planned to use older versions such as Windows 98, 98 Second Edition, Me or NT

Limiting access to the final version of Office 11 could encourage users of older operating systems to upgrade, but it could also further erode relations between Microsoft and business customers already stung by increases in volume licensing fees. Some business customers have indicated that they may explore alternatives to Office, such as Sun Microsystems' StarOffice and OpenOffice, because of Microsoft's licensing plan.

Microsoft's operating system policies have attracted unwanted attention before. On Friday, a federal judge released her final decision on a proposed remedy in the long-running antitrust case.

A Toronto-based freelance TV producer says that lack of access to her e-mail account cost her a lucrative job opportunity. She also wants $110,000 in damages from her Internet service provider for keeping her e-mail account open for incoming e-mail even while denying her access to the account. In addition, she's seeking to change an industrywide practice that she equates with extortion, in which ISPs may hold private communications hostage until bills are settled up.

Disputes over suspended e-mail accounts in the United States are typically covered by terms of service contracts that consumers agree to when they sign up with ISPs. In general, though, such contracts give ISPs wide latitude to set conditions.

It's all open source
But elsewhere, the focus on accessibility continues. One such arena is the open-source community, which made strides this week in its fight to remain competitive.

RealNetworks released the source code to its client streaming media software, which includes fully functioning media players for Linux, Mac OS X and Windows. The open-source client, which RealNetworks calls the "Helix DNA Client," includes code for the company's RealOne media player and its audio and video codecs.

The tactic contrasts sharply with those of arch rival Microsoft, which jealously guards the blueprints--or source code--to its products. RealNetworks' move could reignite the fierce debate on open source versus closed source. Microsoft contends that open source software is potentially more vulnerable to security problems than code kept out of the public domain, a charge dismissed by open source advocates.

With an eye toward its bottom line, Yahoo has decided to jettison its own proprietary scripting language in favor of the open source alternative PHP. The scripting switch will affect the way Yahoo creates a wide array of features and functions, from serving advertisements to designing applications like its calendar and e-mail applications. While Yahoo won't rewrite pages that currently use the proprietary language, the shift will ultimately affect virtually every Yahoo page and reflects a broader development philosophy toward open source technologies. People reading Yahoo's pages and using its applications are unlikely to notice a difference between proprietary scripts and those written in PHP.

A new report reveals just how much the U.S. Department of Defense depends on open source software and recommends steps to ensure that open source is recognized and accepted. Mitre, a not-for-profit engineering and information technology organization that works with the federal government, has recommended that the Department of Defense take steps to encourage the use of open source software in the department's infrastructure.

The report found that what it calls free and open source software "plays a more critical role in the (Defense Department) than has been generally recognized." The report also noted that if open source were banned, the department's security would plummet and costs would rise sharply.

Wi-Fi everywhere
Another industry interested in accessibility--indeed, devoted to it--is the wireless industry, and it seems as though everyone wants to get in on the action.

Sprint PCS has begun stitching together a network of wireless "hot spots" to cash in on the growing popularity of wireless networking. The company has already signed agreements to let subscribers roam onto a number of different hot spots--public areas outfitted with wireless networks--and then be charged for wireless Web access on their Sprint PCS bill.

It is unclear when the service will launch or how much access will cost. Sprint PCS is the third major U.S. carrier to either launch or begin adding a subscription Wi-Fi service to its consumer offerings.

Surf And Sip, the nation's oldest hot-spot network, plans to give away Wi-Fi equipment to anyone buying DirecTV DSL (digital subscriber line) service in an aggressive push to increase the number of urban areas that offer wireless Web access. The coffee shops, restaurants or bookstores that sign up will become part of Surf And Sip's network, where time online is sold in hourly, weekly or monthly chunks. The business owner must pay for DSL service but will get half of the revenue from any wireless Web wandering.

Surf And Sip is just one of three so-called WISPs (wireless Internet service providers) to announce expansion plans this week. WISPs sell Web access at any number of locations nationwide that have Wi-Fi gear and a digital subscriber line or a cable modem. The other WISPs expanding include T-Mobile and Canada's FatPort.

Major manufacturers of wireless networking products announced support for a new standard intended to shore up security for the increasingly popular Wi-Fi networking technology. Among those backing the new security protocols are chipmakers Intersil, Texas Instruments and Proxim.

The Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) standard is aimed at business customers who want strong security. WPA includes two new security measures to improve encryption and user authentication on networks.

Gadgets on the go
In a case of strange bedfellows, Dell Computer has started selling Apple Computer's iPod portable music player. Dell is carrying just the Windows versions of the iPod, with some models currently available for order by phone from Dell.

Apparently the draw of Dell's online store for Apple and the lure of the iPod for Dell were enough to convince the bitter rivals to set aside their differences. The two companies compete especially hard in the education market, where Dell has moved ahead of the Mac maker to become the largest seller of computer gear to schools.

When Sprint introduced its Digital Link last year, it boasted that the device, which turns a Handspring Visor into a cell phone, would be upgradable to the carrier's new network. However, although Sprint's new network is now up and running, the carrier has decided not to develop the necessary software upgrade to allow the Digital Link to take advantage of the always-on, higher-speed network.

The decision is due in large part to there being fewer than 1,000 users of the device, which is similar to Handspring's VisorPhone but debuted later and was designed for Sprint's CDMA (code division multiple access) network. Instead of offering the software upgrade, those who purchased the Digital Link are eligible for an equipment credit of $250 toward any Sprint phone or laptop card.

Worldwide handheld shipments dipped more than 2 percent in the third quarter compared with the same period last year, according to a revised report from Dataquest. Globally, 2.55 million personal digital assistants (PDAs) shipped in the third quarter, down from 2.62 million in the year-ago quarter. Palm continued to lead the market with 30.6 percent of the global market in the third quarter, up from 28.8 percent a year ago.

Also of note
America Online will lose a good chunk of its subscribers if it fails to develop a compelling broadband offering, a study concluded...Grocery retailer Safeway is testing new in-store shopping cart technology that traces shoppers' steps through its stores and flashes personalized ads at them while they're shopping...Two technology workers from California aim to deliver to 1 million AOL CDs to AOL's doorstep in Dulles, Va., as part of a mission to persuade the Web giant to stop its direct-mail marketing campaign of nearly a decade...A federal appeals court heard arguments regarding a challenge to a Virginia law restricting sexual material on the Internet...A Swedish company has filed criminal charges against Reuters, claiming that the news agency broke into its Web site to get access to an earnings report...Windows 2000 has passed all required tests for a security certification accepted in 15 countries...Linux distributor SuSE is hoping to attract desktop users to its operating system with a new edition of its software, which allows it to run Microsoft Office and other Windows is getting ready to launch an apparel site that features dozens of brands through partnerships with retailers including Gap, Eddie Bauer, Foot Locker and Nordstrom.