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Week in review: Circling the PCs

Conceding that its strategy of patching Windows holes as they emerge is not effective, Microsoft is working on a new security effort focused on what the company calls "securing the perimeter."

Conceding that its strategy of patching Windows holes as they emerge is not effective, Microsoft is working on a new security effort focused on what the company calls "securing the perimeter."

Although Microsoft will continue to devise ways to improve the means by which Windows users apply upgrades, or patches, to their software, the company realized that too many customers don't upgrade quickly enough to thwart hackers.

Microsoft's efforts have largely centered on improving the way it writes its code and then fixing holes as they emerge. However, recent worm and virus attacks have repeatedly shown that many customers remain vulnerable long after patches have been released, a Microsoft executive said.

Many companies find themselves in a race against the clock as online vandals quickly exploit flaws. A new report found that two-thirds of new attacks take advantage of vulnerabilities that are less than a year old. The MSBlast worm, for example, appeared 26 days after Microsoft warned customers about the security flaw exploited by the worm.

The report, which uses data from more than 20,000 sensors in 180 countries, found that four out of 10 attacks took place less than six months after the first release of information about a flaw.

As if to reinforce these findings, a malicious program, dubbed QHosts, infects PCs using a recent flaw in Microsoft's Internet Explorer to take control of how computers look up Internet addresses. The program takes advantage of a critical flaw in the popular Internet Explorer Web browser and allows a Web site to run code on a computer without authorization from its user.

That Trojan horse used a banner ad that the attacker somehow placed on Web hosting provider's site to infect PCs running Windows. When a page containing the booby-trapped ad is displayed in Internet Explorer, the malicious code will automatically install the Trojan horse on the user's PC.

Spotlight on Microsoft
Microsoft launched Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004, an updated version of its Media Center PC that lets people download and play music and movies via a remote control.

Microsoft has added a number of features in the 2004 edition of the multimedia operating system, most notably, the ability to pause and rewind radio broadcasts, edit and print photos, and rip CDs onto a hard drive--all done via the Media Center's remote control interface.

PC makers unwrapped a host of new Media Center PCs after the official launch of the latest version of Microsoft's entertainment-oriented OS. At least four PC makers--Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Gateway and Toshiba--incorporated Media Center Edition 2004.

Dell is offering the Media Center OS on three Dimension desktops, while Gateway is offering three versions of its new all-in-one 610 Media Center PC. HP unveiled a pair of new PCs based on the OS, and Toshiba unveiled two laptops.

In addition to the Media Center OS, Microsoft is expected to disclose more details on Longhorn, its planned upgrade to Windows, as the company looks to drive demand for the forthcoming operating system. At its Professional Developers Conference next month, Microsoft will detail Longhorn's underlying graphics and user-interface technology.

Microsoft describes the interface as "a brand-new client platform for building smart, connected, media-rich applications in Longhorn." It will introduce the ability to create applications with a new style of user interface and greater resolution than Windows currently supports, according to the company.

Open source, open season
Not everyone is looking forward to Microsoft's new OS, though. The South Korean government has announced that by 2007 it plans to replace proprietary software with open-source alternatives on a substantial number of its PCs and servers.

Thousands of computers in ministries, government-linked organizations and universities in South Korea will replace Microsoft's Windows operating system and Office productivity suite with open-source alternatives under the plan. Twenty percent of desktop software and 30 percent of server software will be changed to open source by 2007.

But of course, open-source's biggest battle may be with itself. Now it looks like Silicon Graphics Inc. may be the next target of Linux opponent the SCO Group, with the controversial software seller threatening to revoke SGI's Unix license.

An SGI filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission included a statement detailing the company's plans to revoke SGI's license to distribute products based on Unix code that SCO controls. The move would mirror similar actions that SCO took earlier this year against computing giant IBM, SCO's main opponent in its legal battle against the open-source Linux OS.

On the other side of the fight, IBM expanded its countersuit against SCO--adding a new twist to the case by accusing the software maker of infringing IBM copyrights. Big Blue also criticized recent efforts to indemnify Linux users, saying such plans are of limited value and go against the core values of open-source software.

IBM was attacked by SCO early this year when the software maker filed a $3 billion lawsuit that accused Big Blue of illegally incorporating SCO-controlled Unix code into Linux software distributed by IBM. Big Blue filed counterclaims against SCO in August, charging SCO with violating IBM patents, among other charges.

Go go gadget
Palm introduced three new handhelds in an effort to expand its audience while pleasing its loyal and enthusiastic crowd. But bleak back-to-school sales numbers may indicate a not-so-happy holiday season for the device maker.

Two new Tungsten devices, the T3 and E, are aimed at business buyers. ARM-based processors and version 5.2.1 of the Palm operating system enable the products to perform advanced capabilities beyond those of their predecessors.

But, again, indications from the lackluster back-to-school sales season may mean rough holidays. Sales of handhelds were down 30 percent in the month of August compared with the same period last year.

Dell and Sony Electronics are adding new features to upcoming handheld devices, from sleek designs to wireless connectivity.

Sony's $200 Clie PEG-TJ25 and $250 Clie PEG-TJ35 are less than half an inch thick and should be available this month.

The Federal Communications Commission has given an approval for Dell's Axim X3 devices. Dell said last week that the Axim X3 would be available later this year and would be thinner and lighter than the company's Axim X5. FCC documents hint that one will feature Wi-Fi connectivity.

Wi-Fi is also helping music lovers to remotely play MP3 and Windows Media Audio files stored on a computer from anywhere in the home. The new Sound Blaster Wireless Music system uses either the 802.11b or 802.11g wireless standard to connect to a PC. The digital receiver can be hooked up to power speakers, home stereos and home theater systems.

Also of note
Sun Microsystems warned that its most recent quarter was "particularly difficult" and said that the company would post a significant loss...California regulators have begun forcing Internet telephone service providers to apply for telephone operator licenses...The Walt Disney company introduced a new video-on-demand service that lets customers download and store films via a set-top device.