CNET también está disponible en español.

Ir a español

Don't show this again

Tech Industry

Week in review: Down to business

Two dominant forces in the software arena launch major releases in the battle for the corporate wallet.

Two dominant forces in the software arena launched major releases in the battle for the corporate wallet.

Microsoft unveiled what its executives touted as one of the most significant product updates in the company's history: a fresh version of its Office software package with extensive new hooks into corporate computing systems. Chairman Bill Gates said the new software line--which combines familiar Office productivity programs with new business applications--ushers in a broad new role for Office as the common interface for creating and interacting with corporate data.

The most significant part of Office System is Office 2003, the productivity package widely used to create documents, spreadsheets and other business materials. While previous Office upgrades have focused on new tools and services, the most significant updates in Office 2003 are under the hood, such as dramatically enhanced support for Extensible Markup Language (XML), the fast-spreading standard for exchanging data between disparate computing systems.

However, the new Office won't likely spur immediate mass upgrades among businesses upon its release, analysts said, due in part to a complex set of added features. The XML functions will also create a whole new set of concerns for information technology administrators, said one analyst for research company Gartner. The more hooks Office has into other applications, the more testing IT staffs have to do to ensure that Office won't break those systems.

On the other side of the fence, Linux seller Red Hat began offering the newest incarnation of its product for business customers, a version that opens several new markets for the company. Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3.0 is the company's second edition of Linux specially designed for corporate users that prize stability.

The company says that the new version of the operating system runs Java software and databases faster, can run on mainframes and several other new machines, takes advantage of powerful 32-processor hardware and comes with better programming tools. One of the most significant changes to the software includes an overhaul of a hidden part of the operating system, a new mechanism for handling independent computing tasks called "threads."

Worm in the books
On another front, Microsoft was busy defending its efforts to secure its software and fend off open-source rivals. Company CEO Steve Ballmer acknowledged that the software maker has been late to introduce better ways for its customers to patch their systems but said that Microsoft is now making strides in that area.

"I know we need to do better, but we are in this challenging position where the hacker only needs to find one vulnerability, and we need to keep them out," he said.

It's a topic that is close to Microsoft's wallet as the recent wave of security problems has hurt the company's bottom line. The company said customers ware reluctant to sign new long-term contracts in the most recent quarter amid concern over the MSBlast worm and other security issues. The result was a sharp drop in unearned revenue--that is, money taken in by Microsoft for software deals that span future quarters.

But while the security issue and its impact on this quarter's bookings are important, a bigger issue for Microsoft may be whether it will be able to get the companies that signed up for long-term deals to renew their pacts--something that won't really become clear until next year.

The worm wasn't bad business for everyone. Security company Symantec saw a sharp rise in sales and profits for its second fiscal quarter, as consumers snapped up more of its software to protect against a rash of computer worms. Revenue was up 32 percent to $429 million from $325 million a year earlier.

Symantec and other security companies haven't felt the pain of the tech downturn as much as other industries. A steady stream of worms and viruses that hassled home computer users and hurt the corporate bottom line has kept security firms' products in demand.

More work may soon be headed Symatec's way. A program that exploits a software vulnerability that Microsoft recently described could spell trouble for companies that haven't patched their systems.

Released on a security mailing list earlier this week, the program takes advantage of a flaw in Microsoft's Messenger Service to cause Windows-based computers to crash. The vulnerability affects almost every current Microsoft Windows system, leaving security experts concerned that independent hackers will quickly find a way to take control of a large number of computers by exploiting the flaw.

Humming a new tune
Apple Computer is starting to let other companies get in on its iPod act. While stopping short of opening up the iPod's operating system or freely offering a developer's kit, the Mac maker has quietly been working with several companies to boost the number of add-ons that attach to the iconic white player.

The most notable add-ons are the voice recorder and media card reader that Apple introduced last week along with the Windows version of iTunes. Apple has also worked with speaker maker Altec Lansing on a set of speakers into which the iPod can dock. In total, Apple says there are now more than 130 add-ons for the iPod, though that figure includes such things as custom cases.

Expanding the iPod's capabilities is likely to please buyers and help solidify Apple's commanding lead of the portable MP3 market. Its dominance, however, is not going unchallenged. For years, the iPod has been one of the only players built around a 1.8-inch hard drive.

But later this month, Dell is expected to include a 1.8-inch hard drive in its Dell Digital Jukebox portable MP3 player. That would essentially match the size of an iPod's hard drive. Meanwhile, Samsung and others are promoting players with a still-smaller drive from start-up company Cornice.

Apple also released an updated version of its iTunes program that's intended to fix bugs some Windows users encountered. Version 4.1.1 of iTunes aims to remedy some initial glitches with the jukebox software Apple released last week. Some Windows users had reported bugs, including a problem that caused some Windows 2000 Professional machines to freeze after installing iTunes.

Also of note
A supercomputer built from 1,100 dual-processor Macintosh G5 PCs looks likely to rank with the five fastest machines in the world, despite costing a relative pittance...Amazon.com unveiled a new service that lets bookworms search through pages of thousands of books available on its online store...X10 Wireless Technology, which only last year billed itself as the world's largest online advertiser, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection...Online career site Monster is launching a Web-based networking section where members can communicate with other job seekers.