Week in review: Glitches, gadgets rule

A Windows flaw dispels the holiday cheer, but CES is a nonstop fiesta of tech.

The short but eventful first week of the year kicked off with news of a serious Microsoft Windows flaw that has spawned dozens of attacks and can be exploited just by viewing a Web site that contains a malicious image.

But PC users and those involved in patching the flaw weren't the only ones concerned with images this week. Thousands of technophiles have descended upon the star-studded Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas to boost their own images and to show off or catch up on the latest and greatest in gadgetry.

And many of those new technologies do in fact have to do with images--improving their quality, displaying them via Internet connections in the touted digital living room, or taking them on the road in mobile devices.

The Windows flaw lies in the way the operating system renders Windows Meta File images. Microsoft initially said it wouldn't deliver a fix until next week, which security experts said would leave businesses and consumers unprotected for too long.

That led some security experts to advise downloading an unauthorized security patch created by little-known Russian software developer Ilfak Guilfanov. Also during the wait, some consumers turned to antivirus products, which had mixed records in protecting against the flaw.

But breaking with its monthly patch cycle, Microsoft on Thursday ended up releasing a fix for the WMF flaw. The company said it had completed testing of the security update earlier than expected, and was responding to strong customer sentiment that the release should be made available as soon as possible.

CNET News.com readers had much to say about the flaw and Microsoft's delay in releasing the patch. Many, like "Smart Itguy," talked of Redmond profiting from such vulnerabilities.

"Microsoft will use this flaw to leverage users into buying new software. They will only patch Windows XP, and anyone using Windows 2000 or older, who wants their systems fixed or made more secure will be forced to buy Windows XP," the reader wrote. "Microsoft should not be rewarded for poor programming. What's to stop them from deliberately creating flaws and vulnerabilities to increase sales."

Reader Drew K., however, said people, especially Mac fans, are too quick to criticize Redmond for not rushing out a patch.

"It's so easy to blame Microsoft and want things to be fixed yesterday but that doesn't change the fact I don't have a clue what's going on inside the Redmond campus right now," he wrote. "Are they playing tiddly-winks, or wearing their finger nails down typing like mad?"

Showtime
CES, the tech industry's biggest annual schmooze fest, officially opened Thursday in true Vegas style. Although the gadgets are taking center stage, so, too, are industry and Hollywood stars with a focus on entertainment, both in the home and on the go.

For one thing, it's finally prime time for video on the PC--the long-promised coming together of entertainment and computing. Executives from Silicon Valley, Hollywood and elsewhere sketched out a vision of the future in which consumers tap into huge libraries of videos--first-run films, news footage from remote corners of the world, home movies, old episodes of "Kojak"--and then play them on their computers, televisions and cell phones.

For example, Intel and Microsoft, who--after years of carving similar, but largely separate paths toward the digital living room--are finally uniting their efforts.

The partnership, which has been building over the past couple of years, is a recognition by the two companies that it is hard work allowing consumers to easily get the kind of programs they want.

Also feeding into consumers' home entertainment appetite, Microsoft Chairman

Microsoft's Peter Moore, corporate vice president for interactive entertainment, said the company's new game console is selling at least as well as the company predicted. The company is on track to sell between 4.5 million and 5.5 million of the consoles by the end of its fiscal year, June 30. The Xbox 360 was launched on Nov. 22. Oh, yes--Gates also told News.com that he spent more than 100 hours playing with one of the game machines over the Christmas holiday.

The video format wars kicked into high gear on Wednesday when the companies backing HD DVD said that nearly 200 titles would be available for the format by the end of the year. Meanwhile, Sony announced plans Wednesday for its first high-definition Blu-ray DVD players and recorders aimed at the international market. The company also provided a look at its broader 2006 electronics lineup, including the PlayStation 3, which is still expected to be released this spring, at least in Japan.

Sony CEO Howard Stringer was joined by "The Da Vinci Code" author Dan Brown and actor Tom Hanks in delivering a star-powered CES keynote address Thursday morning that didn't mention much in the way of future products.

Also from Tinseltown, actor Morgan Freeman said services that will deliver first-run movies over the Internet to people's homes while the movies remain in theaters are "absolutely" analogous to what happened in the PC business when consumers began to buy their machines directly. Freeman did a brief interview with reporters after Intel CEO Paul Otellini's keynote speech.

Meanwhile, Skype is making a play for the mainstream IP telephony market with a series of new products being announced at CES. The company, which provides free calling from computer to computer over the Internet, announced several new products developed through partnerships with consumer electronics manufacturers to make it easier for people to use its Internet phone service. It also announced a new service it is launching with Kodak that combines live voice conversations and photo sharing.

Manufacturers of NAND flash memory are also making noise at CES by showing off the solid-state technology as an increasingly important component in cell phones and talking up how it will find its way into notebook hard drives in 2006.

Yahoo CEO Terry Semel was undoubtedly hoping for smoother sailing than he experienced in his keynote address Friday morning. While trying to demonstrate the new Yahoo Go TV service, which allows people to access Yahoo content and services through a Windows XP-based PC connected to a TV, the Internet connection failed. Executives tried to ad lib until Semel called his surprise guest, Hollywood star Tom Cruise, to the stage.

Music to the ears
Singer Justin Timberlake, along with MTV Networks head Van Toffler, joined Gates at CES to tout the Urge music subscription service, soon to be released by MTV. Unlike rival services, Urge is built directly into Microsoft's upcoming version of the Windows Media Player.

But a shadow shaped like an apple was looming. Competitors to Apple Computer's iPod dotted the Las Vegas convention halls this week. Even the biggest companies, however, concede they've got a long way to go to catch the most successful consumer electronics product of the past decade.

In other music news, New York state's antitrust probe of digital-music pricing has stalled record labels' plans to move away from the 99-cents-per-song standard fee set by Apple. And some in the music industry view the antitrust probe as a warning to the labels not to collude on pricing, but observers also say the prospect of further investigations could dampen enthusiasm for changes in the per-song pricing structure.

Consumer beware
Dozens of federal agencies are tracking visits to U.S. government Web sites in violation of long-standing rules designed to protect online privacy, a two-part CNET News.com investigation shows.

From the Air Force to the Treasury Department, government agencies are using either "Web bugs" or permanent cookies to monitor their visitors' behavior, even though federal law restricts the practice. Some departments changed their practices this week after being contacted by CNET News.com.

The folks on Capitol Hill are also quietly tracking visits to their Web sites even though they have publicly pledged not to do so.

Sixty-six politicians in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are setting permanent Web cookies even though at least 23 of them have promised not to use the online tracking technique, News.com discovered.

Some consumers might also be dismayed to find their Social Security numbers printed on unsolicited packages from H&R Block, the result of a recent labeling blunder at the company.

The packages, which H&R Block mailed in December, contained free copies of the company's tax preparation software, TaxCut. By mistake, some of the packages also displayed recipients' Social Security numbers, which were embedded in 47-digit tracking codes above mailing labels.

Hotel chain Marriott admitted last Tuesday that backup computer tapes containing data on approximately 206,000 customers were missing from a company office in Florida.

The data, which relates to customers of its time-share division, Marriott Vacation Club International, included personal information such as the credit card details, Social Security numbers and, in a few cases, the bank details of customers.

Also of note
As Google's stock inched above $450 per share, Google executives have little reason to call for a split...Advanced sound-detection technology showed endangered whales sing in distinct "dialects"...The Internet is shaping car preferences, a trend in evidence at the LA Auto Show...Many businesses track public opinion by monitoring blogs...Google plans to sell television shows and sports programming that can be downloaded from its site...Massachusetts is "on track" to use OpenDocument-based desktop software next year.

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