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Week in review: No wimpy worm

After a slow start, successive versions of the Sasser worm slithered around the Net, crashing hundreds of thousands of computers thanks to unpatched systems.

After a slow start, successive versions of the Sasser worm slithered around the Net this week, crashing hundreds of thousands of computers thanks to unpatched systems.

The worm began spreading slowly late last week, but subsequent versions boosted the infectiousness of the original. The worm takes advantage of a vulnerability in unpatched versions of Windows XP and Windows 2000 systems by establishing a remote connection to the targeted computer, installing a File Transfer Protocol (FTP) server and then downloading itself to the new host.

Universities were hard hit, as students connected their already infected computers to the campus networks early in the week. The ensuing outbreak resulted in thousands of computers being compromised, with the worm causing them to repeatedly reboot. The worm does little damage, however, and unlike previous fast-spreading worms, has not caused overwhelming network disruptions.

Although the damage wrought by Sasser failed to reach the levels of MSBlast and other major infections, security experts are warning that there could still be more trouble to come from the worm.

One researcher asserts that the group of online vandals suspected of creating both the Sasser worm and several variations of the Netsky virus could combine the two threats. The resulting blended threat could dodge security inside corporate systems via e-mail messages and then spread quickly, once inside those networks.

For specifics on how the worm works and how to prevent and cure infections, see CNET Reviews.

Corralling Longhorn
The next version of Windows will sport some fancy, three-dimensional graphics. But for those with an older video card, the Longhorn release will look a lot like Windows 2000. That's because with Longhorn, Microsoft plans to offer three graphical interfaces, each requiring a different level of graphics card.

The top-of-the-line interface, code-named "Aero Glass," will have transparency and other advanced three-dimensional shading features but will demand a high-end video card with at least 64MB of video memory. The midlevel "Aero" interface will offer most of the improved graphics abilities and will require 32MB of video memory.

Longhorn is also expected to add a number of laptop-specific features designed to make portable machines both more powerful and at the same time as easy to use as consumer devices such as portable DVD players. To accomplish this feat, Microsoft is looking at the possibility of a separate user interface that could be instantly accessed for playing back movies, music and other media files.

The company is even exploring ways that media files could be accessed without someone logging into Windows so that the experience would be comparable to using consumer electronics devices. Other possible enhancements include improved support for multiple displays and the ability to create ad hoc wireless networks.

With Longhorn still at least two years away, however, Microsoft is trying to give Windows XP a new lease on life. The software maker is gearing up for a big fall ad blitz for the 3-year-old operating system.

The campaign is slated to start in September, with ads touting the security improvements of Windows XP Service Pack 2. As the security push starts to wind down in mid-October, Microsoft's marketing will focus on new technologies that build on Windows XP, including a new version of Windows Media Center.

Coming attractions
Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard have come up with a concept PC that builds on the former's current Media Center entertainment idea and goes a few steps further. The Media Center PC of the future has a remote control with a built-in LCD screen for programming recordings.

The PC, known as the Windows Home Concept, also supports Internet telephony, dual high-definition TV tuners, biometric security and a built-in cable modem. The prototype is like a concept car; Microsoft doesn't expect it to hit the market in its current form, but rather hopes to get several of the PC's advances into the mainstream within a few years.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates is also encouraging the shift to 64-bit computing on the desktop. By the end of next year, virtually all of Advanced Micro Devices' processors will be 64-bit chips, and most Intel chips shipped at that time will be 64-bit capable, Gates noted at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference this week in Seattle.

"This is going to be a really wonderful transition," Gates promised in his speech to hardware makers to try to convince them to start writing 64-bit drivers for their software.

The issue is very important to the software maker. Even if most PC users are still a couple years away from running 64-bit operating systems on their desktops, Microsoft needs hardware makers to start moving now, one independent technology analyst warned.

Meanwhile, leading Linux seller Red Hat opened a new chapter in its 10-year history and a new front in its war against Microsoft. Red Hat announced its first version of the open-source operating system for desktop computers.

As with its existing server products, Red Hat will sell the desktop version as an annual subscription that includes support and software updates through the Red Hat Network. But it won't sell them individually, instead offering 50-computer subscriptions for $3,500 annually--about $70 per PC per year.

CNET special focus: Offshoring
Out of all the vitriol surrounding the offshore-labor question, remarkably few concrete suggestions have emerged to address this controversial trend.

In a four-day special report, CNET News.com examines the social, economic and political dimensions of offshoring and offers tangible steps that can be taken for U.S. industry to maintain its historical lead in high technology. The report includes a poll of nearly 500 key decision makers in the industry.

Also of note
Tom Siebel stepped down as chief executive of Siebel Systems, the business software company he founded in the 1990s and made synonymous with the multibillion-dollar market for software that manages customer relationships...Apple Computer said it will preview Tiger, the next version of Mac OS X, at a developers conference in June...A restructuring at Apple Computer that began last quarter will result in additional job cuts this year...Microsoft mistakenly received a patent for a new variety of apple tree.