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Week in review: Reading Redmond

Just when you think you have Bill Gates' next move figured out, he goes and does the opposite.

Just when you think you have Bill Gates' next move figured out, he goes and does the opposite.

Reversing a longstanding Microsoft policy, Gates said the company will ship an update to its browser separately from the next major version of Windows. A beta, or test, version of Internet Explorer 7 will debut this summer, Microsoft's chairman said in a keynote address at the RSA security conference in San Francisco.

In announcing the plan, Gates acknowledged something that many outside the company had been arguing for some time--that the browser itself has become a security risk. "Browsing is definitely a point of vulnerability," Gates said.

As recently as August, Microsoft said that no new standalone version was planned before Longhorn, and the company reiterated back then that its plan was to make new IE features available with major Windows releases.

Gates also ended speculation about whether Microsoft was shifting to a paid model when he announced that the company will provide customers with its new anti-spyware software for free. The pledge comes after the company had been testing its AntiSpyware application--technology it acquired with its purchase of security software maker Giant Software.

"Just as spyware is something that we have to nip down today, we have decided that all licensed Windows users should have that protection at no charge," Gates said.

The initiative is part of Microsoft's efforts to strengthen security for home and business users of its Windows desktop software. Consumers are not always aware of the dangers from such threats as spyware, viruses and phishing. A study published last October found that more than 80 percent of consumers had been infected by spyware.

If Symantec CEO John Thompson is worried by Microsoft's effort to invade his company's large consumer security business, he isn't letting on to it. Thompson said Symantec would rely on the capability of its products--and not antitrust regulators--to fend off the challenge.

"I don't plan to go to the Justice Department and whine about Microsoft's monopoly," Thompson said. "I'd rather fight Microsoft in the marketplace because I'm sure we'll whip them."

Symantec's ability to defend its consumer business is critical to the company, given that half its revenue and its rapid growth have come from selling antivirus and other security software to home PC owners and small businesses.

Despite Thompson's confidence in his company, analysts noted that Microsoft could yet become a force in the security market. While most acknowledged that Microsoft can quickly ramp up to build useful applications for battling spyware and other pests, the consensus among Microsoft's newest rivals was that the learning process would take years rather than months.

"It will take them some time to get to a point where they're truly competitive against people who have real experience in this field," said Gene Hodges, president of security software maker McAfee.

Penguins and patents
While Microsoft was busy making friends in the security market, Hewlett-Packard's top Linux executive had a message for open-source programmers who don't like the idea of software patents: Get used to it.

"At the end of the day, software patents are a way of life. To ignore them is a little bit naive," Martin Fink, HP's vice president of Linux, said at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo in Boston. It's fine to object to software patents, but it's foolhardy not to try to acquire them, he said.

"Refusing to patent one's ideas is leaving oneself exposed for absolutely no good reason," Fink said. "For some, (getting patents) may seem like selling out. You can comfort yourself that it's what you do with the patent that matters, not the fact that you have one."

Meanwhile, the Open Source Initiative is devising ways to cut down on the rising number of open-source licenses attached to software. Open-source software makers are concerned that a proliferation of licenses could hurt the spread of open source by creating compatibility problems and complicating potential sales.

The OSI, an influential nonprofit group that issues certifications for open-source licenses, has been investigating the topic since last year. Involved in the discussions are members of the OSI's board and of the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL), an industry group dedicated to making Linux better suited to corporate customers.

One surprise at the conference was news that top Linux seller Red Hat had updated its premium Linux software, leapfrogging rival Novell and expanding an effort to coax customers away from Sun Microsystems. Red Hat Enterprise Linux version 4 is the first time Red Hat's commercial product includes the newer 2.6 kernel, or heart, of Linux.

Although Red Hat's previous version included some 2.6 features, it was Novell's SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 that was first to integrate the full list last August, including improvements to communications and memory subsystems.

Red Hat also announced that its next product for Linux enthusiasts will support two significant new features, the first for IBM's Power processor and the second for software that lets the same computer run multiple operating systems simultaneously.

The features are planned for version 4 of Fedora, a Linux edition geared to enthusiasts who want the latest technology but who don't need much in the way of technical support. Red Hat uses Fedora as a proving ground for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, which comes with long-term support but, unlike Fedora, isn't available for free.

Who's watching you?
An elementary school in a rural Northern California town has pulled the plug on a new student surveillance system after the technology came under fire from parents and others. Brittan Elementary School, located in Sutter, about 40 miles north of Sacramento, is shutting off the high-tech student-tracking system because the company supplying it backed out of the deal.

The company, called InCom, put a kibosh on the project after some parents and a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union aired complaints at a school board meeting last week. Their protests became the subject of numerous media reports. Parents and privacy advocates were concerned that student badges containing tiny radio devices would infringe on kids' privacy--and that the radio waves could pose a health risk.

Meanwhile, a woman who installed spyware on her husband's computer to secretly record evidence of an extramarital affair violated state law, a Florida court ruled. The court found that Beverly Ann O'Brien had "illegally obtained" records of husband James' online conversations with another woman as the two played Yahoo Dominoes together.

The judges barred Beverly Ann O'Brien from revealing the contents of the intercepted conversations, and said the chat records could not be introduced as evidence in the couple's divorce proceedings. The case highlights growing social friction over the use of clandestine electronic monitoring software, which has become more widespread in the last few years.

Coming attractions
The Demo conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., offered a peek at devices and software we may be using in the near future:

•  Motorola previewed a new service that will use cell phones to make Internet radio portable. The company's new iRadio technology, demonstrated at the conference, tweaks existing hardware and services to make the music streams offered by sites such as Yahoo Music and AOL Music ready for on-the-go listening.

The service begins with a media-ready phone with sufficient storage, initially via Secure Digital flash memory cards. A PC set up with iRadio software will automatically record selected Internet music streams onto the phone whenever it's connected to the PC. The software can also download songs purchased from participating online stores.

•  Clothing start-up Intellifit is poised to take the misery out of that spring ritual with a new system that provides a dead-accurate reading of your measurements and matches it to a size database for hundreds of clothing manufacturers.

The system begins with a kiosk about the size of a compact car. Step inside, and an orbiting scanner bombards your body with radio waves that ping back more than 200 measurements in 10 seconds.

The results are processed by the kiosk's computer, uploaded to a secure central database, and ready for retrieval the next time you go shopping with a participating manufacturer. Punch in your ID number and Intellifit will tell you what will look good on you.

•  Software maker Audiotrieve hopes to step in where your conscience and good sense leave off with a new filter that scans outgoing corporate e-mail for bad language, company secrets, dirty jokes and all other manner of potential legal time bombs.

The company is promoting its new OutBoxer product as a safeguard against the type of incriminating messages that have caused trouble for companies such as Microsoft and Oracle. Corporate e-mail administrators can set up OutBoxer to screen outgoing messages for a variety of suspect areas.

Also of note
Intel has devised a laser out of silicon, the latest in a series of steps that could take the expense and pain out of optical communication...Google released a fresh version of its Web-searching toolbar with a trio of new utilities...In the wake of Carly Fiorina's forced resignation, Allison Johnson, Hewlett-Packard's top marketing executive, is leaving the company ... Using software freely available from America Online's Winamp division, it's possible to turn Napster's copy-protected downloads into unprotected files that can be burned by the hundreds or even the thousands freely to CDs.