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Week in review: Wi-Fi goes to Washington

As winter put the big chill on Bush's second inauguration, wireless technology was creating a new hot spot on Pennsylvania Avenue. Photos: The iPod economy Images: JibJab takes stab at Bush's next term

As winter put the big chill on President Bush's second inauguration, wireless technology was creating a new hot spot on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Americans who braved the snowstorms to catch a glimpse of the inauguration were able to check e-mail and update blogs from the ceremony, thanks to a new Wi-Fi hot spot. The wireless node blankets the popular area between 13th and 15th streets. A nonprofit community group called the Open Park Project is providing the free service this week, in what its founders describe as an exercise in wireless democracy.

Last spring, the Open Park Project announced a hot spot on Capitol Hill near the Supreme Court. The group now plans to link up the entire National Mall and is negotiating to place antennas on Smithsonian Institution buildings.

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In an odd twist, the hot spot could have been used to watch the latest political satire video from JibJab. The online producer of "This Land," the short film that satirized the 2004 presidential election, is taking another stab at the victor on the eve of the inauguration.

JibJab on Tuesday released a new animated short film called "Second Term," poking fun at President Bush as he prepared to swear in for another four years on Thursday. The video was released exclusively by Yahoo, via a distribution deal signed in December that culminated with the debut of "Second Term."

Across the country, Wi-Fi networks are growing in popularity. A new research report concludes that the wireless technology has gained a slight edge over Ethernet cables in home networks. The survey found that 52 percent of U.S. households with home networks use wireless technology, compared with 50 percent who use Ethernet and about 5 percent who go with power-line networking via electrical wires.

It's the first time Wi-Fi has outpaced Ethernet, an achievement attributed to growing Wi-Fi support among broadband providers. Most major broadband companies offer options for hooking up a new account via Wi-Fi equipment, an attractive option for those who haven't set up a home network yet or want to do more than the Ethernet setup allows.

As Wi-Fi networks become popular in American homes, however, more people are exposed to dangers such as spyware. Thus, the need to secure systems against those threats becomes more urgent. But for many ordinary owners, the complexity of dealing with a wireless network is leading them to put security on the back burner.

Fixing a hole
Security is often a complex undertaking, especially when you find your ability to control it wrenched from your hands. An Internet service provider in New York learned that first hand last week, when its domain name and e-mail were apparently hijacked.

A representative said that ownership of the domain had been moved to a company in Australia, that the domain name server (DNS) records had been moved to the United Kingdom, and that the company's e-mail had been redirected to a company in Canada. E-mail to the domain was being directed to the false site and "should be considered lost or compromised," the ISP said.

Your desktop may not be much safer. The data protection feature in Microsoft Word and Excel documents has a major flaw that could allow snoopers to decode password-protected files, a security researcher has warned.

In the world of cryptographers, encryption schemes that encode more than one message using the same key are seen as flawed. That's because a comparison of the information in the encrypted messages can significantly shorten the search for the correct key to unlock the messages.

The Office flaw is the latest issue that Microsoft has had with implementing encryption in its products. Security researchers have taken the company to task repeatedly in the past for the weak passwords in previous versions of the Windows operating system.

Meanwhile, Apple Computer was wrestling with its own reports of flaws. A source-code audit of the open-source operating system from which Apple borrowed much of the code for Mac OS X revealed four vulnerabilities of varying severity in Apple's software, a security company said.

The flaws in the Darwin OS affect Mac OS X version 10.3--code-named Panther--and are caused by memory errors in the kernel, according to an advisory released by ImmunitySec, the security company that found the flaws. The flaws include a bug in Mac OS X's SearchFS function, several kernel memory overflows and a logic bug in the AT command, which is used to schedule tasks by the operating system.

Apple attack
Despite its booming sales, the iPod isn't impressing everyone. Dell Chief Executive Kevin Rollins is dismissing the iPod as a "fad" and claiming the new Mac Mini won't dent the PC market. In an interview, Rollins said that the number of headlines Apple grabs does not worry him and that the company isn't "in the same league" as Dell.

"It's interesting the iPod has been out for three years and it's only this past year it's become a raging success," Rollins said. "Well, those things that become fads rage, and then they drop off." But Rollins was careful to add that this wasn't meant as any kind of disparagement of Apple. "They've done a nice job," he said.

There's also rancor in the ranks of Mac fans, as European shoppers petition Apple to bring EU pricing for the Mac Mini more in line with that of the United States. The petition's writers also claim the higher EU pricing is counterproductive for Apple's business strategy and will serve to discourage potential PC-to-Mac switchers.

The Mac Mini sells for $499 in the United States--around 268 pounds. However, the same Mac in the United Kingdom costs 339 pounds, or about $632.

Rumors of the Mac Mini's imminent unveiling at last week's Macworld Expo landed a 19-year-old Harvard student in big trouble with Apple. Apple sued the publisher of Mac enthusiast site Think Secret and other unnamed individuals, alleging that recent postings on the site contain Apple trade secrets.

Nicholas Ciarelli, the publisher and editor of Think Secret, warned earlier this week that he would be struggling to pay for his defense. His plea for help did not go unheard.

Ciarelli said in a later article on his site that he is being represented free of charge by Terry Gross, a lawyer who once represented the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an agency that is backing two other Macintosh sites that are in Apple's legal crosshairs.

Search wars
America Online unveiled an expanded search offering that lets consumers quickly narrow queries and gives them new ways to seek out information and products. AOL also announced several partnerships and plans that will enable it to let people search both for online information and computer files from one location on its Web site.

In addition, the online giant is expanding its local search offerings and giving advertisers a way to track which local markets their customers are coming from. AOL also has revamped its shopping search to allow its members to narrow results for products based on category, brand, price, store and merchant rating.

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AOL also released a new tool designed to help parents evaluate entertainment for children. The Family Friendly programming guide will appear initially in AOL's Moviefone and CityGuide services, which provide listings of films, DVDs and events suited to families. The option will be extended later to other channels such as AOL music, games and books.

Meanwhile, Google is introducing new technology controls to thwart people who use blogs to manipulate rankings in its search results.

Otherwise known as "link" or "comment spam," the ruse is as old as Web marketing. Such Web site promoters use the comment form on forums, blogs or any Web page to place or gain a link pointing back to their own Web site.


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And because Google and other search engines tabulate search results in part by a Web page's link popularity with other sites, the trick can boost a site's ranking--and more important, traffic. It can also produce irrelevant search results.

In other Google news, the search giant was dealt a setback when a French court ruled that it must refrain from using the trademarks of European resort chain Le Meridien Hotels and Resorts to trigger keyword ads. A Nanterre court in France ruled that Google infringed on the trademarks of Le Meridien by allowing the hotel chain's rivals to bid on keywords of its name and appear prominently in related search results.

The decision casts a shadow on Google's billion-dollar money engine--keyword-based advertising--and potentially on the company's financial prospects in Europe. About 98 percent of the company's revenue comes from keyword advertising linked to search technology, and many such ads are tied to branded or trademarked names of products and services.

Also of note
Intel unveiled a new version of its Centrino chip family for notebooks, a recipe it aims to use to boost the performance of lightweight wireless notebooks--mainly machines that weight about 5 or 6 pounds--making them more useful as everyday computers...A bill introduced in California's Legislature has raised the possibility of jail time for developers of file-swapping software who don't stop trades of copyrighted movies and songs...Online auctioneer eBay has notified

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customers that it will no longer allow them to log on through Microsoft's identity management service, Passport...Comcast will raise its broadband Internet speeds by at least a third later this year--part of its effort to fend off DSL rivals...Sega Toys unveiled a robotic dog--the iDog--that can be used to play and compose music.