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The week in review: Out of service

Two of the Web's most popular free services experience extended outages--one by design and one by defect.

Two of the Web's most popular free services experienced extended outages this week--one by design and one by defect.

Napster's self-imposed blackout continued to bar file trading on its service while engineers worked to fix problems in a database intended to stop swaps of copyrighted songs. The hiatus comes shortly after Napster disabled old versions of its software. It pushed its members to a new version that rendered the service unusable, blocking even the most obscure, uncopyrighted works from being traded.

People logging on this week were unable to trade even the few songs left. The company posted a message on its Web page saying that "file transfers have been temporarily suspended while Napster upgrades its databases." The company did not give a timetable for when trading would resume. As of Friday morning, the system was still down.

But as Napster collapses slowly into a musical black hole, millions of people who once searched painlessly for free music on the Web are hunting for the next online file-swapping utopia. At least a half-dozen services have picked up large collections of Napster emigres over the past few months. No single service has emerged as a standout that offers the same breadth of obscure music as Napster once did. But many of them are closing in, with hundreds of thousands of people at a time offering their music collections.

At least one-third of MSN Messenger customers experienced sporadic access problems and disappearing "buddy lists" that seemed to last several days. E-mail sent to this publication from MSN members indicated intermittent outages that started Tuesday. Microsoft on Thursday attributed the difficulty to a hardware problem. A spokeswoman said that while some people could still log in to the service, they would not be able to view their buddy lists. She emphasized, however, that those lists have not been lost.

Apple woes
Security and sales dealt a one-two punch to Mac faithful, who hadn't had to worry much about either issue.

The rising popularity of the current Mac OS X and the new operating system's foundation in the ubiquitous Unix operating system have started to draw the scrutiny of hackers and security experts. The result: electronic mailing lists dedicated to security are seeing the first reports of Mac OS X vulnerabilities. The vulnerabilities are considered mild, partly because of Apple's focus on desktop PCs and its minimal presence in servers and other Internet infrastructures. But that could change as hackers get more ambitious and Apple tries to move into new markets.

Last week, several people reported that beta testers who upgraded Mac OS X to the latest version likely have improper access permissions set on their desktops, allowing any user to change the appearance of any other user's desktop.

And after nearly a year of slow sales, Apple decided to halt production of its Power Mac G4 Cube. The unit had been unavailable from distributors for some time, which led to speculation that Apple was preparing to concede defeat and kill the 8-inch, cube-shaped computer.

Apple announced on Friday that it would recall power adapters used on some older PowerBook models after reports that the brick-shaped units can overheat, creating a potential fire hazard. The recall affects cords for the PowerBook G3 notebooks shipped from May 1998 until March 2000, but not those used for the iBook consumer laptops or the newer Titanium PowerBook G4. Apple is providing a free replacement power adapter.

A little good news came as Microsoft said that next week it will begin offering a word-processing and e-mail bundle for Mac users. The company previewed the package, Word + Entourage 2001 Special Edition, last month but kept back a few product details. While Microsoft is offering some good news for SE buyers--a $149 upgrade price to the forthcoming Macintosh Office for Mac OS X--the lack of certain features, such as synchronization with Palm systems, could irk some customers. Microsoft also faces increasing criticism from Mac users frustrated at its delay in delivering the Mac OS X version of its productivity suite.

A tough call
Metricom, a pioneer in providing wireless Internet access, filed for bankruptcy protection but intends to keep its 41,000 Ricochet subscribers online. The company's troubles mirror the woes in the wireless industry. Although wireless Internet access was hyped as a major growth area just a year ago, consumers have shown little demand for such services.

Metricom is considered a trailblazer in the industry, having signed up well-known investors such as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Despite such backing, it has been pounded by modest demand and the high cost of introducing its service.

Metricom left a $1 billion trail of debt, including $300 million owed to bondholders and hundreds of millions more to WorldCom, according to court records. The Metricom bankruptcy filing did not surprise many wireless industry watchers. Metricom had hinted at its financial woes for months, but U.S. Bankruptcy Court records filed in San Jose, Calif., show for the first time the extent of Metricom's debts. WorldCom, Metricom's largest creditor, claims it is owed $355 million, according to court records.

For a couple of years, politicians' and safety advocates' calls to ban mobile devices from vehicles have gained traction, but an increasingly vocal group is questioning the logic. The results could have dramatic effects for the converging technology and automobile industries.

The battle could change the way cell phones--and even handheld computers, wireless pagers and laptops--look and feel. Instead of traditional handheld devices with touch pads and screens, they may eventually become integrated into vehicle dashboards and controlled exclusively through voice-activated technology or touch controls.

Focus on Microsoft
Last week's appeals court decision, which spared Microsoft a breakup but said it illegally maintained an operating systems monopoly, seems to have landed with a dull thud on the company's Redmond, Wash., campus.

Most employees contacted said they are more concerned with the business of building the software giant's new products than the immediate affects of the ruling. So indifferent were some Microsoft employees to the court's decision that few of those contacted said they followed Thursday's news coverage of the court's decision or read the 125-page court ruling.

Even as Microsoft touts the open availability of the underpinnings of its .Net initiative, open-source advocates are working to make sure .Net isn't a Microsoft-only technology. A Boston company that works on the Gnome user interface for Linux is scheduled to announce a software project called "Mono" intended to compete against Microsoft.Net.

The move, if successful, could increase the importance and popularity of the Microsoft.Net software-as-a-service strategy while undermining Microsoft's control over the software itself. But analysts caution that .Net is a nascent technology, and any attempts to clone it are likely to be even more immature.

Microsoft started distributing one of the final testing versions of its Windows XP operating system to about 100,000 testers. Since the release of Windows XP Beta 2 in March, Microsoft has kept a tight lid on additional testing versions of the operating system. But the company completed Windows XP Release Candidate 1 days ahead of schedule. Release candidates are final testing versions before the software is sent to manufacturing and to PC makers. Microsoft designated Beta 2 as Build 2462 and the prerelease version as Build 2505.

Also of note
IBM notified more than 1,000 workers in its consulting and services business that their jobs are being eliminated as part of an effort to make sure worker skills match with customer needs...Webvan will try to unload more than 200 vans at a public auction next month as it liquidates about $30 million worth of equipment used at its Atlanta operations...Analysts say online research powerhouse Jupiter Media Metrix is more vulnerable than ever to deep-pocketed rivals as it struggles with integrating its research and data businesses at a time when demand for its services appears to be waning...Buoyed by strong sales of its m505 handheld, Palm grabbed nearly 70 percent of the retail market in May--the company's best showing since September.

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