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Week in review: Comdex goes corporate

Long a launchpad for consumer items, the Comdex trade show this year focused more on technology for the working world, including security, spam and utility computing.

Long a launchpad for consumer items, the Comdex trade show this year focused more on technology for the working world, including security, spam and utility computing.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates' annual Comdex address, his 20th, was designed to outline the promise of new software as well as the pitfalls of spam and the threats to security. Despite the challenges, Gates said, breakthroughs will make computing an easier and more rewarding experience.

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Aiming to counter the growing threat from unsolicited e-mail, Microsoft is adding more powerful antispam software to its messaging programs, including the server-based Exchange software, PC-based Outlook 2003 and Internet-based Hotmail.

Microsoft isn't alone on the spam front. Dozens of companies at the computing trade show were showing software, services and hardware designed to stem the amount of junk flooding e-mail accounts.

Cloudmark's SpamNet desktop software is installed on more than 700,000 consumer PCs. The program filters junk messages and lets people quickly tag a message as spam, then share the results with Cloudmark, which uses the information gleaned from unwanted messages to hone its analytical tools.

Security giant Symantec is blending a variety of approaches to tackle spam, with "whitelisting" showing particular promise as a way to augment text searchers and other common filtering methods. The opposite of blacklisting, whitelisting saves information on e-mail senders the user trusts, reducing the possibility for "false positives" when a spam filter wrongly identifies a welcome message as junk.

On the security front, Symantec's chief executive said that better computer security can be achieved, but it is going to be a mammoth task. The focus on security needs to shift from cleaning up after a problem to anticipating potential problems, John Thompson said, with automated patch management and better coordination of software and hardware.

In the relatively near future, the world will likely see the debut of damaging threats the industry is calling "Warhol" attacks, as they are likely to achieve fame by spreading across the Internet in 15 minutes. "Flash" threats might be able to blanket the Internet in 30 seconds.

One of the hottest topics in technology is also one of the most difficult to define. A panel discussion managed to agree that utility computing is more like a river than a stone. Participants agreed on the analogy and on the notion that utility computing is real and significant, but they had little success in nailing down the elusive topic du jour in enterprise computing.

Consumers, too
Despite this year's strong business focus, plenty of new products were unveiled at Comdex.

Dell announced two larger LCD televisions and a new multifunction printer on Monday at the Comdex trade show. The company has been selling a 17-inch liquid-crystal display (LCD) television, but will begin selling a 30-inch model. In addition, the company will begin selling a 23-inch model by the end of the year.

The new Dell printer is based on the same components as the company's best-selling model, the A940 inkjet, but the new A960 has a 50-page feeder and built-in fax hardware that enables it to be used alone.

Toshiba released its Portege M200, a new Windows XP tablet with a higher resolution, 12.1-inch screen and a faster Intel Pentium M processor. The machine also comes fitted with wireless capabilities and a minimum of a 1.5GHz Pentium M processor.

Along with a number of competitors that have also recently released new tablets, Toshiba is aiming to capture more business in the fledgling category of computers that can capture handwriting and be operated with a pen.

For those cynics who said that nothing new would be unveiled at Comdex, South Korean start-up DreamFree countered with the Peeg, a peripheral for personal digital assistants that is said to stimulate brain activity. Peeg, short for "personal electroencephalogram," is designed to stimulate different types of brain waves by sending positive waves to the wearer. Company literature says Peeg is the "world's best mobile digital brain charger."

Even though Apple Computer wasn't a Comdex participant, the company did reveal a new iMac with a 20-inch display and also updated its Power Mac G5 desktop line with a dual 1.8GHz processor model. The 20-inch iMac comes with a 1.25GHz PowerPC G4 processor, 256MB of RAM, an 80GB hard drive, Nvidia GeForce FX Ultra 5200 graphics chip and Apple's SuperDrive DVD recorder/CD burner.

Music wars
Many in the Mac community are also finding that their . A new piece of file-swapping software for Macintosh computers is drawing thousands of downloads by offering peer-to-peer options that had been limited largely to Windows computers.

The "Poisoned" file-swapping software allows connections to the hugely popular FastTrack system as well as to several smaller networks, giving first-time Mac owners direct access to the vast Kazaa network of millions of people.

Music fans will soon get another choice for downloads. Microsoft has at last confirmed plans that it will launch its own music-download store next year, putting it in direct competition with Apple's iTunes and a growing list of rival digital song stores.

Microsoft's entry into the market will likely make a huge splash despite it's being as much as a year behind Apple and others. But the company's service is also certain to be closely scrutinized by antitrust regulators who are already using a microscope to examine the company's music policies.

And while Apple, Microsoft and others target a potentially vast market for paid music downloads, Viacom's MTV unit is setting its sights closer to home. An MTV executive in charge of online properties described more limited ambitions than those announced earlier this month by the company's chief executive officer.

Jason Hirschhorn, vice president for digital music and media, said MTV's service will compete with those companies to some degree, but he stressed that it would focus on existing users of MTV properties.

Hackers unite
Internet attacks are getting more numerous and menacing. A survey found that 725 new software flaws in the third quarter of this year, down slightly from 727 found in the second quarter. However, the 823 new worms and viruses that appeared between July and September represented a 26 percent increase from the previous three months.

With all that extra work, a proposal to create an association to represent hackers and vulnerability researchers is gaining support. The group, which would be geared toward researchers and not software vendors, would provide guidelines on vulnerability disclosures and would lobby against legislation that could stifle security researchers' ability to tinker with software.

Also of note
Citing an "arms race" in the ongoing spam wars, AT&T defended its patenting of a technology to thwart antispam filters...The FBI and other police agencies may not eavesdrop on conversations inside automobiles equipped with OnStar or similar dashboard computing systems, a federal appeals court ruled...The Federal Communications Commission denied a telephone industry association's request to postpone some phone number portability rules.