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Week in review: Getting back to work

Recent evidence suggests the tech economy may be improving and more of us working, but what are we really doing when we are supposed to be laboring?

Recent evidence suggests that the tech economy may be improving and that more of us working, but what are we really doing when we are supposed to be laboring?

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that payroll employment in computer and electronic products manufacturing rose by 7,400 in June to 1.34 million. The field of computer systems design and related services added 5,200 payroll jobs, for a total of 1.18 million.

In another sign of a possible turnaround in tech employment, a report said job cuts announced by tech companies in the second quarter fell 33 percent from the first quarter. But the study cautioned that the pace of tech sector downsizing is still ahead of the rate a year ago.

Companies in the telecommunications, computer, electronics and e-commerce industries announced 39,720 job cuts last quarter, down from 59,537 job cuts in the first quarter of 2005. However, this second-quarter figure was 16 percent higher than in the same quarter a year ago.

Meanwhile, Hewlett-Packard executives are expected this weekend to put the final touches on a reorganization that could result in the loss of about 15,000 jobs. The job cuts will then be announced on Monday, a source familiar with the company said.

The layoffs are part of CEO Mark Hurd's cost-cutting measures to bring HP's spending more in line with that of its rivals.

For those who are working, working doesn't seem to be a priority. Surfing the Internet seems to be the most popular form of loafing on the job, according a study on wasted time at work by compensation specialist Salary.com and Web portal America Online.

Through a Web survey involving more than 10,000 employees, the report found that personal Internet surfing ranked as the top method of cooling one's heels at work. It was cited by 44.7 percent of respondents as their primary time-wasting activity, followed by socializing with co-workers (23.4 percent) and conducting personal business (6.8 percent).

The average worker admits to frittering away 2.09 hours per day, not counting lunch, according to the report. That's far more time than the roughly one hour per day employers expect the average employee to waste, the report said. The extra unproductive time adds up to $759 billion annually in salaries for which companies get no apparent benefit, the report said.

Far from flawless
Hackers are actively exploiting two serious security vulnerabilities in Windows, Microsoft warned as it released "critical" alerts about the flaws. One of the problems affects the Microsoft Color Management Module, a component of Windows that handles colors. The other relates to the JView Profiler, part of Microsoft's Java Virtual Machine.

The vulnerabilities could be used to commandeer a PC. An intruder could take advantage of the JView Profiler flaw by crafting a malicious Web page and persuading a user to visit the site. As for the Color Management Module vulnerability, people could fall victim to an attack by viewing a malicious image.

Meanwhile, two serious security flaws in a technology widely used for network authentication could expose a swath of software products to hacker attack, experts have warned. The flaws could allow an online intruder to crash or gain access to computers running Kerberos, a freely available authentication technology that was developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

MIT rates both flaws "critical," according to two advisories. The university also made available patches to fix the problems and stated that exploitation of the bugs by attackers "is believed to be difficult." Several software makers have already released updates to their products to address the problem.

Several vulnerabilities were identified in Cisco Systems' products this week that could lead to denial-of-service attacks. The most noteworthy flaw was reported Tuesday when Cisco warned that hackers could cripple its IP telephony networks by exploiting flaws in its CallManager software, an essential component of Cisco's IP telephony technology, which is used for call signaling and call routing.

By exploiting the discovered vulnerabilities, an attacker can trigger an overflow in memory within a critical CallManager process. This can result in a denial-of-service condition, which will cause the CallManager server to shut down and reboot. Cisco has issued a patch for the vulnerability.

The evolution will be televised
Millions of American television sets that receive only analog over-the-air broadcasts could go dark if not upgraded by Jan. 1, 2009. That deadline was suggested in a pair of hearings by members of the U.S. Senate's Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

The committee is preparing legislation that will require all American televisions to run on digital signals by the end of 2008. That would free up the analog, or 700 MHz, spectrum for other uses, such as broadband services and communications for emergency workers. Under current law, analog television would be cut off on Dec. 31, 2006, or when 85 percent of households are capable of receiving digital signals, whichever comes sooner.

The DVR landscape may be changing as well. Software maker Forgent Networks filed suit against 15 TV and media conglomerates, alleging that the companies are infringing on a Forgent patent covering crucial technology inside digital video recorders. Forgent claims its patent describes how to build a computer-controlled video system that can play back video while recording.

The 15 defendants include Cable One, The Washington Post Co., Charter Communications, Comcast, Time Warner, EchoStar and other cable carriers and media outlets. Those companies all offer DVR services to subscribers. More defendants, though, are almost inevitable, and could include companies that make DVRs, or PC makers that market home computers for recording TV.

Anxiety, meanwhile, goes hand in hand with the impending war over next-generation movie formats. Echoes of the quixotic battle between Sony's Betamax and the VHS format that ultimately replaced it remain in the minds of businesspeople involved even loosely with Hollywood, a distraction that nobody wants to repeat.

But it may already be too late. Hollywood studios have committed to releasing scores of high-definition DVD movies later this year. Two camps backing incompatible next-generation technologies, led respectively by Sony and Toshiba, have as yet failed to agree on a way to unify their products. They're still talking, but studio executives increasingly say--if only privately--that they are losing hope that a compromise will be reached.

The timing could not be worse. Consumers' seemingly insatiable hunger for new DVDs may finally be diminishing. Executives at Dreamworks Animation and Pixar Animation Studios have each issued earnings warnings in recent weeks, and retailer Best Buy noted in its quarterly earnings statement last week that sales of DVDs have tumbled.

Inside Intel
European regulators raided the offices of Intel and a number of PC-related companies as part of an antitrust investigation into the chip giant. As part of the raid, European Commission officials and national competition authorities in Milan, Italy; Munich, Germany; Madrid, Spain; and Swindon, England, descended on several Intel offices, an Intel representative confirmed. The European officials also visited a number of companies that manufacture or sell computers.

The United Kingdom's Office of Fair Trading said that it assisted the European competition authorities in an "on-site inspection" of Intel's Swindon offices.

Meanwhile, the chipmaker is expected to announce next week what may be the last batch of single-core Itanium processors. According to a source familiar with Intel's plans, the chipmaking giant will introduce on Monday two Itanium 2 processors from its 64-bit Madison lineup. The chips will run at speeds of 1.66GHz, with computer memory cache sizes of 9MB and 6MB, respectively, and are expected to be snatched up by mainframe computer makers such as Hitachi, Fujitsu and Silicon Graphics Inc.

An Intel representative said that the company does not comment on unannounced products but did say that the chipmaker is working with its manufacturing partners to launch new Madison parts, as it starts to prepare for Intel's next-generation Itanium chip, code-named Montecito.

On the Wi-Fi front, Intel is experimenting with ordinary wireless networks to see if they can do the same job on land that GPS (Global Positioning System) satellites do from space. Researchers at Intel are examining ways to triangulate an individual's location with Wi-Fi or cellular networks like GSM.

The main benefit of wireless networks is that they can locate someone in an urban environment. GPS often fails in downtown crystal canyons, where tall buildings can block signals. And while GPS determines only the latitude and longitude of an individual, wireless can also determine height and thus figure out what floor of a particular building a person is on.

Also of note
A 2002 e-mail suggests that an investigation commissioned by the SCO Group failed to produce any evidence that Linux contained copyright Unix code...A British man facing possible extradition to the United States says poor security was a major factor in his ability to have wandered through the IT systems of some key defense establishments...Personal computers that play unwitting host to "zombie" code are proliferating at a startling pace, according to a new report...IBM is teaming up with CenterPoint Energy to test technology that could turn power lines into a high-speed networks capable of delivering Internet access to consumers and providing real-time monitoring of the power grid.