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Week in review: Hackers put heat on security

Black Hat attendees probed tech security to see what shakes out, especially from Microsoft trees.

Hackers and corporate suits joined in Las Vegas this week to discuss security at the annual Black Hat conference.

Microsoft hosted a whole day of discussion on security in its Vista update--a sign of the conference changing. The FBI also made an appearance to make a call for hacker help with cybercrime.

Meanwhile, one hacker at the conference demonstrated flaws in Wi-Fi software that could let an attacker break into a PC. Other researchers released tools to test the security of increasingly popular voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, telephony systems.

In other security news, McAfee released four protection suites and a standalone wireless-security application. The suites are based on the company's new Falcon technology and are designed to compete with products from Symantec and security market newcomer Microsoft.

The product news came on the same day McAfee said it had fixed a vulnerability in current versions of its consumer security software that might put systems at risk of attack and compromise.

Game on
The Entertainment Software Association announced on Monday that the Electronic Entertainment Expo is no longer the game industry's biggest conference. The organizers' goal for 2007 isn't fanfare--it's intimacy.

The newly named "E3 Interactive Media Festival," will be an invitation-only event, downsized by tens of thousands, and pushed out two months, to July 2007. The change in timing was viewed favorably by game developers anticipating smoother production schedules and time to prepare more game demos for the big event.

Video games were also a hot topic this week in Boston at computer graphics industry conference Siggraph 2006. The concern there, however was: Is there really reason for concern? Panelists and audience members discussed whether the uproar over violent games is based in reality or just a soapbox for politicians.

Other Siggraph attendees questioned Sony directly about its digital rights management (DRM) policies and weren't shy about expressing their views on regional coding and Sony's rootkit anticopying software.

"I am not here to talk about rootkit. Symantec had been using it before Sony BMG, and there was not this outcry," Mitch Singer of Sony Pictures Entertainment responded. On DRM, Singer said, "I think FairPlay protected Steve Jobs' ability to protect his hardware so that he could sell it for a lot more money.

Yet despite all that money, Steve Jobs himself didn't have a great week. Apple Computer initiated a voluntary recall for some of its 15-inch MacBook Pro batteries, citing performance concerns. Apple will replace the batteries, which do not pose a safety hazard.

Other Apple customers, .Mac users in particular, weren't dealing with bad batteries but rather a publishing system that wouldn't publish for at least four days this week. Unsurpisingly, Apple's latest advertising campaign, pegged to the slogan "It just works," was irritating a few customers. Apple, which fixed 26 operating-system flaws this week, said it is investigating the .Web publishing outages.

Working in Apple's favor this week were carmakers that are racing to accommodate iPods. Ford Motor, General Motors and Mazda Motor are bulding 2007 models that better integrate with digital-music devices. That might not be as cool as cars that hit speeds up to 240 miles per hour, but it's a boon for iPod junkies.

Also in Apple's win column was a reprieve from France's anti-DRM law. Sections of France's controversial copyright law--which had threatened to mandate interoperability between Apple and rival online music players' digital rights management--were ruled unconstitutional.

Regulatory issues were also the battle for Yahoo this week. Taiwan's Fair Trade Commission is investigating Yahoo for possible antitrust violations after some users complained about the company's new fee policy for its auction service.

Addressing other legality concerns, Yahoo teamed up with Google, the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the Media Rating Council and several other search companies to deal with click fraud. The newly formed Click Measurement Working Group said it will establish guidelines to help measure how prevalent click fraud really is.

Yahoo could have yet one more unexpected problem on the horizon: AOL. Time Warner on Wednesday announced that its struggling AOL division will give away e-mail, software and other Web services for free to high-speed Internet users in a bid to boost online-advertising sales.

The offering marks yet another transition for the Internet service. AOL, which announced more layoffs this week, tries again to move on from an era of dial-up access and subscription-based revenue to compete with the Googles and Yahoos of the world.

Google wasn't so focused on the AOL rivalry but on the radio. Google inked a deal with XM Satellite Radio on Wednesday that allows the search giant's AdWords clients to promote their products and services through XM spots.

In the Net's world of social networking, Flock brings a new browser that intermingles online socializing and Web surfing. Features in Flock 1.0, which is built on top of Firefox software, focus on sharing and communication, a common theme of so-called Web 2.0 services.

But what Web 2.0 offers in services, it also requires in bandwith. Federal regulators renewed on Thursday their push for a wider rollout of what has been hailed as a viable "third pipe" for the many areas where broadband choices have been limited to DSL or cable modems. If broadband over power lines takes off, more Americans will be able to plug into high-speed Internet access.

Wider access to high-speed broadband means broad access to video. And in the world of video, CNN is snatching a page out of YouTube's book. CNN Exchange will be a page on the company's Web site that will feature user-submitted video, audio and articles. Video-sharing sites have become online warehouses for war footage from Lebanon, Iraq and Chechnya.

Where can busy people watch all those heart-wrenching videos? On their phones, of course. Verizon Wireless this week introduced LG Electronic' Chocolate handset to U.S. shores, offering video and music features it hopes digital-media junkies will find tasty.

The phone has extensive music and video capabilities tied to its V Cast media store, with a caveat: V Cast service is compatible only with PCs running Microsoft Windows XP and Windows Media Player 10.

Verizon Communications, meanwhile, plans to spend $20 billion over the next several years to build a fiber-optic network that reaches directly to the side of its customers' homes. Over that period, it expects to make access to the network, called Fios, Verizon's best hope of competing with cable companies, which are now offering voice services as part of a "triple play" bundle that also includes television service and Internet access.

Of course, there are many areas of the world where cable bundles aren't as important as, say, electricity. So two former Sun employees are using solar power to get Wi-Fi technology running where sources of electricity are unreliable. Their nonprofit organization, Green Wi-Fi, is trying to bring Internet access to schools in developing countries via cheap, solar-powered Wi-Fi networks, enabling them to gather information from around the world.

Connecting with the world, however, doesn't always bring what one might expect. In the United States, the Bush administration has asked a federal appeals court to halt a lawsuit that accuses AT&T of illegally opening its communication networks to surveillance by the National Security Agency.

Permitting the Electronic Frontier Foundation's lawsuit to proceed would endanger national security and possibly expose classified information, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a legal brief filed on Monday.

The GPL debate
A proposed patent provision in a revamped General Public License, which governs thousands of open-source projects, isn't sitting well at Hewlett-Packard, raising concerns that two competing versions of the license could survive.

GPL version 3 represents the Free Software Foundation's first explicit attempt to grapple with the thorny issue of software patents. But HP prefers version 2, arguing that the new one imposes disproportionate patent consequences for a company that distributes even a single copy of GPLv3 software carrying technology the company has patented.

Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission, in a unanimous decision announced Wednesday, found that Rambus monopolized the markets for four computer memory technologies, which eventually made their way into industry standards for dynamic random access memory (DRAM) chips.

Microsoft managed to avoid FTC issues this week, dealing with internal issues instead. The software giant announced executive changes within its Platform and Services Division on Tuesday, and said it is restructuring the group to sharpen its technology vision and bolster its response to customers. The changes come amid worries about delays in getting Vista out the door by early 2007.

Under the latest plan, big businesses should have Vista by November, and the consumer delivery of Vista is set for January. But that's dependent on the operating system sticking to a tight schedule, with a near-final version needing to be ready this quarter. Some prominent bloggers are calling on the company to reschedule the release and to send out a Beta 3 version instead.

Meanwhile, the comany Microsoft deems as its biggest competitor, plans to spend $740 million in cash to acquire MRO Software, a company that builds applications for managing industrial equipment. IBM said it will incorporate the asset management tools into its Tivoli line of systems management software. MRO will operate as a business unit within Tivoli.

Big Blue, which has begun podcasting, also dramatically expanded a partnership to use Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron processors in its servers, announcing on Tuesday a full-fledged server line geared for mainstream business use. The move gives AMD a more powerful ally during a time when Intel is trying hard to reverse market share losses.

AMD is still making strides in the server market at Intel's expense, as the larger company waits to see if a new processor can reverse its slide. AMD on Monday said it increased its share of the x86 server processor market to 25.9 percent. Intel now holds 72.9 percent of the overall market for x86 processors, while AMD has 21.6 percent.

Also of note
A settlement between Google and the Associated Press draws attention...InCard installs a password-generating chip into a credit card...Intel issued patches for flaws in its Centrino device drivers...Microsoft has 12 security bulletins in store for next Tuesday...Friendster has a new patent it could possibly use to sue MySpace...An ice-powered air conditioner could cut summer electrical bills...Sprint Nextel, Lenovo, Nortel Networks and Napster report earnings.