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Week in review: Infecting tech

As the deadly SARS virus spreads around the world claiming more than 100 lives, the tech industry finds that it's not immune.

As a deadly virus spreads around the world claiming more than 100 lives, the tech industry finds that it's not immune.

The outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) caused Intel to cancel two conferences in Asia and postpone a trip to the region by CEO Craig Barrett. In the latest case of the mysterious illness disrupting technology company operations in Asia, the chipmaker decided to cancel its developer forum events slated for later this month in Beijing and in Taipei, Taiwan.

Intel's decision to cancel its conferences is not the first example of the contagious disease throwing a wrench in the plans of tech companies, which have extensive manufacturing facilities in the Asia-Pacific region and often depend on components made there. Computer-maker Sun Microsystems canceled the Shanghai portion of a massive product launch it had scheduled for April 7, and postponed a conference that had been expected to draw 4,000 attendees. Chipmaker ATI postponed an Asian tour to show off its new line of products.

Motorola, meanwhile, has seen operations at a Singapore plant affected by the disease. According to Singapore's health ministry, 305 workers from the plant's night shift are quarantined at home. The U.S.-based electronics maker decided to tell all 532 night-shift workers to stay home on the news that a female worker was diagnosed with SARS. The infected worker has been discharged from the hospital.

Elsewhere in the region, tech giant Hewlett-Packard shuttered the doors of its 300-person Hong Kong office because of a possible SARS infection in one of its employees.

Pirate pressure
The recording industry stepped up its campaign against campus music swapping, filing suit against four university students who operated file-search services on their school's internal networks. The lawsuits up the pressure that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) recently has been putting on universities to block campus file trading.

The trade group still has not filed suit against average file swappers who use more common services such as Kazaa, however. University students have been widely viewed as the core of the various file-swapping networks ever since the appearance of Napster on the digital scene in late 1999.

File swappers must have felt duped when a self-proclaimed file-sharing venture that had received attention in the press as a Napster-like threat to copyright holders made an abrupt change of course. The "Honest Thief" claimed in late February that it planned to take advantage of a Dutch appeals court ruling that essentially paved the way for the Netherlands to become a legal haven for file-sharing activities. It would license its peer-to-peer software and provide legal advice for peer-to-peer services.

"Well, guess what? April Fools!" said a note posted on the Honest Thief's Web site. "The Honest Thief file-sharing venture was no more than a publicity stunt. Our goal was first and foremost to get some attention for our book: 'The Honest Thief.'" The book, about using "uncommon sense to succeed in business and life," was published in English by Greenleaf Book Group in October 2001.

Copy-resistant CDs may still be scarce in the United States, but signs are growing that the technology is becoming increasingly mainstream elsewhere and may finally break into the American market this year. Macrovision's anticopying technology has been applied to more than 100 million CDs worldwide, the bulk of them released in Europe and Japan. During the past six months, the company has seen shipments of 10 million discs a month distributed across those markets.

Technology companies touting copy-protection wares--and, to a lesser extent, record labels themselves--have been promising for two years the impending release of CDs shielded against unauthorized computer copying. But the progress of the technology to market, particularly in the United States, has been slow and bumpy, and the technology companies themselves have repeatedly been forced to retrench and rethink their techniques.

Wild about Wi-Fi
Microsoft released a Windows XP update designed to enhance security for PCs that connect to wireless networks, but the software is only a part of the Wi-Fi picture. The software update would change how the operating system connects to 802.11, or Wi-Fi, networks or base stations.

Under the older method, one encrypted key is used by everyone connecting to the wireless network. The update would provide a means of associating a separate key for each computer connecting to the network, a change that in theory should increase security.

Intel increased its bet on the wireless networking market by releasing a Wi-Fi adapter that manufacturers can use to let their products connect to a network and share resources such as broadband access and printers. The chipmaker announced Tuesday the availability of the Intel PRO/Wireless 2100 LAN MiniPCI adapter as a standalone component for device makers. (The adapter is already a part of Intel's Centrino bundle of chips.)

All but gone from the wireless market since about 2001, Nortel Networks announced a new effort to sell high-end wireless networking equipment to telephone carriers and midsize to large businesses. Nortel is selling access points, based on chips from Atheros Communications, that allow for the use of two different kinds of wireless networks: one built around the common 802.11b standard, and a second using 802.11a, which is five times faster. Customers can jump back and forth between the different types of networks.

In the chips
Advanced Micro Devices has brewed two new advanced transistor designs that it says will lead to higher chip performance. The chipmaker's researchers have created and demonstrated a new Fully Depleted Silicon-on-Insulator transistor, which uses special materials to better isolate transistors inside a chip, with the aim of increasing performance and reducing power consumption.

AMD's twist on the transistor design is that it's as much as 30 percent faster than some of the best-published results seen so far, the company said. The chipmaker also demonstrated a new strained silicon transistor based on a metal-gate design. That technology has shown 20 percent to 25 percent better performance than conventional strained-silicon transistors.

Intel came out with two new Celeron processors for desktops this week, a prelude to a slew of desktop technology coming in the next few months. The two new Celeron chips for bargain desktops run at 2.4GHz and 2.3GHz and cost $127 and $117 each, respectively, in 1,000 unit quantities.

The major desktop overhaul for spring, however, will start later this month with the release of Canterwood, a chipset for Pentium 4 computers, and the subsequent release of Springdale in mid-May. A 3.2GHz version of the Pentium 4 will also come out in the same time frame, according to the sources, a release expected to prompt a wave of price cuts.

Motorola has manufactured prototypes of a flash-memory chip that relies on a thin layer of silicon crystals to retain data, a breakthrough that could help the flash industry overcome looming technical hurdles. If the chip moves to the mainstream, flash-memory chips--used to store data and applications inside cell phones, industrial equipment and portable memory cards--would likely become cheaper or, conversely, more powerful compared with existing chips, because manufacturers could squeeze more memory cells into a smaller space.

Also of note
An anonymous hacker succeeded in running Linux on an unmodified Xbox, apparently satisfying a $100,000 challenge funded by Lindows founder Michael Robertson?A U.S. Attorney's office has alleged that PayPal violated laws regarding the processing of online gambling payments, and is asking parent company eBay to hand over nine months of the gambling-related earnings in settlement?Microsoft will not include InfoPath and OneNote as part of the Office System suites sold at retail or installed on new computers...Californians flocked to a state-run Web site that allows them to make their phone numbers off-limits to telemarketers?Segway's Human Transporter, the high-tech scooter that captured the nation's imagination two years ago, is proving to be an easier device to drive than to sell.