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The week in review: License to hack

Imagine trying to boot up your computer and finding that a hacker had disabled it or destroyed your data. Then imagine having no legal recourse because the government sanctioned it.

Imagine trying to boot up your computer and finding that a hacker had disabled it or destroyed your data, and then imagine that you had no legal recourse because the U.S. government sanctioned it.

That nightmare could become a reality if Hollywood executives get their way. A bill introduced into the House of Representatives would allow copyright owners to legally hack into peer-to-peer networks and disable PCs used for illicit file trading.

The measure would dramatically rewrite federal law to permit nearly unchecked electronic disruptions if a copyright holder has a "reasonable basis" to believe that piracy is occurring. The bill would immunize groups such as the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America from all state and federal laws if they disable, block or otherwise impair a "publicly accessible peer-to-peer file-trading network."

The bill doesn't specify what techniques, such as viruses, worms, denial-of-service attacks and domain name hijacking, would be permissible. It does say that a copyright hacker should not delete files, but it limits the right of anyone subject to an intrusion to sue if files are accidentally erased.

That's just the tip of the entertainment industry's anti-piracy push. A lawyer for the MPAA said we could also expect a new bill soon to curtail the piracy of digital TV broadcasts. Other proposals likely will seek to limit piracy by outlawing future components that receive digital TV broadcasts unless they follow anti-copying standards.

Future hardware and software would treat digital television differently if it were designated as copy-protected, preventing people from saving multiple copies or uploading them. Another standard would, in industry jargon, "plug the analog hole" by embedding watermarks in broadcasts and limiting the redistribution of broadcasts with those hidden watermarks.

In a related battle, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in an attempt to overturn key portions of a controversial 1998 copyright law. The suit asks a federal judge to rule that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is so sweeping it unconstitutionally interferes with researchers' ability to evaluate the effectiveness of Internet-filtering software.

By suing on behalf of a 22-year-old programmer who is researching the oft-buggy products, the civil liberties group hopes to prompt the first ruling that would curtail the DMCA's wide reach.

Deal breakers
Hewlett-Packard plans to stop supplying printers, cameras and scanners to Dell Computer, citing that company's intention to enter the printer business. An HP representative said Dell's business represented an "insignificant" portion of HP's total printing and imaging business, equal to only a few days' sales per year. Dell currently offers HP's printers, scanners and digital cameras as well as its Jornada handhelds for sale on the Dell Web site.

It has been widely speculated that Dell is planning to enter the printer business, although the company has not laid out its plans. A Dell representative said the company was surprised by HP's move: "We're befuddled that the mere possibility of us entering the printer business would make them so nervous."

The state of California officially canceled its sprawling six-year deal that united scores of its contracts with software maker Oracle under one mega-contract. Negotiations between the state and Oracle to cancel the complex contract took more than two months because some money had already changed hands, and state agencies were starting to operate under the new deal.

Although the state hadn't paid any money, by early 2002, Koch Financial, which financed the deal, had already paid $52.7 million to Logicon, which passed $35.5 million on to Oracle. Additionally, dozens of state agencies using Oracle software stopped paying maintenance and support under the new agreement and had to sort out what they owed Oracle for the last several months of lapsed payments.

Heat on handheld makers
The worldwide handheld market is suffering the pains of contracting for the second time this year. Palm held the top spot in the market, but competitors HP and Sony were able to encroach on its dominance.

Palm shipments declined 33 percent in the second quarter compared with its first-quarter shipments. Handspring also saw steep declines during the period, after having turned its focus to its Treo line, which combines the features of cellular phones and organizers.

"The picture isn't pretty," one analyst said. "Nobody is doing well." The decline in unit shipments of handhelds, the sales of which are driven primarily by consumers, shows that people are sensing that the economy isn't really turning around quickly and are holding off on at least some purchases, she said.

Perhaps in response to its slipping market share, Palm joined the list of handheld makers slashing prices in hopes of enticing new customers during what is traditionally a slow sales season. The handheld maker is cutting prices by up to 34 percent on five of its six handheld lines. Palm joins Sony and Handspring in reducing prices as the competitors muddle through the late summer sales doldrums.

Despite dropping the Jornada in favor of the iPaq after merging with Compaq Computer, HP has promised to provide at least three years of technical support to owners of the handheld. All devices in that line will be phased out by year's end--with the exception of the Jornada 720, which resembles a miniature notebook computer, and the newly introduced Jornada 928, which features telephone capabilities.

The Jornada 928 that HP plans to sell in Europe is a combination cell phone-handheld that can make phone calls, surf the Web wirelessly, and send and receive e-mail. Until its announcement Thursday, it was unclear whether the device would see the light of day, even though HP had demonstrated prototypes of the gadget.

Connecting .Net
Microsoft took some big steps in hopes of broadening the appeal of its .Net software plan. The company announced that it would link to Apache, one of the most important open-source software projects, in a move that could give Microsoft access to a far larger audience of software developers, as Apache is used by more than half of all Internet sites.

Previously, Microsoft announced new connecting software that will link its .Net Framework to rival Oracle's database software. The framework--a crucial piece in Microsoft's .Net Web services software strategy--simplifies and automates many software development tasks, and helps software run across multiple servers and computers.

The .Net agenda includes new releases of the company's Windows operating system and other server software, along with development tools and plans to make programs more Internet-aware. One new technology supported by .Net is Web services, which promise to make linking internal computer systems, and systems residing in multiple companies, far easier than current methods.

The software giant acknowledged that its .Net plan has been slow to catch on, and it laid out an agenda to move the software strategy ahead. Chairman Bill Gates said, "in some respects we are further ahead, and in some respects (we have) not (moved) as fast (as we hoped)" with .Net, which the company introduced two years ago.

Although developers and analysts have given .Net high marks for its technical design, some Microsoft customers have called the company's marketing plan confusing. Microsoft largely rebranded existing products under the .Net label but added little new technology. Gates acknowledged that shortcoming.

Also of note
Apple Computer and Microsoft are expected to release important updates to their operating systems next month...A Japanese start-up has come up with a mutant piece of hardware that it says may deliver "perfect security" for Web servers: a two-headed hard drive...Intel aims to boost consumer interest in PCs and its processors by announcing hardware and software that will help manufacturers design a device that can store and play digital media...Microsoft plans to increase its research and development budget by 20 percent and hire 5,000 new workers in the coming year...MSN TV users are inadvertently calling emergency services after falling prey to a prank program that changes the daily dialup number on their set-top boxes to 911...Amazon will start accounting for stock options as a regular expense on future earnings reports.

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