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Tech Industry

Week in review: Boo-boos and black eyes

Mistakes happen in every industry, but there are bound to be plenty of hurt feelings when the mistakes involve sensitive issues such as the open-source battle, online banking and e-commerce.

Mistakes happen in every industry, but there are bound to be plenty of hurt feelings when the mistakes involve sensitive issues such as the open-source battle, online banking and e-commerce.

Microsoft must have been a little red-faced this week when an internal memo revealed that its efforts to disparage open-source software, such as Linux, have backfired. Top Microsoft executives, including co-founder Bill Gates and Chief Executive Steve Ballmer, have long derided open-source software, describing it as a "cancer" and "Pac-Man-like."

But those messages have failed to diminish the popularity of open-source programs among developers and customers, according to a Microsoft memo distributed at a strategy meeting in Berlin in September and posted on the Web. "Messaging that discusses possible Linux patent violations, pings the OSS (open-source software) development process for lacking accountability, attempts to call out the 'viral' aspect of the GPL (General Public License) and the like are only marginally effective in driving unfavorable opinions...and in some cases backfire," the memo states.

Another corporate giant took a hit when a coupon oversight at Walt Disney's online store over the weekend led to a surge of orders--and a huge headache for the company. Using a coupon code that was passed around on shopping discussion sites, consumers flooded DisneyStore.com with four times the normal volume of orders.

The coupon had no minimum purchase requirement, meaning that customers could potentially receive goods for free using the coupon. After seeing the site's order volume increase, Disney modified the offer, limiting customers' ability to use the coupon and started combing through the orders to determine which were legitimate.

Another glitch had thousands of Bank of the West online banking customers fuming when the bank exposed their e-mail addresses--a mistake it blamed on "human error." In an e-mail message sent to alert customers that its banking system would be out of service for maintenance this weekend, Bank of the West included the e-mail addresses of more than 3,300 customers in the "To" field. The company mistakenly placed the e-mail addresses in the "To" field instead of masking them in the blind carbon copy (BCC) field.

Tablet PCs pen debut
Hoping to write a new chapter in the saga of pen-based computing, Microsoft unveiled its vision for tablet PCs. Executives representing more than 20 companies that manufacture devices using the software joined Gates in New York for the launch of the devices, which are similar to notebook PCs. Most of the devices allow the input of data with a stylus in addition to or instead of a keyboard.

Manufacturers appear to have taken a conservative approach with this generation of tablets. The products are geared more for vertical markets, such as insurance or health care, and niche uses, such as workers collaborating on projects. Designs vary from Fujitsu's slate to Toshiba's convertible, which looks more like a typical notebook but "converts" into a tablet when its screen is rotated and folded down. The majority of designs are focused on businesses not on consumers.

Although the pen-based computing concept and Microsoft's latest attempt at it get good marks, information technology managers, analysts and other industry insiders say machines running the software giant's Windows XP Tablet PC Edition OS need to improve in function and come down in cost before tablet devices achieve broad popularity.

One analyst said the current crop of tablets running Microsoft's software is by far the best bunch of pen-based computers to date, but he doesn't see sales taking off right away. Among the reasons is that, as good as Microsoft's handwriting recognition is, it still has just as much trouble deciphering bad script as any other handwriting recognition program.

Hewlett-Packard put its own twist on the tablet PC, with a new kind of transformable computer that features a detachable keyboard. Thanks to this, HP's Compaq Tablet PC TC1000 can be used like a notebook or like a tablet and can also serve as a primary PC through a docking station. A person can carry the tablet portion of the HP computer, which weighs 3 pounds, into a meeting to take notes, view documents, and write e-mails and short messages using the touch-screen pen.

High tech at the polls
The tech industry may have come out ahead in this week's elections. Republicans captured control of the U.S. Congress, an unexpected victory that is likely to help technology companies, but could thwart controversial digital copyright legislation next year.

When the new session of Congress starts in January, Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., will no longer head the Senate Commerce Committee. Hollings drew the ire of the technology community after introducing a bill that would implant copy-protection technology into all PCs and consumer-electronics devices.

Other changes in representatives are likely to have an effect on legislation involving "morphed," or virtual, child pornography, Microsoft monopoly woes and amendments to the anti-terrorism USA Patriot Act.

Despite a drop in political donations from the tech sector this campaign season, the industry is still making headway as a major force in the funding of candidates. The tech industry and its employees had contributed $18.2 million to federal campaigns as of September. That's down from $40.8 million during the entire 2000 race, a figure that includes contributions through December of that year.

Nevertheless, the tech industry appears to be maintaining its growing influence on the world of politics. Tech is still holding its own against other sectors, ranking eighth overall among contributors, up from 36th a decade ago, when the industry donated only $5.1 million.

Online fundraising, e-mail alerts and other Web-based efforts became standard tools during the 2002 elections, but most candidates still aren't taking full advantage of the Internet as a campaign medium. Political consultants blasted 2002 candidates for failing to do something as rudimentary as regularly update their Web sites.

Just 24 percent of 168 candidate sites visited Tuesday morning noted that it was Election Day. Campaign sites were also criticized for not providing poll information, so people could easily learn where to vote, and for failing to send get-out-the-vote e-mails 24 hours before the campaign. Just 8 percent of sites sent e-mails reminding people to vote.

Security alert
A new mass-mailing computer virus known as W32.Braid began spreading slowly last weekend among PCs. Although only 43 copies of the virus have been seen--indicating an extremely slow start--W32.Braid shares some attributes of the widely spread Klez family of viruses and could have similar success.

Among the similarities, both viruses forge a fake sender address in the e-mails they use to propagate themselves, which makes finding infected PCs more difficult. The Klez.h variant of the Klez virus has sent out millions of e-mail messages with a copy of itself attached.

A Russian antivirus company warned that a new virus could help hackers gain control of home computers, but other security companies downplayed the threat. The new computer virus, or worm, is known as Roron, or as Oror.B. It can spread through e-mail messages, shared hard drives and the Kazaa file-sharing network.

"We see that this worm is particularly dangerous for home users," a spokesman for the antivirus company said. "Corporate customers are already aware of the danger of attachments" and are unlikely to open the file containing the program.

Microsoft developers tout the company's upcoming Palladium architecture as technology that would enhance privacy, stymie piracy and increase a corporation's control over its computers. Others see a more nefarious role for the security software. Instead of keeping just hackers out, critics say programs like Palladium could also block computer users from accessing certain data.

The conflict highlights a growing debate over "trusted computers"--machines equipped with the technology to wall off data, secure communications and verify the characteristics of their system. Although military and intelligence agencies have used such systems, the concept has been met with opposition in mainstream consumer markets.

Also of note
America Online released a version of its popular instant messaging product aimed at the corporate market?HP debuted a revamped HP.com Web site designed to boost its direct sales effort and better integrate products acquired from Compaq Computer?An international study found gaps in the credibility and privacy policies of many Web sites that dispense health and financial advice?Apple Computer updated its entire portable line, most notably adding its first PowerBook capable of burning DVDs?MusicMatch plugged in new online jukebox technology that will enable subscribers to easily transfer music files onto portable devices, including Apple?s iPod for Windows operating systems?Cingular Wireless, the second-largest wireless carrier in the country, replaced its chief executive, two weeks after announcing a drop in subscribers.