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Week in review: Cease and desist

It may seem odd for Microsoft to give away the most popular office productivity suite--but it does, and some groups are actually telling the company "no thanks."

It may seem odd for Microsoft to give away copies of the most popular office productivity suite--but it does, and some groups are actually telling the company "no thanks."

Microsoft has been mailing free copies of Office to government employees, but at least two federal agencies are warning recipients to return the gifts or risk violating federal ethics policies. Microsoft has given out tens of thousands of free copies of its flagship software, which retails for about $500, to workers at its biggest customers.

The giveaway was expanded to government workers this year, but ethics offices at the Interior Department and Defense Department have said the offers constitute unauthorized gifts and must be returned. The Army went a step further, calling on Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates to stop sending the software to Army personnel.

Although Office has captured more than 90 percent of the market for productivity software, convincing customers to upgrade to the latest versions of Office has become a growing challenge for the company.

Meanwhile, Microsoft may have a hard time convincing the open-source community that nothing nefarious was brewing when it made a referral that led to $50 million in BayStar Capital funding for the SCO Group--another Linux foe. BayStar, an investment company, has confirmed that Microsoft introduced BayStar to SCO. But BayStar declined to share further details and is repeating its earlier position that Microsoft did not actually invest money in the deal.

Word of the Microsoft matchmaking surfaced last week, and open-source fans leaped on the memo as evidence that Microsoft is aiding SCO's attack on Linux. Linux threatens Microsoft's business--chiefly in hampering the growth of Windows on higher-end computers called servers--while SCO argues that the Linux operating system infringes on its Unix intellectual property.

Security alert
Microsoft has also been busy in the security arena, revealing a host of flaws affecting some of its more popular Internet titles.

A vulnerability in Outlook 2002 was first publicized early in the week when Microsoft released a patch to prevent an attacker from using a malicious Web site to cause an affected PC to download and execute a program. However, Microsoft raised the severity rating of the flaw to "critical," the highest level, after its initial analysis was challenged by the researcher who found the security hole.

It's the third time in the past 18 months that Microsoft has upgraded the severity of a security flaw. In December 2002, it upped two "moderate" vulnerabilities to "critical" status, after the researchers who found the holes cast doubt on Microsoft's initial classification.

The vulnerability in MSN Messenger versions 6.0 and 6.1 could let an attacker view the contents of a victim's hard drive during a chat session with the victim. Attackers "could view files through MSN Messenger on their computer," said Stephen Toulouse, security program manager for the Microsoft Security Response Center. "They can do it, and you are not necessarily aware of what they are doing."

People who do not block anonymous chatters are most vulnerable to the exploit. When anonymous chatters are blocked, the attacker has to be identified on the victim's address list. To obtain particular information, such as credit card numbers, attackers have to troll the hard drive.

The latest variant of the mass-mailing Sober worm is delivering a potshot at Microsoft by masquerading as an official Microsoft patch for the MyDoom worm. Sober.D is technically similar to its previous incarnation as Sober.C, where it used its own SMTP engine to send copies of itself to e-mail addresses found on infected systems. Sober.D spreads either as an executable attachment or inside a password-protected Zip archive attached to an e-mail.

Once a person clicks on the file, the worm scans the PC to see if it has already been infected. If the system is clean, a small box appears with the message: "This patch has been successfully installed." If the system is already infected with Sober.D, the message says: "This patch does not need to be installed on this system."

Tune in, tune out
When a program called "MyTunes" appeared online last year, allowing networked users of Apple Computer's iTunes digital jukebox software to download songs from one other, it had the feel of a breakthrough that wouldn't last forever. Now, as some predicted, the popular software has all but vanished from the Net, and its programmer's sites have gone dark. But this time, it's not the doing of an angry record industry or a conflict-averse Apple.

Trinity College sophomore Bill Zeller, who wrote the program in less than two weeks of off-time coding last year, says he simply lost the source code in a catastrophic computer crash. Zeller's MyTunes software was a prominent example of how even the most tightly controlled software can be retuned by its users for unauthorized purposes.

Meanwhile, handheld owners with a case of iPod envy can now get a little closer to their fantasy. A small British company has released jukebox software for Pocket PC handhelds that closely resembles the design and function of Apple Computer's popular music player.

Unlike the iPod, the $20 software, known as pBop, plays only MP3 files and not the AAC files that Apple's iTunes Music Store sells. But the company made other tweaks to the software in response to Apple's concerns, including altering the layout of the software buttons and placing a disclaimer on all its marketing material that it has no connection to Apple or the iPod.

Special report: Invasion of the robots
Mobile, intelligent robots that can perform tasks usually reserved for humans are starting to creep into mainstream society and could become a multibillion-dollar market in a few years. A self-guided, self-propelled vacuum cleaner costing around $200, has been sold in the thousands in just one year.

Other inventors are eyeing the health care market. Home health-care robots are being tested in Japan, while U.S. hospitals are already using machines to deliver charts, carry medicines or even assist in surgery.

Also of note
America Online, Microsoft, EarthLink and Yahoo have teamed up to file the first major industry lawsuits under the new federal antispam law...The Federal Communications Commission released guidelines that it will use to decide what rules, if any, will govern companies providing Internet telephone services...Intel and Broadcom will stop selling Wi-Fi chips in China at the end of May because of an encryption standard being imposed by the Chinese government, as trade tensions between the United States and China heat up...Hitachi Global Storage Technologies announced a massive hard drive designed to store corporate data or record about 400 hours of video for consumers.