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Week in review: Comdex optimism

The spotlight at Comdex Fall 2002 may have been on new handheld devices and wireless technology, but the unofficial theme of the tech trade show was optimism.

The spotlight at Comdex Fall 2002 may have been on new handheld devices and wireless technology, but the unofficial theme of the tech trade show was optimism.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates used his Comdex keynote address to rebut the notion that the tech industry's best days are over, painting a picture of a coming age in which all manner of human activities are digitized, from note taking to bill paying. "The magic of software is spreading out to all different devices--and those devices are connecting in different ways," said Gates. Still, he acknowledged that these are rough times for the technology industry amid an overall sluggish economy and the resulting resistance toward investing in new equipment.

Ever the software optimist, Gates used his keynote address to introduce a new program, OneNote, that allows notebook users to better organize meeting notes, preserve URLs from the Web as well as find information easily from a hard drive.

Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina echoed Gates' sentiments, saying that in spite of current woes, the technology industry still has plenty of forward momentum. "Even though we come back to Vegas this year with maybe more on our minds," Fiorina said, "not only war and recession and terror...but fear that the wheels of innovation in our industry have slowed, I come to this conference more hopeful for the future than I have ever been."

She showed the first TV commercial from HP's new multimillion-dollar brand advertising campaign, designed to convince customers that "plus HP, everything is possible." The campaign shows HP technology and services powering everything from Formula One race cars to a Finnish wildlife program to Amazon.com.

One of the bigger surprises of the tech show was delivered by Dell Computer. Despite being one of the more visible skeptics of Intel's Itanium chip family, Dell said it will incorporate the Itanium 2 chip into future high-powered computers. Speaking about the 64-bit chip, Joe Marengi, senior vice president for Dell's Americas division, said, "The technology is totally solid."

The change of mood on Itanium 2 seems to close the book on one of the more florid server melodramas of the past year. At last year's Comdex, Marengi said that demand for Itanium servers in the current economic climate was "effectively zero."

Certainly Comdex was the showcase for a lot of new gear, but for many people the trade show was about more than gadgetry.

Advanced Micro Devices CEO Hector Ruiz announced a customer win and the name of the chipmaker's next-generation of desktop processors, but stole the show by joining guitarist Slash, of Guns N' Roses fame, for a rendition of "Knocking on Heaven's Door."

Attendees were treated to a rather off-center point of view from physicist Stephen Wolfram, who believes the universe is composed not of particles and waves, but of simple and tiny programs. He says that these myriad programs, or algorithms, give rise to physical phenomena as fundamental as space and as complicated as human beings.

Did someone say recovery?
The optimism toward the tech industry led some to offer predictions on when the current downturn will begin to wane.

Want to know exactly when the upturn in the tech industry will be in full swing? Mark down June 21, 2003 on your calendars, according to Brian Halla, chief executive officer at National Semiconductor. Using complex mathematical models, neural networks, historical patterns and an eye toward current events, Halla predicted that the tech industry will be at the apex of a wild growth swing on that date, primarily driven by the embedding of radio and semiconductors into a wide variety of items.

However, corporate overinvestment in technology in the late 1990s will mean that even when the U.S. economy does pick up, tech spending may lag, according to a special assistant to President Bush for economic policy. He outlined, using charts and graphs, what many have experienced firsthand: The economic recovery has been slow and halting, with consumer spending a lone bright spot amid continued declines in manufacturing and other areas.

But this year may end up being the worst so far for high technology. Research firm IDC said that the worldwide information technology industry will suffer its largest decline ever in 2002, shrinking by 2.3 percent. However, this year could mark the end of the high-tech hangover. Analysts expect 2003 to bring a 5.8 percent growth rate worldwide.

Security alert
A software bug in a common component of Microsoft Web servers and Internet Explorer could leave millions of servers and home PCs open to attack. The vulnerability could allow an Internet attacker to take over a Web server, spread an e-mail virus or create a fast-spreading network worm.

The flaw, in a component of Windows that allows Web servers and browsers to communicate with online databases, could be as widespread as the flaws that allowed the Code Red and Nimda worms to spread. It likely affects the majority of the more than 4.1 million sites hosted on Microsoft's Internet Information Service (IIS) software. In addition, millions of Windows 95, 98, Me and 2000 PCs could also be vulnerable to the software bug.

System administrators are still not patching systems frequently enough, according to a recently published study of a software security flaw that allowed the Linux Slapper worm to spread. Even though the Slapper worm highlighted the existence of a vulnerability in the Web security software known as OpenSSL, three out of 10 systems that had the flaw continue to be vulnerable even today.

"Administrators aren't as responsive as they should be," a security consultant said. "Even after a relatively serious hole is found, administrators don't do the right things." About 40 percent of administrators patched their systems in the seven weeks between the public announcement of the flaw and the release of the Slapper worm. Another 30 percent apparently patched the software after the Slapper worm started infecting SSL servers in September.

Meanwhile, the questionable handling of a fix for a recent widespread software vulnerability has some administrators worried that developers can't be trusted to make security a top priority. Last week, the Internet Software Consortium withheld the patch for a critical flaw in the domain name system (DNS) software from a large number of researchers, asking instead that each person send the organization an e-mail request in order to get the fix. The delay, coupled with messages sent to several administrators urging them to pay to become part of an early-warning group run by the ISC, has some security experts worried that security is taking a backseat to secrecy and money.

The ISC's flub is the latest incident to call into question whether software companies, security researchers and open-source development groups can be relied on to responsibly handle the vulnerabilities found in the software that forms the foundation of the Internet.

Also of note
A secretive federal court granted police broad authority to monitor Internet use, record keystrokes and employ other surveillance methods against terror and espionage suspects...Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak will take the stage at Macworld Expo after a six-year absence and will give his first presentation there in more than a decade...Hollywood shows its love for Apple in many ways, by routinely featuring Macs in blockbuster movies and by using the PC maker's software to produce cool special effects, but the affair doesn't always extend to the Internet...IBM won a $290 million government contract to build what are expected to be the world's two fastest supercomputers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory...The launch of Microsoft's new online service for its Xbox video game console created headaches for some customers, who reported not being able to use the service or their game machines...America Online has banned teen-agers from its shopping areas, following criticism that the proprietary online service allowed youngsters to buy pornography, alcohol and tobacco from partner sites.