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Week in review: The wicked worm that wasn't

Conficker does little more than frighten. Google offers an inside view, while Verizon packs promises. Also: Microsoft settles with TomTom.

Millions of Windows users braced themselves for the much-feared Conficker worm, worried that the exploit would wreak havoc on their systems on April 1.

Conficker was expected to shut down security services, block computers from connecting to security Web sites, and download a Trojan. It was also expected to reach out to other infected computers via peer-to-peer networking and include a list of 50,000 different domains, of which 500 would be contacted by the infected computer on April 1 to receive updated copies or other malware or instructions.

Then nothing happened. Was it all an elaborate April Fools' joke?

The Conficker worm may have failed to cause the digital pandemonium that some may have feared, but that doesn't mean we are in the clear. Just because the worm failed to create much of a stir on the day it was set to activate doesn't mean it won't wake up and act later.

Today, as on any day, PC users should make sure their systems are patched and running the latest security software. People should patch their systems to close the hole in Windows that Conficker exploits and should update their antivirus software. The major antivirus vendors all have free Conficker removal tools.

The worm also can spread via network shares and removable storage devices like USB thumb drives. So people are advised to use strong passwords when sharing files on a network and to download a patch Microsoft released to address the Autorun feature problem in Windows that makes using removable storage risky.

So, in the end, was the hype a good thing or a bad thing?

The problem is that there are tons of malicious programs and attacks out there on the Internet every day and people don't do enough to protect their computers, experts say. People need to be consistently vigilant about patching their systems and updating their security software--not just when a particular virus hits the headlines. This isn't new at all.

Lots of other worms and botnets are doing real damage, experts say, but Conficker garnered media attention because it was configured to activate on a certain date. The fact that the date happened to be April Fools' Day only added to its mystique.

Inside Google
Google is tight-lipped about its computing operations, but the company for the first time revealed the hardware at the core of its Internet might. Most companies buy servers from the likes of Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, or Sun Microsystems. But Google, which has hundreds of thousands of servers and considers running them part of its core expertise, designs and builds its own.

The big surprise: each server has its own 12-volt battery to supply power if there's a problem with the main source of electricity. The company also revealed that since 2005, its data centers have been composed of standard shipping containers--each with 1,160 servers and a power consumption that can reach 250 kilowatts.

It may sound geeky, but a number people attending Google's server event--the kind of folks who run data centers packed with thousands of servers--were surprised not only by Google's built-in battery approach, but by the fact that the company has kept it secret for years.

In other Google minutia...On April 1, 2004, Google took the wraps off Gmail, which launched with a splash big enough that many were convinced it was a joke: an entire gigabyte of online storage.

Larger online e-mail rivals Hotmail and Yahoo Mail quickly matched that advantage. Nonetheless, Gmail has grown to become a force to be reckoned with. It's got tens of millions of users, Google says, though it won't pin down a precise number. And its growth today, in terms of new users joining the service, is faster than it was four or five years ago, said Todd Jackson, product manager for Gmail.

In a chat, Jackson offered an assessment of what Google has accomplished with Gmail thus far and what it expects in the future.

Google is also planning to spend some money on start-ups. The search giant has launched a venture capital arm to invest in a diverse array of industries, including those focused on the consumer Internet, software, clean tech, and health care.

The fund will be headed by William Maris, an investor and entrepreneur who was hired by Google last year to help set up the venture, and Rich Miner, former manager of Google's mobile platforms group. Google Ventures, as the fund is called, is expected to receive a $100 million investment from Google in the first year.

Google acknowledged that its timing is awkward, but noted that it also sees opportunity in the current economic climate.

"Economically, times are tough, but great ideas come when they will," Maris and Miner said in a joint blog. "If anything, we think the current downturn is an ideal time to invest in nascent companies that have the chance to be the 'next big thing,' and we'll be working hard to find them."

A wireless world
The new 4G wireless broadband network that Verizon Wireless plans to launch in 2010 could be rural America's answer to its broadband access prayers. But extending the network to every nook and cranny in the U.S. will likely take years.

A Verizon executive said during an interview at this week's CTIA 2009 trade show that the new 4G network the company is building will blanket the entire continental United States, including the far corners of rural America.

If Verizon makes good on this promise, it will be helping to bridge a widening gap between broadband haves and have-nots in this country. While Verizon Wireless' parent company Verizon Communications and other broadband providers have concentrated on building wireline broadband infrastructure in densely populated areas, such as cities and sprawling suburbs, they have not done a good job of extending that infrastructure to rural America.

Wireless industry executives at CTIA said that despite the economic meltdown, the cell phone industry remains strong. And they're confident that it will be a driving force in pulling the nation out of its current financial crisis.

Ivan Seidenberg, CEO of Verizon Communications, and Robert Dotson, CEO of T-Mobile USA, which is owned by Deutsche Telekom, said that despite the economic troubles facing the nation and the world, the wireless market is thriving and innovation is flourishing.

They also agreed that as the nation moves through the current crisis, the wireless industry could play a significant role in economic recovery. But they also warned that reluctant investors and overzealous regulators could stunt its potential and harm the recovery.

Meanwhile, Verizon Wireless doesn't care who emerges from the upcoming mobile OS wars because no matter who wins, Verizon will make sure its software runs on top of that operating system.

"I don't think I need to bet on an operating system," Lowell McAdam, CEO of Verizon Wireless, said in a question-and-answer session at CTIA. "I need to bet on layers that will bridge those operating systems."

McAdam was referring to the news announced Wednesday that Verizon Wireless will join the Joint Innovation Lab created by its corporate co-parent, Vodafone, along with China Mobile and Softbank. The lab plans to build "mobile widgets" for future phones that will apparently run on whatever operating systems Verizon decides to support on its future smartphones.

Also of note
Microsoft and TomTom reached a settlement in their respective patent suits...Facebook Chief Financial Officer Gideon Yu is leaving the company, representatives from the social network confirmed...Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina said she is "seriously considering" a run for the U.S. Senate in the state of California.