ACM TechNews is published every week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
ACM TechNews is intended as an objective news digest for busy IT Professionals. Views expressed are not necessarily those of either Gateway Inc. or ACM.
To send comments, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Volume 2, Issue 136: Friday, December 1, 2000
- "Work Visas Swell Area's Tech Corps"
Washington Post (12/01/00) P. E1; Bredemeier, Kenneth
A significant proportion of high-tech workers with H-1B visas now live in the Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia area. Silicon Valley is the only area likely to have more H-1B holders, experts estimate. Area tech firms say the H-1B program has been essential in filling vital positions that have remained unoccupied during an industry-wide labor shortage. As many as 846,000 high-tech jobs are open, studies say, a shortfall that earlier this year prompted Congress to extend the number of H-1B applications granted each year from 115,000 to 195,000. Under the H-1B program, foreign high-tech workers can live and work in the U.S. for as long as six years. Tech firms are thankful for the presence of H-1B workers, saying they are ambitious, hard working, and loyal. However, opponents of the program say H-1B holders are loyal because the terms of the visa program bind them to one employer. To switch employers, H-1B holders must reapply for the visa with the support of another country, and visa holders must have the support of their present employer if they wish to apply for a green card and stay past their six-year term. Opponents also charge that tech firms are using the visas as an excuse not to hire older workers who would demand higher salaries.
- "Consumers Say 'Bah, Humbug' to PC Industry"
Wall Street Journal (11/30/00) P. B1; McWilliams, Gary
Manufacturers and industry analysts predict a slow Christmas season for PCs. Gateway first broke the news yesterday, announcing a sudden slowdown in computers sales that it predicted will strike all computer makers. Major computer retailers such as Best Buy and Circuit City have already noted the slow PC market this holiday season, with consumers opting for peripherals such as MP3 players and CD burners. Analysts say those who have a computer do not have a compelling reason to upgrade this year, as no company has introduced a faster processor or a better operating system. The most recent sales data supports this assertion, as PC Data and NPD Intelect report that sales for the first half of November were off 8 percent from the same time in 1999. Although overall sales for 2000 should increase this year, according to International Data (IDC), the projected rise of 24 percent pales next to 1999's increase of 43 percent. Last year's sales were driven by a series of price cuts by major PC makers. This year low prices do not seem to be spurring consumer interest. Analysts say this may signal a new problem PC makers will have to confront, as over 50 percent of all U.S. homes now own a PC, reducing the industry's favorite market: first-time buyers. PC makers could also face a challenge from the new Internet appliances, which will provide an alternative purchase for those who want Internet access without the hassle of a PC.
- "Cyberspace Could Be Risky Frontier This Holiday Season"
Investor's Business Daily (11/30/00) P. A8; Howell, Donna
E-commerce sites might disappoint holiday shoppers again this year with site outages, delivery problems, out-of-stock merchandise, and other glitches, some analysts warn. Shoppers can avoid these problems by shopping early--popular items should be ordered by Dec. 5 at the latest--and by dealing only with reputable sites, experts say. Sites without an established brand could easily collapse after the holidays, leaving consumers without a place to use gift certificates or make returns. A shakeout of e-tailers that fail to bring in enough holiday sales is likely to occur in January or February, analysts say. A fifth of shoppers who bought items online over the last year had problems with the transaction, mostly with late deliveries, non-deliveries, and merchandise that did not match its description, says the National Retail Federation. Even buying from a reputable site does not guarantee a positive experience, analysts warn, noting that heavy traffic is likely to cause site outages. Best Buy's site and Amazon.com both had minor crashes over the Thanksgiving holiday, experts say. Still, online holiday sales are likely to rise from $7 billion last year to $11.6 billion this year, says Jupiter Research. Traditional retailers are likely to see more online holiday sales this year than last year, when many shoppers bought from Internet-only sites, says Jupiter analyst Ken Cassar.
- "Online Firms May Get a Blast From Past: Unions"
USA Today (11/30/00) P. 1B; Swartz, Jon
The union movement is attempting to move into the dot-com industry, as employees, especially in customer-service centers and distribution plants, worry that their job security is thin and that with their stock options losing value they are underpaid. In a high-profile case, workers at Amazon.com's call center in Seattle and at eight of its distribution centers have made contact with union officials. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos opposes the union presence in his company, as does Robert Heiblim, the CEO of Etown.com. Heiblim fired four of the 20 service representatives who conducted a sick-out to demand higher pay. Now, some of the remaining workers are planning a vote on unionization. Heiblim argues that his workers do not need unions since they have competitive wages and a 40-hour work week. He says their complaints reflect unrealistic expectations of what working at a dot-com should bring. Analysts say the talk of unionization in the dot-com industry reflects the industry's growing process and that dot-com firms are not immune to the problems that arise between workers and management.
- "CIA Shuts Chat Room, Fires 4, Suspends 10"
Washington Post (12/01/00) P. A2; Loeb, Vernon
The CIA yesterday stripped four employees and nine private contractors of their security clearances for taking part in a covert chat room on the agency's computer network. The punishments, the most sweeping in CIA history, means the recipients can no longer work for the agency. The CIA gave letters of reprimand to 18 other employees and issued less severe warnings to 79 more. The CIA said those who participated in the chat room did not reveal unauthorized information. However, the agency said the participants had used the chat room to send email that was "off color" and engaged in deliberate efforts to keep that chat room a secret from superiors. A former CIA analyst who had visited the chat room said participants were for the most part "techies" who wanted to talk to those at the agency with similar interests. Another former CIA employee said the agency was overreacting compared to the lax attitude it took toward the security breaches of its former director, John M. Deutch, who used his private, unsecured computer to compose classified documents.
- "Online Privacy Law Anticipated"
Network World Fusion (11/30/00); Marsan, Duffy
The outcome of the presidential election will not interfere with Congress's intention to introduce privacy legislation next session, privacy advocates say. FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky says that privacy protections are needed to help the Internet reach its full potential because the free market and self-regulation have failed to get the job done. Jerry Berman, executive director for the Center for Democracy and Technology, says that privacy legislation is a priority in Congress and enjoys bipartisan support in both houses. Former FTC Commissioner Christine Varney agrees. "We have a two-year Congress that is very committed to getting itself re-elected," Varney says. "Privacy legislation will happen." Analysts predict that any federal privacy legislation that is passed will not include a clause to preempt state laws and will not give Web site operators immunity from class action lawsuits. Privacy advocates must be willing to settle for a moderate privacy law, as Congress may not pass a perfect one, Berman says. IBM's new chief privacy officer, Harriet Pearson, says that businesses must be careful about consumer privacy even if Congress fails to pass a privacy law. "This is not a choice between regulation and self-regulation," says Pearson. "This is about business being responsible and doing the right thing."
Click Here to View Full Article
For information regarding ACM's activities on behalf of privacy matters, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm/privacy.
- "A Step Beyond Palmtop: Collartop"
New York Times (11/30/00) P. E8; Eisenberg, Anne
Wearable electronics are already available in limited, off-the-shelf versions. Philips Research Laboratories and Levi Strauss & Company collaborated on a jacket that features a cell phone and an MP3 player connected to an internal wiring system. A remote-control panel on a front flap of the jacket operates the devices, while a microphone is located in the collar and earphones are contained along the shoulder line in soft rubber holders. Voice control technology activates most of the electronic features, and the $900 jacket is currently selling in London and a few other European cities. In October, researchers exhibited their work at the International Symposium on Wearable Computers 2000. Carnegie Mellon University student Francine Gemperle predicts that wearable computers will become very popular in the entertainment and health and fitness industries, and that future versions will be smaller and able to withstand laundering. Philips and MIT's Media Laboratory are working on wearable systems that can identify people by their faces. Meanwhile, BodyMedia plans to start selling personalized armband sensors that can record biological variables next spring, according to BodyMedia CEO Astro Teller.
(Access to this site is free; however, first-time visitors must register.)
- "Japan Passes Bill to Ease Internet Costs, Regulations"
Associated Press (11/29/00)
Japan, which is counting on e-commerce to shore up the country's eroding economy, passed a new law Wednesday designed to jump-start the growth of Internet commerce by deregulating the Internet and increasing Internet usage among Japanese citizens. The law goes into effect in January. Just a few weeks ago the Japanese government set aside $35.4 billion for technology initiatives, including one that links schools to a high-speed network. The existence of phone fees makes going online a somewhat costly proposition for Japanese Internet users. The cost of Internet access in Japan is roughly 10 times more expensive than in the United States, according to Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Richard Fisher.
Click Here to View Full Article
- "B-to-B Exchanges Sprout Outside the United States"
InfoWorld.com (11/27/00); Grygo, Eugene
The international market for electronic business-to-business (B2B) exchanges is much stronger than the market within the United States, according to industry analysts. Several firms have launched major B2B initiatives recently, including Commerce One, which will open an indirect procurement exchange with South Korean firm GTWeb Korea. The exchange has the backing of several Korean firms and will reach into multiple industries. A B2B portal aimed at Thai exporters will come from U.S. firm MeetChina.com and Thailand.com, part of Nation Multimedia Group, a Thai firm. The United States is home to one of the largest B2B portals for the international market, the WorldWide Retail Exchange (WWRE), which counts 53 retail-industry leaders among its members and over 100,000 participants. Analysts say there is no particular reason that international B2B firms are not struggling as U.S. firms have, but Forrester Research analyst Laurie Orlov believes that those problems are "pretty much a U.S. phenomenon." She attributes the problems to the large number of U.S. firms engaged in the B2B market.
- "Will Language Wars Balkanize the Web?"
Wall Street Journal (11/30/00) P. A17; Manuel, Gren; Chang, Leslie
The introduction of non-English domain names online is generating disputes that could tear apart the Internet's uniformity. To diversify the Internet, VeriSign began accepting domain name registrations in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean characters, and soon after the Internet authority in China introduced a competitive system for registering domain names in Chinese. The two systems could be problematic both to Chinese users, who could be excluded from the Internet outside of China, and to users outside of China, who would have to register domain names under both systems. "The risk is balkanization of the Internet, dividing the Internet up into islands of connectivity," says Pindar Wong, ICANN's former vice chairman. Large sums of money hang in the balance for both sides. The Chinese are concerned that VeriSign is leveraging the Internet in an attempt to colonize China. Further, Beijing appears to want control of the Internet in China and to simultaneously reap its global benefits. The Chinese system requires users to download software for free that routes all domain name requests through servers in Beijing, where system administrators could prohibit domain names thought to be unacceptable and could hold onto names. However, even if the Chinese government successfully implements its system, it is not likely to become the most popular system in China. VeriSign's system is not perfect, either. Cybersquatters abound under VeriSign's system. Domain names have to be sold at a set rate on a first-come, first-serve basis as stated in VeriSign's contract with the U.S. Department of Commerce, says Bruce Chovnick, general manager at VeriSign Registry Services. I-DNS can register Chinese-language domain names through a registry of 120,000 names, and it purposefully reserved a large number of names to avoid cybersquatting and political issues, says I-DNS executive Michael Ng.
(Access for paying subscribers only.)
- "Electronic Government Shapes Up As Next Big Thing on Internet"
Bloomberg (11/29/00); Tyson, James L.
Despite slow decision-making and high market fragmentation, electronic government appears to be poised for major growth. In the United States alone there are 85,000 federal, state, and local governmental bodies, which presents an enormous potential market for IT companies. To limit their exposure to risk in an unsteady market--and to keep tabs on the competition--many IT companies are striking partnerships with others to approach the e-government space. IBM, for example, tapped New York-based EzGov to act as a subcontractor in its efforts to upgrade Miami-Dade County's Web site. IBM is also working with EDS and PricewaterhouseCoopers to move the United Kingdom's Department of Social Security online. However, these private sector efforts will amount to nothing if the individual governments are not fully committed. "If the government doesn't have skin in the game, the willingness and likelihood the government will get behind the site are significantly reduced," says IBM government marketing manager Todd Ramsey. The potential though, is huge--large enough for IBM to consider e-government to be its top growth opportunity, according to Ramsey. In the U.S., governments will spend $6.2 billion on e-government hardware, software, and services by 2005, according to the Gartner Group, and governments will collect $602.4 billion worth of taxes and fees online, says Forrester Research.
- "Election Debacle Offers Valuable Lesson for IT"
Computerworld (11/27/00) Vol. 34, No. 48, P. 35; Gillmor, Dan
The problems that some Florida voters had with the "butterfly" ballot in the recent presidential election could teach high-tech companies the importance of testing products and services on end users, writes Dan Gillmor. The ballot problems were the result of poor "voting user interface," because it confused some voters, Gillmor says. An unfriendly interface on a tech product would be unlikely to result in the type of chaos that ensued over the election, but could reduce efficiency and user satisfaction. People who design tech products too often assume that end users share their basic knowledge of how the device works, Gillmor says, noting that many high-tech gadgets have confounded him personally. Tech companies should seek input from end users at an early stage in product development by asking users what they want. After developing a prototype, companies should test end users to see if they understand how a product works, Gillmor says.
Click Here to View Full Article
- "Controversial Giant"
Internet World (12/01/00) Vol. 6, No. 23, P. 35; Murphy, Kathleen
Since its inception, ICANN has always been surrounded with controversy, and now it seems ICANN might have an illegal contract with the U.S. Department of Commerce. The Administrative Procedures Act (APA) is violated if U.S. policy is laundered through ICANN, notes Professor Michael Froomkin of the University of Miami School of Law. Further, if ICANN is an independent entity, then the U.S. government can not give ICANN the power to handle or regulate the domain name system (DNS) without breaching the U.S. Constitution's non-delegation doctrine, says Froomkin. Through its control of the DNS, ICANN can enforce particular regulations including content controls, and its call for a $1 fee on all domain name registrants could be construed as going beyond the role of technical manager, say critics. ICANN can dictate who receives domain names, and can favor particular special interests such as big business. Another point of controversy is ICANN's recent election of five board members to represent the public at-large. Registered voters' identities were kept secret and of the 156,000 individuals that were registered to vote, only 76,000 activated their registration and participated including a meager 14,000 North Americans. ICANN President and CEO Mike Roberts has generated general dislike and distrust of ICANN, says ICANN board member Karl Auerbach. The five at-large members might have little influence in restoring faith in ICANN because of the organization's history of secretiveness and its tendency to ignore the public's viewpoint. ICANN is accountable to the registrars, some of which have voiced concerns that ICANN favors Network Solutions. A crucial test of ICANN's legitimacy will come when new TLDs are introduced, a move that will generate competition amongst domain name registrars. Delays in making the TLDs available would favor the special interests that currently dominate ICANN.
For information regarding ACM's Internet governance work related to ICANN, visit http://www.acm.org/servicing/IG.html.
- "The Internet: Vive La Liberte!"
Economist (11/25/00) Vol. 357, No. 8198, P. 75
France might not be able to enforce the recent court ruling requiring Yahoo! to block French users' access to certain content, but the nation's efforts could encourage other countries to pursue similar legal action against other Web sites. The development in France has Internet experts contemplating an online world that is clogged with regulations from every corner of the globe. For example, European Union officials are currently considering whether to allow European citizens to sue European Web sites in their own local courts. Meanwhile, other governments, such as China and Singapore, are interested in taking steps to censor the Internet. In addition to legal means, countries could turn to authentication and access-control technologies such as digital certificates. Ultimately, however, such solutions would have a chilling effect on e-commerce. Experts say it is understandable that France wants to prevent the display or sale of objects--Nazi memorabilia on Yahoo!--that incite racial hatred. However, the initiative could come at the expense of the free flow of information to people who live under authoritarian governments.
- "Abort, Retry, Fail"
New Scientist (11/18/00) Vol. 168, No. 2265, P. 40; Robins, Mark
Researchers are looking for ways to make computers more reliable as technology becomes increasingly pervasive, leaving almost all aspects of modern society vulnerable to computer crashes. Computer crashes can result in anything from mild inconvenience to the loss of human lives, if the systems that run nuclear power stations were to malfunction, for example. Governments are now recognizing the need for more stable computer systems, and are funding projects aimed at improving software reliability and eliminating human error, the two main causes of computer failure. The U.S. National Science Foundation in September announced its Information Technology Initiative, which will devote more than a fourth of its $90 million budget to improving computer reliability. Meanwhile, the British government in July announced a project aimed at creating crash-proof hardware and software, and researching the causes of human error. Although hardware flaws can lead to crashes, modern systems typically guard against this with back-up components or by running several sets of hardware in parallel. Writing error-free software poses more of a challenge because today's programs are so complex that mistakes are inevitable, and any change in the code could cause another part of the program to malfunction. Software researcher Gerard Holzmann at Bell Labs' Computer Principles Research department is working on a program called AX that creates a virtual world in which to test a program's code for errors. AX works in conjunction with a program called Spin, which actually checks the code for glitches and locates the errors by observing changes in the test environment created by AX. Meanwhile, the British researchers are tackling the problem of human error by using cognitive scientists and psychologists to help programmers develop better human-computer interfaces.
- "High-Tech Rewind"
Interactive Week (11/27/00) Vol. 7, No. 48, P. 54; Dempster, Mike
The labor-hungry U.S. technology industry continues to lure workers from around the world, but many countries that are eager to build their own high-tech industries are looking for ways to keep these workers at home. Although India is more willing than many nations to share its high-tech workers, India's Minister of Internet Technology, Pramod Mahajan, has a plan to turn India into a high-tech powerhouse within eight years. Over the next five years Mahajan wants India to build an infrastructure and educational system capable of generating 1 million software engineers each year. Even if many of these workers leave the country, India believes its own high-tech industry will grow as a result of its highly educated workforce. In turn, the growth of India's tech industry will persuade many workers who left the country to return. Meanwhile, Canada is struggling to prevent its skilled workers from migrating to the U.S. on TN-1 visas, which are renewed yearly. About 35,000 Canadians, including about 3,000 computer scientists, came to work in the U.S. on TN-1 visas in 1997, says Mahmood Iqbal of the Conference Board of Canada. If this trend continues over the next few decades, Canada is likely to lose all of its engineering talent, Iqbal says. Still, Canadian firms cannot compete with the salaries and opportunities that U.S. companies provide. Along with its workers, Canada loses its ability to compete in the tech industry and its highest tax payers, which damages the entire country's standard of living, Iqbal says. Of all the countries that lose workers to the U.S., China might be in the best position to reverse the trend, says AnnaLee Saxenian of the University of California at Berkeley. Chinese workers have more trouble adapting to the U.S. culture than do Canadians, Europeans, and Indians, says Saxenian. In addition, China has ties to the Taiwanese government, which has been offering incentives since the mid 1980s to convince Taiwanese engineers and scientists working in the U.S. to come back home, says Saxenian.
- "IT Budgets Expected to Rise in 2001"
InformationWeek (11/27/00) No. 814, P. 181; Goodridge, Elisabeth
Several recent studies have found that North American businesses will increase IT spending next year. Gartner Group predicts that IT spending, minus IT salaries, will grow 11 percent in 2001, while New York's Wit SoundView Group forecasts an increase of 8 percent. Wit SoundView thinks that IT spending will be concentrated on customer-relationship management software and infrastructure. This means strong sales for infrastructure vendors such as Microsoft and for CRM vendors such as BroadVision and Siebel Systems, Wit SoundView says. A survey by AMR Research found that a majority of businesses of all sizes are budgeting more for IT next year. The education and financial services markets had the largest planned increases, AMR reported. All of the reports found spending strong in the e-business sector, with few businesses worried about the recent downturn in dot-com stocks or the economy's uncertain future.
- "Chip Technology: Quantum Leaps and Tiny Steps"
Business Week (12/04/00) No. 3710, P. 113; Port, Otis
This year's International Electron Devices Meeting (IEDM) in San Francisco will discuss developments in nanotechnology and quantum computing, among other fields. Researchers from NTT in Japan will reveal tiny logic circuits based on single-electron transistors (SETs), while participants from the University of California, Berkeley, are expected to display a vital transistor element only 20 nanometers in width. IBM researcher David DiVincenzo will outline a proposed model for a quantum computer able to process quantum bits that represent the states of zero and one at the same time. IBM is currently working to produce viable circuits from the model, with one possibility revolving around SETs. Toshiba representatives are expected to discuss the future of large-capacity flash memory chips at IEDM, and Samsung's small flash-memory cell for gigachips will be on display.
Wired (11/00) Vol. 8, No. 11, P. 226; Corn, David
HearingRoom.com, an Internet service launched in April of this year, provides real-time transcripts of Congressional hearings. Although the site is the first to offer transcripts of these important but frequently hard-to-locate meetings, it charges as much as $15,000 for one year's access, freezing out all but the media, lobbyists, and businesses. The ease with which HearingRoom.com's founder set up the site highlights a troubling problem for the U.S. Congress in the Internet era. Few documents that the public has every right to see are made available online. Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project says citizens should be able to access the text of all drafts of bills, the reports on key issues produced by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the record of how Congress members have voted, financial records from each member of Congress, or the register of lobbyists and their concerns. Several members have introduced bills to post much of this information, but the bills have sputtered in committee. Still, Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) says, "All the information we have about what we do should be on the Web." Complaints are not limited to the Congress. OMB Watch and the Center for Democracy and Technology released a list in 1998 of the "10 Most Wanted" documents that the government should put on the Internet. As of now, only three are available. Although many have applauded the White House for its attention to electronic government, especially the FirstGov portal recently launched, critics say portals will not be that effective if the amount of information on the Internet remains as limited as it presently is. However, the Center for Democracy and Technology and OMB Watch have cited a few government sites as particularly helpful, including online feeds of the State Department's daily briefings and the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Release Inventory. As for Congress, members say change will likely not come until citizens demand it. Until then, electronic government will remain a slow, bureaucracy-heavy process. Some members, including e-government proponent Vernon Ehlers of Michigan, say Congress may not be responsible for providing all of the information these groups are demanding. Congress produces the raw data, he says, but it is the responsibility of others to process it. Still, Ehlers maintains that, compared to four years ago, far more information from Congress is available online.