Timely Topics for IT Professionals
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ACM TechNews is published every week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
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Volume 3, Issue 203: Wednesday, May 16, 2001
- "U.S. Senator Says Cyberattacks Could Devastate Nation"
Computerworld Online (05/14/01); Thibodeau, Patrick
U.S. Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah), speaking at a conference of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association on Monday, called for greater protection of the nation's information infrastructure. Bennett said a cyberattack on that infrastructure could "devastate the United States more than a nuclear device set off over a large city." Bennett contended that the threat is not to government and military infrastructure, which is well protected, but to critical financial and commercial infrastructure. As an example, Bennett said a cyberattack on the Federal Reserve's Fedwire fund transfer system would cause chaos by bringing most of the nation's financial transactions to a halt. Bennett suggested that civilian groups prepare themselves for the possibility of such cyberattacks through the "red team/blue team" simulations that many defense agencies employ. The Commerce Department's John Sopko said President Bush recognizes the importance of the information infrastructure. The administration recently met with leaders with several key industries to discuss the potential for cyberattacks.
- "Is It Make or Break for Mac Developers?"
eWeek Online (05/14/01); Turner, Daniel Drew
The Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), to be held this month in San Jose, Calif., will focus on the new Macintosh OS X. The operating system, which finally shipped to vendors this March and will appear in new Mac hardware by this summer, is a completely new environment for Mac users and developers, a change that will require users to learn new APIs, protocols, and programming models. The WWDC will provide sessions on OS X's multimedia applications, such as QuickTime and OpenGL, and its new user interface, Aqua. Other sessions will offer information on Cocoa, one of the new operating system's API layers, WebObjects, Interface Builder, Java2, AppleScript, and game development.
- "Open-Source Advocates Answer Microsoft"
CNet (05/15/01); Lemos, Robert
A group of 10 open source pioneers this week lambasted Microsoft for opposing the GNU General Public License, a basis for the free software movement. Microsoft has stepped up its attack on the open source movement recently, claiming that it is an unsustainable model for enterprise software and will eventually harm software companies that have dabbled in it by diluting intellectual property. Countering those claims, Linus Torvalds and other open source luminaries have released a statement in which they say Microsoft's proprietary licensing model is the real source of incompatibility and a threat to the industry. They say Microsoft deliberately makes each successive release of software incompatible with earlier versions in order to strong-arm users into buying them. The statement also defends the general public license by saying it did not require companies to disclose trade secrets or dilute their intellectual property value, as Microsoft has alleged.
- "Bush Administration Rewriting National IT Protection Plan"
Computerworld Online (05/15/01); Thibodeau, Patrick
The Bush administration has begun work on a new plan to protect the nation's key information infrastructures, saying the Clinton administration's efforts in this area were flawed. The new plan will highlight the cooperation of the private sector, administration officials say, and will try to avoid any bureaucratic regulations. However, companies that fail to act to protect their infrastructure could face regulation, the officials warn. The administration is worried that the Information Sharing and Analysis Centers (ISACs) set up by the Clinton administration are too bureaucratic to function well; companies have had difficulty integrating ISAC policy with traditional business models. "Only when infrastructure concerns are translated into tangible business concerns will [companies] respond effectively," says Kenneth I. Juster, the undersecretary for export administration at the U.S. Department of Commerce. The administration has entered into discussions with representatives from the oil, electricity, financial, and other industries and hopes to complete the plan by year's end.
For information about ACM's work in the area of technology and public policy, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm.
- "TV Makers Take a Side on Anti-Piracy Technologies"
Los Angeles Times (05/16/01) P. C5; Shiver, Jube Jr.
The Consumer Electronics Association has written a letter to the FCC in which it says most TV makers, including Sony and Mitsubishi, endorse a tough new copy-protection standard for digital TVs. The new standard, IEEE 1394, or FireWire, would greatly increase how much control content providers exercise in regulating whether consumers can copy and reuse their programs. With digital TV gaining market share--200 stations now broadcast a digital signal, the National Association of Broadcasters reports--and DVDs among the most popular electronics items, broadcasters and content providers are afraid that digital content could soon be subject to widespread, Napster-like trading over the Internet. FireWire provides protection through encryption and authentication, not only hiding the digital code of content, but also dictating how many times and to what devices it may be copied. Peter Mell, a computer expert at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, agrees that FireWire will make it "much more difficult for hackers." However, he notes that the work of "one intelligent hacker" could open the copy-protection system to all hackers. Consumer advocacy groups say the technology is too strict and threatens to eliminate consumers' traditional "fair use" rights to recording copyrighted content.
- "Wearable Patents Take Off"
ZDNet (05/11/01); Charny, Ben
Wearable computer developers are preparing the next generation of computing devices for the mass market and securing their technology patents now. Orang-Otang Computers recently secured patents on its Jango Wearable Credit Card Terminal and several other odd devices, including an audio recorder and a phone that are both stored in the sleeve of a user's shirt. Extreme Computing Web site founder Brian Fobes expects wearable computing products to take off in the mass market in two to five years. Some companies have already gained significant backing, such as Tactex Controls, which recently secured $140,000 from the Canadian government for research on textiles to be used with wearable computers. IBM also has invested in a project with wearable device maker Xybernaut that will focus on voice-command technology. Xybernaut already holds hundreds of patents in wearable computing and lists big name clients such as Federal Express, Bell Canada, and the U.S. military.
- "Time to Bury Proposed Software Law"
SiliconValley.com (05/12/01); Gillmor, Dan
Consumer protection agencies and attorneys general across the country are rallying against the software industry's attempt to put the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act (UCITA) through state legislatures. The law would revise rules that restrict software firms from inserting terms some courts have deemed unconscionable--such as prohibiting purchasers from publishing negative reviews of the product--into licensing agreements. Complex licensing agreements that consumers are required to read before installing or downloading software would also be given more legal punch under UCITA. Maryland and Virginia have passed UCITA legislation, despite virulent opposition from state attorneys general. A group of major software companies have won over Carla J. Stovall, Kansas attorney general, and Drew Edmondson, Oklahoma attorney general, to a negotiated version of the law, although it still has strong opposition from many of their colleagues. The software industry contends that UCITA would benefit consumers, but that view is widely scorned, notes columnist Dan Gillmor, as most consumer-interest groups are strongly opposed to the measure.
For information about ACM's UCITA activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm/IP.
- "Internet World Doubles Exhibitor Numbers"
This year's Internet World trade fair in Berlin, Germany, will feature nearly 1,000 exhibitors, double last year's showing, more evidence that Europe's Internet market is still growing. This year's Internet World will also host the first fair dedicated solely to streaming media, with some 100 firms representing that sector. A recent study from NUA and Infratest found that nearly a quarter of the world's 400 million Internet users are Europeans. The number of Internet users in key European markets will likely grow 20 percent in 2001, says Pasquale Longo of Infratest, with the top three European markets--Germany, Great Britain, and France--totaling 65 million users by the end of the year. European Internet use differs from U.S. Internet use in one key respect, notes AOL International chief Michael Lynton. More than a third went online for the first time within the past year, making the European Internet community much less mature than the U.S. community. European users will spend more time online once they gain as much experience as those in the United States.
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- "Japan Set to Reject Amazon Patent"
IDG News Service (05/14/01); Lawson, Stephen
Amazon.com must decide this week whether to appeal a decision by Japan's Patent Office to reject Amazon's patent on its "one-click" shopping technology. The initial rejection came in November, when the patent office ruled that there was enough prior art to negate Amazon's claim that the one-click method is a unique concept. The prior art included an earlier patent application in Japan and a 1996 book on user interface design. "We decided that the technology could be easily invented from this prior art," said Kenichiro Natsumi of the patent office's Technology Research Division. Amazon also faces the rejection of its one-click patent in the European Union, which has told the company its patent would not be valid under a proposed change to its patent law. The one-click patent has received much criticism in the United States because, critics say, it is not a unique idea and protecting it as intellectual property could stifle innovation.
- "Researchers Study Web Surfers"
Associated Press (05/15/01); Fordahl, Matthew
Investigators at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center are using food-hunting concepts to make navigating the Internet more natural and instinctive. Scientists observed users searching for information on the Internet and noted each Web site they visited, each link they followed, and even the movements of their eyes. Such data reveals a particular trail or "scent," which is helping scientist Ed Chi and his colleagues develop software that determines a Web site's usability without human intervention. Called Bloodhound, the software uses computations based on a site's words and links to see how easily information can be found. Web usability consultant Jakob Nielsen says the work of the Xerox researchers, including computer scientists and psychologists, is providing scientific validity to Web design principles, which he says has been lacking. He says, "There is an appalling lack of good research in Web usability and fundamental thinking in the field. Most academics think that the Web is beneath them." Still, Nielsen says that until artificial intelligence is more developed, actually watching people navigate Web sites is the best way to determine Web site usability.
- "Designing an End to PC Pollution"
ZDNet (05/10/01); Skillings, Jon
Last month, industry, the government, and environmental groups made some progress on addressing the issue of obsolete computers when they established the National Electronics Products Stewardship Initiative and said they would work toward an agreement on disposing electronics. However, the sides clashed over hazardous materials and product design, and these issues will not be included in further negotiations. Although industry has thrown its support behind efforts to recycle computers, it may have to do more to keep the government from getting involved. There are growing concerns about the toxic materials used in computers, and industry may have to fend off efforts to dictate how it should design its own products. Computer companies maintain that they should not be held responsible for protecting the environment from the hazardous materials of old computers, when other industries, such as the auto industry, are not treated similarly. Although there are numerous bills at the state level on recycling computers and their hazardous materials, industry appears to be more concerned with a European Union effort to create a united program for handling computers and everything from refrigerators and digital cameras to hair dryers. This month, the EU will vote on the Waste Electrical and Electronics Equipment (WEEE) directive, which would ban lead and mercury from consumer electronic goods and force manufacturers to take back their products. John Minter, environmental affairs representative at Dell Computer, says the outcome in Europe will determine how the rest of the world will move on stemming PC pollution.
- "Trade-Secrets Trial Begins"
New York Times (05/15/01) P. C10; Zipern, Andrew
Software companies are eagerly awaiting the beginning of a criminal trial in which Cadence Design Systems accused four former employees of illegally taking source code when they left the company to start their own business, Avant Corp. Both firms make software that allows engineers to design integrated circuits; the ruling in the case could set a precedent in intellectual property protection.
- "Ready for the Success of Mainstream Unix?"
E-Commerce Times (05/14/01); Coljin, Peter
UNIX currently is enjoying a revitalized image, thanks to its rock-solid reputation and the variety of systems it runs on. UNIX could easily be adapted to the desktop if developers would agree on some basic tenets such as a standardized library location and a default environment for novice users. A UNIX desktop does not have to adhere to a single version, but vendors should standardize some important locations and functions so that either the KDE or GNOME graphical user interface environments would be able to incorporate standard configuration tools, allowing advanced users to flavor their systems. As it stands, the diversification and forking among UNIX systems prohibits the creation of any standard configuration, a necessity for a UNIX desktop to remain both feasible and open.
- "Advocates Upset Over VeriSign/ICANN Flipflop"
InternetNews.com (05/15/01); Wagner, Jim
The Department of Commerce's (DoC) probable approval of the proposed deal between ICANN and VeriSign is generating much criticism. On Monday, representatives from the DoC, VeriSign, and ICANN met to discuss concerns the DoC had with the proposed deal, and all sides appeared to favor the deal at the conclusion of that meeting. The DoC changed its tune after a single meeting, notes DomainRegistry.com President Larry Erlich, saying that it looks like the department intends to rubber stamp the deal. The financial industry appears to be siding with VeriSign. "We firmly continue to believe that VeriSign is one of the few organizations that have both the financial stability and technology infrastructure to ensure the stability of the current Domain Name System," stated Goldman, Sachs in a report released on May 14. The DoC did not want to examine issues relevant to the deal and did not request the Internet community's input, says Asensio CEO Manuel Asensio. There might be collusion between ICANN and VeriSign, according to a number of critics. "I think it is a disservice to the employees of the DoC to in any way insinuate there's anything other than ethical behavior going on," says VeriSign's Brian O'Shaughnessy, noting that the relevant issues are "cumbersome."
For information regarding ACM's Internet governance work related to ICANN, visit http://www.acm.org/serving/IG.html.
- "Bots for Business"
Boston Globe (05/13/01) P. C1; Denison, D.C.
With the cost of call-center operations now estimated at $33 per call, according to Forrester Research, some businesses are now turning to a technology that has mostly been the focus of universities and other research institutions--artificial intelligence. Several companies are now offering bots--personalized software agents that interact with customers through computer-generated images and personalities. In most cases, customers enter their queries into text chat boxes, and the bots respond by drawing from their programming, which is based on "natural language." In such programming, the developers must anticipate every question that a customer might ask, including irrelevant or even inappropriate ones, and prepare the bot to understand each question and seek out an answer for it. Proponents of bots say the resulting searches are more accurate than would be found through a traditional search engine. More importantly, having a bot, not a human being, provide that answer can save a tremendous amount of money in the long run. At the British company One 2 One Wireless, for example, the bot known as Yasmin, modeled after a popular TV character, has reduced the number of questions emailed to customer-service representatives by as much as 15 percent per day. Still, some critics question whether bots are really the answer, as they are difficult to program and place the burden on customers to ask their questions in the right way so as to be recognized by the bots' programming.
- "Where in the World Is the Best E-Commerce?"
CyberAtlas (05/15/01); Pastore, Michael
The META Group has released its 2001 World E-Commerce and Internet Market Report (WECIM) on the capacity and promise of 47 nations for e-commerce. The report is based on five areas: financial transactions, education and literacy rates, market potential, globalization measures, and technological sophistication. Overall, the top ranking countries are the United States, Finland, Iceland, Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, Denmark, Ireland, and New Zealand. The United States ranked first in market potential, which gauges a country's standard of living and commercial sales, and technological sophistication, which tracks Internet link ups and the number of computers. Iceland and Luxembourg ranked first and second respectively in financial transactions, which includes such information as the number of credit cards issued annually per person and credit card spending. The Netherlands and Hong Kong held the top slots in globalization, which monitors how much a nation adopts outside influence and joins in the worldwide capital market. Literacy and education rates are indicators of a country's ability to keep economically competitive; Finland was No. 1 in this category, followed by Australia. In Asia, South Korea and Malaysia are making economic improvements and are good bets for e-commerce investment, while the countries of southern Europe and Latin America are plagued by such problems as poverty and slower technological development.
- "What's Left"
Economist (05/12/01) Vol. 359, No. 8221, P. 79
Economists are starting to suggest that the cyclical nature of the economy may have been more responsible for the productivity gains in recent years than the new economy. Moreover, market observers believe that the rapid pace of IT spending by companies may have skewed their analysis of productivity gains. The IT industry was dealt a major blow last week when it was reported that for the first quarter of 2001, productivity in America declined at an annual rate of 0.1 percent, which follows growth of more than 5 percent for the year ending June 2000. Among the many myths about the new economy that the decline in productivity has shattered is that IT spending would not be affected by a downturn in the economy because companies would never allow their IT equipment to become obsolete. Not only has IT investment been unsustainable, spending on IT equipment and software fell to an annual rate of 6.5 percent during the first quarter of the year. Looking to the future, the cost of IT equipment will remain attractive to companies because Moore's law--that the processing power of a silicon chip doubles about every 18 months--should hold for the next decade and keep prices falling. Although IT "capital deepening" (the amount of money spent on IT per worker) will be slower than in recent years, it should be enough to boost productivity again. Over the next decade, productivity growth is likely to average about 2 percent to 2.5 percent a year, which would be below the blistering pace of the past two years, but well above what was seen in the 1970s and 1980s.
- "New Tools Boost Number of Disabled in IT Ranks"
InformationWeek (05/14/01) No. 837, P. 84; Mottl, Judith N.
There are 54 million U.S. citizens who have disabilities, but the Census Bureau reports that the employment rate of disabled workers is only 52 percent and only 26 percent for those who have severe disabilities. Many individuals with disabilities seeking work in the IT field say employers would not consider hiring them, no matter how stellar their resume. "The minute I came into the room, you could see it on their faces, and I knew I wasn't going to get any further," says Burrell Leatherwood, a quadriplegic who now works for OAO Technology Solutions. Advocates for the disabled say employers often make incorrect assumptions about hiring workers with disabilities--that they will be subject to higher insurance costs if they hire someone with a disability, that if they ever have to fire that worker they will face a discrimination lawsuit, and that accommodating that worker will cost too much. However, according to the National Organization on Disabilities, the cost of accommodating 51 percent of disabled workers is under $500, with 15 percent free, while only 22 percent of the accommodation costs are over $1,000. Often, federal or local grant money is available to cover especially large costs, and many companies are willing to increase budgets to meet workers' needs. Companies such as Boeing and Microsoft have gone out of their way to support disabled workers, with IT employees there having access to the latest in assistive technology such as virtual-reality glasses to improve diminished vision and pointers to replace the keyboard and mouse.
- "Shackling the Internet"
Washington Techway (05/14/01) P. 39; Usher, Anne
After being caught off-guard by the controversial Brussels Regulation, which lets consumers in European Union countries sue global Internet companies in their home country, U.S. firms doing business over the Internet are not about to let European officials place any more regulations on the Internet without a fight. Verizon, AOL Time Warner, and a number of other companies want to keep the Hague Convention in May from passing a treaty, known as the Rome II Greece Paper, which would make businesses engaged in e-commerce subject to the laws of the home country of consumers. Although the decision at the Hague would not be legally binding, 48 countries will support it as if it were international law. The move to establish jurisdictions for the Internet troubles legal experts in the United States, who now believe that laws on privacy, data protection, libel, and consumer protection will be next. Both European proposals have come under heavy criticism from the State Department, which says they are not in line with U.S. law and are not likely to be acceptable. An uphill fight is ahead for U.S. companies, says Kurt Wimmer, a lawyer with Covington & Burling in Washington. Wimmer believes that U.S. companies should act as if they are subject to the laws of the country in which they are doing business because it will be difficult for them to deny a specific country access to their Web sites. He also believes that U.S. companies should strengthen their ability to claim jurisdiction in the United States by publishing only in English, locating servers on U.S. soil, and having few employees and assets overseas.