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Volume 3, Issue 176:  Wednesday, March 14, 2001

  • "Sad Plight of Fired H-1B Workers"
    Wired News (03/13/01); Iyengar, Swaroopa

    As the tech sector's slowdown leads to mass layoffs, foreign workers holding H-1B permits are finding themselves in a squeeze--they have to find another company willing to hire them and file for a new H-1B permit within 10 days. Another option is the unappetizing prospect of selling themselves out to "body-shoppers," companies that hire foreign workers and then sub-contract them out, collecting a significant portion of their salary as a fee. "At this point I am willing to take a job that pays me less money than what I was getting or expect to get. The important thing is to maintain legal status," says Sashank Narasimhadevara, a recently laid-off foreign worker. Although Narasimhadevara has until June to find another job because of one-year "Optional Practical Training" granted to U.S.-graduated foreign students, other workers must find employment within 10 days or return to their home country to reapply at the U.S. consulate there. To worsen matters, companies are not required to give H-1B workers prior notice of their termination, although they are required to provide a plane ticket home. Still, the demand for foreign talent is still strong and Congress raised the quota on H-1Bs to 195,000 last year. Even Intel's Robert Manetta, whose company has announced that it will cut its workforce by "attrition" over the coming months, says, "By nature of their job profiles we consider H-1Bs key talent." Eyleen Schmidt, a spokeswoman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, seems to understand the difficulties posed to unemployed foreign workers, saying, "We are still observing the trends in the high-tech industry. A laid-off H-1B worker can apply for a grace period beyond 10 days--and we will grant it on a case-by-case basis."

  • "Teachers Find Tech Tools Impressive"
    Wired News (03/12/01); Dean, Katie

    Many educators present at the opening sessions of ACM1: "Beyond Cyberspace: A Journey of Many Directions" conference in San Jose, Calif., came away enthused with what they witnessed. "I was really impressed," says Dotty Myers, a special education teacher. "It was eye-opening to me." Presentations at the exposition included a demonstration by two Massachusetts Institute of Technology educators of their "thinking tags," which use LED lights to model the spread of a virus as a group of students interact with one another. MIT doctoral student Vanessa Colella says the tags, originally developed for a cocktail party, allow students to learn about important concepts in a meaningful way. Colella and her associate, MIT assistant professor Eric Klopfer, also demonstrated a tool that models such complex systems as animal populations and ecosystems. Other presentations were on issues such as the use of handhelds and laptops in the classroom and on the role of women and minorities in math and science classes.

  • "The Internet Is Only Getting Started on Huge Innovations"
    SiliconValley.com (03/10/01); Gillmor, Dan

    The Association for Computing Machinery is hosting Internet visionaries this week at "ACM1: Beyond Cyberspace." These industry leaders are working hard now to follow the visions they see for the future. Bob Metcalfe, host of the conference, has set the tone for the meeting by saying the Internet bubble has burst, but that the promise of technology is already pushing beyond the medium. Ray Kurzweil, CEO of Kurzweil Technologies, says advanced virtual reality capabilities people can expect in the future include eyeglasses that will scan images directly to retinas. He demonstrated, in limited measure, how virtual reality can already be applied today, using a digital alter-ego to perform a virtual rock concert. Other tech leaders are taking the opportunity to boast of their companies' current projects. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, for example, says Microsoft's work in XML will lead to a revolution in Web-based services available to customers. The conference also delves into natural science, as Marcia K. McNutt, president and CEO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute explains how developments in the next five years may solve some problems with global warming, as scientists learn how to sequester carbon from fossil fuel exhaust. Technology's advances will prove pervasive in the educational arena as well, as evidenced by assistant director of the National Science Foundation Ruzena Bajcsy's comments. "In the same way that information technology research helped fuel the biotechnology revolution, advances in education will be just as dependent on IT," she says. WorldCom's Vint Cerf dampens the futuristic zeal a bit saying that a "lesson learned" in the last year is that a business-sensible view is necessary to the pursuance of these developments.

  • "Enveloped in Technology"
    ABCNews.com (03/12/01); Goldman, Jim

    The ACM1 conference in San Jose, Calif., is highlighting many exciting new innovations in technology--innovations that could impact how people engage in their everyday lives. "These are the dreamers trying to do what the computer world thought of doing with computers 50 years ago--use the computer to augment human intelligence," says Sun Microsystems chief scientist John Gage. Among the innovations are "smart" medicine cabinets that monitor your vital signs and keep track of your medications, a "smart" car that broadcasts email messages and automatically tunes to its driver's favorite radio station. Participants at the conference say the future will see computers become a more subtle presence in daily lives, changing how people do their daily tasks without their being aware of the computers' presence. However, those at the conference agree that as computers and other technology become ubiquitous and hidden, people risk losing their privacy as well as their sense of control.

  • "Ballmer Says Economy Won't Slow Microsoft Research Efforts"
    SiliconValley.com (03/12/01); Heim, Kristi

    Despite the current downturn in the tech-fueled economy, Microsoft is not planning to cut back its research and development efforts, CEO Steve Ballmer said at the Association for Computing Machinery conference, being held this week in San Jose, Calif. "The pace of change today is incredibly rapid, and there has never been a more critical time for industry, academia, and government to get together and jointly figure out how best to develop new ideas and solve some of the big challenges facing our customers every day," he told attendees. The leading software company earmarks over $4 billion each year for its research and development efforts, including four research labs that receive $250 million each year. Among its latest projects are speech-recognition software for speakers of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean that can increase those speakers' typing time by as much as three fold, 3D user interfaces, and computer games that can model characters on users' physical features.

  • "Federal Report Says IT Labor Crunch Easing"
    InfoWorld.com (03/09/01); Dash, Julekha

    The market for IT labor is not as tight as it was last year, according to a new report from the Federal Reserve. The report, released eight times each year by the Federal Reserve, found that the increased layoffs and slowing growth among tech firms have created a larger pool of available IT workers. The report also found that fewer IT workers are "job-hopping" from position to position and that fewer firms are offering stock options or other perks in order to attract IT talent. In general, the report concludes that firms do not feel as much pressure to raise salary offers to entice prospective IT hires. Maggie Yunker of the San Francisco-based consulting firm Gobosh agrees that hiring IT staff has become less problematic. "I know if I did a search [on a job-listing Web site] I could find somebody, whereas before I knew we couldn't or had to hire a foreign worker," she says.
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  • "Usenet Users Up in Arms After Deja Sale"
    USA Today (03/13/01) P. 3D; Weise, Elizabeth

    Usenet, a throwback to the Internet's early days, has proven that it is still very important to a large community of users despite its age. Begun in 1979 as a graduate student project, Usenet became a popular discussion and information network, where people could even log on to share files in a sort of primitive Napster system. Users of the network had stayed pretty much behind the scenes until last month, when Deja.com ran out of money and sold its Usenet portal and archive to the Web search engine Google. The archives had been the most comprehensive and interactive available, comprising all Usenet postings dating back to 1995. Also, Deja provided an easy way for people to access Usenet through their Web browser. When Google failed to restore the archives and Usenet portal, a host of Usenet advocates organized quickly to put pressure on the company in a vocal protest. David Krane of Google says the Usenet populace is "a unique beast--wonderful, hugely informed, bright, opinionated. They don't hesitate to send mail." The company has scrambled its resources to put the Usenet archive and access back online. So far, the archives reach only back as far as last August and people cannot post responses yet. Google's Krane says the entire archive should be up, searchable, and interactive within five months.

  • "Controlling a Computer by the Power of Thought"
    Wall Street Journal (03/14/01) P. B1; Mitchener, Brandon

    Scientists at the Joint Research Center of the European Commission have developed a rudimentary device that translates brain waves into electronic commands. Although the idea was originally to make the Internet accessible to those with severe physical disabilities, researchers now say the concept could have much broader implications for people both with and without disabilities. Jose del R. Millan wrote the software for the device, which is simple enough that it can run on a normal PC. By wearing a $225, off-the-shelf Electro-Cap product, users wire their heads to a box that reads electroencephalograms (EEGs) and sends them to the PC. Rather than deciphering the exact translation of thoughts, the program reads four to five abstract concepts imagined by the user, such as "cube," "relax," or "left." These ideas trigger activity in different parts of the brain and allow the software to interpret the users' intentions. So far, the product is unwieldy to control, although it is the least physically invasive and cheapest solution to brain-interfacing. One demonstration took five minutes to write a name. However, Cathal O'Philbin, who lacks the use of his hands due to spinal muscular atrophy, says the invention is a godsend. Although he only used the device once and achieved a relatively simple result after three and a half hours of intense effort, he says there are many disabled people who would love to try this potentially liberating technology. With practice and an improved technology, experienced users could use the device to operate their wheelchairs or other devices. It could have other applications as well, such as monitoring truckers' brain signals to avoid falling asleep at the wheel. Mr. Millan says the scientists working on the $1.5 million project--half-funded by European Union tax monies--would like to produce a commercial product in the future and adds that the group is contemplating a spinoff.

  • "Microsoft Judge Is Off Bias Case"
    Washington Post (03/14/01) P. E3; Johnson, Carrie

    The federal judge who last year ruled Microsoft a monopoly and ordered it divided into two companies has removed himself from a separate case involving the software giant. Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson said a perception that he may be biased against Microsoft has led him to recuse himself from a case in which a group of the company's former and current African-American employees allege race discrimination. After Jackson issued his ruling against Microsoft last year, he made public comments that were highly critical of the company. Those comments played a key role in Microsoft's recent oral arguments appealing that ruling. In his order yesterday, Jackson did not back down from his earlier criticism, calling Microsoft "a company with institutional disdain for both the truth and for rules of law" and saying its managers often presented "specious testimony to support spurious defenses." Microsoft officials said they "respectfully disagree" with Jackson's latest comments.

  • "Lawsuits Spring Up After Layoffs"
    USA Today Online (03/12/01); Armour, Stephanie

    The recent spate of layoffs in the tech sector has prompted some fired workers to file suit against their former companies. Often, the suits seek back pay, stock options, or other bonuses. These workers are depending on a 1998 law called the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN), which holds that companies must give employees 60 days' notice before a mass layoff or plant closing. However, legal experts say the various exceptions included within WARN make it questionable whether the law applies to all laid-off workers in the tech sector. Among the lawsuits pending against tech firms are a suit against Walker Digital by the state attorney general of Connecticut and a suit against Atlanta-based Inacom that could involve as many as 5,000 fired workers. Legal experts note that many tech companies, especially small dot-coms, that have planned or are planning layoffs may face additional problems because they lack the money for severance pay, a traditional way for companies to buy out fired workers and avoid future legal problems.

  • "Sony, Toshiba, and IBM Working On Chip"
    New York Times (03/13/01) P. C6; Stellin, Susan

    IBM, Sony, and Toshiba announced yesterday that the three companies will invest over $400 million to develop a "supercomputer on a chip." Such a chip could lead to consumer electronic devices that are more powerful than the "Deep Blue" supercomputer built by IBM. The new chip would also provide super fast broadband Internet access but would not operate at a high level of power. Work on the new chip will proceed at IBM's Austin, Texas, development center.
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  • "Domain Name Meeting Ends With Questions"
    NewsFactor Network (03/13/01); Durham-Vichr, Deborah

    ICANN concluded its board meeting in Melbourne without making a final decision on its proposed deal with VeriSign. During the meeting, the newly approved top level domain names were discussed. Four of the seven new TLDs will be available to the entire Internet community: .biz, .info, .name, and .pro. Registration of the domain names under the other three TLDs, .aero, .coop, and .museum, will be available only to a select audience. The agreements with the organizations overseeing these new TLDs will probably have a greater impact on Internet governance than the VeriSign contract, according to ICANNWatch.org. "But the VeriSign deal got most of the attention, so the [TLD] contracts slipped under the radar," according to ICANNWatch.org.

  • "India Optimistically Prepares for Slump in the U.S."
    New York Times (03/13/01) P. W1; Landler, Mark

    India may benefit from the slowdown in the U.S. tech sector, an Indian software trade association forecasts. National Association of Software and Services Companies President Dewang Mehta says tight budgets for U.S. companies would encourage them to look to the Indian market for skilled programmers. Additionally, the association says India's technology exports were on track for this year's estimates, $6.2 billion, and will likely meet next year's $9.5 billion target. Others remain skeptical that India can dodge the effects of reduced U.S. tech spending, which many say is responsible for reduced growth in other Asian countries such as Taiwan, which will grow only 3.7 percent for this fiscal year compared with 6 percent in 2000. Rajeev Chandrasekhar, chairman of BPL, one of India's leading cell phone companies, says companies such as Intel, Nortel Networks, and Cisco Systems are all making cutbacks and will be wary of signing new outsourcing deals. Mehta counters with an association report that shows that, of 185 companies outsourcing to India, few intend to scale back operations. Some in India see the country becoming one of Asia's tech powerhouses because of its huge programming strength--the country produces 73,000 graduates per year from technical colleges and boasts an English-speaking population.
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  • "Europeans at Work on Copyright Laws to Protect Artists' Work"
    Associated Press (03/09/01); Eddy, Melissa

    Unlike American content-owners, who are busy suing Napster and other free online music-swapping services, European artists are taking a different tactic. Stars such as the Spice Girls and Robbie Williams were among those that lobbied the European Union (EU) last month to enact legislation criminzalizing the pirating of CDs and the downloading of copyright-protected music from the Internet. However, consumer advocates are angry because the EU has narrowed the definition of "private copy," thus lessening consumers' rights to make copies of music that they have already bought legally, even copies that only they will be listening to. The legislation allows each of the 15 EU nations to place fees on each blank CD or CD burner that is sold. The fees are then divided among artists via national copyright societies--union-type groups that exist only in Europe, to protect the interest of musicians. Nevertheless, researchers say even these fees have not stopped people from downloading music, as Napster usage quadrupled in Germany in January as compared to just six months earlier. This has caused most European to focus on efforts to combat copyright violations by taxing hardware and other media that allow for high-quality copying.

  • "Suddenly, A Database Horse Race"
    Investor's Business Daily (03/14/01) P. A6; Coleman, Murray

    Oracle, which controls about 50 percent of the database market, is now finding itself surrounded on its home turf by IBM and Microsoft. While Oracle's sales are projected to remain flat for the next year, IBM expects to post gains in the hot e-commerce market and Microsoft in both the e-commerce and enterprise markets. Overall, the database market is estimated to grow 18 percent annually for the next three years, reaching $25.7 billion in 2004, according to International Data. Although Oracle plans to release a strong, new product by July--version 9i--analysts say its high-end pricing strategy may not work as well in these times of tight budgets. Oracle's databases cost three to five times more than its competitors, although customers widely regard Oracle databases as superior. Also, the company plans to add significant value to its new database product by integrating an application server function. This is intended to help Oracle expand its slight hold--only three percent--in the application server market as well as add value to its product. The application server market is also growing, with AMR placing it at $10 billion in sales by 2004. Oracle's Robert Shrimp explains that, by combining the two products together, Oracle can save buyers money and time spent on installation and maintenance of different software.

  • "When Laptops 'Walk Away,' Company Secrets Go, Too"
    USA Today (03/13/01) P. 5B; Khan, Salina

    About 70 percent of businesses do not have policies on security and the use of laptop computers when traveling, according to an informal survey by Tech Republic. With 387,000 units reported lost or stolen last year, a rise of 20 percent from the previous year, companies have had to spend $775 million in replacement costs. But harder to measure and more troublesome is the loss of company secrets and sensitive information that may have fallen into the wrong hands, in the forms of documents, emails, and direct links into corporate networks stored on the laptops. Some simple measures, such as using cables to lock the computers to desks, restricting the type of data that can be stored on a laptop, routine inventory checks, and periodic scanning to check for sensitive information can be employed to prevent losses. Up to 35 percent of companies use hardware or software devices to protect their mobile devices, including encryption programs, virtual private networks, and laptop locators designed by Lucira Technologies. Lucira's software forces a laptop's modem to dial up Lucira's office once the system has been used to connect to the Internet. This allows the company to track where the laptop is. Lucira is also introducing software this year that will let users destroy or retrieve information stored on stolen devices once it goes online.

  • "Business Plan"
    Wall Street Journal (03/12/01) P. R8; Sessa, Danielle

    Some estimates peg the value of the education and corporate-training market at $900 billion, which is understandably quite tempting for many companies. And once workable business models are found analysts expect the Internet to provide a sizeable boost to the already huge market. "One of the major challenges of the online-learning model is how you build scale in this market, and what business model allows you to do that," says Tom Evans, senior analyst for education research firm Eduventures.com. "The advertising and sponsorship model is questionable for most companies. So the real challenge over the next 18 months is: How do these companies scale out and scale up so they can spread their cost over a greater base of revenue?" Finding a workable business model is proving to be the most straightforward in the corporate learning market, where companies such as DigitalThink, Saba Software, SkillSoft, and SmartForce work to transform corporations' employee-training programs into Web-based programs. The business model: Sign up huge corporate clients, save them huge amounts of money with e-learning, and pocket huge amounts of money in the process. So far, only SmartForce, the corporate learning veteran, has turned a profit--one cent per share, or $648,000, for the fourth quarter. For-profit higher-education companies such as De Vry, Education Management, and Apollo Group are also adding online courses to their degree programs and have reason to be optimistic. First, their typical client--adult professionals seeking additional skills or degrees--are motivated, short on time, and likely to be tempted by the chance to study and complete coursework online. Second, because higher-education programs are often tracked, companies have a good long-term view of their revenues, something investors appreciate. Apollo claims that 19,000 of its 83,000 students are enrolled for online classes while De Vry says its Keller Graduate School of Management has 1,000 online students. Despite being perhaps $650-billion large, making money in the online K-12 education market is proving difficult. Some companies hope to sell education software to schools and/or parents while others are using the Internet to make lesson plans available or offer testing services. Similarly, selling textbooks online has proven to be a dead-end, at least when that is the sole product on offer, as the failures of Varsity Group and Bigwords.com have proven. Still, Merrill Lynch remains positive, saying in a recent report that "E-commerce is to the knowledge revolution what the railroads were to the industrial revolution."

  • "The Great Security Debate: Linux vs. Windows"
    E-Commerce Times (03/07/01); Lyman, Jay

    The debate whether Microsoft operating systems or Unix and Linux systems have better security continues. Conventional wisdom says Microsoft systems, with their plethora of user-friendly features, are more vulnerable. Experts tend to agree, contending that Unix or Linux open standard systems are more secure, as the majority of these systems are not integrated into other applications such as Microsoft Windows. Still, Microsoft has made serious efforts to tighten security, while open source systems such as Linux, which benefit from many knowledgeable producers who have an interest in keeping the system secure, are also troubled by "garage applications" producers who often could not care less about security. "It's not surprising that Linux records a high number of vulnerabilities because Linux is an OS that works as both a desktop and a server, and everything in between," says Bryan Russell, an incident analyst for SecurityFocus.com. Regardless, SecurityFocus.com reports that Microsoft operating systems such as Windows 98 and Windows 2000 averaged almost 70 percent more vulnerabilities last year than Linux.

  • "Wired Workforce Plans Stress Corporate Nets"
    Network World (03/12/01) Vol. 18, No. 11, P. 1; Marsan, Carolyn Duffy

    Several companies that have invested in wired workforce programs, which give employees PCs and Internet access at greatly reduced or no costs, report that their employees are now demanding telecommuting applications on their new systems. At Ford, for example, employees have been filing requests with the IT department for remote access to Microsoft Office and the company's email system. Ford executives have been surprised and stumped by their demands. Steve Paschen, who is the director of Ford's wired workforce program, says the dilemma is one of demand outstripping supply. "We haven't done anything to our network in terms of expansion, but we have volumes of people now wanting to access the network from home." To date, 150,000 employees out of the company's 300,000-person workforce have requested PCs through Ford's program. At Delta Airlines, employees can access much of the company's intranet from home, thanks to a wired workforce program that includes the software necessary for a virtual private network and for public-key infrastructure. Employees can access Delta's email system, its E-crew scheduling system, and other software applications from their own PCs. In total, 36,000 Delta employees have requested PCs through the wired workforce program, while 11,000 have requested only free Internet access.

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