WinInfo Short Takes: Week of February 18

Microsoft to Unveil .NET Ads
How would you explain concepts such as XML and Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), Web Services, and subscription software licensing to the average consumer? You probably wouldn't even try. But Microsoft will, in a $200 million ad campaign set to launch next week. Here's a clue for the company: Why don't you just develop cool services first, then sell them? You didn't need to explain the Win32 API, multithreading, or protected memory to consumers to sell Windows 95, and you shouldn't need to explain similarly boring low-level technology now. I've always thought that it was weird how XML in particular has become part of the common vernacular, even though almost no one knows what it means. Don't worry about obscure technical features, Microsoft; no one cares. If I want a reason to care about Microsoft .NET, it won't be XML interoperability.

SEC Probes Microsoft "Funny Money"
We haven't discussed this subject for a while, but a few years ago, Microsoft came under fire for squirreling away Windows and Office profits so the company could apply them to the books during the lean years. Well, the past few years have been relatively lean for Microsoft, and certain--shall we say--government entities are concerned that Microsoft has been smoothing out its financial results recently with what I'd call "funny money." The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) launched an investigation into this practice--one that I'm sure any corporation would love to accomplish--almost 3 years ago, and although the SEC hasn't reported any results, the investigation is still active. But if you're hoping for an Enron-style explosion, forget it: Microsoft's accounting practices are almost the polar opposite of Enron's (Microsoft is hiding profits, not losses), and Microsoft is apparently not circumventing any federal (accounting) laws.

Messenger in Bizarre Security Problem
A weird worm that attacks the .NET Messenger service made the rounds this week, with Microsoft and its critics arguing about whether the worm is serious. Critics argue that the worm represents a major security vulnerability because it lets hackers surreptitiously access Messenger users' contacts lists. But Microsoft says it fixed the vulnerability months ago with a security patch and that hackers can only get access to common contact names (e.g., Bob or Alex H) and not email addresses, which would be more of a problem. The worm works through a Web page, so users typically receive an email (with text such as "Hey go to (link) plz" or "Go to (link) NoW !!!") requesting that they visit a site, which then appears to put up an error message. But behind the scenes, JavaScript code sends mail to other users in the person's Messenger contacts list. The worm is interesting for two reasons: It does no actual harm, but it also likely represents the future of worm attacks because instant messages are much quicker than email, currently a more common way to spread worms. Despite assurances from Microsoft, I think we can expect to see a patch for this problem soon.

"Most Secure Product Ever" has Security Flaw
Bad news, Microsoft fans: The first product Microsoft released after undergoing a massive security audit has hit the streets with a major security flaw. The Visual C++ component of Visual Studio .NET contains a vulnerability that appears when programmers use the tool with Microsoft's Web Services toolkit; ironically, this toolkit was supposed to make secure code easier to write. Apparently, the flaw lets applications and services that use the tools be attacked through a buffer overflow, a quite common problem these days. Visual Studio .NET Service Pack 1 (SP1), anyone?

Visual Studio .NET: Seriously, It's Microsoft's "Most Important Product Ever"
Until the next product, that is. Did Bill Gates really have the audacity to call this product Microsoft's "most important product ever?" How many times will this guy call a product the most important ever before we start ignoring him? These comments must be the reason Microsoft doesn't let Gates launch products such as Age of Empires, Works, and Streets & Trips 2002. Can you imagine the frenzy if enterprises believed that Train Simulator would change our lives forever?

Aschroft Under Fire for Microsoft Ties
US Attorney General John Ashcroft is usually so middle-of-the-road that no one ever complains about him. But Ashcroft--who recently had a nude statue in Washington, D.C., covered with a tarp because he thought it was offensive--has come under fire for declining to participate in the Enron investigation, even though he had no problem jumping in feet first with Microsoft's case. It seems that in 2000, Microsoft and Microsoft backers contributed to Ashcroft's Senatorial campaign and various Ashcroft-related political action committees (PACs), which the Ashcroft camp apparently declined to reveal. Microsoft reportedly spent $300,000 in antitrust-related lobbying in the first half of 2001, a relatively small sum when you realize that the company has about 30 gajillion dollars in the bank.

Compaq iPAQ Nipping at Palm's Heels
The handheld PC market-share figures for 2001 are in, and it's getting ugly for Palm. Although the company and its Palm OS-based devices continue to dominate the market, its share continues to fall steadily to Compaq, and its sales continue to slow dramatically. Palm finished 2001 with 38.6 percent of the US market, down from 50.4 percent in 2000; the company shipped 5.1 million units, down from 5.6 million in 2000. Second-place finisher Handspring controls 12.6 percent of the market (up from 12.4 percent in 2000), with sales of 1.6 million units (up from 1.4 million in 2000). But the Compaq iPAQ made huge gains: Compaq sold 1.3 million iPAQs in 2001, a 178 percent gain over the 466,000 units it sold in 2000. And Compaq's share of the market more than doubled from 4.2 percent in 2000 to 9.8 percent in 2001. Hewlett-Packard (HP) came in fourth, with shipments of 711,000 units (up from 442,000 units in 2000); its market share leaped from 1.4 percent to 5.4 percent. Overall, Palm OS controls 57 percent of the worldwide market for handheld PCs; the Pocket PC owns about 21 percent (up from 11 percent in 2000). Handheld-device growth slowed dramatically in 2000 but still grew 18 percent (much less than the 114 percent growth in 2000).

Apple Announces, But Delays, QuickTime 6
Apple has backed the MPEG-4 horse, but that horse just reared up and threw the company to the ground. Earlier this week, Apple was set to release its next-generation QuickTime 6 player, which will work with the newly named (but old, technology-wise) MPEG-4 video format. The problem is that the company was hit with a last-minute technology license fee that was significantly more expensive than Apple had predicted. So Apple had to demo QuickTime 6 at its QuickTime Live event but couldn't give out the otherwise finished product until it worked out licensing terms with MPEG-LA, which owns the largest group of MPEG-related patents. When or if this release will ever happen is unclear: Apple says it has a contingency plan in place in case talks fall apart, but we've been expecting this release for several months, so this situation could get embarrassing. A note for Apple: You should have gone with the highest-quality codecs instead; Microsoft makes 'em.

FTC Sees Immediate Results in Spam Sting
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently launched a campaign to rid the world of spam and is already seeing some results. After sending a warning to more than 2000 spammers warning them that their chain letters were illegal, the commission pounced on seven spammers who were still in business. The wrongdoers have all settled with the FTC and will return money to anyone who was fooled by the get-rich-quick schemes. If the FTC could just catch seven spammers every year, I think the agency will be on top of this problem by about 3015, which is about 3 years after the Earth gets sucked into the imploding Sun.

SNMP Vulnerability Rocks the Internet
And you thought Windows isn't secure. At least Windows can't take down the entire Internet. A Finnish programming group recently found that SNMP--a major networking-device building block that relays status, management, and performance information--contains a massive vulnerability, resulting in potential Denial of Service (DoS) attacks that could bring the Internet to its knees. The group found the vulnerability in SNMP months ago but didn't publicize it so that companies could first find a fix, a practice for which Microsoft is often criticized, incidentally. But news of the problem leaked out, so the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) Coordination Center issued a warning this week.

Apple's SEC Filing Reveals Job Cuts, Store Losses, Falling Margins
Apple can turn on the reality distort field at MacWorld events, but it can't lie to the SEC. In a recent filing, Apple revealed that it took a $24 million hit related to 425 layoffs and cancelled equipment leases; lost $8 million on its retail operations in 2001, with much more to follow in 2002; and experienced sharp sales-margin drops in almost all its product lines, with more drops expected in 2002. In fact, almost half of Apple's sales now come from computer peripherals and software, a further indication that the company is selling only to its installed base. Apple also posted operating losses in both 2001 and 2000, despite heady reports about Steve Jobs turning the company around. Once again, I say that Apple needs to get out the word that it offers compelling digital-media solutions to the wider Windows market. And Apple needs to go after its core markets--consumers, education, and content-creation--like there's no tomorrow. Otherwise, there won't be any tomorrow for the company.

British Telecom: All Your Links Belong to Us
British Telecom (BT) is exercising its ownership of a US patent for the hyperlinking technology that millions of Web sites around the world now use. The ramifications of this action could be disastrous if the company somehow manages to win because it affects so many companies, organizations, and individuals. But the legal challenge is iffy: BT applied for the patent in 1976 and received a patent in 1989. The company then forgot all about the patent until a routine patent update in 2000 unearthed the suddenly lucrative document. The patent's years of inactivity should prevent BT from collecting any prior-use fees, but if BT is serious about collecting fees going forward, the entire Web will probably have to switch to some form of hyperlink replacement. I recommend moving to a 100 percent ActiveX environment. No, not really.

Sensing It's Not Wanted, Microsoft Bails from Sinking UPC Ship
After spending years not delivering interactive TV software to cable giant UPC and seeing UPC move to a rival's software, Microsoft has pulled the plug on its entire UPS investment of 2.3 billion euros. Microsoft and UPC once figured as huge partners in the European cable market, but Microsoft doesn't do very well in markets it can't dominate, and its inability to ship interactive TV software on time is a great example of this problem. UPC awarded the contract to Microsoft competitor Liberate in late 2000 and has deflected Microsoft's overtures ever since.

Video-Game Piracy Made Big Bucks, Too
If you thought the video-game market was huge, consider the market for pirated video games. In 2001, the US video-game market lost $1.9 billion to piracy, or almost one-third of the $6.35 billion the industry made legitimately in the same time period. The Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA), an industry trade group, said this week that it will complain to US trade officials that more than 50 countries worldwide aren't doing enough to halt video-game piracy. Of course, that piracy might occur because $1.9 billion contributes so dramatically to those countries' economies, no?

Dell Continues to Rock 'n' Roll Over Industry
Dell continues to ride over the rest of the computer industry, with profits of $456 million on sales of $8.06 billion in the most recent quarter. Dell says that strong home-PC sales fueled the quarter, with sales in that market increasing 40 percent year-over-year. Dell CEO Michael Dell says he sees a slow and steady recovery coming this year. Of course, he was talking about his company, not the competition. "Oh, they're all going out of business," he said.

New Wireless Security Specification Already Cracked
I'm getting the sneaking suspicion that we'll never be able to reliably secure wireless transmissions. A Maryland professor cracked the security scheme in the next-generation 802.11X wireless specification, leading to doubts that we can ever protect wireless from transmission hijackers. Security experts say that current and future wireless schemes are poorly designed and need to be reengineered from the ground up to be truly secure. The first step, they say, is to use a wire.

Web Browsers: And Then There Were Three
What the heck just happened? Despite the fact that the browser wars have supposedly been over for almost 4 years, some great competition is suddenly going on in this arena. I mentioned Mozilla--now at version 0.98--a few weeks ago, and it remains a strong contender, with fast rendering and excellent email and address-book clients. But this week, I started looking at Opera 6.01 and, my goodness, it has a not-so-subtle charm of its own, with an infinitely configurable UI that's light years beyond the similar but stalled-at-the-gates feature in Mozilla. Either of these browsers would make a fine replacement for Internet Explorer (IE), and if I'm not mistaken, I think I smell a browser-comparison article coming up on the SuperSite for Windows. I haven't seen a market this competitive for so long, I almost forgot what it was like.

Gartner Attacks Microsoft Security
Is "Microsoft Security" an oxymoron? Perhaps, but if Gartner was trying to be controversial with its new report, the company is about 9 months too late. In a study called "Microsoft Must Plan--Not Patch--for Software Security," the research organization says that Microsoft's policy of releasing an infinite number of security patches for its major products is misguided and that the company should instead plan security features in advance. Gartner is right, but that's like saying that the sky is blue. In its efforts to be controversial, Gartner is the modern equivalent of the guy who incites the crowd to storm Frankenstein's castle, and this is exactly the reason I'm so bothered that people listen to what the company has to say. Literally, Gartner has nothing to say.

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