Mac OS X the "safest" computing environment

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 11/02/2004 - 10:53

A London computer security firm has just completed an extensive, year-long study of hundreds of thousands of security breaches against computers running a variety of operating systems, and OS X was found to be the most secure. OS X is a Unix computing environment running the BSD variant.

Surprisingly, Linux was found to be the target of many security attacks, although the Windows platform also recorded very high numbers of breaches.

More on videoconferncing

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 11/02/2004 - 10:28

I wrote yesterday about Apple's excellent and free videoconferencing software. Last night, I saw a Microsoft ad touting the advantages of their LiveMeeting product. It's interesting to look at the two very different approaches to the same market space.

Apple has chosen to build value into the basic operating system by providing the software for free. It's functionality is basic, but it works very well, and the next upgrade will suppposedly support videoconferencing with multiple site (the equivalent of a conference call). However, there is no support for document sharing, which would really enhance the value of the service. There are several third party products for the Macintosh would do provide some document sharing and whiteboard functions.

Microsoft's LiveMeeting is a fee-based service that provides some meeting management tools, document sharing, and the ability to include several sites, but there is no videoconferencing. You apparently have to use traditional telephone conference calls to provide the audio portion of the meeting. I say "apparently" because I could not find that information on the site without watching a thirty minute presentation online.

LiveMeeting is a slick product that offers a lot of useful services, but it's really a broadcast medium--which would be quite useful in many situations. The document sharing and whiteboarding won't scale up (on any platform) beyond a few people. Microsoft seems to be aiming for the corporate market, where you might want to make a company presentation to hundreds of people at once in several locations.

Apple is more focused on relationships. In the Knowledge Economy, who you know is more important than what you know, and the ability to maintain and support face to face meetings is going to be increasingly important. From our current book of the month on social networks:

"This is not so much about pushing more information through a group but about developing relationships that can be rapidly sought out when needed."

The other difference between the two models is that Apple, by making their software part of the operating system (and free) is trying to empower their customers to use it freely for whatever purpose they choose, whenever they choose. Microsoft wants to charge you every time you have a meeting. Admittedly, the products are somewhat different, so you can't make too much of my comparison, but I do think the two companies have a very different philosophy toward their customers.

Google's Gmail already needed a security fix

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 11/02/2004 - 10:24

Google's popular Gmail has already required a security patch that allowed a third party to easily log in and gain full access to one's mail.

I'm amazed at people's willingness to hand over all their private and/or business correspondance to a third party that can do anything it likes with it. Yes, they have a privacy policy, but they also reserve the right to change the privacy policy without your permission.

Gmail, by all accounts, has done a great job with the interface for the software, and in general, email clients desperately need better design in this area. But the risk is just too high. I'm keeping my email on my own machine, under my own control.

ADSL2+ increases the digital divide

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 11/01/2004 - 09:09

A flurry of articles like this are talking about ADSL2+, a new standard for DSL service over old copper phone lines. ADSL2+ is not only too long as an acronym, it offers too little, and ironically increases the digital divide, in my opinion.

In short, the new service will provide increased bandwidth over copper phone lines, but only if you are about one and a half miles from the telephone switch, as opposed to the three miles of the current DSL offering. ADSL2+ also will go further than the old three mile limitation, but only at low data rates--about four times dial up speeds.

So a few subscribers may get DSL service where they could not before, but only at much slower than "normal" DSL. And a few subscribers may get much faster service, but only if they are very close to the telephone central office. And it's important to remember that the distance rule of thumb is not line of sight, but cable feet; not only that, the ability to deliver DSL is highly dependent on the quality of the copper cable. In many rural areas, DSL just does not work on older cable plant, even inside the distance limits.

It's hard to see how this benefits anyone, even the phone company. It further segments their own customer base and prevents them from offering the same set of services to all customers. For example, some ADSL2+ customers might be able to get a single channel of high quality high defintion TV (HDTV), but others will not. How you market that is a mystery to me--"HDTV--it might work in your area, but maybe not!"

The phone companies are still very fixated on market share, rather than on offering good services in a competitive marketplace. So in their minds, anything that continues to allow them to lock customers up over copper is good, even if it's bad. Does that make sense to you? It doesn't to me either, but that's their strategy until they can figure out a way to justify running fiber to neighborhood.

Videophones are ready for business

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 11/01/2004 - 08:58

CNet has an article on the "plunging" prices of videophone systems, heralding a drop to under $500.

These are hybrid phone systems that wed old phone system technology with video, in an attempt to create a bridge between conventional phone systems and Internet-based protocols.

I would not spend any time or money on these systems. There are already much less expensive all-IP based systems. I routinely use an inexpensive but high quality iSight camera with the very good videophone software that Apple provides free on every Macintosh.

For the cost of one station using these hybrid systems, you could buy four iSight cameras and give them to three friends, family, or business colleagues--if you and your associates use Macs.

Right about now, some of you are about to click to some other site, having little patience with Mac users. The larger point is this: what's available now on the Mac will be available on the Wintel platform in a year or so. I'm not trying to argue Macs are better, I'm trying to illustrate that these relatively expensive hybrid videophone systems won't last long in the face of less expensive and easier to use alternatives.

County Administrator: Broadband is necessary

Submitted by acohill on Sun, 10/31/2004 - 09:27

In the Northern Neck of Virginia, broadband is being viewed (appropriately) as a critical economic development issue.

One of the most interesting items in the article is near the end, where an independent ISP that has been reselling DSL via Verizon infrastructure for some time is now in trouble. For a long time, Verizon said there was not enough business in the Northern Neck to justify the investment. So this independent firm sold DSL. Now that the market has been opened by its competitors, Verizon has stepped in and begun selling DSL for less that it charges for wholesale circuits to its competitors.

Verizon has every right to do that, and I don't think communities ought to waste time and effort trying to "get" telcos and cable companies to behave differently. They have to answer to shareholders, not the community.

But the article highlights clearly what communities are facing: a marketplace monopoly (rather than a regulated monopoly) in which the community has only one or two large broadband providers that are able to act in cartel-like behavior, setting prices and services options because of lack of competition. If affordable broadband is an economic development issue (and I think it is), then the community places its economic future in the hands of the big telecom providers unless the community itself makes some investments to level the playing field.

In the last paragraphk, the article quotes the county administrator of Westmoreland County, who worries about investing in the wrong technology. It's a valid concern, but it's not an excuse for doing nothing. And that issue is managed in two ways: communities need to plan for telecommunciations, just like they plan for everything else. Secondly, communities should invest in things that don't become obsolete quickly--telecom duct, fiber, tower sites, antnennas, and colocation facilities. Fear of the unknown (otherwise called ignorance) is putting the economic future of communities at risk. But ignorance is easily correctable--as I've said for nearly a decade--this is an education problem, not a technology problem.

New group forms around fiber to the home

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 10/27/2004 - 07:57

from a mailing list....

GROUP FORMS TO EDUCATE CONSUMERS AS FIBER-LINKED COMMUNITIES PROLIFERATE

With the number of communities linked with fiber-to-the-home rapidly growing, a new coalition has been formed to educate consumers about the benefits of optical access networks. Max R. Kipfer, founder and president of Fiber Optic Communities of the United States (FOCUS), said the group would "unite fiber-optic communities from urban, rural, and suburban settings with the aim of propelling America into the next generation of communication."

During a press briefing in Washington, FOCUS General Counsel Lawrence Freedman said one of the group's missions would be to promote the sharing of information and dissemination of strategies among communities seeking to connect homes and businesses with fiber-optic networks. "All of the best technology will be of no use if there's not the transactional structure and operative environment" that's needed, he said.

The press briefing featured presentations on fiber-optic deployments from representatives of the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA), a government effort to build a fiber-optic network covering 14 towns in Utah; Jackson (Tenn.) Energy Authority, which has built a fiber-optic network; and Brambleton Group LLC, which is installing fiber optics in its development in Loudoun County, Va.

Link Hoewing, assistant vice president at Verizon Communications, Inc., highlighted his company's plans to install fiber to the home in 100 central offices in nine states, passing 1 million homes, by year-end, and to pass 3 million by the end of 2005. Verizon has been expediting its deployment after receiving favorable regulatory decisions on fiber-related issues, he added.

Mike Render, president of Render Vanderslice and Associates, said fiber-to-the-home deployments had "taken off in the last six months," in large part due to Verizon but also due to several new "wired communities." There are now 217 communities in the U.S.

Color iPod displays pictures

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/26/2004 - 13:59

Apple has upped the ante in the portable music player world. With a half dozen other hard drive-based models trying to steal market share from Apple, the world's premiere technology innovation firm has released two new iPods today that will display digital photos on a color screen.

The iPods are available with 40 gig or 60 gig hard drives, and will store up to 25,000 high resolution color photos or up to 15,000 songs, or a combination of both. Apple has neatly solved the problem of what to do with all those photos being taken with digital cameras.

Storing your photos on your iPod as well as your desktop computer is good from another angle--it provides you with backups of your irreplaceable baby pictures. You do make backups of all your important files, don't you?

Apple has taken the iPod one step further and provided a TV-out connector so that you display slideshows on a television or LCD projector. All this comes with the original functionality of the iPod, including text note storage and viewing, games, calendar, and address book, and all in a package the size of a deck of cards. All iPods work on both Windows and Macintoshes, including the new color iPods.

Supercomputers as economic development infrastructure

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/26/2004 - 09:27

About this time last year, Virginia Tech, right here in rural Appalachia, made world news with a dirt cheap supercomputer that ranked number 3 in the world in terms of speed and processing power.

The university did some thinking out of the box and discarded the conventional approach to building supercomputers (typically using a lot of custom hardware). Instead they bought 1100 off the shelf Macintoshes, wired them together with more off the shelf hardware, and wrote a small amount of software to turn the Macs into a monster supercomputer.

Since then, the university has swapped out all the older G4 processor-based machines for much smaller Macintosh Xserve industrial servers based on the much more powerful G5 processor. The floor space needed for the machine shrunk, the heat output was reduced, and speed was increased by 19%.

I remain convinced that a regional supercomputer facility should be regarded as essential economic development infrastructure. Microenterprise businesses and other small businesses increasingly need access to supercomputing facilities, and this is no different that sewer and water was forty years ago.

The good news is that putting a supercomputer together is pretty easy. Apple will build you a turnkey G5 cluster so you don't need a research university. And for a rural community seeking an edge in the global economy, I can't think of a better calling card. A modest supercomputer facility would not cost as much as a shell building, and would be a perfect complement to a business incubator.

We've found the killer app

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 10/25/2004 - 07:58

All through the nineties, and especially during the dot-com silliness, hundreds if not thousands of companies talked about the "killer app." Usually those who claimed they had it were making some thinly veiled sales pitch for some proprietary piece of software that they believed would make them kings of the world.

I argued, at the time, that the killer app was email, and I still think I was right. Email is one of two things that virtually everyone does online. The other is search, and of course, the founders of Google, if not kings of the world, are now insanely rich.

But Google was never designed to be the killer app; no one was sure where search tools were going to go; they just happened. Alta Vista, the first search tool that tried to index the Web, was really started in large part to show off the power of DEC's processors, which weren't doing well in the marketplace. Alta Vista's early lead was squandered and DEC was bought out by Compaq, which killed the once powerful company, and Compaq was bought by HP. Ho hum.

Broadband connectivity has largely escaped the killer app disease, but in an odd kind of way. The broadband giants (i.e. telcos and cable companies) have pretty much failed to recognize that broadband is not that interesting unless you can do something with it. The big connectivity companies of the dot-com era (e.g. Global Crossing, UUNet, etc.) all collapsed because they utterly ignored the very sensible question, "What will people do with the bandwidth?" Consolidation in the cable business has been driven in large part by the enormous debt wracked up by cable companies trying to get broadband marketshare in advance of having even the slightest idea what people would do with it.

The killer app for broadband is going to be Voice over IP, or in simpler terms, telephone calls. We're already at a point where you can pretty much buy WORLDWIDE flat rate calling for under $40/month. Free point to point telephony software drives that cost down to zero.

We ought to stop calling the phone companies, well, phone companies. They aren't anymore, whether they like it or not. They have no choice but to become broadband companies, and just one of numerous services they offer happens to be dialtone.

In his remarks to the Voice on the Net conference in Boston on October 19th, FCC Chairman Michael Powell has called VoIP a "revolution." Powell went on to call for "bare DSL" access, meaning you can buy DSL service without being forced to buy bundled telephone service.

He went on to say something even more remarkable by outlining what he calls the Internet Consumer Freedoms:

  1. Freedom to Access Content: Consumers should have access to their choice of legal content;
  2. Freedom to Use Applications: Consumers should be able to run applications of their choice;
  3. Freedom to Attach Personal Devices: Consumers should be permitted to attach any devices they choose to the connection in their homes; and
  4. Freedom to Obtain Service Plan Information: Consumers should receive meaningful information regarding their service plans.

The Consumer Freedoms that Powell outlines are breathtakingly simple yet incredibly important. They underscore the need for communities and organizations to have a competitive marketplace for broadband services--monopoly providers have no incentive to meet Powell's requirements.

It is exciting that Powell has laid this out so plainly. What's going on? Well, another part of his remarks calls for exclusive Federal regulation of Voice over IP. If the alternative is a mish mash of fifty different sets of state rules that are likely heavily influenced by corporate contributions, that may be the right direction, as long as Federal regulation is as light as possible. It appears Powell understands this.

download Michael Powell VoIP remarks).
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Insourcing: Is your community ready?

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 10/22/2004 - 14:29

Outsourcing of U.S. jobs to other countries, depending upon who you believe, is wrecking the country or no big deal. Based on data developed by business experts like Peter Drucker, who says three U.S. jobs are created for everyone that is outsourced, I'm inclined to believe that it is not a major concern as a national issue.

As a local issue, if your area has been losing jobs, it's certainly a big deal, hence the confusion about outsourcing--it is a matter of geography. Nationally, we are creating jobs. But in some localities, real jobs are being lost and workers and their families affected materially.

The real question is what to do about it. Hence, insourcing. Insourcing is looking through the other end of the telescope. Instead of bemoaning the loss of jobs, take a look at insourcing, or the jobs and companies that are coming to the United States. If Drucker is right that 3 jobs are being created for every job that leaves, then the real opportunity is to figure out to be attractive to those international companies coming to the United States.

This site is a gem, and worth bookmarking. The Organization for International Investment has compiled state by state statistics on insourcing. In Virginia for example, I found that there are 146,000 insourced jobs, which is a 25% increase over the past five years. In Illinois, 268,400 jobs that represent a 39% increase. In New Hampshire, it's a stunning 38,400 workers with a 43% increase over five years. Insourced jobs provide more than 7% of all jobs in New Hampshire, and the state ranks 4th in the country in terms of per capita insourced jobs.

How do you get insourced jobs? You can bet that those international companies are relying heavily on the Web to do their research. Your community, government, and economic development Web sites need to be attractive, vibrant, well-designed, and professional. They need to tell a good story. One suggestion: create "Welcome" pages in some of the dominant languages of trade (Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and Chinese) would be a good start. It's not expensive, and it will project that your community embraces the global economy.

BPL: Electric company says no to being ISP

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 10/22/2004 - 13:04

Here is an interesting article in the New York Times (registration required) about an experiment by Con Ed, the big New York City area electric provider, with Broadband Over Powerlines (BPL).

The BPL trial is not particularly noteworthy. I'll bet most of the electric utilities in the country have bought some equipment and are playing around with it. No, what's worth mentioning is that Con Ed has said, "Our aim is definitely not to become an Internet service provider."

Yes! That's exactly right. Con Ed has partnered with EarthLink, which will be the ISP. Con Ed is simply going to provide the transport layer, and the electric company is going to do what it does best, which is to go around and bury cable. They are doing what they know how to do, and will make a buck leasing their transport system (the electric lines) to someone else, who knows the Internet access business. Even better, Earthlink has not been trying to capture the content side of the broadband business, which the cable and telephone companies would like to do. Aside from a modest portal site, EarthLink is also sticking to the knitting.

If BPL becomes a force in the marketplace (and the jury is still out on the economics of that because of the amount of equipment needed to retrofit an electric service area), it will most likely succeed if the electric utilities do what Con Ed is doing--provide the transport layer and partner with others on access and service.

And thre is a lesson there for communities that want to jumpstart broadband--provide the transport layer and let the private sector deliver the access and services. Pay for the community investment by being the "carrier's carrier" and have just a few bulk customers (the access and service providers). It's a nice, clean business model that does not compete with the private sector and does not re-monopolize the marketplace (by creating a new public monopoly for broadband).

The Smart-Aleck House, Version 3.0

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 10/22/2004 - 07:10

It got chilly all of a sudden; someone was pulling the covers off the bed. I sat up groggily and looked around. My wife was still sound asleep on the other side of the bed; it was not likely that she would notice anyway, since she tends to sleep with the covers half off in the first place. It was the whirring noise that finally caught my attention; Marvin, the robo-butler, was down at the bottom of the bed, slowly and methodically dragging the comforter off. He seemed to be getting a bit confused, because the covers had flopped over top of him, covering his optical sensors.

I yanked them away from him and tried to go back to sleep, but even more commotion started up downstairs. It sounded like every appliance in the house had come on, all at once. Imagine, if you will, the coffee grinder, the disposal, the dishwasher, the vacuum cleaner, the dryer, and the washing machine, all going at once. I was waking up now, and threw my legs over the side of the bed, stepped into my slippers and housecoat, and headed downstairs. Marvin trailed behind me, muttering under his breath, his little wheel motors whining. I looked longingly at my wife, who was still sound asleep.

After I shut everything off, and got the baby out of her crib (she thought it was hilarious to have the vacuum cleaner driving in circles on her rug at 6:30 in the morning), I poured a cup of java from the Coff-o-Mat and sat down for a little chat with Harry, the house computer.

"Harry, what the heck is going on?"

"Well, Dave, you wouldn't get up this morning when I tried to wake you."

"Harry, it's Saturday morning and we were out late last night. You knew that, because you made me review the chore list at half past twelve."

"I guess I just forgot, Dave. It won't happen again."

"Alright, I'll forget about it. Now what's for breakfast?"

"Well, Dave, how about two scrambled eggs and a piece of whole wheat toast?"

"Sounds good."

"Coming right up, Dave."

I harrumphed, then started to get up to go look for the paper.

Will smart homes really be smart?

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 10/22/2004 - 06:59

Here's an interesting note about an industry drive to make our homes "smart."

I wrote an article fifteen years ago about this, which I've posted in a separate item. The IT industry is drving the smart home phenomenon in part because it's "cool," and in part because it will increase profits. A very small part of smart home stuff will actually make things more convenient, but I remain skeptical.

If you buy into the smart home concept, it means replacing virtually every powered device in your home--coffe makers, washers, driers, refrigerators, stereos, and so on. A lot of money. And for what? So you can turn on your coffee maker by sending a Bluetooth signal from your Palm Pilot while you are still in bed? And then worry constantly you are going to turn the coffeemaker on by accident and burn the house down. No thanks.

I've had some ABus equipment for several years, but have never quite gotten around to installing it, because of the complexity of designing and installing the wiring and room controls. ABus is an industry standard for being able to distribute music from a single source to a bunch of different rooms in the house. You can control the volume in each room separately, and can even use your remote controls to change radio channels or switch to a different CD if you have a multi-CD player.

But it always seems like an enormous effort to get it all working, compared to just sticking one of the now very small stereos on a shelf in the room and forgetting about it.

FCC may regulate VoIP

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 10/20/2004 - 06:22

This story says the FCC is interested in regulating VoIP [link no longer available].

FCC Chairman Powell has a point--if the Feds do nothing, some states will certainly step in and try to control the new service and/or try to tax it, leading to only one possible outcome--a mess. The states can't possibly regulate VoIP, because it's not a place-based service. Companies like Vonage and AT&T don't have to any equipment located anywhere in a state to sell VoIP service to residents, and so the notion that a state should be trying to control an out of state company is silly. Nonetheless, some states will try.

According the article, Powell is a big fan of VoIP, and wants to see it succeed. Good. If the FCC uses a light hand here and keeps the states out of it, that's entirely appropriate.

Broadband Over Powerlines (BPL) gets the green light

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/19/2004 - 12:56

BPL has the green light from the FCC. The NewsFactor has an article that goes into more detail. I have to agree with the conclusions the author makes--BPL is not likely to be a major factor for rural communities. Like DSL and cable modems, you have to have a critical mass of customers to justify the expense of the equipment. And it is not significantly less expensive to install than DSL or cable, so it won't have a big price advantage.

It may make a difference in some communities, but communities will have to continue to do the hard work of market creation through content and service offerings via a community network project, and ongoing training and education programs.

Like DSL and cable, BPL is another technology that potentially lets a single public or private company capture the entire broadband marketplace (unless the community makes some transport layer infrastructure investments to level the playing field). Once a single company has captured the marketplace, the community's economic future is now at the mercy of that company. Is that what you want?

Voting machines problems--already

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/19/2004 - 07:53

As many had predicted (including me), the electronic voting systems are likely to be troublesome, if not downright threats to our country itself.

It is almost unbelievable, but some electronic voting systems in Florida failed within the first hours of use. So much for vendor claims of reliability.

Even more alarming, some of the systems apparently require telecom links back to another system in another location. The article referenced above describes how poll workers had to call on the telephone to verify voter registration, because the data link went down.

How on earth could elected officials agree to buy voting systems that rely on remote systems and datalinks? Anyone that has ever suffered at the hands of dropped modem connections knows these things don't always work. And any network technician can tell you that temporary hookups, like those that would be required for one day (or in Florida's case, two weeks) of voting, would be even more likely to fail.

I've got my fingers crossed that we get through this election without the contentious vote-counting issues of four years ago, but I don't have a good feeling about this. This time, I hope I'm wrong.

New hydrogen storage system

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 10/15/2004 - 12:41

British researchers report that they have developed a new nanomaterial that stores hydrogen at low pressure. Hydrogen storage has been a primary obstacle to the development of a practical hydrogen-powered vehicle. To get enough fuel in a tank that will take a car a reasonable distance, until now, very high pressures were required.

The new nanomaterial absorbs hydrogen at high pressure but then stores the same amount of fuel at a lower pressure.

RTC Conference wrap up

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 10/15/2004 - 08:51

I'm back from the Rural Telecommunications Congress Annual Conference in Spokane. It's the oldest and one of the only conferences focused on rural issues related to telecommunications and broadband.

There was a definite shift in energy, conversations, and presentations at the meeting. In past years, much of the discussions have focused on the "why" and the "if" of rural community investments in technology. This year, the conversation has shifted to "how." And it was not just me. Everyone I talked to agreed that the time of talking about doing something "in the future" is past. It's clear that limited funds are going to be available from state and Federal sources, so communities have to dig in, roll up their sleeves, and get going.

Vendor booths were crowded, and the vendors I talked to were pleased with the response they were getting to their products. One of the most exciting product lines I've seen in years is from PacketFront, a network equipment vendor that is designing their equipment specifically for use in open access networks. Network leader Cisco, by comparison, does not have an equivalent set of products.

Presentations were information-rich, with communities coming online and now being able to report their experiences in detail, rather than having to talk about future plans. All in all, it was a terrific meeting, and I can't wait for next year. As it has been for the past several years, this is my number one, must attend conference.

iPod still very popular

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 10/13/2004 - 11:14

Despite the availability of several "iPod killer" products from companies like Dell and Sony, the latest marketing data shows the Apple iPod has captured 92% of the portable MP3 music players with hard drives, and 65% of the overall portable player market.

What the iPod has that the other products don't is superb cross-platform music management/player software (iTunes is available for Windows and the Mac) and superb integration with the iTunes Music Store.

What is encouraging about the popularity of the iPod is that we sem to be moving beyond buying technology purely on price. The success of the iPod shows that consumers are very discriminating, and are want products that are designed well and are easy to use. The iPod delivers both.

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