IBM not ready to say Oracle's Linux compatible

BOSTON (Reuters) - IBM (NYSE:IBM - news) is not ready to guarantee that its computer programs are compatible with Oracle Corp.'s (Nasdaq:ORCL - news) recently launched version of the Linux operating system, an IBM spokesman said on Friday.

This means that if IBM software programs turn out to be incompatible with Oracle Enterprise Linux, then it will be up to Oracle -- and not IBM -- to resolve the issue, said IBM spokesman Matthew McMahon.

Oracle, which started selling Linux in October, has said its product is identical to one from Red Hat Inc. (NYSE:RHT - news), the No. 1 vendor of the popular open-source operating system, and will seamlessly run software written for the Red Hat system.

But financial and industry analysts have said that software buyers want outside assurances to back up that claim before they will switch to Oracle.

IBM may one day support Oracle Linux. "We are going to wait and see if there is traction in the marketplace," McMahon said. "If clients want it (Oracle), then we will support it."

IBM guarantees its products will work with Red Hat's version of Linux.

"What Red Hat is selling to the customer is peace of mind. Oracle cannot do that because it is unable to certify comparability," said Trip Chowdhry, an analyst with Global Equities Research.

Red Hat provides such a guarantee in the form of certifications from the makers of some 2,755 business software packages, which say that their products are completely compatible with Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

Oracle spokeswoman Deborah Hellinger declined to say if any software makers have certified that their products are compatible with Oracle Enterprise Linux.

She wouldn't say how Oracle would respond if its Linux customers were to have problems using other software programs on the operating system.

Linux is an operating system, or the basic group of software programs that run any computer. Other software that is loaded onto that computer must be compatible with that operating system for it to work properly.

Analysts say the compatibility certifications from other software makers rank among Red Hat's key selling points.

The certifications from IBM are important because it sells widely used programs that companies use to run large computer networks. Those titles include the DB2 database, Tivoli software for managing computer networks and Websphere middleware.

Oracle has declined to say how many customers have purchased its new Linux product since its launch in October, and it has yet to announce any customer wins.

Red Hat said it added more than 12,000 customers in its third fiscal quarter, but it does not disclose its total number of customers.

Labels: ,

Microsoft ordered to pay $1.5B to Alcatel

SAN FRANCISCO - A federal jury Thursday ruled Microsoft (MSFT) must pay $1.5 billion in patent-infringement damages to telecom equipment maker Alcatel-Lucent in what patent attorneys call one of the biggest judgments ever.

Microsoft says the patents involve converting audio into digital MP3 files on PCs. It plans to appeal.

The news came before markets closed. Shares of Microsoft closed 4 cents higher at $29.39 on Thursday. Alcatel-Lucent's U.S. shares were up 7 cents to $13.14.

"This verdict is completely unsupported by the law or facts," Tom Burt, Microsoft's deputy general counsel, said in a phone interview.

In 2002 and 2003, Lucent, which was acquired by Alcatel last year, filed 15 patent claims against computer makers Gateway (GTW) and Dell (DELL). Microsoft sued Lucent over the claims and was countersued by Lucent. A judge has tossed out two of Lucent's claims and set six trials to consider the remaining patent disputes.

Microsoft says it properly licensed the MP3 technology from Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, a German research company, for $16 million, in 1997 and 2004.

"We are concerned that this decision opens the door for Alcatel-Lucent to pursue action against hundreds of other companies who purchased the rights to use MP3 technology from Fraunhofer, the industry-recognized rightful licensor," Burt said in an earlier statement.

"We made strong arguments supporting our view, and we are pleased with the court's decision," said Alcatel-Lucent spokeswoman Joan Campion. She declined to discuss details of the decision.

The software giant, meanwhile, says damages were determined by multiplying Windows sales and average PC sales prices worldwide since May 2003.

The same federal court in San Diego will consider the next of the patent lawsuits, this time covering speech coding, in March and April, Microsoft said. Also at issue is video coding on both Microsoft's Xbox video game console and the Windows interface.

"This case could bode ill for the other five patent cases still in the pipeline," says Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

While the verdict is a public-relations blow to Microsoft, it isn't necessarily a financial one, patent attorneys and software analysts say.

Large jury verdicts on patent-infringement cases are typically appealed, and damages can be reduced significantly or reversed, says Jeff Berkowitz, a software-patent attorney.

"This thing is far from over," says analyst Matt Rosoff of Directions on Microsoft. He notes Microsoft successfully appealed a $521 million patent-infringement award in 2003 for Eolas Technologies, which developed a Web-browser patent. The case is still in court.


Cisco, Apple settle over right to iPhone name

SAN JOSE, California - Cisco Systems Inc. and Apple Inc. said Wednesday they have settled the trademark-infringement lawsuit that threatened to derail Apple’s use of the “iPhone” name for its much-hyped new iPod-cellular phone gadget.

The companies said Apple will be allowed to use the name for its sleek new multimedia device in exchange for exploring wide-ranging “interoperability” between the companies’ products in the areas of security, consumer and business communications.

No other details of the agreement were released, and representatives from both companies declined to comment beyond their short joint statement.

The companies both said they would dismiss any pending legal actions regarding the trademark.

The showdown between the Silicon Valley tech heavyweights erupted last month when Cisco sued Apple in San Francisco federal court claiming that Apple’s use of the iPhone name constituted a “willful and malicious” violation of a trademark that Cisco has owned since 2000.

Cisco’s Linksys division has been using the trademark since last spring on a line of phones that make free long-distance calls over the Internet using a technology called Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP.

The lawsuit was filed a day after Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs unveiled his own company’s iPhone, a multimedia device that operates over the cellular network instead of the Internet.

Apple initially called the lawsuit “silly” and argued that it was entitled to use the name because the phones operate over different networks and would not compete with each other.

Cisco maintained that in an era of “convergence” — where increasingly intelligent networks and devices can handle a variety of different types of voice, video, data and other transmissions — the two companies’ phones could eventually take on different features and wind up competing head-to-head.

The result would be “confusion, mistake and deception among consumers,” according to the lawsuit.

Negotiations between the companies broke down just hours before Jobs’ dramatic unveiling of the product Jan. 9 in San Francisco.

The sticking point apparently was Cisco’s demand that in order to use the iPhone name, Apple would have to open up its famously closed products to communicate with some of Cisco’s offerings.

Neither company would discuss what future products might come from the collaboration. But analysts said the deal could help both companies strengthen their positions in the increasingly fierce battle to deliver video and other applications through the network directly to consumers’ homes.

Zeus Kerravala, a network infrastructure analyst with Yankee Group, said there are ample opportunities for the companies to dream up collaborative projects to win over consumers.

One possibility, he said, could be the creation of a Linksys device that users call into to record podcasts that are then automatically uploaded to iTunes, which would make the creation and dissemination of such programs easier.

However, he cautioned that both companies need to be willing to share in order to make the partnership work.

“If the two actually can work together, then the combination of the two is obviously more powerful than the two butting heads,” he said. “There’s no company out there that understands network service like Cisco. And you could argue no other company understands user experience like Apple.”

The dispute highlights the shifting business strategies for both companies.

Cisco, which is Silicon Valley’s most richly valued company with a market capitalization of $166 billion, makes most of its money by selling the routers and switches that direct data traffic over computer networks.

However, the San Jose-based company is also making an aggressive push into the consumer market and toward products that help deliver content, such as cable set-top boxes, wireless broadband routers for the home, and equipment for playing digital music.

Cupertino-based Apple is also expanding its business range from beyond primarily a Macintosh computer and software maker as it capitalizes on the demand for digital music and the soaring popularity of its iTunes and iPod products.

Legal experts said Cisco’s argument that the phones could eventually compete seemed like an unlikely scenario. They added that the products and markets they serve are currently so dissimilar there’s little likelihood of future trademark tangles.

“Although Cisco is making the point that we don’t know what the future brings, it just strikes me that their markets are plenty distinct, and there’s probably room for them to find peaceful cooperation,” said James Pooley, an intellectual property litigator and adjunct law professor at the University of California at Berkeley. “They’re not naturally going to be stepping on each other’s toes very much, so cooperation makes a whole lot of sense.”


Virtual worlds offer real-world healing

SAN FRANCISCO - Do virtual-reality worlds such as Second Life have healing powers?

We're not just talking about video-game "hit points" here — but about real-life maladies ranging from cerebral palsy to post-traumatic stress.

The evidence is still tentative, but experts on virtual worlds as well as health care say they see a lot of promise in virtual worlds as a forum for addressing real-world woes in a kinder, gentler environment.

Researchers explored the therapeutic value of virtual worlds during sessions last weekend at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting in San Francisco.

In computer-generated worlds such as Second Life, each user is represented by an "avatar" figure who may or may not resemble the user's real-world persona. That avatar can interact with others in the virtual space — and even buy and sell items, building up a store of possessions that exist only in that space.

Thomas Malaby, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, said Second Life isn't a video game in the strict sense of the word, since the experience isn't necessarily aimed at producing winners and losers. But Second Life does provide an environment where users can achieve success or failure, just like real life, he said.

"What we're really noticing in places like Second Life is the legacy of games, what games can contribute to creativity, and to open-ended thinking, where learning can take place, where therapy can take place," said Thomas Malaby, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

Virtual Iraq

Albert "Skip" Rizzo, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies, has researched the use of virtual reality as a therapeutic distraction for children undergoing chemotherapy, and to add a gamelike thrill to the often-boring routines for motor rehabilitation.

Lately, he's been focusing on post-traumatic stress disorders among combat veterans returning from the war in Iraq.

Rizzo adapted a video game called Full Spectrum Warrior to create a "virtual Iraq" — an environment that lets veterans relive and talk through the stresses they went through in real life. The patients wear virtual-reality goggles with a video-game view of a desert or urban environment — and there's even lab equipment to duplicate the smells or vibrations that would be experienced during a Humvee ride.

The principle is basically the same as that used to counter a fear of heights or a fear of flying, Rizzo told reporters. The patients are guided through scenarios that start out with the least threatening elements of their experience — say, standing beside their Humvee on a desert road. As they progress, they become less anxious about reliving the experience, and eventually work their way up to more stressful events such as roadside bombings or sniper attacks.

Although Rizzo's studies so far are based on only a handful of patients, followed over three- or six-month periods, he said some veterans have shown "clinically significant declines" in the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as nightmares, jumpiness vigilance or a tendency to avoid talking about their experiences.

"Those are just the cold, clinical descriptions," he said. "This translates into being able to leave your house, being able to go to work, being able to carry on a relationship with your wife or loved one."

Going forward, Rizzo said a virtual world like Second Life probably wouldn't be suitable for the kind of focused therapy provided in the clinic, but could play an important support role: "I could see there being a 'virtual barracks' — and there probably is one in Second Life," he said. Such a gathering place could provide an outlet for veterans who suspect they may be facing a tough time ahead, he said.

Virtual support

More than once, virtual worlds have provided a safe haven for those dealing with real-world problems, said John Lester, community and education manager at San Francisco-based Linden Lab, the company that created Second Life.

"Some of the interesting things that we're seeing in Second Life mirror what you see happening on the Web," he said. "You see people with cerebral palsy or stroke survivors who are doing the physical mobility thing. In virtual environments like Second Life, they're free from the physical limitations they're dealing with."

That sense of freedom from the physical world is almost as old as the World Wide Web itself. After all, on the Internet, no one knows you're a dog — or a patient with a disability. But Lester said the fact that users create online avatars that walk, talk and interact adds a dimension to the experience.

"The special thing about Second Life and virtual spaces in the world in general is that you have a great deal of emotional bandwidth — much more than just text on a screen," he said. "You have a sense of place, you have a sense of identity."

Labels: ,

Japan launches its 4th spy satellite

TOKYO - Japan launched its fourth spy satellite Saturday, completing its capabilities to monitor activities worldwide and bolstering its ability to observe neighboring north Korea's nuclear program.

The satellite, along with a smaller test prototype, was launched from the country's space center on a remote southern Japan island atop an H-2A rocket, the workhorse of Japan's space program.

Japanese space agency spokesman Satoki Kurokawa described the liftoff — which had been postponed three times due to poor weather — as a success. Television footage showed the rocket racing up through cloudy skies.

The launch of the radar satellite enhances a multibillion dollar, decade-old plan for Japan to have round-the-clock surveillance of the secretive North and other areas Japan wants to peer in on.

But weaknesses in the satellites' capabilities have led to criticism that the program is a waste of money and, with better data available on the commercial market, that Japan will continue to be dependent on Washington for its core intelligence.

The launch also comes just a month after China demonstrated its ability to shoot satellites out of orbit with ground-based missiles. Japan and other countries, including the United States, have strongly protested Beijing's anti-satellite test.

China has defended the test as peaceful, and said it presents no country with a threat.

Japanese space officials say the satellites provide an important means for the country to independently collect intelligence, and say improvements in the satellites' capabilities are in the works.

The prototype launched Friday, for example, features higher-resolution optics that can be used in the future to improve the quality of the satellites' photographs from orbit.

Japan launched its first pair of spy satellites into orbit in March 2003. The program grew out of concern following North Korea's launch of a ballistic missile over Japan's main island in 1998.

The government's original plan was to put a total of eight intelligence-gathering satellites into orbit through 2006. However, it suffered a major setback in November 2003, when a rocket carrying the second set of spy satellites malfunctioned and was destroyed in mid-flight.

Officials say they are back on course now.

"Our crisis management has improved substantially," said Yasuhiro Itakura of the Cabinet office in charge of the program.

Though Japan's intelligence-gathering satellites are not under military control, Japan's ruling party proposed late last year that the military be allowed to use the country's space program. The proposal still needs to be approved by Parliament.

Since 1969, Japan's space program has been limited by a parliamentary resolution committed to peaceful uses. The new proposal would restrict military use of the program to self-defense, officials say.


Bill Gates keeps close eye on kids' computer time

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Just because you're the daughter of Bill Gates does not mean you get to play on your computer all day long. The Microsoft (Nasdaq:MSFT - news) founder said his 10-year-old daughter, his oldest child, was not a hard-core Internet and computer user
until this year, when she started at a school where the students use tablet computers for almost everything.

"She became very avid and discovered a lot of computer games, including one that runs on the Xbox 360 called Viva Pinata, where you take care of your garden," he told a business audience in Ottawa.

"She could spend two or three hours a day on this Viva Pinata, because it's kind of engaging and fun."

Gates said he and his wife Melinda decided to set a limit of 45 minutes a day of total screen time for games and an hour a day on weekends, plus what time she needs for homework.

Microsoft's new Vista software enables parents to control the Web sites their kids go to but also includes an audit log that records sites they have visited and whom they've been Instant Messaging.

"Up to some age, to be determined, it's very appropriate for a parent to get a sense of what they're seeing out there and be able to have conversations about it," he said.

"My son said, 'Am I going to have limits like this my whole life?', and I said, 'No, when you move away you can set your own screen limits'," Gates recounted, to audience laughter.


First woman honored with Turing Award

One of the most prestigious prizes in computing, the $100,000 Turing Award, went to a woman Wednesday for the first time in the award's 40-year history.

Frances E. Allen, 75, was honored for her work at IBM Corp. on techniques for optimizing the performance of compilers, the programs that translate one computer language into another. This process is required to turn programming code into the binary zeros and ones actually read by a computer's colossal array of minuscule switches.

Allen joined IBM in 1957 after completing a master's degree in mathematics at the University of Michigan. At the time, IBM recruited women by circulating a brochure on campuses that was titled "My Fair Ladies."

When Allen joined Big Blue, an IBM team led by John Backus had just completed Fortran, one of the first high-level programming languages.

The point of Fortran was to develop a system that could operate a computer just as efficiently as previous "hand-coded" approaches directly assembled by programmers. Allen recalled Wednesday that her task at IBM was to replicate the achievement on multiple kinds of computers.

"I had the good fortune to work on one big project on good machines after another," she said.

Her work led her into varied assignments, including writing intelligence analysis software for the National Security Agency. More recently she helped design software for IBM's Blue Gene supercomputer.

She retired in 2002 but has stayed active in programs that encourage girls and women to study computer science.

"It's a very tough problem overall," she said. "Constant attention to it is important."

Since the Turing Award was first given in 1966 by the Association for Computing Machinery, previous winners have included luminaries in encryption, artificial intelligence, hypertext, networking and other vital elements of modern computing. All were men, including Backus, the 1977 winner.

Allen called it "high time for a woman," though she quickly added: "That's not why I got it."



Robots could soon be calling the shots

SAN FRANCISCO - Someday you could be taking orders from a robot ... but in a nice way. For example, imagine a body suit with sensors that can guide you through a golf swing like Tiger Woods'. Or a robo-birdwatcher that can tell you where to look for that rare ivory-billed woodpecker. Or an android gardener that can show you where to plant your seeds.

Those are just some of the examples of robot-human interaction sketched out by experts in the field — examples that may well become reality in the next 10 years.

The next big trends in human-robot interaction were among the topics covered here last weekend during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, featuring such pioneers as Cynthia Breazeal from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Breazeal has worked with Hollywood types for years to create friendlier, more socially aware robots, and one of her projects involves the development of therapeutic robo-toys that could improve a patient's outlook. But she told that the robots of the next decade may not always match the stereotypes of robotic people (think C-3PO from "Star Wars") or animals (such as the cuddly Teddy from "A.I.").

"The technology is becoming virtually ubiquitous," she said. "Before, when the first computers came out, there were rooms and rooms of computers. ... Now, they're [embedded] in the doorknobs. Robotics is going to be the same way. You're already seeing robotics integrated into your car today."

Robotic coaches and companions

The voice-enabled, GPS-based navigational systems in cars are arguably one type of robot. Another type could be built right into your clothing. Breazeal is already working on the concept of a sensor-equipped suit that would enable a robot to read your mood based on whether you're slouching or sitting up straight. She said the concept could also be applied to sports instruction — say, for tennis or golf. The robo-suit could read how your arms move through a swing, and even give you slight nudges to improve your form, she said.

That's not to say robots will take control of your life. Rather, they're more likely to serve as artificially intelligent advice-givers, assistants or companions, Breazeal said. As baby boomers become older, they'll still want to lead active lives — but they may well welcome a little robotic help to do it.

"If i want to cook a meal, and I can't do it by myself but I could do it with a robot ... if I want to garden but I have a hard time getting down and the robot can help me do that ... that's where I would find value, as opposed to just saying, 'Go do my gardening' or 'Go cook my meal,'" Breazeal said. "As we design technology, we have to respect the human life cycle."

Robots on the watch

Robots would also make good sentinels: Ken Goldberg of the University of California at Berkeley described his robotic camera system, ACONE, which has been set up in the remote Arkansas woods to look for signs of the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker. ACONE sifts through a stream of video imagery, hanging onto the pictures that appear to show birds in flight. After three months of continuous operation, the system has identified birds such as red-tailed hawks and blue herons, Goldberg said.

"The next level is to determine what is a woodpecker as opposed to another bird," he said.

The video-sorting system could be used for other applications as well, ranging from traffic monitoring to border patrol. "The other thing we can look for is UFOs," Goldberg added.

Robotic sentinels may be watching closer to home as well. Even now, a rudimentary form of nanny-bot is on the market, capable of keeping an eye on the human nannies who are supposed to be watching the kids, said David Calkins of the Robotics Society of America.

"They've already been proven effective in terms of [seeing] nannies who are shaking babies or nannies leaving the house," he said. "In the future, I think that will be taken many steps farther. Instead of just checking in on the nanny, the robot can become the nanny. The robot can actually watch the children — to make sure the children don't leave the house, or that there are no fires, things like that."

Robots on the march?

The anticipated rise of the robots in everyday life already has sparked worries that automatons could someday become overlords rather than underlings. Prominent futurist Ray Kurzweil projects that computers will match the capability of the human brain by the year 2029, leading to a socio-technological "singularity" that cannot be anticipated.

The fears have fueled literature ranging from the seminal essay "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us" to the tongue-in-cheek guide "How to Survive a Robot Uprising."

Breazeal said progress would likely come more slowly than anticipated. "There are a lot of hard problems that all have to come together," she said.

But Calkins predicted it was just a matter of time before the various technologies that go into robots — including humanlike mobility, artificial vision and machine intelligence — were combined in new breeds of robots.

"I think that singularity is inevitable," he said.

Alan Boyle


Skeletons in flight: 3-D video chronicles birds

Scientists are filming alligators as they trot along treadmills and pigeons on the fly in wind tunnels. But rather than a view of flesh and muscles, a new 3-D video technique peeks beneath the skin to show skeletons on the move.

“This will be like having X-ray vision — you'll be able to see through skin and muscle and watch a skeleton move in 3-D," said lead scientist Elizabeth Brainerd of Brown University. “Imagine animated X-ray movies of flying bats or flexing knees."

The final movie-maker is still in the design phase, but scaled-down versions of it are already proving a success.

Two Brown University scientists, Stephen Gatesy and David Baier, are using this approach to understand how the biomechanics of flight evolved. To trace flight back in time, Baier has made skeletal movies of alligators — the closest living relatives of birds — as they walked along a moving treadmill.

Then at Harvard University, Baier and his colleagues had to familiarize the crocodilians with their new exercise platforms for about two weeks. Some treadmill trekkers were more cooperative than others, the researchers found.

“Some of them really took to it, and others just didn’t want to walk," Baier told LiveScience. "They would just lie down until you stopped the treadmill. Some would try to jump and turn around and go the other way.”

In a recent study, Baier discovered a flight-helping ligament that transformed as winged birds evolved. Now, he and his colleague Ken Dial of the University of Montana are gearing up to study birds as they toddle up steep inclines while flapping their wings. By comparing the skeletal movies from the walking birds with those in flight, the scientists expect tease out other key features needed for flight.

The technique also will breathe life into fossil bones from extinct animals like theropod dinosaurs. Three-dimensional images of the brittle bones can be fitted with moving skeletons from modern-day relatives.

“The CTX technique will align those 3-D bones frame-by-frame to match what we’re seeing in the 2-D X-ray movie,” Brainerd said in a telephone interview. “So we need to understand precisely how the skeleton of living animals moves so we can try to reconstruct how the skeletons of extinct animals might have moved.”

Some other blockbuster applications:

* Measuring the forces applied to each joint as a person runs or a frog jumps.
* Testing new theories of biomechanics such as muscle-tendon interactions.
* Studying the evolution of joints, from the cartilaginous joints in most mammals to the “more advanced” joints in humans, which are bonier.
* Planning orthopedic surgeries and comparing the effectiveness of different approaches.
* Creating better treatments for shoulder, wrist, knee and back injuries.

Called CTX, the final system will be able to whip out 1,000 frames per second of a moving 3-D skeleton. The system will be designed and built with a $1.8-million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation, and is expected to be complete by 2010.


Entrepreneurs profit from free Web names

NEW YORK - It's not often you can compare Internet addresses with clothing, but a growing practice comes close, contributing to a global shortage in good names.

Entrepreneurs have been taking advantage of a five-day grace period to sample millions of domain names, keeping the relative few that might generate advertising revenues and dropping the rest before paying.

It's akin to buying new clothes on a charge card only to return them for a full refund after wearing them to a big party.

The grace period was originally designed to rectify legitimate mistakes, such as registrants mistyping the domain name they are about to buy. But with computer automation and a burgeoning online advertising market, entrepreneurs have turned the return policy into a loophole for generating big bucks.

Experts believe spammers and scam artists are also starting to use the grace period as a source of free, disposable Web addresses.

With up to 6 million names tied up at any given time through a practice known as domain name tasting, individuals and businesses are having even greater difficulty finding good names, particularly in the already-crowded ".com" space.

"The system really doesn't work to the advantage of people who have legitimate reasons for wanting names," Frederick Felman, chief marketing officer with MarkMonitor, a brand-protection firm. "It allows people with criminal or speculative intent to dominate."

Cybersquatting has been around for more than a decade, and scores of entrepreneurs have made thousands and even millions of dollars reselling names they had bought for as little as $6 each. With tasting, entrepreneurs generally aren't grabbing names to resell but to generate traffic and share in online advertising revenues.

The Internet's key oversight agency for domain names, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, has for years required operators of major Web suffixes such as ".com" to refund cancellations within five days. Tasting became more practical about two years ago when automation allowed newly available ".com" names to go live almost immediately, providing an additional half-day for sampling.

Millions of domain names daily

The practice has spiked, with an average tasting of 1.2 million names each day in December, compared with 7,200 two years earlier, according to data from Name Intelligence Inc., which analyzes domain name patterns. Legitimate registrations made up 2 percent of the registrations at the end of 2006, down from about half in 2004.

In an e-mail statement, one company that engages in tasting, Wang Lee Domains, said the practice was "perfectly legal" and brings "customers to the companies that advertise."

Moniker Online Services LLC, which lets customers try out domains for a small service charge it keeps, said companies can identify the right names to buy and not overspend for ones that don't matter. Monte Cahn, Moniker's founder and chief executive, said many leading brands do it, although he would not name them.

"Tasting is similar to test driving a car before you buy it or doing a walkthrough of a house before you buy," Cahn said.

The loophole works this way:

Speculators write software to automatically register hundreds or thousands of names. Some are variants of trademarks or generic keywords that Internet users are likely to type — or mistype. Others are names grabbed after their original owners fail to renew.

During the grace period, the entrepreneur puts up a Web page featuring keyword search ads and receives a commission on each ad clicked. Services like Google Inc.'s AdSense for Domains and Yahoo Inc.'s Domain Match help large domain name owners set them up, even as the search companies officially oppose abuses in tasting.

Addresses likely to generate more than the $6 annual cost of domain name are kept — not a high threshold given how lucrative search advertising is these days.

The rest are thrown back into the pool on the fourth or fifth day, only to be grabbed by another group of domain name tasters.

"Everyone's trash is someone else's gold," said Jay Westerdal, president of Name Intelligence. "You'll see this with three or four companies that keep going through the trash of everybody else."

And because the process is automated — the names are grabbed as soon as they are let go — legitimate registrants barely have a chance, Westerdal said.

The department store chain Neiman Marcus Group Inc. even filed a federal lawsuit last year accusing the registration company Dotster Inc. of tasting hundreds of names meant to lure Internet users who mistype Web addresses. At one point, the lawsuit said, the misspelled featured ads for Target, Nordstrom and other rivals.

David Steele, an attorney representing the retailer, said Neiman Marcus could have placed ads on those sites as well, but "should Neiman Marcus have to pay ... for directing people back to their Web site?"

The two parties recently agreed to settle, though Steele said details won't be announced until at least this week (Dotster declined comment). He said his law firm, Christie, Parker & Hale LLP, also was preparing litigation against other tasters.

Operators of the ".org" database have tried to strike back, winning approval in November to charge a restocking fee.

But VeriSign Inc., which runs ".com" and ".net," has not publicly backed one. The oversight agency ICANN said it was still studying the extent of the problem.

Critics of the system say VeriSign and ICANN both benefit from the thousands of names that are tasted and kept, collecting fees proportional to the number of names sold.

VeriSign said decisions should follow community-wide discussions.

"The risk is you don't want to necessarily move too fast or have a knee-jerk reaction without understanding the ramification," said Michael Denning, general manager with VeriSign's Digital Brand Management Services, which encourages companies to register additional domain names before tasters can get to them.

The 'kiting" variant

The practice, meanwhile, shows no signs of waning.

A newer variant, sometimes called "kiting," involves the same company reregistering the same name every fourth or fifth day to hang onto it in perpetuity, without ever paying for it.

Anti-spam experts also suggest that spammers and scam artists are turning to the loophole to register new names every couple of days to avoid detection.

"We see them using hundreds and hundreds of domains, and even at $5 a domain, that's costing them thousands of dollars, which they probably don't want to be losing," said Matt Sergeant, senior anti-spam technologist at MessageLabs Ltd.

Steele, the Neiman Marcus lawyer, said many of the dispute-resolution rules written for the pre-tasting days are no longer effective.

"By the time you expend the time and effort to track and figure out who's going after what names, they have moved on," he said. "A day where 100 Neiman Marcus names get registered is not an uncommon day."


Google said ready to buy Adscape

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Google Inc. (Nasdaq:GOOG - news) has agreed to acquire in-game advertising company Adscape Media Inc. for $23 million, according to technology site Red Herring, which cited sources familiar with the matter in a report late on Thursday.

A Google spokesman declined comment, saying the company's policy is not to respond to "rumor or speculation."

Video game industry analysts said the acquisition, if successful, could give a boost to the nascent in-game advertising market.

Adscape competes with advertising start-ups Double Fusion and IGA Worldwide, which have already inked deals with major publishers.

It also has a rival in Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq:MSFT - news), which last year paid $200 million for in-game ad company Massive Inc. -- lured by Massive's agreements to place ads in online games from UbiSoft Entertainment SA (UBIP.PA), THQ Inc. (Nasdaq:THQI - news) and Take- Two Interactive Software Inc. (Nasdaq:TTWO - news)

"My take on this probable deal is that it doesn't make a lot of difference to Google ... but it does provide significant credibility to the game marketing space," Forrester Research Inc. analyst Shar VanBoskirk told Reuters.

An Adscape spokeswoman previously told Reuters the company struck deals with video game publishers, but that for strategic reasons, is not revealing names or commenting on the Google acquisition speculation. A company representative was not immediately available for comment on Friday.

While Adscape is seeking deals with virtually all major publishers, its value is expected to be based largely on its team and its technology that places dynamic ads on billboards, or vending machines that appear in video games.

Adscape, which has received funding from HIG Ventures in Atlanta, is poised to be the big winner if a deal is struck because Google built its multibillion-dollar Web search advertising business with a huge roster of large and small marketers and now has a large, experienced ad sales staff.

Google is the king of search advertising, but its success in the video game advertising market is not guaranteed, said Michael Cai, director of broadband and gaming at Parks Associates.

"Whatever they have in terms of search expertise may not apply to video game advertising ... It's a different dynamic," said Cai.

He said Google's ad expertise may be a better fit for Web sites and game makers that focus on quick, skill-based casual games like "Solitaire," "Bejeweled" or "Diner Dash" than for more complex online and console games that bring in the lion's share of the $30 billion industry's revenue.

Through Microsoft, Massive has an in with the maker of the Xbox 360 video game console. Rival console makers Sony Corp. (6758.T)(NYSE:SNE - news) and Nintendo Co. Ltd. (7974.OS) have not outlined their in-game ad strategies.

Electronic Arts Inc. (Nasdaq:ERTS - news), Activision Inc. (Nasdaq:ATVI - news) and other large players in the global video game industry are eyeing in-game advertising with interest, but are cautious about setting expectations too high, too soon.

Parks Associates said 2005 revenue from dynamic in-game ads was $80 million in 2005 and forecasts it could grow to $605 million.

Right now, there is more space available for ads -- or inventory -- than advertisers willing to take a risk on the new genre, video game publishers said.

"Advertisers have been a little shy to try games as an advertising vehicle," said VanBoskirk.

But she said, having Microsoft and Google in the market should help convince hesitant marketers that video games are a viable advertising medium.

"Google's challenge (like everyone in the game marketing space) will be to show that games work for advertisers outside of the 'obvious' fits like those in the media and entertainment space," VanBoskirk said.

Lisa Baertlein


High-tech cars predominate at Daytona 500

In the 49th annual Daytona 500 Sunday, NASCAR fans will see some of the most high-tech, finely tuned aerodynamics at work anywhere on or off the planet.Aerodynamics has always been important to racing. But it has become more crucial as cars have become faster, given that drag caused by air friction is proportional to the square of the speed

NASCAR rules do not allow a car's shape to be streamlined by much. Still, engineers will alter the body a quarter-inch here, a smidgeon there, to get a slight advantage. The Car of Tomorrow, NASCAR's new body type being used in some races this year, will limit a lot of this aerodynamic tinkering. But teams will still go to the wind tunnels to test tiny alterations.

"Aerodynamics will continue to be a major player at any place where the cars are going over 150 mph," said John Fernandez, managing director of the NASCAR operation for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, which owns three cars in the Nextel Cup series.

Certain courses require more attention to aerodynamics than others. The super speedways at Daytona and Talladega are long, fast tracks where cars get up close to 200 mph. Daytona is 2.5 miles long, with the backstretch a whopping 3,000 feet without a turn. This is where aerodynamics—both in the shop and on the track—becomes one of the many keys to winning.

"If a car at Talladega suffers damage to the body, it can just kill that team's chances," said Jerre Hill from University of North Carolina Charlotte's motorsports and automotive engineering program.

Engineers carefully design their car's bodies to reduce drag and to increase the aerodynamic "downforce" that helps the tires stick to the ground in a turn. And during a race, drivers draft behind each other to experience less wind.

These three aerodynamic elements: drag, downforce and drafting, are not separate. Increasing downforce means more drag, while cars with a lot of downforce are not as good to draft behind.

Drag is commonly divided into two kinds: friction drag—due the wind breaking over the car's surface, and pressure drag—coming from the low-pressure wake that develops behind a car and sucks it backwards.

Teams make tiny tweaks to the body shape to make the air flow more smoothly, thereby reducing both friction and pressure drag.

But "there's not a whole lot of wiggle room," said Gary Eaker, whose Aerodyn Wind Tunnel in Mooresville, NC, runs tests for NASCAR teams 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

"Teams have to become more and more creative," Eaker told LiveScience, just to get a half percent or so reduction in drag. But they are willing to do it because it can help them get a better qualifying position.

Reducing drag is often secondary to increasing downforce, which allows cars to go faster through the turns.

"Drivers always say they need more downforce," Eaker said.

Downforce is also called "negative lift" because the physics is basically the same as the lift on an airplane wing, except it is turned upside down.

The average downforce on a stock car is between 1,650 and 1,750 pounds, Fernandez said. With this air-induced weight, tires have a tighter grip on the road, allowing drivers to maintain high speeds through the turns at Daytona and Talladega. But the drawback is that downforce adds to the drag.

"If you had your druthers, you'd have maximum downforce in the corners but little downforce on the straightaway," Fernandez said in a telephone interview.

Downforce can't be throttled back and forth like that. In fact, NASCAR teams are barred from changing the shapes of their cars during a race.

One way they get around this is by adding tape to the front grill. This increases downforce on the front of the car by causing more air to flow over the hood. But it also diverts air away from the radiator, so too much tape can cause a car to overheat.

On the racetrack, both drag and downforce are affected by the air flow off nearby cars. In a common drafting situation, a lead car blocks much of the incoming wind, reducing the friction drag for a trailing car.

Drafting is important in many other sports, like bicycling. Roughly 90 percent of biking power is used to overcome drag, Hill said, so bike racers often ride in a pack, which can go 20-30 percent faster than a single rider.

Drafting bikers take turns in the lead position to block the wind for the others, so each can pedal furiously while at the front while relaxing somewhat when back in the pack. In car drafting, the lead car is also getting a benefit. Trailing cars fill in the lead car's low-pressure wake, thereby cutting down pressure drag. "The decrease in work for the lead car is substantial," Hill said.

With less drag for everybody, drafting lines can go about 5 mph faster than a single car. "On the super speedways you really need a drafting partner to get to the front," Fernandez said.

For Indy and Formula One racing, drafting is less effective. These open-wheel cars generate a huge amount of downforce, resulting in "giant-rooster-tail wakes that are less conducive to drafting," Hill said.

This year NASCAR will start using the Car of Tomorrow in certain races. The new design is primarily meant to improve safety, but it will also change the way that air flows over the car.

"It's a boxier car, so it has more drag," Hill said.

Two new components will be the main aerodynamic "knobs": a rear wing (replacing the spoiler) and a front splitter (a thin sheet under the front bumper that provides most of the front downforce).

Teams will be allowed to adjust the angle of attack on the wing and the position of the front splitter, Fernandez said.

"Everybody is going to be on a steep learning curve," he said.

The rest of the body shape will be more standardized, but Eaker doesn't believe this will hurt his wind tunnel business.

"It doesn't mean teams won't be changing things, it just means they will be nibbling off smaller and smaller effects," Eaker said.


Child-watching gadgets gain foothold in Japan

Akiko Fukami's anxiety level shot off the charts two years ago when a 7-year-old girl at an elementary school in a neighboring prefecture vanished and was later found stabbed to death in a forest in Tochigi Prefecture, about 99 miles north of Tokyo.

Ever since, she has insisted her kids walk with a group of other children to and from school, and carry a security buzzer alarm the school supplied even before the dreadful incident in 2005. "It is scary because the murderer hasn't been arrested," says Fukami, adding that she feels there have been so many murder cases involving children in the last few years in Japan that "I can't even remember all of them."

The need to supply kids with security gadgets and mobile handsets with global positioning systems is a sad reality of contemporary Japan, though the country remains one of the safest in the world. Unlike their counterparts in the U.S. and Europe, Japanese kids often walk or commute to school on public transportation systems at a very tender age. That makes them vulnerable to predators—and makes their parents eager to keep tabs by whatever means possible.

So perhaps it isn't surprising that a sizable market has emerged for security firms and major Japanese handset makers such as NTT DoCoMo, KDDI, and Softbank. Japan's birthrate may be falling, but not the market for personal security gadgets and services aimed at children.

This market has more than tripled since the start of the decade and sales last year hit $212 million, according to figures compiled by Tokyo-based Yano Research Institute. "This trend suggests a changing consciousness in Japanese society about safety and security," the research group concluded in a recent report.

Though no system is foolproof, companies have come up with creative approaches for parents to track their children's whereabouts—and sound the alarm if they encounter any serious trouble. For instance, Japanese school-bag maker Kyowa sells one model equipped with a GPS terminal that costs about $330. The company has sold 10,000 of the GPS-enabled bags in the last two years, and the product now represents about 5 percent of its total annual sales.

For a $60 start-up fee, plus about $7 per month, parents can then contract out for a service called Coco-Secom, developed by leading Japanese security firm Secom, that will track the school bag using a network of GPS satellites and cellular-telephone base stations that will pinpoint a child's exact location.

If the little one is running late, a parent can either call the Coco-Secom operation center or send an e-mail to trace the child. Within 30 to 40 seconds, a subscriber will get a map marking the location of the child. For an additional cost of $82 per request, security guards can be dispatched to the location to retrieve the child. So far, the Coco-Secom service has attracted 135,000 subscribers.

Wireless handset companies are also trying to develop products that appeal to security-anxious parents with a lineup of mobile phones—keitai in Japanese—aimed at kids.

Last month, KDDI's "au" unit released its Junior Keitai and Sweets Cute phones. The company has sold a mobile phone for children under the name of Junior Keitai since January 2006, but this third model is equipped with a movement tracking system.

When a child hits a crime-prevention buzzer attached to the phone or the mobile phone is turned off by somebody, the handset's camera will turn on, take photos, and store the images for later use, and GPS will track the location of the phone and relay that data to a parent's mobile phone or PC. At the end of this month, Softbank will launch its own youth-oriented handsets, called Kodomobile, that have an alarm function to transmit the child's location to parents.

NTT DoCoMo has sold its Kids Keitai since March 2006. When a warning buzzer is triggered, a recorded emergency phone message will be automatically directed to parents. The parents are then patched into their child's mobile phone to talk—or if they can't get through, they can immediately notify police.

One challenge is coming up with cool phone designs that motivate the kids to use them regularly and keep them within easy reach, rather than buried deep down in a school bag or left at home. DoCoMo recently held a contest that drew 13,000 participants to suggest appealing new colors for its Kids Keitai lineup, and introduced cherry- and lime-hued ones as a result.

GPS tracking systems are practically a standard feature on these phones. However, Secom also provides additional security services. "Cell phones equipped with GPS merely provide alarm and location functions," says Minoru Yasuda, head of public relations at Secom. "With our Coco-Secom service, as we have 2,100 emergency takeoff bases around the country, we can dispatch security guards almost everywhere around the clock," says Yasuda.

Secom also developed a tracking service in December that connects to integrated circuit tags using radio frequency identification technology as well as GPS. One private elementary school in Tokyo recently instituted a program in which kids were given handheld devices that work with scanners at the entrance of the school. That way, there was a record of when kids checked in and out of the school's property. That data was then transmitted to the school's internal computer network and e-mailed to the parents.

Of course, nobody is kidding themselves that any of these products or services can truly prevent something awful from happening. "There is no perfect device," realizes homemaker Fukami. Yet in an uncertain world, such gadgetry can provide parents with a modicum of comfort.

Hiroko Tashiro


Obama backers find voice on Facebook

Late on the day that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) announced he was forming a presidential exploratory committee, Farouk Olu Aregbe logged on to, the popular online community where college students post profiles, share photos and blog. On a whim he created a group called "One Million Strong for Barack."

"I remember thinking, there's got to be more supporters out there," said Farouk, 26, who advises student government at the University at Missouri at Columbia.

Farouk's group had 100 members in the first hour. In less than five days, 10,000. By the third week, nearly 200,000. Yesterday, a month after he created the group, it clocked in 278,100 members.

There are more than 500 Obama groups on Facebook. One of the first, "Students for Barack Obama" was created on July 7 by Meredith Segal, a junior at Bowdoin College who first heard of Obama when he gave the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Instead of starting "a petition or something" to encourage the freshman senator to run for president, she turned to her Facebook page, created a group and invited people (first her friends, later strangers) to join.

Now it's a political action committee with nearly 62,000 members and chapters in 80 colleges, the most structured grass-roots student movement -- there's a director of field operations, an Internet director, a finance director and a blog team director -- in the presidential campaign so far. "Young people are on the Web," said Segal, 21. "That's how we're organizing."

At the center of a virtual community Obama's Facebook supporters post photos of Obama on their pages alongside snapshots of birthday parties, nephews and girlfriends. They link to the latest Obama news ("Gov. Kaine of Va. to endorse Obama"), talk about their favorite Obama quotes ("I think mine is, 'I'm so overexposed, I'm making Paris Hilton look like a recluse' ") and engage in a 24-hour conversation about their candidate ("I told you guys sometime back that once Obama announces his candidacy, the sharks are going to come biting . . ."), linked to one another in the kind of community reserved for longtime players of the video game World of Warcraft or incessant "American Idol" fans.

A few weeks ago, Segal's group staged a rally at George Mason University that drew an estimated 3,000 students -- and an appearance from Obama himself. This past Sunday, her group's Iowa State University chapter helped promote a rally that attracted more than 5,000.

But will they rock the vote? While the Illinois senator's presidential campaign has outpaced his rivals in the enthusiasm it has generated on Facebook and other social networking sites such as and, no one knows whether such online excitement can translate to votes.

Ask Howard Dean, the Web candidate of 2004. The former Democratic Vermont governor raised millions of dollars on the Web, generated huge amounts of buzz and then learned during the Iowa caucuses that online excitement did not guarantee offline foot soldiers -- or the right foot soldiers in a state that likes its volunteers homegrown. helped energize the Dean campaign, but more sophisticated social networking sites such as Facebook, Friendster and MySpace were not a factor during the 2004 election. A recent Pew Research Center poll, however, reported that 54 percent of 18-to-25-year-olds have used them. And Joe Trippi, who spearheaded Dean's e-campaign, is among those who believe they will play a significant role in the current race.

"It took our campaign six months to get 139,000 people on an e-mail list," Trippi said. "It took one Facebook group, what, barely a month to get 200,000? That's astronomical."

Feeding a hunger among young voters Peter Levine, deputy director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a nonpartisan research center at the University of Maryland that studies young voters, predicts what he calls "the Facebook Effect."

"Everybody -- the pundits, the online strategists -- have been waiting for the first candidate to really hit a home run with the social networking sites," Levine said. "Obama's message is attractive to a certain type of young person. He's saying, 'You have a role to play. This is about you. About your role.' There's a real hunger for that kind of message."

Added Todd Zeigler of the Bivings Group, a D.C.-based Internet communications firm that works with Republicans: "The key point here is that the support for Obama on these social networking sites is not being driven by the campaign itself. It is something spontaneous as opposed to something the campaign itself is orchestrating. This shows a real enthusiasm for Obama's candidacy among young people that you aren't seeing for any other candidates at this point."

Borrowing from the experts Obama's main Democratic opponents, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and former senator John Edwards (N.C.), have also used the Web to speak directly to voters, sidestepping mainstream media. But the Illinois senator's campaign seems to have taken some of its cues from sites such as Facebook. The campaign Web site, launched last Saturday, allows visitors to blog, keep tab of their fundraising contributions, make a list of events and so on. And there is a Facebook link on the bottom of his home page.

K. Daniel Glover, who edits National Journal's Technology Daily, said that for candidates, "it's all about using the Internet to connect to people," the same way candidates connect with the local precinct chairmen and state party officials. But Glover cautioned against expecting too much from the Internet, especially when it comes to younger voters. "I don't think anyone is going to be elected because he/she is all the rage on Facebook," he said.

Clinton has about the same number of sites as Obama, but the largest has only about 3,000 members, and many of the sites are maintained by opponents. For every group called "African-Americans for Hillary Rodham Clinton" (95 members), there is a group called "A second Bush was bad enough, don't give me a second Clinton" (55 members). Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has some presence on the site; a group called "John McCain in 2008" has 1,617 members. And though Obama himself has a few detractors -- a group that calls itself "Anybody That Would Support Barack Obama for President is a Moronic Liberal" has 424 members -- no one comes close to his overall popularity.

Jose Antonio Vargas


$1 million prize awarded for water purifier

FAIRFAX, Va. - A professor who developed an inexpensive, easy-to-make system for filtering arsenic from well water has won a $1 million engineering prize — and he plans to use most of the money to distribute the filters to needy communities around the world.

The National Academy of Engineering announced Thursday that the 2007 Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability would go to Abul Hussam, a chemistry professor at George Mason University in Fairfax. Hussam's invention is already in use today, preventing serious health problems in residents of the professor's native Bangladesh.

After moving to the United States in 1978, Hussam got his citizenship and received a doctorate in analytical chemistry. He has spent much of this career trying to devise a solution to the arsenic problem, which was accidentally caused by international aid agencies that had funded a campaign to dig wells in Eastern India and Bangladesh.

The wells brought fresh groundwater to farmers and others who previously had been drinking from bacteria- and virus-laced ponds and mudholes. But the aid agencies were unaware that the groundwater also had naturally high concentrations of poisonous arsenic. As infectious diseases declined, arsenic-related skin ailments and fatal cancers began to increase — a problem that attracted much attention in the 1990s.

"I myself and all my brothers were drinking this water," Hussam told The Washington Post. He added that his family did not get sick — possibly because they had a good diet, which can help stem the effects of digesting arsenic.

Can’t taste it or smell it

Allan Smith, an epidemiologist at the University of California at Berkeley, said arsenic poisoning affects millions of people worldwide and it has been difficult to convince people that what seems to be good water might be toxic.

"You can't see it or taste or smell it," Smith said. "The idea that crystal-clear drinking water would end up causing lung disease in 20 or 30 years is a little weird. It's unbelievable to people."

Hussam spent years testing hundreds of prototype filtration systems. His final innovation is a simple, maintenance-free system that uses sand, charcoal, bits of brick and shards of a type of cast iron. Each filter has 20 pounds of porous iron, which forms a chemical bond with arsenic.

The filter removes almost every trace of arsenic from well water.

Prize will purchase more filters

About 200 filtration systems are being made each week in Kushtia, Bangladesh, for about $40 each, Hussam said. More than 30,000 have been distributed.

Hussam said he plans to use 70 percent of his prize so the filters can be distributed to needy communities. He said 25 percent will be used for more research, and 5 percent will be donated to GMU.

The 2007 sustainability prize is funded by the Grainger Foundation of Lake Forest, Ill., and the contest was set up to target the arsenic problem. Among the criteria for winning was an affordable, reliable and environmentally friendly solution to the arsenic problem that did not require electricity.

Hussam's award will be presented Feb. 20 at Union Station in Washington.


Hackers attack every 39 seconds

The study, which investigated how exactly hackers crack computers, confirms those regularly issued warnings about password vulnerability. Experts advise longer passwords, regularly changed and not based on users' biographies, that mix letters and numerals and are hard to guess.

“Our data provide quantifiable evidence that attacks are happening all the time to computers with Internet connections,” study author Michel Cukier of the University of Maryland said. “The computers in our study were attacked, on average, 2,244 times a day.”

Hackers briefly overwhelmed at least three computers that help manage global computer traffic on Tuesday.

To test how hackers break into computers, Cukier’s team set up weak security on four Linux computers connected to the Internet and monitored hacker attacks.

Unlike the sophisticated hackers portrayed on TV and in films, these hackers weren’t targeting specific computers.

“Most of these attacks employ automated scripts that indiscriminately seek out thousands of computers at a time, looking for vulnerabilities,” Cukier said.

The hackers used a type of software called a “dictionary script” that runs through lists of common usernames and passwords to break into the computer.

Some of the most commonly guessed usernames in the study were “root,” “admin,” “test,” “guest,” and “user." Cukier advises against using any of these as passwords.

When guessing passwords, the software tried to reenter or guess variations of the username. Following the password with the numbers “123,” guessing “password” or “123456” were also common guesses.

The study’s findings, presented at the 37th Annual IEEE/IFIP International Conference on Dependable Systems and Networks, support the continual warnings of security experts to never use identical or related usernames and passwords.

After gaining access to the computers, hackers usually quickly changed passwords, checked hardware and software configurations, and downloaded, installed and ran a program.

These programs established the computer as part of a botnet, a collection of hacked computers that can be run by the hacker remotely to perpetrate fraud or identity theft, disrupt other computer networks, or damage computer files.

“The scripts return a list of ‘most likely prospect’ computers to the hacker, who then attempts to access and compromise as many as possible,” Cukier said. “Often they set up ‘back doors’ — undetected entrances into the computer that they control — so they can create ‘botnets,’ for profit or disreputable purposes.”

To protect against hackers, security experts advise choosing longer, more difficult passwords with combinations of upper and lowercase letters.


Blogs transform Mideast social dialogue

CAIRO, Egypt - Wael Abbas hasn't been arrested by Egyptian police, but the blogger fears it could happen any day. A democracy activist who never leaves home without a camera, he has drawn the attention of state security by posting videos that show what many Egyptians only talk about behind closed doors — police brutality and male harassment of women on the street, such as fondling.

Abbas is just part of a wave of Middle Eastern bloggers who are eroding tight government control on information and thus drawing intense scrutiny from police.

Egyptian authorities arrested a string of prominent bloggers last year, including one who remains jailed and is on trial for allegedly defaming Islam by posting criticism of Islamic institutions on his Arabic-language blog.

"I might be next," Abbas said at a Cairo coffee shop. He said his family has received anonymous phone calls asking about him, which he suspects come from state security.

"I think there is a campaign against the bloggers here," he said. "We are exposing what all Egyptians know but weren't talking about."

Mideast governments for decades have dominated the media, trying to keep a monopoly on information and deter criticism of authorities. But bloggers are chipping away, writing about everything from human rights to the region's rulers to the most taboo topic — Islam.

Weblogs — or blogs for short — started taking off in the Mideast a few years ago as access to the Internet and technology for creating sites grew. There are now hundreds of Arabic- and Farsi-language blogs posted from the Middle East.

Many of the blogs are just personal musings. But many others strive to tackle political and social issues, and their authors are increasingly getting into trouble, with governments blocking their sites and throwing them in jail.

"I firmly believe that blogs now with normal people using them have become the fifth estate. They watch the watchers, especially in this area of the world, because there are no controls over them," said Mahmood al-Yousif, a Bahraini blogger.

Al-Yousif said his blog was blocked by authorities briefly last year after he published articles about an election-related scandal on the Persian Gulf island kingdom.

Reporters Without Borders has five Mideast countries — Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Syria — on its list of the globe's 13 worst Internet freedom enemies that block Web sites and detain bloggers.

Governments defend their Web regulations, saying they are protecting citizens from "immoral" and "defamatory" content. But rights groups and bloggers say officials are really trying to retain their media control.

"Five years ago, authorities didn't care about bloggers because the Internet's reach was less," said Julien Pain, head of Reporters Without Borders' Internet Freedom Desk. "Now, what is most interesting is the Weblogs in the local languages. You look at what the authorities censor — they censor content in local languages."

Rights groups have been especially critical of Iran, where there have been some arrests of bloggers. Iran has also blocked some Web sites critical of the government — even shutting down access to the video-sharing forum, where Iranian opposition groups abroad have posted videos.

Hamed Mottaghi, an Iranian freelance journalist, blogs in Farsi about human rights from the Iranian holy city of Qom. But Iranians can't view his Web site inside the country — authorities blocked it last year.

That hasn't stopped Mottaghi. He and another Iranian blogger recently won awards from Reporters Without Borders for taking strong stances on freedom of information.

"The number of bloggers is increasing in Iran since people cannot express themselves easily in the society, which lacks freedom. Young people especially are looking for a different place to open dialogue," Mottaghi said.

But some say the jury is still out on whether online opposition will transform into social and democratic reform in the Middle East. Though the number of Internet users has grown nearly fivefold since 2000, only about 10 percent of the region's people have access to the Internet, according to the online Internet World Stats, which monitors Web usage around the world.

A mass pro-democracy movement has not emerged, said Jesse Sage, of the U.S.-based civil rights organization Hands Across the Middle East Support Alliance, which has worked with activists including bloggers in the region.

"Blogging is about venting, and the challenge is whether we can move from venting to acting, and that remains to be seen," Sage said.

But Saudi Arabian blogger Ahmed al-Omran, a pharmacy student who runs one blog in English and another in Arabic, believes the blog movement will make a difference.

"It's a good chance now for bloggers here," he said. "Saudi Arabia is changing, and the margin for freedom of expression is getting bigger and bloggers are taking advantage of this."


Computer experts warn of viruses in Valentine messages

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Security experts are warning PC users to be on guard against viruses masquerading as Valentine's Day messages, which could damage computers. "Computer users should keep a wary eye on any romantic messages received by e-mail, as many of them could contain malicious code," said US security firm PandaLabs after detecting an increase in a worm it dubbed Nurech.A.

The worm hides in e-mails with subjects like: "Together You and I," "Til the End of Time Heart of Mine."

People who open an attached file such as postcard.exe can end up infecting their computers.

Security firm Symantec said it had detected "large-scale spamming" of e-mails including a Trojan horse, a program that contains or installs a malicious program.

Symantec said the malware was a new version of Trojan, Peacomm or the "Storm Trojan."

"With Valentine's Day approaching, this time around the authors are attempting to tug on the heartstrings of unsuspecting users with romantic subject lines such as 'My Heart belongs to you,' said Symantec's Orla Cox.

"The Trojan is much the same as we've seen before, the only difference being that the authors have used a modified packer in an (unsuccessful) effort to evade detection by antivirus vendors."

"As a general rule, don't open any suspicious e-mail, regardless of what is says it contains," said Luis Corrons, technical director of PandaLabs.

"Instead of going on instincts, let a security solution decide whether it's safe to open it or not," he said, urging users to scan any suspicious messages with an antivirus program.

Corrons said events like Valentine's Day and Christmas are often exploited by cyber-criminals to try and spread their creations by disguising infected e-mails as e-greeting cards.

This use of "social engineering" was used in the LoveLetter virus, which caused one of the biggest epidemics in computer history.


YouTube founders reaped fortunes from sale to Google

SAN FRANCISCO (AFP) - YouTube founders received more than a half-billion dollars in Google stock when the search engine bought the video-sharing website last year, regulatory documents revealed.Google bought YouTube in November in a 1.65-billion-dollar stock deal that marked the search engine's most expensive acquisition and crowned the young start-up an enviable success story.

YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley received 694,087 shares, valued at nearly 328 million dollars on Thursday. Hurley got another 41,242 shares of Google stock, valued at 19.5 million dollars, which were placed in a trust fund.

YouTube co-founder Steve Chen received 625,366 shares valued at 295.5 million dollars and another 68,721 shares worth 32.47 million dollars that were placed in a trust fund, according to the US Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

Google's third founder, Jawed Karim, received 137,443 shares of Google stock with a market value of 64.9 million dollars.

Sequoia Capital, which financed YouTube to the tune of 11.5 million dollars, got a payoff of 941,027 shares worth 444.64 million dollars, the SEC filing indicated.

Chen and Hurley met in 1999, while working at PayPal, three years before the online financial transaction service was bought by Internet auction site eBay for 1.5 billion dollars.

Hurley left PayPal to work for himself as a consultant. Chen remained at PayPal and worked on the company's expansion into China.

The friends first discussed wanting an easy way to share home videos online while at a dinner with other former PayPal employees in January 2005.

Hurley, Chen and former PayPal colleague Karim launched YouTube in April 2005.


Viacom asks YouTube to remove 100K clips

NEW YORK - Media company Viacom Inc., which owns the cable networks MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon and the Paramount Pictures movie studio, asked YouTube on Friday to remove more than 100,000 unauthorized clips from its hugely popular video-sharing site.

Viacom said in a statement that after several months of talks with YouTube and its corporate parent, the online search leader Google Inc., "it has become clear that YouTube is unwilling to come to a fair market agreement that would make Viacom content available to YouTube users."

Viacom said that YouTube and Google had failed to deliver on several "filtering tools" to control unauthorized video from appearing on the hugely popular site.

The company was now asking YouTube to take the clips down, but stopped short of filing a lawsuit.

Under federal copyright law, online services such as YouTube are generally immune from liability as long as it responds to takedown requests such as these, which YouTube often does. Less clear legally is what happens when another user posts the same video, something commonly done on the free video-sharing site.

YouTube said in a statement that it would comply with the request from Viacom and said it cooperates "with all copyright holders to identify and promptly remove infringing content as soon as we are officially notified."

The company also said it was "unfortunate that Viacom will no longer be able to benefit from YouTube's passionate audience which has helped to promote many of Viacom's shows."

In November, YouTube agreed to delete nearly 30,000 files after the Japan Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers complained of copyright infringement.

Some media companies such as CBS Corp. and General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal have made deals to allow YouTube to use video clips from their programming, but others have yet to agree with the site over ways to get compensated for the use of their copyrighted material.

Universal Music Group, a division of French telecommunications giant Vivendi SA, had threatened to sue YouTube for copyright infringement, saying it was a hub for pirated music videos, but later reached a licensing deal with them last year.

Despite Viacom's problems with YouTube, the company's MTV Networks division reached a licensing deal last year with Google that allows the search company's video service to use clips from MTV and its sibling networks under a revenue-sharing agreement.

SETH SUTEL, AP Business Writer


Finally, Vista: Microsoft's new Windows

After delays, betas, new operating system finally takes center stage. Microsoft's Windows Vista, the operating system replacement for Windows XP, has been a long time in the making. It's been five years since Windows XP was introduced — eons in computer years. It also took a lot longer than Microsoft had originally promised. And a
late January release means that nearly the entire computer industry missed the 2006 holiday sales season.

But, Vista is finally here and it has some great new features. Vista changes the way you access your data and changes the way you find documents, music, videos, pictures and everything else you use a computer for. Be prepared to spend time learning how it works.

The operating system's new graphical look is called Windows Aero and brings Vista's look and feel into the 21st century. Think in terms of clean, clear and very user-friendly. There are lots of 3D effects and modern typefaces for the user. In its own way, it's Microsoft's answer to Apple's OS X. Vista's new interface is very, very slick.

A streamlined Start menu makes finding applications and documents easy. I wish, though, that they didn’t hide your computer's turn-the-machine-completely-off shut down button. It’s now buried in the right-hand scroll-out Start menu. Microsoft prefers that you put your computer into the new "Sleep" mode (that's "hibernate" in Windows XP) rather than shut down completely all the time. They say Sleep uses less power, helps protect your data and can wake up within 2-3 seconds. For short periods I agree. For long periods of non-use I prefer turning my computer off completely.

The new Instant Search feature is located in every Explorer window and can help users quickly find information anywhere on the computer. The Search Pane lets you organize information by author, date, or type of document.

Windows Sidebar is a set of user-configurable tools that puts frequently used information (particularly RSS feeds) and tasks right on the desktop. I tend to ignore it — except for when I need to glance at the large analog clock. This feature is similar to Apple's OS X full-screen tool bar called Dashboard — only it sits to one side.

The completely new Network Explorer puts all network connections — like printers, other computers, and devices — into one centralized location. This is somewhat different from the controls in Windows XP, where each peripheral has a separate place. Network Explorer is one feature that has a definite learning curve. Once you understand the differences (like one icon for all live network connections instead of many in XP’s taskbar) the new system begins makes a lot of sense. In the same vein, the new Vista Sync Center helps users manage all their devices from a one place.

Depending on the age and complexity of your hardware — and which version of the new operating system you're trying to install — getting Vista onto your hard drive should take you about an hour. Beta installations took me anywhere from 40 to 75 minutes to get up and running.

I’ve been able to play with the final version of Vista that had been pre-installed on three different machines: a Dell XPS M1210 Media Center laptop, a very pretty, white Toshiba Portege R400-S4931 tablet computer running Vista Ultimate. I also got to try Vista on a pre-production OQO model 02 handheld.

It would take seven pages or more to tell you everything new and different that I’ve discovered while using Vista but here are a few highlights:

* Tablet PC functionality: This is integrated into most versions of Windows Vista. This is for hardware that lets you use it as a tablet computer.
* Windows Media Center: This comes standard on Window's Vista Home Premium and Windows Ultimate. It provides a full entertainment experience, including live and recorded television, music, photos, and videos.
* Improved Windows Media Player: Sleek and cool, it worked well on my computers.
* Power management: New power management features for mobile computers enable users to optimize battery life performance. I didn’t see much difference here, but Vista computers seem to get a very usable amount of time from each battery. It was difficult, though, to make a direct comparison to similar XP laptops.
* Security: Windows Defender helps protect computers with regular scanning and the removal of spyware and other potentially unwanted software. I found Defender and the rest of Vista’s protection software very intrusive. Turning it off was no better — I would constantly get little pop-up warnings that I had turned off these programs and might be jeopardizing my computer’s security.
* Games. There are the classic Windows games, plus several new ones including Chess Titans, InkBall, Mahjong Titans and Purble Place.

Overall, I found Windows Vista was a good operating system. In my tests, Vista runs faster on the new computers I’ve been using — definitely faster than the latest version (with constant upgrading) of Windows XP running on a year-old ThinkPad Z60t. I realize that’s like comparing apples and oranges — but Vista really does seem to zoom along at times.

The test OQO handheld computer was loaded with both XP and Vista. Although I couldn’t run both operating systems at the same time, Vista seemed to open a few test Office documents a touch quicker than when I tried it with XP Pro.

Vista is a lot more graphic-intensive than XP and overall a bit closer to OS X than to previous version of Windows. Both are very competent operating systems and both will have their rabid supporters and foes. I'm not interested in getting involved in that endless discussion.

If you’re currently using Windows XP, you can’t go wrong with upgrading to Vista — but be forewarned: to appreciate all of the new features, you'll need a high level of hardware horsepower — lots of memory (think 2GB, 1GB minimum) and a fast, modern processor. Otherwise, Vista will just be forced to disable some of the cool, new features that your computer can't handle.

Windows Vista is the latest, most up-to-date and most improved version of the Windows operating system. It will help you get the most from your current computer — and your next computer. But if you decide to stick with XP, have no fear — your next computer will have Vista installed on the hard drive. Soon it will be nearly impossible to avoid.

After using Vista extensively for the past two months, I found the new operating system to be stable and easy to use. Make no mistake, with all the new features there will be a learning curve when you first sit down and play. But that’s because there’s so much there.

Gary Krakow


Blog Traffic Grows, and It’s Mostly Male

Over the last few years, as newspaper Web sites have started to maintain blogs, there have been plenty of setbacks. A Washington Post blog was shut down last January after commenters flooded it with vitriol, and the author of a Los Angeles Times blog was caught commenting on his own posts under a pseudonym.

But there is no sign that newspapers are turning back: just last Wednesday, The Washington Post announced that it would be adding three new blogs.

Numbers recently released by Nielsen/NetRatings, the Internet traffic measurement firm, suggest that such blogs are picking up readers. NetRatings said that traffic to newspaper blogs had more than tripled over the last year, reaching 3.8 million in December. (The total unique visitors to newspaper Web sites in December was 29.9 million.) Slightly more men than women read online newspapers, and that trend is more pronounced on newspaper blogs, 66 percent of whose readers are male.

“News and information is generally a male-skewing appetite,” said Carolyn Creekmore, senior director of media analytics for NetRatings, “and blogs are really getting a lot of the most engaged consumers.” ALEX MINDLIN



Nintendo video games winners with fans and critics

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Japanese video game giant Nintendo Co. Ltd. was the top winner at the 2006 People's Choice 1UP Awards hosted by the Ziff Davis Game Group in San Francisco on Wednesday. "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess" for Nintendo's new Wii console was voted game of the year and best adventure title by users of the 1UP Network of video game fan sites.

"Wii Sports," also for the Wii, was named most innovative and best sports game.

1UP Editors voted "Zelda" console game of the year. "The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion" from Bethesda Softworks and Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. (Nasdaq:TTWO - news) took home the award for PC game of the year.