Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene It's a New Year--in July

Computer industry gets a breath of fresh air

By James Hanback Jr.

JULY 13, 1998:  Although we're more than halfway through 1998, folks in the computer industry are feeling the urge to start singing "Auld Lang Syne," like it was a brand new year.

And for many of them, it might as well be. Windows '98 has arrived, boosting sluggish computer sales out of a downward trend that started in February. Coinciding with the release of the new Windows, computer-hardware manufacturers are beefing up their inventory of new machines. Many of them had been suffering because consumers, anticipating Windows '98, were not buying old equipment.

According to Internet reports, IBM did the smartest thing. For every older-model computer it sold in recent months, Big Blue tacked on an offer for a free Windows '98 upgrade. It was the company's way of clearing out its previous Aptiva line in order to make way for new models.

Still, none of the computer-hardware vendors is really hurting. And now that Windows '98 is out there, more people can be expected to start buying new models. You can also expect to see more new hardware under Christmas trees at the end of this year.

But computer hardware isn't the only side of the industry that's experiencing a sort of rejuvenation.

Along with the release of Windows '98, Microsoft has revamped its Internet Start Web page (home.microsoft.com), in hopes of becoming the most popular Internet portal, competing for that position with the likes of Yahoo! (www.yahoo.com) and Netscape's Netcenter (home.netscape.com), which was also recently redesigned.

Netscape's Netcenter bears a striking resemblance to Yahoo! (the two were partners in Web content until last month), but Microsoft's Internet Start is strikingly different from anything that company has produced for Web content over the past year.

All three Internet portals allow users to set customizations for their personal online experiences. But, honestly, does anyone really stick around on a given Web page long enough to bother with customization?

Better question: Does anyone actually stick around on a given Web page long enough to need an Internet "portal?"

While I cannot say I make good use of Internet portals, the business of being one is apparently booming.

Netscape's Netcenter and Yahoo! both attracted a bajillion visitors last year. New desktop "push" technology like Internet Explorer's Channels and Netscape's Netcaster have not caught on the way their creators hoped they would, but one-stop information locations on the Web are still a popular idea.

"Push" technology refers to Internet applications that download specific data from the Web directly to your desktop. That means you never need to open your browser in order to search for that information. You can get stock information, weather, and updates from your favorite sites that way. But along with most of the world, I've used neither Microsoft's nor Netscape's implementation of this technology, except as a curiosity when it was first released.

Perhaps the Web browser wars between Microsoft and Netscape are cooling a little, but now online content wars are heating up.

Whatever the outcome, it's going to be refreshing for many users to see all the new features and changes these hardware, software, and online revisions bring with them. It's going to be vastly confusing for others.


Here a suit, there a suit

Whenever there's an attack on a major player in any industry, technological or otherwise, everybody jumps on the bandwagon, hoping to get a piece of the pie.

Among new lawsuits against Microsoft: Synet, a now-defunct Illinois company claims the company is infringing on its trademark by using the name Internet Explorer for its Web browser. (Now that IE is pretty much a part of the Windows operating system, why bother calling it anything at all?) According to abcnews.com, Microsoft went to court with Synet last week to determine if Synet actually used the name in January 1995, as it claims. Microsoft reportedly first used the name for its Web browser product in August of that same year.

Synet has reportedly already lost a trademark battle with AT&T. The smaller company had apparently been using the number 1-800-ATT-INET to promote its business.

Cleaning Windows

In an unrelated case, an attorney is filing a class-action lawsuit against Microsoft on behalf of some Windows customers, who claim Microsoft never let them know that Windows might fragment their hard drives, or that they might have trouble installing products like Windows '95.

Oh, my GOD! Windows fragments hard drives?

News flash: so do MacOS and many other operating systems that are out there. If users ever bothered to check their owner's manuals when they buy software, they'd see that Microsoft generously included ScanDisk and Defrag in MS-DOS 6.22 through Windows '98 to take care of such problems.

The real problem is that most users don't understand what disk fragmentation and defragmentation are. Here's Microsoft's answer: "Over time, files can become divided into fragments that are stored in different locations on your hard disk. These files are complete when you open them, but it takes longer for your computer to read from and write to them."

Users of Windows '95 can find this information on Page 63 of the 95-page owner's manual Introducing Microsoft Windows '95, at least the one that comes with new PCs. It's been a while since I opened my shrink-wrapped copy of the Windows '95 upgrade, but I believe there was similar information in there as well.

Put that plastic away

According to a recent report at cnn.com, a scientist at Bell Labs has discovered a hole in Netscape's Secure Sockets Layer, the standard encryption technology used to secure credit card transactions over the Internet.

But the scientist, Daniel Bleichenbacher, reportedly told interviewers the Internet purchasing public should not be alarmed. The system is protected, he says, because of the volume of information that must be sent to the secure server in order to guess the encrypted key.

"The server will notice something is wrong," he said. The ultimate result will be an error message.

James Hanback Jr. is systems administrator for the Scene. E-mail him at james@nashscene.com.

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