July 21, 2006
Microsoft Has A Feel Good Moment, And It Feels Good
Microsoft has announced 12 principles to foster competition in the IT industry. They echo a commitment that extends and surpasses the terms of the antitrust agreement with the United States government, and likely answers concerns of the European Union as well. Europe has been particularly hard on Microsoft with recent record fines on top of initial fines. Microsoft's appeal in that proceeding continues. This agreement is forward-looking with the impending release of the Vista operating system.
- OEMs can customize software and defaults including those for search and other services where choices exist
- They can customize Windows by removing Internet Explorer, Media Player, and other Microsoft software and include that from competitors without retaliation
- Microsoft will license patents at a fair rate other than those relating to the look of Windows
- Microsoft will license its communication protocols at a commercially reasonable rate and provide documentation so that other developers can easily connect their products to Windows Server (are your listening Neelie Kroes?)
- Microsoft commits to the idea that customers control their data and desktops (are you listening NSA?)
- Windows Live will develop separately from Windows and consumers will have a choice to use them together or not
- Windows will not have any Internet restrictions that prevent access to any lawful web site (net neutrality)
Quite a change from the scorched earth competition that earned the company heaps of scorn. The value of these principles will come as they are practically implement, so we'll see how Microsoft interprets them. Perhaps the antitrust lessons did make an impact on the company. It may be more cost effective to just conduct business than to pay lawyers and regulatory authorities record amounts of money. Maybe the system works.
July 20, 2006
Judge Refuses to Halt Privacy Suit Over State Secrets
Chief District Judge Vaughn Walker of the Northern District of California refused today to dismiss a class action lawsuit against AT&T over company cooperation in government surveillance of citizens. The government had invoked state secrets as a way of preventing the suit from going forward. The judge ruled that the nature of the suit was hardly a secret at this point and that allowing the parties to go forward at this time would not reveal any state secrets nor help terrorists.
Somewhere in a secret location is a government official gnashing his teeth.
Yahoo! Sells Popular MP3 Without DRM
Yahoo is performing an experiment in online music sales that has some interesting implications. A major impediment to online sales has been consumer acceptance to multiple and incompatible DRM schemes. As the market exists, Apple has the majority of sales because their approach has a lighter touch with DRM and the iPod has a cool factor beyond its functionality. The 99 cents price per song tends to define the market price for tracks. Apple essentially dictates this price since it supplies the majority of sales. Labels are intensely aware of this as they look for ways to implement a sliding price scale but are stymied until they can break free from Apple. That's not going to happen until there are easy alternatives to the iTunes store.
This is where Yahoo's interesting experiment comes in. They are selling a digital audio track (A Public Affair) by Jessica Simpson for $1.99 in MP3 format and without any DRM. Consumers would love this as the track can be played on any player or device and burned to CD. That's total portability at a higher price. This may be the market tactic that labels may use to try to break Apple's hold on pricing, assuming the experiment works, that is, sells a bazillion copies of the MP3. The question is whether the public will go for higher prices in return for more flexibility than even Apple provides.
Beyond that the sale is gimmick-ed up to draw attention to it. The song can be personalized by including different first names. The sale site (you can get a link to it from the Yahoo Music Blog) offers hundreds of names organized by gender and alphabetically. Common names are there of course, but there are names that challenge spell-checkers such as Buttahman, Kimball, Yomi, and Jordi as part of the mix. The site touts the download as personalized just for you, (and the millions of other Bob's out there) and if your name isn't there, well, check back later. Conspicuously missing is that of another Simpson, Bart. That wouldn't be the first time. In one episode of the Simpsons, Bart was in a gift shop at Itchy and Scratchy Land and couldn't find his name on a vanity license plate. He did find Bort, though, Jessica hasn't used that one yet.
We may see two or three trends here, sliding pricing, less paranoia on the part of content providers, and new marketing techniques for music. You can't sell picture discs, multi-colored vinyl sets, and box sets of mostly old material to collectors in cyberspace. Labels exploited the ability to provide different physical editions to sell the same music over and over again. This may be the start of the virtual version of this practice. Collector take note.
July 19, 2006
CinemaNow Steals Movielink's Thunder
On Monday I reported that Movielink has partnered with Sonic to allow customers to download films and burn them to DVD through DRM controls provided by Sonic to protect the content. The problem was that no content had been licensed by the studios for the process. CinemaNow has announced the same deal except that it has about 100 mostly older titles ready to go right now. Prices for downloads hover around $8.99 or so depending on the perceived value of the movie. There's a nice article in USA Today on this development.
My Customer Service Encounter and How to Hack Your Machine
I'm not used to working with a customer service department. I've built my own machines over the course of the last 10 years or so. I've selected the components, installed the operating systems fresh, configured drivers and pretty much customized every machine I've had since before Windows 95 was released. Those were desktop machines which made it easy. I decided to get a laptop which I could not build myself, so I bought one from Dell. I have a Latitude 620 which I think is a fine machine is most respects. The problem I encountered with it surprised me, however.
I decided that I wanted to take control of my machine and remove some of the paternalistic software that Dell (as do other manufacturers) include with their products. Google desktop was a breeze to uninstall (love ya, don't want to run ya) through Add/Remove Programs. Other tiny apps also politely disappeared as I removed them. What I didn't expect was a problem removing the Dell licensed DVD player app, PowerDVD. I decided to remove it as I installed another which was my preferred player. Beyond that, PowerDVD ran a process taking up three megabytes of memory just in case I decided to insert a DVD in my drive. There was certainly no need to waste memory like that.
To my surprise, PowerDVD would not uninstall even though my account was in the Administrator Account Group. Other Dell installed programs would not leave either when the uninstall routine was invoked. The process essentially froze. I sent a email to Dell Customer Service and they responded politely and quickly with a non-answer suggesting I talk to another part of the company about the problem. I sensed a shuffle and decided to do some research instead. What I found was interesting.
Dell and other manufacturers hide the general Administrator account from the end user with no documentation as to how to invoke it. Research on the web showed that this is considered a vulnerability by some security groups, although it was the perfect solution to my problem. There was even some reference to hacking the Administrator account in the Dell user forums, but not in relation to my problem.
There are two ways to get the account. One is by booting the machine in safe mode, in which case the login screen with all accounts becomes visible. The Administrator account, by default, has no password, which is considered to be the vulnerability. A straight Windows install asks the installing party to add a password to that account as part of the machine set-up. The Dell first use set-up (and from research, companies such as IBM as well) merely set up general user accounts, bypassing any reference to the Administrator.
Windows in safe mode has limited drivers running so an uninstall may or may not work depending on what is being uninstalled. Sometimes the Windows Installer Application does not update itself in safe mode. This may cause problems later on with trying to reinstall or remove components. The real hack to get to the Administrator account when it is hidden is to start Windows, open the Start Button Menu and choose the Log Off option. This presents the the log-on screen with the standard user account(s). So far so good. Hit Control-Alt-Delete and apparently nothing happens. Hit it a second time and a login dialog box appears allowing one to type in the user name Administrator (with no password) and logging on to the machine with full rights (and power).
Once in, I headed straight to the Control Panel to remove programs I did not intend to use. PowerDVD, like Elvis, left the building with nary a whimper as did the other Dell programs I had few intentions to use. With this I offer the advice that you may want to use this technique to set an Administrator password. If I can break into my machine this easily, someone can break into yours and do some damage. At the very least they can lock you out of your own installation. And if you have the same problem uninstalling unwanted software, well, there you go.
July 18, 2006
Viruses Hide, Microsoft Buys, and Symantec Criticizes
Some things just converge in the tech biz. Researchers at F-Secure have discovered a virus that actually installs itself as a rootkit on a Windows machine outside of the lab. Called Backdoor.Rustock.A, it uses a variety of techniques to avoid detection using standard means. What's even more interesting is that it can run on the betas of Windows Vista. So much for the focus on security for that one.
Rootkits came into the public conscience when Sony used that type of installation to load DRM software on consumer machines. That lead to a number of lawsuits and even a condemnation from representatives of the Department of Homeland Security. That rootkit was discovered by Mark Russinovich who works for Winternals, a provider of administration add-ons and other security related programs for Windows. Many useful and free Windows utilities are available at Sysinternals which is a related web site.
Microsoft announced today that it acquired Winternals and Sysinternals. Russinovich will join the staff at Microsoft working with Windows development. This is not a bad thing as Windows Vista, while still in beta, does not look ready for prime time.
In the same vein, Symantec reported that Windows Vista may be less secure than Windows XP in networking components. Microsoft notes that the product is still in beta and that some of the flaws have been addressed in subsequent builds. Symantec says it takes years to build a good network stack, sort of like no wine will ship before its time, or in January which is Vista's target release date. Maybe it's the way the news reports are written that makes Microsoft sound a bit defensive on this one. We'll see what shape Vista's in when it comes out.
All in all, viruses as rootkits are a bad thing, Microsoft employing Mark Russinovich is a good thing, and Symantec's evaluation of stability is a bad thing unless it gets Microsoft to make Vista stable, which is a good thing. This all sounds like a sketch from the Anamaniacs (see the Hooray for North Hollywood episode) except that it's software and not pitching movies.
July 17, 2006
Will Downloadable DVD's Finally Be Viable?
Sonic Solutions and Movielink have come up with a deal to allow buyers to copy downloaded movies to a DVD. The deal includes mechanisms for encoding multiple DRM systems on the final product. That ought to appeal to Hollywood as there can never be too many hoops for consumers to climb through to legally watch content. Aside from the technology being feasible, none of the studios have yet to agree to have their movies made available this way. Those deals have yet to be worked out.
According to Sonic spokesman Chip Taylor the final product would be "not unlike a DVD you'd get from Blockbuster today." That's good because in the last iteration of download options, movies were limited to specific devices, archive options were limited, and the price did not include multiple audio options such as 5.1 surround sound and any extras that might be on the commercial release. Oh, and that was for a price that was comparable to list even though the consumer supplied everything but the file. Pricing for this technology hasn't been announced but common sense suggests that it has to be competitive with Amazon, Best Buy, and the other discount options and locations. Previously viewed discs from Blockbuster anyone? Let's see if the distributors get this one right. It would be a nice change and might actually make it worthwhile to spend 8 hours or so on a broadband connection downloading the movie.