An idiosyncratic look at, and comment on, the week's net and technology news
by Alan Lenton
I'm afraid it's a fairly subdued issue this week. I'm just starting to go down with a bad cold, and it's making my head feel like cotton wool. So this week there is less of the acid wit and incisive analysis (or something like that, anyway).
So, lets cut straight to the chase...
You know there are real problems with the economy when the mobile phone operators start selling off their communications towers! The handset manufacturers have been bleeding for a while now, as people decline to trade in their handsets for the latest, coolest and hippest models. This sort of operator activity, though, is something different.
AT&T is selling 235 of its communication towers to Global Tower Partners (GTP). The towers concerned are located in 24 states across the US, so the spread is pretty wide. GTP have about 3,000 towers in the US and offers outsourced wireless services to, among others, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless. AT&T aren't the only one to dispose of towers recently. Sprint recently sold more than 3,000 of its towers for TowerCo, and then leased them back in a hardware outsourcing deal.
Still, look on the bright side - at least the outsourced towers can't be moved to India or China...
One bit of bad news for the incoming Obama administration concerns their project to provide a broadband stimulus package. Pew's Internet & American Life project has been taking a look why people haven't got broadband. I bet you thought that it was because the didn't have access to broadband, or because broadband was too expensive.
It seems that these problems only apply to only one third of the Americans who are sans broadband. The rest are simply not interested. You know something, I think that number might grow with the recession. The bottom line is very simple, broadband, indeed the internet itself, is a still luxury, and the less disposable income you have, the more of a luxury it is.
But even if it's not a luxury, for some people's life style, then dial-up or no connectivity is perfectly adequate. I know a number of people who fall in these categories, and apart from possible e-mail communication with distant relatives, the Internet has nothing to offer them.
It will be interesting to see what becomes of the current administration's initiative on this issue.
On the other side of the equation is a report from digital research firm comScore Inc reporting a significant land mark in the history of the Internet. It passed the one billion users mark in December. A billion - 1,000,000,000 (that's a decimal number for the smart asses) - which is by any yardstick a lot of people.
The CEO of comScore predicted the '...the second billion will be on line before we know it...' Hmmm, I'm not so sure. I think that depends on the length of the current economic recession, and what its effects on both the USA and China are.
The Internet grew to over a billion in what was fundamentally a period of sustained growth, the second begins in a period of serious retrenchment. Projecting the trend seen in the first onto the second seems to me like asking for trouble.
Microsoft is being badly stung by its earlier anarchic software development practices. One of the things it agreed to do as part of the anti-trust settlement was to provide proper documentation for its communication protocols. This was a component of both the EU and the US cases.
This, I know, even with highly structured development processes can be a nightmare. Developers hate documenting their code, and in Microsoft's early years things such as undocumented code just grew like topsy, without a great deal of structure.
Even when Microsoft became much bigger and more organised, it still had to provide backwards compatibility for these facilities, which made it difficult to see from the code exactly what is going on.
Now the chickens have really come home to roost as nearly 800 Microsoft employees struggle with more than 20,000 pages of technical documentation. Last month (December 2008), for instance, they identified 613 new bugs and corrected 531 bugs. That was bad enough, less bugs fixed than were added to the list. However, the technical committee responsible for compliance found over 500 more bugs.
The net result was that the number of known bugs in the documentation rose from 1,196 to 1,660 in December alone. Still, I know of 800 employees whose jobs are safe for the foreseeable future!
Here's a nifty little thing to keep you all (even the non-geeks) entertained over the next four years. The St Petersburg Times is running an online Obameter, tracking the status of the various promises President Obama made in his campaign. This will be updated as the promises are kept or discarded.
Politicians are notorious for making promises while soliciting votes. Promises they can't, or won't keep, when they get into office. So this should be an interesting exercise in holding politicians to account.
For the record, the meter currently shows:
Promises kept - 5
Compromises - 1
Promises broken - 0
Stalled - 1
In the works - 14
No action - 488
A little way to go yet, then.
Disk drive maker Seagate is currently demonstrating just why it is that people are so reluctant to keep their software up to date, in spite of all the security threats.
The problems started when it was discovered that a number of 1TB Barracuda drives made in Thailand had a firmware fault which locked up the drive and rendered it inoperable. On 17th January Seagate issued a firmware update to fix the fault...
Unfortunately, the fix wasn't tested properly on all the drives to which it would be applied. The result? Owners of 500GB drives who applied the fix now had bricked drives. On the 21st January Seagate, who had by this time removed the original fix, announced that they would issue a fix for the fix within 24 hours.
I can't find anywhere on the net that says they've issued it, so presumably people are still waiting for it, or have replaced their drives. Whatever happens now, Seagate's reputation is going to be in the mud for some time to come. I for one won't be buying, or recommending, Seagate drives in the foreseeable future.
One final piece of gloomy news is that one of the biggest payment processors in the US - Heartland Payment Systems - has compromised tens of millions of credit and debit card transactions. This looks to be even more serious than the TJX heist that broke last year.
Heartland handle about 100 million transactions a month for a large number of small and medium size businesses. They don't know how long the spyware that they discovered has been in place. Indeed, the spyware was only discovered because of an audit triggered by fraud on cards that had been previously processed by Heartland.
We won't know what the likely scale of the damage is for some time, but in the meantime speculation rages about whether Heartland were trying to get the news lost in the wash (some hope) by releasing it on inauguration day!
Scanner: Other Stories
US Army working on 'exploding marmalade' missile tech
The in-progress plot to kill Google
FCC probes Comcast's phone practices
17,000 downloads does not equal 17,000 lost sales
Microsoft resorts to first ever layoffs, cutting 5,000 jobs
Raging Windows worm has attacked over 8.9 million computers
Technologies to watch fail in 2009
UK.gov 'to create anti-net piracy agency'
Thanks to readers Barb, Fi, lois, and to Slashdot's daily newsletter for drawing my attention to material used in this issue.
Please send suggestions for stories to email@example.com and include the words Winding Down in the subject line, unless you want your deathless prose gobbled up by my voracious Spamato spam filter...
25 January 2009
Alan Lenton is an on-line games designer, programmer and sociologist. His web site is at http://www.ibgames.net/alan.
Past issues of Winding Down can be found at http://www.ibgames.net/alan/winding/index.html