15 January 2008

Access Denied (but maybe not for long)

You may really have a good reason to access a web site that has been blocked by your employer's IT Services or some catch-all, over-protective bit of management software.

You can. Try this. Type
in the address bar, replacing www. site.com with the url required.

This often works because Google has a translation service to help others understand our sites and vice versa. They use a proxy service to present the new page and this may get around Big Brother. Of course, when you have time you should also get the site you want removed from the blacklist or included in a permitted list and discuss matters with him.

07 January 2008

13 Biggest Tech Flops of 2007

I reproduce below extracts from PC Advisor's list, presented in reverse order, just to keep you guessing! One thing they all have in common (apart from my agreement with all that they say!) is that we all had expected so much from them but have instead been left either a bit disappointed or frustrated. Here goes . .

#13. Screwed up to the max:

It sounded like a great idea: big cities would offer wide-area wireless internet access as part of their infrastructure, the same as roads, traffic lights... and sewers. A cheap, fast net connection anywhere within the ringroad, 24/7. What's not to love?

US cities blazed a trail of this net bonanza. Then public and private WiMax ventures started dropping like flies. Sprint and Clearwire called off their plans to build a nationwide WiMax network in the US, after Sprint CEO Gary "bet the company on WiMax" Forsee got canned in October 2006.

Then early in 2007 EarthLink bailed on its offer to foot the bill for a Wi-Fi network in San Francisco.

Similar city-funded projects have bought the farm in Chicago; Milwaukee; and Anchorage, Alaska. Even Silicon Valley - arguably the most net-centric community this side of Mars - has had a hard time getting its WiMax plans off the ground. The big reason? Cost. Unwiring the whole valley would cost an estimated $200 million, or $133K a square mile. SV geeks can always park their cars near the Googleplex in Mountain View, whose wireless network covers 12 square miles.

As for the rest of the US, well, they can hope and pray that the search titans win the FCC auction for the 700MHz wireless spectrum in January, and then decide to open their network to the world.

Does Google have to do everything? And even then, that's not going to help British geeks toiling away in the Thames valley. So much for WiMax.

#12. Web 2.0 woe: social networks

Memo to Badoo, Bebo, Catster, Dogster, Facebook, Faceparty, Flickr, Flixster, Hi5, Hyves, Imbee, Imeem, MySpace, Mixi, Pizco, Pownce, Takkle, Twitter, Virb, Vox, Xanga, Xing, Zoomr... and the 3,245,687 other social clamouring for our limited attention spans: we got it.

Making connections between friends is cool. Sharing photos and videos, even cooler. But it's all so... 2006. Haven't you got anything new to show us?

Here's a safe bet: Two years from now, 90 percent of these networks will be gone and their founders will be back working at Starbucks. I'll have a double mocha frappucino, please.

#11. Just Another Oxymoron: internet security

In 2007, the words "internet security" joined the ever-growing list of self-cancelling phrases, alongside "business intelligence", "government ethics" and "Microsoft Works".

This year, bot herders proved they could harness enough zombie PCs to take down an entire country's infrastructure for a month. Estonia eventually recovered, but our notion of net invulnerability hasn't.

According to McAfee's Virtual Criminology Report, some 120 governments are actively engaged in web espionage and cyber assaults.

Meanwhile, private criminals used the Storm worm to created a botnet for hire containing millions of zombies - enough to take down a major network.

As with global warming, there's plenty of blame to go around - for everybody from developers of insecure software to home users who blithely log on without inoculating their PCs. Let's hope they get more of a clue in 2008.

#10. Singing an old familiar Zune: Microsoft Zune

Microsoft ZuneMicrosoft got a chance to do things right with its "iPod Killer" in 2007. And Zune 2.0 was certainly an improvement - offering 80GB of storage instead of 30GB, wireless syncing, improved touch controls, and a choice of nano-like 8GB players in a variety of bright colors (Gaviscon pink, anyone?).

But Microsoft failed to lose the Zune's proprietary DRM scheme or remove all its restrictions on wireless music sharing (you can share songs with other nearby Zune users, but they can listen to them only three times before the songs go up in smoke).

#9. Sorry, we already gave: Office 2007

Many of us spent a decade learning how to use Microsoft Office. So now that we finally have it all down, Microsoft changes almost everything about the interface in 2007, and not for the better. Instead of simple-if-prosaic toolbars, Office 2007 serves up a jumble of confusing icons known as the 'Ribbon.'

Microsoft Office

Robert Luhn, editor in chief of DrBicuspid.com, says the new version was a stumble backwards. "Scrambled interface, incompatibility with old macros, but hey, I do get in-context spell checking," he says. "Is that worth the £200 upgrade? Me thinks not."

Overall, we liked the added support for XML and online collaboration tools when we reviewed Office 2007 late last year. But Ribbon schmibbon. We'll take the classic menus, please - even if we have to spend £20 for an add-in program to get them back.

#8. Needs to change its spots: Apple "Leopard" OS 10.5

Maybe we just got spoiled by the iPod and iPhone, but the glow came off Steve Job's halo after this feline fleabag debuted. Within days of its release last October, Mac users reported dozens of problems with the new OS, some more serious than others.

Among the many: wireless connections that slowly petered away, administrative logins that mysteriously disappeared, and a disturbing tendency to nuke data when moving it between two drives if the connection is interrupted.

Worse, a security bug that was fixed in OS 10.4 in March 2006 resurfaced in Leopard, according to Symantec. The Apple Mail vulnerability allows malicious attachments to execute code.

German security researchers discovered that Leopard came with its firewall turned off, leaving users vulnerable to attack. Adding insult to injury, some upgraders even reported a Windows-like Blue Screen of Death when upgrading from previous Mac OSes.

#7. Cannot be completed as dialed (sic): voice over IP

Here's a recipe for disaster: Have the market leader in your industry sued by three of the biggest telecom companies on the planet. Have second-tier players go belly up overnight, leaving thousands of business customers without any phone service. Add in a healthy dose of security vulnerabilities, and bake at 450 degrees until crispy.

Any way you slice it, 2007 was a crappy year for VoIP. Oh and by the way, your VoIP line may be bugged.

In November a UK-based security researcher released SIPtap, a proof-of-concept exploit that allows remote users to tap into and record voice streams across the net.

#6. 'Up to' something: the broadband industry

In 2007 US users learned that some of the largest ISPs in the country - Comcast, Cox, Qwest, Cablevision, and Charter among them - throttle or otherwise interfere with BitTorrent traffic on the sly. Comcast denied it at first, then admitted to "traffic shaping" to discourage bandwidth-sucking peer-to-peer users. Now it's being sued by angry customers. Suddenly the whole net neutrality argument doesn't seem like such a bad idea.

Meanwhile, all the major telecom providers who blithely handed their bitstreams over to the NSA without a subpoena are now demanding retroactive immunity for the deed. Whose bits are they, anyway?

But before UK users get too smug, try to remember the last time your broadband connection was as fast as the 'up to' figure you were quoted led you to believe. And then try to define what is meant by 'fair useage' on your ISP's download policy. Perhaps talk to Sky and Virgin subscribers about their ugly spat, or ask Ofcom to comment on the speed and build-quality of the UK's broadband infrastructure.

Add in ISPs merging left, right and centre, and 2007 was a less-than auspicious year for the broadband industry. As always, it was the poor old consumer who felt the chill.

#5. The great, the bad, the ugly: Apple iPhone

Apple iPhoneYes, we know. Sliced bread only wishes it were as great as the iPhone. And aside from minor flaws such as a tiny touch keyboard and lack of Flash support, the phone itself is pretty terrific. But the phone's 'broadband' mobile internet service and single (long-term) contract with only one carrier? Definitely second-rate. But if you want to switch from O2 to a different carrier - or pay as you go - you have to take your chances with the hackers.

The massive price tag doesn't help. If you've just shelled out the best part of three hundred quid on a phone, a monthly tariff of up to £55 is less than welcome.

And those who did try to open their iPhones to other carriers or third-party applications found themselves owners of £269 iBricks when Apple tweaked the firmware to lock them out.

Memo to Apple: it's time to treat iPhones for what they really are - pocket computers with phone functions built in - and open them up the world. Just a thought.

#4. No friend of dissent: Yahoo

We can't say we really expected much out of Yahoo in 2007. Giving CEO Terry Semel the boot was probably a good thing - especially after his $230m compensation package came to light.

Installing the original Yahoo, Jerry Yang, as head honcho also seems like a smooth move, even if the company seems permanently stuck in the number two position behind Google.

Yet there's one area where Yahoo can lay claim to being number one: creating political prisoners. At least three times over the past five years, information supplied by Yahoo to the Bejiing government has led to the incarceration of Chinese dissidents.

#3. The antisocial network: Facebook Beacon

We have to hand it to Facebook for stealing the social-networking spotlight from MySpace this year. But once it got up on stage, Facebook laid an egg.

For example, opening up the Facebook platform to third-party developers was inspired. Now, six months later, those viral-to-the-point-of-influenza Facebook apps are mostly just irritating. (For the 27th time: no, I do not want to spam everyone in my network with another movie quiz, thank you. Now go away.)

The introduction of Facebook's Beacon advertising program was more than disappointing - it was disturbing. Suddenly, anything you purchased on Amazon or three dozen other sites would be broadcast to your Facebook friends.

#2. What is it good for: the high-def format war

February 2007: Sony declares its Blu-ray the winner of the hi-def format wars.

April 2007: Toshiba announces its HD DVD player is the first to sell more than 100,000 units.

July 2007: Blockbuster Video says it will carry only Blu-ray discs in more than 1400 of its retail outlets.

August 2007: Paramount and DreamWorks announce exclusive support for the HD DVD format.

September 2007: God help us, a third HD format has emerged: HD VMD (Versatile Multilayer Disc).

Enough already.

#1. Significant how? Windows Vista

Five years in the making and this is the best Microsoft could do?

It's not that Vista is awful. The integrated security and parental controls are nice, and the Aero interface is as whizzy as it gets. Searching and wireless networking are much faster and easier than under XP.

It's just that Vista isn't all that good. Many of the innovations the operating system was supposed to bring - such as more efficient file and communications systems - got tossed overboard as Microsoft struggled to get the OS out the door, some three years after it was first promised. Despite its hefty hardware requirements, Vista is slower than XP.