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January 2005, Week 3 -- We Have Seen the Future, and It Works Without Windows

 

 

 

   This is the time of year when columnists like to – nay, are expected to – look into the future and tell the world what’s coming. This is despite the advice of the late Will Rogers, who remarked: “Never make predictions, especially about the future.”

 

   Ok, let’s stick our neck out a wee bit. In this case we’re going to mention not so much what’s coming as what may be going. The thing that struck us most about the enormous growth in online holiday sales is that roaming the Internet has become a primary use of  the computer. It may be the primary use. In that case, the choice of operating system loses significance. To get right to the point, you can access the worldwide web with any operating system: Windows, Mac, Linux, etc.

 

 mac mini
the Mac mini

   This brings into question the longtime dominance of Microsoft’s Windows. It will still be important to business, which has so much time and money invested in Windows programs, but of diminishing importance to the home user, who really doesn’t care how they get on the web. In fact, getting on the web with a system other than Windows, with its built-in Internet Explorer browser, will actually be an advantage, since other systems are less vulnerable to attacks by viruses and spyware.

   This situation should be good for Apple’s Macintosh systems, at least for the moment. Perhaps with this very thought in mind, rumors are rampant that Apple is about to introduce a Mac for less than $500, or maybe it’s less than $600, depending on whose rumor is getting the most press. Of course there are already Windows computers selling for less than $500 and they’ve been around for some time. A jolly good price war is about to start for one and all.

 

Meanwhile, back at the old security shed…

 

   We recently had a rather acrimonious exchange with someone from D-Link Systems, who demanded the immediate return of their latest wireless equipment when we indicated we had strong reservations about wireless networking and Internet access. We just weren’t on the team, their spokesman told us, in so many words. He meant their marketing team, of course. And here we didn’t even know we were supposed to be working for them. Boy, are we naïve.

 

   One of the primary problems with wireless is that it’s not secure. Sure, you can make a wireless system secure, but most of them ship with that feature turned off, and many people don’t turn it on. A study last year found that upwards of 80 percent of home users do not use the security features of their wireless network and Internet access routers. This is usually because it’s so hard to figure out how to do it.

 

   What does it mean that it’s not secure? Well, a wireless system is a radio station! Anybody else with a wireless computer system running less than 150 to 200 feet away can watch whatever you’re sending and receiving. They can also use your wireless system for their own online computing. They can even make it appear that emails they write and orders they submit are coming from you and respond to them. They can ask for and collect any personal information you send. Is this an open invitation theft – the fastest growing nonviolent crime in America? Does this open you up to legal liabilities? Are you kidding? As we all nervously tap our fingers, Broadcom, www.broadcom.com, is supposed to release a new way to secure home systems.

 

So in the meantime, what’s a fella to do?

   Our attention was drawn to a program from OTO Software that can monitor who is using your wireless Internet access and block them if you want to. It’s called Wi-Fi Defense and sells for $30 from OTO; there’s a 30-day free trial as well.

   The software lets you know who is on your network and how often they are using it. Some of those people will be known to you: yourself for one; family and friends for another. But if you see a TIVO connected and you know no one in your household has one, you can block them by adding them to a list labeled “foes.” If you know you have three computers in your wireless network and the Wi-Fi Defense software shows that four are using the network, something is rotten in Denmark, and we don’t mean fish. You can identify the rotter because the software has previously asked you to give names to all the computers in your own network. You can see a demo of Wi-Fi Defense at www.otosoftware.com.

 

Coming soon to a cell phone near you

 

   Just to show you there’s room for more paranoia, we’ll turn to cell phones. Cell phones are wireless receivers. They are also transmitters. Duh, another radio station. Everything you send that’s not encrypted can be picked up and understood by another receiver. That includes your phone number. Soon to appear in great numbers (we’re back in the prediction business again) will be unsolicited ads and probably pornography sent to your cell phone. You will be delighted to learn that under some subscription payment plans you’ll be charged for receiving ads you didn’t want. You will also begin to receive cell phone viruses. (Is this the end of Western civilization as we know it?  Or just the end of chatter about what else to get at the supermarket?) One small protection: Go to https://www.donotcall.gov/default.aspx and add your cell phone number to the “do not call list.”

 

And finally, a word about stupid kid stuff

 

 

   We look at a lot of children’s programs. So do the children we send them to. Regardless of age, the same thing drives us nuts. In an open outcry to the makers of software for children --- PLEASE LET US TURN OFF THE INSTRUCTIONS!

   Every game starts off with spoken instructions on what keys work what, how to find clues, how to move the main character, etc. That’s fine; it’s the fourth or fifth time we hear those instructions that drives everyone nuts. We have watched children clap their hands over their ears as the game starts up again with instructions and music they’ve heard a dozen times before. Some turn down the volume until the instructions are over. Sometimes they’d rather not play the game than have to listen to the opening drivel. Please cut it out or put in an escape key.

  Copyright 2005 Universal Press Syndicate