Bob and Joy
     By Bob and Joy Schwabach

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May 2000, Week 3 -- The Case of the Mysterious Black Glob of Gup


   The tale began one rain-drenched morning when we woke up and went out for an "I-Opener." This is a web-surfing device from Netpliance. We already had a Web-TV box from Philips and were continuing our efforts to travel the web without a computer. It's slow going.

   Unlike other web boxes, the I-Opener has its own display screen and keyboard and needs no TV. It came out at $400 early this year and met with serious sales resistance. The price was dropped to less than $100 in April and sales went wild, which has meant nothing but trouble ever since. A guy in Las Vegas figured out you could take this $99 box and convert it to a fully functional Windows or Linux computer with hardly any effort or cost.


   We could not find an I-Opener anywhere. This has become the hottest high-tech item in America. Circuit City, the country's largest chain of consumer electronics stores, is sold out and has no stock in their warehouses. CompUSA, the only other retailer to carry the I-Opener, is likewise sold out and has no idea when they can get more.


   The device has become a hacker playground. The first wave came from users of Linux, the free operating system from Finland. With a minor change in a connecting cable, Las Vegas engineer Ken Segler converted the I-Opener into a Pentium PC. He offered do-it-yourself kits for $35 from his web site and sold 200 of them over the weekend as word spread quickly through the hacker community.


   Meanwhile, back at Netpliance, the company was on the verge of its initial public stock offering. There was good news and there was bad news. The good news was the product was practically walking off the shelves and into shopping carts. The bad news was that the buyers were not signing up for the web service, which was how Netpliance figured to make their money. The stock shot up on opening day but it was all downhill from there. The word on the street was that it cost well over $100 to make the box, so there was no money in selling it for $99. The money was supposed to kick in when you signed up for the Internet service at $21 a month. But the hackers were saying forget that, we've got a regular PC here. It was so cheap, people were installing them in the kitchen, their car, the children's bedroom, etc.


   Meanwhile, the empire prepared to strike back. New I-Opener units from Netpliance have a black glob of some kind of gup melted onto the bios chip and running out over the motherboard. It seems to serve no purpose but to prevent access to the chip; you'd need a blowtorch to remove it. And now you have to sign up for three months of their Internet service the minute you buy. Six times a day the service takes the user directly to the Netpliance home site and makes changes to the bios or the operating system. Take that, you peasants!


   Meanwhile, rebel forces are gathering. A company spokesperson acknowledged that the battle had settled into a kind of cybernetic trench warfare. "I guess there's always another hack that can be done," said the spokesperson. Meanwhile, the hacking has turned to converting other web-tv boxes into full-fledged computers.


   Stay tuned at the following web sites:;; and Also search for news on Lycos


Back at the world's slowest TV game show ...



   "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" is out in a second Edition for Windows and Macintosh, just a few weeks after the first edition. That's great news, because the first edition stunk.

   I read with continual astonishment the rave reviews and promotional huzzahs that came out from national magazines and well known reviewers when this game first appeared. They must not have run it because we tried it out and the questions started repeating after just 15 minutes of play. That's no fun. The new one works fine, and is fun.




-- Check your e-mail by voice from any telephone. Have your voice-mail forwarded to your e-mail account. Or... you can get "virtual voice-mail" even if you don't own a telephone. All free.

-- You get to chat with a real doctor, 24 hours a day, every day. Service is free. Answers are straight and private.

-- Site is similar to the one above, also round the clock consultations, no charge. Waiting times vary.


--  Free firewall program that examines e-mail attachments for viruses before opening them.

-- Free fix that repairs the changes made to the Windows registry files by the "Love You" virus.

--  Home site for the Hispanic Public Relations Association. Site is in English or Spanish.


-- Log on to download the "Hamster Wheelies Screen Saver." Dozens of little rodents race their exercise wheels in 3D. This is weirdly funny.


-- Reviews of web hosting services.

--  Answers to a lot of technical questions. Many of the questions readers ask me through e-mail are also answered here.

NOTE: Readers can search more than three years of columns at the "On Computers" web site: You can e-mail Bob Schwabach at or