Super Web Tech: Chronicling the Evolution of the Internet

Videoblogging, podcasting, bittorrent, RSS encoding -- these and other fascinating innovations are ushering the internet into a new technological era. You can learn valuable advice about a variety of cutting-edge developments when you have the *Super Web Tech* advantage.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Podcasting Reaches the Masses

Though podcasting has become a familiar term for the most savvy of 'net users, it has only recently entered the view of the mainstream audience. The term "podcast" comes from a combination of the words "broadcast" and "iPod," the portable Apple media player which popularized the format. Users subscribe to podcast channels in the same way they get syndicated text from sites using RSS/XML feeds. In either case, the person tells their client program to continuously watch the source for new updates. When one appears, the program takes a excerpt of the post and stores it for the user to view when they log in to the client. Podcast subscription programs, or "podcatchers," download the audio podcast file so that the person can listen to the new item at their leisure.

The increased popularity of podcasts has come about largely by the efforts of Apple, whose new addition to iTunes has given millions of iPod users access to them. Over a million subscriptions to podcasts in Apple's new directory were noted in the first forty-eight hours. Apple's strategy with this new endeavor involves giving away access to these podcasts in the hopes of selling more iPods. Podcasts can also be downloaded with computer media players, but the iTunes system streamlines the process and makes it much easier to grab and listen to them. Some researchers expect the trend to explode even more in coming years, predicting the number of podcast listeners to reach up to 56 million by 2010. That's 75 percent of all iPod users, as compared to just fifteen percent last year.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Automated Tours Get Computerized Upgrade

Fans of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series will be well-aware of the famous guidebook of the same name, an amazing instrument which magically provides the reader with information related to exactly what they need at the moment. Now, this device is becoming a reality.

It knows where you are...
>A new electronic guide tailors information to the spot on which you’re standing.
It's the size of a postcard and has a small colour television screen with earphones snaking to a slot in the bottom. When I walk a few yards to my right... ping! A bell shrills in my ear and the screen bursts into life. A cheery voice declares, "You have walked into an interactive area." And what begins is a visitor experience like no other I've had.
What I'm experiencing is a foretaste of a semi-virtual world that, within a year, you should encounter in some of the best-known tourist centres, including the Louvre in Paris, Alcatraz in San Francisco, Edinburgh Castle and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Enter the Explorer, an innovative gadget that combines wireless technology, a global positioning system (GPS), interactivity, and a multimedia database. It's only as big as a postcard, but this little gadget may revolutionize automated tours. Up to this point we've relied on paper guidebooks and narrative cassettes which led us on a predescribed, unalterable trek. The Explorer takes touring to the next level, though.

The device is like a portable Web browser that automatically serves up information based on your exact location. It detects where you are in a designated area, such as a famous estate, with the use of GPS. When you reach the coordinates of a certain site of note -- a hotspot -- the computer shows content to enhance your experience. You don't have to go to the points in any certain order: just wander around and you'll be notified when there's something interesting about the place where you're standing. The content can include historical pictures, narration, sound effects such as a galloping army, and more. This draws you into the experience and makes it a more memorable and enjoyable one. The Explorer may become available to the public around this time next year.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Big Plans for Mozilla Expansion

The Mozilla Foundation reported today that its popular Firefox Web browser has passed the 75 million download mark -- with one third of the downloads in the last three months alone. Firefox isn't the only idea coming out of the organization these days, either. Here's an excerpt from the CNET article:

The foundation's open-source e-mail reader, Thunderbird, is approaching its 10 millionth download.... Mozilla on Monday released Minimo 007, the latest version of the prerelease mobile browser with [tabs, a bookmark manager, RSS feeds, and] an interface built in XUL (Extensible User Interface Language). [also see the Minimo Project]


"[Minimo .007] offers desktoplike browsing functionality optimized for small screens... [T]his is built on the same platform as Firefox. This will allow, for the first time, extension writers to access the handheld platform. Extensions like AdBlocker [sic] and even Greasemonkey may be easily ported and seamlessly run on these handhelds."

[full story]

These are exciting times for fans of Mozilla. With Firefox expected to attract more users because of the upcoming Microsoft Internet Explorer 7's incompatability with Windows 2000, the battle between the two browser rivals is definitely brewing. No matter who comes out the victor, if either, the end-user will inevitably reap the benefits.

Firefox downloaded 75 million times
Mozilla: IE 7 to boost Firefox growth
Windows 2000 users to miss out on IE 7

Monday, July 25, 2005

Yahoo! Buys Desktop Development Company

Yahoo! acquires Konfabulator
By Jim Dalrymple, Mac Central

Yahoo! Inc. on Monday will announce the acquisition of Konfabulator, a Macintosh and Windows application that allows users to run mini files known as Widgets on their desktop -- the same model used by Apple for its Dashboard application. Yahoo! company executives said they would also be giving Konfabulator away for free, completely doing away with the US$19.95 currently charged for the product.
Yahoo! said the reason they purchased Konfabulator was that they wanted an easy way to open up its APIs to the developer community and allow them easy access to the information on the Yahoo! Web site.
Arlo Rose, Longtime Macintosh developer and CEO of Konfabulator parent company Pixoria, will be staying on to head the development of Konfabulator at Yahoo!... "Our focus is to never stray from multiple platforms," Rose told MacCentral. "As a matter of fact, one of our goals is to investigate ways to open up Konfabulator to things like cell phones and maybe even Linux and your Tivo device. It’s about complete multi-platform distribution."

[full story]

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Universal Identity Metasystem Proposed

Kim Cameron, Microsoft's Architect of Identity, just had an interview about his proposed Laws of Identity. (Here's the full rundown.) They're is related to his theories on a "universal identity metasystem" which he says will help streamline interactions and stop the theft of identifying information. Though he obviously has a vested interest in the project, he wants everyone to work together to create and use this system, stating that "nothing that is proprietary is of any use in this world [regarding identity]."

The basics of the concept are like this: You have several identities depending on what company or group you're interacting with, and each has a personal profile with only a fraction of your information. You might be anonymous when you're surfing the Web, tell a hobby message board's group a few of your related interests, give eBay your bank account number, and so forth. Each company uses the unique system they've created using a universal protocol and is only allowed to grab the information you want to give them. It could work for other technologies, too, like having your Bluetooth tell your phone what hold music to play based on your playlist.

An endeavor of this type is bound to have its potential problems, as Cameron admits, because "the identity system itself will be the most attacked component of distributed computing.(*)" Basically he plans to minimize risk by only having information provided with the customer's knowledge and provide as little information as necessary to each company.

It should be interesting to see how all of this pans out.

Friday, July 22, 2005

How To Improve Blue Frog

Since I've given my opinions on the problems inherent in the Blue Frog system, I thought it would be proper to describe what I feel would make the idea more palatable.

*Remove Registry
I would be much more comfortable buying and downloading a program which works solely on my computer and not with a network of others. Perhaps it could become part of an email system (see Revamp Honeypots below). This minimizes the risk of my email address getting into the wrong hands while utilizing the beneficial response technology of Blue Frog. The program could access company databases when necessary, like when it is trying to determine whether a spammer's return address is spoofed.

*Spam Analysis
I have no doubt that this automated response system could be a boon to users, assuming it could analyze spam properly. This could come in the form of a database of known spammer addresses. When a person receives a spam, Blue Frog would access the central list of spammers, continuing with the procedure if the address or domain is a frequent offender. If it isn't, the letter goes to a specialist at Blue Security who determines whether or not the return address is spoofed. If everything checks out, she sends a command to the same Blue Frog program to continue the process.

*Revamp Honeypots
The honeypot concept is a good one, but I don't see the necessity of including valid and junk addresses together in any type of registry. Instead, users could sign up for a fully-functional email account and use this as their primary email address to post online or respond to questionable people. The account could be set to automatically forward mail to their main personal account if and when it passes all the filters. This keeps the real address out of the wrong hands by providing an effective buffer between the spammer and the user.

Overall, this is an intriguing technology that might just need to have some bugs worked out.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Distractive Technology Preventing Productivity

CNET News reports that people are becoming distracted by technology which interrupts their work, such as email and instant messaging. This keeps them from being able to concentrate and perform critical tasks. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates disagrees, though, blaming the issue on an inability to find information easily.

Driven to distraction by technology
Published: July 21, 2005, 4:00 AM PDT
By Ina Fried

>>The typical office worker is interrupted every three minutes by a phone call, e-mail, instant message or other distraction. The problem is that it takes about eight uninterrupted minutes for our brains to get into a really creative state....

The result, says Carl Honore, journalist and author of "In Praise of Slowness," is a situation where the digital communications that were supposed to make working lives run more smoothly are actually preventing people from getting critical tasks accomplished.

This perspective is certainly valid. While the strategies the article suggests are mostly intuitive (such as turning off email alerts), it makes sense that we should take time to cut out distractions and focus on our work. As Carl Honore says, "[I]t's possible to get too much of a good thing. As a society, that's where we are at the moment [with digital communications]."

Gates: 'Information overload' is overblown
Published: May 19, 2005, 9:54 AM PDT
By Ina Fried

>>REDMOND, Wash.--Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates on Thursday countered the popular notion that workers are universally overloaded with too much information.

The problem, Gates said, is that the information exists, but it is not in one place and cannot be easily viewed in a meaningful way using today's software.

"You have to seek the information out... it is spread across different systems," Gates said....

Gates also showed off the Windows Desktop Search that Microsoft introduced earlier this week, demonstrating how it could show all his mail from "Steve" and even which documents were attached to those e-mails.

Mr. Gates' response seems somewhat irrelevant. The technology he suggests could increase productivity, but some of his solutions ignore the basic issue of lessening the volume of information we receive. His thoughts on email prioritization and internal search software and have merit, though.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Blue Frog Anti-Spam Initiative, Part III: Questionable Legality

Bringing Spammers to Their Knees
Tom Spring, PC World
Monday, July 18, 2005
[Full story]

In addition to its apparent problems (see previous post), this initiative has some aspects which may be potentially illegal:

*Distributed Denial of Service Attack
The influx of tens of thousands of requests exactly at the same time floods the spammers' Web site, causing it to become inoperable.

This technique of flooding a Web site with information in order to cripple it may be effective, but it's arguably very similar to a distributed denial of service attack in which a hacker uses hundreds of zombie computers to shut down Web sites. Launching a distributed denial of service attack is illegal in the U.S. and in most European countries.

Blue Security's Reshef bristles at the notion that his firm is involved with any type of DDoS attack. "We aren't trying to shut down any Web sites."...

Once the registry hits a critical mass in size, the company believes the threat of a shutdown will intimidate spammers.
In spite of what Mr. Reshef says, this description sounds very similar to a DDoS attack, even if he doesn't use the phrase. That's like a spammer calling herself a "high-volume email marketer." The result is the same: many computers accessing one site at the same time in order to disrupt its service. A spammer could potentially bring all the users who hit her into a huge lawsuit for this illegal action.

*Most users not spammed
Blue Frog's software causes all of its connected users to submit the request/complaint simultaneously--and repeatedly--for a period of time.

Messages identified as spam are automatically forwarded... to all Blue Community members.... This forwarding technique allows each Community member to complain about all the spam messages received by any e-mail account listed in the Do Not Intrude Registry.... [1, p. 5]

[I]f the Community receives 20,000 messages advertising a certain site, and there are 300,000 Community members, the number of spam messages (and complaints) will amount to 20,000 x 300,000, or 6 billion complaints. [2, p. 7
You can't complain if you didn't personally get an unwanted letter. This is an unethical technique which multiplies the attack on the spammer by sending messages back from people who didn't actually get any spam. Every Blue Frog member who didn't specifically receive a letter from a spammer becomes a spammer themselves.

Overall, I see Blue Frog as a spam-prevention idea with some good potential, but which uses methods that are as unethical as, if not more so than, those of the spammer being attacked. Its current problems make it potentially be harmful to the company and its users in spite of their good intentions.

[1] BlueSecurity - Active Deterrence Technology (PDF)


UPDATE - July 21, 2005:
In a blog entry [June 20, 2005], Blue Security representatives responded to the issues I mentioned above. Apparently the company has decided to drop its technique of forwarding every spam and multiplying the reply rate. They also said that the responses are staggered to minimize the possibility of a DDoS attack from Blue Frog's network. These are favorable developments, but I'm still very wary of the concept.

Blue Frog Anti-Spam Initiative, Part II: Flawed Methodology

Bringing Spammers to Their Knees
Tom Spring, PC World
Monday, July 18, 2005
[Full story]

The following are some concerns I see as flaws in Blue Frog's makeup or rationale:

*Voluntary zombies
Blue Frog's software causes all of its connected users to submit the request/complaint simultaneously--and repeatedly--for a period of time.
Spammers take over innocent users' computers to send spam from them. This is only a voluntary verion of the same technique. What if the open-code program was hacked and gave spammers access to a wide network of computers which were already configured to be mail-sending zombies?

And because spammers typically must pay for the bandwidth of traffic to and from their sites, the massive flood of complaints means higher bills to keep the sites running, Blue Security argues.

[M]any of the recent viruses act as both DNS server and Web server for the spammers who also use them to send out their spam.[1]
Spammers probably see bandwidth charges and frequent hosting changes as just another business expense, like paying rent. They expect and plan for it. Besides that, this is assuming that the spammer even pays for her hosting. They could run their own server or even use virus-infected computers to unwittingly host their sites and send spam.

*Registry doesn't stop spammers
Over time, however, spammers will be forced to stop e-mailing Do-Not-Intrude registrants in order to remain in business.
There are an infinite number of new email addresses. They'll never run out of victims. Even if their site is shut down, they'll just move on to another one and start the cycle again.

*Hurting businesses on same ISP
Note that a DDoS attack can bring down an entire ISP--including legitimate sites that happen to use the same hosting service as a spammer's business.
You wouldn't want to destroy an innocent group of sites just because they had the misfortune of being on the same hosting provider as a spammer.

[1] Spam News: Blue Frog: Yet Another Fight-Spam-Through-DDoS Tool

Blue Frog Anti-Spam Initiative, Part I: Good Aspects

Bringing Spammers to Their Knees
Tom Spring, PC World
Monday, July 18, 2005

In a novel if potentially controversial effort to fight spam, a firm called Blue Security this week begins distributing the beta of a free program that, once installed on your PC, makes it part of a community that works to cripple Web sites run by spammers. [Full story]

This article reports a controversy around Blue Frog, an anti-spam program just released by Blue Security. Users install it on their computers and put their email addresses on a Do-Not-Intrude Registry. When a spammer hits one of the company's spam traps or any inbox listed in the registry, every listed user's computer sends a complaint to the offending website, potentially crashing it. While the program may be effective, I see some shortcomings in its rationale, methods, and legality.

While there are some benefits I can see to parts of this program, it seems to me that this development is frightening or wrong on several levels.

There are some positive aspects of the Blue Frog system:

*CAN-SPAM analysis
Blue Frog analyzes the spam... and identifies messages that are not compliant with the federal Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act (known as CAN-SPAM). These include unsolicited marketing messages that don't provide an opt-out option or that have an invalid return address.
Blue Security says it will attempt to warn noncompliant spammers to stop sending e-mail...

*Fair warning
Blue Security says... it will do everything it can to contact the people who send out the spam and... the Web sites those messages link to... If that doesn't work, Blue Security will attempt to contact the Internet service provider hosting the site...
In and of themselves, these three countermeasures could be a helpful, effective timesaver to complain to spammers and ISPs about unlawful business practices. This would save people the trouble of manually replying to every letter and notifying the proper authorities.

*Human spam checks
Once spam messages are received at Blue Security’s Operations Center they are analyzed by the Blue Security analysis team to identify the violators.... [1, p. 5]
The fact that checks are made for legal violations by people instead of computers greatly decreases the chance that a legitimate business will be wrongfully attacked.

Coming up: What's wrong with this approach?

[1] BlueSecurity - Active Deterrence Technology (PDF)

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Introducing Super Web Tech

Podcasting, RSS encoding, video on demand, pay-per-click -- these and other fascinating online innovations are ushering the internet into a new technological era. Issues such as privacy and security directly affect you, so you need to be well-informed. Learn valuable advice about a variety of cutting-edge developments when you have the Super Web Tech advantage. Return often for information and opinions on the technology affecting the world today.

This newsletter contains insights into the Web's current technological evolution and related news, gleaned from expert websites and personal research. Stay tuned for continuing coverage of these and other matters shaping the future of the internet.