Features

Radical remedies

National | Uncle Sam threatens to smash Microsoft, Xerox tries to hit new frontiers, and other technology news

Issue: "Supreme Court dividing line," May 6, 2000

Making Microsoft micro-powered
Are you ready for Baby Bills? The federal government, recently victorious in an antitrust battle against Microsoft, wants to break up the software giant into two or more parts just as the old Standard Oil was broken up into Mobil, Chevron, Exxon, and other pieces. One piece might get the Windows operating system. Another might get the Internet properties. Another might get the Office suite of business programs (Word, Excel, Outlook, etc.). All of this is part of a "full array of options," an unnamed government source told the Associated Press. Microsoft spokesman Jim Cullinan called the idea "an extreme and radical remedy," but every move by the federal government and 19 states involved in this suit gets more extreme and radical. A court hearing to consider remedies has been scheduled for May 24. Word of a possible breakup sent the tech-heavy Nasdaq into yet another dive, as long-term investors wondered if their New Chip stock was going the way of Philip Morris, buried by legal action. By the middle of last week Microsoft had lost 43 percent of its market value since its December high, dropping from about $620 billion to $352 billion. The Department of Justice (DOJ) is hitting Microsoft for allegedly abusing its monopoly, specifically by bundling its Internet Explorer browser into the Windows 98 operating system. But none of the discussed breakup plans would split the two programs; these punishments just seem to be trying to make Microsoft micro-powered. Yet work still goes on at the Redmond-based company. The product currently being promoted is an example of the company's boldness at entering new markets. Microsoft's friends call it innovative, its enemies call it predatory, but the name of the new Windows-style technology for handheld computers is called Pocket PC. The new product, which debuted in a cloud of DOJ smoke, is a direct threat to market leader Palm Computing. Like other handhelds, it promises to keep appointments, play music, and surf the Net. Microsoft doesn't make Pocket PCs. It just sells the operating software like it sells Windows for desktops. Such companies as Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard, and Casio are building the actual handheld computers. They compete with one another and Microsoft collects a royalty regardless of the choice. The gadgets are replacing leather organizers as the business lifesaver of choice. Pocket PCs promise wireless capabilities, more memory, easier-to-read text, a digital voice recorder, and a bite-size version of Microsoft's Windows Media Player. These devices cost more than Palm devices-and their makers have an advantage since Palm Computing hasn't announced its next generation yet. Wireless devices are to this decade what PCs were to previous ones. They are high-powered, increasingly inexpensive tools that greatly improve productivity. When the inevitable merger with cell phones comes, look out. The Internet wars, in other words, are changing fast, and will have changed completely by the time the antitrust suit against Microsoft is finished. Right now the war is over wireless, not browsers. It could be about something else in two years. The industry moves much faster than regulators can keep up. The genius of Gates & Co. has been to jump on trends just as they are exploding, and then market them to a mass audience. With Windows and Office, it worked great. With other products, it wasn't so great. Trying to split up Microsoft over the events of the '90s misses the obvious. Man knows not his time
Fourteen years ago, Phillip Katz wrote a computer program that saved computer resources for millions. His program, PKZIP, squished computer files into a smaller space to make them easier to store on disk or transfer online. The three-letter ".ZIP" extension at the end of file names is alive and well today. Mr. Katz told the Milwaukee Journal that he created the program at his mother's kitchen table and never expected its success. "It was just a hobby," he said. "I didn't expect it to turn into a business." Until recently, storing files and passing them around was expensive. So Mr. Katz's program became ubiquitous, helping people cut down phone bills and delay the next purchase of new disks or a hard drive. The program was one of the biggest hits of shareware, a distribution system that lets people use software for free before paying a registration fee. Despite his invention, Mr. Katz's personal life took some dark turns, and he was found dead on April 14 in a Milwaukee motel room. One empty liquor bottle was in his hand and five more were found near him. Medical examiner's records say complications from chronic alcoholism took his life. He was only 37. Back in 1997, Mr. Katz's neighbors complained about odors, insects, and mice coming from his condominium. Authorities found knee-deep garbage and decaying food at the condo. The inventor was forced to pay $8,000 for the cleanup. Mr. Katz's legacy will carry on with a program used by millions, even though few pay attention to PKZIP or know of the founder's sad story. His is a sad reminder that technological success does not necessarily mean personal success. Of mice and men
Thirty years ago, a group of researchers started a lab that eventually got the world pointing and clicking. Xerox Corporation built the Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC, with a lofty mission statement about "the architecture of information." What they created was a mouse. A prototype PC called the Alto had features similar to Microsoft's Windows and Apple's Macintosh years before either company started. Mice, windows, and graphics were all there. So were the origins of laser pointing, local area networks, and modern text editing. This was the greatest computer lab ever. But Xerox dropped the ball. The personal computer was essentially ignored. The legendary description of PARC is that it created brilliant inventions for other people. One day in 1979 a computer geek named Steve Jobs came by and took a look at the group's projects. Mr. Jobs, of course, was running Apple Computer. He and Bill Gates spent the 1980s battling for world domination while Xerox was busy becoming "The Document Company." But don't cry too much for the boys in Palo Alto. Xerox is alive and well, and a new generation of PARC researchers is hitting the new frontiers of smart matter, electronic paper, and nanotechnology. Each buzzword refers to another way to shrink computing power into smaller and smaller packages so it can do cooler and cooler things. The Alto experiment proves that the best technology doesn't always burst forth fully formed. People may not know they need it or even be able to understand it for years to come. Often technological innovation is simply taking an old idea and rebuilding it in a newer, cheaper way. Hack attacks
Who is this Mafiaboy kid anyway? Police arrested an unnamed 15-year-old Montreal boy and his 45-year-old father after a Feb. 8 cyber attack on the CNN website in a month that had similar incidents on Yahoo, eBay, Amazon.com, and other sites. Police busted the boy for the hack and the father for alleged evidence of a completely separate planned assault. Allegedly, Mafiaboy bragged about his activities in chat rooms and drew attention to himself. Authorities tracked him through traces he left of his computer activity. Despite his boasts, he was only charged with the hit on one site. When Canadian investigators tapped Mafiaboy's house, they heard something they didn't expect: conversations between the dad and another man about plans to assault a business associate. "We felt that before somebody gets hurt really badly, we had to intervene as quickly as possible," Lt. Lenny Lechman said. The February spree brought attention to denial-of-service attacks, which happen when somebody jams an Internet site or service so that others can't access it. These attacks flooded sites with so much junk that real customers and users couldn't get through. The arrest of Mafiaboy isn't likely to stop denial-of-service attacks, since the tricks are passed around on the Net. After his arrest, Attorney General Janet Reno said that these teenagers must learn "cyber-ethics" and that such crimes will be punished. "I think it is important, first of all, that we look at what we've seen and let young people know that they are not going to be able to get away with something like this scot-free," she said. Trouble is, authority figures are the people that troubled teenagers want to taunt.

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