Features

Technology

National

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 2003," Dec. 13, 2003

Shop and ship

This Christmas season is a big test for America's online stores. They hope shoppers will be in a merry mood, yet willing to skip the drive to local shops.

Holiday e-commerce sales are expected to increase 42 percent over last year, according to Forrester Research, as Americans spend $12.2 billion online. That's still a fraction of all holiday shopping -about the same amount spent overall in the two days after Thanksgiving.

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Amazon.com predicted this would be its busiest holiday season ever. Like many other outlets, it offers free shipping to lure customers. The company even distributed a PR video about the hassles of mall shopping.

Ebay, the internet's gargantuan Turkish bazaar, unveiled a Secret Santa site for groups to exchange gifts. It also debuted a standby of old-school retailing: gift certificates.

Just a few years ago, some experts predicted that dot-coms would marginalize traditional retailers. That dream faded away, but millions use online shopping as a normal part of life.

That's translating into a Christmas rush for some sites, but not others, according to a Nielsen/NetRatings survey. While consumer electronics sites saw traffic nearly triple on the day after Thanksgiving, music and video sites actually declined about 7 percent.

Online shopping, however, lacks the ability to serve most late Christmas shoppers. The busiest day for brick-and-mortar stores is the Saturday before Christmas. Anything bought online that day is likely to arrive late-or require hefty shipping costs.

Will Longhorn hook 'em?

Bill Gates says the next Windows operating system isn't expected until at least 2005. Yet some people aren't willing to wait. Bootleggers in Malaysia are reportedly selling cheap copies of an early version.

Not only does this underscore the rampant Asian piracy problem, it shows the buzz slowly building around Windows XP's replacement. Code-named Longhorn, this operating system will feature souped-up graphics, a new search engine, and a revolutionary file storage system. While some techies are playing with test copies, the finished product may not be ready until 2007.

Microsoft has billions at stake and it is being cautious about its next step. It calls Longhorn a work in progress. The biggest known new feature is the file system, which replaces the current system of directories and folders. Users will be able to scan for specific files, regardless of their location.

Developers are paying extra attention to the fight against viruses and worms, a factor that could slow Longhorn's gestation. Windows software has been plagued by complaints about vulnerabilities and security breaches.

The delayed release may help budget-conscious consumers by holding back obsolescence for today's computers. This also means extra life for old software that might not work under a new operating system.

Bits & megabytes

Microsoft wants to put its software inside every car. Its upcoming T-Box will connect to the driver's cell phone and laptop, plus provide updated traffic reports. The device, available as early as next year, will be hands-free and contain no moving parts.

Senate debate over the ban on internet taxes is expected to resume next year. A moratorium, which kept state and local governments from taxing internet access, passed in 1998 but expired last month.

Toshiba and NEC plan a next-generation DVD that holds five times more information than today's discs. The new HD DVD format, which can hold more than two hours of high-definition video, is set to debut late next year.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo vowed to stop the so-called "Nigerian Letter" scammers who made his country a high-tech laughingstock. The crooks send e-mails begging for help recovering vast sums from foreign banks, then scam victims out of "advance fees." Many of these con men actually hail from Nigeria and include some prominent politicians.

About 12 percent of high-tech jobs have evaporated during the past two years, but the meltdown could be in its final stages. The American Electronics Association predicts just 234,000 high-tech workers will lose their jobs this year, less than half of the 540,000 cuts the industry suffered in 2002.

Intel plans new microchips next year that will let PCs act as hubs for wireless (Wi-Fi) networks. The new processor will share a broadband connection with nearby computers. By eliminating cumbersome routers, this greatly simplifies set-up and makes Wi-Fi easier to use.

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