Issue: "Considering the heavens," Jan. 24, 2004

Savvy spammers

Early reports suggest that the new federal spam law is doing little to deter internet junk mail.

Brightmail, a spam filtering company, claims most incoming e-mail today is unsolicited garbage-and the flow hasn't changed since the law took effect this month. America Online reports that spam from overseas has jumped 10 percent, presumably as more bulk mailers move offshore to hide from prosecution.

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The new law threatens violators with up to five years in prison. It orders spammers to include an accurate subject line and e-mail address and offer recipients the opportunity to decline future messages. Such rules are poison to the spammers. If they use a real e-mail address or subject line, they face easy filtering or retaliation from irate recipients. Plus, any opt-out list could take millions of potential customers from their databases. So spammers are working hard to escape authorities and regulators.

Perhaps the worst of all spam tricks is the junk-mail virus, which hijacks an unsuspecting person's computer to send junk messages to others. The victim is targeted with hate mail and complaints, while the real sender hides in obscurity.

Numerous high-tech firms are exploring ways to slow down spammers. One idea is a vast network of verified users who collectively identify and block spam from one another. Another scheme resembles stamps on paper mail, making senders pay a fraction of a cent per message (a trivial amount to ordinary users, but a huge expense to spammers who send millions of messages).

Flood Gates

Bill Gates updated his vision of ubiquitous technology that lets users access sound, video, and text anywhere at anytime. Now billed as "seamless computing," it aims to unite the computer in the office with the entertainment gadgetry in the living room.

Mr. Gates told the International Consumer Electronics Show, a massive trade event in Las Vegas, that new software and broadband internet access are moving toward a new technological revolution. What techies have discussed and dreamed about for years is becoming reality.

"We are developing software that's in the car, in the phone, of course in the PC, the set-top box, the watch," Mr. Gates said. "All the places where software can run, we want to make sure that we do the best we can to make that connect up and to make it seamless."

The goal is to let a person access any movie, TV show, song, document, or picture from any available gadget. This means people must invest in the latest generation of hardware and software, aided by the growing dominance of wireless connectivity. To enjoy seamless computing, they must spend more money on technology.

Mr. Gates's seamless computing vision poses a conflict with Hollywood, Nashville, and Madison Avenue over copyright issues. Content may be available anywhere, but moving it from place to place (or skipping advertising) may raise hackles among media companies.

Bits & Megabytes

Software maker Adobe revealed that it secretly tweaked Photoshop and other graphics programs to discourage counterfeiters. The company says its security measure, which displays a warning when users try to duplicate paper money, is invisible to honest customers. The admission came after a Photoshop user publicly complained about problems opening a picture of a $20 bill.

Verizon plans to spend $1 billion to build America's fastest wireless internet service, which will provide downloads up to 10 times faster than ordinary dialup access. The new technology will be available in some cities starting this summer-and will probably cost $80 per month for unlimited usage (in addition to normal cell phone charges). The company also plans to spend another $2 billion upgrading its traditional wired phone network to send calls as internet traffic.

Samsung has unveiled the world's largest flat-panel home television, which measures 80 inches and will carry a five-figure price tag when it debuts next year. This tops the previous leader, a 76-inch model that LG plans to release this year. Many manufacturers are racing to design huge new-generation TVs, which become in-store showpieces and expensive toys for video buffs.

IBM set a record for most patents issued in a single year, obtaining 3,415 inventions recognized by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Big Blue also marked its 11th year scoring more patents than any other company, beating its nearest rival, Canon, by 70 percent. Only four of the top 10 companies receiving patents were U.S. based; all the rest are from Asian countries.


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