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Technology | Spyware is catching up with spam as the internet's biggest annoyance

Issue: "Democrats are all smiles," Aug. 7, 2004

Spies like us Spyware is catching up with spam as the internet's biggest annoyance. Spyware programs monitor internet activity and can display pop-up ads, slow down a computer's speed, and even change a user's home page. Computer users download spyware when receiving certain free software programs or when clicking "yes" on some pop-up ads. Spyware makers say their products are a legal form of "behavioral marketing." When Utah passed the Spyware Control Act in late May, a New York company called WhenU.com challenged its constitutionality. A preliminary injunction currently blocks enforcement of the law, which bans software installed involuntarily, until a court rules. Two Utah-based retailers, Overstock.com and 1-800-Contacts, support the law, claiming that they lose millions due to pop-up ads that disrupt their sites. A whopping 85 percent of internet users are worried about spyware, according to a poll released last month by Earthlink. Dell reports that up to 20 percent of its customer-service calls are about either spyware or viruses; to reduce the load, the company set up a special site at dell4me.com/security with tips. Meanwhile, security software maker McAfee says such programs now bother more consumers than do viruses. Thin is in The "thin client," an old competitor to the business PC, is making a comeback. These computers are stripped-down machines that serve only to connect to a company's central servers, which store virtually all software and data. IBM is launching a new thin client system, called Workplace 2, intended mainly for workers who only perform specific tasks all day, such as bank tellers and industrial foremen. It includes word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, e-mail, instant messaging, and a calendar. It competes with Sun, a longtime thin client backer, which sells the Java Desktop. Thin clients are called "thin" because they have less hardware and are often smaller than "fat" clients, meaning normal PCs and Macs. Workplace users can access programs through a corporate network, so they need little storage space on their own machines. Managers gain the advantage of only having one central server to update, and they can take more steps to prevent security breaches and unauthorized use. So far, thin clients (sometimes also known as "network computers" and "diskless workstations") have been a niche product. One problem is that so much data traveling over the central server can slow down processing considerably. Yet the perceived advantages of these devices keep their makers hoping that more companies will switch from fat to thin. Bits & Megabytes • Apple introduced a new fourth-generation iPod, offering longer battery life for less money. These new portable music players stay charged for up to 12 hours and cost $299 for a 20-gigabyte model (or $399 for a 40-gigabyte model). Sony plans to challenge iPod's dominance this month with the new Network Walkman, which promises up to 30 hours of continuous playback. • Google plans to sell up to $3.3 billion in stock in its much-ballyhooed initial public offering. Since only 9 percent of its shares will be up for grabs, the entire company could be worth as much as $36 billion, which would be larger than McDonald's Corporation. Google wants the ticker symbol "GOOG." • The NFL and a group of Hollywood lobbyists filed a complaint with the FCC over TiVo's proposed new TiVo To Go service, which lets users copy TV shows to their computers. They expressed concerns that some users might use it for online copyright infringement. TiVo plans to incorporate copy-restriction technologies to discourage users from uploading shows on the Internet. • A new Japanese cell phone includes a built-in smart card that lets users pay for everyday goods. The device, made by Matsushita (Panasonic's parent company), uses an embedded computer chip that can store electronic cash, up to $450. Users simply wave their phones next to a special display to purchase goods.

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