15th > January > 1999 Archive

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MS gets into trouble with another judge

It's the week for judges to shout at Microsoft, apparently. The other day Judge Jackson told the company's lawyers off for talking out of class (Earlier Shout), and yesterday another one, in Seattle this time, told another set of lawyers to go and talk their client into behaving reasonably. This one is what you might call the other, other, other, other lawsuit (count them up). Microsoft is being sued by contract workers (Contractors sue MS) over its efforts to withhold employee benefits from them. New contracts introduced in July require contract workers to waive any payments a court might order as a result of legal action in progress on behalf of contractors, many of whom have worked for Microsoft for rather a long time. Yesterday District Judge John Coughenour heard the beginnings of an argument in favour of the new wording by Microsoft attorney James Oswald, but cut him off after the first ten minutes. Microsoft's lawyers should, he said, go away and suggest to their client that it "do the right thing." This doesn't sound optimistic for Microsoft's case. The judge went on, apparently speculating about what he might have heard in court if the lawyers had been sensible, rather than just going through the motions of supporting a suicidal strategy their client was hell-bent on. "I thought I might hear that this was done by somebody without advice of counsel," he said. "I thought I might hear that even if counsel was involved, that upon reflection and with 20-20 hindsight some might perceive this as being outrageously arrogant." The hapless attorneys have until week Tuesday to come back with a more suitable pitch. ® Complete Register trial coverage
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MS expert used Gates-inspired dodgy survey figures

Some of the testimony of Microsoft witness Richard Schmalensee is based on research whose findings appear to have been determined in advance by Bill Gates. In an 'ambush' email produced by DoJ attorney David Boies yesterday, Schmalensee was confronted by a Gates email which said: "It would HELP ME IMMENSELY to have a survey showing that 90 percent of developers believe that putting the browser into the (operating system) makes sense." Oops. Schmalensee had obtained the data (which showed a somewhat less Hoxha-esque 85 per cent believed this) from Microsoft, but until yesterday had been unaware where Microsoft got the data. He protested that knowledge of this wouldn't have changed his testimony, and that it was a "random" survey conducted by an independent research firm. Up to a point, Lord Copper. The survey, which concluded that 85 per cent of software developers thought integration would help their company, and 83 per cent that it would help consumers, was based on a 350 word question (we hope to dig the text out later today) which listed the benefits of integration while skipping possible disadvantages. A memo from a Microsoft researcher at the time (February 1998) said that the survey was "not entirely unbiased," and shouldn't be referred to as an opinion poll. The text of the question, she said, should also be kept out of the hands of the press. And here's a funny thing, gentle readers. That poll was conducted by an outfit called Hart and Teeter. Last week Microsoft released the results of a survey showing that 76 per cent of US consumers thought Microsoft had been good for consumers and for the software business. And that poll was conducted by - Hart and Teeter. ® Complete Register trial coverage
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A year ago: Katmai lands amongst pigeons

Intel has released details about its up-and-coming Katmai processor, so confirming facts written here in The Register some months ago. In a SURPRISE email from Intel, journalists were told that Katmai will include 70 new instructions including single instruction multiple data architecture for floating point data. What is this? The Register remains of the firm opinion that this is Intel's response to two basic problems with its MMX technology. See the AMD site, for instance. The first is that when it introduced Pentium Ceramic this time last year, it did little to address the basic problem games suppliers have - bottlenecks occur at a physical level rather than because of instruction sets. The second is an attempt to beat off opposition from the unholy cabal formed by AMD, NatSemi-Cyrix and Centaur/IDT. As reported here before, the three companies have decided to take a unified approach to socket seven and to MMX, thus forming a clear alternative to the infamous Slot technology. Now, again as reported here, these three companies have all declared that they are not only working on the problem at the physical layer but will be devoting vast acres of their future offerings to FP stuff. As games emerge this year, some written specifically for AMD's Super Socket Seven stuff, it is becoming increasingly clear to Intel that the alternative does, indeed have at least a one year window of opportunity over Great Stan's stuff. In the obligatory game of obfuscation, Intel remains king while the others are still merely the sorceror's apprentices. The email from Intel reveals the post hoc propter hoc fact that it has been working with the software community since early 1996. That just goes to show something or other but what is clear is that relationships between Microsoft and Intel are at an all time low. ®
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Microsoft leaks Merced details

An unholy row is set to break out between Intel and Microsoft after the software company revealed details of the up-and-coming Merced architecture. According to reports in the newsgroup COMP.ARCH, Microsoft has "accidentally" issued some binaries on CDs they have sent to their ISVs. One of the pieces of code, dubbed IAS, IA-64(TM) architecture (EAS 2.3) Assembler Rewrite X8 Apr 28 1998, which does not run because of missing DLLs, does however dump error messages and lists of assembler mnemonics and strings relating to asserts. Those include, for example: EM_DECODER_ROTATING_SIZE_LARGER_STACK_FRAME: Size of rotating region is larger than the stack frame, suggesting Merced will use rotating registers with variable sizes -- codenamed Trimaran. And another dump shows: "EM_DECODER_WRITE_TO_ZERO_REGISTER: Destination general register r0 is invalid, showing that Intel has not abandoned its plans for special zero registers on the chip. Another dump shows: EM_DECODER_ODD_EVEN_DESTS: Both destination floating-point registers have odd or even values. According to postings in the newsgroup, this suggests either instructions with two results or bundle restrictions. ®
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MIPS chips dismisseth us

Silicon Graphics made no bones about the fact it wanted shot of its MIPS division last year but now, according to reports, it's all got a little closer. The first fracture came the day Compaq's CEO Eckhard Pfeiffer arrived at a posh hotel in London the day the company took over Tandem. Some exec, obviously not press trained, told The Register that day that the Alpha architecture was obviously "more industry standard" than the MIPS architecture. Oops. Now, it seems, SGI is moving fast to divest itself of what remains of its MIPS biz. It will shed its $1 billion stake as fast as possibile between now and Autumn 2000 by a variety of cunning means. Instead it will concentrate on selling "powerful computers" for scientists, engineers and artists. At The Register, we didn't realise that the NSA, GCHQ et al were artists. Does Damien Hurst need Cray technology to dissect cows as part of the neurotic artists movement? ®
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LG Semi strikes threatened

Reliable reports said that LG Semi workers are set to take strike action Monday next because of uncertainty over their future. At the end of last month, Hyundai and LG struck a reluctant deal, forced by the South Korean government, in which the former would take over the latter's semiconductor business. LG reacted in fury to the deal, and was pressing hard for Hyundai to guarantee seven year contracts for its Semicon workers. It also wanted more money than Hyundai was prepared to pay for the transfer of technologies, fab plants and workers. Now the LG Semicon workers are understood to have taken the matter into their own hands and will call the strike from the beginning of next week. The report of disruption to the LG Semicon business came from an international distributor of its memory products, which did not wish to be named. ®
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Libel poses problems for UK ISP

A Brighton-based Internet Service Provider (ISP) is defending its decision to close down a Web site after it was threatened with legal action by a Winchester-based property company. The ISP, K-Web, received a letter from solicitors acting on behalf of Oakleigh Property Management (OPM) Ltd which said that a site it was hosting on behalf of one its customers contained a link to a tenant's protest site carrying "misleading and inaccurate" accusations about the OPM's business practices. "We had no choice but to take it down," said K-Web's MD Kevin Connor. However, while the site containing the link -- and a mirror site -- have been removed, OPM has taken no action against the three other mirror sites that contain the same information. But in a bizarre twist, Klaus Fricke, the man whose site was removed by K-Web, is now using newsgroups to lambaste the ISP over the handling of the situation. Not only is Fricke claiming that the ISP purged his domain with just two hours' notice, he's also alleging that K-Web refuses to refund the money he paid them for setting up and hosting his domain. "It's been four weeks since K-Web purged my domain and they've not even bothered putting their reasons in writing," he said. "I have spent hundreds of hours and lots of money setting up my company's Web page and registering it with various search engines. Now all that effort has gone down the drain in just two hours." K-Web told The Register that it will happily transfer Fricke's domain to a new ISP as soon as it receives instructions to do so. ®
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Electronic Arts recalls golf game invaded by South Parkers

Games publisher Electronic Arts (EA) has demanded the return of all US copies of the Playstation version of its Tiger Woods 99 PGA Tour golf game. The reason? Officially, it's because the disc contains unauthorised material that's "objectionably to customers". In fact, the CD contains a digitised version of the Spirit of Christmas episode of top cartoon series South Park. Ironically, the cartoon can't actually be viewed by Playstation owners -- only those with access to a PC and a basic understanding of disk structures will be able to find the hidden track containing the movie data and play it. Owners of the PC version of the game won't be able to view the cartoon either -- it's not on that release. Still, copyright infringement is still illegal, no matter how cleverly you disguise it, and EA was forced to act as soon as the Cartman, Stan, Kyle, Kenny and co. were discovered lurking on the disk. Owners of the game may return it to EA for a replacement, though we suspect most will prefer to hang on what has overnight become a highly collectible item. Mr Hankey was unavailable for comment. ®
The Register breaking news

Greek users strike over access charge hike

Greece has become the latest target for Internet users angry at the high cost of dial-up access across Europe. Yesterday, Greek users held a 24-hour boycott of the Net, following similar strikes held in Germany, Spain, Portugal, the UK and France. The Greek action was specifically intended to protest against new tariffs, due to be introduced on 1 March, which will see the cost of local phone calls rising by 50 per cent. In most European countries, the pricing trend is downward, not upward and protesters believe the new charges will "isolate of Greeks from their compatriots around the world" and "block cyberspace, free information and [limit] children's education". Ironically, there is a cheaper connection service available, but only through a single supplier, state-owned telco OTEnet. The company said it would allow other telcos to offer the cheaper service, but only those with national coverage. The strikers fear that this will isolate many of Greece's smaller, but more innovative telcos who provide local services. Today, OTEnet claimed there had been only a "small drop" in Internet access during the period of the strike. However, other providers said around 35 per cent of users heeded the boycott call. Strikers were also encouraged to email the Greek prime minister, but his office today said only 60 such emails had been received in the first 14 hours of the strike. Given that strikers shouldn't have been using their email anyway, that's perhaps not too surprising. ® See also French users call second Net boycott
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Rambus profits, revenue up

Rambus posted profits of $2 million on revenue of $9.4 million for its first quarter of fiscal 1999, yesterday. But while those figures represent growth of 25 per cent and 13 per cent, respectively, the company warned that it expects its earnings to remain static over the next two or three quarters. The company blamed a season fall in demand for Rambus products for the Nintendo N64, the discontinuation of a controller development by Cirrus Logic and Chromatic Research (now part of ATI), and extra costs engendered as Rambus expands its marketing programme designed to promote its Direct Rambus DRAM technology as a standard. Direct Rambus DRAM is, in any case, unlikely to take off before the middle of 1999, when Intel releases its Camino chip-set, the first mainstream motherboard to take advantage of the technology, which Intel is priming as the successor to SDRAM (Direct DRAM is roughly twice as fast as current SDRAM, with a peak speed of 1/.6GBps). Cyrix, AMD and Compaq are taking a similar line, and this level of support has persuaded most other major manufacturers to follow the Rambus flag too. ®
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Integration sucks

Moves are afoot to convince the world's PC assemblers that Intel's processors and Microsoft's operating systems are both now so powerful that they can dispense with 'obsolete' hardware like sound cards and modems. In raw news terms this isn't new -- Microsoft announced this direction at last year's winhec conference. The idea is …
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The King and IBM

The reign of the PC as king of the desktops has been challenged by one of its most faithful subjects, IBM. Big Blue apparently thinks the days of the desktop PC are numbered and that the loveable machines will have to abdicate in favour of newer portable and embedded devices. That's the opinion of IBM researcher Paul Horn, who was recently heard spouting such unwholesome views at a Millennium Speaker Series in New York. "The era of the PC as king is over," he said. "We are entering an era of 'pervasive computing' in which we will see a dramatic increase in the use of the application-specific handheld and [other specialised] devices to conduct ebusiness and simplify our lives." Horn's vision of the world includes networked cars that can be repaired wirelessly and supercomputers capable of rapidly mapping genes. He also mentioned wearable PCs, advanced display technologies and natural language speech recognition technology that are being developed at IBM's labs. ®
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WH Smith sets sights on becoming portal

The UK high street's biggest newsagent, WH Smith, refused to confirm today whether its decision to buy new-media company Helicon Publishing Group was part of a wider strategy to create a new UK portal around its Internet Bookshop Web site. News of the £5.6 million acquisition -- along with a report that the newsagent is considering starting its own free Internet access service in an attempt to mimic the success of Dixons' Freeserve -- helped push shares up 82 pence in early morning trading. Earlier this week, Smiths revealed it had been briefing investment companies that it was ready to exploit its brand on the Web through the Internet Bookshop, which it acquired last year for £9 million. Speculation that Smiths is ramping up its online activity was further fuelled as executives held a series of high level talks this week to plan for the future. The company refused to disclose any of these closely guarded details but now that the Helicon deal has been made public, it appears Smiths has finally decided to take the Internet seriously. A representative of Smiths said the company was looking to sell a number of products and services online, not just books. But critics have been quick to attack Smiths' actions as too little too late, quoting a report published last week by Fletcher Research which warned that UK companies were in danger of losing out to US companies when it comes to online trading. But Debbie Robinson, who runs Internet Bookshop, said this was nonsense and that the company was one of the top two book e-tailers in the UK. Given there are only two big UK online booksellers, that's not much of a brag, however. "WH Smiths is well placed to take its brand onto the Net and is perfectly positioned to give the UK market what it needs," she claimed. "Smiths is a terrific brand and it is not limited to simply selling books," Robinson continued. Over the last six months the Internet Bookshop has doubled its customer base and its turnover is four times bigger today than the same time last year. ®
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Freeserve – the goose that laid Dixons' golden egg

Dixons may cash in on the success of Freeserve -- the world's fastest growing Internet Service Provider -- amid analyst reports that it could be worth a staggering £886 million. That's not bad progress for a service that didn't even exist 16 weeks ago. But as US investors turn their attentions to the UK where they feel Net companies are relatively undervalued -- compared to US stocks at least -- anything could happen. Mark Danby, the head honcho at Freeserve, is quoted as saying that the company is considering floating the service in Europe and the US. If his remarks do nothing else, they will at least contribute to the frenzy of excitement among investors keen to jump on the Net stock bandwagon. One word of caution: Freeserve may have 700,000 customers but it still needs to develop its service -- and its portal-like site -- before it becomes simply too irresistible to avoid. What's more, OFTEL and the major phone companies may well be about to throw a spanner in the Freeserve works when the telecoms regulator publishes its consultation document next month on how call charges should be split between carriers. ®
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Microsoft denies NT failed crypto tests

Microsoft has hotly denied claims that Windows NT 4.0 has failed US government cryptography tests (see earlier story), and has posted a response on the NTbugtraq mailing list. According to Microsoft, the module submitted for evaluation has not yet undergone final testing, and -- QED -- cannot have failed. The Microsoft riposte takes the form of a FAQ produced by Microsoft NT Security product manager Jason Garms. The FAQ denies failure of US government FIPS 140-1 testing, and points out that it is the module Microsoft Enhanced DSS/Diffie-Hellman Cryptographic Provider (CP) which has been submitted for testing, not NT. This is the module which has not undergone final testing. He also points out that the testing lab was not contracted to examine the secuirty of NT 4.0 or the Microsoft CryptoAPI, and says that "while accredited CMVP testing laboratories do make design and implementations back to the vendor to maximise the probability that a cryptomodule will achieve FIPS 140-1 validation, no redesign or change in the Windows NT product was required". But we've not completed testing yet, one might observe. As regards applications, Garms claims that there will be no disruption, the difference being that some apps such as Internet Explorer 4.0 or Outlook 98 won't be able to take advantage of the new cryptomodule’s features, while IE 5.0 will be able to. Finally, he says that the "shipping vehicle" for the new cryptomodule will be determined once it completes evaluation. So, you might wonder, what has this little lot been all about then? On the one hand we've got claims that NT has failed cryptographic tests, and on the other we have absolute denials. It would appear that someone is being less than candid. If we rewind to the original Network World story then we can note that one Patrick Arnold, program manager at Microsoft Federal Systems, is quoted as saying a fix will be offered in Q1, and that "only Internet Explorer 5.0 will know how to work in FIPS mode". So Arnold clearly thinks there's a problem of some sort that warrants a fix. And maybe we can dovetail that neatly into what Garms is talking about -- a FIPS module for NT that is currently undergoing testing, and that will quite possibly ship in this quarter. So maybe Garms FIPS 140-1 cryptomodule is Arnold's fix. We'll leave you to draw your own conclusions about who's being candid here, and about the -- allegedly untested -- CryptoAPIs of NT 4.0. ®
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France to end severe encryption restrictions

The French government looks set to dramatically open up its cryptography laws and allow Gallic computer users to work with encryption technology with whatever level of security they want. According to a report in the French online publication Liberation, French minister for the economy and finance, Domenica Strauss-Khan, has said she wishes to liberalise the country's restrictive laws on the use of powerful encryption software. France's crypto laws are currently very tough indeed. Until 1996 anyone wishing to encrypt any document had to first receive an official sanction or risk fines from F6000 to F500,000 ($1000 to $89,300) and a 2-6 month jail term. Right now, apart from a handful of exemptions, any unauthorised use of encryption software is illegal. Encryption software can be used by anyone, but only if it's very easy to break. Many French users and businesses have complained that this is not only an infringement of privacy but makes it impossible to provide e-commerce transactions that can be trusted to be safe and secure. This, they claim, has held the nation's businesses back from making the full use of the commercial opportunities the Internet provides. Strauss-Khan's solution is to liberalise the current restrictions and "make cryptography accessible to as many people as possible". Liberation reports that legislation to this effect may be announced in the next few days. ®
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Xmas e-commerce turned out to be a turkey after all

Bargain hunters spent £250,000 on Christmas presents at AOL's UK shop during the last quarter, the online service provider has revealed. It may be just peanuts in the great scheme of things -- especially compared to all the e-shopping hype generated across the pond -- but at least AOL has got the stomach to publish the figures. Which is more than can be said for most e-tailers in the UK who seem to think that it's acceptable simply to avoid the subject altogether. AOL merchandise, Dragon speech recognition software and the Encyclopaedia Britannica CD-ROM were just some of the items that proved popular with shoppers in the run-up to Christmas, said an AOL spokesman earlier today. ®
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Apple caught charging crafty FireWire fee

Apple's decision to demand licence fees from PC, peripherals and consumer electronics companies for the use of the FireWire connectivity standard, has drawn much criticism. Unfortunately, there's been comensurate little understanding shown of the way this kind of thing actually works. Apple, of course, devised the technology in the first place, although it was quick to submit FireWire to the IEEE as a possible standard. And, indeed, it soon became one -- IEEE 1394, to be precise. That, say some observers, means Apple can't charge a licence fee. Well, it can, and the IEEE's regulations provide for this, as pointed out by Mac Web site Macintouch: "IEEE standards may include the known use of patent(s), including patent applications, if there is technical justification in the opinion of the standards-developing committee and provided the IEEE receives assurance from the patent holder that it will license applicants under reasonable terms and conditions for the purpose of implementing the standard." Apple's fee is said to be just $1 per FireWire port. Even allowing for multiple ports, this is will hardly increase the roduction cost of each peripheral dramatically. And given the kinds of high performance peripherals that are likely to use FireWire will invariably be high-end devices -- almost all cheap stuff like printers, scanners, modems and removable disk drives like Zips are probably better suited to USB -- a couple of bucks for two ports isn't actually a big deal, even if it's passed straight on to the buyer. You just charge $799 for your high-speed hard drive instead of $795. Consumer electronics companies are used to paying small (at least in per-unit terms) fees for technologies like Dolby noise reduction circuity, so, again, this isn't likely to negatively impact the manufacturing cost or retail price of gadgets. Concern that Apple's move may hinder the take-up of FireWire is, perhaps, a more valid consideration, but probably won't make much difference in the long run. The consumer electronics guys love FireWire for both its speed (400Mbps) and tiny form-factor. In the PC world, both Microsoft and Intel are committed to FireWire for future PCXX specifications for the same reasons. With FireWire the only currently viable standard as a successor to SCSI, it's unlikely that anyone's going to drop it just because Apple is asking $1 a pop. Apple might have a problem if someone comes up with a free alternative, but it could easily cease to charge for the technology happy in the knowledge it's gotten at least a year, probably two, of revenue stream out of it. And that's the point: FireWire has no rival. What held up the acceptance of USB, for example, was the fact that with serial and parallel ports readily available, why bother with a third? It took Apple's decision to drop serial ports in favour of USB to persuade peripheral manufacturers that it was worth supporting. USB is free, but licensing fees wouldn't have changed the situation much, just as it didn't stop all those SoundBlaster compatible sound cards or Hayes compatible modems. ®
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AMD screws up on lithography

The biggest surprise in AMD's results earlier this week was the effect of a problem with high speed K6-2s which went unnoticed by everybody apart from US chip title Electronics Buyers' News. Well done those people. We should have noticed it -- but were affected by Sydney A/B flu. Don't try this brand of flu yourself, it's tiresome. Regular readers will remember a series of articles we wrote at the end of last year about a problem running K6-2s which needed a patch. That patch should have been free (and was eventually put on AMD's site) -- but wasn't made available for some time. But this one, apparently, was different. During a conference call with analysts in the US, AMD CEO Jerry Sanders disclosed that the company lost around $50 million because of the problem, caused by a faulty lithography process. ®
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1400 Compaq-DEC jobs disapparu in France

Reports reached The Register earlier this week that the final score in the DEC carnage in La Belle France amounted to 1,400 jobs. The jobs that went were mainly Digital jobs, we are given to understand, but the pattern does vary across Europe. For example, all sorts of people we used to know at Compaq UK seem to have disappeared off our radar. Just before Christmas, we reported here that Compaq had secretly snuffed out 3,000 additional jobs worldwide. Compaq US would not comment on speculation, but Compaq Europe confirmed to us at the time that the company was in talks with works councils in both France and Germany. During the Christmas week, all sorts of jobs disappeared across the world, as a token of a happy Yule. ® NB Because our server has decided to go hitch-hiking today and tomorrow across middle England, you may be experiencing some difficulties. We'll add in the references to the previous stories when the adolescent server needs to come home for a cup of tea.