11th > June > 1999 Archive

The Register breaking news

MS squeezes out free service pack distribution

Further evidence that Microsoft is moving to control and/or charge for distribution of fixes and updates has emerged. Yesterday (Win98 SE hits stores) the company began taking orders on its Web site for direct sales of Windows 98 SE and for the latest Windows 98 service pack, although the latter is not as yet available for free. Microsoft's motivation at this juncture would seem to be to establish strong links between itself and Windows users, rather than to increase its revenues by charging for what are essentially bug-fixes. But that's a logical next step - Microsoft documentation revealed earlier this year showed that the company wished to move to an 'annuity' model for operating system sales, where users would effectively end up paying an annual fee for continued use of the product. By exerting greater control of the distribution of fixes and updates, by tightening up on product registration procedures and by introducing Windows 98-specific systems such as the Windows Update site, the company is starting to evolve some kind of 'rental' system. Yesterday we suggested that it was becoming increasingly difficult for magazines to obtain fixes and updates from Microsoft for distribution on free cover-mounted CDs. We've since been contacted by an editor who compiles these for a major publishing company - understandably, he wishes to remain anonymous. "It is my job to compile the CD each month, and for our last issue I tried to get the definitive list of MS updates and add-ons, focusing on Office and Windows 95," he says. "I was after the usual service packs, bug fixes and updates, which in the past I had never had any trouble in securing. I was somewhat miffed then when Microsoft reduced my submitted list of about forty updates to a mere six. I am now finding it increasingly difficult to get these sorts of items out of Microsoft, meaning our readers are forced to waste time attempting to download them, which is another contentious issue!" Microsoft's explanation, he says is that it wants users to come to the Microsoft site and "read all the information supplied" rather than just having users picking the software up off third party CDs. That of course casts an ominous light on Microsoft's current campaign to accelerate the deployment of broadband Internet access - once the company has got over the problem of download times, it'll be able to control the distribution of everything, even vast NT service packs. The acid test for now will be when, or even if, Microsoft allows free cover mounts of the current Win98 service pack. It is highly unlikely that magazines will be allowed to distribute the Win98 SE Update, which Microsoft is distributing for $19.95, but if it blocks distribution of the service pack it will be even clearer which way the wind is blowing. In the interests of balance, by the way, we should point out that our informant says: "it is definitely a squeezing trend, although it is not just limited to Microsoft, although they are by far the worst culprits." So there you are - they're all at it. ®
The Register breaking news

Oops – MS forgets to start selling Win98 SE

Microsoft would seem to have forgotten all about selling the full version of Windows 98 SE direct. A sad ghetto of the Microsoft Web site has been sitting there waiting for something to happen since Wednesday - but life seems to have passed it by. The company clearly intended to sell the full version, but is currently only offering various upgrade permutations. "Not running any version of Windows?" the site announces. "If you're running DOS or a non-Windows operating system on your PC... Order the full Windows 98 Second Edition online. Avoid traffic and purchase the full Windows 98 Second Edition product online." So presumably you can buy the full thing at some point, but it's not possible even to find out the US price, never mind what kind of deal we provincials are going to get. Wake up, Microsoft! Confusingly though Microsoft has added a third option to the expected SE permutations available on the site (full product is a fourth option, OK? Do try to keep up). You get the service pack for a "nominal fee" (but note that it includes bug fixes for IE 4.0, not an upgrade to IE 5.0), and you get the Windows 98 upgrade to SE version for $19.95. But you also get a free download option of "Download Windows Technologies or order the Windows Technologies on CD." Bizarrely, this free distribution includes IE 5, NetMeeting 3 and Media Player 6.1. So for a "nominal fee" you get a bug fix, but no upgrade. For free you get an upgrade but no bug fix (we presume, anything's possible), and for $19.95 you get a slightly different upgrade and the bug fix. Yup folks, there's a maniac at the wheel... FLASH Microsoft's Webbies finally got their act together on Friday. US price for the full version is $209, $109 for the upgrade. Full story to follow. ®
The Register breaking news

New York Times virus report strangely viral

We know not what this portends, but as yet another virus scare hits, the New York Times' rapid response team seems to have rapidly responded. On the front page of today's (you'll have to register to read it, but it's free) the NYT this morning had the somewhat minimalist headline "NYT Article". Click on it and you get here. This is fixed now, but earlier it consisted of two Compaq banner ads and the headline "Here goes the headline!!!" According to the URL it seemed to be intended to be an article about viruses, to wit, 11virus.html. When the NYT finally got the story up, content/archive/84-doody, it was a virus piece by the redoubtable John Markoff. Hacked again, or finger trouble? ®
The Register breaking news

June 30 deadline for Cyrix disposal

National Semiconductor will shut its Cyrix PC processor business unless it receives a "solid and acceptable" offer by 30 June. The company blames stiff competition in the PC chip market for its fifth consecutive quarter of losses. it lost around $45 million in the quarter from Cyrix x86 microprocessors. Last month NatSemi announced plans to sell its PC processor business, which it picked up through its acquisition of Cyrix in 1997 for about $550 million. NatSemi recorded a $783.5 million loss, or $4.65 cents per share, for the fourth quarter. This included higher-than-expected charges for exiting the PC chip business. Sales fell to $477 million from $510 million a year ago. Excluding two charges totalling $743.5 million, NatSemi reported an operating loss of $40 million, or 24 cents a share. This compared with a loss before charges of $69.3 million, or 42 cents a share, the previous year, according to Reuters. The loss matched Wall Street expectations. The company expects to be profitable in the quarter ending November after it offloads its Cyrix division, it said. NatSemi CEO Brian Halla said the company could not compete with PC chip giant Intel, and planned to concentrate on chips for products such as TVs and mobile phones. It will also keep Cyrix chips that are used for Web appliances and Windows-based terminals. ®
The Register breaking news

Have you got worms?

It's been at least a fortnight since the world was last ravaged by a flesh-eating computer virus. So fret no more. Today, we've all got to get on our hands and knees and watch out for a blood sucking worm that will trash your computer faster than a goose with the squits. The ExploreZip or ZippedFiles worm has already drilled down into thousands of PCs in the US, Europe and Far East, and experts are warning it could spread around the world in a matter of hours. As hysteria broke out in all the world's major financial centres PC users were being advised not to panic. But how do you know if you've got worms? The attachment looks like a WinZip archive file and when you try to unzip it you will get a fake error message indicating a corrupted file. Spreading like a chain letter, the worm will then try to delete your files on any accessible disk drives, including all network drives which could be potentially very damaging for businesses. The files at risk are Microsoft Word documents, Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, Microsoft PowerPoint presentations and certain programming source files. Once it's wormed its way into your system and wreaked havoc it will then attach itself to your email and attack other people in your address book. "This seems to be spreading fast, but not as fast as Melissa," said Mikko Hypponen, manager of anti-virus research at Data Fellows Corporation. "The key issue here is that messages sent by ZippedFiles are very credible—they are very normal-looking replies to messages you have sent earlier. "You're quite likely to trust these messages and open the attachment," he said. De-worming tablets are available from Datafellows or any good pet shop. ®
The Register breaking news

Symantec to spin off Java operation

Symantec is to form a spin-off company within the next three to nine months to offer its Internet applications and utilities. In addition to maintaining development of Symantec's Java and Web page layout tools, the new operation willl develop e-commerce technology and tools to help businesses integrate their existing systems with the Web. "Creating an independent company will put the spotlight on our expertise and capability as an Internet company," said CEO John Thompson. Possibly, but it will also provide an opportunity for a Net-related IPO, an option that can't have failed to pass Symantec by. Symantec claims its Java tools already command 56 per cent of the Java market, so the new company -- whatever it's called; there's no official name yet -- is certain to attract investor interest. Initially, however, the company will be wholly owned by Symantec, though the utilities specialist did suggest it's keen to talk to possible investors. ®
The Register breaking news

EMI takes half-share in digital music company

EMI, one of the world's 'big five' recording companies, has taken a 50 per cent stake in Musicmaker.com in exchange for the custom CD company's right to use EMI's vast back catalogue of recordings. The deal follows Sony's move earlier this week to partner with custom CD vendor Digital On Demand (see Sony brings digital music to retail channel). Musicmaker.com's allows users to create customised CDs through its Web site. Completed discs are then mailed to the buyer, or -- and this is where EMI's interest starts to become clearer -- transferred across the Net as a download. For Musicmaker.com the deal brings access to EMI's recordings archive, one of the largest in the world. Musicmaker.com offers a wide selection of tracks, but one that's by no means as extensive as a recording company's -- until now. Musicmaker has the rights to use EMI's catalogue for five years. In the meantime, EMI gets access to a site which it can use as a template for its own full-scale entry into the digital music market, probably later this year, alongside services from fellow big fivers, Universal, BMG and Sony. Now that the security issues surrounding the online market are beginning to be resolved, the music majors are going to become increasingly active in the field, driving both partnerships (like the Sony/DoD tie-in) and acquistions. It's telling that Musicmaker.com was orginally planning a $30 million IPO earlier this year, but postponed the share sale when it entered talks with EMI in April. That IPO is now back on the cards, and scheduled for later this month. ®
The Register breaking news

Computacenter invades Belgium

Computacenter has snapped up the reseller division of ECS Belgium for the bargain basement price of 1.64 million euros. Europe'’s biggest reseller says it will fund the purchase of the 20 million Euro business from cash. It has installed channel veteran and one-time head of Info Products UK Mohammed Siddiqui to run the new subsidiary. ECS is an IT subsidiary of French bank Societe Generale. The company specialises in technolgy financing and asset management, from purchase through to disposal. ECS’s reseller subsidiary, now renamed Computacenter NV/SA, ranks number five in the league table of Belgian computer dealerships, according to industry newsletter PC Europa. The purchase calls into question Computacenter's relationship with leading Belgian reseller, Systemat, both of which are members of the ICG international consortium of dealers. Phil Williams, head of corporate marketing at Computacenter, acknowledged that "potentially there could be some long-term threat( to the relationship, but Systemat is much bigger than we are in this market, and we are not looking to compete with them". And what about any other Computacenter acquisition targets? Word on the street is that the company is interested in buying IT recycling firm RD Computers from components distie Datrontech. RD boss Rod Best has been sighted several times at Computacenter headquarters in Blackfriars recently. But as his wife is a Computacenter employee, this may not be so surprising. Computacenter’s Williams declined to comment on our industry tittle-tattle. ® See alsoComputacenter battles to retain BT contract
The Register breaking news

Iridium to cut call charges

Ailing satellite mobile phone service Iridium is expected to announce price cuts in a desperate attempt to ramp up its subscriber figures. The company has until 30 June to meet bank-set subscriber and revenue targets or face bankruptcy (see Iridium granted 30-day reprieve). The price cuts have already begun to emerge in the US -- this week Iridium distributor Seven Seas Communications introducted a flat-rate pricing plan of $4.29 per minute for international calls, down from $6, according to WiredNews -- and overseas distributors are expected to follow suit. That said, handsets are still retailing for a hefty $2000. That's significantly cheaper than their $3000 introductory price, but hardly one guaranteed to win customers in large numbers. Nor will the technical problems the company continues to face, claim industry observers. At the end of March, Iridium had just over 10,000 customers -- someway short of the 27,000 target it had set itself. The company's latest round of negotiations with creditors led to its agreement to hit that figure by the end of this month. Even taking into account some recently signed US government contracts, the phone company still has a long way to go. ® * Iridium distributor US Digital Communications this week announced its decision to cease offering the satellite phone service. "Due to the well-documented shortcomings of the Iridium satellite telephone platform, and the corresponding inability of the International Satellite Group's sales force to sell Iridium products and services in any meaningful amounts, we are forced to lay off our employees and wind down operations," said company chairman Robert Wussler.
The Register breaking news

Freeserve blitzkriegs UK with charm offensive

Freeserve is in an all out bid to win the hearts and minds of the UK Net community before it spins off part of its business later this year. With the memorable catchphrase "I found it on Freeserve" the monster ISP is running a major ad campaign on TV, radio and in the press. A spokeswoman for Freeserve refused to disclose exactly how much cash is being spent to publicise the service. Freeserve has also taken its product out on the road giving people at shopping centres and railway stations the chance to try out Freeserve for themselves. It's also offering subscriptions to a special Freeserve series of Haymarket's new monthly magazine the net which launches on 18 June. The new Freeserve-sponsored paper mag will be available online and sold at Dixons, Currys, The Link, PC World and @Jakarta Stores. It's expected that sales through Freeserve and Dixons Group stores will give the magazine a total distribution of more than 200,000 copies, making it the UK's biggest Internet publication launch. Haymarket has huge plans for the net -- the print run for the launch issue is understood to be more 15 million, with copies distributed free with the UK's Sunday newspapers. Freeserve chief executive John Pluthero said: "We want to be associated with a magazine which will help our customers get the most from Freeserve and the Internet. We chose Haymarket's new magazine because it understands and delivers exactly what consumers need -— a clear and simple guide to the Internet." ®
The Register breaking news

Dialog scores President Blair PR coup with Fujitsu deal

Dialog’s "multi-million pound content licensing deal with Fujitsu has received New Labour’s blessing, with Tony Blair himself congratulating the happy couple. Taking time out from solving the Kosovo crisis and reforming welfare, the Prime Minister praised the IT deal, wishing the parties success and a fruitful union. In a rare emotional outburst, he said: "I am delighted to send my congratulations to The Dialog Corporation plc and Fujitsu of Japan on the successful conclusion of a licensing agreement for world class knowledge management software. It is indeed a significant step forward in the new global knowledge economy". "I wish The Dialog Corporation and Fujitsu continued success in the development of their trading relationship," he gushed. Dialog’s shares surged 11 per cent after the proverbial pat on the back, closing at 121 pence. They've since dropped down again. ®
The Register breaking news

DoJ expert: there are 3,000 bugs in Win98

MS on Trial Could this be true? In court yesterday government witness Edward Felten, he of the IE uninstall program, claimed that he'd found 3,000 bugs tagged by Microsoft programmers in the version of Windows 98 source code he'd looked at. And the code he was dealing with only amounted to one seventh of Win98 in total. Felten had just had a possible bug in his own program sprung on him by Microsoft's lawyers, and was protesting that bugs in software are by no means unusual. Indeed not, if his 3k figure is correct. But there is - probably - no need for Windows 98 users to panic. Felten had access to the source under a court order so that he could produce a prototype program which demonstrated that IE could be removed safely from Windows 98. He did this towards the end of last year, so must have been using the original shipping version of the source. All of those lovely bugs presumably will be ironed out when the service pack, which is finished but not available, can be got hold of. And Felten's bug? You'll recall that the previous section of the trial saw a battle royal between Felten and Microsoft exec Jim Allchin. Allchin produced a demo video designed to show that Felten's program didn't work properly, but the demo was exposed as having been massaged, and hopelessly unscientific. Microsoft retired, wearing egg. Yesterday saw what you might call a completely unabashed hopelessly unscientific counter-attack. Microsoft attorney Steve Holley whipped out a Toshiba notebook he claimed had just been bought, and demanded that Felten install his program on it there and then. Felten protested that other stuff that came preloaded on the Tosh might interfere with his program, but the judge told him to go ahead anyway. He seems to have adopted something of a patronising and indulgent tone: "Holley really wants to run this program," he said, shaking his head. He installed the program, 'removed' IE but then when Holley told him to press control/N, wham! Internet Explorer popped up. "I don't know how it got there," Felten bleated. And how many times, gentle reader, have you thought that about some MS software you were sure you'd already vaped? But what does it prove? Frankly, Holley was flogging the proverbial dead horse. Felten has set out to show that IE functionality is not necessary in order for Windows 98 to run, and he's done that fairly effectively. The point here is that Microsoft could ship browser and operating system separately if it wanted to. Microsoft's counter-argument to this is that the functionality of the operating system is greatly increased by integration, but the company has by no means proved it. That's the territory they should be fighting over, whereas what Holley was doing yesterday was trying to show that Felten's program didn't remove IE entirely. But as the long-suffering witness keeps saying, he never said it did that - he says the program shows that it could be removed. Oh, and as every time we do a story about Felten's uninstaller people ask us if we've heard of 98lite. Yes we have. ® Complete Register trial coverage
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‘Dysfunctional’ Ideal makes profit

Ideal Hardware has lost its MD, Ronan MacDonald, in a massive restructure after top execs became distracted from the distribution business. The Surrey-based company told journalists that critical errors of judgement had been made at board level earlier this year. The operational board of nine people was dumped yesterday in favour of an executive board of five. Freshly appointed Ideal CEO Ian French will lead the team of Alex Tatham, Simon Miesegaes, Steve Lundy and Gordon Milner. Kevin Harper resigned from the board of Ideal as well as InterX, Ideal's parent company, yesterday. French described Ideal as: "Top heavy and bottom heavy, with not enough good stuff in the middle", something he planned to counter by the re-jig. An initial review began two months ago, accelerated by dismal margins in May, said French. The corporate reseller sales team saw margins fall to around six per cent, half of the usual 12-13 per cent. In addition, Ideal's recent deal with Compaq blossomed quicker than expected, swallowing enormous amounts of resources. At the time, InterX was concentrating on its Internet project, the IT Network, and the distribution side of the business failed to keep pace with changes in the industry. "Then a meat cleaver came in May -– there was nothing in the pipeline," said French. He described the current market as soft, but said the problem lay with Ideal. "It was compounded by the channel, but we have taken it on the chin." "Distribution will not die. But distribution in its current form is now over," he added. More communication between Ideal and the IT Network will ensure the company will hold up better than its rivals, according to French. "We are in better shape now to cope with what's coming than the rest of the distributors in the UK. They are not flexible to enough, partly because of their size." "Even though we were dysfunctional and disorganised, we are still making a profit." Ideal will stop selling products borderline in profit, and French believes pure commodity products will find a different route to market. He declined to comment on redundancies, yesterday described as "substantial", but said a compulsory redundancy package looked probable. InterX's share price halved yesterday to 237.5 pence, from 437.5 pence, after the company issued a profit warning. Share prices were down 20 pence at 3pm today to 217.5 pence. Alistair Laidlaw, IT Network MD, said Ideal would become a smaller part of InterX's overall business, with the IT Network and services company Unisolve growing in significance. ®
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Datrontech joints profit warning stampede

Datrontech Group's pre-tax profit will only reach half of market expectations for its first half, the company warned today. Profit for the period was originally estimated at about £4 million. But there will be a shortfall due to flagging demand in the European PC market in April and May. Datrontech joins a long list of distributors issuing profit warnings this quarter. Northamber, ilion and Ideal Hardware have all admitted to struggling with market conditions. The group blamed poor sales and profits in its component distribution sector, a situation it said showed no sign of improvement. "There has been little sign of improvement during the first few days of June and as a result sales and profits in our component distribution companies will be very disappointing at the half year," it said. The UK networking businesses were still said to be performing well. Companies in Eastern Europe continued to make losses, but at a much reduced rate. The Czech and Polish subsidiaries turned in a combined loss of just under £2 million for the extended year ended 4 January, blamed for a fall in profit for the company overall. "High priority continues to be given to strengthening the group’s balance sheet and improving cash flow," CEO Mark Mulford said, in a statement. Datrontech still aims to shift its product mix to an even split between component distribution and its networking business. Last year’s 70:30 split will reach 50:50 in the medium term -- because networking sales are growing faster than components. Mulford added that the group expected to get rid of certain non-core assets, and cut costs by penalising managers who exceed working capital limits. Datrontech also wants to start direct-order web sites to lower operating margins. Industry insiders say Computacenter is interested in buying RD. Alan Mack, Datrontech group commercial director, declined to comment on offloading parts of the company, or if this referred to the RD Computers 'IT disposals division, but he described a non-core asset as "for example, a business that is not fundamental or strategic to the group." ®
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Psion next generation to roll out on Tuesday

The next generation of Psion machines will launch in London on Tuesday (15 June), and will include improved communications and Web software and - finally - Java support. These are all matters of some embarrassment to Psion, which made airy promises at the launch of the Series 5 two years ago. The 5, as it turned out, didn't have sufficient beef in it to do a serious job of Java, and the promise was quietly forgotten (except at The Register, of course). At least one new machine, the 5mx, will be launched on Tuesday. This reportedly will have a 36MHz ARM processor and 18MB of memory. Psion is normally sewn-up tight in the days preceding the big announcement (which is usually every second June), but we note with some displeasure that marketing director Geoff Kell seems to have been blabbing in the popular prints. Sack him, Mr. Potter, we say. But that particular new box doesn't seem to be all the story. Psion uses Cirrus Logic ARM chips, and by a massive coincidence Cirrus earlier this week announced the EP7211 system-on-chip module. It's based on the ARM7TDMI core, and by a further massive coincidence is aimed at handheld devices in the $150-$300 bracket. Further down in the coincidence department it supports Windows CE and EPOC32. That makes it a probable contender for a low-cost, high volume Psion, but there's also scope for a rather beefier model (our sources suggest Psion is planning two simultaneously, or close together). The EP7211 uses a dynamically selectable clock circuit that can switch between 18, 36, 49 and 74MHz, so Psion could potentially produce something a deal more powerful than the quoted 36MHz. Further along in the coincidence department, Psion Enterprise, formerly Psion Industrial and the bit that produces more solid, specialist units, seems to have hired an expensive PR outfit for another event Real Soon Now. Psion Industrial said earlier this year it would have a Java-enabled machine by the summer, and Psion only spends money on expensive PR outfits immediately prior to launches. So go figure. ®
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Third Voice slammed for ‘defacing’ Web sites

US software developer Third Voice has provoked the ire of Internet users and Webmasters by releasing software that allows Web surfers to share comments about Web sites. The problem is not necessarily that the Third Voice system is invasive, but that it allows anyone to add comments -- such as spam -- to a Web site without the permission of the site's owner. Third Voice is a Windows-only browser plug-in that allows users to select text on a Web page and attach a comment, in the form of a pop-up note, to it. Other Third Voice users visiting the site see one or more icons on the page which signal the presence of comments. It's unlikely that the Third Voice software actually modifies a page's code directly -- it's more likely that Third Voice itself maintains a database of URLs and connected comments. That said, the effect -- at least for other Third Voice users -- is much the same: and it's not necessarily what the page designer intended. That's the issue for Webmasters, and some have argued that it's a violation of copyright (a difficult point to argue since apparently no copyright material is reproduced without authorisation). One Web site has even been set up to promote that idea that Third Voice's software should be banned. The site is full of example of comments obscuring original Web sites, though this isn't what a Third Voice user would initially see on loading the site. It's also interesting that the Say No To Third Voice site is provided by an ISP that throws up a window containing unwanted advertising -- so the campaigners are to a degree guilty of the very crime they accuse Third Voice of. However, the site does at least provide a JavaScript for Webmasters keen to make some attempt to prevent Third Voice 'tampering'. Webmasters have a right to protect their property, but then users have a right to comment on those sites. Third Voice is unlikely to go away, but the real test will be how it is used. If users don't want to see the extra comments, they don't need to download the plug-in. And if, as seems likely, the service becomes dominated by spammers, many users may choose simply to throw away the plug-in. ®
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Softbank supports shoe fetish with $80m buy

Softbank is getting into shoes, courtesy of a 30 per cent stake in American sporting goods firm Global Sports. The hyperactive Japanese vendor is backing Global’s transformation into a pureplay Internet company with $80 million cash. Apparently it’s all to do with driving some of the world’s $150 billion sporting goods market onto the internet through Global’s GSI web site. Global is so excited about the Internet that its ditching its traditional --- i.e. non Internet -- businesses. These include three big brand names that no-one at The Register has ever heard of. American brands, by chance? GSI now wants to be an ecommerce portal for "leading sporting goods retailers". It has ecommerce contracts with The Athlete's Foot, Sport Chalet, MC Sports, Sports & Recreation and "one other retailer" -- American shopkeepers, by chance? Their combined sales are more than $3 billion. ®
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BT touts flat-fee ADSL – NTK

BT is in denial -- again -- after a spokesman said it had no plans to offer toll-free access to the Internet. That's two denials in three days on the same subject from the giant telco. However, the news ferrets at NTK think they know different. NTK says BT is to launch an unmetered ADSL service in September for around £30 a month. In its own words, NTK has blabbed about what is fast becoming one of the worst kept secrets in the industry. NTK was sworn to secrecy by a snout, but reckoned this oath was invalidatated by the intervention of MP Ian Bruce, who alluded to the deal in Parliament on Wednesday. Congrats to NTK for the scoop. Especially, if it's true. And yah booh sucks to BT. For at more than £360 a year, ADSL is not quite the answer to Net users' prayers. It may be toll-free, but that's one heck of a subscription for your average user.®