Loose cables is an occasional, irreverent look behind the scenes at testing computer products, in particular at IDG's InfoWorld lab in the US. Our sights are gleaned during the long hours spent testing products and even longer hours spent sorting through outrageous vendor claims and press releases. Some of the insights are technical, some are political, and some are just funTo link or not to link? That's the burning question these days in the courts. But no matter which way you choose, it seems you lose. Microsoft's Sidewalk regional-guide family is a good example. Ticketmaster is suing Microsoft over alleged trademark infringement on the Seattle and New York Sidewalk sites. Microsoft's crime? Linking to the internal Ticketmaster page where you can buy tickets for local events.
Heaven forbid Ticketmaster should be thankful that Microsoft's site is sending customers their way. Oh no, the ticket giant wants a cut of Sidewalk's advertising revenues that were supposedly earned with the help of the link in question.
The outcome of this brawl between two titans may determine the future of Net freedom and whether linking to another site is considered a helpful expansion or "electronic piracy", as Ticketmaster would have us believe.
On the other hand, you may be in hot water if you don't link to another site. Consider the accusation brought by DuPage Mall against Yahoo. The proprietors of DuPage, an online mall, are upset because Yahoo's Windy City guide to Chicago didn't link their site in the city directory section. Instead, the link to the DuPage site was placed under the business and economy directory, where most online shopping is located. Yahoo explained that it usually lists only physical malls in the city directory.
Bill Baum, who founded DuPage Mall, is accusing Yahoo of limiting free enterprise and shirking its duty as "a public enterprise on the Internet and . . . a major player controlling the Internet".
These are hefty charges, and although the accusation is cloaked in lofty language about business freedoms, we're not sure how free Net business will be if Yahoo has to spend its time making sure it links to every conceivably relevant site.
So the moral of the story seems to be that whether or not you link to another site makes no difference in the end - you could be in hot water either way.
We greeted the news of Microsoft and Cisco's collaboration with extremely mixed feelings. See, we'd like to see a nice, scalable enterprise directory service that seamlessly integrates everything from desktops to routers. The downside, though, is that we're really going to miss Cisco. Our concern is that Cisco is flaunting one of the cardinal rules of dealing with Microsoft: never think the com-pany will be satisfied with its half of a partnership. Whatever value you add today, Microsoft can and will develop tomorrow.
With hardware becoming so fast and cheap, and with new products such as Steelhead coming down the pike, Microsoft is already making moves to drive Cisco out of the routing-software business. Sound crazy? So did the concept of Microsoft driving Novell out of network operating systems a few years ago. It'll start at the low end, of course - but then again, it always does.
Can the day be far off when Cisco routers run Windows NT and Microsoft routing software? Sure, it'll happen in stages. Just as it happened to practically every other Microsoft "partner" over the past few years. Not that opposing Goliath is much good, either - Novell and Netscape have tried it, and look where that strategy is going.
It's been a while since the last real knock-down, drag-out battle in the industry. There was the Apple vs Microsoft one years ago, but even that was pretty dull compared with what's shaping up between Intel and Digital.
Intel's implication that it may stop supplying processors to Digital is the commercial equivalent of a tactical nuclear weapon - tactical because it wouldn't kill Digital in general, just Digital's PC and low-end server business. Still, Digital can't be taking the threat lightly.
Do users need push?
Word on the street until recently was that the swarm of small push-technology companies would soon be thinned by competition from the big players' own technology. But now it looks more likely that their ranks will be decimated by assimilation instead.
Note Cisco Systems' recent absorption of Tibco, a push middleware vendor. While strategists run around breathlessly declaring push as the hot technology of the year - and while Microsoft, Cisco, and Netscape obligingly grab push capabilities as fast as they can - we remain slightly sceptical.
Push will let the human-resources department download important updates from a company's intranet. Couldn't they just send e-mail? Push will also give you access to the latest important news off the Internet - la PointCast. But do you really want a huge chunk of your network bandwidth dedicated to bringing your employees updates on sports and weather?
The final - and to our minds most convincing - case for push is its potential for distributing application upgrades. There's no doubt this need exists at most corporations.
Push eventually may be a seamless means of software distribution, but for now, everyone seems to have forgotten that desktop and LAN management programs already have this capability.
Eager as ever to not let any marketing mishap go unpunished, we direct your attention to Little Brother, Internet use-management software from California-based Kansmen. "It's cute," said Jens Andersen, Kansmen's director of business development, trying to clear up why his company chose to allude to Orwell's poster child.
In these libertarian times, though, we think any association - even a "cute" one - with telescreens and thought police is what the think tanks call a turnoff.
We were going to suggest that Kansmen use the Little Brother name instead to evoke revenue-positive memories of that tyke you shared a bunk bed with during childhood. But does anyone out there have a little brother who acted as a responsible guardian? We doubt it.
Apple recently responded to reports of RAM shaking loose in the PowerBook 3400 by making available the "RAM Gasket Fulfillment Kit", a strip of foam that holds the RAM in place. RAM Gasket Fulfillment Kit? Is this something our libido consultants should be aware of? We're also wondering if there's any chance that this will solve those memory leaks for which the Macintosh is famous.
But seriously, the recently reported cases of Macintosh hardware failure point out one root of Apple's problems. Why does the company con-tinue to offer a blindingly confusing array of ever-changing products instead of building a simple line of quality hardware and focusing on getting its OS in shape to compete in the '90s?
High-tech rich kids, the lawyers
Maybe convergence isn't all hype after all - lately the high-tech industry has seen so many lawsuits you might mistake it for the entertainment business. The saga of Microsoft vs everyone else has been overshadowed in recent weeks by the soap opera of who's suing whom.
The news that Digital is suing Intel over technology used in the Pentium Pro and Pentium II was a bit shocking to most people in the industry. Most observers seem to agree that Digital's case doesn't hold a lot of water.
Still, if the suit continues, we'll have episode after episode of high-profile finger-pointing to look forward to.
And then there's the tangled web in the anti-virus arena. Symantec filed a copyright infringement suit against McAfee in May, alleging that McAfee pirated Symantec's CrashGuard code for PC Medic. Now Trend Micro is suing both McAfee and Symantec for alleged patent infringement.
It appears that the next wave to cash in on high technology won't be smart young CEOs, investors scrambling to pick up initial public offerings, or hugely bonused employees; it'll be the legion of lawyers hired as an arsenal by every technology company.
Strange Apple doings
The news that Apple's future Rhapsody operating system will run on Intel processors as well as PowerPC processors is odd in itself. We can only hope that Apple and IBM enter into another strategic partnership in an attempt to dethrone Microsoft; perhaps some hybrid Rhapsody-OS/2 beast is the answer.
The really odd part is that, according to the Reuters news service: "Apple said 'Rhapsody for Intel' is the code name for Apple's next-generation operating system for Intel processor-based personal computers." In an age of strange to bizarre code names, Apple is showing a distinct lack of imagination.
New meaning for 'peer to peer'
UUNet's decision to stop "peering" with Internet service providers (ISPs) that can't handle traffic at the same rate seems like a smart business move. If an ISP can't provide the speed and capacity to contribute equitable routing, what's the point of a partnership with it? We could see this philosophy taking hold in non-ISP situations as well. If you were fixated on speed parity, you could work only with those other employees who could finish tasks as fast as you. You could shop at the grocery store whose line-wait time was directly proportional to how fast you filled your trolley.
Obviously, you'd want to drive on a road where all the other cars went at least as fast as you did. In this utopia, everything would run more efficiently, unless slower drivers had no roads and slower shoppers had no grocery stores - the danger inherent in decisions such as UUNet's.
WebConnect makes it big
At last year's NetWorld+Interop in Atlanta, we were struck by the fact that, out of thousands of exhibitors, there was really only one truly useful commercial Java product: OpenConnect's OC://WebConnect. Despite its dorky name, OC://WebConnect is a great product that allows any Java-enabled browser to connect to mainframes and other host systems. We were impressed with its speed, scalability, and general usefulness.
So we're happy to see that Oracle has announced that OC://WebConnect will be shipped with the Oracle Web Application server, itself a promising suite of Web connectivity.
Raising a hand is an art form
Recent research on virtual-meeting products got us thinking about the subtleties of human interaction, especially those that make a meatspace meeting (the kind that real flesh-and-blood people attend in the same room) more valuable than the virtual kind - more valuable even than a fat-pipe, full-motion videoconference.
There are still subtle human interactions that are invaluable in face-to-face meetings. Consider for just a moment the delivery mechanism called "the gaze", which can be slipped to a single person or multicast to everyone in the room. Now try doing that with a cueball-cam.
We also learned a bit about the subtleties of hand-raising from a friend at Interactive Factory. She recently told us the story of her primary school teacher, whose creative classroom manner influenced development of the company's Chalk online learning environment. Instead of asking for the familiar show of hands, the teacher got her students to raise an index finger when they had a comment, an open palm when they had a question, and a fist when they had a disagreement. Given the juvenile behaviour we've witnessed in some conference rooms - where the tallest digit is often the only one raised - it's probably a good rule of thumb for children of all ages.
We are deluged daily with press releases announcing products - usually the typical network hardware, storage systems, servers, and so on. We recently received a slightly off-the-wall press release for what appears to be a reading program, Vortex 3.0, from Tenax Software Engineering (www.halcyon.com/chigh/vortex.html).
The e-mail we got bragged, "Vortex 3.0 is the reading tool of the future for home, office, or on the road. Even spies are power reading with Vortex." How does this miraculous program work? "By harmonising with the biomechanical aspects of the human body, Vortex delivers a new form of information transfer to the computer user." Wow, sounds like the stuff sci-fi films or new-age sales pitches are made of.
We're beginning to think the worst part of the so-called 2000 problem (Y2P) is all the laypeople running around making decisions and announcements about it.
Recently, the US Federal Reserve announced that it will study the 2000 implication of proposed acquisitions by banks, presumably so they could disallow the acquisition if the Y2P is going to be a real problem.
This raises a few questions: first, does that mean we shouldn't trust banks that don't merge in the next year or so? Second, are there really banks out there that need this kind of regulation? And finally, we wonder if banks will get the chance to audit the Federal Reserve's Y2P compliance; after all, it is a government agency.