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Intel's new 64-bit Xeon processor will be able to display smoother graphics and crunch more data while using less power

A bit more power The 32-bit processors running most of today's home and office computers are becoming outmoded. Intel finally made the technological leap to produce Xeon processors that handle data in 64-bit chunks. This jump in processing ability lets the new chips access exponentially more memory, so they can display smoother graphics and crunch more data while using less power. While a 32-bit processor can handle up to 4 billion bytes of memory, a 64-bit chip can address 18 quintillion bytes. Rival Advanced Micro Devices jumped on the 64-bit bandwagon back in April 2003, and Apple followed with the PowerPC G5. Yet Intel was slow at adopting the technology, possibly waiting for demand to rise. Scarcely any commercial software is available for 64-bit processors, which cuts into the expected performance boost. A 64-bit version of Windows XP is still in testing. Most of the 64-bit chips are still used by corporate servers, big databases, and uber-geeks, as the innovation creeps toward consumer use. Once the technology becomes viable for ordinary users, it could spawn a leap of innovation in graphics, games, sound, and database productivity. Caught in the Web A recent virus called "scob" may be the start of a new generation of cyberattacks. Scob uses JavaScript to fool users' computers into downloading a piece of software that records their keystrokes. This could give crooks access to personal information, such as passwords and credit card numbers. The ploy doesn't work with non-Microsoft browsers or with the Mac version of Internet Explorer. Apparently hackers found a flaw in a Microsoft program for operating websites, called Internet Information Server. Somehow the scripts were attached to hundreds of websites, an unusually broad attack. Users became infected when they visited those websites. Scob can be fought with normal security tools. It can be detected by the telltale files Kk32.dll or Surf.dat on one's hard drive. Anti-virus software maker Symantec reports that the virus is easily contained and removed. Microsoft engineers quickly responded to the discovery with a security update, which is downloadable and will also be included in the service pack set for release later this summer. Bits & Megabytes • Computer pioneer Bob Bemer, who invented the escape key and other standard characters used by computers, died of complications from cancer last month at age 84. As an IBM engineer in the 1950s and 1960s, he was part of the team that developed the ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) coding system, which lets computers recognize text and keyboard input. The escape key was an important innovation because it allows users to interrupt an activity and return to a previous state. • America Online is buying the internet marketing giant Advertising.com Inc. for $435 million in cash. The companies claim that together they will be able to deliver ads to more than 140 million internet users. This may be a sign that the online ad business is recuperating, and that Time Warner has more confidence in AOL. • The major Hollywood studios are looking at anti-piracy technology to keep people from duplicating review copies of movies sent to Oscar award voters. A proposed scheme would send about 6,000 special DVD players to the voters. Each promotional disc would be encrypted and only play on the recipient's player. The movies will bear invisible watermarks, which will make pirated copies traceable. • Students who want to buy iMacs for school this year may have trouble, due to a hiccup in Apple Computer's production cycle. The company stopped taking orders for existing models, but their replacements won't be available until September, after the back-to-school rush.

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Engine trouble Investigators want to know why Microsoft.com, Yahoo.com, Google.com and other major websites were hit by a purported cyber-attack last month. The incident made these destinations sluggish or inaccessible to many users for about two hours. This case is unusual because the attack did not focus on the well-known web powerhouses but on Akamai Technologies, a unique service provider that aims to make internet browsing more reliable. The company runs a giant network of 15,000 servers in 60 countries and uses them to distribute data for its 1,100 clients. The attack was apparently a distributed denial-of-service attack, in which some of Akamai's systems were hammered with junk data intended to make them slow down or stop working. The company said that the "sophisticated, large-scale" strike impacted its Domain Name Service, which converts monikers like "Microsoft.com" and "Yahoo.com" into numbers that internet routers can understand. When names could not be translated, many users found the sites inaccessible. Those reportedly affected included Symantec, FedEx, Apple Computer, AltaVista, and Lycos. Akamai says it is cooperating with the FBI and other government agencies in investigating the attack. Clearing the air Will digital radio upstage the familiar AM and FM bands? This new technology promises better sound quality and less static-and some call it as big a change as that from black-and-white to color TV. Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) sends CD-quality sound over the air, along with text messages such as news headlines, weather reports, and song titles. Unlike satellite radio services, these stations are free to anyone who can receive the signal. The technology was designed by a startup called iBiquity, which is partially owned by ABC, Clear Channel, and Viacom, and billed as "HD radio" in the United States. Other countries have had the technology for several years. The recording industry is taking enough notice of the technology to express concern about piracy. Like normal radio, DAB signals can be recorded and played back. Last month music lobbyists asked that copy-protection be added to discourage people from distributing copies of songs. The FCC is still writing rules for digital radio, and anti-piracy measures could be mandated by law. Right now, only about 100 stations across America broadcast DAB signals, and the receivers are still pricey. Widespread adoption could take several years, just as the FM band slowly grew to prominence. Bits & Bytes » Drivers heading down long highway stretches in Texas may soon find an oasis of free wireless internet access at rest stops. Officials want to offer complimentary Wi-Fi to get motorists to take more frequent breaks. For those without laptops, they also plan to offer use of PCs with internet access for a fee. » A comScore Networks study of the nation's 10 largest financial institutions found that 22 million consumers logged in to their accounts in March, a nearly 30 percent increase from a year earlier. More than 4.6 million Americans paid at least one bill via a bank online payment service in the first quarter this year, up from 1.9 million two years earlier. » Chinese bureaucrats want internet service providers to sign a "self-discipline pact" meant to stop the spread of content that Beijing says threatens "national security" or "social stability." Signers are told to direct their users to "healthy online information." Existing laws already order online firms and cybercafes to censor any criticism of the Communist government. » Black market narcotics are easy to find on the web-and underground druggists are willing to sell them, according to the General Accounting Office. Investigators were able to buy the painkiller hydrocodone (also known under the brand name Vicodin) from eight U.S. sites without having to visit a doctor for a prescription. They paid three to 16 times the normal price, which suggests that these "pharmacies" target a clientele that cannot get medications conventionally.

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Wireless, but clueless?

Cell phones are about as widespread as dissatisfaction with providers of cell service. Despite the proliferation of wireless companies, mobile-phone service was the second-lowest-ranked industry (only slightly better than local cable monopolies) in a consumer satisfaction study conducted by the University of Michigan.

Cellular providers also finished second (to auto dealerships) in complaints to Better Business Bureaus. Fees are one huge part of the problem. Just for the privilege of phone-number portability, Verizon Wireless alone charges customers more than $173 million a year in fees. Disgruntled users also gripe about dropped calls and poor customer service. Mobile providers insist they are improving service, buying new networks, and correcting billing and customer-service problems. Sprint PCS even admitted the problem by taking out newspaper ads asking, "What if the rest of the world were like the wireless industry?"

This negativity creates an opening for pro-regulation activists and lobbyists to rise up in the name of protecting consumers. California last month adopted a Telecommunications Bill of Rights that may be a model for other states. Among other things, it gives dissatisfied consumers the right to cancel wireless service within 30 days of signing a contract. Some carriers complain that such measures will add new layers of bureaucracy that ultimately will lead to higher phone bills.

Name, rank, and password

Millions rattle off their usernames and passwords every day without a second thought, hoping that this bit of security is enough to protect their privacy. Increasingly, it's not.

One problem is that some use obvious passwords like "password," "hello," or "123456"-or common dictionary words. Often users will provide the same code on numerous sites, multiplying their security risks. Some people share logins (particularly when accessing news sites), which also can lead to security problems.

Sites are turning to "password plus" or two-factor security. Sweden's Nordea bank, for example, provides scratch-off cards that reveal secret codes that users enter on their keyboards. MasterCard is testing a system overseas in which users swipe their credit cards through a special reader to receive a password that works on participating merchants' sites.

A common two-factor system in the United States is RSA Security's venerable SecurID system. Each user carries a keychain-like device that regularly displays a PIN number that constantly changes, thus thwarting onlookers. The company is now testing a new version that works on Windows-based systems.

BITS & MEGABYTES

>>Google is preparing to launch its Gmail e-mail service. Accounts are free, but users will see ads based on keywords inside their messages, an innovation that raises obvious privacy concerns. Google promises not to sell personal data to third parties.

>>Cell-phone pioneer Craig McCaw is launching Clearwire, a wireless broadband service. Tests begin this summer in Jacksonville, Fla., and St. Cloud, Minn. Clearwire has purchased spectrum space to serve 100 markets.

>>Federal officials closed an anti trust probe into Movielink, a video-on-demand startup created by five Hollywood studios. Critics complained that the joint venture might reduce competition and raise prices, but the Justice Department investigators found insufficient ­evidence of collusion.

>>Sony plans to quit selling its Clie line of PDAs outside of Japan. The product lost market share to more powerful all-in-one PDA cell phones.

>>The European Union's antitrust chief defended his decision against Microsoft. Competition Commissioner Mario Monti wants the software giant to release a stripped version of Windows and share some proprietary server code. The U.S. Justice Department labeled the ruling -which levies a $606 million fine-bad for competition and innovation.

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