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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.


>>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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Unsafe and insecure Wireless networking may be booming, but many households that install the equipment are lax about security. Manufacturers and experts estimate that up to 80 percent of these users forgo basic protections. Part of the problem is that wireless connectivity works differently from traditional hookups. Wi-Fi is much like radio, in which a transmitter sends packets through the air to receivers. This runs the risk of intruders who can snoop around the network or borrow some bandwidth for unauthorized use. An unprotected network can open a family's internet connection to neighbors or passersby. If illicit activity occurs, it would be traced back to the people who pay for the internet account. (Some hobbyists even wander around looking for unsecured connections.) Another problem is that Wi-Fi security is often more complicated than installation. It may require surfing through several screens of geek-speak, typing in confusing codes and acronyms along the way. The non-tech-savvy may throw up their hands. Yet Wi-Fi security is as necessary as anti-virus software and adware blockers. The most secure protection is the one that causes the most headaches, since the user often must type in a set of numbers and ­letters to scramble data going in and out of the network. Naming rights Ron Fitch checked his e-mail last Christmas and got a shock: Someone had sent him a cartoon depicting him, his wife, and his St. Bernard. Mr. Fitch was listed as the sender, but he hadn't created the ­message. So he went to court to find out who had. The case tests the limits of anonymity in the internet age. In an effort reminiscent of recent music-piracy suits, he's suing someone he knows only as "John Doe." The defendant won't admit his identity and the case is headed to the Maine Supreme Court. ("John Doe" found out about the case through his internet provider, Time Warner, which has not revealed his identity.) Mr. Fitch claims the spoofed e-mail, which was also sent to some of his neighbors, is no different from identity theft. He also accuses "John Doe" of violation of ­privacy, misappropriation of identity, depicting him in a "false light," and ­infliction of emotional distress. The case hangs on whether the prankster can use an e-mail account in Mr. Fitch's name when sending the cartoon, which was apparently intended as humor. A lower court found in Mr. Fitch's favor last month-ruling that the state's confidentiality law was intended to protect internet users' personal data from commercial misuse. "John Doe" refused to give in and filed an appeal. Bits & Megabytes • Isamu Kaneko, creator of a file-sharing program called Winny, was indicted by Japanese authorities, who claim he assisted copyright violations. The University of Tokyo professor faces three years in prison if convicted, but he denies any wrongdoing. Winny, which was written in Japanese, has been used by as many as 1 million people. • EBay announced new restrictions on firearms-related items that may be ­auctioned on its site. Among items banned this month are "any assault-weapon-related parts or accessories" and "any firearm receiver or firearm frame." Sellers may still offer barrels, stocks, holsters, and other items. • Comcast, America's dominant cable company, expects to offer internet phone service to 95 percent of its 21.5 million subscribers by the end of next year. This revives the "digital convergence" concept of voice, video, and data ­services all coming from the same ­fiber-optic link. Comcast acquired a struggling phone service when it bought AT&T Broadband in 2002. • Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang plans to collect part of his dot-com treasure, selling 8 million shares of company stock. The stake is ­estimated at $245 million, a fraction of his $2 billion fortune. The 35-year-old currently holds the tongue-in-cheek title of "Chief Yahoo" at the portal powerhouse.

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