Microsoft yesterday quietly released what is being described as a release candidate version of Internet Explorer (IE) 8. This pre-release version is essentially the final form of IE8 but MS officials declined to reveal when the official launch will be.

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Among the highlights of IE8: The addition of private browsing, enhanced security and a new class of add-ons MS is calling accelerators.

IE8 will be compatible with Windows Vista and later versions of Windows XP (with Sevice Pack 2).

Curiously, IE8 General Manager Dean Hachamovitch notes that Windows 7, still officially scheduled for release later this year, will ship with the “release candidate” version of IE8.

In a prepared statement, MS explained, “Windows 7 enables unique features and functionality in Internet Explorer 8 including Windows Touch and Jump Lists which require additional product tests to ensure we are providing the best Windows experience for our customers. Microsoft will continue to update the version of Internet Explorer 8 running on Windows 7 as the development cycles of Windows 7 progress.”

If you want to try the release candidate version of IE8, it’s available now at the MS Download Center.

Apple is recommending that QuickTime users update to version 7.6 of the popular media player, which fixes for a number of potentially serious security flaws in version 7.

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Windows and Mac OS X 10.4 and 10.5 users are included in the upgrade recommendation.

The official Apple security bulletin lists seven separate vulnerabilities, any of which, “may lead to an unexpected application termination or arbitrary code execution.”

The QuickTime 7.6 update is available from the Apple Downloads site and via ‘Software Update’ in the Apple menu for Mac OS users.

ComScore, a self-proclaimed leader in “measuring the digital world”, this week reported that the total global Internet audience surpassed 1 billion last month.

ComScore says it’s latest World Metrix report shows that China is the world’s fastest growing Internet market in spite of continuing government filtering of foreign content and suppression of dissenting voices. China tallied just over 179.7 million Internet users edging out the U.S. which came in at 163.3 million.

The Asia-PAcific region, as a while, accounted for more than 41 per cent of the total Internet audience. Europe came in second at 28 per cent and North America showed up a surprising third, at a little over 18 per cent.

“Surpassing one billion global users is a significant landmark in the history of the Internet,” said Magid Abraham, President and CEO of comScore, Inc. “It is a monument to the increasingly unified global community in which we live and reminds us that the world truly is becoming more flat. The second billion will be online before we know it and the third billion will arrive even faster than that, until we have a truly global network of interconnected people and ideas that transcend borders and cultural boundaries.”

A digest of the full World Metrix results is available at the comScore Web site.

Before I discovered Lightroom I opened every image in Photoshop, closed the ones I didn’t like, and adjusted the ones I did. I got pretty good at it and I had macros to do things like create jpegs for use on the Web. Lightroom changed all that and introduced me to a much faster and more efficient process.

Lightroom takes a workflow approach that is quite different from traditional image editing software. Once you have imported your images into Lightroom, you can use it to select and/or rate your images, perform adjustments like cropping, levels and minor retouching, and output the images to various file formats, a printer, or Web galleries. While Lightroom has many great features, I love it because it is easy to use, very flexible and completely non-destructive.  It also cut my postprocessing time by more than half.

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Adobe added a number of great new features to Lightroom 2 and recently released 2.1 (a free update for owners of version 2.0), so for this article I’m not going to draw a distinction between 2.0 and 2.1, making the assumption that 2.0 owners have already upgraded.

Personally, Adobe had me at “dual monitor support” and “64-bit”. Those two features are enough to justify the (US)$99 upgrade. While Lightroom 1 did work across dual monitors by stretching the main window, Lightroom 2 adds buttons to bring up images on the second monitor. Once activated, the user can select different views on the second monitor ranging from thumbnails to a full-screen version of the currently selected image. The fact that Lightroom now includes a 64-bit version means that it can now take advantage of much more memory on computers with 64-bit operating systems.

Other changes for version 2 include better local adjustments like dodging and burning, enhanced batch processing, enhanced output sharpening, and the addition of “volume management” to help manage, organize and work with high-resolution previews even when originals are offline.

I tested Lightroom 2.1 on both my 64-bit Vista desktop and a 32-bit Vista notebook. The performance was flawless. I tested the new volume management feature on the notebook by importing (but not copying) several folders of images from my desktop computer across the network. I clicked on a few to see the image, and then quickly disconnected from the network while the application was still running. Lightroom handled the situation much more gracefully than I expected and continued to display thumbnails for all the images. While offline images could be viewed, edit controls were grayed out and Lightroom indicated that the image was either offline or missing.

Overall, Lightroom continues to be my favourite photo software and the new version is definitely worth the money. But don’t take my word for it. Adobe offers a free 30 day downloadable trial so you can check it out for yourself.

Rather than using it as a reference for phone numbers not to be called, some telemarketers are apparently using the new Canadian do-not-call list as a source for leads.

The Canadian Radio Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) sells copies of the list to telemarketers at a nominal cost. Making the list available to the marketers is essential to ensuring they will comply with the law and not call those numbers in the do-not-call registry.

Industry Minister Tony Clement last week confirmed that it’s not only unethical but illegal for marketers to call numbers on the do-not-call list.

“An abuse of the do-not-call list is unconscionable, not to mention illegal, and I sympathize with those Canadians who are being harassed by unscrupulous telemarketers,” Clement said in a statement.

Clement added that the CRTC will “aggressively pursue” offenders. Fines of up to (C)$15,000 can be levied against marketers who abuse the do-not-call list.

CRTC spokesman Denis Carmel added that, if foreign-based telemarketers abuse the do-not-call list to sell a product in Canada, the Canadian distributor of that product will be held accountable.

The nationwide Canadian do-not-call list was instituted last September. As of early this month, more than six million Canadians had reportedly registered their phone numbers on the list. For further information on the list, visit the do-not-call registry information page.

What would you think if you searched the Internet after the Canadian federal budget is presented tomorrow and every article you could find about it was positive? How would you feel if you attempted to visit the blog of an outspoken critic and the site was suddenly gone?

More than 2000 years ago the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu wrote about controlling and manipulating information. Politicians, military leaders and advertising agencies (to name just a few) have spent much of the time since refining their techniques. For example, during the cold war, nations such as the Soviet Union and East Germany used high-power transmitters to jam western radio and television broadcasts to prevent their citizens from watching and listening to them. At the same time, western countries used shortwave radio stations to broadcast programming specifically intended for the eastern audiences.

While radio frequency jamming continues in some parts of the world, the battle is now mostly online. Canadians can fairly expect to read all sorts of opinions on the budget but citizens of some other countries, notably China, aren’t so fortunate: Their government operates extensive filters in an ongoing attempt to suppress opposing viewpoints.

Other countries are more subtle. For example, at last report Australia was still moving forward with its “Clean Feed” project, which would require Australian Internet Service Providers to implement mandatory filtering. The filter was initially touted as a “cyber-safety” measure for homes with children. However, according to Electronic Frontiers Australia, “Recent comments by experts have revealed the existence of a second, secret black list that would apply even to homes that managed to opt out of the child-safe filtering scheme.”

The problem with all these schemes is who gets to decide what content is filtered and how the decision is made. Child pornography is universally unacceptable and proponents of filtering thus often use it as an example and a justification. Material such as hardcore pornography, information on how to make bombs and the words of those who propose policies such as genocide also have few public defenders. Then there’s nudity and violence. Some people find nudity offensive in itself, while others perceive the human body as beautiful. Some parents allow their young children to watch violent cartoons while others hope to never expose them to Elmer Fudd, the madman with the shotgun, or Wile E. Coyote and his nasty dynamite habit.

Government-imposed or Government-controlled Internet censorship is extremely dangerous. Once filters are implemented, politicians and bureaucrats will be under constant pressure by special interest groups to block additional content. Adding a Web site to the blacklist will always be a safer political decision than not adding it. Pornography will be first because very few people are willing to publically support it, followed shortly by any form of nudity. Religious groups will quickly organize and apply massive pressure to censor Web sites about abortion, contraception, homosexuality or that dare question the existence of God. You might disagree, and perhaps you personally might have the courage to stand fast against such groups. Now put the same decision into the hands of a group of people concerned about being re-elected and see how quickly the blacklist grows.

Of course once the filters are in place, there will be other uses for them. Fighting with terrorists? Block their Web sites to protect your citizens. Find complaints about the goings on in Gaza politically costly? Just flip the switch. Let there be no misunderstanding: These filters allow Governments to choose what we can and cannot read, to curb discussion and to silence dissent. And, no matter how noble the initial intent may be, they will be abused.

On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Article 19 reads:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Whatever we think of the UN’s effectiveness today, the fact remains that, a few years after the end of the Second World War, a majority of the countries around the world saw fit to include this principle alongside other fundamental human rights. We must not allow short-sighted politicians to take this right away.

Amid the pomp, circumstance and general hubbub surrounding the inauguration of U.S. President Barach Obama last week, the U.S Supreme Court quietly administered a coup de grace to the controversial Child Online Protection Act (COPA). The court, which ruled COPA unconstitutional in 2004, refused a U.S. Justice Department request to hear further arguments in the case. Legal experts say that’s the end, finally, of the government’s decade-long effort to have COPA enforced.

The law, enacted in the late 1990s amid a flurry of Internet pornography scares, established penalties including jail terms of up to six months and fines of up to (US)$50,000 for any Web site operator who posted “material harmful to minors”.

Predictably, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took the law to court, saying it was too broad and vague, and patently unconstitutional.

Following the Supreme Court decision last Wednesday, ACLU lawyer Chris Hansen issued a statement affirming the group’s positon that, “It is not the role of the government to decide what people can see and do on the Internet. Those are personal decisions that should be made by individuals and their families.”

Regular readers of the TECHLife Post will almost certainly have noted the increasing frequency, in recent months, of stories focusing on Internet censorship and a growing tendency by governments everywhere to consider filtering and other means of censorship to protect their citizens — specifically, minor children — from real and perceived threats posed by the Internet.

Civil liberties and free speech advocates the world over are speaking out against filtering but they are having trouble being heard. The government of Australia, for example, is going ahead with plans to institute filtering, based on a government-controlled “back list” of Web sites which Australians won’t be allowed to visit, in spite of placard-carrying protests by thousands in major cities there.

Critics have warned that such a black list could — and probably will — be abused for political purposes, setting a dangerous precedent in favour of government control of the media. This is already a reality in China, where the government has controlled what its citizens can view and post on the Internet from day one.

TECHLife Post (TLP) believes that Internet filtering is fundamentally wrong and, in fact, threatens the fundamental human right to freedom of opinion and expression proclaimed under Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

TLP believes that, together, we can stop Internet censorship and preserve the right of end users to choose the Internet content they wish to access.

In support of this editorial stand, TLP today launched the Hands off MY Net! (HOMN) campaign against Internet censorship.

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The Hands off MY Net! Web site provides full details of the campaign and is home to an electronic petition, open to signers from all countries, calling on all governments to defend their citizens’ right to a free Internet and to entrench this right in law.

The site also aggregates daily Internet censorship and related news as reported by the TECHLife Post and other media.

TECHLife Post welcomes partnerships with other Internet free speech organizations, corporations and institutions which believe, as we do, that government filtering of the Internet is the thin edge of a dangerous and destructive wedge, and wish to support the HOMN initiative to educate lawmakers, businesses and individuals worldwide about this critical issue.

You may be eligible for a compensation payment under a recent settlement by Apple in a massive class action suit over iPod Nanos that scratched badly under normal use.

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The iPod family, Nano far right.

The settlement, reached last October, is still awaiting court approval, which is expected to some this April. However, lawyers for the plaintiff group report that settlement advisory letters are already going out to a pool of Nano owners estimated to number several million.

Users who file a claim will be eligible to collect one of two types of payments. Payments of up to (US)$25 will be available to claimants who did not receive a free Nano slipcase when they purchased their unit. Payments of up to (US)$15 will be available to claimants who did receive a slipcase.

The total amount Apple has agreed to pay in compensation to unhappy Nano owners is (US)$22.5 million. If claims surpass that amount, individual payments may be reduced proportionally to ensure that all claimants are equally compensated.

For details and access to the claim form, visit the iPod Nano settlement Web site.

The Vatican has taken a bold leap into the 21st century, opening its own YouTube page.

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The page features videos of public appearance by Pope Benedict, who welcomed viewers personally with a clip in which he described the Internet in general and YouTube in particular as a, “great family that knows no borders.”

The Vatican says it hopes the new YouTube page will help unite Catholics worldwide — a captive audience estimated at more than 1.4 billion — and allow the church to better control the Pope’s online image.

In his official launch announcement for the Vatican YouTube page, the Pope praised the Internet and social networking sites in particular as a gift to humanity with the potential to encourage friendship and understanding.

The Pope joins other world leaders who have already set up YouTube pages to help bring their lofty presences closer to the masses. U.S. President Barach Obama launched his pown YouTube site on Inauguration day, last week, and Queen Elizabeth II has had one for over a year.

U.S. President Barach Obama may be the most famous fan of the BlackBerry smart phone. But, as we reported last week, he almost lost his trusty wireless assistant, which was at his side throughout his tumultuous Presidential campaign, when he took the oath of office last Tuesday.

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Obama and his BlackBerry on the Campaign Trail.

The Secret Service, which is charged with protecting the U.S. President, and the security agencies charged with keeping his communications private and unhackable insisted that he give up the BlackBerry because it was simply not secure enough for a President to use. Officials at Research In  Motion, the Canadian company that makes and supports the BlackBerry, insisted the phone was as secure as any such device available. But that still wasn’t good enough for the President’s security people.

Security experts and political observers immediately pointed out that the President might leave himself open to myriad hacks and personal dangers by using any wireless device.

Nevertheless, the President and his handlers finally cut a compromise. Obama has his BlackBerry back – but with some strategic modifications.

“The security is enhanced to ensure his ability to communicate, but to do so effectively and to do so in a way that is protected,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said yesterday. Not surprisingly, Gibbs demurred from going into details.

Media reports, quoting insiders, say Military-grade encryption has been implemented. And Gibbs noted that Obama’s personal wireless communications will be limited to senior Presidential staff and “a small group of personal friends”.

Unofficial reports also say that the ObamaBerry may be the most expensive BlackBerry ever made, quoting a price tag of around (US)$3,000 for the modified phone.

Microsoft (MS), Sony and Intel all announced new layoffs this week, providing confirmation of industry observer’s predictions that the tech sector economic slump is still far from bottoming out.

Microsoft led off with an announcement that shocked many in the tech sector: Q4 2008 financial results were so disappointing that the company felt compelled to lay off at least 5,000 employees to shave costs, the first company-wide layoffs in MS’s history. Some 1,400 jobs were terminated immediately with the remainder scheduled to disappear over the next 18 months.

ZDNet published a copy of the e-mail message MS CEO Steve Ballmer sent all employees explaining the layoffs and associated cutbacks.

Simply put, MS sold far fewer copies of its flagship Windows operating system than it hoped to because there were far fewer new computers than usual sold in the usually busy holiday quarter.

Intel is also suffering from weak sales of personal computers, for which Intel is the leading supplier of microprocessor (brain) chips. As a result, the company is laying off 6,000 workers and closing four chip fabrication plants in Malaysia, the Philippines and the U.S.

Meanwhile, Intel’s arch competitor in the processor market, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) posted its fourth consecutive quarterly loss for a total fiscal 2008 loss of just over (US)$3 billion. But AMD isn’t talking layoffs or plant closures – at least, not yet.

And Sony, which already announced a major restructuring initiative late last year involving layoffs that could total 16,000 worldwide, this week announced the closing of two more plants resulting in 2,000 more layoffs. The company finished 2008 in even worse shape than it first feared, predicting a (US)2.9 billion loss for 2009, its first annual loss in 14 years.

Sony’s problems stem, in large part, from tanking sales of the high-end consumer electronic gadgets in which is specializes, notably, big-screen televisions.