From: ZDNet.com —

The British government has announced it will cooperate with a European Community (EC) mandate established last November to enhance police powers to ‘conduct remote searches of computers’.

As ZDNet’s Tom Espiner reports, “The [UK] Home Office said on Monday that it has decided to participate in the further formulation of the European Parliament plans, but that no timetable or detail for the proposals had been settled.”

In what may come as a shocking surprise to some UK computer users, it appears that police have had limited hacking powers for some time already:

“According to Richard Clayton, a Cambridge University computer security expert, it has been legal for the police to hack into suspect systems without a warrant since 1995, when a 1994 amendment of the Computer Misuse Act was brought into force. Remote warrantless searches of computers are also legal under part three of the Police Act [of] 1995, and under parts of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act [of] 2000.”

Given the go-ahead by UK lawmakers, police won’t have a great deal of difficulty eavesdropping on suspected criminals via off-the-shelf technology:

“…The most likely method for UK police to hack into computers [would be] to enter a premises and install a keylogger on the target system. This would be more reliable than a drive-by download or ‘sending an email with a dodgy attachment’, as the chances of successful interception of data were higher. … Alternatively, police could hack WiFi networks to gain access to systems.”

Predictably, privacy watchdogs are calling on the British government to ensure that all requests by police to conduct ‘official’ hacking operations are subject to judicial oversight. Simon Davies, Director of Privacy International, warned that Internet interception is far more intrusive than telephone interception, which is already routinely used by police in criminal investigations.

While the big computer makers with the familiar names — notably Dell and HP — had a very bad year in 2008, others makers specializing in other types of computers apparently had a pretty good year.

Conventional PC and notebook sales were down dramatically in the second half of last year and consumer sales this past holiday season were among the most disappointing in the history of the industry.

As Rob Pegoraro of The Washington Post reports, “Some [advances] happened in devices once labeled ‘peripherals’, such as smartphones and digital cameras, while others took place entirely on the Web. Start with smartphones, the kind of computer that an increasing number of people carry with them every waking moment. Apple’s iPhone 3G got the headlines, but 2008’s bigger phone story was the iPhone’s App Store.”

Digital cameras are also beginning to embody more and more smart technology, sllowing some users to bypass the step of downloading their pics to a PC and send them directly to photo printers or Web-based archive services. Some models even have in-camera editing tools.

But the emerging technology that got the most attention in 2008 — and is expected, at this early stage at least, to be the big story of 2009 — is the Netbook concept.

As reported previously on TLP, Netbooks are mini notebooks, typically with a 7-in screen and a compact but usable full-QWERTY keyboard. Light weight and a compact form factor are just the beginning, though. As Web-based applications and services continue to gain in popularity and users (especially in the business sphere) come to reply more and more on their wireless connections to the office, wireless-ready Netbooks will look more and more attractive to users on the go.

Perhaps the most attractive attribute of the Netbook is its average price of under (US)$400 per unit.

With the rise of the Netbook, the Linux open source operating system is also making gains in the consumer marketspace. An attractive, reliable and free operating system is seen as one of the best ways to keepo Netbook prices down — and players in the Netbook market are already comperting on price more than on features or performance, which are currently pretty similar across the board.

The much-reviled Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) appears to be following through on its commitment, late last year, to cease actively prosecuting music file sharers.

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The Wall Street Journal this week reported that the RIAA has fired MediaSentry, the company it had hired to track down illegal tune traders.

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The RIAA isn’t giving up, though. It says it’s reached an agreement with major ISPs to “limit service” to chronic file sharers. The exact means the RIAA and the ISPs plan to use to implement such restrictions have not been revealed but several cooperating ISPs have said they will not throttle accused users’ bandwidth.

Stay tuned…

The announcement last month, that Apple chief Steve Jobs would not attend or address Macworld 2009 this week in San Francisco, sparked rumours that he was planning to ease into retirement. Later, other rumours started circulating in the Apple fan community that Jobs was seriously ill — perhaps dieing. Now Apple’s official line is that Jobs is, indeed, ill, but not all that seriously.

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In a personal letter to Apple employees yesterday, Jobs said, “As many of you know, I have been losing weight throughout 2008. The reason has been a mystery to me and my doctors. A few weeks ago, I decided that getting to the root cause of this and reversing it needed to become my #1 priority. …Fortunately, after further testing, my doctors think they have found the cause—a hormone imbalance that has been ‘robbing’ me of the proteins my body needs to be healthy. Sophisticated blood tests have confirmed this diagnosis.”

Jobs also said that the problem was ‘dietary’ in nature and that he had already started treatment for it.

Some observers say Jobs, who is notoriously secretive about his personal life, elected to come clean about his health issues after serious concerns were voiced in the financial community about Apple’s stability is he was, in fact on the way out.

Jobs’ health issues are not directly connected to Apple’s decision to get out of the trade show game. Late last year, Apple announced this would be its last year at Macworld and other trade and consumer shows, saying it will concentrate instead on its network of Apple Stores and its Apple.com Web site, which allow the company to, “directly reach more than a hundred million customers around the world in innovative new ways.”

Apple’s Senior Vice-President of Worldwide Marketing, Philip Schiller, will speak at today’s Macworld Keynote event. The show runs through this coming Friday at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

From: Reuters / Yahoo! Tech —

The Chinese government has launched a New Year’s crackdown against Web sites it says threaten morals by spreading pornography and vulgarity. Prominent among the primary offenders were global Internet giant Google and Chinese Web search leader Baidu. There was no official comment, as of this post, from Google.

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As The Reuters News service reports, at Yahoo! Tech, those organizations targeted for raids and confiscation of equipment had been told by the government to remove or block content that Chinese officials found objectionable but, “the 19 Internet operators and Web sites named had failed to swiftly cut ‘vulgar’ content and had not heeded warnings from censors.”

This is just the latest crackdown by Chinese officials on foreign Internet companies operating in China and on Internet content coming into the country:

“China’s ruling Communist Party is wary of threats to its grip on information and has launched many such censorship efforts before, targeting pornography, political criticism and web scams. But officials flagged tougher steps this time. … The campaign also coincides with Communist Party efforts to stifle dissent and protest as the economy slows and as China enters a year of sensitive anniversaries, especially the 20th year since the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 1989.”

Other media reports suggest that the Chinese government is also upgrading its Internet filters, to catch even more content the government deems unfit for Chinese eyes and ears.

Yes, some media outlets were actually calling it “Zunegate”, implying some sort of conspiracy, until the truth was revealed…

Owners of Microsoft’s Zune portable music player (specifically, the 30 GB model) were dismayed, to say the least, when their players ceased to function a day or two before this past New Years.

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The Zune 30 was the only Zune model plagued by the Leap Year bug.

Now, we know why.

Simply put, the software built into the players to calculate the current date got into a never-ending loop.

As the Aeroexperience quality assurance blog explained this past weekend, the sofrware was, “designed to get the number of years from the number of days since 1980 as well as a remainder of days out of the current year. … If it’s a leap year, the number 366 will stay within the loop forever because 366 will never be greater than 366, but 366 will also always be greater than 365.”

Microsoft, at the Zune support site, simply suggested that users disconnect their players from charger and USB connections that might supply power, let batteries run down so that the internal memory would be flushed, and then turn them on again anytime after 7 a.m. Eastern / 4 a.m. Pacific time on New Year’s day

We assume a firmware upgrade fixing the problem is on the way even though the Leap Year issue won’t rear its ugly head again until late 2012.

You’ve probably heard of “Netbooks”, the new generation of stripped-down (‘streamlined’?) portable computers with features geared to Net-based activities.

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The ASUS Eee PC — The ‘original’ Netbook.
Shape of PCs to come?

Netbooks are expected to take off this year, as one of the Next Big Things on the computer/Internet front. It’s great news for consumers, who have been clamouring for lightweight, inexpensive portables the past couple of years as personal and business lifestyles become more and more mobile. The Netbook has been looking more and more attractive to on-the-go users for another reason, too: Intensive cell phone users have discovered that — regardless of the features on their phones and the services they can access through their connection providers — you just can’t do real work on a tiny screen.

So, wireless-ready Netbooks, weighing in at around 3 lb. / 1.4 kg, with 7 in. to 9 in. diagonal screens, full-QWERTY keyboards you can actually type on and a “hardback novel” form factor, are bound to appeal.

And did we mention the (US)$400-and-under price tag?

But what’s good news for Intel (which supplies the new generation of microprocessor “brain” chips used in most current Netbooks) is bad news for the competition. And other chip makers are already suffering from stagnant sales, even closing down production lines, due to the tanking desktop and conventional portable PC markets. This past Holiday season, in fact, was one of the worst in 15 years for computer sales.

While Asian manufacturers are embracing the Nerbook concept, familiar North American names are not jumping in, saying that, with their manufacturing and marketing costs, profit margins are to slim on a Netbook that would have to compete at the (US)$400 price point.

Industry observers say we’re on the verge of a shakeout: Either the traditional computer makers, such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard, shift their business model to provide what consumers want or they’ll find themselves out of business. For the time being, though, the old-school players are standing pat, trying to differentiate their conventional PC products from netbooks by pointing out that you still need a full-featured computer to do serious work.

Simply put… While most observers (outside of the smart phone industry, of course) seem to agree that phones will never totally replace PCs, they are starting to opine as the Netbook might. But that would require a wholesale change, by users, from conventional PCs, PC-resident software and “local” PC-resident mass storage for their data. And, as Google, Microsoft and other providers of “cloud” services will attest, that isn’t liklely to happen soon, based on sluggish interest from both consumers and businesses over the past couple of years, since major players first started to offer Web-based aplications and services on a serious basis.

Most of us have come to rely upon the information on our hard drives.  Email, calendars, contacts, family photos, financial information, our music collections, and so much more.  So as we begin another new year, let’s take a moment to consider if our information is adequately protected.

Here’s a simple test for home and small business users:  Shut off your computer and pretend it is gone.  What have you lost?  Do you still have your grandmother’s address?  Your MP3 collection?  Your family photos?  Can you pull out a DVD and access the data from another computer, or would you be frantically trying to find someone who does forensic data recovery?

While hard drives have become much more reliable, they do fail.  Computers also get stolen and infected with nasty viruses that destroy information.  It’s sad to think that while some of this generation’s special moments could live forever in electronic form, some won’t survive longer than their owner’s hard drive – about five years on average.

So what are your best options?

Most computers sold these days come with a DVD writer, and if yours didn’t, you can buy a USB DVD writer for about $100.  I’m a huge fan of DVD media because it is has become dirt cheap and if you choose standard DVD-R or DVD+R media, once it is written it can’t be accidentally modified.  (I advise people to avoid RW media for backups – using media that can be overwritten defeats one of the biggest advantages of using DVDs in the first place.)  I burn all my original photos to DVD.  But there is a disadvantage:  We really don’t know how long they will last.  Our best estimate at this point is that quality media will last about 50 years.  Of course within about 10 years we’ll probably be able to copy all of our old DVDs onto some new disk, so as long as we keep that in mind, we’ll be fine.

Another great option is a USB hard drive, just connect it to your computer, copy your files onto it (either manually or using backup software), and then, most importantly, disconnect it and put it somewhere safe. While today’s high capability USB drives make it an attractive option, there’s one catch:  Many people have lost data when a “bad” copy of a file is copied over the “good” one on the backup.  For example, if a virus corrupted a few thousand of my digital photos, and my only backup scheme was to copy them to a USB hard drive, I might end up copying the corrupted versions over top of the good versions.  And that defeats the whole purpose.  So while USB hard drives can be great, you might want to use backup software that keeps older versions of files.

Of course you can combine these two options into a rock solid backup system – burn important files to DVD and also back up your system to a USB hard drive.  Some people also create a second DVD and store it at an off-site location to protect their data in the event of flooding, fire, or natural disaster. But what about those of us who “know” we should back up our files, but never seem to get around to it?

Several companies offer automated Internet-based backups.  For example, you might have seen the Carbonite ads on this web site.  Carbonite is one of the leading Internet backup services because it’s very simple to use:  You install their software, tell it what files or directories you want backed up, and for about $50 per year you can have your computer automatically back up your important files across the Internet.  Network-based backups take longer, both for the backup and subsequent recovery.  But if you want something completely automatic that runs in the background, this is it.

More technical users looking for Internet-based backup should also check out JungleDisk and the Amazon S3 service.  In summary, you can open an account with Amazon and get access to data storage for $0.15 per GIG per month, plus some data transfer fees.  JungleDisk ($20) allows you to mount S3 storage space as a drive letter and it also provides backup functionality.

Well… If you thought you’d heard of everything when it comes to auto accessories, think again. Britain’s Maplin Electronics now offers an In-Car Microwave oven.

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The unit is fully portable, featuring a heavy-duty carry handle and a touchscreen LCD control panel. It’s powered by a standard 12-volt lighter/accessory socket cord and is claimed to be, “tough enough to withstand all of the everyday knocks that you can expect when items get thrown in the back of the car.”

So… If you’re tired of waiting for the right restaurant to come up, interchange after interchange along the way, or you just have to have your favourite dish on the road, the Maplin In-Car Microwave is for you! Be the hit of your next potluck or picnic!

The Maplin 12V In-Car Microwave is available direct from the manufacturer at around (US)$190 plus shipping.

Last week, Facebook administrators removed photos of a mother breastfeeding her baby, saying the images were ‘too revealing’ for the all-ages social networking site. And the ‘ban’ has Facebook users and others up in arms.

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The Facebook action was not, as reported in some media, a ban on all brest feeding photos — just the ones in question, which were deemed told show too much skin.

Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt told Reuters news service, in a statement, that most breast feeding photos posted by members are not contested by site administrators, because they don’t contravene the Facebook ‘terms of use’. But the photos in question apparently crossed the line, as Facebook admins see it, and were removed, “to ensure the site remains safe and secure for all users, including children.”

Schnitt added that, “The photos we act upon are almost exclusively brought to our attention by other users who complain.”

Nevertheless, the woman whose photos were removed from Facebook, U.S. resident Kelly Roman, has started a petition titled: “Hey Facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene!” At last count, it had registered more than 80,000 names and more than 10,000 comments.

Protesters actually held a ‘nurse-in’ on Facebook over the past weekend, posting hundeds of photos of breast feeding mothers and children. A few really agitated protesters actually picketed Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto CA.

However, Facebook management hasn’t budged on the issue. (Stay tuned…)

Facebook passed the 120 million user mark late last fall and its membership continues to grow at an astonishing rate.

From: CNet.com —

We’ve known for some time, now, that U.S. television viewers would be faced with a challenge early this year, when broadcasters there must abandon their traditional analog channels and switch to a new digital system.


Not quite as easy as this, but relatively painless
for a majority of U.S. TV viewers

The official date by which broadcasters must make the switch is February 17, 2009, and the change will mean better TV for most viewers.

As CNet’s Marguerite Reardon reports, “For over-the-air TV viewers, the switch to digital also has many benefits, including sharper pictures, better sound quality, and more content. Using analog signals, broadcasters can only transmit one channel of content at a time. But with digital signals, broadcasters can transmit multiple channels at once. In fact, many broadcasters have already launched three or four separate digital channels, each carrying programming of interest to diverse communities. And, because there is more bandwidth available, broadcasters are also transmitting some of these channels in high-definition.”

However, recent surveys indicate that many TV viewers are unaware that they must make changes in their TV equipment or service subscriptions to keep seeing the channels they’re used to seeing.

“Unfortunately, not everyone in every corner of the U.S. will experience all the great benefits of digital TV. Because analog signals transmit over longer distances than digital signals, some over-the-air viewers living in rural areas may find that they do not get all the same channels they were able to when they received analog TV.”

In addition, some cable viewers who don’t yet have a digital converter box may need to get one to continue watching TV via their cable connections after February 17, 2009. The good news there is, the U.S. federal government, which mandated the change to digital TV broadcasting to free-up more broadcast spectrum for military use, is offering U.S. residents a (US)$40 subsidy to offset the cost of a new digital converter box.

Cable companies are making major efforts to educate and inform their customers about the subsidy and other changes, However, it’s expected to take several months before all the viewer issues arising from the U.S. digital TV switch are ironed out.

Taking their cue from a recently-unearthed Apple Inc. patent application which some tech insiders deduced shows the hardware platform for a future “Tablet PC” MacBook, other observers are predicting that the company will release a large-screen (7 in. to 9 in. diagonal LCD) iPod Touch as early as next fall.

Adding fuel to the fires of speculation are statements by Apple CEO Steve Jobs earlier in 2008 that indicated he would be watching Tablet PCs and notebooks (including, one assumes, “netbooks”) closely, to see if any of those concepts showed signs of becoming the next consumer electronics mega-trend.

At the same time, Jobs denied reports that Apple is working on a Mac version of Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader, although some observers contend that the gentleman doth protest too much and, the stronger his denial, the greater the likelihood that Apple acutally is working on something like that. And such a device could easily be built on the hardware platform described in the new patent application.

Tech industry veterans also discount the possibility of a Mac tablet PC, pointing to the failure of the Microsoft Tablet PC initiative back in the 90s. On the other hand, there are those who insist that the Tablet concept was simply way ahead of its time.

Stay tuned!