Thursday, April 30, 2009

The revolution that wasn't

DVRs were supposed to undermine television. They have done the opposite

TEN years ago this week a black box was demonstrated at a broadcasters’ convention in Las Vegas. TiVo’s digital video recorder (DVR) was expensive: the cheapest model cost $499. But it was hailed as revolutionary. It was much more flexible and easier to programme than a videocassette recorder. It allowed people to record and play back at the same time, so they could start watching a programme 20 minutes after it had started and fast-forward through all the advertisements. Experts forecast a severe, perhaps fatal, blow to advertising-supported television.

“For quite a few years people thought it was going to mean the demise of the television business,” says Alan Wurtzel, president of research at NBC, an American broadcast network. Yet DVRs turn out to have done little damage. Indeed, DVRs (also known as personal video recorders, or PVRs) may even have protected television and made it more conservative.

On one point the Cassandras were correct. As prices fell and cable and satellite firms began to bundle DVRs with other services, their popularity soared. According to Nielsen, a media-research outfit, 29% of American homes now have one. The boxes are in a higher proportion of the households advertisers most care about. Jack Wakshlag of Turner Broadcasting, a cable company, calculates that DVR-owning households earn about $20,000 more than average. Yet those households do not use them nearly as much as one might expect. Families with DVRs seem to spend 15-20% of their viewing time watching pre-recorded shows, and skip only about half of all advertisements. This means only about 5% of television is time-shifted and less than 3% of all advertisements are skipped. Mitigating that loss, people with DVRs watch more television.

Just because technology enables people to do something does not mean they will, particularly when it comes to a medium as indolence-inducing as television. And people have become lazier. Early adopters of DVRs used them a lot—not surprisingly, since they paid so much for them. Later adopters use them much less (about two-thirds less, according to a recent study). David Poltrack, head of research and planning at CBS, another broadcast network, reckons the networks have already felt most of the DVR’s effects.

Advertisers and television networks have pushed back even against this puny threat. They have developed relatively static advertisements that get a message across even at high speed. They put snippets of programming in the middle of ad breaks. One trick, described by Todd Juenger of TiVo as “closer to a silver bullet”, is to run advertisements that resemble programmes—in some cases featuring stars from the show people are trying to watch.

Far from being revolutionary, in some ways DVR has made television more stable. With the exception of live events it is broadly true that the most popular programmes are recorded the most. Mr Wakshlag describes it as “a hit-saving machine”. Broadcast television receives a bigger boost from DVR playback than cable television. The device has made it harder to introduce a new television programme, particularly at 10pm when people are likely to be playing back shows they recorded at 8pm or 9pm.

One reason television executives have calmed down about DVRs is that they have something else to worry about. Hulu and other video-streaming websites, which are becoming more popular, give a great deal of control to consumers and are thought to pose a threat to advertising-supported television. Does that sound familiar?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

No more yahoos for Geocities

Yahoo pulls the plug on GeoCities

GeoCities screen shot
Yahoo paid $3.57bn for GeoCities in 1999

Yahoo is to close its personal web hosting site GeoCities later this year.

In a statement, the firm says it will no longer be accepting new customers and will focus on helping "customers build new relationships online".

Yahoo bought GeoCities for $3.57bn at the height of the dotcom boom in 1999.

At its peak, GeoCities boasted millions of active accounts, but it has since fallen out of fashion, with users migrating to social networking sites.

Yahoo says that existing GeoCities accounts will remain live for now, although it stresses that users should start looking for alternative sites.

"You don't need to change your service today, but we encourage anyone interested in a full-featured web-hosting plan to consider upgrading to our award-winning Yahoo! Web Hosting service," the firm said in an online post.

The closure of GeoCities spells the end of Yahoo's free hosting, although other services - such as e-mail accounts - remain unaffected.

Rupert Goodwins, editor of the ZDNet website, said the closure of GeoCities was the end of an era.

"I think GeoCities was the first proof that you could have something really popular and still not make any money on the internet.

"It was a fascinating experiment in the pre-industrial era of the internet, but after the initial exuberance on what the web could do, it turned out to be more complicated than just giving them free hosting.

"You need to give users tools to actually do things and make things simple, one of the reasons sites like Facebook and MySpace are so popular," he said.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Government PC's ensnared by BOTNETS

Escape key
PCs inside a botnet can be forced to carry out instructions

Almost two million PCs globally, including machines inside UK and US government departments, have been taken over by malicious hackers.

Security experts Finjan traced the giant network of remotely-controlled PCs, called a botnet, back to a gang of cyber criminals in the Ukraine.

Several PCs inside six UK government bodies were compromised by the botnet.

Finjan has contacted the Metropolitan Police with details of the government PCs and it is now investigating.

A spokesman for the Cabinet Office, which is charged with setting standards for the use of information technology across government, said it would not comment on specific attacks "for security reasons".

When we look at a similar network last year they were in the hundreds of thousands. Now were looking at mega-size botnets.
Yuval Ben-Itzhak, chief technology officer for Finjan

"It is Government policy neither to confirm nor deny if an individual organisation has been the subject of an attack nor to speculate on the origins or success of such attacks."

He added: "We constantly monitor new and existing risks and work to minimise their impact by alerting departments and giving them advice and guidance on dealing with the threat."

It is the second time in a year that PCs inside government departments have been hacked to form part of a botnet.

On this occasion, the machines were infected with software which allowed them to be taken over and enslaved in the botnet due to vulnerabilities in web browsers.

At the mercy

Once a machine has been compromised, it can be instructed to download further software, which puts the machine at the mercy of malicious hackers.

Use anti-spyware and anti-virus programs
On at least a weekly basis update anti-virus and spyware products
Install a firewall and make sure it is switched on
Make sure updates to your operating system are installed
Take time to educate yourself and family about the risks
Monitor your computer and stay alert to threats

The compromised PCs are capable of reading e-mail addresses, copying files, recording keystrokes, sending spam and capturing screen shots.

Once a single machine inside a corporate network has been made part of the botnet it puts other machines on the network at risk.

The Cabinet Office would not give details of what the compromised machines had been instructed to do, nor the names of the different government departments that had been infiltrated.

The cyber criminals, who have not been caught, were selling access to the compromised machines, thought to be mainly PCs inside companies, on a hackers' forum in Russia.

One thousand machines were being sold at a time for between $50 and $100.

Finjan reports that the botnet is under the control of six criminals who are able to remotely control the infected machines.

Different organisations

Almost half of the infected machines were in the US. Six percent of the botnet, about 114,000 machines from 52 different organisations, were from the UK, among them a single PC inside the BBC's network.

Many of the infected machines will have been caught by routine information security policies at firms, as it was in the case of the BBC, but Finjan says many of the botnet PCs are still active.

We are aware of this botnet and are taking appropriate action
Metropolitan Police spokeswoman

More than 70 different national government agencies from around the world were caught up in the malicious network.

Yuval Ben-Itzhak, chief technology officer for Finjan, told BBC News: "When we looked at the network domain names to see where the [compromised PCs] come from we were surprised to see many government networks, including UK government computers.

"Obviously we reported it and they have now dealt with it. There were six UK agencies with at least one computer in each department that was running the bot.

"I'm not at liberty to name the actual agencies - but this isn't a unique story to the UK, they were running in many other non-UK, government bodies too."

Government bodies

A number of different government bodies are responsible for IT security and deployment across the UK.

They include the Central Sponsor for Information Assurance, the National Technical Authority for Information Assurance, and the the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI), the government body which is part of the British Security Service and responsible for providing security advice to organisations that make up critical services in the UK.

All of the infected machines were Windows-based PCs and the vulnerability was targeting security holes in Internet Explorer and Firefox.

Mr Ben-Itzhak said: "What is unique is the number the size of the network. When we look at a similar network last year they were in the hundreds of thousands. Now were looking at mega-size botnets."

In contact

A spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Police said: "This is an ongoing investigation. We are aware of this botnet and are taking appropriate action."

Large botnets can be used to co-ordinate attacks to knock parts of the network, or specific websites, offline, called a Distributed Denial of Service attack.

Last year, the CPNI told a Cabinet Office-commissioned independent review that stopping such attacks was difficult.

It said: "The attacks are relatively low in sophistication, but have been highly effective due to the large number of compromised machines involved.

"It is difficult to defend against a sophisticated Distributed Denial of Service attack without impacting legitimate business use."

The CPNI recommended that the best defence against these attacks was appropriate monitoring of the network.

Additional reporting by Daniel Emery.

Botnet graphic

Monday, April 20, 2009

Portable Ubuntu Linux

Want a Portable ubuntu on top of Windows?
By Adrian Kingsley Hughes

I like finding risk-free ways to try out Linux distros because I can show them to folks who are curious about Linux but not yet ready to throw the Windows discs into the trash can. One way to try Linux while keeping your Windows installation intact is to use Portable Ubuntu.

Check out the Portable Ubuntu gallery

Portable Ubuntu is a great idea. It’s a stand-alone 440MB package that you download to your PC (Windows only, no Mac flavor) and extract onto your PC or portable flash drive so you can take the OS with you when you’re on the move (you need 2GB of space for the extracted files). To get the ball rolling you then fire up Portable Ubuntu via the Command Prompt (under Vista and Windows 7 this needs to have admin privileges). However, if you’re expecting to see a full Linux desktop you’re out of luck. What you get is a nifty toolbar that looks and feels like Ubuntu’s own launcher.

From here you can launch all your favorite Linux applications, and these run as though they are Windows-based apps.

Portable Ubuntu is really nice and well thought out. Not only are all changes you make to the Linux distro saved automatically, but you can add and remove Linux programs to suit your needs.

Note: To make changes to the OS you need the root password, which in this case has been set to 123456 (you might want to change that).

Portable Ubuntu is a great bit of kit for those wanting a portable OS solution or wanting to try out Ubuntu. For Linux newbies it’s a good way to take Ubuntu for a test drive without having to commit an entire PC to the project

Adrian is a technology journalist and author who has devoted over a decade to helping users get the most from technology. He also runs a popular blog called The PC Doctor.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Use of Resumes in a Web 2.0 world

By the time kids leave high school or college, they should be able to write a resume, right? It won’t be a long one as they obviously have pretty limited employment experience. However, they should be able to sell themselves to post-secondary educational institutions and potential employers. While the traditional 1-page paper resume is hardly dead as a snapshot of a potential employee/student,It sure would help if people have an online pressence that would mark and represent their professional potential.

This is 2009: what can you bring to your employer or to your professors/instructors in terms of modern skill? Obviously, the idea of selling yourself on one piece of paper means that you have to be quite compelling in a short space. Yet it hardly provides a picture of a modern young person.

Nowadays, HR department people or even potential employers will check MySpace and Facebook profiles before hiring candidates. Why not, in addition to keeping one’s social networking profiles clean (please stop posting those killer bong hits, kids), provide an employer with a full digital portfolio? Don’t make them dig up your Twitter or Friendfeed; provide them in a clear, well-organized, online format. Make it a blog, or a wiki, a full-blown website, or a video site. Make it compelling, interesting, and to the point. Make the link prominent on that paper resume you provide in an interview or letter of interest (or on your college application, for that matter).

Guidance and career counselors, take note: this is 2009. It’s no longer about helping kids get into college or find a job: it’s about helping students build a brand and sell themselves in a very different world than the world into which most of us were born.

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