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Rocky Mountain Wildflowers

1998 on the Web
Daily Technology Diary

Rocky Mountain Wildflowers
  April 1998  

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Monday, April 13  

A California company has come up with a way to greatly increase the performance of CD-ROM drives and other optical storage devices. Instead of spinning disks faster, which is how the 32X CD-ROM drives achieve their performance, Zen Research has introduced TrueX technology that reads more than one track on the disk at a time. Zen CEO Emil Jachmann says that TrueX technology, which consists of a controller chip and an optical detection device, can easily be incorporated into standard CD-ROM and DVD-ROM drives. Kenwood Technologies will become the first CD-ROM maker to use TrueX with the shipment this summer of a 41X drive clocking a transfer rate of 6.4MB/second, nearly double the rate of a conventional 24X CD-ROM drive.

Adobe, Netscape, and IBM say they have the format to popularize vector graphics on the Web -- the Precision Graphics Markup Language, or PGML. The companies have pitched the language to the World Wide Web Consortium as an open specification for vector graphics. Rather than the pixel-by-pixel definition of today's Web graphics standards -- the GIF and JPEG formats -- vector graphics use concise mathematical expressions to describe shapes, lines, and even animated positions. Vector formats are typically more efficient than bitmapped formats at handling special graphics tricks on a Web page, such as animated letters dropping into place in a sentence.

The current front-runner among vector formats is Flash, Macromedia's proprietary technology for rendering graphics in browsers. But today's trio of companies say PGML better satisfies the Web's scalable, lightweight vector demands while giving graphic designers better precision over fonts, color, layout, and compositing. It describes a graphic as a collection of graphical objects -- path objects, shape objects, image objects, and text objects.

In addition to using an imaging model similar to Adobe's PostScript language and Portable Document Format, PGML is built around the vaunted extensible markup language (XML). Comparing it to Flash, Adobe's director of Web authoring products emphasized this XML basis for the language. "[Flash] is more of a binary kind of format, and not as easily readable," said Ted Simonides. "PGML is controllable through XML -- a future direction we expect to be more widely supported."

Thought for the day: "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read." - Groucho Marx



Tuesday, April 14  

U.S. Vice President Al Gore today unveiled an academic computer network whose high speeds are expected to eventually benefit the public. In its earliest stages, the network will connect some 100 universities at about 100 times faster than their current access speeds, and a smaller group of schools at speeds 1,000 times faster. “In the coming years,” Gore predicted, “this investment may enable the best medical specialists to give advice to patients in rural hospitals, scientists to use remote supercomputers to predict tornadoes, and adults to get new skills through distance learning.” Dubbed Abilene and part of a larger Internet2 project, the network will be financed with $500 million of private investment. It is expected to start working by year’s end, and full deployment completed by the end of 1999.

The Internet2 project, started in 1996, includes more than 120 universities and a host of corporate sponsors such as Cisco Systems Inc., 3Com Corp. and MCI Communications Corp. For Abilene, Qwest Communications is donating access to its high-speed network, while Cisco and Northern Telecom are providing networking and communications technology. In turn, the companies are allowed to work with the top academic and government researchers in the field. The Internet2 project is closely related to the Clinton administration’s Next Generation Internet initiative.

The projects are intended to develop new technologies that will trickle down to the global Internet as well as private computer networks. Last month, the government awarded 23 members of the Internet2 group, ranging from Columbia University in New York to the University of Wyoming, grants to connect to the National Science Foundation’s “very high speed Backbone Network Service” or vBNS. Abilene and the vBNS will both serve as Internet2 backbone networks. The vBNS can theoretically transfer data at a rate of 622 million bits per second, compared to a home modem’s speed of just 28,800 bits per second. The network is expected to be upgraded to 2,400 million bits per second eventually.

For the past two years former U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig has been leading a stealthy campaign that may seem wacky, but is slowly gaining credibility: He wants to launch enormous, high-altitude zeppelins over the major cities of the world to transmit the Internet, video pictures and phone calls to the masses below. Helping him out is an unusual crew that includes Alex Haig, his lawyer son; Harry Darlington, president of an environmental group called the Ozone Society; and Martine Rothblatt (formerly Martin Rothblatt), a telecommunications attorney and author of a book on transsexual and gender identity. And then there's Alfred Wong, a scientist who helped found the company, but left in a huff last year, taking the blueprints for his mysterious Corona Ion engine with him.

Haig and the crew members of Sky Station International recently have won some victories that put them closer toward a goal of launching the first of 250 robot balloons two years from now. They've hired well-known companies to make the balloons and electronics. They've received preliminary approval from the Federal Communications Commission to use a chunk of high-frequency airwaves. And last fall in Geneva they persuaded diplomats from around the world to grant their service a global allocation of frequencies.

Football-field sized balloons for telecommunications would have several advantages over communications satellites, advocates said. Foremost is cost: Unlike rival satellite projects that require billions of dollars upfront, Sky Station plans to get in business for $800 million, with billions more to be spent gradually as the program progresses. And at an altitude of 13 miles, they would be much closer to earth than space-based satellites that hover at 22,500 miles. That would mean hardly any signal delay and would allow for smaller, more powerful phones and laptop terminals. They also could be brought back down to earth for upgrades, and could carry more than 10 tons of equipment.

Thought for the day: "Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteeen." - Albert Einstein



Wednesday, April 15  

Feeling the pinch from lower PC prices and weaker-than-expected demand, Intel announced plans to cut its staff by 3,000 workers, mostly through attrition, as both earnings and revenue for the first quarter came in well below last year's levels. Net income was $1.3 billion, down 36% from $2 billion a year ago. The earnings of 72 cents per share were in line with analysts' consensus estimates, which were revised downward considerably over the past few months. Revenue was $6 billion, down 7% from $6.4 billion a year ago. Intel said unit shipments of its chips were down from the fourth quarter of last year. Average selling prices were also down slightly, and gross margins shrank to 54% from 59% in the last quarter of 1997. The company expects second-quarter revenue to be around the same or slightly less than the current quarter and expects growth to resume during the second half of this year.

Netscape Communications announced the debut of
Netscape Open Studio, a new DevEdge program and Web site specifically targeted at Internet content developers, Web designers and site administrators. Officially launched at CNET's Web.Builder San Francisco conference, Netscape Open Studio draws on content from CNET's BUILDER.COM and Wired Digital's Webmonkey, two of the premier Internet content providers of Web developer information. In addition, the program features frequently updated information and special product discounts on essential Web development tools from ten of the leading Web tool vendors, including Adobe Systems Inc., Apple Computer Corp., Bitstream, Equilibrium, Headspace, Sun Microsystems Inc., Macromedia Inc., NetObjects, RealNetworks and TRUSTe.

As the newest part of DevEdge Online, Netscape's award-winning Web site for developers, Netscape Open Studio is designed for Internet content developers interested in learning about the latest Internet technologies, open standards and design techniques. Netscape Open Studio is the premiere showcase for next-generation technologies in Netscape Navigator and Netscape Communicator client software, including Dynamic HTML, JavaScript, XML and RDF. Membership in the Netscape DevEdge Open Studio program provides developers with a variety of services, including newsgroups, support and information on leading third-party Web authoring products as well as Netscape products and technologies.

Open Studio now brings Netscape up to speed with the Microsoft Sitebuilder Network which has been in operation for 2 years and boasts more than 800,000 members. SBN offers many of the same services and features as Open Studio with an obvious bias toward the Microsoft Internet Explorer client audience.

Thought for the day: "Anyone can do any amount of work provided it isn't the work he's supposed to be doing at the moment." - Robert Benchley



Thursday, April 16  

The IT industry has doubled the growth rate of the U.S. economy, accounting for more than a quarter of the country's economic growth in the past five years, according to a U.S. Department of Commerce report. The report says IT now makes up 8% of the economy, employing 7.4 million workers, who typically are paid significantly higher salaries than non-IT workers. IT workers average a salary of $46,000 annually. The nationwide private-sector average is $28,000. The report also says that despite the higher salaries, the industry still lacks the people to fill IT jobs, with 1.3 million IT positions needing to be filled in the next 10 years. Commerce called on businesses to help rectify the situation: "We want you to work with us to help people make the shift into changing jobs," said Commerce Secretary William Daley, in presenting the data to business leaders in Washington. "We need you to retrain workers whose skills may be obsolete." IT growth has been pushed in part by the rapid growth of the Internet, which has doubled in traffic every 100 days and is expected to reach 1 billion users by 2005 -- up from 3 million users in 1994. The Commerce Department says it expects $300 billion in Internet commerce by 2002.

Apple Computer officials credit higher margins for its popular G3 systems and disciplined expense controls for another profitable quarter. The $55M profit follows a $47M Q1 profit and represents a stunning turnaround from a year ago when Apple lost $708 million. However, Q2 revenues of $1.4 billion were down slightly from $1.6 in the previous period. Still, the numbers far exceeded analyst expectations. Steve Jobs has done a good job at short-term cost cutting. But for the long term, Apple must beef up its product line with a cheap system and consumer devices. And move those machines.

Thought for the day: "There are three kinds of death in this world. There's heart death, there's brain death, and there's being off the network." - Guy Almes



Friday, April 17  

Microsoft announced a new program aimed at making it easier to keep your copy of Internet Explorer 4 up-to-date. Within 60 days, the company will release the first of a series of Service Packs for IE. SP1 will fix some compatibility and security bugs, and will bring IE 4.01 into Year 2000 compliance. Microsoft plans to release additional Service Packs as the need arises, but not more than once a quarter. Service Packs will not include new features, just fixes for existing ones.

Microsoft also announced it has created a Year 2000 resource center at its Web site. The site shows which Microsoft products are and are not Y2K-compliant. There's also a directory of third-party Year 2000 services and tools for PCs and for Microsoft's products. In case you're wondering, Microsoft says IE4 and Windows 95 are compliant but have minor Year 2000 issues. The latest versions of Excel and Word are fully Y2K compliant, according to Microsoft.

A two-week-old spam canceling strike ending today shut down some newsgroup servers and forced others to start filtering their own systems for newsgroup spam. Although the strike did not bring the Internet's bulletin board system to a grinding halt as some predicted it might, it did make its mark, according to one of the boycott's organizers. The strike may end up having some long-term impact, including the realization that many of the "alt." newsgroups may be lost to spam, said Chris Lewis, one of the chief organizers of the strike.

It's impossible to say exactly how much the strike affected Usenet. In fact, most administrators do not like to admit when they have problems, just as they resist reporting hacks into their systems, Lewis said. But Lewis and other participants heard from administrators worldwide, including at least one university, whose systems were so jammed with spam that some had to shut down. Others had to kill off newsgroup messages after only a few hours to clear the way for other messages. Normally, messages last at least a few days.

That Netscape Communications-Sun Microsystems story that had the market all worked up a few months ago made a return this week, driving the browser pioneer's stock up nearly 30 percent. But a possible acquisition by Sun may not have been the only Netscape talk motivating traders: There was also speculation the company was near a deal for a partnership on its NetCenter Internet directory.

Netscape has been trying to broaden the popularity of its NetCenter Web site, and is reported to be exploring deals to sell the business outright or enter a partnership with a larger Internet directory. Some say a partnership or sale -- America Online has been mentioned as one possible buyer -- of the business would enable the company to focus more energy on its enterprise software division, which designs computer networks for internal communications within companies.

Thought for the day: "When you open a bag of cotton balls, is the top one meant to be thrown away?" - George Carlin



Saturday, April 18  

The Java Lobby, a group of more than 16,000 activist programmers that have criticized Microsoft for not supporting a single Java standard, is now taking aim at Sun Microsystems to keep the developer of Java in line. Now part of the
Java Lobby's website, the Open Process Grievance Center is a place where programmers can lodge complaints about any vendor, including Sun, they feel is threatening the open nature of Java. Many programmers have complained lately about Hewlett-Packard's decision to create its own embedded Java Virtual Machine, Intel's problems with Java's handling of floating-point calculations, and Sun's inclusion of yet-to-be-approved classes in Java Development Kit 1.2 beta 3.

Intuit Inc. announced this week that it was ending development of the Macintosh version of Quicken. Intuit spokesman Adam Samuels said the company halted work because sales for the Mac version have declined over the past three years. The company said the last Mac version of its popular personal finance software is Quicken 98, released last fall. Intuit said it will continue to sell and support Quicken 98 for the Mac. Samuels said the company will reassign its Mac engineers to its Web site. Through Quicken 98, users can access up-to-date financial information on Intuit sites. Though Apple Computer this week reported it's second consecutive quarterly profit for the first time since 1995, this move by Intuit continues a trend that has seen the Macintosh market share drop to less than 4%. It's hard to sell computers that have little mainstream application software to run on them. See my Apple prediction elsewhere on this site.

The design and interface upgrade of
1998 on the Web has continued this week. The Tips and Tools and Comments sections now display the new format and are completely updated in the six languages supported here. I would certainly appreciate any opinions you may have about the new look, or any suggestions you have for future improvement.

Thought for the day: "The world is filled with willing people; some willing to work, the rest willing to let them." - Robert Frost



Sunday, April 19  

Microsoft Corporation said this weekend that it is giving computer manufacturers the option of shipping a version of Windows 98 that hides a controversial feature called the "Active Channel Bar." The feature is a menu that promotes and guides users directly to certain Web sites, such as Walt Disney and Time Warner. Microsoft's announcement comes a week after the Software Publishers Association complained to the U.S. Justice Department that the channel bar and other so-called first-boot requirements placed on PC makers were anticompetitive.

Since facing intense scrutiny of its business conduct by the Justice Department, a dozen or so state attorneys general, and regulators in Europe and Japan, Microsoft has modified a number of controversial practices. Just last week, the software giant said it was changing contracts with hundreds of content providers that limited their ability to promote Web browsers made by competitors such as Netscape Communications. And early last month, Microsoft said it was dropping similar provisions in cross-promotional deals with Internet service providers.

It's only fair that the Web, which has made the world so wide, should take some steps to narrow it again. Alta Vista and Systran Software have tried, but it's not as easy as it seems. The companies have teamed to build a Web site that translates English into five languages and back again. The problem, for those who must dwell on problems, is that a machine works the translation. 1998 on the Web uses this service for translations.

There are things about humans that machines just don't understand. Things like nuance, sarcasm, subtlety. And they have a hard time with slang and figures of speech. With machines running the show, translation, a messy business to begin with, becomes even messier. Those at Alta Vista and Systran know this and they have pointed it out repeatedly on their Translation Assistant site. ''Remember that a computer -- not an actual human translator -- translates the text,'' the site warns. ''Computerized translations often miss subtle meanings of words and don't accurately present many common sayings.''

To my international friends who are multi-lingual; have you found any of the 1998 on the Web translations generated by this service to be entirely convoluted, or even worse, offensive? I would deeply appreciate any comments or suggestions for improvement of the translated text found on any pages of this Web site. Me help you can.

Thought for the day: "Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: "What! You, too? Thought I was the only one."" - C.S. Lewis


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