WEEKLY RECAP

Redmond Grinch Steals Cybercrooks’ Christmas, Straight-Talk Express Breaks Down in Cupertino

Looks like Santa visits cybercrooks too. Their present this year was a big, fat security hole in many widely used versions of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. The critical vulnerability allowed remote code execution if an Explorer user visited a specially crafted, malicious Web page. That translated into the potential for big-time credit card fraud and identity theft.

Considering the high volume of online retail going on this time of year, and the fact that Explorer happens the world’s most widely used browser, it amounted to a serious problem — enough to motivate Microsoft into kicking its patch-making efforts into overdrive. Eight days after the flaw was exposed, the company released a so-called out-of-band update.

Usually a patch like this would be issued along with all the other fixes in Microsoft’s monthly release, but this flaw arrived on the scene very shortly after December’s Patch Tuesday, so it would have been making mischief for almost a whole month if Microsoft had decided to sit on it. I know some of you out there who don’t use Explorer might be feeling a little smug right now, but just remember what they say about pride and the fall and comething and so forth.


Listen to the podcast (13:47 minutes).


Macworld Super-Snub

Apple is more than a bit out of sorts these days. The company whose confidence sometimes borders on arrogance has taken more than a few blows. But these days, who hasn’t?

Expecting sharply lower customer demand for the company’s MacBooks, iPods and iPhones, Goldman Sachs cut its rating on Apple stock from ‘buy’ to ‘neutral.’ That wasn’t the worst of it, though. Apple chose approximately that moment to announce Steve Jobs would not be making the keynote address — or showing his face at all — at January’s Macworld.

Now that’s kind of a big deal. Macworld is a holy event. It’s like a rave for Apple geeks, minus the music and the E. They do share the love, though — or at least they did. Now they’ll be sharing the pain.

It’s not just that a guy named Schiller will be at the podium instead of Jobs. It’s worse: Apple has said it’s never going to Macworld again. It’s over. Of course, that led a lot of people to start wondering how healthy or ill Steve Jobs was, and the speculation led another Wall St. firm — Oppenheimer — to downgrade Apple stock from ‘outperform’ to “perform.”

Even investors who don’t give a rat’s tush about Macworld are starting to get a little peeved. Maybe Apple isn’t getting as much out of the trade show as it used to, but come on — was this the best time to disappoint its loyal following? Couldn’t it have waited until after the January festivities? Or is it all about Steve Jobs’ health? Is the revered CEO in trouble?

If so, doesn’t Apple have a responsibility to deliver a little straight talk on the subject? If Jobs is well, and this was just a big company blowing off an event it’s no longer very interested in, boy does Apple’s PR suck.

Cuts Like a Razr

The good times are over at Motorola, and now the only thing rolling there is heads. In this most recent announcement, however, the job cuts appear to be old news. The new target of the budget knife is retirement plans. No longer will Motorola match its employees’ 401(k) contributions — at least until the economy gets better, that is.

Additionally, the company will freeze employee pensions starting in March. Neither is a good move in terms of employee retention, but when you’re laying people off, the last thing on your mind is how best to attract and retain employees.

For good measure, Motorola announced it will cut executive pay by 25 percent, though the meager amount they’re giving up still probably amounts to many times your salary. Especially if you’re one of the ones who was laid off.

Nice Chair, Dan

If Dan Nye was doing such a good job at LinkedIn, why is he on the outs? Nye will be leaving as LinkedIn’s CEO in mid-January to make way for founder Reid Hoffman, and the company has tabbed former Yahoo exec Jeff Weiner to take over as interim president, overseeing day-to-day operations.

Before the change, LinkedIn appeared to be on a roll. Under Nye’s direction, it was profitable in 2007 and is expected to be profitable again this year.

Hoffman waxed enthusiastic over his performance — “Dan joined LinkedIn with a mission to help us build a company that was strong and sustainable. In two years, he has succeeded in his objective,” he said.

When asked to speculate on the reasons for the boardroom shuffle, analyst Greg Sterling could only surmise that perhaps there was a difference in vision. Vision, yeah, as in, Hoffman envisioned himself in Nye’s nice, tall leather chair.

Livin’ on the Edge

Are Google’s efforts to get its content to load faster incompatible with its stance on net neutrality? Depends on who you’re talking to. If it’s a couple of reporters for The Wall Street Journal, then yes.

Google, for its part, resents the accusation. What Google is doing is called “edge caching,” and it’s comparable to placing copies of its most popular content on servers that are closer to the end user than to its data center. So, when you conduct a search, the data that goes back and forth has less ground to cover, and you get your listings of puppy webcam sites more quickly.

What it isn’t, says Google, is preferential treatment — therefore, it’s net-neutral. Basically, any site operator could cut a deal with a bunch of ISPs to place content at the edge for faster transmission — Google isn’t asking for exclusivity, which would be very not-neutral and potentially evil. And nobody likes an evil Google.

Borrowing a Play

Wireless carriers have a pretty good racket going in the U.S.: They trade handsets for souls. They’ll lop US$200 or so off the asking price of a new smartphone, for example, or they’ll give you a lesser phone for free, as long as you sign a contract and agree to buy service from them for two years.

Of course you probably would have wanted a signal with that cell phone anyway, so why not take a discount? Well, just watch how they treat you when they know it’ll cost you big to go anywhere else. OK, personal gripes aside, the whole cell phone subsidy thing has made great handsets more affordable to more people.

Now RadioShack, AT&T and Acer are experimenting with that model for netbook computers. Netbooks are tiny laptops about the size of a hardcover book, made for using light applications — like a Web browser — on the go. They lend themselves pretty well to 3G data services — no need to hunt around for an open hotspot to get online.

For $99, RadioShack will give you an Acer Aspire One netbook for $99 — that’s about a fifth of its normal price — as long as you sign up for two years of AT&T DataConnect Mobile 3G service. Now, over the course of two years, that deal adds up to over $1,500. But on the other hand, if you wanted the service anyway, why not get the discount? But then it costs you even more to dump AT&T if they let you down. No simple answers here, sorry.

Not on My Watch

Remember when the FCC was all excited about the concept of building a nationwide wireless network providing free Internet access for all? It was going to auction off a portion of spectrum, with the requirement that the buyer use some of it to implement the plan.

The agency’s chairman, Kevin Martin, was wildly enthusiastic about it, but telecom carriers were, to put it mildly, cool.

As the FCC was getting down to brass tacks, things started hitting the fan in Washington. A congressional committee unleashed a report criticizing the chairman for running the agency like a tyrant. The Bush administration weighed in, saying it was worried about interference and fairness. And we all know the Bush team hates interference almost as much as it loves fairness.

The pressure on the FCC became so great that it canceled a scheduled meeting on the proposal and, as far as we know, hasn’t rescheduled it. The free wireless plan is comatose, and there’s no telling when or if it will wake up.

Rules Is Rules

The day of reckoning is nigh for credit card companies. Well, in about a year, the day will be nigh, that is. Federal regulators have approved a new batch of rules that will put an end to some of the unfriendliest practices of the card issuers — mostly keeping them from unfairly jacking up interest rates.

They won’t be able to do some of the incredibly nasty things they now can do on a whim: like charge interest on a balance you already paid off; or raise your interest rate from 6.99 percent to 26.99 percent for no good reason and not even bother giving you the bad news; or wait till you rack up a hefty balance on your spanking new zero-percent card and then slap a big fat interest rate on it just because they’re, well, devils. It’s really kind of mind-boggling what the card issuers can get away with, and they’re being much more aggressive about sticking it to consumers now that the economy is in the toilet.

But all that will stop, and they’re really ticked off about it. Turns out they’ve been squeezing about $12 billion a year out of their customers through those dastardly deeds, and they really need that money or their businesses are going to suffer. Sure hope they do.

Have You Seen Me?

Where do you go when you need to find out how to stay safe online? OK, so maybe YouTube wasn’t your first choice, but don’t forget that the site recently banned such offensive acts as kissing and sitting on a bed from the bulk of its channels, relegating those naughty videos to the grown-up section.

So, see, YouTube protects kids, right? Actually, the company worked with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children — yeah, the same people who put those “have you seen me?” ads on milk cartons — to create a section of the site that offers advice and resources for reporting such things as child exploitation and cyberbullying, as well as for preventing suicide.

And if you think about it, how many kids are looking at YouTube versus a milk carton? My money’s on YouTube.

Kids These Days

Even though I was once a teen driver myself, I am now a little older and a little crankier, and I don’t much like the idea of sharing the road with them.

What’s more, in my day, most of us didn’t have cell phones to distract us from the road; now you’ve got people texting while driving — and that’s not a behavior limited to teens.

But parents who are worried about their young motorists’ driving habits can check out Key2SafeDriving, an invention from researchers at the University of Utah.

The car key you give your teen goes into a Bluetooth-enabled enclosure. You then pair that enclosure with your teen’s phone. Now every time your kid slides the key out of the enclosure — in order to stick it into the ignition, presumably — the phone becomes temporarily disabled.

It can still dial 9-1-1 and other numbers the parent programs into the system, but it’s otherwise useless until the key goes back inside. So now teens won’t be able to use their phones while driving — they’ll have to reach over to get their friend’s. Now get off my lawn.

Survey Porn

Sex, sex, sexy sex sex!!!! Did I get your attention? Of course I did, because we humans are hard-wired to respond to such things — and it’s that instinctive reaction that Intel was banking on when it released the results of a survey on the importance of the Internet in our daily lives.

Never mind that the majority of U.S. women would choose to give up their television before their Internet access, or that 71 percent of American adults believe the Internet will play an important role in dealing with the economic crisis — it’s all about the horizontal mambo.

Intel’s spokespeople deny they were trying to garner attention for their brand with the sex references — it was the media’s prurient obsession that led to all those headlines. However, if you look at the subhead of Intel’s own press release, there it is: “Majority of Women Would Choose Internet Access over TV, Some Over Sex.”

Tee hee.

Also in this week’s podcast: Adobe AIRs it out on Linux; Free Software Foundation sues Cisco; Palm opens up an app store.

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