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TBTF for 1999-02-15: Dark skies

Keith Dawson (dawson dot tbtf at gmail dot com)
Mon, 15 Feb 19:18:55 -0400


Contents


Eolas sues Microsoft over patent covering ActiveX

Injunction sought to stop "manufacture, use, and sale" of MSIE, Win95, and Win98

On 2 February, a small company you have probably never heard of (unless you've read TBTF since 1995 [1]), sued Microsoft in federal court for patent infringement. Eolas [2] wants an injunction stopping Microsoft from manufacturing or selling Internet Explorer, Windows 95, and Windows 98. (Windows NT was not mentioned, perhaps because Microsoft does not claim the IE browser as an integral part of it.) TBTF covered Eolas in August 1995 [1] when the company completed negotiations with the University of California for the commercial rights to the then-pending patent. Here is a copy of the Eolas press release [3] from that time.

Patent number 5,838,906 [4] had been filed in October 1994 and issued on 17 November last year. It makes broad claims that cover Web technologies from ActiveX to Java applets to browser plug-ins. The patent cites 32 items of non-patent prior art — quite a few for a software patent, and a crude indication that it may not be a trivial patent to bust — including references to OLE, OpenDoc, the Cello and Mosaic browsers, and a 1992 Tim Berners-Lee paper on the WWW.

The best coverage of this story was in the Industry Standard [5], which bothered to get comments from the Eolas lawyers and from Microsoft; everyone else just ran with the press release [6]. The Standard notes that the suit probably won't even be heard for two years, given the congestion in the Chicago court.

Robert Cringely took the Eolas patent story in a novel speculative direction early last December [7]. He suggested that Microsoft could do an exclusive deal with Eolas for rights under the patent, and then use the company as a stalking-horse to take out Netscape, Sun, and the Department of Justice. Could have happened that way. Eolas's founder and lead inventor Michael Doyle would not comment on the company's reasons for going after only Microsoft. Cringely says that Microsoft can't claim ignorance of Doyle's work:

These guys showed working applets and plug-ins in their enhanced version of Mosaic to NCSA, Microsoft, and Sun a couple of years before any similar products like Navigator 2.0 or Java appeared on the market. It's not like these outfits can claim to have developed their products ignorant of Eolas' work.
Thanks to Doug Pardee for the prod on this story. He has earned a field promotion to TBTF Irregular by providing links not only to press coverage of the suit, but also to the Cringely column [7] and to TBTF's own original 1995 coverage [1]. Well done.

[1] http://tbtf.com/archive/1995-08-25.html
[2] http://www.eolas.net/
[3] http://www.spp.umich.edu/courses/744/misc.hyper/0089.html
[4] http://www.patents.ibm.com/patlist?icnt=US&patent_number=5838906&x=27&y=8
[5] http://www.thestandard.net/articles/article_print/0,1454,3374,00.html
[6] http://www.eolas.com/zmapress.htm
[7] http://www.pbs.org/cringely/pulpit/pulpit19981203.html

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Protests over high telecomm costs spread

8-nation strike credited with forcing France Telecom's hand

Beginning late last year, Internet users in countries with regulated telephony infrastructures have been striking for lower access charges. In the latest such boycott on 31 January, users in eight European countries (Swizerland, Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal, France, Belgium, and Poland) stayed off the Net [8]. Traffic reportedly dropped as much as 80% for that day in Spain and Portugal [9]. The strike is credited with convincing France Telecom to promise a flat-rate fee for local calls to Internet-access numbers, subject to regulatory approval [9].

Calls for a Brazilian strike on 13 January were covered here [10] but received little attention in other Net media. Andre Uratsuka Manoel <andre at insite dot com dot br> reports that on that day some 3% of users boycotted the Net, but that the long-lasting effects of the strike may come from ISPs who used its publicity to run promotions and to lobby the phone companies for lower connection fees.

The German national telephone company Deutsche Telekom announced plans to cut charges after a December strike [11]. Earlier, Spanish carrier Telefonica had promised to cut prices after 40 percent of users stayed offline in the first strike last fall.

Note added 1999-02-16: Marc Aurel <4-tea-2 at bong dot saar dot de> writes with this local perspective on Deutsche Telekom, which I take to be authoritative.
The Telekom has not lowered the rates for local calls in twenty years. Local calls are still billed by time. In the last couple of years, the Telekom has changed the billing method slightly, introduced a usage dependent rabatte (which saves you less the more you use the phone) and drastically reduced prices for long distance calls, forced by the other phone providers that showed up on the German market.

The Telekom still owns the last mile to almost 100% of the German households. Other phone companies can rent those lines from the Telekom for big money. So there's virtually no competition for Telekom in the local call area.

The only real price-cut we might see from the Telekom in the near future is lowering the costs to access their own "T-Online" (a combination of online service and ISP, #1 in Germany), giving T-Online a great advantage over competitors from AOL (#2 in Germany) to your local ISP.

[8] http://www.thestandard.net/articles/article_print/0,1454,3368,00.html
[9] http://www.techweb.com/wire/story/TWB19990203S0018
[10] http://tbtf.com/archive/1999-01-04.html#s03
[11] http://tbtf.com/archive/1998-11-03.html#s01

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Open Source gets mainstream boosts

Gartner Group, Scientific American, and Technology Review take Open Source seriously

The Gartner Group advises [12] IT professionals in mid-sized enterprises how to go about adopting and evaluating Linux in their organizations. The advise strikes me as sensible and conservative — Gartner says that only adventurous early adopters should be relying on Linux at this point. Linux community commentary on Slashdot [13] is mixed; some firebrands think Gartner just doesn't get it, while cooler heads appreciate the implied mainstream endorsement for the Open Source OS.

Meanwhile, this month's Scientific American brings still broader recognition to the Open Source movement in its Cyber View column [14]. Paul Wallich covers ground familiar to readers of TBTF and concludes with a novel speculation:

An open-software revolution could lead to yet another divide between haves and have-nots: those with the skills and connections to make use of free software, and those who must pay high prices for increasingly dated commercial offerings.
Note added 1999-02-16: Peter Levin <PeterL at trellix dot com> notes:
Must be in the wind. The Jan./Feb. 1999 issue of MIT's Technology Review has cover articles lauding the open Unix effort [14a] and examining Microsoft's efforts to do creative research. (The Microsoft article appears only in the hardcopy edition.)

[12] http://advisor.gartner.com/n_inbox/hotcontent/hc_2121999_1.html
[13] http://slashdot.org/articles/99/02/12/1540208.shtml
[14] http://www.sciam.com/1999/0399issue/0399cyber.html
[14a] http://www.techreview.com/articles/jan99/full_text.htm

space ______

Ganging up on Microsoft

bul Microsoft and Java

Last November the judge in the Sun-Microsoft lawsuit over the terms of the Java license granted Sun a preliminary injunction [15] that requires Microsoft to provide Sun's Java Native Interface to the Visual J++ development tool. Late last month Microsoft issued a patch complying with the order [16]. The company revved its Service Pack 4 for Windows NT — some are calling it SP4a now — to include a new Java Virtual Machine and to make Internet Explorer compatible with the JNI.

But while complying with the court order, Microsoft is exploring alternatives that include abandoning Java altogether. The company has briefed outside developers on a language code-named Cool [17], whose goals sound remarkably like those of Java, except for the cross-platform bits. And Microsoft is said to be planning to orphan its Visual J++ product after its current release [18].

Microsoft says [17] it is exploring such an idea but that no coders are working on the Cool language.

Earlier this month, Microsoft asked the trial judge for permission to create a Java alternative that would not be bound by Sun compatibility tests. Judge Ronald Whyte termed the idea "very interesting." He has yet to rule on it.

[15] http://tbtf.com/archive/1998-12-07.html#s01
[16] http://www.zdnet.com/pcweek/stories/printme/0,4235,1013900,00.html
[17] http://www.zdnet.com/pcweek/stories/printme/0,4235,1013901,00.html
[18] http://www.infoworld.com/cgi-bin/displayStory.pl?990213.ehcool.htm

bul Attention Mr. Boies

Lloyd Wood writes with an arresting passage he turned up deep within a patent [19] issued to Microsoft:

It should be understood by those skilled in the art that a web browser, such as NETSCAPE NAVIGATOR or INTERNET EXPLORER, which is separate from the operating system, may be used in the implementation of steps discussed herein that involve the operating system.
For those who have spent the last year in an isolation tank safe from the trials of the two Bills, Microsoft has insisted in its antitrust trial that Internet Explorer is and always has been an inextricable and necessary part of the Windows operating system.
Note added 1999-02-16: Ole Hanberg <oh at 4u dot net> writes to note that this patent passage was in fact read in open court by Mr. David Boies on 1 February [19a]. Who knew?

[19] http://www.patents.ibm.com/patlist?icnt=US&patent_number=5794230
[19a] http://www.theregister.co.uk/990202-000001.html

bul Be Inc. debunks Microsoft claims

The two sides in the Microsoft trial, limited to twelve witnesses each, are finding creative ways to present additional lines of argument within this limit. They may cite some company's practices as bolstering their side of the case, based on product documentation, company Web sites, or press reports. Microsoft has held up the example of Be, Inc., which it says chose to integrate its Web browser with BeOS, as validating Microsoft's own decision to tie Internet Explorer closely to Windows. Be, however, is one little company that won't sit still for this practice. Be's president Jean-Louis Gassee has written an open letter [20] disavowing Microsoft's claims.

[20] http://www.be.com/aboutbe/benewsletter/volume_III/Issue5.html#gassee

bul How Microsoft leverages education grants

Reader Carl Gunther <cgunther at ix dot netcom dot com> forwards the lead article from the 1 February newsletter for Cerritos Community College in Norwalk, CA, near Los Angeles. It announces the school's receipt of a $250K Working Connections Grant from Microsoft. In the program funded by this grant, faculty members achieve Microsoft certification and help students to do the same. (The article also mentions Novell certification among the program's goals, but it does not appear that Microsoft's money funds any faculty credentialing in competing technologies.) The article goes on to describe the $500K California state grant that tops a $12M fund drive by the community college. Microsoft has apparently managed by its small grant to channel the direction of this much larger pool of state and private funds. Whoever is running Microsoft's college grants program won big at Cerritos Community College.

space ______

Research notes

bul Toward the optical transistor

Researchers at Sandia Labs have devised a photonic crystal operating at 1.5 microns, the preferred wavelength for light traveling down optical fibers [21]. A photonic crystal is to light what a semiconductor is to electrons: a building block for an optical transistor. Such a device could switch a light beam trillions of times per second or could act as a low-power nanolaser.

[21] http://www.aip.org/enews/physnews/1999/split/pnu413-1.htm

bul Cracking RSA easier than factoring?

Science News for 6 February (only the references are online [22]) spotlights research by a Stanford mathematician and a Microsoft employee indicating that breaking the RSA algorithm may not be as hard as factoring. The mathematician, Dan Boneh, recently published a survey of 20 years of attacks on RSA [23], concluding that when properly implemented the cryptosystem is secure. In the featured research (abstract at [24], gzip'ed PostScript at [25]), Boneh and R. Venkatesan suggest an explanation for the lack of progress in proving that breaking RSA is equivalent to factoring: at least for low-exponent RSA, factoring is harder. But the researchers note that an effective attack on RSA is most likely still computationally infeasible. Thanks to Lewis A. Shadoff, PhD <lshadoff at brazosport dot cc dot tx dot us> for pointing me toward this story hours before my own subscription copy of Science News arrived.

[22] http://www.sciencenews.org/sn_arc99/2_6_99/note8ref.htm
[23] http://www.ams.org/notices/199902/boneh.pdf
[24] http://theory.stanford.edu/~dabo/abstracts/no_rsa_red.html
[25] http://theory.stanford.edu/~dabo/papers/no_rsa_red.ps.gz

bul Space mirror breaks

TBTF for 1999-08-24 [26] derided this surpassingly hare-brained idea the Russians had: orbiting a huge mirror and using it to light up square miles of Siberia (or anywhere else where it is night). The mission was scheduled to launch last November and finally got off the ground in January [27]. But the mirror didn't unfurl [28]; seems it got entangled with the supply ship's antenna. Nocturnal creatures everywhere are sighing in relief.

When I posted the above story as a Tasty Bit of the Day, Steve Baker <ice at mama dot indstate dot edu> wrote in to note that such a mirror could be used for

...illuminating a city that has just suffered through a massive earthquake, where the power is off (because turning it on will cause major uncontrollable fires) and being able to see clearly at night could possibly help rescue operations considerably.
[26] http://tbtf.com/archive/1998-08-24.html#s09
[27] http://www.wired.com/news/print_version/technology/story/17704.html?wnpg=all
[28] http://www.wired.com/news/print_version/technology/story/17729.html?wnpg=all

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Beating down an urban legend

With extremely stiff upper lips

TBTF for 1999-01-26 [29] reported that a widely circulated story out of the Pacific Rim was a joke — the head of China's Y2K effort did not order airline executives onto commercial flights on 2000-01-01. The next issue followed up with a surmise [30] that this story has already achieved urban-legend status after a reader's husband reported hearing it applied to British Airways. TBTF Irregular-in-Training Judith Haran forwards this story [31] in the Sunday Times for 1999-01-31. If the story is to be believed, the British are more Confucian than the Chinese.

But Mike Shiels, who works for British Air, sent the following seemingly official statement taken from BA's private intranet site.

BA's POSITION: Our Directors and managers are quite prepared to fly over the millennium period but no such directive or order to fly has been issued by the British Airways Board.

Our programme for the period has yet to be finalised and it is still too early, 11 months out, to say who will be where and when and who will be on duty.

Rest assured British Airways will fly at the beginning of January 2000 and beyond, where there is consumer demand and, as ever, where it is safe.

Sure, these are marketing guys who posted this; and even paranoids have enemies. But let's let this story get some rest now, ok folks?

[29] http://tbtf.com/archive/1999-01-26.html#s11
[30] http://tbtf.com/archive/1999-02-01.html#s08
[31] http://www.sunday-times.co.uk/news/pages/sti/99/01/31/stinwenws01027.html?1733620

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Ko-boom

Don't you just hate it when your camera explodes?

Kodak is recalling [32] a line of AC adapters that they supplied as an optional accessory to their DC25, DC40, DC50, and DC120 digital cameras. If these AC adapters, manufactured by ELPAC Electronics, Inc., are not fully plugged into the digital camera when recharging the batteries, they can cause the batteries to overheat, leak acid, or even explode. The model numbers of the recalled adapters are 2534, 2457, MI2008, and M42008.

[32] http://www.kodak.com/US/en/digital/accessories/ac/

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Bright sky

Dark skies

Shovelling against the tide of global light pollution

Chet Raymo writes an evocative column [33] on the loss to the world caused by light pollution. The excess light spilling into space from our technological society not only hobbles professional astronomers, Raymo argues, but also impoverishes all of the human race. It does not have to be so. IDA, the International Dark-Sky Association [34], promotes the use of energy-efficient, non-polluting outdoor lighting and works for the passage of laws mandating the use of such fixtures. (An example is this law [35] being considered in Wyoming.) This IDA page [36] links numerous sobering satellite photos of the nighttime earth. (I wish they would tell us how big each picture is, though.) Here are the US [37] (31K) and Europe [38] (21K).

[33] http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/046/science/Washed...
[34] http://www.darksky.org/ida/ida_2/index.html
[35] http://legisweb.state.wy.us/99sessin/sfiles/sf0017.htm
[36] http://www.darksky.org/ida/ida_2/sat.html
[37] http://www.darksky.org/ida/graphics/usa_lights_small.gif
[38] http://www.darksky.org/ida/graphics/europe_lights.gif


Sources

bul For a complete list of TBTF's (mostly email) sources, see http://tbtf.com/sources.html.

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_______________________________________________
Keith Dawson    dawson dot tbtf at gmail dot com
Layer of ash separates morning and evening milk.

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