The top 10 tech ‘fails’ of 2009

It was a big year for technology: Twitter and Facebook’s popularity exploded, while new smartphones, e-readers and a host of other gadgets cropped up to compete for our plugged-in affection.

But into each electronic life a little digital rain must fall.

We polled a handful of the most tech-savvy folks we know for their thoughts on the worst moments in technology from 2009 — the most epic “fails” of the year.

Your mileage may vary. If you think something doesn’t deserve to be here, or think we missed a noteworthy clunker, let us know in the comments section. And now, in no particular order, our 2009 Tech Fails …

Y2-what? Zune gets off to a bad start

Technically it was a New Year’s Eve surprise. But many owners of Microsoft’s Zune media player started 2009 with little more than a paperweight with LED lights.

At midnight on December 31, all Zune’s 30-GB MP3 players froze up. Microsoft explained the problem as a problem with the way the device’s internal clock recognized (or didn’t recognize) leap years.

The glitch only lasted a day, but didn’t help a device that was already failing to gain ground on Apple’s iPod.

TwitterPeek fails to pique interest

The reaction of many in the tech community to the release of the TwitterPeek device was a collective, “Huh?”

Sure, there are some people who don’t have smartphones and don’t want to pay for expensive mobile plans. But is there really a market for a $199 device that does nothing but let you manage yourTwitter feed?

“I already have a $200 device to update Twitter,” said one techie we spoke to. “It’s called my iPhone.”

The folks at Peek, makers of TwitterPeek, had already made the Pronto — a device that handled only texts and e-mails. Maybe a combination of the two gadgets is in the works. But even then, would enough people be interested? Probably not.

Facebook backtracks on owning your stuff

OK … so every time Facebook makes even the most minute changes, it sparks an outcry among its 350 million members, not to mention (irony alert) dozens of new Facebook groups geared at making the site change back.

But a terms-of-service change in February went further, implying that Facebook owned the rights to anything users uploaded to the site. Another change suggested that Facebook held those rights forever, even if people quit the site or took the material down.

Facebook responded that it simply needed those rights to be able to post information to other users. But when the backlash continued, the site eventually switched the terms back to their former wording.

Sidekick punts user info

In what one observer called “an almost incomprehensible data disaster,” T-Mobile told users in October that a server error at a Microsoft subsidiary had lost users’ personal data it had stored for the devices.

All of it.

Phone numbers, contact lists, calendars and other information was gone — and even new data would disappear if users turned off or recharged the phone.

Users were offered free service and rebates in the wake of the mess, as T-Mobile scrambled to recover what little of the data it could. But that didn’t stop the lawsuits, Internet griping and ill will generated by the snafu.

Hacking Twitter

It started as a story about someone hacking the accounts of several Twitter employees. Then, after Twitter said the attack was limited to personal information, not sensitive, company-related stuff, the hacker behind the attack struck again — in a different way.

He sent 310 documents to leading technology blog TechCrunch. The blog published a small portion of them and sent the documents to Twitter, which is when the company learned that they included financial projections and notes from high-level executive meetings.

Twitter responded by reportedly closing the security holes that allowed the attack.

Enough with the updates, already!

This was the year that online social media exploded. That’s good news for the future of Facebook, Twitter and the like.

But sometimes it just got to be a bit too much.

Members of Congress abandoned any pretense of paying attention to President Obama’s State of the Union speech by updating their Twitter feeds as he was speaking.

There was the groom who updated his Facebook relationship status at the altar. And the women who tweeted during childbirth. [In fairness, the most high-profile tweeting new mom was Sara Williams, wife of Twitter CEO Evan Williams].

And that’s not even mentioning all those friend requests you got from your grade-school teachers and members of your mom’s knitting circle.

Hyped-up Conficker fails

This is a failure we’re glad to report.

The Conficker worm was, by all accounts, a serious bit of malware that infected as many as 10 million computers worldwide. Instead of attacking those computers, it was designed to control them, paving the way for later attacks.

When researchers spotted the date April 1 in the worm’s coding, speculation began mounting that a major April Fools’ Day attack was on its way. Instead, it was mostly quiet — a false alarm of Y2K proportions.

“I think the joke’s on us a little bit, which you would have expected, having an April 1 date,” Holly Stewart, threat response manager for IBM’s X-Force, a computer security service, said at the time.

Attacks cripple Twitter, Facebook

On August 6, the concept of computer addiction didn’t seem so silly.

A massive denial-of-service attack hit Twitter, Facebook and the LiveJournal blogging site. Twitter was by far the hardest hit, completely blacking out for several hours.

The attacks were believed to have targeted a blogger in the country of Georgia who had been critical of Russia. The attacks, the blogger said, coincided with the one-year anniversary of renewed violence between the two countries.

What was telling was how freaked out people became. Users described feeling naked, jittery and upset without the ability to post on Twitter. When the site came back up, the top topic of conversation was the hashtag for “When Twitter Was Down.”

Gmail crashes

We heard some different views on this year’s string of outages or slowdowns of Google’s popular e-mail system.

Some thought coverage was overblown.

But as more computing power moves “into the cloud,” people and businesses are relying on programs like Gmail not just for e-mails, but to archive documents, chat with friends or co-workers and store contact information.

Gmail went through several high-profile crashes in 2009, including one in February and two in September. While e-mail crashes are nothing new to any provider, 2009’s were the first since Google begain offering offline support.

Response to the crashes simultaneously showed how many people depend on Gmail and how easy it is to make fun of those people. Social-networking blog Mashable responded with a list of five things to do while Gmail is down (No. 1: “Immediately flood Twitter with tweets alternately proclaiming, ‘Gmail is down!’ and inquiring, ‘Is Gmail down?’ “)

I got Google Wave — now what?

OK, so it’s a little early in the game to call this one a total fail. But after the breathless anticipation that greeted Google Wave and the hot rush to get an invitation for its beta testing, lots of users found themselves asking, “OK … now what?”

Google, for its part, released an 80-minute tutorial video — leading some observers to argue that if you need an hour and 20 minutes to explain what your product does, you might be in trouble.

It’s designed as a platform to allow users to communicate and collaborate in real time — a tool some predict will be used effectively by developers in the future.

But for now, it’s inspired the creation of a Web site — Easier to Understand Than Wave — on which users compare the online tool to other sometimes obtuse subjects (Both Ozzy Osbourne and the geopolitical climate of Southeast Asia are easier to understand than Wave, users voted, while Sarah Palin and Scientology are both more difficult).

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Windows 7 leaving Redmond’s help desk less busy

There are many ways to measure how Windows 7 is doing. There are reports on new PC sales, tallies of boxed copy sales, and surveys of planned enterprise adoption, to name a few.

But one of the most encouraging signs for Microsoft is the lack of phone calls it is getting from people with problems. Overall, Microsoft said the volume of calls to its support lines is half of what it expected.

“Overall we are finding our call center volume is down significantly more than we expected,” said Barbara Gordon, vice president of customer support for Microsoft.

The drop in calls isn’t just due to the fact that Windows 7 appears less problem-plagued than its predecessor, though. In the weeks leading up to and following the operating system’s release, Microsoft also added two new ways to get help–through an online forum called Microsoft Answers and via the Microsoft Helps feed on Twitter.

“What we have found is we are seeing far more take-up of self-service…forums and Twitter to get responses,” Gordon said in an interview this week.

With the Microsoft Answers forums, which launched late last year, users submit questions and experienced community members offer answers that Microsoft workers later validate to make sure they are correct.

So far, Microsoft has validated some 60,000 solutions. The company says that 83 percent of English-language queries are answered within seven days. Those in other languages have a slightly lower rate, but even of those 78 percent are taken care of within a week.

Meanwhile, Microsoft went live with its Twitter help site in October. Users can post a tweet with “@microsofthelps” in the message and Microsoft will respond. A team of seven employees dedicated full time to the project work with the broader support organization to respond to the many tweets. The goal is to either answer simple questions or to point people to a place where they can get a more detailed answer.

“It’s hard to answer (most questions) in 140 characters,” Gordon said.

But, she said, social networks like Twitter, Gordon said, allow the company to realize a problem that could be affecting thousands of people via a single short message.

“It’s really like a customer megaphone,” Gordon said.

Gordon hopes the new online options will not only cut down on call center expenses, but ultimately improve overall customer satisfaction with Windows. Customer satisfaction an area where the Mac has traditionally outpaced the various PC brands.

But Gordon says she hopes to see Windows gain ground. “We are really working on this,” she said.

Although Apple touts its personal touch with its stores, Gordon suggests Microsoft’s high-tech approach might ultimately win it more fans. “If I can help myself without having to go to the mall and sit at a geek bar I will be happier,” she said.

Nonetheless, one of the main features of Microsoft’s two retail stores is an answer desk very similar to the “Genius Bar” found in Apple stores.

As for the questions people ask on Twitter, they range from the expected range of bugs and problems to inquiries about future versions of products. This week, for example, one user asked when to expect Windows 8. Although vague, the answer was at least as direct as anything a reporter would get by asking Redmond.

“It will be a few years until the next official version comes out,” Microsoft replied on the Twitter feed. “Keep an eye out on microsoft.com for future updates.”

In addition to building goodwill and cutting costs, the online forums also allow Microsoft to quickly see when a problem is affecting a significant number of users. Such mechanisms helped Microsoft to recognize and then solve a video driver problem that was causing some users to have their systems hang when they reached 62 percent completion on an upgrade to Windows 7.

Within a week, Microsoft had a solution on its Website and shortly thereafter it posted an automated “Fix It,” essentially a script that a user can click on to have the proper steps done automatically. The Windows 7 upgrade fix has already been used more than 35,000 times, Microsoft said.

“We’re getting people able to meet their needs themselves,” Gordon said.

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Good Guys Bring Down the Mega-D Botnet

For two years as a researcher with security company FireEye, Atif Mushtaq worked to keep Mega-D bot malware from infecting clients’ networks. In the process, he learned how its controllers operated it. Last June, he began publishing his findings online. In November, he suddenly switched from de­­fense to offense. And Mega-D–a powerful, resilient botnet that had forced 250,000 PCs to do its bidding–went down.

Targeting Controllers

Mushtaq and two FireEye colleagues went after Mega-D’s command infrastructure. A botnet’s first wave of attack uses e-mail attachments, Web-based offensives, and other distribution methods to infect huge numbers of PCs with malicious bot programs.

The bots receive marching orders from online command and control (C&C) servers, but those servers are the botnet’s Achilles’ heel: Isolate them, and the undirected bots will sit idle. Mega-D’s controllers used a far-flung array of C&C servers, however, and every bot in its army had been assigned a list of additional destinations to try if it couldn’t reach its primary command server. So taking down Mega-D would require a carefully coordinated attack.

Synchronized Assault

Mushtaq’s team first contacted Internet service providers that unwittingly hosted Mega-D control servers; his research showed that most of the servers were based in the United States, with one in Turkey and another in Israel.

The FireEye group received positive responses except from the overseas ISPs. The domestic C&C servers went down.

Next, Mushtaq and company contacted domain-name registrars holding records for the domain names that Mega-D used for its control servers. The registrars collaborated with FireEye to point Mega-D’s existing domain names to no­­where. By cutting off the botnet’s pool of domain names, the antibotnet operatives ensured that bots could not reach Mega-D-affiliated servers that the overseas ISPs had declined to take down.

Finally, FireEye and the registrars worked to claim spare domain names that Mega-D’s controllers listed in the bots’ programming. The controllers intended to register and use one or more of the spare do­­mains if the existing domains went down–so FireEye picked them up and pointed them to “sinkholes” (servers it had set up to sit quietly and log efforts by Mega-D bots to check in for orders). Using those logs, FireEye estimated that the botnet consisted of about 250,000 Mega-D-infected computers.
Down Goes Mega-D

MessageLabs, a Symantec e-mail security subsidiary, reports that Mega-D had “consistently been in the top 10 spam bots” for the previous year (find.pcworld.com/64165). The botnet’s output fluctuated from day to day, but on November 1 Mega-D accounted for 11.8 percent of all spam that MessageLabs saw.
Three days later, FireEye’s action had reduced Mega-D’s market share of Internet spam to less than 0.1 percent, MessageLabs says.

FireEye plans to hand off the anti-Mega-D effort to ShadowServer.org, a volunteer group that will track the IP addresses of infected machines and contact affected ISPs and businesses. Business network or ISP administrators can register for the free notification service.
Continuing the Battle

Mushtaq recognizes that FireEye’s successful offensive against Mega-D was just one battle in the war on malware. The criminals behind Mega-D may try to revive their botnet, he says, or they may abandon it and create a new one. But other botnets continue to thrive.

“FireEye did have a major victory,” says Joe Stewart, director of malware research with SecureWorks. “The question is, will it have a long-term impact?”

Like FireEye, Stewart’s security company protects client networks from botnets and other threats; and like Mushtaq, Stewart has spent years combating criminal enterprises. In 2009, Stewart outlined a proposal to create volunteer groups dedicated to making botnets unprofitable to run. But few security professionals could commit to such a time-consuming volunteer activity.

“It takes time and resources and money to do this day after day,” Stewart says. Other, under-the-radar strikes at various botnets and criminal organizations have occurred, he says, but these laudable efforts are “not going to stop the business model of the spammer.”

Mushtaq, Stewart, and other security pros agree that federal law enforcement needs to step in with full-time coordination efforts. According to Stewart, regulators haven’t begun drawing up serious plans to make that happen, but Mushtaq says that FireEye is sharing its method with domestic and international law enforcement, and he’s hopeful.

Until that happens, “we’re definitely looking to do this again,” Mushtaq says. “We want to show the bad guys that we’re not sleeping.”

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Insurgents Hack U.S. Drones

Militants in Iraq have used $26 off-the-shelf software to intercept live video feeds from U.S. Predator drones, potentially providing them with information they need to evade or monitor U.S. military operations.

Senior defense and intelligence officials said Iranian-backed insurgents intercepted the video feeds by taking advantage of an unprotected communications link in some of the remotely flown planes’ systems. Shiite fighters in Iraq used software programs such as SkyGrabber — available for as little as $25.95 on the Internet — to regularly capture drone video feeds, according to a person familiar with reports on the matter.

U.S. officials say there is no evidence that militants were able to take control of the drones or otherwise interfere with their flights. Still, the intercepts could give America’s enemies battlefield advantages by removing the element of surprise from certain missions and making it easier for insurgents to determine which roads and buildings are under U.S. surveillance.

The drone intercepts mark the emergence of a shadow cyber war within the U.S.-led conflicts overseas. They also point to a potentially serious vulnerability in Washington’s growing network of unmanned drones, which have become the American weapon of choice in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Obama administration has come to rely heavily on the unmanned drones because they allow the U.S. to safely monitor and stalk insurgent targets in areas where sending American troops would be either politically untenable or too risky.

The stolen video feeds also indicate that U.S. adversaries continue to find simple ways of counteracting sophisticated American military technologies.

U.S. military personnel in Iraq discovered the problem late last year when they apprehended a Shiite militant whose laptop contained files of intercepted drone video feeds. In July, the U.S. military found pirated drone video feeds on other militant laptops, leading some officials to conclude that militant groups trained and funded by Iran were regularly intercepting feeds.

In the summer 2009 incident, the military found “days and days and hours and hours of proof” that the feeds were being intercepted and shared with multiple extremist groups, the person said. “It is part of their kit now.”

…………

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Europeans to pick browsers after Microsoft deal

BRUSSELS – More than 100 million Europeans will get to pick a Web browser after Microsoft agreed to offer Internet users a choice to avoid fresh fines — a move that could represent a real thawing of long-standing tensions between the software company and the European Union.

In a deal with regulators Wednesday, Microsoft Corp. will from March provide a pop-up screen to all users of its Windows operating system, asking them to choose one or more of five major browsers — including Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, Google’s Chrome and Apple’s Safari — and seven smaller rivals.

In return, the European Commission will drop charges it filed against Microsoft in January, when it said tying Internet Explorer to Windows — already-installed on most computers — gave the browser an unfair advantage. That was the latest in a long list of concerns — in more than a decade of EU antitrust action, Microsoft has been fined euro1.7 billion.

Neelie Kroes, the EU’s competition commissioner, said the deal resolves “a serious competition concern” for a key market in the development of the Internet.

“It is as if you went to the supermarket and they only offered you one brand of shampoo on the shelf, and all the other choices are hidden out the back, and not everyone knows about them,” she said. “What we are saying today is that all the brands should be on the shelf.”

Microsoft is not totally out of the woods yet, as it can still be fined up to 10 percent of yearly global turnover without regulators having to prove their case if it doesn’t stick to its commitment for the next five years.

The EU is also still investigating a complaint that Microsoft isn’t sharing enough technical information that would help developers make compatible products; regulators reacted coolly to Microsoft’s offer Wednesday to provide developers more information to make their products compatible, saying they would check to see if it does help rivals.

The U.S. Department of Justice welcomed the deal which it said could enhance competition. It investigated Microsoft during the 1990s for trying to squeeze browser rival Netscape and settled the case in 2002 in a deal ordering the company to share some data with rivals.

However, U.S. regulators did not follow up more recent complaints, leaving the EU as the most active global antitrust enforcer probing Microsoft’s move into server, media and Web software.

Google said more competition among browsers would boost innovation and promote a shift to “cloud computing” where people use Internet-based applications to perform tasks that they now do offline — often using Microsoft programs for word processing or bookkeeping.

Meanwhile Mozilla — the maker of Internet Explorer’s nearest challenger, Firefox — said it was happy to see that the EU deal would stop Microsoft repeatedly prompting users to switch from other browsers to Internet Explorer

Internet Explorer has some 64 percent of the global browser market, followed by Firefox at nearly 25 percent, Apple’s Safari at 4 percent and Google’s Chrome at 3.9 percent, according to figures from Net Applications.

Opera, the Norwegian browser company that made the initial complaint to the EU, said it thought the browser screen would help it attract more users even though it will be competing against major brand names. Opera’s share is just over 2 percent.

Most European users of Windows XP, Vista or 7 will get the new choice screen from Microsoft’s automatic updates if they have Internet Explorer installed as their default browser. Users outside the 30 countries in the European economic area — the 27-nation EU plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein — won’t get the update.

Users will see a box that asks them to find out more about browsers before they click to download one or more of them. They can close the box to keep Internet Explorer if they want.

The EU says some 100 million computers will get the update by mid-March and another 30 million new computers will see it over the next five years. The choice of browsers will be updated every six months based on new market share information.

Microsoft must also report back to regulators in six month’s time to check how the program is working — and could make changes in the EU asks. The EU is also able to review the entire deal at the end of 2011.

Microsoft’s general counsel Brad Smith said he was pleased to resolve long-standing competition law issues.

Microsoft also pledged Wednesday to offer far more technical documentation on its most popular products to makers of rival software — including open source developers — and support some industry standards.

“We believe it represents the most comprehensive commitment to the promotion of interoperability in the history of the software industry,” he said in statement.

Thomas Vinje, a lawyer for the group of companies that complained about Microsoft’s interoperability, said it was “not yet clear” if Microsoft’s offer would tackle competitive problems in the industry.

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EU resolves Microsoft IE antitrust case

Microsoft and the European Commission have settled their differences over the choice of Web browsers in Windows.

European Commissioner for Competition Policy Neelie Kroes on Wednesday formally announced a resolution to the Internet Explorer antitrust case against Microsoft. As part of the settlement, Windows PCs sold in the European Economic Area will now present users with a Choice Screen, allowing them to install alternative browsers beyond Internet Explorer.

The Choice Screen will offer users the ability to install up to 12 of the most widely used Web browsers that run under Windows, including Firefox, Safari, Google Chrome, and Opera. Users can download as many of the browsers as they wish or stick with Internet Explorer. Additionally, computer makers and users in Europe will be able to turn off IE totally and set up other browsers as the default. As part of the settlement, Microsoft is also prohibited from preventing the choice of different browsers through any contractual or technical means.

Microsoft initially proposed stripping a browser out of Windows 7 entirely, a move first reported by CNET. Both competitors and the EU balked at that idea though, instead favoring some sort of ballot screen. Microsoft eventually relented, though the company and its rivals have gone back and forth for a while over the details.

Based on feedback it received, Microsoft modified and improved its design, according to the EC. The screen now appears in a neutral window, rather than an Internet Explorer window, and displays the browsers in a random order. The screen itself looks cleaner and less cluttered to the EC, which it believes will help users better focus on making their browser choice.

Microsoft has promised to make the screen available for five years in the European Economic Area and to offer it for Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7, according to Europe’s antitrust regulators.

“Millions of European consumers will benefit from this decision by having a free choice about which web browser they use,” said Kroes. “Such choice will not only serve to improve people’s experience of the internet now but also act as an incentive for web browser companies to innovate and offer people better browsers in the future.”

Starting six months from now, Microsoft must report regularly to the Commission on its progress in implementing the new commitments, and the Commission can review the commitments two years from now.

After the EU announced the news, Microsoft issued its own statement on the resolution of the long-running, and expensive, antitrust case.

“We are embarking on a path that will require significant change within Microsoft. Nevertheless, we believe that these are important steps that resolve these competition law concerns,” Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith said in the statement. “This is an important day and a major step forward, and we look forward to building a new foundation for the future in Europe.”

The U.S. Justice Department, which waged its own years-long antitrust battle with Microsoft, applauded the outcome of the EU’s case.

“As we understand it, the settlement is based on measures to enhance competition and is designed to preserve industry participants’ incentives and ability to compete going forward. A settlement that helps to clarify obligations under European law allows the industry to move forward,” Christine Varney, assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s antitrust division, said in a statement.

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New cloud hacking service steals Wi-Fi passwords

For US$34 (£20), a new cloud-based hacking service can crack a WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) network password in just 20 minutes, its creator says.

The WPA Cracker service bills itself as a useful tool for security auditors and penetration testers who want to know if they could break into certain types of WPA networks. It works because of a known vulnerability in Pre-shared Key (PSK) networks, usually used by home and small-business users.

To use the service, the tester submits a small “handshake” file that contains an initial back-and-forth communication between the WPA router and a PC. Based on that information, WPA Cracker can then tell whether the network seems vulnerable to this type of attack or not.

The service was launched by a well-known security researcher who goes by the name of Moxie Marlinspike. In an interview, he said that he got the idea for WPA Cracker after talking to other security experts about how to speed up WPA network auditing. “It’s kind of a drag if it takes five days or two weeks to get your results,” he said.

Hackers have known for some time that these WPA-PSK networks are vulnerable to what’s called a dictionary attack, where the hacker guesses the password by trying out thousands of commonly used passwords until one finally works. But because of the way WPA is designed, it takes a particularly long time to pull off a dictionary attack against a WPA network.

Because each WPA password must be hashed thousands of times, a typical computer can guess perhaps just 300 passwords per second, while other password crackers can process hundreds of thousands of words per second.

That means that the 20-minute WPA Cracker job, which runs 135 million possible options, would take about five days on a dual-core PC, Marlinspike said. “That has really stymied efforts of WPA cracking,” he said.

WPA Cracker customers get access to a 400-node computing cluster that employs a custom dictionary, designed specifically for guessing WPA passwords. If they find the $34 price tag too steep, they can use half the cluster and pay $17, for what could be a 40-minute job. Marlinspike declined to say who operates his compute cluster.

The attack will work if the network’s password is in Marlinspike’s 135 million-phrase dictionary, but if it’s a strong, randomly generated password it probably won’t be crackable.

The service could save security auditors a lot of time, but it will probably make it easier for senior management to understand the risks they’re facing, said Robert Graham, CEO of penetration testing company Errata Security. “When I show this to management and say it would cost $34 to crack your WPA password, it’s something they can understand,” he said. “That helps me a lot.”

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Should You Outsource or Keep IT In-House?

It’s nice to have an IT staffer in house who has intimate knowledge of your business, your network and your needs. However, few individuals are experts in all areas, and those who have the requisite skills don’t come cheap. No individual can be available 24/7 either. For many small and medium-sized businesses, outsourcing may be a better solution.

Maintaining the network. Ensuring remote users have access to resources. Updating virus definitions. Troubleshooting email problems. Any number of IT issues can arise on a daily basis.

So does it make sense for small businesses to hire a full-time IT staffer or outsource their IT needs? That depends. Weighing the pros and cons in both scenarios can help determine which option is likely to best serve small businesses.

In-House IT Support: Pros

Easy access: A tech support person on staff can address issues immediately. Other clients won’t be competing for your IT staffer’s time, though there may be other departments doing so.

Cost control: As a full-time employee, your IT support staffer’s salary remains the same, regardless of the tasks undertaken — for example, troubleshooting a printer problem, setting up a new server, or staying late on a Thursday night to complete an operating system upgrade. This means that your costs remain steady even as your technology needs change. This can be a double-edged sword, however.

In-House IT Support: Cons

Upfront and hidden costs: Hiring a full-time IT professional is an expensive endeavor. Providing that pro with a computer, desk, telephone extension, payroll account and benefits drives the cost up even higher. For many small businesses, having a full-time IT specialist with a full-time salary working on staff is too cost-prohibitive to even be considered a viable option. Not to mention the costs associated with ongoing training for IT personnel.

Limited technological expertise: Your IT specialist may be good with Excel and handy when it comes to figuring out why the printer isn’t working, but may not be as savvy when it comes to diagnosing network security issues or upgrading the Exchange server. It’s unlikely that one IT professional will be able to provide expertise for all of your technological needs. If having one full-time person is costly, you might not want to calculate the cost for a small team of specialists!

Outsourcing IT Support: Pros

Less expensive: All things considered, outsourcing tends to be less expensive than hiring a full-time IT employee in-house. Many costs — such as overhead — are spread over several clients via the agency model. Additionally, your small business doesn’t have to worry about costs associated with training or certifying IT staff.

Round-the-clock service: Most professional IT help desk or tech support firms offer their customers 24/7 access to tech support specialists, either by phone or through remote computer access. This means that you’ll have someone to walk you through resetting your email password — even at 2 a.m. What’s more, if your main contact is sick, there will be a substitute that you can count on.

Outsourcing IT Support: Cons

Language or cultural differences: Struggling to understand your tech support specialist can make a frustrating situation even worse. Unfortunately, many small businesses choose offshore outsourcing as their least-expensive option, while not considering the time and aggravation spent on communication issues. This can be mitigated either by carefully interviewing various offshore firms and giving them a “test drive,” or by hiring a local firm. The latter may also allow you to have the specialist on-site, which is highly recommended for handling most IT support needs.

Not part of the team: Because outsourced IT specialists are there only when scheduled or when you need them to fix a problem, you’ll spend time bringing them up to speed when issues do arise or when you want them to provide advice on future technology initiatives. Again, there is a solution: Get an outsourced firm involved in your IT needs on an ongoing basis via “managed services.” This way, the firm can help with routine help desk and tech support issues, and will be more fully plugged in to your needs and requirements when it comes time to upgrade the network.

And the Winner Is: Outsource Locally

Certainly, small businesses have a variety of options for solving their tech support issues. For most small businesses, however, outsourcing is the best option. Outsourcing tech support needs allows businesses to stay focused on their own core offerings without getting sidetracked on IT projects. It also allows businesses access to cutting-edge resources and expertise, without the costs typically associated with staying ahead of the technology curve.

For many small businesses, outsourcing to a local firm provides the right combination of cost savings, flexibility and round-the-clock support without the language or cultural issues that sometimes arise with offshore firms. Outsourcing locally also provides small business owners peace of mind that when they need on-site tech support, they can get it, thus allowing them to manage their business, not their network.

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Android ‘below expectations’ in Europe

Google’s Android mobile OS is showing slow growth in Western Europe since its launch, according to analysts.

Noted analyst firm IDC has stated that while Android’s market share has grown in this region, from 4.2 per cent to 5.4 per cent in the July- September period, consumers are still shying away.

“Consumers steer clear of Google’s OS and sell-out is below everyone’s expectations. Consumers recognize the Google brand, but still do not understand what Android is,” IDC analyst Francisco Jeronimo.

Lack of awareness

“The lack of devices available didn’t help to raise awareness, though this is expected to change, with more handsets from LG, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, Motorola, and other vendors hitting the market soon.”

It’s worth noting that Android is still pretty nascent compared to other operating systems – it’s barely a year from release, and in relative terms, a 1.2 per cent increase in three months can be interpreted in a number of ways.

However, the number of ‘headline’ handsets has been minimal, with the Hero the main phone consumers will be familiar with. Android is still also early in the development stage, meaning elements consumers take for granted in other phones, such as full Bluetooth support, aren’t added until later in the development cycle.

Symbian – the operating system used for years by Nokia in its smartphones and more recently in Samsung and Sony Ericsson models – has 48 per cent of the market in Western Europe, but many predict this to decline as other competitors raise their game.

Windows Mobile is still the mainstay of the business market too, and although the iPhone and Android handsets are growing, it will take a larger range of more compelling devices to properly take on the established players and move Android from ‘Geek Chic’ to a genuine contender.

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Yahoo, Microsoft finalize search deal

Yahoo and Microsoft have finalized their agreement to install Microsoft as the exclusive search provider for Yahoo’s network of sites, the companies announced Friday.

The deal, first reached in July, still needs to be approved by the U.S. government before it becomes final. But the companies said in October that they needed more time to complete the deal due to the “complex nature of this transaction,” and Friday’s announcement is likely the result of hundreds of hours of painstaking review from expensive lawyers.

At least company executives didn’t have to rack up the frequent-flier miles to finalize this year; they signed it virtually, with Microsoft’s Qi Lu and Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz representing their respective companies on the licensing agreement and Ballmer and Bartz inking the definitive agreement, according to sources familiar with the deal.

Under the terms of the deal, Microsoft will provide search technology to Yahoo for up to 10 years, also gaining access to Yahoo’s search technology assets and several hundred employees. It will then pay Yahoo a significant portion of the ad revenue generated alongside those searches.

A Yahoo representative declined to comment on the specifics of what held up the final approval of the deal. Both parties said they still expect the deal to become final in early 2010, although the government is sure to take a long hard look.

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