Net neutrality still faces political, legal hurdles

Net neutrality supporters may be celebrating the Federal Communications Commission’s unanimous vote Thursday to begin developing open Internet regulation, but the battle is far from over as the yet-to-be-written regulation is already facing Congressional opposition and will also likely be challenged in court.

Votes at the FCC for the proposal to get the ball rolling on new rules to protect an open Internet hadn’t even been cast when Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced legislation on Thursday morning that would block the agency from regulating the Internet. McCain said that Net neutrality rules would stifle innovation and hurt the job market.

“Today I’m pleased to introduce the Internet Freedom Act of 2009 that will keep the Internet free from government control and regulation,” McCain said in a statement. “It will allow for continued innovation that will in turn create more high-paying jobs for the millions of Americans who are out of work or seeking new employment. Keeping businesses free from oppressive regulations is the best stimulus for the current economy.”

The FCC voted unanimously Thursday on a proposal that would start the process for creating regulation that will keep the Internet open. The proposal itself uses the FCC’s open Internet principles as a foundation and would forbid network operators from restricting access to lawful Internet content, applications, and services. It would also require network providers to allow customers to attach nonharmful devices to the network.

Two additional principles were added, which would prevent network providers from discriminating against particular Internet content or applications, while at the same time allowing for reasonable network management. Internet access providers would also have to be transparent about the network management practices they implement.

All five commissioners voted in favor of advancing the rule-making process with the two Republicans, Meredith Attwell Baker and Robert McDowell, dissenting in part.

Ongoing debate
The so-called Net neutrality debate has pitted Internet application companies, such as Google, Facebook and Skype, against big broadband providers, such as AT&T, Verizon Communications, and Comcast. The network operators argue regulation will stifle innovation, while the Internet companies say an unfettered network is necessary to encourage innovation.

Congress has been interested off and on in this issue for about three years. But it has never gained much support, and at least five bills that would enact Net neutrality regulation have failed.

The issue seemed to die out completely after the FCC publicly admonished Comcast for violating its open Internet principles, which were adopted in 2005. The official slap on the wrist and the public outcry resulted in Comcast changing its practices. For many in the industry, it seemed the FCC’s handling of the situation was sufficient.

The issue was revived last year during the U.S. presidential campaign when then-candidate Barack Obama said he’d support Net neutrality regulation and laws. Now that he is president, his supporters are holding him to his promise.


Will your privacy be compromised online?

girlThe 2010 Census is nearly under way, but don’t expect an e-mail from the U.S. Census Bureau asking you personal questions in its head count of America.

If you do get one, it’s a scam.

“Like most large organizations, we have seen e-mail scams and phishing attacks that cite the U.S. Census Bureau,” agency spokesman Neil Tillman wrote in an e-mail.

The Census Bureau stresses that it will not request personal information from you via e-mail, such as PIN codes, passwords, Social Security numbers, credit-card numbers or other financial account information.

A news-based phishing scheme like this one is one of several risks you face online. Cybercriminals have gotten craftier, often looking toward popular trends and events — such as tax season, the mortgage meltdown and the growth of social media — to scam people into giving them sensitive information.

To protect their privacy online, computer users need to stay informed about the criminals’ methods and to learn basic principles of caution.

Online attackers have information on millions of consumers, said Ravi Sandhu, a professor of cyber security at the University of Texas at San Antonio. However, he added, the rate at which they can use that information is considerably lower.

“It’s a bit like a lottery. To have identity theft actually occur against you, you need to have a little bad luck. There is some comfort in numbers,” Sandhu said.

In addition to criminal scams, corporate data breaches can leave your privacy compromised.

As of September 22, there have been 379 data breaches reported by the Identity Theft Resource Center in 2009, affecting more than 13 million records. Companies with data breaches included financial institutions, travel companies, health care operations and schools.

“It’s not one or two companies that are acting irresponsibly with consumer data,” said Andrea Matwyshyn, a law professor who teaches technology regulation at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s a large-scale problem where industry norms of care are arguably not adequate to address the challenges of data security optimally.”

Safeguard your Social Security number

Exercising caution before you submit sensitive information can save you a lot of aggravation down the line.

For instance, most businesses really won’t need your Social Security number, the key number for identity theft, so think twice before you provide it online.

Social Security numbers are used “to establish new lines of credit or for tax purposes. How many things are you doing online that have to do with taxes?” said Linda Foley, co-founder of the Identity Theft Resource Center.

So before you share the information, be certain that you are on that Web site of a real company — as opposed to an imposter conducting a phishing scheme. Also, ask yourself why a Web site would need your Social Security number, said Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance.

“I always encourage consumers to supply the minimum amount of information possible. A lot of times, you get these long forms and you get the little star that’s required, but people are collecting other [data about you],” Kaiser said. “Don’t fill it out if you don’t want to.”

Still, even visiting a legitimate Web site has its share of risks, because online attackers may inject malicious content onto them by hacking them or placing advertisements that deliver malware, Sandhu said.

If a criminal does obtain your Social Security number and creates a fraudulent identity, it can be a much bigger hassle than if he or she uses your credit card number.

Credit card companies often pick up the tab for fraudulent charges, and they send you a new card with a different number. It’s more difficult to get a new Social Security number, and a stolen identity could affect your credit rating.



A Windows to Help You Forget

windows7_400x300In just two weeks, on Oct. 22, Microsoft’s long operating-system nightmare will be over. The company will release Windows 7, a faster and much better operating system than the little-loved Windows Vista, which did a lot to harm both the company’s reputation, and the productivity and blood pressure of its users. PC makers will rush to flood physical and online stores with new computers pre-loaded with Windows 7, and to offer the software to Vista owners who wish to upgrade.

With Windows 7, PC users will at last have a strong, modern successor to the sturdy and familiar, but aged, Windows XP, which is still the most popular version of Windows, despite having come out in 2001. In the high-tech world, an eight-year-old operating system is the equivalent of a 20-year-old car. While XP works well for many people, it is relatively weak in areas such as security, networking and other features more important today than when XP was designed around 1999.

After using pre-release versions of Windows 7 for nine months, and intensively testing the final version for the past month on many different machines, I believe it is the best version of Windows Microsoft (MSFT) has produced. It’s a boost to productivity and a pleasure to use. Despite a few drawbacks, I can heartily recommend Windows 7 to mainstream consumers.

Like the new Snow Leopard operating system released in August by Microsoft’s archrival, Apple (AAPL), Windows 7 is much more of an evolutionary than a revolutionary product. Its main goal was to fix the flaws in Vista and to finally give Microsoft customers a reason to move up from XP. But Windows 7 is packed with features and tweaks that make using your computer an easier and more satisfying experience.

The new taskbar shows small previews of many windows and allows for larger previews.

Windows 7 introduces real advances in organizing your programs and files, arranging your taskbar and desktop, and quickly viewing and launching the page or document you want, when you want it. It also has cool built-in touch-screen features.

It removes a lot of clutter. And it mostly banishes Vista’s main flaws—sluggishness; incompatibility with third-party software and hardware; heavy hardware requirements; and constant, annoying security warnings.

I tested Windows 7 on 11 different computers, ranging from tiny netbooks to standard laptops to a couple of big desktops. These included machines from Lenovo, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Dell (DELL), Acer, Asus, Toshiba and Sony (SNE). I even successfully ran it on an Apple Macintosh laptop. On some of these machines, Windows 7 was pre-loaded. On others, I had to upgrade from an earlier version of Windows.

In most cases, the installation took 45 minutes or less, and the new operating system worked snappily and well. But, I did encounter some drawbacks and problems. On a couple of these machines, glacial start-up and reboot times reminded me of Vista. And, on a couple of others, after upgrading, key features like the display or touchpad didn’t work properly. Also, Windows 7 still requires add-on security software that has to be frequently updated. It’s tedious and painful to upgrade an existing computer from XP to 7, and the variety of editions in which Windows 7 is offered is confusing.

Finally, Microsoft has stripped Windows 7 of familiar built-in applications, such as email, photo organizing, address book, calendar and video-editing programs. These can be downloaded free of charge, but they no longer come with the operating system, though some PC makers may choose to pre-load them.

In recent years, I, like many other reviewers, have argued that Apple’s Mac OS X operating system is much better than Windows. That’s no longer true. I still give the Mac OS a slight edge because it has a much easier and cheaper upgrade path; more built-in software programs; and far less vulnerability to viruses and other malicious software, which are overwhelmingly built to run on Windows.

Now, however, it’s much more of a toss-up between the two rivals. Windows 7 beats the Mac OS in some areas, such as better previews and navigation right from the taskbar, easier organization of open windows on the desktop and touch-screen capabilities. So Apple will have to scramble now that the gift of a flawed Vista has been replaced with a reliable, elegant version of Windows.

Here are some of the key features of Windows 7.

New Taskbar: In Windows 7, the familiar taskbar has been reinvented and made taller. Instead of mainly being a place where icons of open windows temporarily appear, it now is a place where you can permanently “pin” the icons of frequently used programs anywhere along its length, and in any arrangement you choose. This is a concept borrowed from Apple’s similar feature, the Dock. But Windows 7 takes the concept further.

For each running program, hovering over its taskbar icon pops up a small preview screen showing a mini-view of that program. This preview idea was in Vista. But, in Windows 7, it has been expanded in several ways. Now, every open window in that program is included separately in the preview. If you mouse over a window in the preview screen, it appears at full size on your desktop and all other windows on the desktop become transparent—part of a feature called Aero Peek. Click on the window and it comes up, ready for use. You can even close windows from these previews, or play media in them.

I found this feature more natural and versatile than a similar feature in Snow Leopard called Dock Expose.

You can also use Aero Peek at any time to see your empty desktop, with open windows reduced to virtual panes of glass. To do this, you just hover over a small rectangle at the right edge of the taskbar.

Taskbar icons also provide Jump Lists—pop-up menus listing frequent actions or recent files used.

Desktop organization: A feature called Snap allows you to expand windows to full-screen size by just dragging them to the top of the screen, or to half-screen size by dragging them to the left or right edges of the screen. Another called Shake allows you to make all other windows but the one you’re working on disappear by simply grabbing its title bar with the mouse and shaking it several times.

File organization: In Windows Explorer, the left-hand column now includes a feature called Libraries. Each library—Documents, Music, Pictures and Videos—consolidates all files of those types regardless of which folder, or even which hard disk, they live in.

Networking: Windows 7 still isn’t quite as natural at networking as I find the Mac to be, but it’s better than Vista. For instance, now you can see all available wireless networks by just clicking on an icon in the taskbar. A new feature called HomeGroups is supposed to let you share files more easily among Windows 7 PCs on your home network. In my tests, it worked, but not consistently, and it required typing in long, arcane passwords.

Touch: Some of the same kinds of multitouch gestures made popular on the iPhone are now built into Windows 7. But these features won’t likely become popular for a while because to get the most out of them, a computer needs a special type of touch screen that goes beyond most of the ones existing now. I tested this on one such laptop, a Lenovo, and was able to move windows around, to resize and flip through photos, and more.

Speed: In my tests, on every machine, Windows 7 ran swiftly and with far fewer of the delays typical in running Vista. All the laptops I tested resumed from sleep quickly and properly, unlike in Vista. Start-up and restart times were also improved. I chose six Windows 7 laptops from different makers to compare with a new MacBook Pro laptop. The Mac still started and restarted faster than most of the Windows 7 PCs. But the speed gap has narrowed considerably, and one of the Lenovos beat the Mac in restart time.

Nagging: In the name of security, Vista put up nagging warnings about a wide variety of tasks, driving people crazy. In Windows 7, you can now set this system so it nags you only when things are happening that you consider really worth the nag. Also, Microsoft has consolidated most of the alerts from the lower-right system tray into one icon, and they seemed less frequent.

Compatibility: I tried a wide variety of third-party software and all worked fine on every Windows 7 machine. These included Mozilla Firefox; Adobe (ADBE) Reader; Google’s (GOOG) Picasa and Chrome; and Apple’s iTunes and Safari.

I also tested several hardware devices, and, unlike Vista, Windows 7 handled all but one smoothly. These included a networked H-P printer, a Canon (CAJ) camera, an iPod nano, and at least five external flash drives and hard disks. The one failure was a Verizon (VZ) USB cellular modem. Microsoft says you don’t need external software to run these, but I found it was necessary, and even then had to use a trick I found on the Web to get it to work.

System Requirements: Nearly all Vista PCs, and newer or beefier XP machines, should be able to run Windows 7 fine. Even the netbooks I tested ran it speedily, especially with the Starter Edition, which lacks some of the powerful graphics effects in the operating system. (Other netbooks will be able to run other editions.)

If you have a standard PC, called a 32-bit PC, you’ll need at least one gigabyte of memory, 16 gigabytes of free hard-disk space and a graphics system that can support Microsoft technologies called “DirectX 9 with WDDM 1.0.” You’ll also need a processor with a speed of at least one gigahertz. If you have a newer-style 64-bit PC, which can use more memory, you’ll need at least two gigabytes of memory and 20 gigabytes of free hard disk space. In either case, you should double the minimum memory specification.

Aero Peek lets you see your desktop by making your windows transparent.

Installation, editions and price: There are four editions of Windows 7 of interest to consumers. One, a limited version called Starter, comes pre-loaded on netbooks. A second, called Professional, is mainly for people who need to tap remotely into company networks (check with your company to see if you need this). A third, called Ultimate, is mainly for techies who want every feature of all other editions. Most average consumers will want Home Premium, which costs $120 for upgrades.

The system for upgrading is complicated, but Vista owners can upgrade to the exactly comparable edition of Windows 7 while keeping all files, settings and programs in place.

Unfortunately, XP owners, the biggest body of Windows users, won’t be able to do that. They’ll have to wipe out their hard disks after backing up their files elsewhere, then install Windows 7, then restore their personal files, then re-install all their programs from the original CDs or downloaded installer files. Then, they have to install all the patches and upgrades to those programs from over the years.

Microsoft includes an Easy Transfer wizard to help with this, but it moves only personal files, not programs. This painful XP upgrade process is one of the worst things about Windows 7 and will likely drive many XP owners to either stick with what they’ve got or wait and buy a new one.

In my tests, both types of installations went OK, though the latter could take a long time.

Bottom line: Windows 7 is a very good, versatile operating system that should help Microsoft bury the memory of Vista and make PC users happy.


At Ceatec 2009, a starring role for 3D

TOKYO–In the exhibition halls of a gadget trade show, the things that normally jump out are the wacky outfits the female booth attendants are forced to wear, the mammoth wall installations of TVs, and long lines for booth swag.

For better or worse, the enduring image of Ceatec 2009 has been the sight of suit-clad men waiting in twisting queues for the chance to don a pair of plastic 3D glasses for a five-minute TV demonstration. There are two reasons for that: because the major TV makers here couldn’t miss out on the chance to show their prototype models of this trendy technology, and because there wasn’t really much else going on this year.

There isn’t yet a final, official count, but this year’s show, which started Tuesday and runs through the weekend, so far seems far less crowded than in years past. Attendees could have been kept away by the sluggish economy, or the inclement weather, including a tropical storm that hit Tokyo midweek. Either way, the general vibe at the Makuhari Messe has been much more subdued.

In the past Ceatec has been known as the event where gadgets destined for store shelves showed up en masse, the last stop on the trade show circuit before they’re packaged and ready for consumers during the yearly holiday sales period. However, the 2009 edition was shorter on practical products and very low on new stuff.

As at IFA in Berlin last month and at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, 3D was the dominant theme. Panasonic showed its very-close-to-being-ready 3D plasma TV here this week–this time, though, on a 50-inch set, a size that’s far more practical than the 103-inch behemoth used at expos earlier this year. The 50-inch model, plus some sizes larger than that, will be unveiled along with pricing and shipping information at CES in January 2010. Sony is also readying its first 3D TV for the home, which is set to ship sometime next year, though the company wasn’t specific about exactly when.

Fellow Japanese TV manufacturers Hitachi, Sharp, and Toshiba also hauled in their own 3D TV demos to the floor of Makuhari Messe, and attendees dutifully lined up to see them, but none of those electronics makers are committing to shipping 3D TVs yet, which is very telling.

Panasonic acknowledged that the standards for releasing 3D movies on Blu-ray are not yet complete, but said they will be soon, and that the company is committed to the standards. But some of Panasonic’s competitors are not completely convinced 3D at home is a sure bet. A Toshiba representative here said the company is “still waiting to see if there is demand” for 3D in the home. And with good reason–it’s still not clear that consumers are going to go for 3D at home just yet, both because it would mean likely buying yet another new TV and because watching those TVs requires wearing very silly-looking plastic glasses with active-shutter lenses.

3D and the floating mirror
Besides TVs, Ceatec also featured other cool applications using 3D outside of the home and movie theater.

The Japanese government’s National Institute of Information and Communication Technology, or NICT, was running a demonstration called Multisensory Interaction System (MSens), which had a line almost as long as many of the TV demos. In this, 3D was used to enhance reality for specific tasks. It worked like this: An image of an ancient mirror with an ornate design on one side was displayed in a monitor. The image was reflected onto a piece of glass in front of a user standing at the monitor so that the mirror appeared to float in front of him. But the user could then take a stylus that would allow him to “feel” the surface of the mirror. As the tip moved across the bumpy surface (which in reality is being held in midair and not touching a solid surface), the stylus would rise and fall with the peaks and valleys on the mirror’s surface.

The idea would be to use MSens for product testing, design, and possibly even learning things like surgery. NICT also brought a separate demonstration that showed surgery in 3D, making observers feel as if they were right in the middle of an operation. It was fascinating, but also something you’d need a medical degree to use–and probably a strong stomach too.

While those have practical purposes outside of pure entertainment, it’s still 3D TVs that are getting all the attention here. Sometimes, as at Sony’s booth, that attention is even coming at the expense of other products. When asked why there were no organic light-emitting diode (OLED) TVs at its booth this year as in years past, a Sony representative said simply, “because we’re focusing on 3D.”


New Microsoft Security App Battens Down Windows for Free

Microsoft Manage and grow your business with Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac Business Edition More about Microsoft released version 1.0 of Microsoft Security Essentials, a free basic anti-malware service from Redmond, on Tuesday.

This replaces Microsoft’s discontinued Live OneCare Security-as-a-Service offering.

Live OneCare customers can move to Microsoft Security Essentials once their subscriptions expire.
About MSE

Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE) is a lightweight application that runs in the background and takes up few CPU and memory resources, the vendor said.

It is the first Microsoft security product to use the company’s new Dynamic Signature Service, which ensures users are protected by the most current virus definitions available. Most other antivirus applications download the latest virus signatures one or more times daily.

MSE will run on Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) or SP3, Windows Vista, and Windows 7.

Only users of genuine versions of these Windows operating systems will be able to install MSE. The application will be available in eight languages and in 19 countries including the United States; Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand and Singapore.

Technical Stuff

MSE monitors the file, registry, network and kernel mode actions taken by unknown programs to look for suspicious behavior, according Microsoft. When a program initiates unexpected network connections, tries to modify privileged parts of the system, or downloads known malicious content, this triggers MSE to request updates from the Dynamic Signature Service.

Further, MSE uses the Microsoft SpyNet telemetry system to monitor the quality of definition updates. When users detect and remove malicious files, information on that is sent to Microsoft in real time, and that information is used to identify abnormal patterns and assess the potential impact of an incorrect or misbehaving signature.

If a false positive is detected, the Dynamic Signature Service fixes the signature in real time and prevents users from being affected, according to the company.

Despite this, MSE lacks the personal firewall, backup and PC tuning features offered in Windows Live OneCare, which it replaces. “Microsoft Security Essentials is a no-cost core antimalware service that provides real-time protection to address the ongoing security needs of a genuine Windows PC,” Microsoft spokesperson Mac Brown told TechNewsWorld.

The Nitty-Gritty

MSE may be lightweight, but it does what it’s supposed to do, Directions on Microsoft analyst Michael Cherry said. “I’ve been using Security Essentials for the past little while,” he told TechNewsWorld. “It’s a base-level antimalware tool that gets antivirus signature files updated and runs very efficiently.”

Windows Live OneCare subscribers have to go to the MSE Web page and download the application once their subscriptions expire.

MSE is essentially targeted at users who don’t really pay attention to security but do want some basic form of defensive line. “We still see far too many consumers worldwide that do not have up-to-date protection either because they cannot afford it, are concerned about the impact the suites will have on the performance of their PCs, or because they simply do not realize their AV (antivirus) software is not up to date,” Microsoft’s Brown explained. MSE will help them because it’s free, consumes few systems resources and updates itself automatically, he said.

New computers often have antivirus software pre-installed, so is this argument valid? “Most preloaded antivirus applications are trial offers that run out after 30, 60 or 90 days, or perhaps after a year,” Directions on Microsoft’s Cherry said. “A surprisingly high number of people don’t pay to have them renewed after that because they don’t understand why they have to pay for it, and don’t understand that, even though it’s still running, it’s not updating the virus signatures.”

With MSE, Microsoft joins the ranks of vendors like AVG in offering free, basic antivirus software. AVG also sells more advanced security packages.

Users do need to do some work. The MSE help page has videos on how to install the application; how to scan for viruses on demand; and how to fix a threat once it’s been detected. After that, they’re on their own, though Microsoft’s Brown said MSE users can get free community and e-mail support.


Texas police take on blog commenters

nullEveryone in Austin, Texas always seems unusually charming to me.

The people in Starbucks always have time for a chat. And the staff at the wildly gothic Mansion at Judges Hill (which, I am told, used to be a very fine rehab facility) can induce a smile by merely looking at you.

However, it appears that when certain citizens of Austin get behind their computers, they turn into monstrous villains.

This, at least, appears to be the view of Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo. According to the Austin American-Statesman, the chief is considering pursuing commenters on blogs who have either impersonated him or his officers or maligned them beyond the boundaries of legal tolerance.

Options under discussion appear to be not only libel suits, but also criminal charges if the police believe these are warranted.

“A lot of my people feel it is time to take these people on,” Acevedo told the Statesman. “They understand the damage to the organization, and quite frankly, when people are willfully misleading and lying, they are pretty much cowards anyway because they are doing so under the cloak of anonymity.”

Among the suggestions allegedly implied under this cloak was behavior of an illegal and sexual nature, something the Statesman characterizes as “quid pro quo” arrangements.

The suggestion of lawsuits seems extreme. However, after the “Skanks in NYC” case, in which Google was forced (without trying too hard to fight) to give up the name of a blogger who targeted Vogue model Liskula Cohen, are anonymous bloggers or commenters truly immune from the consequences of their venting?

It so happens that Texas passed a state law on September 1 that specifically targets those who “use another person’s name to post messages on a social-networking site without their permission and with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate or threaten.” Such willful behavior is now a third-degree felony.

Is it possible, then, that the Austin police will be the first to test this law out? One can only imagine some commenters’ reactions.

Google to let you comment on anything, anywhere

google_girlEver wish you could speak your mind on some blog, but the jerk running it has the commenting system turned off? Well Google has good news for you: A new feature coming to the ubiquitous Google Toolbar will add a discussion system to every web page on earth. Just pop open the so-called Sidewiki window, speak your mind, and every other Google Toolbar user in the world will be able to see your thoughts when they access that page and click the “comments” button.

Google is hardly the first company to try such a feature, but it may be the first that’ finds success with it. I remember vividly a similar plan from a company (the name of which is now lost to the web) that let users leave Post-It style notes on any web page they visited, a sort of digital graffiti that let them tag pages, telling the proprietor and others exactly what they thought of the content.

It wasn’t a hit. At the time — circa 2000 — the software faced an immense backlash from observers who felt that the software was devaluing the appearance of the web (at best) and infringed on other people’s copyrights (at worst). Some felt it was the equivalent of picketing in front of a retail store.

Of course, back then we didn’t have the comment culture that we have in the late 2000s. Today, commenting systems are all the rage from blogs to news sites to video portals, and people actively encourage readers to “join the conversation” every chance they get. But that’s likely to generate flack from website operators who already operate their own comment systems. Now they have another company to compete with for comments on their own domain… and that company is Google, no one’s idea of an easy nemesis.

How it will ultimately shake out is anyone’s guess.

There’s good news at least in the way Sidewiki works: Google says it will rank comments for appropriateness, and comments will be linked to Google user names — no anonymous blather allowed.


Want Windows 7 early? Here’s how…

Windows 7 arrives on October 22.windows_71

But waiting for the doors to open? That’s for suckers only.

Want to get a jump on the crowds and get Windows 7 ahead of time? You really don’t need anything special: All you have to do is buy a new PC. Microsoft is giving vendors the OK to start preloading Windows 7 on PCs as soon as they receive their allotment of product keys.

That should happen as early as October 12, over a week before shrinkwrapped copies of the software show up on store shelves. Now you’ll never know exactly which computers have Windows 7 on them unless you drop by a retail outlet or configure a computer for yourself online — but if you just can’t wait to get Windows 7 going on your machine, it should be a relatively foolproof way to get it early.

The other option: Preorder a configure-it-yourself system with Windows 7 on it. The holdup isn’t testing to make sure the OS works on the hardware. Vendors already have the software they need and are simply waiting for the product keys to arrive in order to finalize the software installations. (Without them, Microsoft wouldn’t be able to validate the software as legitimate and would eventually cease to function.)

PC makers are of course ecstatic about all of this — every day Vista has to be sold on a PC instead of Windows 7 is another sale that’s probably lost. Plus, the ability to jump the gun on packaged-copy sales by 10 days gives them an advantage, an opportunity to entice would-be upgraders not only to get Windows 7 early, but to get a brand new machine in the process and completely avoid the hassle of having to install the upgrade themselves.

Don’t worry, it may sound shady, but everything’s on the up and up here, and no one is breaking any rules. Microsoft is even positioning the ability for vendors to sell preloaded PCs as a “competitive advantage.”

If you buy a machine early, let us know in the comments!


The 10 biggest moments in IT history

It’s unlikely that everyone will ever agree on the most important dates in the history of IT. I know my IT timeline has a personal and professional bias. But I’ve tried to be objective in examining the events that have served to shape the current landscape of the modern computing industry. Some of the milestones on my list are debatable (depending upon where you are looking from), but some of them most likely are not. Read on and see what you think.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: The development of COBOL (1959)

There are many languages out there, but none has influenced as many others as COBOL has. What makes COBOL stand out is the fact that there are still machines chugging along, running COBOL apps. Yes, these apps could (and possibly should) be rewritten to a modern standard. But for many IT administrators, those who don’t have the time or resources to rewrite legacy apps, those programs can keep on keeping on.

2: The development of the ARPANET (1969)

It is an undeniable fact that the ARPANET was the predecessor of the modern Internet. The ARPANET began in a series of memos, written by J.C. R. Licklider and initially referred to as the “Intergalactic Computer Network.” Without the development of the ARPANET, the landscape of IT would be drastically different.

3: The creation of UNIX (1970)

Although many would argue that Windows is the most important operating system ever created, UNIX should hold that title. UNIX started as a project between MIT and AT&T Bell Labs. The biggest initial difference (and most important distinction) was that it was the first operating system to allow more than one user to log in at a time. Thus was born the multi-user environment. Note: 1970 marks the date the name “UNIX” was applied.

4: The first “clamshell” laptop (1979)

William Moggridge, working for GRID Systems Corporation, designed the Compass Computer, which finally entered the market in 1991. Tandy quickly purchased GRID (because of 20 significant patents it held) but then turned around and resold GRID to AST, retaining the rights to the patents.

5: The beginning of Linus Torvalds’ work on Linux (1991)

No matter where you stand on the Linux versus Windows debate, you can’t deny the importance of the flagship open source operating system. Linux brought the GPL and open source into the forefront and forced many companies (and legal systems) into seeing monopolistic practices as well as raising the bar for competition. Linux was also the first operating system that allowed students and small companies to think in much bigger ways than their budgets previously allowed them to think.

6: The advent of Windows 95 (1995)

Without a doubt, Windows 95 reshaped the way the desktop looked and felt. When Windows 95 hit the market the metaphor for the desktop became standardized with the toolbar, start menu, desktop icons, and notification area. All other operating systems would begin to mimic this new de facto standard desktop.

7: The 90s dot-com bubble (1990s)

The dot-com bubble of the 90s did one thing that nothing else had ever done: It showed that a great idea could get legs and become a reality. Companies like Amazon and Google not only survived the dot-com burst but grew to be megapowers that have significant influence over how business is run in the modern world. But the dot-com bubble did more than bring us companies — it showed us the significance of technology and how it can make daily life faster, better, and more powerful.

8: Steve Jobs rejoining Apple (1996)

Really, all I should need to say here is one word: iPod. Had Jobs not come back to Apple, the iPod most likely would never have been brought to life. Had the iPod not been brought to life, Apple would have withered away. Without Apple, OS X would never have seen the light of day. And without OS X, the operating system landscape would be limited to Windows and Linux.

9: The creation of Napster (1999)

File sharing. No matter where you stand on the legality of this issue, you can’t deny the importance of P2P file sharing. Without Napster, file sharing would have taken a much different shape. Napster (and the original P2P protocols) heavily influenced the creation of the BitTorrent protocol. Torrents now make up nearly one-third of all data traffic and make sharing of large files easy. Napster also led to the rethinking of digital rights (which to some has negative implications).

10: The start of Wikipedia (2000)

Wikipedia has become one of leading sources of information on the Internet and with good reason. It’s the single largest collaborative resource available to the public. Wikipedia has since become one of the most often cited sources on the planet. Although many schools refuse to accept Wiki resources (questioning the legitimacy of the sources) Wikipedia is, without a doubt, one of the largest and most accessible collections of information. It was even instrumental in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, when the candidates’ Wiki pages became the top hits for voters seeking information. These presidential Wiki pages became as important to the 2008 election as any advertisement.