Tag Archives: INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS MACHINES CORPORATION

Confusing, Sleazy Checkbox Syndrome

(Please see update below)

I am always amused by how even those companies you would think wouldn’t stoop to the foot-in-the-door tactics of spammers, do. Like this one from IBM, at the foot of a submission form — specifically for journalists, no less:

image

(The text reads:

This data may be used by IBM or selected organizations, such as Lenovo, to provide you with information about other offerings. To receive this via e-mail, check the first box below. Alternatively, if you would prefer not to receive such information by any means, check the second box.
    Please use e-mail to send me information about other offerings.
    Please do not use this data to send me information about other offerings.)

Why, specifically, two separate check boxes? What happens if you check both? Have you committed yourself to both receiving emails to get information about other offerings, and yet not allowing IBM to use this data to contact you? That would at least be a challenge for them. Leave both unchecked IBM cannot email you about other offerings, but they can use the data you just gave them (namely your email) to send you information about those exciting other offerings.

I urge you all to send them a query on their main submission form trying out both, and let me know what happens.

(Update Nov 2 2007: IBM have agreed having two checkboxes is confusing and unnecessary and promise to remove it. I have also tried leaving both unchecked, or checking both and error message is returned. So upon reflection I don’t think this is a fair example of Sleazy Checkbox Syndrome and I take back my harsh words about Big Blue. It’s poor form design, but it’s not done to confuse the user. Interestingly a more egregious example I recently cited also seems to have disappeared, as far as I can work out. Laplink have yet to respond to my request for comment.)

 IBM Press room – Contact a media representative

ThinkPad Joins the Exploding Laptop Parade?

Looks like the days of the laptop (and perhaps other gizmos) on airlines are numbered. First, Virgin becomes the third airline [CNET news] to place restrictions on Apple and Dell laptops, allowing them on planes only if the battery [Virgin site] has been removed, wrapped and stored in carry-on luggage. (Qantas and Korean Air have already placed restrictions [CNET news].) You can use the laptops from a power source in some instances on these airlines.

But this story doesn’t seem to be going away. A person posted a story on the Awful Forums (the account is also posted on Gizmodo.) alleging that an “IBM laptop” (presumably a ThinkPad, now owned by Lenovo) caught fire on a United plane boarding at Los Angeles airport. The passenger reportedly ran up the gangway from the plane dropping his laptop on the floor of the departure lounge where “the thing immediately flares up like a giant firework for about 15 seconds, then catches fire”. The owner, apparently, had checked his battery against a list of those of these being recalled, and it wasn’t on it.

Notebook Review has this to say: “An incident like this makes you wonder how long it is before in flight laptop use when running on batteries is just banned altogether.  Which would be a black eye to both the airline and notebook industry.” I’d tend to agree.

Cupid’s (Possibly) Poison Arrow

Could Valentine’s Day be a phishing day? Internet Security Systems, Inc. reckons so, saying in a press release (no URL available yet) that the number of dating sites across the world has increased by 17 per cent within the last twelve months. ISS reckons this rise “is partly attributed to the increase in malevolent websites used by developers of malicious code as an opportune moment for phishing, spam and hacker attacks on unsuspecting victims.”

Having said, that, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of strong evidence presented to back this claim up. “Organised criminal units have in the past timed their attacks to coincide with popular celebration occasions in order to achieve maximum success in compromising the integrity of computer systems,” the press release quotes Gunter Ollman, Director of X-Force at Internet Security Systems. “It is anticipated that Valentine’s Day is a day that is similarly marked on the criminals’ calendar for targeted attacks.” Makes sense, but isn’t this a tad alarmist? Should we ignore every Valentine Card we get (assuming we get any)?

ISS offers the usual suggestions about defending yourself from these poisoned Cupid arrows, as well as pointing out that it can provide its own solution, via a “Proventia Web Filter which blocks unwanted web content, optimises Internet access for employees and prevents any kind of non work related Internet use.”. Yes, of course. Ye old “press release as pitch posing as public service ad” trick.

Given that Internet Security Systems, Inc. has been, according to its own blurb, “an established world leader in security since 1994”, I guess I’d expect to see a bit more hard data to back up this kind of scaremongering. It’s not that I don’t believe that scumbags will use Valentine’s Day as a social engineering tool to pry open your gullibility, but I’m not sure security companies should just throw out warnings like this without more carefully callibrated data to justify it. Where is all the data about previous year’s attacks along these lines? Where are the examples to illustrate the problem, and the sophistication of the bad guys? What kind of data are they after? We deserve to be told if we’re going to bin potentially our only chance at happiness.

IBM. It’s About the Service, Stoopid

I’m no great fan of big companies. They’re rarely innovative, their products are lousy, and unless you know how to get around them, they don’t like talking to customers. But some get it. Or at least, they used to.

When I came out to Indonesia a second time, in 1998, I did two things. I got an IBM ThinkPad, and I signed up for IBM.net, a dial-up service. I did this because I knew that IBM had first-rate customer support out here (across Asia, actually). I didn’t care I had to pay a little more for both; I knew that if anything went wrong with my computer, there would be some cool, good-humored, sartorially challenged techie guy to help me out. And if I couldn’t get my modem to connect, someone would walk me through it, helped by some simple but effective dialer software.)

Well, first off, IBM.net is now AT&TGlobal, and has been since late 1998. AT&T have been pretty good at maintaining standards, actually, although I noticed on a recent trip that they still don’t have any local number in Thailand or Cambodia, and when I tried to dial a number in the Philippines, I got some weird error message that the help desk couldn’t decipher either. Or I couldn’t decipher the help desk’s explanation; I have a sneaky suspicion you don’t get local support anymore. In fact, I still don’t understand the message:

 NOTE: Due to Network Restrictions, if you are not a user who is registered for the service in this country, please contact this country´s helpdesk for access authorization. The helpdesk number for this Country can be found by visiting our Contact Us page.

What does that mean? Network Restrictions? Huh? Bleurrgh. (In fact, come to think of it, for a ‘Global’ service, AT&TGlobal’s not that global: couldn’t find numbers for 11 out of 20 Asian countries. Is this a sign of WiFi’s dominance, or just that places like Laos and Brunei don’t matter?).

Anyway, now with Lenovo owning ThinkPad, are we going to see declining service there? David Weinberger recently explained Why I’m taking my Thinkpad, not my Powerbook, with me on the road only to add at the end:

But wait! The Mac has a late surge! IBM received my broken ThinkPad on Nov. 17 but has to wait until Nov 30 to get in a newhard drive. So I’m taking my Mac with me to Europe after all. That is totally sucky service from IBM. It used to be actually good. Is this an isolated incident or are they headed the way of Dell?

Well, I must here put in a good word for the IBM guys here in Jakarta. One guy called Halim in particular is always there way after everyone else has gone home, smiling past a sea of monitors and disemboweled ThinkPads. I have to take one in again to him tomorrow which seems to have suddenly lost all its networking skills. I know the feeling.

Anyway, my point (there’s always a point) is that IBM understood — past tense, but judgement suspended — that you keep the customer happy by keeping the customer happy. It doesn’t necessarily mean a perfect product, but it does mean making them feel that if something goes wrong, their panic attacks will be taken seriously. It’s customer service plain and simple and in this big networked world it’s still possible, because I remember IBM doing it. Once.

Another Kind of Portable Device: The SoulPad

ZDNet reports on an interesting tool being developed by IBM — the SoulPad:

The SoulPad could let users carry their computer’s data, applications and personal settings on their mobile phone or digital music player

Researchers at IBM are testing software that would let you tote your home or office desktop around on an iPod or similar portable device, so that you could run it on any PC.

The virtual computer user environment setup is called SoulPad, and consumers install it from an x86-based home or office PC. SoulPad uses a USB or FireWire connection to access the network cards for connecting to the Internet, the computer’s display, the keyboard, the main processor and the memory, but not the hard disk.

As the article points out, this is not dissimlar to the idea of USB keydrive-based programs, which we’ve gone into some detail here in the past.

RAMming Home An Old Point

For many of you this is a no-brainer but maybe some folk might find it helpful. I had to switch laptop the other day while one was being fixed and was horrifed to find how slow the replacement was. Every program, every file, every function loaded slowly and the hard drive was stuttering along despite being well-defragged and with plenty of spare space.

Of course, it was the RAM (computer memory, where programs operate, rather than hard drive storage, where they hang out between bouts of action). Why IBM ThinkPads com come with only 256 MB of RAM as standard baffles me. Unless you’re running absolutely nothing, my experience has been that it’s just not enough to get you into Windows, let alone do any serious work.

The good news is that it’s really, really easy to add another 256 MB, just by unscrewing the bottom and slotting it in. Do it. Given it’ll cost you less than $100 it’s worth it. Now I’m back to 512 MB and I’m very, very grateful. Now the question is: Is it worth adding another wodge of RAM? My technical advisor says not.

Interview With Firefox’s Ben Goodger

I was fortunate to be able to fire off some questions to Ben Goodger, Lead Engineer of Mozilla Firefox by email, for this week’s column on browsers in the Asian Wall Street Journal/WSJ.com (subscription only). Here’s a full transcript of the interview.

1) How different has it been, getting Firefox into shape, than if the operation were run as a commercial operation?

It’s been an enormous challenge for a huge number of people. Over the years, hundreds of engineers have contributed code, hundreds and thousands more testing and other types of materials, probably millions of man-hours spent. The major difference and biggest benefit to the Open Source process is that we get the benefit of those thousands of people for whom an internet of free and open standards is important. That community includes some of the brightest minds in the business, committed to improving security and user experience. Some important contributions from the volunteer effort include our visual identity (iconography, theme design, website etc), much of our distributed quality assurance effort (thousands of people download “nightly builds” and use them as their browser – a great way to find and report bugs as they occur), and our massive localization effort.

2) What is your response to people’s fear about something free: That it’s less secure, less likely to survive, less professional, less, well, proper?

The industry backing of the Mozilla Foundation by companies like Sun, IBM, Novell etc coupled with an increased awareness among the web development community (Hewlett Packard released guidelines on its web site recently advising its content authors to test their materials in Firefox) as well as accelerating adoption among users and organizations alike show that Firefox is more than a flash in the pan. The results are shown in the marketshare which continues to climb month over month, in our download statistics which if anything show an increase following the holiday period. We’re just getting started.

I’m aware people will be skeptical of something that’s free. Well, all I can say to that is: buying the CD from www.mozillastore.com is a great way to satisfy your urge to spend money and it also supports the Mozilla Foundation 🙂

3) It seems to me that innovation in software has been mainly in browsers, the past few years. Not just Firefox, but K-Meleon, Opera, iRider, Deepnet, Netcaptor, etc. Would you agree with that, and if so, why is this? And then, following on from that, do you think Microsoft have missed a significant opportunity by not really working on IE in the meantime?

I wouldn’t say that innovation has been mainly in browsers – a great number of new pieces of software that I couldn’t live without have risen in the past half decade, look at iTunes, Google, and next generation internet apps like Skype that make use of higher bandwidth connections. But you’re right, there have been significant developments in Web browsers in the past few years – specifically in the areas of making it easier to find and manage content (see Firefox’s Google bar, Find Toolbar, Tabbed Browsing and RSS integration – all ways in which we make it easier for people to get at stuff).

I think it’s very difficult to be in Microsoft’s position – they have a lot of customers who have written applications to work with their system and a precedent for not having changed their formula much, which makes movement in a particular direction a more involved proposition as they need to carefully determine the impact of their changes on the people who have written solutions specifically tailored to their system. I do think they will move however, it’s not a matter of if, but when. They see what’s going on, and they will react.

4) What of the role of plugins? It seems to me there’s been a fascinating movement of innovators just working on individual little features? How important has that been? How hard was it to make the software so people could do that? Is this the future of software?

This was one of the benefits of the architecture chosen by the original implementors of much of the UI architecture we use now, I have to single out Dave Hyatt and Chris Waterson here for mention – they among others back in the Netscape days had the foresight to see the value of an extensible system, one which after years of refinement has led us to where we are today.

Plugins are an important part of the ecosystem of Mozilla applications. They allow people to customize their software in nearly infinite ways, adding new innovations that we may not have thought of yet, or tailoring the experience to suit very specific audiences in ways that we cannot in the main line distribution. Plugins in web pages allow for a richer content experience. In short – these application extensions are part of the applications’ DNA which allow every user to have the software that makes sense for them.

5) Where do you see Firefox going? Will it continue to innovate? Will you continue to be a part of it?

We’re still working on our 2.0 plans, we have a lot of ideas, no final schedule yet. It will absolutely continue to be a beacon for Open Source Software innovation and usability. At this time, I couldn’t see myself doing anything else, and the talented people I work with all feel the same.

6) Where do you see the browser going? Will it replace other programs, as it seems to be replacing the RSS reader?

We will integrate services as and when they make sense, not for any other reason. At all costs we must resist the urge to go down the path of unnecessary feature creep – that’s what we have developed our extension architecture for. As for other applications, some have moved to the web such as email and photo management, and we will obviously continue to be a portal to those.

7) You’re pretty young. How easy/hard has this been for you? Did you expect Firefox to make such a big splash?

The work I’ve done on this project is the most interesting/challenging I’ve done to date, and I know I’m not alone in that feeling. By extending ourselves and setting the bar not just at the level of the competition but higher we make a statement not only in the quality of the software we create, but about the value of the Open Source model of software development. I think we expected Firefox to be more successful than the Mozilla Application Suite (currently in 1.7.x) that preceded it, but I don’t think we expected it to be quite this big. Every release for the past year things seemed to get exponentially bigger in terms of popularity and buzz. We’ve now had over 21 million downloads – that’s amazing for any piece of software.

Thanks, Ben, and good luck in your new job. (More by Ben and his new job here.)

Keeping Out The Worms

Can we really keep out worms?

An interesting piece from Information Security Magazine takes a look at a range of “antiworm” products which promise to contain worms by weeding out bad traffic. Among them: Mirage Networks, ForeScout, Check Point Software Technologies, Silicon Defense and IBM.

They use different approaches, from looking for unfulfilled Address Resolution Protocol requests, to anomaly detection, while others automatically isolate compromised hosts, the article says. Others redirect worm traffic to a quarantined area to buy time to isolate the worm and keep systems available. Others try to limit the spread of a virush by ‘throttling it’, i.e. limit the number of Internet connections an infected computer can have.

Interesting article, but in the end we don’t know exactly what the next worm will do, so aren’t we back at square one, of always being wise after the event, like all anti-virus software? Or am I missing something?

HandyMan.Com, Coming Your Way

Here’s something for U.S. readers only: Find a computer repair guy online.

For individuals and companies that can’t afford IT support personnel, ComputerRepair.com offers access to more than 3,000 technicians in all 50 states, and counting. It’s a kind of eBay of tech support: Users are encouraged to post their feedback and rate those computer repair technicians they use.

Full roll-out of the site, their PR guy tells me, is planned to take place within the next couple weeks. “Once that happens, people can open an account…put some funds in that they think will cover their work…and then manage the entire process electronically in an online desk. And they only pay once the work is done to their satisfaction.” For more on how this may work, check out the FAQ question on it. The company has filed a patent on this system.

Intriguing. I’ve always felt this kind of market-place for services makes sense, and it’s good to see something like this done imaginatively. The PR says that a number of larger service providers, such as EDS, IBM and Siemens, “have been using the platform to find techs to meet their service level agreement requirements in remote areas….where it’s not worth them having people.”

I guess my worry is whether people are going to be willing to put the money in up front, even before a suitable technician is found. What happens if a customer decides they can’t find a suitable technician on the site? Do they get their money back (probably, but the customer may feel it’s a bit of a hassle paying in advance.)

Minor quibbles. It’ll be interesting to see how this site fares. The PR guy says that despite being in beta — i.e., not completely ready for launch — the site gets about 27,000 hits a day.  He also says that further down the road the company is considering expanding globally (they’ve gotten interest from vendors in a number of countries from Africa to Asia to Europe).

Apple Excites, Disappoints With iPod Mini

As expected, sort of, Steve Jobs has unveiled a new Apple iPod — smaller, more colourful and cheaper (but not as cheap as people thought). About 3.5 inches long and just half an inch thick, the iPod mini looks a bit like the old iPod, with the same jog dial, but comes in five colours, stores only 4 GB (against up to 40 for the old iPod) and costs $250.

That’s pricier than people thought. A lot pricier: I wrote last month on talk that it would sell for about $100. And given you can now get a bigger iPod carrying 15 GB for $300, Apple may find themselves cannibalizing their own market, rather than opening up a new one. As Techdirt points out, for a lot of folk 4 GB pretty much covers their music collection, and even Apple describe the iPod mini as “enough music for a three-day weekend getaway in a package so small you’ll forget you’re carrying it”. Expect a backlash against Apple from folk who thought they would be getting a cheap iPod as their new year’s present.

What’s interesting is what is under the hood. Whereas rumour had it the iPod mini would be using flash memory, CNET says it is in a fact a mini hard drive made by Hitachi. Hitachi’s success with what was IBM’s technology seems to indicate a resurgence of interest in small devices that can store a lot of data. While CNET talks of video cameras — Samsung apparently uses a 1 inch hard drive in one of their models — I wonder when you’re going to see PDAs and phones using them. Wouldn’t it be useful to store 4 or more GB of stuff on your PDA? Or has it already happened and I’ve missed it?