More Widgets, This Time from Google

This whole widget thing seems to be taking off. Opera has released a preview version with widgets built in, and now Google have offered something. The new beta of the Google Desktop includes what aren’t being called widgets but should be, as described by Mihai Ionescu, one of the engineers behind the Desktop : 

As a Sidebar user, you can now customize and view personalized information anywhere on the the desktop by clicking and dragging your favorite panels wherever you like. Furthermore, you can now easily share information from your Sidebar panels with your contacts by sending it to them through email, chat or directly to their Sidebar. As an added bonus you and your contacts can also play online games through the Sidebar.

I haven’t checked this out yet, but I will.

Opera Gets Widgetized

The Opera browser continues to impress, even as it becomes less and less relevant in the face of the mighty Firefox. This week Opera’s preview puts widgets on stage according to CNET :

Opera Software on Tuesday plans to release a second preview version of Opera 9, the next version of its namesake Web browser. For the first time, the new version will include support for so-called widgets, Opera representative Thomas Ford said. Widgets are essentially small browser windows that display information taken from the Internet on a user’s desktop. The notion is similar in concept to the widget idea that Apple Computer uses in the Dashboard feature of Mac OS X.

“It is really a big jump for us into Web applications,” Ford said. “They give people the information they want right on the desktop. Even if it is a Web page, people don’t have to go to the browser to see it.”

Actually Windows users have had access to widgets for a while, via Klips and Konfabulator, now bought and rebranded by the folks at Yahoo! as straight Widgets. I’m a big fan of widgets but I find I don’t use them as much as I should. It’ll be interesting to see how Opera handles it. The preview version also includes support for BitTorrent, the file distribution protocol.

Extending Del.icio.us

Del.icio.us has come up with a new Firefox extension which includes toolbar buttons, a menu, context menus and search engine:

Delext

Pretty neat, although for some reason my Firefox is behaving and won’t tolerate some popups. More on some alternatives to this in a future post.

Recovering Your Firefox Bookmarks

This is documented elsewhere, but perhaps comes across as too nerdy for some. If you’re using Windows XP, recovering from a crash or whatever, and find that your Firefox bookmarks (and bookmarklets and bookmark toolbar) have disappeared, here’s what to do:

  • Close Firefox if it’s running.
  • Find your profile in c:Documents and Settings[your XP user name]Application DataMozillaFirefoxProfiles
  • There should be a subfolder there called bookmarkbackups. Find the most recent bookmarks html file in there (usually with a date after the ‘bookmarks’ bit.
  • Copy it to somewhere safe and rename the existing one bookmarks.html.
  • Copy it to the default profiles folder (up one level from the bookmarkbackups folder, deleting the existing bookmarks.html file.)
  • Close Firefox if it’s running and launch it. Your old bookmarks should be restored.

(And, while I’m at it, here’s a solution if your Firefox browser refuses to remember any of your changed settings in toolbars etc when you close it, resetting everything back to what it was before. The same bug — likely to be fixed soon — also deletes your search engines in the search box to the right of the address box. This fix will fix both problems:

  • Locate the localstore.rdf file in the same place as above.
  • Delete it.
  • Restart Firefox. You should be good to go.

Thanks, GreenKri.)

Help With A Help File That Won’t Open

After months of messing about wondering why I couldn’t access any of my help files in Windows XP, and never finding an explanation and solution online that didn’t involve smearing myself with axle grease and climbing into my computer, I stumbled on this tool (via PC Answers of the UK): Helpware Downloads’ MJ’s Diagonostics which

is a small utility that reports if all the HTML Help runtime DLLs are installed and registered correctly. If a DLL is not registered then it will ask if you want to register it. It also checks the RoboHelp DLL (HHActiveX.dll) and MS Help 2 DLLs.

In English, this means if you get messages like this:

Cannot open the file: mk:@MSITStore:C:Program FilesEverNoteEverNoteEverNote.chm

or your help file just won’t open, try running MJ’s small, free utility first. It’s simple, elegant, and it gets the job done. As the report file explains

A common problem with HTML Help 1.x is DLLs not correctly registered during installation. This utility checks all components and registers DLLs if required. We also report if the RoboHelp DLL is registered, and if MS Help 2 components are installed and registered.

In other words, the help file, which has a CHM extension, hasn’t properly checked in with the Windows registry. This was certainly the problem in my case, and the utility fixes it without fanfare. There are other aspects of the problem, and if this solution doesn’t work, check out Nic Cubrilovic’s suggestion, and the many comments that follow his post. I don’t know who MJ is by the Helpware Group, which hosts the file, is well worth checking out. Thanks!

Why doesn’t Microsoft award honorary knighthoods to these kind of helpful, selfless people? Without them, would Windows even run?

The End of the Sorry Sony Saga?

Sony to recall copy-protected CDs, according to the BBC:

Sony BMG is recalling music CDs that use controversial anti-piracy software. The software was widely criticised because it used virus-like techniques to stop illegal copies being made.

Widespread pressure has made the music giant remove CDs bearing the software from stores. It will also swap bought CDs for copies free of the XCP anti-piracy software. Sony is also providing software to make it easy to remove the controversial program from Windows computers.

Will Sony ever recover from this? Probably, but it’s not going to be easy. Hopefully they’ll think hard and long about this whole sorry episode. Well done, bloggers, for making this story gain traction.

The Smell of Sterile Burning

There’s a growing noise about Sony’s apparent attempt to install digital rights management software usually associated with bad guys trying to maintain control of a compromised computer: Mark’s Sysinternals Blog: Sony, Rootkits and Digital Rights Management Gone Too Far:

The entire experience was frustrating and irritating. Not only had Sony put software on my system that uses techniques commonly used by malware to mask its presence, the software is poorly written and provides no means for uninstall. Worse, most users that stumble across the cloaked files with a RKR scan will cripple their computer if they attempt the obvious step of deleting the cloaked files.

While I believe in the media industry’s right to use copy protection mechanisms to prevent illegal copying, I don’t think that we’ve found the right balance of fair use and copy protection, yet. This is a clear case of Sony taking DRM too far.

The comments below Mark Russinovich’s post reveal not only growing frustration with such clumsy attempts to control what users do with CDs they buy from legitimate sources, but it may also prompt a class-action suit against the company in the U.S. since early versions of the End User Licence Agreement on the software may not have covered such software installation. A representative of SF-based Green Welling LLP has posted a comment asking to hear from “any California residents that have experienced this problem before the EULA was changed. We have looked at many DRM cases and Sony went too far with this particular scheme”. (The End User License Agreement originally, according to Russinovich, made “no mention of the fact that I was agreeing to have software put on my system that I couldn’t uninstall”.) Bruce Schneier asks whether Sony may have “violated the the Computer Misuse Act in the UK? If this isn’t clearly in the EULA, they have exceeded their privilege on the customer’s system by installing a rootkit to hide their software.”

Sony deny that their software is malware or spyware: Their FAQ says “the protection software simply acts to prevent unlimited copying and ripping from discs featuring this protection solution. It is otherwise inactive. The software does not collect any personal information nor is it designed to be intrusive to your computer system. Also, the protection components are never installed without the consumer first accepting the End User License Agreement.”

According to eWeek, the technology has a name: ‘sterile burning’. And it’s built by a British company called First 4 Internet, whose CEO, Mathew Gilliat-Smith, is quoted as saying it’s not a rootkit but part of a copy protection system designed to balance security and ease of use for the CD buyer. First 4 Internet call it XCP for Extended Copy Protection which “aims to provide effective levels of protection against the unauthorised copying of digital audio and data files without compromising sound quality and playability. XCP helps to protect the rights of Artists and Record Labels while accommodating consumer needs for ‘fair use’ copying.” More specifically, it

protects the content of an audio disc without compromising playability or quality. By using a range of methodologies, including the construction of multiple protection layers, limiting the ROM player accessibility to the provided player software and encapsulating the Red Book audio content, XCP can be used by content owners to help protect digital content from unauthorised copying.

It was first shipped by Sony BMG in March. A new version has been developed with features which, eWeek says, “respond to many of the questions Russinovich raised in his analysis” and will be available in new Sony BMG CDs. But will it be too late by then? Who in their right mind would risk buying a Sony BMG CD?

ZoneAlarm’s Impressive About-turn, Or How To Do Blog PR Right

A day ago I vented my disappointment at a sneaky marketing gambit inside ZoneAlarm’s otherwise excellent free firewall software, which scared the user into running an external spyware scanner in the hope of getting them to upgrade. This morning I received word from their PR department that this promotion “has been turned off. The wording was not optimal, and we sincerely regret any inconvenience or frustrations it caused our users. Also, your story has prompted us to create a new approval process for any outbound promotions including multiple departments, to ensure that we maintain the highest integrity in our marketing efforts.”

I’m very impressed. I’m not suggesting my post prompted this — it sounds like it was in the works anyway — but this kind of close and timely monitoring of blogs is just the kind of iniatitive PR departments should be involved in, and just what I was going on about in a recent diatribe about Nokia, who seem little interested in customers who have less than perfect experience in the company’s ‘Care Centres’.

Good work, ZoneAlarm.

ZoneAlarm’s Sneaky Spyware Scare?

(See a more recent post on this for an update. ZoneAlarm no longer has this ‘feature’.)

I’m a big fan, and user, of ZoneAlarm firewalls. Their interface is clean, clear and I like the system tray icon which doubles as a traffic monitor. But sometimes they do things that don’t, in my view, help educate and simplify things for the ordinary user. After all, Internet security is already baffling enough.

I use the free version of ZoneAlarm firewall and usually it works fine and unobtrusively. But just now I got a popup window like this:

Za

At first glance it looks like an ordinary update reminder, which would be fine. But it’s not. It seems to suggest, to the casual user, that something bad is happening to your computer. To the more experienced user it looks like one of those naff anti-spyware ads that appear on websites with a faux Windows-dialog suggesting you’re infected with spyware. (Notice there’s no option along the lines of ‘Never remind or show me this popup again. I have enough on my plate, thanks.’)

Click on ‘update now’ and you’re taken, surprise surprise, to a ZoneAlarm promotions page. To be fair to ZoneAlarm, if you’re running IE a scan will kick in (it won’t if you’re using Opera, Netscape or Mozilla as it’s an ActiveX application). Once spyware is detected, it’s not quite clear what you’re supposed to do next. Click on a ‘Remove Spyware Now’ link and you’re faced with a pop-up link pitching a ‘featured bundle’ of ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite and TurboBackup for $50. Click on a red button marked ‘REMOVE SPYWARE with ZoneAlarm’ and you’re taken to the same pop-up (Yes, they seem to somehow get around the builtin IE popup blocker.) As far as I can see there is no other way to remove the alleged spyware.

This is all, I believe, part of ZoneAlarm’s new product,  ZoneAlarm Anti-Spyware, which it launched recently. I just wish that ZoneAlarm, which I’ve had quarrels with before, didn’t stoop to such befuddling scare tactics to tout a new product.  

The Demise of the Anti-phishing Toolbar?

Must confess I missed this when it first kicked in, but could it be the nail in the ‘anti-phishing toolbar’ coffin? EarthLink lands a win, according to ZDNet, after being sued by a bank incorrectly flagged as a phishing website:

EarthLink had warned its customers who installed a free “ScamBlocker” toolbar–and visited AssociatedBank.com–that the Web site was “potentially fraudulent” and said that they should “not continue to this potentially risky site.”

The warning was wrong. Associated Bank, headquartered in Green Bay, Wis., with more than 300 locations in the Midwest, operated a legitimate Web site.

EarthLink got off the hook because they bought their list of dodgy websites from a third party. But who? The articles I’ve read don’t mention who it was. And how could the third party have judged a bank to be a phishing website?

I’ve not been a fan of most of these toolbars because I don’t think they do a good job of warning the user of dodgy websites. as my tests a few months back indicated. But to be honest it didn’t occur to me that these toolbars would create false positives. Bizarre.