Bits & Bytes

10 YEARS AGO
In the April 1995 issue of ADT, Noah Ross, advanced technology VP at Cap Gemini America, advised readers of the Industry Insider column to start planning for Y2K. Fixing those apps that are stuck in the 1900s is not a complex problem, but it’s massive and pervasive, he wrote. His advice: “First, don’t wait. Second, get help.”

In “Operating Systems: The Critical Development Link Between Hardware, Software,” Dan Kara, ADT’s technical editor, noted that software has “usurped” hardware when developers decide what tools to use. The reason is that development tools often exceed the cost of a development workstation. Kara went on to critique common PC operating systems based on whether they were appropriate platforms for developing distributed systems. “Two factors mitigate against the unbounded success of Windows 95,” Kara wrote. “The first is that it will be a version 1.0 product, and many developers…will be unwilling to act as beta testers. The second is that Windows 95 is limited to Intel platforms.”

Editor John Desmond opined in his monthly editorial that the growing acceptance of Microsoft Visual spelled troubled days ahead for vendors of COBOL-based software unless they acted quickly. “The introduction of 32-bit OO COBOL on PCs by MicroFocus…and the strides of Netron to produce tools that enable high reusability of COBOL components are two examples of what has to happen for COBOL programming to be either an attractive career path for young people or a viable continuing career for the experienced.”

NOTHING BUT NET
TalkToAliens.com has set up what it calls the Intergalactic Communication System, which it says will allow anyone with about five bucks to transmit phone into deep space. To reach the system’s Intergalactic Transmitter, dial (900) 226-0300, speak your message, which is transmitted live into space by a 10.5-foot parabolic dish antenna. The service costs about $4 per minute. TalktoAliens.com says it’s developing ways to also beam e-mails, instant messages, photos and video camera feeds into space.

TECH AT WORK
New Haven, Conn., officials are using BootFinder to track people who haven’t paid automobile excise taxes. The BootFinder system, which consists of a handheld infrared camera connected to a laptop, scans license plates and compares them against a database of citizens with outstanding fines or taxes. According to reports, New Haven has towed approximately 1,800 cars and recovered more than $1 million in late taxes since the system was implemented in September. The city sends scofflaws five warnings by phone or mail before it gets the hook out and seizes a car.

BootFinder is also being used in Arlington County, Va., and has collected more than $90,000 in unpaid car and property taxes. Arlington County officials recently expanded the program to target anyone who has unpaid fees for parks and recreation to overdue library books.

PEARLS OF WISDOM
“Because there is no process on earth where the requirements don’t change, and if you’re in a waterfall process, they probably change by the time you get to implementation. So you pretty much need to start refactoring as soon as you finish.”
Peter Scott, president of programming consultancy Pacific Systems Design Technology and author of Perl Medic: Transforming Legacy Code

THE NEW-NEW THING
It doesn’t have all that much to do with IT, but we couldn’t resist showing readers the latest in new-new things from Segway. The company has introduced new versions of its Human Transporter, including the Segway Cross-Terrain Transporter and the Segway Golf Transporter.

Both models are designed for traveling off-pavement environments. They feature lithium-ion batteries, larger tires and sturdy fender frames and fenders to protect riders from debris. The Segway GT is perfect for the avid golfer who’s looking to speed up his or her game. It features a golf bag carrier, enhanced-traction tires, lithium-ion batteries and a unique standby key that enables the unit to stay powered on as the rider makes his or her shot.

You can buy either one for about $4,500 or roughly the equivalent of 90 to 100 rounds of golf cart fees.

FUN WITH TAXES
The Federal Bureau of Investigation finally rang the death toll on its problematic computer system, which was supposed to help its agents investigate terrorism.

Robert Mueller, director of the FBI, made the announcement before a panel of the House Appropriations Committee. The troublesome program, called the Virtual Case System, cost $170 million and was supposed to be the third and last stage of a $581 million effort to overhaul the agency’s obsolete computer systems.

The goal of Virtual Case System was to offer FBI agents counter-terrorism information collected in real time from interviews and surveillance. Agents currently have to manually enter, print, sign and scan this information into an investigative data warehouse. As a result, agents may not be able to share this information for days. The project’s importance was reinforced after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

The FBI had been working with contractor Science Application International to implement the system, but the system has been plagued with technical, management and scheduling problems, making it obsolete even before it was finished. The news of the project’s end wasn’t a surprise, just an expensive one. There were rumblings back in January that the FBI was thinking of canceling it. The project’s delays led to investigations by the GAO and lawmakers.

According to testimony, Mueller said it will take more than three years and an unknown amount of money to replace the Virtual Case File system. The new project would likely be implemented in four stages and be a modern, flexible system from mostly off-the-shelf software.

WEB WATCH
Mozilla’s Firefox is holding its own against Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, according to One-Stat.com, an Amsterdam-based Web analytical company. Internet Explorer controls the global browser market with an 87 percent share, about a 2 percent decrease since November, followed by Firefox with an 8 percent share, although One-Stat.com reports that Internet Explorer 5 users are now switching to Firefox rather than upgrading to Internet Explorer 6.

Apple’s Safari (1.21 percent), Netscape (1.11 percent) and Opera (1.09 percent) round out OneStat.com’s browser usage report.

Meanwhile, Firefox has lost ground to Internet Explorer since its November release, according to WebSideStory, a San Diego-based on-demand Web analytical company. Firefox grew 0.74 percent in usage share to 6 percent from January to February, a slight decrease from its 1 percent growth in November. Internet Explorer continued its dominance with a 90 percent share from January to February.

WebSideStory says Mozilla claims there’s been 25 million downloads of Firefox in the first 100 days. WebSideStory defines usage as the number of people who download, install and use Firefox to view Web sites the firm tracks.

Firefox’s slowing usage could be attributed to two causes: It’s moved beyond the early adopter stage and has been slowed by concerns about potential security holes. Back in December, WebSideStory expected Firefox to reach 10 percent by mid-2005, but with the latest growth rates, Firefox will reach that share target by year’s end.

OBVIOUS
Here’s a shocker. ChoicePoint dropped the idea of selling personal information about consumers to small businesses after criminals busted into its databases.

ChoicePoint recently disclosed that the Social Security numbers, driver’s licenses, credit reports and other personal information of approximately 145,000 Americans may have been accessed by criminals posing as legitimate businesses. The company learned of the security breach in October but postponed the announcement because California authorities asked ChoicePoint to protect the fraud investigation.

ChoicePoint’s databases contain 19 billion public records, including driving records and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s lists of wanted criminals.

Meanwhile, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Trade Commission have opened formal inquiries on ChoicePoint. The SEC is investigating the stock sales by its top executives, Chairman and CEO Derek Smith and Chief Operating Officer Doug Curling, for earning a combined $16.6 million in profits through the sales of ChoicePoint shares during the period the company knew about the breach and before the news was made public. The FTC is investigating ChoicePoint’s compliance with federal laws governing consumer information.

Since 2000, ChoicePoint has been involved in at least 11 lawsuits involving possible misappropriation of information.

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