Internet Story: 06 May 1999
UK Free ISPs Next Wave Well things have really heated up during the last few days in the UK's unique ISP climate. Last week the high street consumer electronic retailer Tempo announced its free ISP offering, similar to Dixon's Freeserve. Screaming.Net, as their service is called, also adds a slight twist - free calls during the evening if you are in the catchement area of Localtel (South England). Yesterday was an action packed day for announcements. BSkyB announced that as of 1June1999 it will be offering free ISP riding on the back of it's Digital TV offering - could mean faster downloads if done via satellite (though upload speeds will remain tied to the phone line). The best deal of all (as far as I'm concerned) came from AOL - in what appears to have been a leak, AOL is preparing to offer a service of unlimited connection to the Net for £14.99/month using an 0800 (FREE) phone number. Details of the AOL service are scant, though it is believed that they intend to make an announcement next week. If this means that one can have an ISDN connection to AOL alive all the time for this price it will revolutionize UK e-commerce business and internet access in general. In another possibly exciting announcement yesterday, NTL, a little known but quite pervasive network infrastructure provider, announced that it will provide high-speed (512k) access via cable modems for £40/month (plus setup & line rental) - no details of coverage as yet. Today Barclays Bank opened its free ISP, Barclays.Net, (3 weeks later than advertised) with online banking. Also [fx: pauses for breath], new free ISP, Sniff Out opened this week with an online shopping directory. We should see some interesting time in the next few weeks!
Search Engines get better? We all know just how naff that the big search engines can be. They throw up thousands of results for our searches and your lucky if you find anything of much use. Recently several attempts have been made to correct this obvious defect. It started out with what are called Meta Search engines. These engines will submit your queries to a variety of "real" search engines and aggregate the results returned. They are often much more successful in finding results than just one search engine alone, though they still suffer to some extent from the same problems. In a recent study by Computers in Libraries magazine they looked at meta search engines and concluded that SavvySearch (for its breadth) and ProFusion (for its options) were the best of the bunch. I must admit to almost always using SavvySearch these days - it has improved in leaps and bounds from the clunky site and engine it was last year. The more exciting news for us web searchers is the development of new search algorithms. Two attempts at this have seen light in the last few months. Google (as I reported back in December) made a step forward in trying to rank site placements in results returned according how much they are linked to by other sites: a sort of popularity ranking. This week has seen the announcement of another search engine technology: FAST, founded in Norway in 1997. They promise to be the most comprehensive search engine ever. FAST runs on a very scalable network of small computers (Dell's) rather than a single huge machine or small cluster of machines like the major search engines. It already has 80 million sites indexed and plans to have over 200 million sites this summer - AltaVista, the largest at the moment, indexes 150 million. At the moment there are about 500 million sites on the Net - so still some way to go yet. Let's hope that David Burns, president of FAST, does a better job with FAST than his previous employer Lycos!
As a small aside to the above - see how search engine technology has spawned a new "industrial espionage" industry in this Forbes article.
Web Design for Disabled Yesterday the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) issued the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines which have been in draft form for several months now (we committed to using this standard at the beginning of April and we are slowly redesigning Pendle.Net to conform as much a possible). These guidelines have been developed so that websites may be designed so that disabled people are not inadvertently excluded from participating in the Web. The idea is to make sure that with the increasing use of images, video and sound online, Web sites do not exclude users around the world who have vision, hearing and other disabilities. It may well become the law in the US that federal sites will have to comply with these guidelines.
We Need Strong Encryption Back to that old chestnut the politics of encryption. A few days, at Eurocrypt 99, ago Adi Shamir (a world renowned expert on encryption - the "S" in RSA) told the world about a new, inexpensive (~$5000) device he has designed using opto-electronics that will be able to crack encryption keys that are up to 512 bits long quite quickly. Now although the device (named "Twinkle") has not been built yet (as far as we know) it won't be long before it is. Only last year the EFF showed that cracking an industry standard DES encryption key (equivalent to 384 bit RSA key) could be done in just over 22 hours. These items in themselves are enough to make it obvious that e-commerce NEEDS strong encryption. If 512 bit keys can easily be cracked soon then it won't be long before criminals will be "sniffing" the wires servicing the Net and pulling off not only credit card details but confidential commercial secrets too. So what's stopping us all taking up strong encryption straight away? It's certainly not a technological issue - keys of 1024 bits, 2048 bits and beyond are readily available. It is governments: primarily the US government. They have an overwhelming fear that they will loose control of us all by not being able to eavesdrop on our communications. Their excuse is that criminals will be able to hide their communications if strong encryption was legitimized. As if criminals will NOT use strong encryption because it's illegal! Just which planet do these government people live on! It certainly is Earth!
There's a useful table of times and memory it would take to crack different key lengths at the RSA site. Looks like even with Twinkle the 1024+ bit keys are safe for while yet.
Raise Money for Cystic Fibrosis If you want to put your money where your mouth is and tell the world which operating system you think is best then go along and donate $1 to Cystic Fibrosis - your entrance fee to joining the OS war. Well it would have been a good idea if they accepted credit cards (or micropayments) but it's a check to Tennessee :-( Still it's an idea we may adopt on Pendle.Net one day. Visit the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
Irate with technology? If you, like me, get really frustrated with some of this "low" technology that we get palmed off with by the likes of Microsoft and Intel (and many more!) then take heart - we're not alone. For amusement only, take a listen to some of the irate calls made to technical support lines in the past.
Andrew Stringer, © Pendle.Net Ltd, 1999
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