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The Hackers Parade Marches On

The Hackers Parade Marches On

LulzSec continues its path of pwnage, cracking sites, leaking information and causing general disorder. Its latest gambit is to declare open season on the governments of the world, encouraging hackers everywhere to attack any government system that's convenient. Meanwhile, Nokia looks to the future with hope, RIM looks to the past with pain, and marketers dream of a Web with personalized top-level domains.

Many more verses have been added to the ballad of LulzSec lately. The hacker group has partnered with Anonymous for an agenda of world cyberchaos, vowed revenge on other hackers who disrupted an online gaming network -- this is after Lulz itself shot down a couple of other gaming networks -- and flipped off authorities who claimed to have caught one of their members.

Its attacks do tend to illustrate the many weaknesses in the online security systems we trust with protecting our data, but the group continues to insist it does it all for laughs -- the lulz, as it were.

First, LulzSec dispelled reports that it was engaged in a hacker civil war of sorts with Anonymous, a we-are-not-a-group group of cyberactivists and general pranksters. In fact, the two groups demonstrated a small measure of solidarity to declare war on the world, or at least the world's governments.

They jointly encouraged hackers around the world, regardless of nationality or affiliation, to start chipping away at government servers and other computer systems. They called on hackers to expose data, deface sites, shut down access, whatever it takes -- just grab whatever cybernetic banana peels you can get your hands on and start throwing them under the feet of any official state regime that's convenient. The goal seems to be general leakage and mayhem.

The whole operation smells a little like Wikileaks, last year's hacktivist operation of the moment. But Wikileaks at least appears to follow concepts like regimens and controls. It encourages its supporters to send data to a central source and then trust that the powers that be at Wikileaks will do the right thing with it -- "right" being a debatable term, of course.

LulzSec and Anonymous, on the other hand, seem to be leaning more toward online anarchy, encouraging everyone to act out on their own.

But watch where you point your guns, hackers. As far as LulzSec is concerned, it's open season on government systems, but woe to any and all who target online gaming networks. Like so many other sites recently, the Sega Pass online network fell victim to a hack attack, bleeding user names and passwords all over the place. All eyes fell on LulzSec, but this time the group denied involvement.

In fact, it started tweeting about retribution on those who did attack Sega. This is despite the fact that LulzSec has proudly proclaimed its involvement in several other incidents in which online gaming networks were attacked and brought down. I guess nobody's supposed to beat up on gaming companies without LulzSec's permission.

Of course LulzSec's attention-grabbing nature was sure to grab the attention of law enforcement authorities, especially when it released an anti-government manifesto that encourages acts of cybercrime. An arrest quickly followed that release, and at first it sounded like UK authorities had nabbed an especially high-ranking Lulzer. The 19-year-old man was referred to as a top dog at LulzSec, but the hacker group quickly denied that claim, stating its actual top members were all accounted for and the guy the cops got was at most only mildly associated with the group.

Law enforcers are presumably continuing the hunt as more websites fall to LulzSec's attacks. An FBI raid in which feds reportedly confiscated entire racks of servers slowed down or shut down several legit sites recently, and it's rumored that the move was part of a LulzSec investigation.

But even though Lulz and its confederates are waving a finger right in the Man's face, cybercrime law enforcement is stretched incredibly thin at the moment. As damaging as LulzSec's attacks might be, state-sponsored cyberattacks coming from larger and even more organized groups operating on behalf of enemy nations are an even bigger worry for many countries' governments, so it's possible LulzSec could evade authorities for quite a while.


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The Way Things Might Have Been and the Way They Will Be

When Nokia announced it was going to start building Windows phones, it didn't say it was going to have them ready to go right away. That kind of change in direction takes a long time to really sink into a company's product line. It'll come along eventually, but don't hold your breath.

Meanwhile, Nokia remains a phone maker, and thus it must make phones. It doesn't matter whether people buy them; it just has to keep pumping them out -- otherwise, it has a serious existential crisis on its hands. And that's the kind of situation that leads us to the Nokia N9, the company's latest handset.

The N9 is perhaps the victim of unfortunate timing, since it's coming out right in the middle of Nokia's transitional period. That's not to say the phone's hardware is shoddy; like a lot of the stuff at Nokia's top end, the hardware here looks pretty nice. There's an 8 megapixel camera with a wide-angle Carl Zeiss lens, and it can store up to 64 GB of data. Design-wise, things look really interesting. The chassis' carved out of a single piece of polycarbonate, and the screen is slightly curved. No interface buttons, either; everything right down to the homescreen is found by swiping the touchscreen.

The problem is that it runs on an inconvenient operating system. The N9 is built for the MeeGo mobile OS. It's the first MeeGo handset out there, as a matter of fact, but given Nokia's set-in-stone commitment to Microsoft and WinPho7, it might also represent one of the last times Nokia has anything to do with MeeGo.

MeeGo was at one point set to be Nokia's golden-boy mobile OS, appearing on the company's top-of-the-line phones and perhaps even some tablets. But ever since the deal with Microsoft, it seems MeeGo's been brushed aside as far as Nokia's priorities are concerned. Of course, some of Nokia's MeeGo-based gadgets had been in development for a while when the company changed courses with its OS, and at one point there were rumors it would scrap all its MeeGo projects entirely. Obviously it did not do that; maybe things were just too far along to save money by giving up.

Don't bet on Nokia one day rolling out some kind of nuke-and-pave update for the N9 that'll magically turn it into a Windows Phone. WinPho demands a few physical interface buttons; the N9 has none. Still, there could be some benefits to this for Nokia. Without any real commitment to the future of the platform, the company's free to just go crazy with it, try out new features and functions, test unusual ideas, experiment. Maybe some of that innovation will find a permanent home in Windows Phone 7.

As for buyers, some may pick up an N9 because it looks cool and they're not too concerned with OS longevity. Some may be developers and other geeky types who just want to see what Nokia was able to do with MeeGo out of their own curiosity. Others may be best advised to think twice. When you buy a smartphone, you're investing in the future of its operating system. If that OS gets updated regularly, is kept secure, and gets a steady stream of new apps coming in all the time, then that's a good investment. Even if you switch phones, it's good to be able to stick with the same solid OS you're used to -- and for which you've already bought all this software. But it seems there's little, if any, future for MeeGo with Nokia.

And none of this means MeeGo itself is necessarily dead in the water. It has support from a lot of vendors, including Intel, which partnered on its creation. If any hardware makers are interested in getting together with it, MeeGo is very much single and looking. But regardless of whether anyone takes an interest or it just shrivels up and blows away in the wind, without the world's biggest handset maker at its back, MeeGo will likely never be the mobile OS it could have been.

That sounds sad. It kind of paints a gloomy picture for Nokia, having to kill MeeGo in the cradle like that, but not before it had to put all that love and attention into it. But don't worry; CEO Stephen Elop is still in the mood to clown around with reporters a little.

Just after the N9 was revealed, Nokia got a roomful of journalists together and Elop took the stage. Then he told them -- 100 percent deadpan -- to please put away cameras and recording devices because he's about to show them something super-confidential and he didn't want to see it out in the blogosphere. Nobody laughed at him because I guess they were trying to be polite, or maybe they were just shocked. Either way, I kind of like this guy's sense of humor.

The video that inevitably emerged from that press conference -- which definitely does not look like it was taken with a phone cam someone managed to hide in a shirt pocket or something -- reveals that the company's first Windows Phone 7 handset, code-named the "Sea Ray," looks a whole lot like the N9. That could be a good sign, because the N9 looks pretty slick. Still no word on the release date, though.

RIM Goes Dim

Research In Motion is going through a very upsetting episode of flashbacks ever since it released its latest quarterly earnings report. It's being thrust back to the days of 2006, and while that may have been a much more pleasant time for the company, it's not so great when that blast from the past comes in the form of your stock price hitting a five-year low.

Investors began jumping ship in droves just after RIM reported earnings that missed Wall Street estimates by around 85 percent -- 75 cents per share instead of the $1.40 analysts had pegged it on. Next quarter's guidance doesn't look so hot either: $4.2 to $4.8 billion rather than the expected $5.5 billion. Shares dipped well below $30 on that news. The slide wasn't due to the work of a bunch of skittish individual day-traders, either. Jarislowsky Fraser, one of the company's biggest investors, cut its stake in half. A week later, shares have perked up to around $29, possibly helped by reports that RIM has begun handing out pink slips to cut costs, and rumors that it could be targeted for acquisition.

The pain RIM's going through now is largely based on the fact that the company hasn't changed enough in the last half-decade. BlackBerry devices used to be on the cutting edge of mobile technology, competing with the likes of Palm and Windows Mobile. Since then, Palm got bought up by HP and WinMo wrapped itself in a cocoon to emerge as Windows Phone 7. It remains to be seen whether either of those platforms can regain the kind of foothold they once held.

But RIM soldiered on, in part because enterprises continued to buy BlackBerries by the truckload. The BlackBerry's designed for top-notch enterprise security, so IT departments built entire systems around serving the platform.

Then iPhone came along riding the momentum of the iPod, and Google took the opportunity to build something similar, though crucially different, with Android. Both platforms turned into giant parties for developers, who came to build apps that were useful to more people than just techies and workaholics.

Apple put its weight behind a single hardware design, Android opened the doors to all phone makers who wanted in, and the two played off each other to eventually change the smartphone into something attractive to a wide swath of consumers, not just uber-geeks and people whose jobs keep them on an electronic leash all the time.

While all this was going on, RIM just kind of kept doing what it had always been doing -- selling a lot of phones to businesses. It's taken stabs here and there at the consumer side of the market, opened an app store that didn't get nearly as much action as the other two, and even tried to follow the touchscreen crowd, though its first attempts there more or less flopped.

So far it's seemed unable to compete with the rapid hardware advances seen in the handful of new Androids that hit the market month after month, or the swanky new iPhones that arrive year after year. Its last major release was 2010's Torch, which was harshly criticized for its wimpy processor and relatively low-res screen. Since then it's concentrated on updating the Curve, a line that's been around since 2007. The tablet trend hasn't passed RIM by, but its entry there, the PlayBook, still doesn't have native email support, and email is supposed to be a BlackBerry core strength.

Maybe all of that wouldn't have mattered so much if RIM's enterprise base remained rock-solid. But with all those consumer-friendly phones in the hands of people who bought them out of pocket because they actually like them, many corporate IT departments began letting other platforms onto their systems.

The Wall Street wallop RIM just took was years in the making, but the company still has a future to focus on. There's a new phone on its horizon, the Bold 9900, which will have a gutsy processor and 4G wireless. More importantly, it's transitioning its OS to QNX, which will better allow it to compete with platforms like iOS and Android. In a way it's kind of like Nokia -- two companies going through painful metamorphoses to catch up with markets they once ruled.

Who Will Hold Hulu?

Those who love Hulu love it because of its flexibility. It's like a DVR you don't even have to program. You can watch tons of TV shows, cue it up any time day or night, pause to take a break, and rewind to catch a joke you missed.

But content providers, the ones who actually make the shows, want Hulu to be equally flexible for them. They want to dictate detailed terms about how long a show may be available, how much of their library may be accessed, how many commercials should run during breaks, and what comes up on the free version versus what comes up on the paid channel, Hulu Plus. And then comes the part about whether a show can play only on the desktop computer version of Hulu or whether it can also play on other platforms like Hulu for PlayStation or the iPhone app.

In trying to cater to all these different demands and pressures from its various content providers, which in many cases are also its owners, Hulu is like a restaurant where none of the three chefs can agree on how to serve anything on the menu. Customers keep walking in, but they never know if the Pad Thai tonight is going to come out the same way as the Pad Thai from last week.

So it seems those owners -- NBC, ABC and Fox, as well as Providence Equity Partners -- wouldn't mind washing their hands of Hulu completely. It might be beneficial for all involved to sell the whole enterprise to an outside company that can contract with content providers and act as a single, central manager rather than this manage-by-committee system Hulu's been under so far.

Presently, Yahoo is among the most talked-about candidates. That would definitely give Yahoo a very large footprint in online TV. Despite the internal strife Hulu's been experiencing, it still has a growing subscriber base and remains one of the top destinations for legit online TV viewing, along with Netflix.

Netflix has bigger subscriber numbers, but it typically only makes TV shows available for streaming once they've been released to DVD. Hulu puts shows on the Web as early as the day after they air on broadcast, so if Yahoo can figure out a way to effectively manage licensing, it could have an advantage with that.

There may be other suitors willing to fight for Hulu. Wireless carriers come to mind -- their attempts so far to create their own TV platforms to bring content to mobile phones have been somewhat limp. Mostly they've just been data mules for online entertainment -- they fetch downloads and carry streams, but they don't sell a whole lot themselves. Having an established channel with lots of content could be a shortcut there, though the buyer would have to be careful in deciding who can and who can't access the service.

ICANN Haz Unique TLD?

The Supreme Overlords of the Internet over at ICANN have some big changes in store for how websites are named, and it could mean the term "dot com" will soon sound almost as dated as a dial-up modem.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers has approved a plan focused on gTLDs, or generic top-level domains. Those are the suffixes you see on every website address -- .com, .edu, .gov, and so on. Presently, there are only 22 of those dot-whatevers on the books. But starting next January, any website will be able to use any word in any language instead of a generic TLD.

Now your URL can be anything you want it to be. HP could be www.hp.computers, Shell can be Shell.oil, Tyson Foods can be Tyson.foodlumps, or anything else a crack team of marketers can dream up. Some established websites that have already branded the ".com" in their names may want to stand pat on this one, but they won't have to. Buy.com could be Buy.buy if it really thinks it's necessary.

This sounds like it could be a bonanza for cybersquatters, so ICANN built in a pretty high barrier for entry: If you want to register a unique TLD, it's going to cost you $185,000, and you have to convince ICANN you have a good reason for owning whatever name you're after.

That's not a guarantee there won't be a lot of deception out there, though, not to mention confusion. Smart Internet users already know to beware of sites with hinky-sounding URLs that look like off-kilter versions of a legit company's address -- b0fa.us with a zero instead of an O, stuff like that. Marketers may like the idea of using any catchphrase as a complete Web address, but that plan backfires each time a legit company tries to draw in a user who ends up running away because the URL looks scammy.


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