TBTF for 1999-02-15: Dark skies
T a s t y B i t s f r o m t h e T e c h n o l o g y F r o n t
Timely news of the bellwethers in computer and communications
technology that will affect electronic commerce -- since 1994
Your Host: Keith Dawson
This issue: < http://tbtf.com/archive/1999-02-15.html >
C o n t e n t s
Eolas sues Microsoft over patent covering ActiveX
Protests over high telecomm costs spread
Open Source gets mainstream boosts
Ganging up on Microsoft
Microsoft and Java
Attention Mr. Boies
Be Inc. debunks Microsoft claims
How Microsoft leverages education grants
Toward the optical transistor
Cracking RSA easier than factoring?
Space mirror breaks
Beating down an urban legend
..Eolas sues Microsoft over patent covering ActiveX
Injunction sought to stop "manufacture, use, and sale" of MSIE,
Win95, and Win98
On 2 February, a small company you have probably never heard of (un-
less you've read TBTF since 1995 ), sued Microsoft in federal
court for patent infringement. Eolas  wants an injunction stop-
ping Microsoft from manufacturing or selling Internet Explorer, Win-
dows 95, and Windows 98. (Windows NT was not mentioned, perhaps be-
cause Microsoft does not claim the IE browser as an integral part
of it.) TBTF covered Eolas in August 1995  when the company com-
pleted negotiations with the University of California for the com-
mercial rights to the then-pending patent. Here is a copy of the
Eolas press release  from that time.
Patent number 5,838,906  had been filed in October 1994 and is-
sued on 17 November last year. It makes broad claims that cover Web
technologies from ActiveX to Java applets to browser plug-ins. The
patent cites 32 items of non-patent prior art -- quite a few for a
software patent, and a crude indication that it may not be a trivial
patent to bust -- including references to OLE, OpenDoc, the Cello
and Mosaic browsers, and a 1992 Tim Berners-Lee paper on the WWW.
The best coverage of this story was in the Industry Standard ,
which bothered to get comments from the Eolas lawyers and from Mi-
crosoft; everyone else just ran with the press release . The
Standard notes that the suit probably won't even be heard for two
years, given the congestion in the Chicago court.
Robert Cringely took the Eolas patent story in a novel speculative
direction early last December . He suggested that Microsoft could
do an exclusive deal with Eolas for rights under the patent, and
then use the company as a stalking-horse to take out Netscape, Sun,
and the Department of Justice. Could have happened that way. Eolas's
founder and lead inventor Michael Doyle would not comment on the
company's reasons for going after only Microsoft. Cringely says that
Microsoft can't claim ignorance of Doyle's work:
> These guys showed working applets and plug-ins in their en-
> hanced version of Mosaic to NCSA, Microsoft, and Sun a couple
> of years before any similar products like Navigator 2.0 or
> Java appeared on the market. It's not like these outfits can
> claim to have developed their products ignorant of Eolas'
Thanks to Doug Pardee for the prod on this story. He has earned
a field promotion to TBTF Irregular by providing links not only
to press coverage of the suit, but also to the Cringely column 
and to TBTF's own original 1995 coverage . Well done.
..Protests over high telecomm costs spread
8-nation strike credited with forcing France Telecom's hand
Beginning late last year, Internet users in countries with regulated
telephony infrastructures have been striking for lower access char-
ges. In the latest such boycott on 31 January, users in eight Euro-
pean countries (Swizerland, Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal, France,
Belgium, and Poland) stayed off the Net . Traffic reportedly
dropped as much as 80% for that day in Spain and Portugal . The
strike is credited with convincing France Telecom to promise a flat-
rate fee for local calls to Internet-access numbers, subject to reg-
ulatory approval .
Calls for a Brazilian strike on 13 January were covered here 
but received little attention in other Net media. Andre Uratsuka
Manoel <andre at insite dot com dot br> reports that on that day
some 3% of users boycotted the Net, but that the long-lasting ef-
fects of the strike may come from ISPs who used its publicity to
run promotions and to lobby the phone companies for lower connec-
The German national telephone company Deutsche Telekom announced
plans to cut charges after a December strike . Earlier, Spanish
carrier Telefonica had promised to cut prices after 40 percent of
users stayed offline in the first strike last fall.
..Open Source gets mainstream boosts
Gartner Group and Scientific American take Open Source seriously
The Gartner Group advises  IT professionals in mid-sized enter-
prises how to go about adopting and evaluating Linux in their org-
anizations. The advise strikes me as sensible and conservative --
Gartner says that only adventurous early adopters should be relying
on Linux at this point. Linux community commentary on Slashdot 
is mixed; some firebrands think Gartner just doesn't get it, while
cooler heads appreciate the implied mainstream endorsement for the
Open Source OS.
Meanwhile, this month's Scientific American brings still broader
recognition to the Open Source movement in its Cyber View column
. Paul Wallich covers ground familiar to readers of TBTF and
concludes with a novel speculation:
> An open-software revolution could lead to yet another divide
> between haves and have-nots: those with the skills and con-
> nections to make use of free software, and those who must
> pay high prices for increasingly dated commercial offerings.
..Ganging up on Microsoft
..Microsoft and Java
Last November the judge in the Sun-Microsoft lawsuit over the terms
of the Java license granted Sun a preliminary injunction  that
requires Microsoft to provide Sun's Java Native Interface to the
Visual J++ development tool. Late last month Microsoft issued a
patch complying with the order . The company revved its Service
Pack 4 for Windows NT -- some are calling it SP4a now -- to include
a new Java Virtual Machine and to make Internet Explorer compatible
with the JNI.
But while complying with the court order, Microsoft is exploring
alternatives that include abandoning Java altogether. The company
has briefed outside developers on a language code-named Cool ,
whose goals sound remarkably like those of Java, except for the
cross-platform bits. And Microsoft is said to be planning to orphan
its Visual J++ product after its current release .
Microsoft says  it is exploring such an idea but that no coders
are working on the Cool language.
Earlier this month, Microsoft asked the trial judge for permission
to create a Java alternative that would not be bound by Sun compati-
bility tests. Judge Ronald Whyte termed the idea "very interesting."
He has yet to rule on it.
..Attention Mr. Boies
Lloyd Wood writes with an arresting passage he turned up deep with-
in a patent  issued to Microsoft:
> It should be understood by those skilled in the art that
> a web browser, such as NETSCAPE NAVIGATOR or INTERNET
> EXPLORER, which is separate from the operating system,
> may be used in the implementation of steps discussed
> herein that involve the operating system.
For those who have spent the last year in an isolation tank safe
from the trials of the two Bills, Microsoft has insisted in its
antitrust trial that Internet Explorer is and always has been an
inextricable and necessary part of the Windows operating system.
..Be Inc. debunks Microsoft claims
The two sides in the Microsoft trial, limited to twelve witnesses
each, are finding creative ways to present additional lines of
argument within this limit. They may cite some company's practices
as bolstering their side of the case, based on product documenta-
tion, company Web sites, or press reports. Microsoft has held up
the example of Be, Inc., which it says chose to integrate its Web
browser with BeOS, as validating Microsoft's own decision to tie
Internet Explorer closely to Windows. Be, however, is one little
company that won't sit still for this practice. Be's president
Jean-Louis Gassee has written an open letter  disavowing Micro-
..How Microsoft leverages education grants
Reader Carl Gunther <cgunther at ix dot netcom dot com> forwards the
lead article from the 1 February newsletter for Cerritos Community
College in Norwalk, CA, near Los Angeles. It announces the school's
receipt of a $250K Working Connections Grant from Microsoft. In the
program funded by this grant, faculty members achieve Microsoft
certification and help students to do the same. (The article also
mentions Novell certification among the program's goals, but it does
not appear that Microsoft's money funds any faculty credentialing in
competing technologies.) The article goes on to describe the $500K
California state grant that tops a $12M fund drive by the community
college. Microsoft has apparently managed by its small grant to
channel the direction of this much larger pool of state and private
funds. Whoever is running Microsoft's college grants program won big
at Cerritos Community College.
..Toward the optical transistor
Researchers at Sandia Labs have devised a photonic crystal operat-
ing at 1.5 microns, the preferred wavelength for light traveling
down optical fibers . A photonic crystal is to light what a
semiconductor is to electrons: a building block for an optical
transistor. Such a device could switch a light beam trillions of
times per second or could act as a low-power nanolaser.
..Cracking RSA easier than factoring?
Science News for 6 February (only the references are online )
spotlights research by a Stanford mathematician and a Microsoft
employee indicating that breaking the RSA algorithm may not be as
hard as factoring. The mathematician, Dan Boneh, recently published
a survey of 20 years of attacks on RSA , concluding that when
properly implemented the cryptosystem is secure. In the featured
research (abstract at , gzip'ed PostScript at ), Boneh and
R. Venkatesan suggest an explanation for the lack of progress in
proving that breaking RSA is equivalent to factoring: at least for
low-exponent RSA, factoring is harder. But the researchers note that
an effective attack on RSA is most likely still computationally in-
feasible. Thanks to Lewis A. Shadoff, PhD <lshadoff at brazosport
dot cc dot tx dot us> for pointing me toward this story hours before
my own subscription copy of Science News arrived.
..Space mirror breaks
TBTF for 1999-08-24  derided this surpassingly hare-brained idea
the Russians had: orbiting a huge mirror and using it to light up
square miles of Siberia (or anywhere else where it is night). The
mission was scheduled to launch last November and finally got off
the ground in January . But the mirror didn't unfurl ; seems
it got entangled with the supply ship's antenna. Nocturnal crea-
tures everywhere are sighing in relief.
When I posted the above story as a Tasty Bit of the Day, Steve
Baker <ice at mama dot indstate dot edu> wrote in to note that
such a mirror could be used for
> illuminating a city that has just suffered through a massive
> earthquake, where the power is off (because turning it on
> will cause major uncontrollable fires) and being able to see
> clearly at night could possibly help rescue operations con-
..Beating down an urban legend
With extremely stiff upper lips
TBTF for 1999-01-26  reported that a widely circulated story out
of the Pacific Rim was a joke -- the head of China's Y2K effort did
not order airline executives onto commercial flights on 2000-01-01.
The next issue followed up with a surmise  that this story
has already achieved urban-legend status after a reader's husband
reported hearing it applied to British Airways. TBTF Irregular-in-
Training Judith Haran forwards this story  in the Sunday Times
for 1999-01-31. If the story is to be believed, the British are more
Confucian than the Chinese.
But Mike Shiels, who works for British Air, sent the following
seemingly official statement taken from BA's private intranet site.
> BA'S POSITION: Our Directors and managers are quite prepared
> to fly over the millennium period but no such directive or
> order to fly has been issued by the British Airways Board.
> Our programme for the period has yet to be finalised and it is
> still too early, 11 months out, to say who will be where and
> when and who will be on duty.
> Rest assured British Airways will fly at the beginning of
> January 2000 and beyond, where there is consumer demand and,
> as ever, where it is safe.
Sure, these are marketing guys who posted this; and even paranoids
have enemies. But let's let this story get some rest now, ok folks?
Don't you just hate it when your camera explodes?
Kodak is recalling  a line of AC adapters that they supplied as
an optional accessory to their DC25, DC40, DC50, and DC120 digital
cameras. If these AC adapters, manufactured by ELPAC Electronics,
Inc., are not fully plugged into the digital camera when recharging
the batteries, they can cause the batteries to overheat, leak acid,
or even explode. The model numbers of the recalled adapters are
2534, 2457, MI2008, and M42008.
Shovelling against the tide of global light pollution
Chet Raymo writes an evocative column  on the loss to the world
caused by light pollution. The excess light spilling into space from
our technological society not only hobbles professional astronomers,
Raymo argues, but also impoverishes all of the human race. It does
not have to be so. IDA, the International Dark-Sky Association ,
promotes the use of energy-efficient, non-polluting outdoor light-
ing and works for the passage of laws mandating the use of such fix-
tures. (An example is this law  being considered in Wyoming.)
This IDA page  links numerous sobering satellite photos of the
nighttime earth. (I wish they would tell us how big each picture is,
though.) Here are the US  (31K) and Europe  (21K).
S o u r c e s
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Layer of ash separates morning and evening milk.
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