It is becoming increasingly impossible for casual users to maintain their PC’s and workstations. While the most glaring culprit is Windows XP, virtually any modern operating system can provide a variety of configuration pitfalls.
At the top of the list is the current trend in firewalling, it seems a year ago only the Linux users were running firewalls and now nearly every product you install on your Windows workstation includes a firewall. This can make things especially daunting when you are looking to actually circumvent this protection. A great example is trying to open a bi-directional port through a firewalled cable modem router to your firewalled PC, in fact this invariably requires a connection to a firewalled server at the other end.
Not only do you have to get the port correct on the router, but you also have to reconfigure the services acting as firewalls on your Windows workstation to allow this protocol. While it is certainly beneficial that Microsoft has integrated a firewall with Windows XP SP2, they could have delivered this differently to customers.
Other vendors are even more guilty in this regard, simply installing an anti-virus package on your computer can introduce another firewall on your network interface. While all of this protection is beneficial, it comes at a price to the user.
For the most part, Linux has had this figured out for quite some time. The operating system kernel is responsible for the filtering, and a number of front-end solutions can be used to configure rules for the firewall. While the rules can be specified differently and even managed from different applications, the settings only affect iptables filtering rules. Microsoft is headed in this direction, and vendors for other modern operating systems should consider these examples.
We have recently upgraded to Voice Over IP (VoIP). This technology allows you to route telephone calls over the Internet using TCP/IP, usually a Terminal Adapter (TA) is provided that can plug into a standard telephone. The TA simulates a traditional dialtone, and your voice calls will continue to work in much the same way as they always have. After installing the terminal adapter, simply plug your old phone into the adapter and you can start making phone calls.
Needless to say, like anything new there are moderate imperfections with this technology. At the top of the list is the inability for VoIP to carry modem data. While this might sound unnecessary, you should carefully review the devices in your home before deciding to try this. Some of the hardware to be wary of includes fax machines, TiVo, home alarm systems and any special purpose device that requires access to a phone to download data. For example, my wife is a real estate agent and her Supra device requires a nightly call to sync a special key.
If you have a device that requires a phone, you should first determine if there is a networked equivalent to that same technology. For receiving faxes, take a look at a free service like K7 that provides you a fax number and sends these faxes to your email address. For TiVo owners, the 9th Tee site provides an upgrade to connect your Series 1 TiVo to a LAN, which will obivate the need to make a nightly call.
In the few cases where there are no alternatives, you may be forced to delay adoption of this technology. Packet8 is promising improved support for modems in the near future, and while other VoIP providers have not mentioned this yet it seems likely they will all need to provide some dialup solution.
Microsoft has recently unveiled a revamped MSN Search that is clearly targeted at unseating the industry leading Google search engine. MSN Search is a pleasant interface that is very capable of returning comparable results, but is it a Google-killer?
There is some history to web oriented search technology that is worth reviewing at this point.
Before Google the search engine of choice was AltaVista. To some extent, this was a showcase for Digital to demonstrate the capability of the DEC Alpha platform, but ultimately they were able to finance enough hard drive storage to index millions of pages. Since WebCrawler was without money, they simply couldn’t compete and AltaVista became the engine of choice.
So AltaVista improved on WebCrawler by indexing enough sites to make the search interesting, and Google improved on this again by providing enough relevancy in the results. So one might wonder, what improvement is MSN Search trying to implement? Maybe there are no problems left to solve and web search engines are without room for improvement. The modern full-text indexing engine is adept at finding relevant results, and both of these companies have enough money to buy the computing resources they might need to index the entire web.
Needless to say, there are similar arguments that can be made for other computing applications. For example, after the advent of the modern wordprocessor there has since been very little motivation for consumers to pursue upgrades. In the beginning, document processors like WordStar provided ASCII storage with inline commands for formatting your document. This made the documents very difficult to read, and the user was further confounded by the complex series of keystrokes that had to be learned. The WordPerfect product was an incremental improvement to this, all of the formatting characters could be hidden from the user and the function keys were used to provide access to the necessary functions.
So has Microsoft provided an incremental improvement with the new MSN Search? Not really, they are attempting to compete with Google with similar functionality. The search results produced by both sites is quite good, they are both indexing the majority of the visible web and are nearly equal in the relevancy of the results.
This kind of scenario is not an incremental improvement, and as such this is not the area where companies will generally find consumer traction. It seems more likely that this is the first assault of the Microsoft technology, and this is generally when they embrace the competition. The second prong of this attack will be when Microsoft extends the technology and does something a little bit better.