Jane Wakefield: The week that was

Jane Wakefield kicks off a new column with a look at the week that was...

Our old friend Microsoft was back in the headlines last week, with a large dollop of proverbial egg on its face as news broke Monday that its Web-based email service had been cracked.

Millions of Hotmail accounts lay open. Anyone who knew a user's Hotmail name could break into their account and find out what their Auntie Mary wanted for her birthday. While the big question remains how the world's largest software company fell victim to such an embarrassing hack, for the average user in the street the debacle raises doubts about how secure Web mail really is.

When it emerged later in the week that a non-techie hacker/cracker from Ireland could access any Excite.co.uk account simply by typing John and London into a password prompt, things seemed to be getting silly, and serious questions started to be asked about email security on the Net.

The analogy that email is about as easy to read as a postcard left on a coffee table may leave some worrying about the drunken mail they sent slagging off their boss. But do the majority of users really care if their email is open for the world to read? Opinion among people I spoke to last week ranged wildly from not caring two hoots to complete outrage. For me an analogy with a postman springs to mind. If I caught my postie casually opening my letters, I'd be pretty annoyed, and yet I am happy to trust my emails (of which I write far more than I write letters) to a system I don't even understand, much less am able to monitor.

With Excite.co.uk, Ireland.com and the mighty Microsoft all exposed as running less-than-secure systems, the Web as a carrier of mail begins to seem a whole lot less appealing than the trustworthy postie. For anyone worried their email has been read this week, Bill Gates may have some sympathy. He knows all about email falling into the wrong hands -- in his case, internal messages were thrown back in his face in a rather public way at the DoJ trial.

I can't imagine much of what we write in our emails bringing down the state, but the government, apparently, has other ideas. It is trying to push through legislation to allow the police to monitor and read whatever they want whenever they want. While the ecommerce bill has been grabbing the headlines, a little Act of Parliament called the Interception of Communications Act is quietly being updated to include surveillance of email and monitoring of our activities on the Net. The government did have the decency to ask the industry what they thought of the idea, and this week ISPs began to state their opposition. It will be too expensive, the government has not understood the technical issues and it is an unnecessary infringement of personal privacy about sums up their view.

Sun's acquisition of Star Division last Tuesday will see the company going head to head with Microsoft. Its attempt to change the goalposts of the software industry by offering StarOffice as a free, Net-based alternative to Microsoft's Office has some commentators wondering if Sun chairman Scott McNealy has become a tad obsessed with outwitting Gates.

Whether the ubiquitous nature of Microsoft's Office will outweigh the attractions of a freebie alternative remains to be seen, but Sun should be given a tap on the back for trying. End of term report: Sun has worked hard this term attempting to change the face of the PC industry and finally end the domination of software giant Microsoft. Well done. A for effort. Grade for achievement... watch this space.

And finally, the Internet has another free ISP. Whoopee, hold the front page. While free ISPs are hardly headline-grabbing, and many would think we need another freebie service about as much as a drowning man needs a glass of water, this is no run-of-the-mill ISP but the good ol' auntie beeb joining the fray.

The service, which has been anticipated for months, finally went live on Wednesday amid a gnashing of teeth and fist-shaking from other ISPs and Internet publishers. Some may call it sour grapes, but the members of the BIPA feel they have just cause to call Freebeeb anti-competitive and unfair. My take is, the ISPs which set up their businesses just as ISPs are very, very worried about the onslaught of the branded brigade. While Freeserve changed the business of Internet service, it may well be the established brands that end up scooping the commercial prizes of the Net.