Laydeez and Gennlemen! In the red corner, the Hammer of Hemel Hempstead, Freeserve! Aaaaand in the blue corner, the Yankee Warrior itself, AOL! Ten rounds, no gouging of the punters, no hits below a million a month, and a good dirty fight.
For all its wonderfulness, Freeserve remains a handful of people in an office and some rented modem racks, dependent on the continued interest of users who could go elsewhere in the time it takes to load an AOL CD-ROM. Is this really a one and a half billion pound enterprise? Will it survive a head-on tussle with the new Netscape-branded AOL free service? It's a difficult question to answer: the Freeserve bods are backed by Dixons Store Group, who are mean High Street fighters and probably one of the few companies with the marketing nous to give AOL a run for our money. But it's going to be one hell of a battle, especially when the local loop goes public and nobody's making billions from Internet phone calls any more.
One thing's for sure -- don't expect logic and calm analysis to have anything to do with the Freeserve share price. Midsummer madness will rule. Oh, Postel, Cerf and Berners-Lee, look what you've done...
A report says that most computer crime comes from within the companies affected: well, yes. It doesn't matter how good your firewall is if your users are behaving badly, and it's one side of e-commerce that hasn't really hit home yet. The webmaster at a company I know was considering adding online credit card transactions to the services they offer, and we were mulling over the various security systems that would have to be in place. Everything seemed OK, until we realised that after all the encrypted IP, card validation and locked-down interfaces had been properly set up and implemented he'd end up with a server within the company stuffed full of valid card information. On a network, moreover, shared with several hundred users, quite a few of whom have the technical knowledge to sniff packets and do some serious tinkering, and that's before the physical security considerations.
He decided not to do it that way. Others, however, have gone down that route and the incidence of phantom transfers is rising -- and if you've bought stuff with a debit card instead of a credit card, you don't have anything like the same legal protection. The best advice, I'm told, is to get your bank to give you a special debit card and put severe limits on the size and number of transactions allowed.
A friend takes a trip down to the Bank of England to talk about money and the millennium. Did you know the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street uses specially created banknotes with denominations of thousands of pounds as part of its internal accounting? Try paying a cabby with one, though.
In particular, my pal wanted to know, what's going to happen with the money supply in cashpoints over the New Year? Was the bank worried that everyone would get out loads of cash just in case something went buggy? "No, not really" said the urbane banker, idly lighting a cigar with a wad of tenners (*). "We're just going to put more fifties in the machines to keep up with demand. And in any case, everyone tends to empty their accounts down to the last penny in the week before Christmas anyway. It won't be that different." So stand by for a revival in the fortunes of the much-ignored fifty quid note, and some very annoyed newsagents.
(*) I made that bit up. The Bank operates a no-smoking policy.
For a market that doesn't quite exist yet, the web-enabled mobile phone scene is remarkably aggressive. Microsoft's just gone and bought STNC (who?), the makers of Symbian web browsing and Internet software components (ah!). Now there's a bold and timely raid on the citadel of Symbian: as the willing damsel was carried away in chains of gold, so were vital components of Symbian's web and IP strategy. Microsoft will ransom them back, of course, and because of open standards Symbian can build its own versions with manageable amounts of corporate pain, but there's no disguising the consortium's irritation. It's perhaps more worried about Microsoft winning forty top-notch European engineers with full mobile market awareness, hundreds of contacts and what we must ruefully assume is a detailed knowledge of Symbian's plans for the next eighteen months.
And this highlights a worrying weakness. While nobody could hope to buy any of Microsoft's divisions, Symbian has a lot of important companies that are vulnerable to attack. The same problem confronts Linux, where the ageing Netscape browser increasingly damages the OS' credibility on the desktop. Netscape was pro-Linux: AOL and Sun's love of open source software is a lot less certain. Yet since no one company is big enough to stand up to Microsoft's drive for world domination, consortium competition seems the only way to go. But it will have to evolve new defences against piecemeal predators.
The iBook: cool successor to the iMac or overpriced, underpowered, overweight toilet seat? We like the wireless networking -- although it may not work if there's a Bluetooth in the house, and we'll reserve judgement on how secure it is until we get to play. Can your neighbour log into your telephone line? We don't like the 32 meg of RAM and the small screen, but it's nice anyway to see Apple doing new things with a degree of flair.
Some Apple engineers were discussing features that didn't get in -- a PC Card slot, for example, is notably absent. "It didn't get the S3 rating" says one. What's that? An American electrical safety regulation? Some form of power control? "None of the above. It's 'Steve Says So'."
Meanwhile, back at Steve Job's other day job as head of Pixar, the rumours are that their next big project after Toy Story II will be a remake -- or perhaps a sequel -- of Tron. Now there was a movie ahead of its time, even if I'd much rather they'd take all that technology and do something a little bit further out. I've got this screenplay about a Zen monk on the moon...
Record Of The Week: Super Furry Animals, "Guerilla". Whacked-out Welsh eccentrics put XTC/King Crimson/The Fall/Talk Talk/Aphex Twin/The Stranglers/Van Der Graaf Generator/Zappa in their pipe and smoke the HELL out of it. Hawaiian noises? That's the way to do it...
Web Site Of The Week: Perfect Sound Forever. Dunno who these people are, but they embrace the wilfully obscure yet comfortingly eternal brilliant backwaters of rock music and all its mutant spawn. If you've ever listened to a Can track more than once and know what a Swell Map is, get right there, right now.