Vint Cerf goes to Google

There are few people in our industry that I admire more than Vint Cerf, even though we have only met on a few occasions and briefly at best. Cerf is often cited as being one of the “fathers of the Internet” but he has done probably more than anyone still living to shape the global communications systems that we all take for granted. His career as senior vice president of technology strategy at MCI, the original competitor to AT&T – is now at an end as he takes on the new job next month as Google’s chief Internet evangelist.

For a 62-year old guy, Cerf will stay busy and still wear several hats. For the past several years, he has been a visiting scientist with NASA’s JPL to try to extend the Internet to an interplanetary system. And he also has the job of being the chairman of ICANN, the organization that is presently the central governing body of the Internet. In this part of the interview, we spoke to Cerf about his role at Google. We’ll also hear about some of his personal uses of computing, and where he sees the Internet evolving.

Q: Is a job as “Internet Evangelist” at Google the world’s best job? What exactly will you do there?

A: Haven’t performed it that role yet. To the extent that I have been proselytizing for Internet commerce for many years, the answer is yes, pretty good. I am going to be what I think of as a cross between a technical evangelist and a bumblebee. I will spend a lot of time visiting labs that Google has opened around the world in places like New York City, India, and Zurich, and make sure that the ideas are spread as widely as possible around the company. And part of my job will be keeping an eye out for new applications that we can support as well.

Q: What makes Google so unique that you chose this company?

A: Have to wait and see. I haven’t done a startup, still something that I want to do. Google has helluva good technology, and has lots of smart people and young enough to know they can’t do something and still try to do it anyway. They have also successfully monetized a substantial element of Internet applications and that is remarkable and they have done really well in terms of turning network-based services into revenue-producing opportunities. On top of everything else, Eric Schmidt is a dear old friend of mine that I have known for more than twenty years, and I have admired his work and was very pleased when he became the CEO.

Q: Is Google the last company you want to work for?

A: Do you expect me to die with my boots on? [Laughs.] I expect to be around a while, but I wouldn’t rule out doing something afterwards.

Q: When was the first time you heard about Google and what was your thought about Google then?

A: My guess is about three or four years ago, don’t really recall. I had been an Altavista fan. When Google came along, it did a better job, and I made it my home page some time ago. I find it indispensable to resolve any historical or factual issues, and even use its search functions even around the dinner table.

Q: What is your goal at Google – and what is the career goal you still want to accomplish?

A: I want to contribute to expanding the functionality that they are capable of delivering to people. They are well on their way towards creating a new infrastructure. We had infrastructures with TCP/IP and HTTP. What Google is doing is creating something that people can rely on to implement things through. I am excited about the amount of computing power that they can mount and that they can do it in a distributed way. I want to help them create an even more capable infrastructure. As far as my career goal, I have had plenty of success and fun in my career, except I really want to get the interplanetary networking system off the ground, quite literally and I have permission to spend time with JPL on that project.

Q: How is Google different from Microsoft? How are they similar?

A: Google is less than a tenth of Microsoft’s size in terms of staff, so Google is a lot more agile at this stage of the game. Google has a very distributed flavor to it — people interact with each other, and schedule things in a very federated way. I find that very refreshing. Microsoft is interested in search engines just like Google is. But I think both companies are capable of delivering different infrastructures and platforms. Google is more network-oriented than Microsoft, and is looking for ways to make networked things more useful.

Q: Is search going to become part of the OS and integrated into applications?

A: Look at what happens when you use Google desktop applications. You are seeing sorting through unstructured information. Second, sometimes having rigid directory-like structures like everything in folders and having a hierarchical structure for email can be very limiting. With Google’s Desktop, you can search across folders and do richer searches that don’t have to be uniform. You can look for emails, Web pages, documents, whatever. You don’t have to search for a single class of information.

But what you really want is to have both desktop and Net-based searches, and have a seamless ability to find information conveniently on your laptop and then if not, look outside. This would make your machine more connected to the rest of the Internet world.

Q: Gates has said that “Our search API is way better than Google’s search API.” You agree?

A: I believe that APIs in the eye of the programmer. And as such, I am not a big API fan. My focus has been on networking and protocols and making things work across the network. I am much more interested in building and designing protocols that allow things to interact with each other, even if they are designed by different parties. APIs work fine as long as I implement both sides of the interface. Protocols work the opposite way so that the bits on the wire are the same and I don’t care who implemented what protocols. Non-API network-centric way with using standardized protocols has much broader potential.

APIs are often under control of a single party, protocols – if they are real standards — aren’t and so as long as you have the right interfaces they can give quite a bit of flexibility with the two parties that have decided they want to interact with each other. They can program things however they want to so that the bits on the wire work out correctly.

Q: Microsoft is all about enabling their partners and developers. There seems to be a lot more work in this area for Google to succeed.

A: Yes, embrace and extend. That is a fair statement about Google. Google has enabled all sorts of people in all sorts of ways. How do I integrate the Google functionality into my own products? I think Google is getting better and better at that. A good example is the Google maps mechanism and how it can be integrated into other apps. I am excited about that and making it available over the Net.

Q: Will Google ever become a “find” engine rather than a “search” engine – in the sense that people will be able to find immediately what they are looking for, no matter what content it is?

A: In a funny way it might already be that, such as the Google desktop. Google is smart enough to index an enormous variety of content, and as time goes on the software will become more capable of rendering content and searching through content in a variety of different ways, and that will be exciting. Think how people behave now. They have directories of files, and email, but they tend to be separately treated as different objects. It is very sensible to treat all the objects that you deal with as more or less uniform. That is part of the hope for Google. Find ways to make all of these various objects treatable in a common way and use the same tool to search through all of them. So they are already partly there for some applications to be this “find” engine.

Q: What is your favorite Google’s product and why?

A: I was quite taken with Google Earth and Google moon. There is this thread of humor running through the company – such as the Swiss cheese background when you zoom in on Google Moon – and I find that people at Google don’t take themselves too seriously, and I like that. They are serious about their work, of course.

Cerf has played a key role in the development of the Internet, and its underlying protocols, almost from the beginning. He is among the most well-known as one of the players that began the original collection of nodes among the various academic research organizations that was the precursor to today’s network in the 1970s. And while not to diminish this achievement, his more important role was in 1989 when he convinced the federal government council to open up the network to allow exchanging emails with his mail system called MCIMail.

Of course, email has changed quite a bit since those early days. “It used to be that a message with 3000 characters was considered to be a big email message. Now with video and PowerPoint attachments, 100 MB is not unusual.” Another difference between email then and now is that now we have emails with complex formatting, HTML code and “already carrying programs around. That will make for some interesting times, and we are already seeing mobile pieces of software being transported around by email.” At least, we hope we can restrict mobile pieces of software to those that we want to have transported, unlike the current situation with viruses and other junk that goes around.

Does he ever regret connecting MCI Mail to the Internet back then? “Absolutely not, it was what broke the log jam.” Prior to then, no commercial uses or users were allowed on the network. “We had to get special permission from the federal government to connect our system. And looking back on it now, this helped to accelerate the commercialization process of the Internet. We were very deliberate and did it to get commercial opportunities into place. Back then, we didn’t think the government could afford to pay for the Internet for everyone. The only other alternative was to get a self-sustaining economic engine going, which is basically what happened.”

Certainly, the Internet is a different place today as a result. “Today’s problems are different, but also more complicated. In the early days, we were fumbling around just to get the damn thing to work. I have to envy all these eight-year-olds that come over and tell me about their new Web sites and I think, ”crap, I had to wait until I was 28 to use the Net and then we had to invent it first!” The challenges and the opportunities that it creates is just orders of magnitude than from the early days and I consider it to be quite fun.”

As an example of this progress, he mentions IP telephony and Skype in particular. “Yes, Skype and SIP are part of my vocabulary. But I have mixed feelings about Skype. If you watch the calls on a network analyzer, it looks like an attack on the target network. I would much rather have SIP standards that tell us what the ports are rather than blasting around looking like you are attacking someone’s host. I will certainly tip my hat to the Skype folks because they managed to figure out how to get it all to work with very little user intervention.”

Surprisingly, Cerf’s home collection of computing isn’t going to win any awards. He has never overclocked any of his gear, and hasn’t attempted “anything funny, other than pumping everything with a gig full of RAM whenever I can”. It is ironic for a guy that started out 40 years ago with the early computers (pre-PC era of course, we are taking IBM mainframes and calculating machines) of that day. Most of his home machines are Macs of various vintages, and he does carry an IBM Thinkpad because he has to be Windows-compatible. His home wireless networks are protected, thank you very much, and about the most interesting thing he can do is VPN into his home network so he can print stuff out remotely as reminders of what he needs to do when he returns home from a trip. That is a pretty cool idea and perhaps we should have an article posted here in the future showing how to do that. Cerf mentions he has plans to instrument his house and wine cellar eventually, to be able to track conditions.

Most of the people he deals with in his professional life are email users, although there are a handful of holdouts still. He uses Microsoft Office, and becoming less and less enamored with PowerPoint in particular. He says, “Power corrupts, and PowerPoint corrupts absolutely, that is because of the constraints it places on your ability to present material. I find it a very limiting tool, you start to think in those LIMITED terms.” He mentions Peter Norvig’s Gettysburg address on Powerpoint (who turns out to be a Google employee coincidentally).

But the most impressive thing at Chez Cerf is his wine cellar, with several thousand bottles of wine, some quite expensive and rare. He keeps track of his collection via a spreadsheet application: “It is sort of daunting when you first walk in and want to find something to drink,” he said. He rejected using a true database, like so many of you that still use spreadsheets to organize and sort data. It is nice to know that one of the giants in our industry has such simple – and appropriate — tastes in software, if not beverages.

Cerf has met many world leaders, scientists, and movie stars and feels very fortunate to have traveled in these circles. He is very impressed with Bill Clinton. “I may be biased politically. I was watching him on Larry King, and the man thinks about things and is articulate about them and he listens. Of all the world leaders I have met, Clinton has struck me as the most intellectually capable. He has just an enormous range of knowledge and engages readily in conversation and debate.”

Cerf mentions a great Clinton anecdote. “We were at the White House, during the millennium evenings before 2000. I was giving a joint presentation with Eric Lander and we had about 250 people in the room. During the presentation I mentioned my wife’s cochlear implant at age 53. I spent a few minutes explaining it because it really is nothing short of a miracle that she can hear again after having lost her hearing at age 3. Now remember this is post-Lewinsky. After it is all over, we go to East Room for refreshments, Bill is surrounded by everybody as usual. But he wants to see the speech processor that drives the implant. Now realize that this is a device which is inside your head, and has a speech processor that is a little computer that my wife wears clipped to her bra and a wire that goes up to her implant near her ear. So Bill is talking to Sigrid, and she wants to show him, and so she reaches down her front and starting to pull this thing out. Instantly a bunch of aides come running over concerned that something is about to happen. Bill says I guess I am not allowed to see underwear around here anymore.”

Cerf has an unusual perspective, having been around the Internet for so long and having done so much. Several years ago he suggested public flogging for spammers. “It was a joke, did you think anyone was going to take it seriously?” Still, he is as frustrated as the rest of us when it comes to dealing with spam, although he says for him that filters seem to be working.

Despite this minor annoyance, he is still fascinated by networking technology. He has seen the Internet be transformed from the early days when it was just about protocols and research through the past decade where it was all about applications and ecommerce. And he still talks about the next series of challenges and opportunities for the Internet. “I mean, right now there are about a billion users, so we have five billion more to go.” Doing the math Cerf means the rest of the world that isn’t yet connected nor has a computer to do so. But his frustrations with spammers pale with advancing the Internet address space.

His one regret looking back on all these years of Internet innovations was “I probably would have picked a larger address space. Who would have thought that 4.3 billion addresses were too small back then in 1977?” As a result, he has been flogging the IPv6 horse for quite some time and says, “We need to switch to IPv6 so we have enough address space. I don’t want to continue to play Network Address Translation games. We are still pushing hard and I think MCI will have implemented v6 by the end of the year in all of its operations. In the meantime, we are getting the pants beat off us by China and Japan who are adopting v6 a lot quicker than in the US.” He thinks by the end of 2008 we can get past 50% IPv6 implementations in the US, but that may be optimistic given the state of progress.

Also on his hit list is to internationalize the domain name system to allow different character sets besides Roman letters. “This is proving harder than we hoped and quite a chore to get these different character sets like Chinese and Japanese implemented.”

Finally, he is all about standards and protocols, just as he began his Internet career. “We need to move several layers upward to establishing standards. Right now we have pretty good standards at the HTTP layer but not too much above that: XML is helping, Web services will prove helpful. But we need more authentication and more distributed services. I want infrastructure and digital objects and processes to have persistence, and to be able to migrate running programs and replicate or be preserved from one machine to another.”

Indeed, authentication could be the key to more advanced applications. “We haven’t found more than 1% of all the apps that we can do in a distributed networking environment. The better we are able to do authentication, the more interesting our computational lives will be. I am anticipating a lot of collaborative computation, such as for online entertainment. A lot of these games are played in a distributed way, and kids are able to hear each other and see each other’s avatars. Soon we will get to the point where the games will look quite realistic, like Forrest Gump, putting someone into the middle of a historical picture. We will see that kind of digital flexibility and eventually will make for news reports that can be faked. You could basically fake anybody. We will have to cope with authenticity in the future.”

Cerf certainly is one of the original thinkers for our times. It was a pleasure talking to him, and he still has plenty of interesting and original ideas to go around. We wish him well at Google.

Read More
Blake Ross from Firefox

Many of us have been loyal Firefox users for the past year, and stats from Tom’s Hardware server logs show an early interest in Firefox from our readers as well. With all the attention on Firefox, we took time to interview one of the program’s creators, Blake Ross. Ross is currently on leave from his studies at Stanford University (where I went to grad school in the distant past) to work on another startup and had lots to say about where he is taking the browser and his thoughts about competing with Microsoft.

1. What are the biggest differences between Firefox and IE in your mind, and where do you see any advantages that IE has these days?

There are plenty of feature comparisons on the Web, so I’ll spare readers the marketing charts. The most important difference lies in the intent of each product.

Microsoft is here to win. That’s great if you’re a shareholder, but how many users appreciated that attitude when spyware and pop-ups filled their screens four years ago, and Microsoft, having crushed Netscape, abandoned the market? The company is back now that competition has arisen, but where will it be in four more years?

The Mozilla Foundation isn’t fighting a war on competition; it’s fighting a war on complexity. Our users are our shareholders, and as long as the Internet is frustrating, we’ll be here.

2. I’ve had to update my copy of Firefox numerous times over the past year to handle security loopholes and exploits. How can you stay ahead of these issues in the future?

We have a number of safeguards in place. First, our Bug Bounty program pays security experts $500 for each exploit they uncover, provided they notify us early enough that we can protect our users. Second, our open nature allows us to test builds much more rigorously than our competitors. Hundreds of thousands of advanced users test each beta build for exploits before it reaches consumers. And finally, as strange as it sounds, the fact that you’re receiving those updates means the Firefox security team is doing its job. All browsers have security exploits; it’s just a reality of networked software. The real question is how long it takes the vendor to offer a patch, and Firefox excels here.

3. You talk about making the web easier to use. Given the growing complexity of browsers with plug ins, security settings, helper apps, etc. is there hope of having an easier to use experience?

Complex software is produced by lazy developers who aren’t willing to face the complexity themselves and instead shovel it onto the user. I can’t tell you how many hours some of our engineers have spent going above and beyond the plugin specs so Mom could watch her dancing Flash M&M’s without being bothered. Every additional hour you spend at the office is another hour you’re saving her down the road.

4. How do you manage your source code with a global development team?

We use CVS for source control, LXR for code cross-referencing, and blogs, mailing lists and newsgroups for team coordination.

5. What percent of the code in Firefox do you personally touch and work with on a regular basis?

Firefox is enormous, so like most of our developers, I work with a small fraction. Most of my development time now is spent on a software company I recently cofounded with another Firefox engineer. We’re always looking for talented developers.

6. What is the main development machine and OS that you use on a daily basis? Have you ever overclocked or water cooled any of your gear?

I mainly use a 19” Compaq laptop, P4 3.4 GHz with 2 GB of RAM. It’s a “laptop” in the sense that Manhattan is a suburb.

7. When I was at Stanford many years ago, CroMem was the nerd dorm (I was in the engineering grad school). Is it still that way, or have nerds taken over campus?

Stanford has plenty of nerds, but they’re cool nerds. You can change the topic to music and they won’t start singing a MIDI version of Super Mario Brothers. I wasn’t in CroMem, so I guess that means they’re everywhere now.

8. I persevere and use Firefox as my main browser, even though we run an Intranet here that uses Sharepoint and works better in IE. What can you do to be more IE-compatible in the future?

We used to have a full evangelism team that worked with IE-only companies to support Web standards. Fortunately, we’ve reached the tipping point in terms of market share where companies are now forced to open up or risk losing 10% of their clientele. So while we still make evangelism efforts, these kinds of problems are beginning to disappear naturally.

We also have a special rendering mode called “Quirks” that we use to support some IE-only programming features. Because we prefer to stick to the standards, however, this is a last resort.

9. Are there any non-open source products that you use on a regular basis?

Sure. Development model doesn’t factor into my choice of software. I use Microsoft Word, Trillian, Visual Studio, iTunes. There aren’t too many consumer-friendly open-source products, unfortunately.

10. What are some lessons learned from developing Firefox that you can share with my readers who are working on their own projects?

The things you never think about are the ones driving users nuts. For example, a developer making an e-mail client might spend 6 hours designing the compose window, and 5 minutes hooking up the “Attach” button to the Windows Browse dialog. But it’s that Browse dialog that’ll give people gray hair over time.

The fact that the dialog is a standard part of the OS is no excuse. In fact, software is often weakest where its developer settled for something prepackaged. Consistency is important, of course, and should always be a factor. But it’s your responsibility to make the best software you can, and if you’re delegating to the OS without question, your competitors already have a leg up on you. In Firefox, we threw out the Find mechanism applications have used for decades because, frankly, it sucked.

Read More
I Remember Modems

With the announcement this week that US Robotics is being purchased by a VC company, I began tripping down memory lane thinking about all the times that I have come across USR and used their products over the years. Having been left for the dead after 3Com had consumed them and then split them out, it is nice to see that USR is still hanging in there. USR has been around as long as I have been in this business. They were one of the early vendors at the dawn of the PC era, and helped to get the whole BBS industry moving along with their modem racks and deals with Compuserve (remember them). They began their corporate life making modems, taking their name from a company in Asimov’s robot SF stories. By the way, these are the very same stories that generated a flop of a movie starring Will Smith last year. I won’t make any further comments other than I was a big Asimov fan in my youth and read most if not all of his first 80 or so books.

Nowadays USR is more than just modems, and they sell a full line of access products including routers. We even use one of their print servers here in Tom’s HQ.

But modems? Aren’t they so, well, last century? You know, that empty jack on the back of your computer that looks like the plug you put your Ethernet cable in, only smaller? Who uses a modem these days, anyway?

I was trying to think of the last time I actually plugged in my modem and did something useful with it. It must be at least several years. I don’t currently have any Internet dial-up access accounts, but I can remember when I wouldn’t be out on the road without at least one or two of them. I don’t think I have even tried out the fax software on my current laptop, and I avoid all hotels with just dial-up when I travel. You could say that I am a broadband snob, but the truth be told, I just don’t want to deal with modems anymore.

I know, there are many places on the planet where modems are still in popular use, especially in those countries where broadband is expensive, inconvenient, or impossible to obtain. I feel sorry for you, believe me. The only sounds I hear from my computer these days are the annoying ones that come with Windows starting up, rather than those beeps and squeals as the modems synch up.

Back in the day, I was a modem maven. I still have (rooting around my ancient history files in my desk for a moment) a crib sheet that I put together back when I was working in IT support land that had the essential Hayes AT command set for dialing a 1200 bps modem. I could do all sorts of tricks with these, and it was always a challenge when I got ahold of a new modem to try to push its performance to the limit and get the maximum throughput from it. Sorta like overclocking your CPU, only a lot easier because all you needed was a couple of software commands and a cooperative phone line. If you want to get an idea of what these things looked like,here is one reference page.

Now, the word Hayes is from another modem company that was popular in those early days, named after a very flamboyant CEO who went down equally in style. Just to put things in perspective, I think those early modems went for around $500 in the mid 1980s. Now of course modems come in practically everything but cereal boxes, and you can’t buy a computer that doesn’t have one built-in, even if you don’t need it.

Now we see the word modem usually attached to DSL. This is interesting because the DSL modem doesn’t modulate or demodulate the signal, which is what the word modem actually means. But who wants to quibble over that?

I am happy for USR, really I am. I hope their new owners can try to polish the company and bring back some of the luster from the early days. Or maybe get Will Smith as their new spokesman. In the meantime, if you have some good modem stories that you want to share, drop me a line, I’d love to hear them.

Read More
Pure Pwnage guys Jeremy and Kyle

The Web is a great place. It can turn two twenty-something slackers from Toronto into underground heroes. All it takes is some videos and viral word-of-mouth marketing. Meet Jeremy and Kyle, the stage names (or whatever you call them) of the guys behind the PurePwnage.com video series on what the life of a “pro” gamer is really like.

The duo, who are RL (that’s real life for you noobs out there) roomies, got the idea a little more than a year ago when Kyle borrowed a camera for a film school class assignment and “was looking for stuff to film and wanted to try out some editing software.” He began shooting a “pilot” with some test footage following around Jeremy and a day in his life. The video was so well received (at least, according to the duo) that they went on to make seven episodes, and more are in the works. Each episode, which last about 10 minutes, are better and more sophisticated (at least, according to my taste) than the previous one.

Jeremy in his usual garb. Kyle doesn’t appear before the camera,

The shows have amazingly good production values for something done on the cheap. “We use Adobe Premiere to edit the videos, and it shows that you don’t need a lot of money to make short films on the Internet. Our startup costs are only a few thousand dollars, and most of that went to buying a camera,” says Kyle.  And that is dollars Canadian, which is even more impressive given what you can buy there.

I spoke to the two guys, or at least two people that sounded like the guys in the videos, last week. Unlike most of the interviews I have done, the guys didn’t give me their real names, phone numbers or other identifying information, but I had fun interviewing them none the less. Part of the fun was doing real-time translation of leetspeak (the gaming lingo that Jeremy uses both in the videos and for the most part in RL too) and trying to not appear like the old fart that I really am. But that is the wonder of the Internet: you can always appear to be something that you yearn to be.

The videos are entertaining slices of life, mostly following Jeremy around with a hand-held camera as he slacks off, “owns noobs” (that means trounces unsuspecting opponents) with his game of choice, Zero Hour, and his advanced “micro” (meaning keyboarding) skills. They are funny and sad at the same time. The last episode 7 sees Jeremy in some hospital ward as he tries to break out of a catatonic state, and is jump-cut with scenes from a game where his character is being interviewed by a nurse, mirroring the actual RL scene shot in the movie. Hollywood SF could do no better, and what is impressive is how these guys have accomplished some great storytelling on a less-than-shoestring budget. It helps if you are familiar with gaming lingo but you can still enjoy the flicks for what they are, a romp around a brave new world where gamers rule.

The duo has started a cottage industry to be sure. The first month they released episode 7 more than 300,000 people downloaded it, and the audience has been doubling from episode to episode. They are using a variety of technologies to distribute their videos, and are looking to get more sophisticated by using an RSS feed and other improvements. “We don’t know where it is going to saturate,” says Kyle. “No one has ever done this before and had a reality TV show that has been this viral and spread this quickly.” And unlike the more expensive reality shows that are on broadcast TV, it is done without script doctoring or any visible writers.

Does Jeremy talk leetspeak all the time? “What are you saying?,” he asked me. “If you watch the show, well, yeah. I own, and yeah. When I meet fans in RL they seem kinda shocked when they meet me – they thought the show might not be real and when they meet me and then they are in total awe of how much I own and its good.” You dig?

Kyle is certainly more used to talking regular English, even though in the videos you rarely hear from him. The concept is similar to that of Penn and Teller, for those of you geeks old enough to remember them before their TV shows.

The guys are actually big Tom’s Hardware readers. “It is something we read whenever we are buying new hardware pretty much,” says Kyle. “But not a regular thing we read. Jeremy was looking at Tom’s when he was looking to buy a new video card.” Jeremy then piped up “Well, Kyle that was a year ago so it isn’t exactly new, but I got my 5950 and lots of stuff thanks to Tom’s.”

Jeremy builds his own PCs “Because I don’t have a job and like, you can get a lot better performance for your dollar if you build your own PC. If you are not a complete noob it is completely easy.” He doesn’t overclock that much. “I just make sure my rig is good enough to run games at like decent resolution because you don’t want to be totally noobing at 800×600 or something. I keep most of my hardware kinda default.”

The guys get lots of fan letters. “Jeremy gets a lot of marriage proposals over email. It’s actually kinda interesting. Supposedly from women. Some women send their pictures but it probably the guy’s sister or whatever. But no one is emailing me with their pictures,” Kyle says a bit peevishly.

“Obviously I am going to get most of [the proposals] because of my sexiness,” says Jeremy modestly. Indeed, one of the more humorous bits is in one episode with a series of  interviews of some girls. The girls talk about their interests in guys who are gaming addicts and their reactions to some of the gaming lingo. Kyle actually has a steady girlfriend in RL, or so he says. “As for Jeremy, you have to watch the show to see what is going on.” Jeremy obviously doesn’t want to disappoint any of his potential suitors.

“Most of my time is actually spent playing games, because I don’t have a job,” says Jeremy, reinforcing the cinema verite of their ouvre. “Pure Pwnage is actually turning into a job,” says Kyle, where he spends his non-studying time answering reading inquiries, sending off swag and editing the videos. He actually is in his last year at film school and promises that more episodes are on the way when he can get the time to produce and finish them.

Where do they get the idea for the videos? “Kyle comes over and, like he says be real funny and I’ll film you,” says Jeremy. “And then he comes back later and we watch the show. My life is pretty interesting. Most people would be shocked at how close to our real lives the show is, really. Well, some of it is exaggerated a bit.”

What does Jeremy’s real parents think of these efforts? “At first my mom was kinda embarrassed,” says Jeremy. “I don’t think she liked the idea much that all these people were watching me own, she was never too proud of that. She always thought that school and like, good jobs were like, the way to go. She is kinda traditional. She would tell me to play sports and throw a football around and like. And I would try to explain to her that mom, you would rather have me owning games all day and that I get some skills that would be applicable. As times have gone on, and both of my parents have seen what has happened, they are very supportive and looking back they are glad that I didn’t play football and instead play e-sports.”

A big part of the gaming lifestyle is going for long stretches of time without sleeping or eating. “It was like 54 hours was my longest single session,” says Jeremy. “I ate once, a couple of bathroom breaks, playing Zero Hour. By the end I was kinda seeing stuff, I decided that I should probably sleep. But don’t tell my mom that because I told her it was only 36 hours and she was pretty mad. She thought I went to school that day, but I didn’t leave my room for like two days. It was good times”

Jeremy in RL plays more than Zero Hour, which is what he is known for in the video series. “To be honest, I own most games that I have played. But typically anytime I pick up a game, I seem to just own anybody at it. Enough to make a show I guess. Everyone takes a couple of losses here and there – you are tired, you had some drinks, I don’t know.” His confidence is both charming and cute, without being a big ego trip. I think that is part of why I enjoy watching the series so much.

“I have been playing games my whole life, it is all I have really done as a hobby. Pong was my first game, I picked it up when I was about two years old, all the adults were laughing at me,” said Jeremy. He got his first Atari when he was 4 or 5.  What about Kyle? “Some of it has rubbed off on me. I like Civilization, played a lot of that, but don’t have the passion that Jeremy has for games.”

I asked Jeremy what the stupidest thing a noob has ever done to him, and he was quick to reply, “Besides entertaining the notion that he has a chance [at winning]?” Many of you might think that his braggadocio is bigger than his actual RL scores, but Jeremy maintains that he has real skills. “I never hacked myself in the game to make the world think you have skills that help you in the game. If you got the skills, you don’t need the hacks. That is what noobs do, they can’t accept the fact that they don’t have skills.”

Of course, trying to prove that he does deliver the goods may not be easy, even for this reporter. Jeremy doesn’t use the same identity in each of his games, even though he goes by the tag the_pwner in the videos. “I never used the_pwner tag in an actual game. Don’t want to break any hearts. I usually switch my names, if you get crazy stats people don’t want to play you when they see your record.”

Any suggestions for the noobs out there who are just getting started with RTS games? “Focus on your micro – make sure you use the keyboard shortcuts, don’t use your mouse,” says the pro gamer. And also watch plenty of replays of other pro’s sessions too.

Better yet, download the videos from their site.

Read More
Cisco behaving badly

We’ve had our own journalistic fracas here at Tom’s Hardware this week, and no, it didn’t involve Karl Rove or any leaks about covert ops. At least, not yet. But when we arranged to send one of our reporters to the Black Hat and Defcon shows in Vegas last week, we stepped into a messy situation involving Cisco, ISS, and divulging information about Cisco’s IOS router operating system.

For those of you that haven’t been following the issue, a security researcher by the name of Mike Lynn was scheduled to give a talk at the hacker conference about how he could gain ownership of a random Cisco router by exploiting a buffer overflow condition. Lynn figured this out several months ago, and tried but failed to gain the support of both his now-former employer ISS and also within Cisco. He quit ISS moments before going on stage and presenting how he did it, to a packed audience that included our reporter, along with reporters of several other sites and news organizations.

We posted a story on our sister Tom’s Networking site on Thursday, the day after Lynn gave his talk. The story included photographs of Lynn giving his talk along with photos we took during the talk of several of his presentation slides. In the meantime, down in Vegas the printed copies of his presentation were removed from the show proceedings and new CDs were pressed that didn’t include the electronic copy. Lynn also negotiated an agreement with Cisco and ISS to no longer disseminate this information. And a day after Lynn gave his talk, Cisco announced a patch to work around the exploit.

We received over the weekend a letter from a lawyer representing ISS that asked us to remove the article. Based on the advice of our own counsel, we left the article on our site, and removed the photos from the article and from our web servers.

This is clearly a case of shutting the barn doors after the horses have left, and while I agreed to remove our content (the first time in my journalist career that I have done so), I am not happy about it. Especially since copies of Lynn’s presentation (and our photos too) can be found at many places around the Internet, with just a few minutes of searching. I guess the ISS lawyers will be working overtime to try to get rid of these copies as well.

The whole episode recalls a situation when I was in high school and our public school began using a new health textbook. Someone objected to a couple of chapters in the book regarding sex ed, and before you could say X-acto the school board had approved cutting the offending chapters out of the books and blacking out the table of contents referring to these chapters. Any kid with a modicum of research talent (and this is way before Google) could stop at the local library and read the excised chapters at will. The action was noteworthy enough to make it to the New York Times’ editorial pages.

Removing this content (the Cisco content, not our sex chapters) doesn’t make the Internet safer, doesn’t make our routers more secure, doesn’t encourage IT managers to upgrade their routers and doesn’t make it more difficult to figure out the ultimate exploit. It just makes us, and ISS and Cisco spend more money on lawyering around the problem. All this time and energy and money could be better spent educating the right people. These are the people who should be making their routers more secure and understanding how and why they are vulnerable.

Most certainly, people can figure out what Lynn did and reproduce his attack, without his slides. His talk wasn’t all that prescriptive, and pointedly so. Lynn wasn’t interested in spawning a new series of attacks. At Defcon, a room full of hackers were trying their best to replicate it over the weekend, but didn’t succeed not for lack of trying but for lack of time.

It is only a matter of time before someone else figures this out and posts the steps or writes some code. So take some time, if you are running a Cisco shop, and make sure you have upgraded your IOS as instructed here and understand the exploit. And check this page often, it has already been revised several times in the past week. About time Cisco acknowledged this flaw, and it is unfortunate that it took the circumstances at Black Hat to bring it to light. I realize that the security researchers (the legit ones, such as those who still work at ISS and elsewhere) have a tough dance to do with the vendors they research, but the events of last week and this aren’t the best way to go about business. And cutting pages out of books and trimming images off Web sites is just plain stupid, as much now as when I was in high school health class.

Read More
The Browser Wars are so OVER!

It is ironic. Just when the Web is going great guns, just when the post-crash bubble is bubbling, just when Google hits $300 and when Time Warner and Murdoch and Disney have emerged from their collective dalliances and started to create some solid Web content, the browser is so over, so five-minutes ago, so last week.

You have been put on notice: the browser wars are over. Moz doesn’t matter. IE is irrelevant. Opera is doing a swan song. Why? You’ll have to read the column to find out.

Read More
An extended history of the BBS

Before there was the Web, before even Al Gore invented the Internet, before email was a daily routine, there were various technologies that flourished under the moniker of BBS, for the bulletin board system. This software was part discussion forum, part messaging system, and part chat rooms—taken together, the BBS contained the seeds of what we all know and love and use today online.

BBS’s came of age in the 1980s and were the passion for many software developers and users alike. Thousands of them flourished and grew in the decade before the Internet and in many instances created the groundwork for the growth of the Internet and its ensuing popularity. They are almost completely extinct as a species as the Internet made it easier to communicate and as TCP/IP protocols became the dominant language of the world.

I never was a big BBS fan, although I grew up professionally alongside them and watched the culture wax and wane. I came of age as an engineer and later as a writer and journalist during this era. At one point I had a job doing R&D for a company that was promoting an early BBS called Electronic Information Exchange System (EIES that was in use in some academic and corporate settings. But there is a still a fond place in my heart and mind for those that helped bring about this era, and luckily video producer Jason Scott has taken upon himself to document the many men and women that took part of the major and minor BBS’ around the world.

The documentary is in the form of a three-DVD package (that sells for $50) that is well produced and professionally done, from the extended slip case to the many notes and supplemental materials included on the DVDs themselves. The videos take the form of a series of 40 minute programs that can be watched in any order and that tell the story of the software, the graphic artists, the developers, the pioneering board operators, and other luminaries such as Vint Cert from MCI and Ward Christensen who built one of the first BBS’s and developed the XMODEM protocols that enabled many BBS’ file transfer activities.

What I found interesting about the video interviews was how passionate everyone was about their BBS’s – in some cases, people still had their original computing rigs, modems, and other gear from BBS’s long gone from the scene, and could recall details about their activities 20 and 30 years ago as if it were still fresh in their minds. In some cases, these were people who clearly had their creative peak in their early teens and twenties. But many of the people in the videos are just ordinary geeks, having fun the way geeks know: learning how to use a new computer system and telling people all about it. What is amazing is how primitive these systems are by today’s standards: we are talking character-mode screens, 300 baud modems, and hardware that was measured in single-digit MHz and KB of RAM.

Scott got his start with the BBS culture with a Web site called textfiles.com, where he archived and saved the hundreds of files that BBS owners catalogued and maintained on their boards. He then expanded his interests into video production and began a multi-year product to interview anyone who would talk to him about their BBS experience. It is a labor of love and it shows.

Scott conducted hundreds of interviews with people notable and unknown, but with one common element: most of the people have terrifically bad haircuts and no fashion sense whatsoever. Even years later, and many of these people in are in their advanced years, they still proudly wear their outdated logo t-shirts and sit on furniture that could best be described as items that even the local Goodwill would turn down. One woman had a sofa with a pattern of repeating numbers 0 and 1 across it. Many of the people are filmed sitting next to their gear that they ran their BBS on, and these old relics of computers recall the dawn of the PC era, when the Commodore 64 and Apple II were new and novel.

The BBS was the precursor to many things that we take for granted now in the world of the Internet: world-wide nearly instantaneous communications, group discussion forums, instant messaging, multi-user games, online porn, and on and on. It was a culture into itself, and Scott does a terrific job of documenting this era. What makes for compelling film is that he is great at letting everyone tell their individual stories, and collectively it is a fascinating tour de force.

One segment concerns the hacker BBS culture. As Scott says, “portraying a generation of BBS users as evil geniuses bent on destruction is an easy story to tell – but that isn’t the story told here.” Another is the story about ANSI or ASCII art, images that are entirely constructed out of characters meant to be printed on a typewriter, the beginnings of the modern era of computer generated art and the online porn industry. The story about the phone phreaks is a good story about the lengths that people would go towards free long distance calls, back in the day when these calls were much more expensive than they are now. Again, this was something completely embraced by the mainstream with freebie IP voice software such as Skype.

“People today get their noses pierced. We were anarchists back then.”

For those of you that fondly remember the BBS era, this video is a must-have and recommended viewing. It is entertaining, it is informative, and it is exceptionally well done. For those of you too young to remember, it is a trip back in time to a part of our computing history that is well worth exploring. The video can be ordered  from their web site.

Read More
SLI Stands for Silly

If you haven’t yet placed your order for your 7800 GTX cards (I am assuming that you are buying a pair), here are some reasons you might want to wait. I realize that this advice flies in the face of all that is holy here at Tom’s Hardware, where we celebrate the new, the sexy, the champions of performance and the twin lords of graphics horsepower.

You can read the complete column here.

Read More
Tom’s Hardware: Interview with Phil Dukelberger

PGP the product has had a long and interesting past. It began as a piece of shareware written by Phil Zimmerman in the early 1990s called Pretty Good Privacy, a DOS-based command-line encryption utility that was used by uber-hackers to keep their emails from prying eyes and keyboards. Back then the Internet was young, the Web was still to come, and to make matters worse, the US Government quickly banned the nascent software utility, claiming that email encryption was a national security threat.

Well, eventually the government came to its senses and PGP became the gold standard for keeping emails private. A software company grew around the utility and became successful enough that the conglomerate called Network Associates bought PGP in 1997. After several releases, including support for Windows and Unix, a group of investors were formed in 2002 and purchased the assets and intellectual property back from Network Associates (which is now called McAfee) to have a successful life as PGP Corp.  (Note: PGP is now a part of Symantec.)

The company is run by Phil Dunkelberger, who was at the helm in the days before Network Associates era in the mid 1990s. The president and CEO is a soft-spoken but very intense man that is very focused on the task at hand, making PGP into the best encryption software provider bar none. Dunkelberger has a long heritage with his technology chops, going back to Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Labs in the late 1970s when they introduced the Star workstation, the precursor of the modern PC. He runs both Mac and Windows PCs today. We caught up with him recently in San Francisco, where he spoke to us about how the company was formed, where it is going, and how its channel and products have evolved.

Q. How easy was it to take PGP’s assets out of Network Associates (NAI)?

A: It was actually fairly easy for us. NAI had told the world that they were going to discontinue innovating PGP and that they weren’t going to support the products. So the end of life notice was already given when we picked up the assets from NAI.

I have seen more and more resurrected companies since we did our deal. There are a number of small and big opportunities and the traditional venture mode is changing. You can get a head start by acquiring these assets. My advice to entrepreneurs is instead of build it yourself to begin with look for proven, standards-based technology or a vertical market, and then pursue this because in our case it certainly gave us a running start.

Building a real business these days requires a lot deeper and broader set of skills than what was required five or seven years ago: your management team has to be deeper, your VCs have to be more patient. People aren’t as quick to bet on innovative companies these days. If you are entrepreneur, I would recommend that you buy an existing customer base.

Q: Do you ever use a public kiosk or public wifi network to get your own email?

A: I am pretty good about using our own security products. I don’t ever roam freely around those networks without any protection, and there are certain things that I won’t do on a public network. And if you are in a hotel in Europe if you aren’t protected you will likely get some form of malware on your machine from their networks.

Most of the time when I travel I use TMobile’s service, although I have used many others. On a recent trip to Europe I was on Vodaphone’s network at the Munich airport and Swisscom in Switzerland. I also use our own products extensively, including our own disk encryption and firewalls. Although right now I am testing Symantec’s Norton desktop firewall and several VPN clients as part of our internal quality assurance tests. All of us, and especially the executives at PGP, run a lot of different things to test our software against. It was a lucky thing that I had more than one VPN client installed, as one worked on the Lufthansa flight back from Europe and one didn’t. That was very fortuitous.
Q: How important to you personally is hard disk encryption?

A: I have had my laptop taken away from me briefly at airports for security screenings, and have the screeners pick it off the belt where I can’t see it, and that motivates me to make sure that everything on it is encrypted. Our product really is a godsend, and all my files on my laptop are encrypted. These days securing your data and not just encapsulation of the pipe is becoming more and more important, and an absolute business requirement.

Q: How does a corporation get started on setting up email security policy options?

A: We have seen this happen in variety of different ways: channel, reach, compliance and remediation, and industry-specific situations. First, it helps by having a robust channel with some focus on vertical markets where a company is under some kind of compliance and has some kind of external force pushing them to encrypt and protect their email traffic. Second, we have also seen many small businesses that are in business servicing someone big, and that big company mandates their suppliers and customers send email using PGP. We have a large auto manufacturer in Germany that has 5,000 suppliers and that mandated all of those small businesses to send email with PGP. Both are easier entries than just going in there cold and trying to get people to realize that file attachments are an issue.

As we look at the overall trends in business, there is more awareness about security in general and encryption. For example, in California there are small real estate companies and banks that are very aware of what they have to do to secure their data.

Q: You got your start with selling command-line encryption tools. How is that market doing?

A: We re-introduced the command line encryption products the middle of last year, and the business has grown 100% a quarter for the past three quarters. It has been a very pleasant surprise. We have had days where people order $50,000 off our Web site with their own credit cards. We have everything from a large aircraft manufacturer that takes all of the manuals to banks on Wall Street using the command line product. Some of our customers are encrypting their backup files and then storing them on tapes.

Q: Who of the surviving email security vendors is your competition these days?

A: We usually have two kinds of competitors now. First are the PKI infrastructure vendors, including Microsoft, Entrust, Cisco, Juniper, Aventail and those kinds of solutions. We usually win based on usability and reliability. Then we also have traditional email vendors that are selling into particular vertical markets such as Tumbleweed and Sigaba, and we win when the solution involves more than just selling email as part of the entire solution. We tend to be a suite vendor rather than selling a single product.

Q: Your PGP Universal product is supposedly very easy to deploy. Can you give me an example?

A: Universal is ready to run on a number of platforms, you just add hardware, and it works. Our biggest solution to date was with one of the top pharmaceutical firms and we had it running in less than 30 days for over 70,000 users. One of the very valuable features of the product is something we call “learn mode” which means the product just observes the traffic but doesn’t interfere with the mail stream and is very useful to help our installers as they tune the system to a particular customer’s needs.

Q: What do you think of the Microsoft/Groove announcement?

A: I think this validates the whole idea of peer-to-peer security that we have been talking about for many years and we welcome what they are doing.

Q: Tell me more about how you have developed your channel program and how it evolved.

A: We have three tiers of resellers. The top tier has the same training that our own system engineers have, and have to be able to install all the products and understand their interaction with our various partner products as well. The next tier has specific service contracts typically for larger corporate customers and they only need to know a couple of our products. The last tier are not very solutions oriented, just sell in quantity one to five units, typically only deal with our desktop products and specialize with one or two products and not sell enterprise-level products.

Our channel has evolved over the past several years. We now have 300 resellers in 91 countries and have added 30,000 new customers in the less than three years since we began our company and taken it out of NAI. In fact, our sales now are better than any of the years when we were part of NAI.

When I was in charge of sales at Symantec, we found that you couldn’t rely on the channels to create demand for new products like PGP Universal. The channel makes money on support, service, hardware management, off-site monitoring and so forth. But we had to go out and find the market segment, recruit the resellers, and do things like build hands-on labs to train our VARs and find other partnerships that would work for us.

For example we just put on a four-day training session in Singapore, for our local partners. We get everyone involved in installing the software and understanding how the products work in a very hands-on session.

But we also established a series of technology partnerships with vendors that have major email solutions such as IronPort, SendMail and MailFrontier. These vendors all offer things like anti-spam and content filtering solutions. First they wanted to cross-train their sales teams to resell our products and as their gained experience with PGP they became OEMs and wanted to bundle their software with ours on a single box. Now they are an active channel for us and we have consolidated reporting. They sell a single solution and everyone gets a better margin and the customer gets one vendor to buy all of it from and fewer vendors to deal with for front line support.

Q: So any final thoughts?

A: We have become successful because of several things. First, encryption is just becoming a standard feature for more and more people. It operates down at the transport layer and is just like a network dial tone, what I call “encryption tone” these days. Second, we got a great start by being established and not having to recreate everything from scratch when we came out of NAI. Third, it helps that we are an open standards vendor and we publish our source code. We wish more companies would publish their code as well. Finally, we have a very good product road map and we spend a lot of time listening to our customers, asking them what they want in the next two versions of the products and so forth.

Read More
Dark blogs

(Note: this was first written in 2005.)

Blogs are everywhere, and you know they have reached the point of no return when corporate IT departments begin to evaluate different blogging software tools and the topic gets cover story treatment from Business Week and Fast Company, for those of you that haven’t looked at a printed magazine in a while.

But what got me going was reading the a research report written by Suw Charman called Dark Blogs: The Use of Blogs in Business. The report is a case study of large European pharmaceutical company’s implementation of Traction Software’s TeamPage, a commercial blogging tool. Given that the report was paid for by Traction, you want to take a few of its conclusions with care, but still it gives some good advice when it comes to implementing blogs in the corporate world.

There has been a lot written about using corporate blogs for external communication, such as the CEO blogs from Schwartz, Cuban et al. But what caught my eye was how blogs have developed into a new IT tool for internal communications of the common cubicle dwellers, deep behind the corporate firewall (hence the name dark blog).

Before I roll through Charman’s conclusions I want to point out a couple of things that struck me reading her report. The pharma needed some software to keep track of its competitors and have a central place where researchers and corporate management could easily capture this information and comment on it. They were having problems with keeping up to date and getting the right people to discuss what was going on, and went looking for solutions.

They weren’t happy with their previous systems, using various Web-based intranets and applications built on top of Lotus Notes. The information they track is fairly unstructured and comes from lots of different sources. Notes is a very structured program, which is great for building databases on the fly but not so great if the information doesn’t have a consistent format and structure. The company wanted something that had the group collaboration dynamic of a blog, with the flavor of editing-on-the-fly of a wiki that was easy to use and didn’t require special software outside of the Web browser. Does this sound familiar? I can’t tell you how many companies I talk to want something similar. Heck, I want something similar for my crew here at Tom’s.

So what happened? The company built its blogs (they had several underway, which shows you how useful they were) in such a way as to tie in with the corporate LDAP directory structure (for a single user login) and to provide email notifications when new entries were posted. I think both of these are big reasons for its success, because it wasn’t as technologically disruptive to the corporate culture as it could have been. Pharmas are big email consumers, and having a blog technology that fit in with their email habits was important.

Second, they ran their blog like we run our publishing mini-empire here at Tom’s, with an editor-in-chief and a publishing process that was well defined to get material from the individual author to the Web. A lot of people mistake this process with censorship or control of information, but the actual use (and what seems to be happening at this pharma company) is to polish and make the information readable and attractive and organized. The Traction software also allows for an edit audit trail to see who was editing what piece when and a permissions system so that not everyone can edit or even view every piece. Too many blogs are just typing and not a real editorial product. You need extra pairs of eyes and brains (hopefully both connected and working together) to make sure that what gets posted makes sense.

Charman mentioned these other lessons:

  • Taking blogs to the corporate masses
  • The blogs’ aims were clear and precise and had been well defined
  • The project had the full support of the CEO and upper management
  • There was a well constructed project plan, which included consideration of high level issues such as structure, taxonomy and search requirements as well as day to day user requirements
  • The open commenting system allows for dialogue with users
  • Integration with existing systems and technologies created a more seamless user experience
  • Read permission control means that potentially sensitive information can only be accessed only by those who need it

Charman says in the report that “Compared to setting up a similar project on a more traditional CMS or KM platform, the project has been simpler, faster, more effective and less expensive to implement.” And that is perhaps the best lesson for today’s IT departments: find a technology that you can roll out quickly, that doesn’t require a great deal of training, and get the right people behind it. While you are at it, roll it out to a focused user group to build word of corporate mouth prior to a company-wide launch.

Looking for more tips about dark blogs? CIO Insight’s Edward Cone offers these suggestions in his story about corporate blogging.

Blogging.org has a nice rundown on how to make money with your blog that is aimed more for individuals, but still has some great advice for corporations.

Granted, blogs are the new religion, or the new color black, or the return of/son of push technology or the latest killer app, depending on your time and tenure in the IT industry. But like so many other corporate IT projects, their success or failure hinges not on the actual technology itself, but how you finesse the people parts of the equation and sell the app to userland.  The pharma case study is a good example of these “softer” parts of the IT equilibrium and how well it can work. It is nice to see that sometimes IT can get it right and be the good guys for a change.

Read More
1 186 187 188 189 190 197