The curious decision from Microsoft to buy Skype has the tech world wondering if the former 800-pound gorilla will ever come to its senses. While Skype is world famous, and widely used in both the personal and business world, profits have been little to none. Only a small portion of the service’s users actually pay anything; most are content with free peer-to-peer communications from personal computers and mobile devices.
Yes, Skype does offer a decent range of paid services, which allow you to make and receive calls to regular phones at extremely low rates. There are even portable phones and other gadgets that allow you to use Skype in the same fashion as a regular phone company, although there’s no support for E911. That means, here in America, if you dial 911 for help on a Skype connection, police and rescue workers can’t find you unless you tell them where you are.
Worse, over the years Microsoft hasn’t done well with large acquisitions. Spending $8.5 billion on a company without proven profit potential doesn’t seem the most sensible move, since Microsoft already has decent audio and video chatting capability with their free chat apps. The system doesn’t operate on a peer-to-peer basis, meaning the host computer, yours or someone else’s, manages the bandwidth. Microsoft’s server farms handle the load, but it does work well enough. The major element missing is the ability to work with traditional landline and mobile phones. Surely Microsoft could have developed such enhancements for far less than $8.5 billon, though the iconic Skype name has to count for something.
Well, we covered that subject in detail this week on The Tech Night Owl LIVE, where Macworld’s Lex Friedman discussed the proposed acquisition, and, from the Apple Mac universe, the advantages and disadvantages of the Magic Mouse and the Magic Trackpad. Actually, I prefer a Logitech MX Revolution, because my wrist periodically develops aches with a Magic Mouse.
Noted industry analyst Ross Robin, of the NPD Group, provided further insights into the marriage of Microsoft and Skype, and then dealt with the good, bad, and ugly aspects of 3D TV, and how it’s faring in the marketplace.
You’ll also learned about the history and the latest version of FileMaker Pro from Ryan Rosenberg, the company’s VP of marketing and services. He also offered case histories of how this database app is used in the real world, such as managing a rock and roll concert.
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris take a fascinating journey through the history of UFO research with Tim “Mr. UFO” Beckley, who has been active since his teenaged years in the 1960s, and prolific paranormal author Tim Swartz.
Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt. We’re taking orders direct from our new Official Paracast Store, where you can place your order and pay with a major credit card or PayPal. The shirts come in white, 100% cotton, and feature The Paracast logo on the front. The rear emblem states: “Separating Signal From Noise.” We’ve also added a selection of additional special custom-imprinted merchandise for fans of our show.
The questions of Internet security are filling blogs and news reports more often these days. Both Apple and Google recently appeared in Congress to explain their privacy policies, in the wake of the discovery that the Location feature of iOS devices was flawed. Security researchers discovered this “nasty secret,” that the tracking file created to allow these gadgets to know, roughly speaking, where you are at any particular time, were not being deleted when Location was switched off.
As usual with such sessions, politicians use the opportunity to posture and swagger in the guise of asking critical questions about problems that might affect their constituents. They hope for the sound bites that will lead broadcast news and cable outlets that evening, not to mention the ads in the next campaign season.
This time, Apple beat Congress to the punch, making most of the critical fixes to the iOS ahead of that session. So, the tracking cache won’t be copied to iTunes as part of your backup, data over seven days old will be removed, and, if you turn the thing off, it is really off. The latter was, according to Apple, a bug. It wasn’t meant to work that way.
At the same time, there came reports of a new effort a social engineering involving fake Mac security software. This is the sort of problem that already exists on the Windows platform, where an app pretends to scan your computer, and warns you of non-existent virus infections. You want to get rid of them? Buy a license for the app and you will be perfectly safe. But not safe from someone who wants to steal your hard-earned money for a service that doesn’t do anything — other than line the pockets of the developers.
I suppose the timing makes sense. Mac sales are soaring, PC sales are flattening, and there really haven’t been any widespread malware threads on the Apple platform. At the same time, personal computer owners continue to regularly confront security threats, even though even Microsoft’s Windows 7 is supposedly extremely secure from such maladies.
In a lengthy feature article in the June 2011 issue of Consumer Reports, entitled “Online exposure,” there are these telling sentences about the malware impact: “One-third of households we surveyed had experienced a malicious software infection in the previous year. All told, we estimate that malware cost consumers $2.3 billion last year and caused them to replace 1.3 million PCs.”
I assume CR’s editors can add, so I’ll take the figures as accurate. But what CR doesn’t tell you is that 100% of those losses are for Windows-based PCs. There is no evidence, yet, of any financial losses from alleged Mac OS X outbreaks, although there have been occasional infections. This is one more example of CR’s unfortunate bias in writing about personal technology.
CR’s piece also warns about security issues on mobile devices, in a section entitled “Lock down your mobile phone.” Halfway into this section, you find the real target of their concern, when the magazine recommends that you: “Be careful when downloading apps. Apple’s iPhones can use software only from Apple’s tightly controlled App Store. The market for Android apps isn’t as restrictive.”
There’s no need to quote anything more. Those three sentences say it all. You need to be cautious about downloading apps from sources of Android OS software, because Google has bare bones controls. It’s even a good idea to use security software, just as you do on a Windows PC, although the situation isn’t quite as dangerous there, assuming you have the latest and greatest Windows OS. Indeed, that may be the reason why so many Windows users remain vulnerable. They aren’t keeping their PCs up to date, and thus suffer the consequences.
Apple’s App Store, being carefully curated, is far less likely to miss a potentially dangerous app. In the unlikely event it happens, Apple will pull the kill switch then and there.
In the final section of the article, CR examines popular security software. Other than a couple of references to Windows, however, they never tell you that none of the software they examine is designed for Macs. Yes, some of the major security companies do have Mac antivirus software, and there are companies, such as Intego, which specialize in Mac apps, but they don’t rate a mention in CR.
So, as usual, the Mac universe gets short shrift by CR. They make no effort to compare the Mac OS versus Windows when it comes to security, and susceptibility to malware. Those bogus security apps I mentioned rely on fooling you into believing there is a problem, rather than actually infecting your computer with something that’s truly dangerous.
Social engineering is what phishing scams depend on, since they usually consist of emails that purport to be from a company with which you do business, such as a bank or other financial institution. If you click on the links, you’ll be taken to a make-believe version of the site you think you’re visiting, where, if you enter your username and password, it’ll be harvested by criminals who will then compromise your real accounts. But today’s Web browsers will warn you if you’re visiting a phishing site; that is, if their databases have been updated about the new threat.
While all this is going on, there’s also a report now that Face-book and Google are embroiled in a “battle to the death” over privacy policies and social networking. What I do know is that I’m not inclined to want to expose much of myself to either service, although I do have a Face-book account. Indeed, if you ignore the poorly researched PC-oriented material on CR’s article, the advice on protecting your social networking accounts, credit cards, and other accounts, is reasonably useful.
With all those dire online threats, though, I sometimes wonder whether barter might be a better solution for exchanging goods and services.
They used to say that over 90% of the email sent worldwide consisted of spam. These annoying messages contained everything from fake offers for male and female sexual enhancement, to messages that claimed to come from a financial company with which you deal, with the purpose in mind of stealing your bank accounts.
However, a report of spam activity for 2010, from Kaspersky Lab, a security app developer and researcher, reported that spam volume had declined to just a tad over 70% last October 28. This is the result of closing down some major sources of junk mail, connected to the infamous Waledac botnet, earlier that year.
This survey appears to me on track. On a personal level, I don’t get near as much stuff in my Junk mail folders, among all my email accounts, as I used to. Clearly methods to combat the problem have borne fruit in the real world, although I wonder if the perpetrators of this garbage are simply opting to take their criminal activities elsewhere, such as mining your data from social networks, such as Face-book.
That doesn’t mean that spam is going away anytime soon. The Night Owl has worked hard to keep our mailboxes under control, trying different email services, and refining our server’s spam blocking capabilities.
If you don’t want to manage your own email system, there are packaged services from such hosts as GoDaddy, 1and1 Internet, and Rackspace. You pay a small sum monthly (or a somewhat larger sum annually) and get fully featured mailboxes, spiffy (for the most part) Webmail, and decent spam protection. If you don’t want to pay anything, there’s always Gmail, which can actually be made to work with your custom personal or business domain (it doesn’t have to be email@example.com, for example), but if you want total freedom from targeted ads you have to pay for a Google Apps for Business package, which is $50 annually for each user.
If you already are using email from your host, or perhaps the office Exchange Server, you may not see a need to pay a separate monthly fee for something you should already have. Unfortunately, the email systems most hosts provide as standard issue consist of little more than a handful of open source software to block bogus email, which usually includes SpamAssassin, to scan for junk messages, and ClamAV, to handle the potential virus factor. They’re not very effective in their default configurations, and, when I used them, dozens of missed messages were left to Apple Mail to deposit in the Junk folder.
If you’re ready to pay a one-time $45 license fee for your cPanel dedicated or VPS server, you can sign up with the CSF MailScanner system, which is basically a highly tweaked version of SpamAssassin and ClamAV. In my experience, it’s extremely effective, though it takes a fair amount of fine tuning, with the whitelist (for good mail) and the blacklist (for bad mail), before it reaches its optimum level of protection.
Perhaps the best solution of all is to buy a hardware spam blocker, from such companies as Barracuda Networks. Barracula’s worldwide service gathers information on current junk mail threats and known offenders, so the filtering hardware, kind of a glorified network switch, will protect you. To set up this system, you will have to divert your email settings through the company that has your Web domain, which is a fairly easy process, to allow the email to be funneled through a Barracuda device, before it hits your email server.
But a Barracuda Spam & Virus Firewall isn’t cheap. The basic model 100 system, which handles up to 10 domains, and 50 users, is $699, list. A large business might consider the model 1000, the top-of-the-line Enterprise version, which costs a small fortune — $89,999. Imagine what kind of motor vehicle you can get for that princely sum.
To give Barracuda its due, we’ve partnered with iWeb, a large Canadian Web host, which offers such spam protection for $8 per domain every month. They’re using the model 600, listing for $8,999, which supports up to 10,000 users across 5,000 domains. I don’t know how many units they have deployed, but that’s a pretty decent investment. Fortunately, the monthly subscription rates are affordable for any small business.
For the end-user, a Barracuda is as set-and-forget as you can get. You don’t have to configure anything beyond the default settings, and you’ll get powerful spam protection. In my case, I did some minor tweaks to allow the system to “Quarantine” a higher percentage of suspected messages. The decision was mostly out of paranoia, because I didn’t want it to mistakenly block good email. But I needn’t have bothered. Since iWeb’s Barracuda service went into effect, my junk mail load is down to near nothing, maybe a few messages every day or so across a number of protected accounts.
While I do not believe the spam scourge is totally under control, it’s good to know that there are affordable (and not-so-affordable) methods to keep it from reaching your email box.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
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