How to have a PC perfect 2002

Whether it's fame, fortune or the latest software upgrade you are hoping for, Charles Arthur offers guidance on how to make the most of the new year
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The Independent Online

Are you sitting there wondering how your new – or more likely slightly ageing – PC could bring you fame and fortune in the New Year? Or perhaps, more prosaically, you want to know how to make better use of this piece of technology, thousands of times more sophisticated than the computers used to land men on the Moon (as everyone keeps pointing out) but which, for some reason, is only used by you to e-mail your relatives, write letters to your bank and surf the web?

Are you sitting there wondering how your new – or more likely slightly ageing – PC could bring you fame and fortune in the New Year? Or perhaps, more prosaically, you want to know how to make better use of this piece of technology, thousands of times more sophisticated than the computers used to land men on the Moon (as everyone keeps pointing out) but which, for some reason, is only used by you to e-mail your relatives, write letters to your bank and surf the web?

Well, it's easy to offer a few recommendations about what will be important in 2002. Whether you can take advantage of them is another matter.

For fame and fortune, nothing beats devising a website or application where you build on people's existing habits. This is the key to the success of Friendsreunited, which began as a small-scale idea for getting old school friends together and, through word-of-mouth, this year exploded in popularity with millions of registered users, to become a world-consuming idea for getting old school friends together.

Thinking small and personal is the key to the web. EBay is the biggest and by far the most successful (and perhaps most profitable) auction site on the web. But what did that start from? The wish of one of its founders to swap the Pez dispensers she collected with like-minded souls around the US; Pezreuinited, if you like.

The sex industry, of course, is famously profitable on the net. And the music-sharing site, Napster, was a phenomenon which had about 20 million users when it was shut down (what made it so popular was it let people get music as easily as riffling through a collection of albums in a shop, but without the moody assistants).

If you want to do something that succeeds next year, then observe things that people do and fit your brilliant idea around that. Don't believe that because you've had a good idea, people will change their habits to incorporate it. They won't. That is the rock on which many well-funded commercial ventures have foundered.

Next, beware, because copyright fights in 2002 will bite. The music industry is finally getting its act together, after realising people really can copy CDs on a wide scale – and they don't even have to nip down to a car boot sale to get them. With CD-writers included in most consumer desktop PCs sold over the past two years, record companies have begun to bleed from millions of tiny nicks inflicted by people making copies of albums.

So, now, they're installing copy protection on to CDs. But, as solutions go, this has the potential to be worse than the problem, at least from the buyer's point of view (since the only problem most consumers see is that CD albums cost a lot compared to the raw material).

Copy-protected albums won't play in PCs. But, if your CD player is a PC, what do you do? Subscribe to the music businesses' online services such as Pressplay or MusicNet? You can't, because they haven't worked out the rights agreements for Europe, so British users would be unwelcome. (AOL users could pretend; they show up as US-based dot.com users.)

And, while BTOpenworld and Peter Gabriel's OD2 have signed a distribution agreement, it's very limiting: what if you have a CD player and a PC, and want to play the same music on both? You can't. By the way, don't expect the cost of albums will halve to reflect this paring of playability.

It might, though, be time to wonder why you're using certain Microsoft programs. Still using Windows 95/99, Internet Explorer, Hotmail and Outlook Express? If you got through 2001 without being affected by at least one, and probably more like five, viruses, then you're a lucky soul indeed. (Or else nobody knows your e-mail.) That combination contains the most-attacked group of programs in the world.

Windows 95 and 98 (and their weird sibling, Windows Me) are riddled with security holes, because they are built to allow sharing of data over the Net, but don't have much in the way of default security. Internet Explorer, Hotmail and Outlook Express are constant targets of hackers seeking "exploits". Many exploit Microsoft's Visual Basic Scripting language, which can pass data between different programs and alter the most fundamental characteristics of the your setup at the registry level.

The worries haven't gone away with WindowsXP, either: just before Christmas, Microsoft announced there was a serious weakness that could leave your machine open to hackers if you simply logged onto the internet. You should find it at the "more downloads" link from www.microsoft.com, (or at http://www. microsoft.com/downloads/searchdl.asp?): it's called Patch for Windows XP, ME, 98, 98SE Plug and Play Services and is only 228K. But, Mr Gates, what was that about how wonderful XP would be? Perhaps this is an uneXPected side. But hardly unpredicted.

In terms of general protection, antivirus programs seem like a good idea but to be effective, they must simultaneously scan all new files arriving at your desktop and stay up to date with every new virus created – even those that haven't been discovered by the antivirus company itself.

Logic suggests this isn't possible and, though some companies will moan loudly that they use "heuristics" (behaviour analysis) to block new viruses, all it needs is for the heuristics to fail once and let through the one that wipes your data and fries your BIOS. That will send you back to the antivirus software licence, which will assume no responsibility for loss of data following use of the product.

Want to feel safe? Stop using Outlook Express and use something you pay for. (Make sure it lets you transfer your existing mail, of course.) Try a different browser from Explorer.

And Hotmail is now the gateway to millions of bits of spam mail. While it may be easy to set up via WindowsXP (the machine nags you to), it really doesn't feel like the safest place to be, bearing in mind the worms, bugs, compromises and general sustained attacks on Microsoft products.

However, you might take a lesson from those hackers and learn a little programming. Remember how we mentioned your computer could land people on the Moon a few hundred times over? The reason it isn't doing that but is putting squiggly red and green lines under that letter you're typing, is that most people think computer programs, because they come in shrinkwrap, can't be made by humans.

That's rather like assuming that because milk comes in plastic bottles that there's no other way to acquire it. But guess what: right there in front of you is a big old cow.

Windows has Visual Basic, a remarkable, powerful (and allegedly well-designed) "object-oriented programming language" – that is, you can write it in chunks. Linux users have anything they choose; Apple owners have Applescript, which can be used to automate many tasks across the computer and the web. If you're still collecting your own e-mail, manually opening the same web pages, formatting big chunks of text or extracting columns of figures from a weekly or monthly spreadsheet – in fact if you find yourself doing anything and grumbling "I thought computers were meant to take the routine out of life, not put it in" – then pick up a book about object-oriented programming. Once you write a few programs to make your computer do the work, you'll wonder why you ever bothered yourself.

Finally, guard your e-mail address and mobile number because 2002 is going to see a depressing rise in the amount of "spamming" (bulk e-mail) by British companies to any e-mail address they can get their hands on and to any mobile phone they can contact with PLS BUY R PRDCTS NOW. With downturn looming (if not already here), many companies are wriggling desperately in search of any measure that might attract more people through their doors. If your e-mail address falls into their clutches, they'll send you rubbish and they'll sell your address on to others.

So, be very wary before signing up at corporate web pages and putting your full life history in. Spam is annoying and will eventually render your e-mail unusable, so it's also a good idea to set up multiple addresses, one of which you use for all those "carefully targeted" messages – whence you can carefully target them into the bin.

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