Internet commentary

Soldering & Surface Mount Technology

ISSN: 0954-0911

Article publication date: 1 August 2004



Ellis, B. (2004), "Internet commentary", Soldering & Surface Mount Technology, Vol. 16 No. 2.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Internet commentary

  • I would not enter on my list of friends ... the man Who needlessly sets foot upon a worm[1]

At the time of writing, we are being plagued by yet another worm, MyDoom, aka half-a-dozen other names. At least one person has my name on his address list, is foolish enough to use Outlook or Outlook Express and sufficiently stupid to have opened an unsolicited and unidentified attachment. I know this because I have received hundreds of "bounces" from Web sites with firewalls which have rejected the receipt of the same virus. When will people learn?

This time, Microsoft have offered a reward of $250,000 for information leading to the prosecution of the perpetrators of this virus. I don't think this is a good idea. If it is generalised, it will encourage people in Third World countries to write new viruses, have a friend denounce them and split the proceeds between them and the judicial authorities. However, it could also be interpreted as an admission that Microsoft software is responsible for the propagation of this worm.

Bill Gates has recently announced, at the Davos World Economic Forum that his company will have killed spam within a couple of years. His proposal is to introduce a method whereby e-mail messages will be charged a nominal fee. The notion is that, if you and I send a few dozen e-mails per day, and each one is charged one or two cents, then this is not catastrophic. If, as is common today, a spammer were to send two or three million messages, this would cost a small fortune. Will it work? I personally cannot see it being effective, because it would mean that every single ISP in the world would have to co-operate. Even less effective would be the idea to subscribe to a system, run by Microsoft at a cost, of course, whereby the company puts virtual stamps on each non-pre-approved message and the cost of these "stamps" is charged to the originator, assuming he can be traced and he is willing (and able) to pay.

Subscribers to the system would probably not even be able to receive e-mails from originators who were not pre-approved. A whitelist filter on the e-mail client would be just as effective and would cost almost nothing!

Quite frankly, I think the only way to handle spam is to make sure that it cannot be read. The ISP that I use pre-filters the more blatant spam (and virus-containing messages), eliminating probably about 80 per cent before it even reaches my mail box. I'm not sure that I like this because there is always the risk of a false positive, meaning a message which I can never see. I admit that this risk is very small. The 20 per cent of spam which does get through is effectively filtered by my own system and it takes me only a few seconds per day to check against false positives and eliminate the lot, unread, in one fell swoop.

While on the subject of Microsoft, the company has just announced that they have provided the means to block yet another "serious security threat" in various versions of Windows. I have some questions which are as follows.

  • Why has it taken several years for this threat to be discovered, if it is deemed "serious"?

  • The discovery was made by a specialist security company, outside of Microsoft, over 6 months back. If the threat is "serious", why did it take over 6 months to issue a patch, bearing in mind that Microsoft claim to respond to urgent problems within 3 months?

I think it may appear that Microsoft's credibility problem is worsening. This could even be exacerbated by the source codes for some Windows versions being leaked on the Internet. The company's immediate reaction was to say that it made Windows more vulnerable to attacks. Yet Linux, which has open-source code, which is very widely distributed, does not appear to be over- vulnerable to the worst effects of crackers and hackers. Is there a contradiction here?

I have often written about e-mail clients and I shall probably write still more articles on the subject, so this one will be no exception. As regular readers will know, I have always been very cautious about using Outlook or Outlook Express, mainly because of the security implications, such as those outlined above. As a result, I have been using Netscape, in various versions, for nearly 10 years. The latest version, 7.02, has been extremely good but does suffer from a few disadvantages. From time to time, I have tried various other e-mail clients, such as Opera, Eudora and so on. I have never been convinced to change to one of them.

Having read eulogistic criticisms of Pegasus, I thought I would give that one a try. It was quite an interesting experience and it is certainly the most "geekish" e-mail client that I have tried, up till now. However, it had a number of features which I simply did not like, even after using it continuously for several weeks. I therefore regretfully abandoned this idea.

During the time that I was trying Pegasus. I thought I would take a poll of what some of my friends were using. The results are shown in Table I.

Now, I don't pretend that this table is representative of the Internet community, as a whole, because many of my correspondents are possibly above-average in computer savvy. I was quite surprised, nevertheless, to find that fewer than half were using Outlook, in any form. This may also be partially explained by the fact that a few of them (especially in the "Other clients" category) are using MacOS or Linux platforms. I noted that the three clients that I tried while seeking a better choice than Netscape (Eudora, Pegasus and Opera) all obtained fairly low scores. I was, however, surprised to see how few were using Netscape, which I had always considered as the main alternative to the Microsoft clients (it used to be the Number 1, before Microsoft considered that the Internet was here to stay and tipped up the level playing field).

Now, Netscape is an off-shoot of Mozilla, using the same basic open-source code. This inspired me to have a closer look at Mozilla in its various guises. The full Mozilla is actually very similar to Netscape, as can be expected. This means that it is rather top-heavy. However, some time back, the Mozilla developers realised this and started to split it into lighter, simpler, modules, rather than have everything under one roof, while keeping the basic functionality. The main parts are Mozilla Thunderbird as the competition to Outlook and Mozilla Firebird for Microsoft Internet Explorer. Although, at the time of writing, the applications are not yet fully released, they are already extremely stable and reliable.

I've been using both Thunderbird and Firebird for some months, from now. To give you an idea of how I'm impressed at this lean and mean software, I've made them, a month or so ago, my default e-mail client and browser and I've stopped using Netscape, except for archival reference. The changeover has been totally painless. The implementation of POPFile, the Bayesian mailbox filter I've been using for over a year, was easy. Thunderbird also has a Bayesian filter, but I have not tested this because it is only a simple spam/not-spam implementation and POPFile gives me full satisfaction with many more facilities, including automatic sorting to different mailboxes, and features.

Does Netscape offer anything that Thunderbird doesn't? I think the answer must be negative, although the implementation of the menus is different. Of course, Thunderbird has eliminated all the annoying little Netscape-oriented features, including the force-feeding of AOL and a few other related sites. One feature I particularly like, compared with Netscape 7.x, is that the left hand box of Thunderbird shows the "folders" tree by default, but it changes to the Address Book when in any mode, whereby a message is being prepared for sending (in Netscape, although it was configurable, the two windows were above and below each other, giving insufficient space for either).

Thunderbird has become an extremely practical tool and, now that it is stand-alone, should logically give Outlook and Outlook Express a better run for their costless money, even for those who still wish to use Internet Explorer for browsing. Changing to Thunderbird will eliminate many of the security hazards associated with the Microsoft clients and the use of their Address Book by worms. I can highly recommend it.

Having consecrated the Netscape e-mail client to the virtual waste paper-basket (or shredder), what about browsing? Well, Firebird is equally lean and mean, yet retaining all the useful features that I'm used to, and more besides. I particularly like having Google as a default part of the main toolbar – in Netscape, I used a plug-in to add it to its own toolbar, but it frequently spontaneously disappeared. Also, the optional sidebar can be controlled by toolbar icons to allow one to switch between bookmarks, downloaded files and history. Gone is the need to use Ctrl-H to find a site you looked at a couple of days back, although the facility is still there if you want it, but it toggles it into the same place and not into a pop-up window. Talking of pop-ups, the "Block Pop-up Windows" option is still there, with the ability to override it for given Web sites (sometimes particularly necessary for on-line banking) but it has the advantage that it is no longer overridden for Netscape sites.

E-mail client         No. votes        Percentage    
Outlook 14 20.00
Outlook express 17 24.29
Netscape 2 2.86
Mozilla 10 14.29
Mozilla thunderbird     7 10.00
Eudora 3 4.29
Pegasus 2 2.86
Opera 5 7.14
TheBat 1 1.43
Other clients 9 12.86
Total 70 100

Table I

One shouldn't forget, either, that Mozilla introduced tabs into browsing a few years back; this allows you to switch between any reasonable number of open web pages by a simple click on a tab. It is a wonderfully useful feature that some other browsers have copied, but many have not.

The $64,000 question (wow! That dates me, doesn't it?) is whether it is worthwhile changing from another browser to Firebird? If you are currently using Netscape and are changing your e-mail client to Thunderbird, the answer is an unequivocal yes. If you are using Microsoft Internet Explorer, there are definite security advantages, as many illicit bugs specifically target IE. Also, MSIE does not fully conform to internationally accepted HTML and XML protocols, whereas Firebird does so, rigidly. The answer, then, is, yes, there are definite advantages in changing, even if it will take a day or two to accustom yourself to a slightly different layout and the numerous keyboard shortcuts. From other browsers? Well, I can't really say – maybe you should try it for yourself. All I can say is that I highly recommend it as a darned good browser.

So, are you interested in trying out my cutting-edge recommendations? Go to http:// to find out more about Thunderbird and Firebird. At the time of writing, it will cost you the time to download, respectively, about 7 and 6MB and a few minutes to install them by a simple copy (Windows versions). For comparison, the Netscape set-up procedure – which is hairy – involves decompressing 40MB into a set-up folder while the download is proceeding. Anyway, as the software is open source, it is free-of-charge. Versions are available for all flavours of Windows, MacOS and Linux. I don't think you will regret it – I haven't!

This is a technical journal, publishing peer- reviewed papers, usually of a high standard and theoretically devoid of commercial connotations (the practice may drift away from the theoretical ideal, from time to time, but that is an inevitable part of life). The fact that this journal does not support commercial advertising is very much a plus in its favour, because there cannot be pressure to promote advertisers' publications in its editorial pages. There are numerous commercially-oriented magazines available and some of these also publish technical articles of varying merit. These do not compete with technical journals but, rather, complement them. My review theme, therefore, is to look at this sector.

This well-known magazine from the UP Media Group opens to a Home Page whose main feature is a series of links to "Current News", mostly of a commercial nature. Below this are a couple or so of links to articles from the current issue of the hard copy magazine. The page is remarkably free from advertising. The left-hand side of the page shows, mostly, a text menu for general navigation, while the right side consists of a more pictorial menu to the current issue and some regular features. Naturally, I homed in on the current issue and found most of the articles available directly in PDF format. Slightly annoying is that each one was preceded by a page advertising the UP Media's own e-mail updating service (which some may regard as spam!).

The quality of these articles is generally descriptive and varies from good and informative to reasonable but obviously promoting given products manufactured coincidentally by the authors' employers. I homed in on one article, in particular, because it dealt very specifically with my area of expertise. It was very banal and offered no real information, bar a couple of technical errors, that had not been available for a number of years. This particular one did not offer any references, although some of the other articles did bear some thoughts for further reading. It should be noted that the articles in question are reproduced from the hard copy magazine, with a watermark but without the advertising. Altogether, this is quite a useful source of general information.

This site is a sister to the previous one, the magazine being Printed Circuit Design and Manufacture, in case the cryptic URL means nothing. Now, dear Reader, I can almost hear you asking what that has to do with the subject of this journal. Well, my answer is, "A lot". I believe in concurrent engineering as a means of cost- reduction and quality-improvement. If you are concerned with shooting components onto a PCB, please remember that someone designed that board and someone else manufactured it. Were you consulted as to what would make life easier for you, in terms of manufacturability? I'll hazard a guess: no! Did you go out of the way to tell these guys that you wanted more free space around a given component type or that putting some component types on a HASL surface is problematic? Possibly not. In which case, many of the problems you have are partially of your own making: tough! Just think, if the development engineer, the ECAD/EDA designer, the PCB-fab guy, the purchasing manager, the tester, the reliability expert and you all sat round a table at the start of the design stage and regularly thereafter, until the product was launched, you could tell each other what your requirements are, to the benefit of all.

So, reading this magazine would be of benefit to you, wouldn't it? Not convinced? Well, the keynote article in the current issue, as I write this, is entitled BGA Land Pattern and Assembly Issues. Otherwise, the site is very similar in style and layout to that of Circuits Assembly, albeit with, I believe, a tad more publicity.

As I write this, the Global SMT and Packaging site is undergoing a facelift, so I cannot comment on it, other than to say that, knowing the hard copy magazine, it is one of the best "freebies", with some very good articles and even papers. Hopefully, when this journal hits your In tray, the site will be up and running and, equally hopefully, well worth your visit. In the meanwhile, you can download the current issue and ask to be placed on the mailing list as a reader or as an advertiser.

Electronic Packaging and Production is, of course, one of the oldest magazines of this type. Even though the publishers, the Reed Electronics Group, are entirely independent from the UP Media Group, the Home Page of EP&P is quite similar in layout to that of the first two sites reviewed in this article. However, there is one difference I do not like and that is that the page is set up for a fixed width of 760 pixels. This means that optimum viewing is at 800 wide resolution or, possibly, 1024 if you use a browser with a sidebar. Anything else and you either lose part of the image from view or part of your screen width is wasted; in both cases, you have to scroll more than would have been necessary had a variable-width layout been used. On the positive side, the articles are faster to access, being HTML and not PDF, as well as not having that annoying introductory page.

Again, the articles are on a fixed-width page and the actual articles themselves are only about 480 pixels wide; this gives an average of about 12 words per line, so that it is necessary to scroll through 10 times the screen height for even quite a short article. Again, I homed in on an article relating to my speciality. By coincidence, it happened to come from the same source as the one I mentioned in the Circuits Assembly earlier in this article. This time, though, it was much more blatantly commercial, even to the extent of "knocking" the competition, with a host of half- truths cleverly worded to push their own product. I did not like this style, so I had a look at a few more articles to see whether this one was generic or had just managed to slip through. Sadly, it would appear to be generic and nearly all the articles I read had very commercial overtones, although most did not "knock" the competition but simply "pushed" the authors' own techniques. This does not mean that the articles are devoid of merit; simply, that the reader needs to use judgement to sift the facts from hype.

This is a magazine of an entirely different type, an in-house one destined to inform customers as to what is going on, new products and so on. This particular one, published by a company manufacturing enclosures for different purposes, is a very good example of the genre. Of course, its main function is a platform for publicity, but this is entirely in order. IPCMembers/IPC/Review/0204/ index.asp

Of course, you have to change the 0204 in the URL to the month/year of the issue you wish to see. This is the Web site version but it is also available in a PDF version by changing the URL's index.asp to 0204pdfofreview.pdf. However, I'm not too sure whether it is accessible to non- members, although I believe it is, after logging in. The IPC Review is well known to the IPC members, who receive it in hard copy. In most months, there is at least one technical paper or article and the IPC makes sure that it is essentially non-commercial.

The "front cover page" of each issue is, unfortunately, also fixed-width, this time at 800 pixels (as are most of the IPC Web sites), but this is slightly less serious than with EP&P, because there are about 640 pixels available for the meat of the page, a third more. I liked the menu column on the left. Hovering over an item revealed a slightly longer explanation. For example, in the February issue, hovering on "38 Years of Commitment in Europe" tells you that this link leads to an interview item "IPC's newest European representative talks with IPC's oldest member in Europe, Zincocelere". Nice!

As this article is slightly longer than usual, I have decided not to show you a screen capture of one of the sites visited.


Note1. I would not enter on my list of friends (Tho' graced with polished manners and fine sense, Yet wanting sensibility) the man Who needlessly sets foot upon a worm. William Cowper, The Task (1785) bk. 6 The Winter Walk at Noon l. 560.

Related articles