Monday, July 28, 2008

Firefox 3.0 - A better browser for the Internet

The browser is your window to the World Wide Web. Back in 1995, an Internet user needed different programs to use services like e-mail, file transfer, directory search, etc. Now, almost everything happens through the browser. The early days of the Web saw Netscape Navigator as the reigning browser. By the late 90's Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE), captured over 90% of the users simply because it was bundled with Windows.

Today another browser is winning the hearts of users worldwide - Firefox. Firefox started in 2004 with a simple objective; provide users with a speedier and secure Internet experience while adhering to standards. It was lean and easy to use. It did not suffer from Internet Explorer's security vulnerabilities. And it was free. Its goal was to recapture the Web from the clutches of IE.

Firefox 3.0 was released on June 17, 2008. It set a Guinness World Record for the most downloaded software in 24 hours - 8 million downloads! Today, IE's user share has slipped to around 60%.

What makes Firefox 3.0 so popular?

a) Performance. Firefox clocks 9.3 times faster than IE 7 and consumes one-third as much memory.

b) Security. Internet Explorer is deeply integrated inside Windows. Any security hole greatly compromises the system. Malicious software has taken advantage of this for years, forcing toolbars and spyware down your throat through IE. Firefox offers excellent protection against phishing and malware, in a manner easily understood by users.

c) Standards. The browser wars between Netscape and Microsoft caused a large deviation from WWW standards. Each wanted to capture the Web for itself. Firefox brought the standards back. Websites that only worked with IE are now adopting better coding standards and play nicely with other browsers.

d) Add-ons. Firefox has hundreds of "add-ons" that enhance user experience. There are add-ons for blogs, search, email, news, social networks and many more. My favourite is one that blocks those annoying advertisements on websites! More on ad-blocking in the next CyberWatch.

e) Better search, history and bookmarks. This is where Firefox has simply out-innovated IE. Smart bookmarks automatically remember your favourite websites. Google search and RSS feeds are also built-in.

The top 10 list of Firefox features covers these in more detail.

The "Field Guide to Firefox 3" covers all its features. Need I say more to encourage all readers to make the move to Firefox 3.0? Head over to http://getfirefox.com and enjoy a better Internet experience!

Published: Times of India, Ahmedabad, 5-Aug-08

Is anyone using your wireless network?


2008 witnessed a huge growth in the number of "Wi-fi" wireless networks and laptops in India. Wi-fi and laptops enjoy a symbiotic relationship. Wi-fi has made the laptop truly portable, bringing it the network without any wires. And thanks to a growing number of laptop toters, many businesses like hotels, coffee shops, bookstores and others offer Wi-fi Internet access to attract them.

Broadband Internet service has catalysed the growth of Wi-fi. BSNL and Airtel offer Wi-fi enabled DSL routers. Wi-fi technology is mature, standardized under what are called "IEEE 802.11" standards, and as a result cheap. Wi-fi routers are available for as low as Rs. 4000. All laptops have Wi-fi networking built in. Getting connected to a wireless network takes less than two minutes.

But wait, aren't we forgetting something? Your neighbour can also connect to your wireless network in less than two minutes! Is your wireless network secure? Last week's TOI article on war driving (http://tinyurl.com/toi16july) drew your attention to the dangers of insecure wireless networks. In 2005, U.S. garment retailer T.J.Maxx suffered the largest transaction theft in history thanks to an insecure wireless network in one of its stores. The damage exceeded USD 500 million and affected 100 million customer accounts. More details on http://tinyurl.com/tjxbreach.

During my interview with TOI on "war driving", I was asked: "Is Wi-fi always insecure?". Certainly not. Wireless networks can be secured with a few easy steps. However, it is the owners' responsibility to lock their "wireless doors". If you own a Wi-fi router or modem, follow these two steps to protect against cyber trespassers.

1. Enable Wi-fi encryption. Every wireless router supports encrypted communication. It is called Wi-fi Protected Access (WPA). WPA encrypts all communication on the wireless network. Only those with a valid WPA key can access your network.

2. Set up your WPA keys. A WPA key is like a password. Share it with those whom you want to allow on your network, just as you share house keys among family members. All laptops need to supply this key when connecting to your wireless network for the first time. The key is saved in the laptop's settings and used automatically when needed. And remember my advice for choosing good passwords!

Two excellent tutorials can be found at: http://tinyurl.com/wifisecurity1 and http://tinyurl.com/wifisecurity2. Owners of a BSNL Wi-fi modem can find help at http://tinyurl.com/bsnlwifi.

Published: Times of India, Ahmedabad, 26-Jul-08

Monday, July 14, 2008

The new iPhone is here!


11 July 2008 was a big day for Apple. It marked two milestones for what may become the most coveted gadget of 2008 - the iPhone 3G. iPhone 3G created such a bang that Apple's e-commerce servers worldwide were overwhelmed over the weekend. Apart from the new phone, Apple also released new "iPhone 2.0" software.

iPhone has not officially arrived in India, but many "early adopters" are toting the sleek device in their pockets. iPhone 1 had to be "jailbroken" - unlocked via some clever hacking - to be freed from AT&T's shackles.

What's new in iPhone 3G? Two notable improvements - 3G high speed mobile service and built-in GPS. Other than that, all improvements lie in the new - the "iPhone 2.0" platform.

The biggest software improvements are:

1. Push email with Microsoft Exchange. Blackberry, you have competition! Microsoft Exchange, the preferred corporate email server can now "push" corporate email to iPhone users.

2. MobileMe. Apple's new personal services for push email, contact synchronization, calendar sharing and more - "Everything up to date, anywhere you are".

3. The App Store. A few months ago, Apple opened up the iPhone to software developers worldwide, ushering in the next generation of mobile applications. iPhone users can download free and paid applications from the App Store. The top 10 free apps are at: http://tinyurl.com/free-iphone-apps

4. Location sensitive applications. Finding a restaurant nearby or looking up public transport schedules is now a snap. Coupled with services like Google Maps, location sensitive applications will become a big hit. And you cannot get lost!

The best part about "iPhone 2.0" is that it runs on all existing iPhones! Some clever people managed to unlock iPhone 2.0 within two hours of its release! Many still prefer to stick to their old iPhones with the new 2.0 software, as mentioned in http://tinyurl.com/iphone2-review

iPhone 3G shall arrive in India before the end of 2008 and may cost only half as much as its predecessor. However, beware of the hidden costs. Be prepared to surrender to multi-year contracts, exorbitant data rates and a myriad of hidden charges. Vodafone is charging Rs. 3 per SMS to pre-register for the iPhone 3G! Given today's EDGE data rates (10p for 10KB), it would cost Rs. 120 to browse today's TOI e-paper!

All said and done, I still prefer the simplicity of my "primitive" Nokia 3500c over anything else! Life is cluttered enough already.

More about iPhone 2.0 and 3G on:
http://tinyurl.com/iphone2-lifehacker
http://tinyurl.com/iphone3g-engadget
http://tinyurl.com/iphone3g-pcworld

Published: Times of India, Ahmedabad, 15-Jul-08

Monday, July 7, 2008

Passwords - the keys to your electronic kingdom


One fine day, my wife could not access her Yahoo email. It simply kept saying, "Invalid ID or password". She was working on a book and all her work was locked out. Panic set in. Even being married to a hacker didn't help. We were lucky to have recovered her account with great difficulty.

Someone had simply guessed her password, logged in and changed it. Through her email, they had access to most of her services: e-banking, frequent flyer account, social networks, and more. They could have opened an e-statement and requested for a password change to be emailed back.

The impact of a single password being compromised in today's digital age is tremendous. Until new identification technologies are standardised, the only thing that protects your electronic assets is your password.

How do you ensure your password's security? First, pick a complex password. Second, follow proper password handling practices. Password complexity involves the following:

1. Password length. Adding a single character increases password complexity exponentially. The minimum length is 8 characters.

2. Characters. Use a mix of upper and lower case alphabet, numbers and special symbols. A password of 8 alphabets can be guessed in 2 days. Adding numbers and symbols increases the duration to 2 centuries. Substitute numbers and symbols for certain letters, such as "1" for "i", "$" for "S", "@" for "a", etc.

3. Randomness. Your password should be cryptic. Names, dictionary words, birthdates, number plates, phone numbers, etc. make poor passwords. Choose a phrase and pick its first letters. Or choose two words and combine them with a symbol. Examples: "2B/not2B!" (To be or not to be), "Cy8er+W@tch" (Cyber Watch).

Measure your password's strength at http://www.passwordmeter.com.

Lastly, let me discuss four vital password handling procedures.

1. Two is better than one. I use a very strong password for my work email, e-banking, etc. and another one for all other services.

2. Change your password periodically. Passwords have an expiry date - the time taken by a fast computer to guess them. Businesses require employees to change passwords every month, but I would relax the limit to 6 months or a year for home users.

3. Never write down your password. Passwords should only stay in your head.

4. Do not let websites "save your password on your computer". It becomes easy for malicious software to grab them.

Guard your electronic keys well!

P.S. Speaking of passwords, check out this poster I found at one of Net-Square's client's offices.

Published: Times of India, Ahmedabad, 9-Jul-08

Sunday, July 6, 2008

How to handle your passwords

Here's a simple poster that explains it all!

Passwords are like gumballs...
  • Best when new
  • Shouldn't be shared with others
  • Problematic when not handled correctly
  • Shouldn't be found sticking around in public places