Gmail’s 10th birthday on April Fools’ Day: Best of the web

This past week, we celebrated April Fools’ Day.

This year, however, April 1 also marked an historic milestone in the history of the web.

As Time’s Harry McCracken points out, Google’s Gmail web service launched on April 1, 2004. It was an interesting date to launch the service, given the tech giant had already established its love of April Fools’ Day pranks:

That wasn’t just another random day on the calendar. Google had begun its tradition of April Fools’ mischief in 2000; the company had a hoax in the works for 2004, involving an announcement that it was hiring for a new research center on the moon. It figured, correctly, that announcing Gmail at the same time would lead some people to think that the announcement was a prank. Especially since the 1GB of space was unimaginably ginormous by 2004 standards.

McCracken says while it’s easy to take AJAX-based web apps for granted today, the concept was revolutionary at the time Gmail made its debut:

Hotmail and Yahoo Mail had originally been devised in the mid-1990s; they sported dog-slow interfaces written in plain HTML. Almost every action you took required the service to reload the entire web page, resulting in an experience that had none of the snappy responsiveness of a Windows or Mac program.

With Gmail, Buchheit worked around HTML’s limitations by using highly interactive JavaScript code. That made it feel more like software than a sequence of web pages. Before long, the approach would get the moniker AJAX, which stood for Asynchronous JavaScript and XML; today, it’s how all web apps are built. But when Gmail was pioneering the technique, it wasn’t clear that it was going to work.

How Gmail, one of the first non-search services Google offered, came to be is an interesting episode in tech history.

Open source Windows?

Last week, Microsoft released the source code to DOS (a text-based predecessor of Windows) to Silicon Valley’s Computer History Museum. It also released the source code for an early version of Word for Windows.

Over at Wired, Klint Finley has raised what is sure to be a controversial proposition.

According to Finley, the tech giant should go further and release the source code for Windows 8:

But the company shouldn’t stop at symbolic gestures. We love that the MS-DOS code is now available to the world at large (even if you can’t distribute your own changes to it, as with truly open source software). And we love that Microsoft has also released the code behind another seminal piece of software: Microsoft Word for Windows, originally released in 1990. But if the company is to regain its place at the head of the tech table, it needs to start open sourcing operating systems that are used today, not 30 years ago. Microsoft needs to open up the Windows Phone mobile OS — and maybe even desktop Windows.

Finley points out that Google and Apple have released the source code to Android and Mac OSX, respectively. Google makes its money out of the cloud services that sit on top of Android, while Apple gives Mac OSX away free to paying computer customers.

According to Finley, a similar business model would have many benefits for Microsoft:

Microsoft would lose a revenue stream, but first and foremost, it needs to ensure that Windows is widely used. This will not only encourage developers to build software to the platform — something that will lead to even wider use. It will provide a widely used platform for all sorts of other Microsoft software and services as well as ads. That’s how Google makes it work.

Now admittedly, the idea of Windows going open source is unlikely, to say the least. Windows, especially on the desktop, remains a vital revenue stream for the company. That said, releasing the source code to Windows Phone could provide a boost to Windows Phone’s market share. Should they do it? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

End of the line for universal service obligations in the US

As in Australia, most US states have long maintained laws guaranteeing the universal provision of copper PSTN (public switched telephone network) services.

However, as the Wall Street Journal’s Jennifer Waters reports, the major US telephone carriers are lobbying to scrap their copper networks:

Telecom giants AT&T T and Verizon Communications are lobbying states, one by one, to hang up the plain, old telephone system, what the industry now calls POTS–the copper-wired landline phone system… California, Florida, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Ohio are among states that agree telecom resources would be better redirected into modern telephone technologies and innovations, and will kill copper-based technologies in the next three years or so.

However, despite newer technologies such as 4G mobile networks and fibre optic cable, there are still benefits to the old copper PSTN (public switched telephone network) system:

Call 911 from a landline and the emergency operator pinpoints your exact address, down to the apartment number. Wireless phones lack those specifics, and even with GPS navigation aren’t as precise. Matters are worse in rural and even suburban areas that signals don’t reach, sometimes because they’re blocked by buildings or the landscape.

Especially in rural areas, is it really a good idea to throw away the copper PSTN system? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Why law enforcement agents are the first to notice you’ve been hacked

In a number of high-profile hacking cases, both in Australia and abroad, the first people to inform a business they’ve been hacked is a law enforcement agent.

Why is it so? NetworkWorld’s Ellen Messmer investigates:

By all accounts, many of the massive data breaches in the news these days are first revealed to the victims by law enforcement, the Secret Service and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). But how do the agencies figure it out before the companies know they have been breached, especially given the millions companies spend on security and their intense focus on compliance?

According to Messmer, law enforcement being the first to notice an attack should come as little surprise:

The agencies do the one thing companies don’t do. They attack the problem from the other end by looking for evidence that a crime has been committed. Agents go undercover in criminal forums where stolen payment cards, customer data and propriety information are sold. They monitor suspects and sometimes get court permission to break into password-protected enclaves where cyber-criminals lurk. They have informants, they do interviews with people already incarcerated for cybercrime, and they see clues in the massive data dumps of information stolen from companies whose networks have been breached.

It raises the question of whether businesses need to take a more proactive, law enforcement-style approach to online security.

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