Tuesday, September 05, 2006

AOL Offers Free Streaming XM Radio

AOL, in a move to offer more free services and cut back less on it's dial-up internet subscriber base, which has been losing significant amounts of money since the introduction of widespread broadband use, causing a drop in AOL dialup subscribers.

AOL, or America Online, has become a culture icon in the years since its inception. Both lamented by some for it's excessive mailings of unwanted software CDs, to being the premise for a title of a movie. In 2000 the company was purchased by media giant Time Warner and has never been the same since. Still, AOL has maintained a large presence in the online world, being one of the largest internet service providers in existence, it has tried an enormous variety of tactics to keep itself alive. It has seen the purchase of Netscape and it's open source spinoff, Mozilla, Nullsoft, makers of Winamp, and other companies providing a laundry list of products and services, sometimes related to the companies goals, and sometimes not. At one time, AOL was rival only to Microsoft in it's battle for internet dominance, and there was talk of it purchasing RedHat to create an operating system to directly compete with Windows.

With AOL's recent decline in providing paid internet services, it has modified its business model to allow for a large variety of free services. Billing itself as "The New AOL" it has begun to offer a free version of it's internet software, that includes a free AOL email address and a Security Suite. However, the client has brought significant skepticism from privacy advocates, akin to other so called "free software" that comes with hidden adware not mentioned anywhere except in the pointless EULA. It's been well known that most of the recent versions of it's AIM Instant Messenger client include built in spyware and adware that cannot be removed easily, leading many to opt for alternatives like GAIM or Trillian. For those wishing to use the official AIM client, a free AIM Ad Hack is available to not only get rid of the banner ads, but completely strip it of all the unwanted addons. AOL has also recently come under fire for publicly releasing search data from all it's subscribers. A public relations headache for AOL as it's still unveiling all it's new services from its "free AOL" concept business strategy.

Even before AOL offering up their free services, they allowed anyone with an AIM screenname a free webmail address at aim.com with 2GB of space and antivirus/antispam functionality to rival Yahoo and Gmail. These accounts seem to have been, at least partially, converted over to the newer Free AOL Mail accounts, so it appears that they can be used and possibly even created without installing the new AOL software client. When I went to open my mail, a rogue window of Windows Media Player opened for some reason and then Firefox crashed.

Now, AOL has unveiled their video service, AOL Video, an attempt to mirror services like Google Video and YouTube. Even better, AOL Radio offers anyone with a freely available screenname to listen to streaming XM Satellite radio, virtually uninterrupted by ads, and with a long list of stations, previously only available to people who paid for an expensive and cumbersome radio unit & receiver, along with a monthly fee for the service. Yahoo! Music, which plays ads unless a subscription is paid, also allows skipping songs (to some extent in the free version) and the creation of customized stations based on listeners preferences. AOL's XM Radio doesn't allow any skipping, and rating songs data supposedly only goes to the stations DJ's to "help them choose music". One problem with both AOL Video and Radio is that they require installation of their own players into the users browser. When I attempted to use these services in Firefox, I was prompted to load a "Mozilla ActiveX Plugin" that never worked and does not show up under my Extensions list, making me wonder if it just didn't get installed, or if it installed on my system somewhere without my knowledge and not having the ability to remove it. I had far better luck using the AOL services in Internet Explorer, but still, other services do have an advantage of using preexisting players to stream media, such as Macromedia Flash or Windows Media Player.

It's hard to understand how this new business model for AOL is expected to work. The Dot Com bubble that burst in the late 90s was a model that was somewhat similar, relying on converting high traffic to view advertising and paid subscriptions. The days of AOL may truly be limited now, but it's demise has been predicted many times in the past, and part of AOL's legacy is it's longevity and ability to act as a chameleon in constantly changing landscapes. At least we can all enjoy the free radio while we're waiting to find out AOL's fate.

Monday, September 04, 2006

XP-AntiSpy Now Includes WGA Disabler

Windows Genuine Advantage, or WGA, is a tool that has met which much scorn since it was first released a few months back. WGA is a background utility that is required to be installed on all Windows XP machines in order to download manual updates. The program checks to determine if the copy of Windows is properly registered and has a valid license key. If it doesn't have the proper credentials, it won't allow the user to run Microsoft Update and in some instants nags the user that they are using an invalid copy of Windows and they should purchase and install a correct one. This can happen to not just people who are knowingly pirating copies of Windows, but individuals who might happen to buy a computer from a non-licensed Microsoft Partner or one that includes a copy of Windows on a retail PC that comes with a false OEM version of Windows .

The other main concern about WGA is from privacy advocates. WGA purportedly sends data back to Microsoft on each boot of the machine and it is unknown what this data is or why it does this. It has clearly annoyed enough people that the main discussion on WGA is how to disable or crack the program. One site which was mentioned in a article on C|Net News was forced by Microsoft to remove the links to the cracks they had posted, but a simple Google search will turn up others.

However, now, a popular program for removing background and foreground annoyances in Windows XP, XP-AntiSpy, has included a function for a work around to the WGA issue. The program now has an option included in it's latest version to "Disable [the] WGA check at logon" which it describes as:

If you see this setting it means you installed the WGA check utility through a windows update. This check utility contacts the microsoft website everytime you logon to your Windows OS. If you don't want that to happen, disable this setting. If you want to get this setting back to work you have to install the WGA update again.

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I'm unsure exactly what it does to disable the WGA check, but it is either a registry hack or it somehow uninstalls the utility. XP-AntiSpy has many other useful functions for privacy and security, such as disabling the automatic sending of data back to Microsoft in the form of error reports, Windows Media Player data, and it's time server. It allows users to completely uninstall MSN Messenger, which is otherwise unremovable.

Hopefully, Microsoft won't pressure the publisher of the software (who seems to be located in Germany) to remove this feature of the program, as it is an extremely needed one.

Download XP-AntiSpy 3.96-2 English

UPDATE 9/5: I've come across another program that has a similar function to disable the WGA Notifications. It's called RemoveWGA and simply disables the data that the WGA tool sends back to MS, but doesn't have any effect on the authentication of XP's validity.

Enables you to remove the Microsoft "Windows Genuine Advantage Notifications" tool, which is calling home and connect to Microsoft servers every time you boot (pilot version), or every two weeks (current release).

Once the WGA Notification tool has checked your OS and has confirmed you had a legit copy, there is no decent point or reason to check it again and again every boot. Moreover, connecting to Microsoft brings security issue for corporate networks, and privacy issues for everyone. It is also unclear which information are transmitted (Microsoft published an official answer, but an individual study brought some questions). All of that, along the fact that Microsoft used deceptive ways to make you install this tool (it was told you it was an urgent security update, whereas it is a new installation giving you no extra security) makes me calling this tool a spyware.

Also, Windows Genuine Advantage Notifications is different than Windows Genuine Advantage Validation. RemoveWGA only remove the notification part, phoning home, and does not touch the Validation part. As the time I'm writting this, the Validation part is mandatory for some not critical downloads from Microsoft, but the Notification part is not mandatory at all, and you are able to install all of the security updates without installing this one. This may change in the future thought, I don't know what are the Microsoft plans.

Note : once the WGA notification is removed, the Automatic Update will bug you about installing the update again. This is normal, and out of the scope of RemoveWGA (since at this point, the WGA notification is uninstalled from your system). If you are concerned about tweaking Automatic Update to prevent Microsoft trying to push the update on your computer.
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