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Dialing in

Dialing in

What if you had a party and everyone came? That’s what’s happening to America Online these days. By far the world’s largest online service, AOL has in recent months experienced a number of problems due to over-subscription. Many customers claim they receive busy signals when attempting to connect to AOL, while those able to connect complain that the service they receive is sluggish.

Despite all these troubles with customer service, the company says its business is going strong. In fact, AOL says it expects to have more than 8 million customers at the end of the current quarter, and it’s not expecting to see that number drop anytime soon.

AOL is making moves to alleviate the problems. The company plans to put in more than 50,000 modems by the end of the month, adding to its current level of 350,000 modems. Analysts say the new modems should allow AOL to increase its subscriber base well beyond 10 million in the coming year. That’s good news for AOL—recently published reports estimate that roughly 50 million to 55 million U.S. households will have computers by the year 2000. Nearly 35 million of those will likely use online services.

Of course, you don’t have to wait until the year 2000 to get hooked up. Here are a few news items to keep you up-to-date with the online world today.

Pre-Millennium Tension

Speaking of the year 2000, British lawmakers are pondering a law that might avert an electronic disaster. A problem with the way computer systems store and process dates could cause many of them simply to stop working once Jan. 1, 2000, rolls around. Parliament member David Atkinson has decided to bring the matter to a very public debate.

Atkinson’s bill would require each British company to assess any computer system it owns and to publish details of the company’s readiness for the year 2000. If any problems are found, the bill would require that they be corrected before the year 2000. Several British firms have already lent support to this new law, even assisting lawmakers in adding several amendments.

Despite such support, however, experts believe passage of the bill will be difficult. Several members of Parliament have already voiced opposition to the bill, saying it’s an unnecessary burden on business.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the cost of fixing the “year 2000 bug” in computers owned by the federal government is approaching $1 trillion. There are no pieces of legislation pending to help the deal with the problem—yet.

Match-Making

Two of the online world’s most visible companies may soon become one, provided the deal gets approved soon. Modem manufacturer U.S. Robotics, long regarded as the king of the modem industry, has been offered $6.6 billion by computer-network company 3Com. The merger, if approved by stockholders, would create a company with $5 billion in annual revenues and over 10,000 employees. The newly created company would be only slightly smaller than Cisco Systems, currently the only heavyweight player in the network hardware game.

The proposed deal hasn’t met with approval on Wall Street, however: Some analysts claim U.S. Robotics stockholders are being fleeced. The offer is based on U.S. Robotics’ current stock price, which, despite the company’s much-publicized “X2” technology, has dipped in recent weeks to barely half its original value.

Who says crime doesn’t pay?

“Do the crime, then write a book about it”—it’s becoming a sort of litany these days for criminals in the computer world.

Take the example of 21-year-old French computer hacker Anthony Zboralski. He’s putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as the case may be), despite currently being involved in a trial in a Paris courtroom. Zboralski was arrested in 1995 after authorities discovered that he had made nearly $250,000 in phone calls at the expense of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Prosecutors say he was able to make the calls by obtaining the name of an FBI representative from the U.S. Embassy in Paris. Then, posing as that official, he contacted the FBI in Washington. The FBI, unaware it wasn’t talking to an employee, gave Zboralski the information he needed to access the FBI’s conference-calling network.

The court, responding to just one of the charges, has fined Zboralski about $9,000 and given him a suspended 18-month jail term for the stunt. The FBI, which uncovered the fraud after nearly a year of investigation, is not involved in the case.

In the meantime, Zboralski has signed a deal to tell his story to a major French publishing firm. For his part, the hacker says he will live with the court’s decision, spending the next two years of his probation speaking out against computer piracy, a field he evidently knows quite well.

Joel Moses can be reached via e-mail at joel@moses.com.

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