Wednesday 16 February 2005

Now writing for CircleID

First post is here.

At LinuxWorld, Novell's NIMS lives again as "Hula"

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Remember NIMS, Novell Internet Mail System, later reborn as NetMail? The technology is about to get it's third outing, as the core of Hula, "a new community project to create an open source collaboration server." This illustrates several interesting trends...

A highly scalable mail server, with a reputation for robustness, NIMS quietly withered on the Novell marketing vine. It managed to pick up a claimed 4 million seats, despite very little effort from Novell, including an ill-concieved attempt to create a Hotmail competitor.

Initial goals for Hula are explicitely modest: to provide email, calendaring, and a rich "Gmail-style" web access. It's interesting to see the email market subdivide itself into full-featured messaging/collaboration platforms like Notes/Domino or Novell Groupwise, and the newer, "streamlined" technologies like IBM's Workplace Service Express or Hula.

It's also interesting to see Novell grasp the "open source community" nettle. In many ways, it's got nothing to lose, as the NIMS codebase isn't worth much to Novell as a piece of IP.

Richer web access is also a significant trend: existing mail clients such as the Scalix web client and Google's Gmail give a hint of what's possible with modern browsers. Google has also given Hula inspiration with their new Google Maps beta. Clearly, we should no longer be satisfied with slow web interfaces and heavy reliance on server round-trips. What users are coming to expect is a level of interactivity from web applications approaching that of regular desktop clients such as Outlook.

Stupid public WiFi tricks

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This year's East coast LinuxWorld conference is in Boston, at the Hynes Convention Center. As is becoming common, there's a public WiFi network here. In this case, it's provisioned using SolutionInc's platform.

It seems to work quite well, even at a geek-central show such as this. However, there's one dumb thing it does, which I need to get off my chest.

When a PC connects for the first time that day, the platform goes through a registration process. The first web page you see will be the convention center's. After that, users are free to go about their business.

It does this by spoofing the first connection to its web proxy, and serve up its own welcome page instead of whatever home page you normally see.

However, it also tries to proxy spoof your first POP3 connection, so it can send you a welcoming email. This is the dumb part.

POP3 email clients need to keep track of which messages they have already downloaded, so it doesn't try to download them again. This is known as keeping the "POPstate". However, because the proxy has spoofed the POP3 connection, it will confuse the client—the spoofed message doesn't match up with the POPstate.

This confusion is likely to cause one of two problems. Either the client will re-download every message from the server, causing many duplicates to appear in the client inbox; or worse, the client will skip some new messages, meaning that they'll never be downloaded.

A plea to SolutionInc, their customers, and anyone else who does this stuff: stop it, please!