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Alan Goldstein: Havoc wrought by virus points to technology's perils

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This isn't the bright digital age that gets touted on all those television commercials.

A computer virus that authorities believe was cobbled together in a Manila apartment brought the Internet to its knees last week, with an impact as severe on businesses as a sudden global ice storm.

It came only three months after leading Web sites were brought down by denial-of-service attacks, bombarded by so many computer-generated requests that they crashed.

"Business on the Internet is like the wild, wild West," said Gary Beach, group publisher of CIO Magazine, which serves corporate technology managers.

The Internet is often described as being like a life form, expanding at exponential rates, growing ever more powerful. But if that's the analogy, then someone forgot to give the body a serious immune system.

For all the advances in the last five years in bringing new business models to the Internet, this inherently open computer network clearly isn't as reliable as other technology devices, such as telephones or automated teller machines.

As one of those TV ads asks, "Are you ready?"

Electronic commerce will emerge as the single biggest insurance risk of the 21st century, Lloyd's of London reported this week. The firm estimated the cost of the "ILOVEYOU" virus at $15 billion worldwide, largely in lost productivity.

As electronic-mail computer servers were crippled, it became painfully obvious how dependent so many of us have grown on instant communication.

"We were joking Friday that we're all going to have to go back to sending paper memos," said Lisa Sharples, chief marketing and merchandising officer at Garden.com Inc. in Austin, which sells gardening-related products online.

"We think we've evolved so far, and then there's this."

E-mail, of course, isn't just for business memos and gossip. It's used as a major marketing tool by Web sites, including Garden.com, which regularly sends out targeted promotions to customers.

Moreover, the ILOVEYOU virus cut off more than just e-mail. Microsoft Outlook, the popular program that was most affected by the virus, is also widely used for contact management and scheduling.

When the virus hit last week and I lost access to Outlook, I felt hamstrung. I've grown increasingly dependent on the program, not only as a replacement for a paper-based address book and calendar but as a substitute for part of my cluttered brain.

Rather than attempt to commit any task to memory, I've grown accustomed to simply entering it into Outlook or jotting it into my Palm hand-held organizer. (If you haven't tried it, Outlook synchronizes very smoothly with the Palm operating system.)

If I make an electronic plane reservation, I cut and paste the itinerary into my Outlook calendar, then sync with the Palm. I do the same thing with driving directions or e-mail messages that are related to an appointment.

Generally, this system works really well. But last Thursday, I neglected to sync my Palm before I lost access to Outlook. So everything I'd entered into Outlook that day for a business trip this week was frustratingly inaccessible, at least temporarily.

Viruses surely will strike again. Now, security experts are calling for serious architectural improvements for the Internet that might offer it the capability to fight off viruses and other malicious programs.

Change can't come soon enough. The technology industry is pursuing a wide variety of wireless data applications for mobile phones and hand-held computers, all of which could make us even more dependent on the Internet infrastructure.

Sure, we could live without wireless technology for locating restaurants or finding movie times. But a wireless system that is also capable of online banking and stock trading needs to have the highest levels of security.

It may be tempting for those businesses that have been reluctant to go digital to seize on security as a reason to at least delay adopting technology.

But they would be ignoring history, said Lee Blaylock, chief executive of ServiceLane.com, a Dallas start-up seeking to connect consumers with local service providers including landscapers, electricians and accountants.

Throughout history, it's been easy to discount technologies when they first appear. The automobile, for example, required a safer engine that could travel greater distances before it could have a major impact on society, he said.

Those who held to the old way of doing business were left behind, Mr. Blaylock said.

CEOs who "don't embrace an Internet strategy may not feel the pain immediately," he said, "but they will leave their companies at a strategic disadvantage."

Ms. Sharples, a Garden.com co-founder, said she is comforted that some of the best companies in the world are investing fortunes to ensure that the Internet is a secure and reliable place to do business.

Still, some companies in the gardening industry may seize on the virus as an excuse for delaying their own initiatives on the Internet. "That would be good news for people like us," Ms. Sharples said, "because we totally believe in it."

Technology editor Alan Goldstein writes about the Internet and electronic commerce for The Dallas Morning News. His e-mail address is agoldstein@dallasnews.com.
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