Hacking Web sites has become the challenge of choice for your more discerning hacker. Tired of scouring the grubby underbelly of UNIX for still more security flaws, hardened hackers have now sussed out that leaving their mark on a well-known Web site is a sure-fire route to the notoriety they so crave.
The fun and games commenced last autumn when a site promoting the film Hackers ( www.mgmua.com/hackers/) was given a thorough once-over by an irate hacker ( www.mgmua.com/hackers/inventory/hacked/index.html). A few weeks later, on the day of their controversial million-man march, the Nation of Islam's homepage ( www.afrinet.net/~islam/) was hacked and ever-so-subtly altered ( www-e1c.gnn.com/gnn/wr/nov10/features/hate/noi2.html). The original text ran "In The Name Of Allah, The Beneficent, The Merciful"; the hacked version read "In The Name Of Some Goofy God That Does Not Exist". You get the gist.
This trend has more profound implications than the odd case of adolescent bigotry might suggest. It is an open secret that companies and organisations already employ hackers to darn holes in their own security, but what of companies employing them to sabotage rivals on the Web? Imagine the scene if a hacker were to adjust the figures in a company's online annual report. Messy.
Accusations of commercial Web sabotage are already flying between rival Internet service providers in America. In early summer, Sonnet On-Line accused the system administrator of Mother Lode Internet, a local competitor, of posting a provocative message to the alt.2600 newsgroup, one encouraging hackers to bring down Sonnet's webserver ( www.paranoia.com/~spiffy/sonnetslander.html). In the days following the contentious posting, Sonnet was fortunate to repel several concerted attempts to crash its webserver. The FBI was called in, but no action was taken.
But blatantly trashing a competitor's Web site is an unnecessarily criminal tactic if your intention is merely to tilt the online playing field in your favour. Watch out for more subtle, indirect techniques such as search-engine nobbling. This is the black art of ensuring that your own Web site dominates the list of suggested URLs produced in response to an appropriate keyword search. Dubious ? Do a straightforward search on Altavista (altavista.digital.com) for "auctioneers". Over 40 of the first 50 hits are for renowned UK auction house whose competitors are duly rendered all-but invisible. If people are beginning to fight dirty out there, it can only mean one thing: somebody somewhere is making money.
- Toby Evetts
Earlier this year Internet archaeologists uncovered a hidden gem. Thanks to a previously neglected ability to display basic animations, the veteran GIF89 image file format has made a dramatic comeback, and is now the favoured way to add a wee shimmy to still-life Web sites. In contrast to gleaming new technologies such as ShockWave and Java, the antiquated animated GIFs are an absolute doddle to create, which goes a long way towards explaining their popularity. Check out freeware apps such as the very fine GifBuilder ( iawww.epfl.ch/Staff/Yves.Piguet/clip2gif-home/GifBuilder.html). The moral ? Keep it simple; keep it sweet.
- Phil Gyford
Call the Web a "Cyberspace"? Pah! Since when did watching a Web page dribbling into Netscape inspire a sense of space? And does tapping in a new URL instill the sensation of warping across the infosphere? I think not.
But transforming the Web into a pukka cyberspace isn't that far-fetched, as Apple Advanced Technology Group's Project X ( www.atg.apple.com/go/projectx/) proves. Project X is a 3D navigator for the Macintosh, adding perspective, motion and a whole extra dimension to the surfing experience. The navigator currently plays host to 100,000 Yahoo! links, each represented by a coloured rectangle floating in the blackness. Push down on the throttle (OK, the mouse button) and speed towards the first layer of subcategories, then power onwards into the gloomy depths of the infosphere, Web sites hurtling past as more appear way off in the distance. Clicking on a link will open the page in Netscape, although whizzing around is such fun that regressing a dimension into flat browserland is a smidge deflating.
Sadly for Apple, Project X is a non-starter as a practical day-to-day browser. It's ridiculously easy to get lost and end up dashing from random site to random site like Buck Rogers on top-grade amphetamines. The problem is a lack of perspective; fall into a black hole like www.yahoo.com/social_science/urban_studies/ and you ain't coming out for a while. Niggles aside, I'll eat my Newton if all surfing isn't done like this within three years.
- Phil Gyford
Slick corporate sites such as Nike's new one ( www.nike.com) do not come cheap, but you could argue that Nike need not have bothered with a six-figure site at all. How so ? Because, despite their inactivity to date, Nike already has a substantial Web presence. More than ten unofficial Nike sites are scattered around the Web, all set up by enthusiasts keen to publicise their joyous affection for the brand. Granted, some are ropy, but the better-quality sites, such as John Wallace's gigantic Swoosh Pages ( www-personal.engin.umich.edu/~jhwiii/nike.html), are a marketing exec's wet dream. Take this sample from the site's guestbook: "I love NIKE to death. This is the coolest page on the whole internet. All of my clothes are NIKE and I despise people who think that Reebok is better. Thank you and have a nice day!" Certain high-value brands attract unofficial sites. BMW has spawned a plethora of unofficial Web sites (try www.mordor.com/stevenb/bmw/bmw.html for starters). Ditto motorbike manufacturer Ducati ( www.cowin-tech.com/ducati/). And Mad magazine need never bother to set up an official site if the quality of existing unofficial offerings such as The Whole Furshlugginer MAD ( www.best.com/~sknaster/stuff/MAD/furshlugginer.html) is maintained. Rather than producing another smoothly generic corporate site, would it not be better to harness this existing enthusiasm to create, say, a network of Nike fan sites, all linked off a small official site? For the cost of a few pairs of trainers, Nike could encourage existing happy customers to expound the virtues of Nike products on the Web - and who better ?
- Tom Loosemore