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Thursday, 3 August, 2000, 14:23 GMT 15:23 UK
Microsoft holds back the hands of time
Big Ben
Time is of the essence on the internet
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

A bug in the Microsoft browser is delaying plans to synchronise time across the internet.

Without common clocks and accurate time keeping, experts fear that few people will have faith in deals struck across the net.

The creators of software to synchronise internet time are calling on Microsoft to fix the bug in future releases of its browser.

But so far Microsoft has said it is only looking into the problem.

Common clocks

In January, the UK Government and industry unveiled Greenwich Electronic Time (GET) a plan to create a standard time system for the internet.

GET is being based on Greenwich Mean Time and will work in a similar way.

Time around the world is calculated with reference to the 0 longitude line cutting through the Greenwich Royal Observatory in south east London.

But as its reference point, GET will have a network of atomic clocks accurate to 3 one-thousandths of a second.

Already across Europe and the US 60 atomic clocks are being set up so web browsers can always call on a local time source.

Bug bites

The GET software will consult the atomic clocks and synchronise the internal clocks of computers involved in net deals.

Time on the internet is already co-ordinated using the network time protocol but Get is updating the way it works to help the growth of e-commerce.

E-mail and e-commerce transactions are already time-stamped but most computers convert these markers into local times.

Common clocks will be needed as electronic commerce and digital signatures become more widely used. Without GET, disputes might arise over the transfer of ownership and when contracts are signed.

But problems are now emerging with the way that versions 3, 4 and 5 of Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser check the time. The Microsoft browser is used by 80% of the computers that access the web.

"It is a bug that Microsoft has not needed to fix because no-one is providing time tools yet," said James Roper, chief executive of the Interactive Media in Retail Group, a GET partner. "But it is becoming more and more of an issue."

Active applets

The problem arises because GET will be using the Java programming language for its time tools.

Some Java programs are mobile pieces of computer code called applets that can be attached to web documents. These applets are downloaded when anyone visits that page.

To limit the damage that hijacked applets could do, the programs are only allowed to work within a secure "sandbox".

Only in certain circumstances are applets allowed to trespass outside the sandbox, when the applets come from trusted servers for instance. GET will be using these exceptions to let the applet synchronise clocks.

However, the bug in the Microsoft browser does not recognise these trusted exceptions and will not let the applet tweak the clock. It treats even trusted applets as hostile unless security settings are lowered to a minimum.

Mr Roper said Microsoft has been told about the bug and was planning to fix it, but it may not be fixed until the next release of the browser.

Now GET is working on ways to get around the bug on older browsers.

"We can't tell Microsoft what to do with its software," said Mr Roper, "It has taken a lot longer than we originally hoped and planned."

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See also:

03 Aug 00 | Business
EU acts against Microsoft
01 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
Greenwich time gets online
30 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Clinton OKs e-signatures
09 Dec 99 | Business
The mobile internet race
26 Jan 00 | Business
Court blow for Microsoft
24 May 00 | Business
Mobile internet boosts NTT
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