October 9, 2000

By Karen Kenworthy

IN THIS ISSUE

Cookie Hunt Update

Wow! You guys are great. Last week I asked for volunteers to join in the Great Cookie Hunt, a search for Web browsers' cookie hiding places. Within a few minutes, tips started to arrive. As of today, I have almost 300 leads -- reports of cookie sightings provided by readers of the Power Tools newsletter!

I guess by now everyone knows about Web browser "cookies." These disk files are created on our hard disks as we browse the Web. They contain small bits of data, stored at the request of the Web sites we visit.

On the plus side, cookies make possible e-commerce, Web sites that adapt to our preferences and habits, and other cool stuff. Information we enter while on the Web can be stored on our computers inside cookies, and recalled by the Web server at a later time.

On the minus side, many people feel cookies pose a threat to our privacy. Even though cookies only contain information we've already provided a Web server, they fear the information cookies contain may fall into the wrong hands.

In the world of the Internet, few topics are as hotly debated as Web browser cookies. But one thing we can all agree on is our right to know what's stored on our hard drives. That's why I created Karen's Cookie Viewer, a program that displays the cookies located on our PCs.

It's also why I started the Great Cookie Hunt. Last week I asked readers to scan their Windows Registries, looking for references to cookies. In the days ahead I'll use this information to improve the Cookie Viewer's cookie location techniques.

Unicode

I've only begun to pour over the information you've sent. But I've already made one interesting discovery. Most of the time, cookie locations are stored in the Registry in plain text. This scheme uses just one byte, or 8 bits, per character, according to an ANSI (American National Standards Institute) specification.

But some of the Registry entries I've received are written in Unicode. Despite its sometimes cryptic appearance, Unicode isn't some secret code. In fact, it's a popular international standard for representing the characters found in almost all of the world's languages.

It's pretty easy to see the ANSI encoding scheme's limitations. Working with just 8 bits per character, it can only define a maximum of 256 different symbols, or "glyphs." After reserving thirty-three 8-bit values for other purposes, the ANSI scheme only defines a total of 223 symbols.

Given the encoding scheme's name, it's no surprise that many of the symbols it defines are part of the English language. Others are common punctuation marks, such as comma, period, math symbols such as plus and minus, and U.S. currency symbols for dollars and cents.

But the ANSI scheme doesn't stop there. It also includes many accented versions of letters in the English alphabet, used by languages such as French and Spanish. And it also includes currency symbols for the British Pound and Japanese Yen, plus several diacritical marks use in publishing and editing.

Still, its 223 symbols fall way short of including all the thousands of characters and symbols used throughout the world. That's where Unicode comes to the rescue. It uses 16 bits to encode each character, allowing it to define over 65,000 different characters and symbols. While that's not enough to completely define every character of each of the world's alphabets, it comes close enough for most computer purposes.

Over the last few years Unicode has quietly been replacing ANSI as the encoding method of choice inside our PCs. Windows 95, Windows 98, and Windows Me use Unicode for a few internal purposes. But Windows NT has used Unicode almost exclusively since its inception. Windows 2000, and Windows CE (the pocket version of Windows used by many handheld computers) have extended that tradition, using Unicode exclusively to represent text.

Application programs have been slower to adopt Unicode. That's probably because of Windows Me and Windows 9x's limited support for the standard. But Microsoft has pledged that all future versions of Windows will fully support the Unicode standard, and application programmers are following suit. For example, all programs written in recent versions of Visual Basic, like my Power Tools, use Unicode internally though they convert Unicode text to ANSI for most public occasions.

To manage the transition from ANSI to Unicode, Windows provides two versions of many of the services (called API, or Application Program Interface, functions) it provides to application programs. One version expects text to be encoded using the ANSI scheme, while the other expects text to follow the Unicode standard.

Most of the extra API functions are an illusion, however. Older versions of Windows automatically convert most Unicode text to ANSI before carrying out application program requests. Newer versions of Windows internally convert all ANSI text to Unicode.

All 32-bit versions of Windows also provide an API function that allows application programs to convert text from ANSI to Unicode, and vice versa. That's fortunate, because the next version of the Cookie Viewer will be performing some of those conversions!

'Net Monitor

It was fun reading your e-mail and working on the Cookie Viewer last week. But I didn't forget our newest Power Tool, the popular Winmag.com 'Net Monitor. This little program, that monitors Web sites' reliability and performance, has continued to evolve thanks to your many great suggestions.

The latest edition, version 1.6, has several new features. The results of tests, for example, are now displayed in a two-dimensional grid, much like a spreadsheet. The first of the grid's columns contains the date and time of each test. One of the grid's columns contains the URL that was tested, another contains the result of the test. The fourth column shows the test's duration.

The program's main window is resizable. This means you can expand and shrink the grid where test results are displayed. The way test results are saved to disk has changed also. The information in the file the Monitor creates is now "tab- delimited" allowing it to be easily printed or imported into a spreadsheet or word processor.

Version 1.5 added an optional system tray icon, allowing the program to take up much less desktop space while running. But the newest version has a related fun new feature. Now, the system tray icon will flash while a test is in progress. :)

You can download the latest 'Net Monitor from my Web site at https://www.karenware.com/powertools/ptnetmon. As always, it's free, and so is the program's Visual Basic source code. While there, check out our other free Power Tools, including the current version of the popular Cookie Viewer.

Until next week, I'll get back to work upgrading the Cookie Viewer using all the great information you sent me. But I'll still find some time to get online. If you see me there, be sure to wave and say "Hi!" I'll be looking for you!