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December 1, 2006

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE:

 

Security of Electronic Voting Is Condemned
Washington Post (12/01/06) P. A1; Barr, Cameron W.

Electronic voting machines that were widely used in the past election "cannot be made secure," concludes a new National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) report. The report, which comes as the biggest blow to electronic voting from a federal agency, endorses optical-scan systems, stating that officials must be able to conduct a recount independently from the software on voting machines. Congress will hold hearings on NIST's report next week, but it will be up to the Election Assistance Commission to decide whether or not to adopt the recommendations. However, even if they do adopt them, the changes would not be fully implemented until 2009 or 2010. According to the report, the lack of a paper trail "is one of the main reasons behind continue questions about voting system security and diminished public confidence in elections." The report also echoes the concerns of many computer experts who warn that "a single programmer could 'rig' a major election," although there is yet to be any evidence of such activity. The alternative suggested by electronic voting machine manufacturers, of attaching printers to the machines, has met its own problems of printers jamming or simply failing, which prompts some, including VoteTrustUSA policy director Warren Stewart to wonder, "Why are we doing this at all? We have a perfectly good system--the paper ballot optical-scan system." For information on ACM's e-voting activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm
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Study: Developer Use of Visual Basic Plummets
eWeek (11/29/06) Taft, Darryl K.

Microsoft disputes the new report from Evans Data that suggests developers are abandoning Visual Basic in large numbers. Microsoft's Michael O'Neill says Visual Basic remains the leading programming language in the world used by a wide range of developers, Visual Basic 2005 has been widely embraced, and developers outside the Visual Basic community are downloading Visual Basic Express. The Fall 2006 North American Development Survey says there has been a 35 percent decline in the use of the Visual Basic family since last spring. Evans Data President John Andrews says there is more parity in languages, with his firm now reporting that Java is the leader in market penetration at 45 percent, and that C/C++ and C# are at 40 percent and 32 percent, respectively. Burton Group analyst Anne Thomas Manes believes more developers are embracing C#, PHP, and Ruby, but says she has yet to see any scientific evidence of a Visual Basic decline. "The primary reason VB usage might go down is that fewer companies are building desktop applications [VB's primary design center]," she says. Evans Data also reported 80 percent of respondents are creating Rich Internet Applications and 28 percent are using AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML)-style development.
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For $150, Third-World Laptop Stirs a Big Debate
New York Times (11/30/06) P. A1; Markoff, John

While the laptop created by the One Laptop Per Child project has impressed many with its efficient design, it has provoked doubters who don't think it can really make a difference in the world. The project's founder and the MIT Media Laboratory's founding director, Nicholas Negroponte, thinks that too much attention is being given to the computer itself and not to the mission of global education he is trying to promote, but whether technology is more helpful than educational structure is being debated. Intel and Microsoft stand as two of the biggest skeptics; Bill Gates questions whether the idea is "just taking what we do in the rich world," and making the assumption that it will be something good for the developing world as well. Seymour Papert, a computer scientist and educator who is an advisor in the project, claims that the machines will give the children new opportunities to explore, and "learn how to learn," which he feels is more important than traditional teaching techniques that simply focus on memorization. Stanford University education professor Larry Cuban disagrees: "I think it's wonderful that the machines will be put in the hands of children and parents, and it will have an impact on their lives. However, if part of their rationale is that it will revolutionize education in various countries...I think they are being naive and innocent about the reality of formal schooling." Prototypes have been developed to prove the worth of the computers to government leaders in developing nations, and five countries--Argentina, Thailand, Nigeria, Libya, and Brazil--have already made tentative commitments to provide millions of the computers to students. The laptop is expected to go into production in Taiwan by mid 2007.
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The Seoul of a New Machine
Wired News (12/01/06) Norton, Quinn

KAIST's Robot Intelligence Technology (RIT) lab, known for its robotic soccer league, has turned its attention to "software robots," or sobots, autonomous agents that can move themselves between computers, servers, avatars, and robots, among other things, and are even able to adapt and evolve like an organism. To create their current sobot project, Rity, the team built a robotic genome that uses an algorithmic mimicry of genetics to encode parameters; 14 chromosomes contained in 1,800 bytes control 77 behaviors in Rity, a sobot dog. The sobot begins life with knowledge of how to command, and read data from, the various robotic and computer bodies it can use. Training is only one element of the dog's behavior along with experiential influences and the character it is originally programmed with; "Behavior should arise out of personality rather than training," says RIT lab director Kim Jong-Hwan, Korea's leading roboticist. RIT envisions a future where the combination of robotic hardware bodies and software minds surround us in our everyday life, and are able to respond to our needs, which they will be constantly monitoring, a possible "double-edged sword," admits RIT researcher Naveen Kuppuswamy. But the lab feels that such application is not too far away: "Within 10 years robots will be in hospitals providing (triage)," says another RIT researcher, Park In-Won.
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Open-Source Group Wants Educational Patent Reversed
CNet (11/30/06) Shankland, Stephen

The Software Freedom Law Center has requested that the U.S. Patent Office rethink a patent awarded to educational software firm Blackboard, on the grounds that it is too broad and could damage open-source education projects. The center's patent attorney, Richard Fontana, believes the patent is a "junk patent that should never have been given by the Patent Office. They do effectively cover just about any e-learning software that is currently in use." Blackboard general counsel Matthew Small says the center misunderstands the patent. He says it only covers their software's feature whereby a user can be treated as a student in some courses and a teacher in others while using a single log-in. Small also claims that the suit currently being filed by the company against a competitor is not the beginning of a "multisuit campaign." Small says the Software Freedom Law Center is asking that Blackboard "give up its rights to enforce no only this patent, but any patent we may ever come up with in the future for any use of open-source, whether by commercial or non-commercial" organizations." Fontana said that had Blackboard come forward with an agreement not to go after open-source projects infringing on this patent, "that would have been acceptable to our clients." Any such agreement, according to Small, would take the form of a nonassertion policy, such as IBM's list of patents that won't be asserted against open-source projects. Fontana says the U.S. Patent Office has three months to decide whether to reexamine the patent.
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Touch Screens? Vote Yes or No
Wall Street Journal (11/30/06) P. A4; Krunholz, June

Although most new electronic voting systems worked during the recent election, according to electionline.org, many changes are being contemplated in the way America votes. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), who will take over as head of the Senate rules committee, and Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) have both proposed legislation to require paper records from touch screen voting machines, random audits of some of these records, and disclosure of the software code used in voting machines so it could be checked for vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, several states may take action to either abandon the new systems or modify how they're implemented. Cuyahoga County, Ohio, officials have announced that they are thinking of ditching electronic voting altogether and voters in Sarasota County, Fla., voted to return to paper ballots in the very same election where the votes of 18,000 citizens likely were lost due to problems with the electronic ballot. According to Election Data Services, over half of U.S. counties used the money given by the Help America Vote Act to buy optical scan machines, while 36 percent bought touch screen machines. BYU's David Magelby explains, that while voters do trust the touch screen machines, "it's a shaky trust." Those counties that want to change the way they vote now will most likely have to pay for changes themselves. However, Congress could fund any changes mandated by federal legislation such as requiring a printed backup record of votes cast.
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UCR Studying Self-Organizing Smart Wireless Networks
UCR News (11/29/2006)

University of California, Riverside researchers are developing a wireless multihop network that is able to self-organize to optimize effectiveness. Self-organization refers to the ability of each wireless node to be aware of what nodes are around it, in order to best decide which to connect with. This multihop technology, where each connection allows other users to connect to the network through it, could be very helpful in areas where hardwired networks do not have much range. The researchers will set up a sample network in order to find out the footprint of the wireless signal emitted by each node and from there determine the best way to set up a network that can constantly reorganize itself to make the most of signals transmitted between nearby transmitters and receivers. The team aims to utilize assumptions and models that are realistic; "When you see a representation of the reach of a wireless signal, they usually show you a circle radiating from the antenna, but with walls, poles, and other interfering devices, you rarely have a circular footprint," explains Computer Science and Engineering faculty member Srikanth Krishnamurthy. Physical layer technologies, like smart antennas, will be evaluated as they help the nodes reconfigure themselves.
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WVU's GeoVirtual Lab Revolutionizes Information Sharing, Seeks Partnership
WVU Today (11/28/06)

WVU's GeoVirtual Laboratory (GVL) and the Department of Geology and Geography has undertaken a group of projects known collectively as Virtual Reality Geographic Information Systems (VRGIS), which includes both augmented reality and virtual reality initiatives, that integrate virtual reality environments with the Internet to use data in new ways. Lab director Vic Baker and department chair Trevor Harris are working with WVU research associates Doru Pacurari and Takamitsu Kawai and computer science graduate students Brian Smith and Nate Jones to develop applications that use location-based data with desktop computer and various mobile devices. Baker says, "What makes us different and puts us ahead of popular desktop applications is our ability to deliver this technology to mobile users using mobile devices and augmented reality." One of the VRGIS technologies is the AR Headset, a pair of goggles that has been developed and considered for use by homeland security for police work, eventually allowing users to instantly perform background checks or ID verification. The VR system, known as FLEX, allows users to traverse different simulations of real-world environments marking locations with a sort of note, known as a "geoPoint," containing audio, visual, and hypertext, as well as collecting and working with data they encounter. Harris says the VR technology should be able to help the visually impaired learn their way around a location before actually going there.
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Acoustic Sensors Make Surfaces Interactive
New Scientist (11/28/06) Simonite, Tom

A group of researchers in Europe has developed a system that can turn walls, tables, and other surfaces into virtual touchpads or keyboards. The Tai-Chi (Tangible Acoustic Interfaces for Computer-Human Interaction) system makes use of acoustic sensors connected to the edge of a surface that are able to track the minute vibrations of another object touching it. The tiny piezoelectric sensors rely on data produced by software from a desktop computer to pick up surface vibrations that reach them in different amounts of time. In addition to this method, Tai-Chi tracks vibrations using only one sensor, in a method in which the point of contact is identified using a database of vibration "fingerprints." Researchers from Switzerland, Italy, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom were all involved in the project, which has a video demonstration of project coordinator Ming Yang of Britain's Cardiff University touching different areas of a flat, vertical surface and creating an interactive globe that accessed geographical information on a computer screen. "The technology is a neat and relatively simple solution to making ordinary objects touch sensitive," says William Harwin, a haptic interfaces expert at Britain's Reading University.
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Researcher Gives Robotic Surgery Tools a Sense of Touch
Johns Hopkins University News Releases (11/28/06)

Johns Hopkins associate professor of mechanical engineering Allison Okumura is working on a way to convey a sense of touch, or "haptic feedback," to surgeons using robotic tools to perform precise operations. "The surgeons have asked for this kind of feedback," says Okamura. Currently, robotic systems provide doctors with a 3D display of the site of the surgery, but no way to "feel what's happening when they're working inside the body...a 'pop' when a needle pokes through tissue" or to "feel for calcification," explains Okamura. Two options have been devised by Okamura's team: Force sensors attached to the robotic tools could convey to the surgeon the amount of force being applied by the machine, but while very accurate, these sensors would be very expensive and must be made of sterile, biocompatible material; mathematical computer models could represent moves made by the robotic tools and send haptic feedback to the surgeon, but this system may not have a short enough response time. In choosing the most effective method, Okamura says, "The most important thing is that the haptic feedback sent to the human operator must feel right because the fingers aren't easily fooled." Currently, the team is using a visual system that signals the amount of force being applied by the robotic tools using colors.
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GPS That Never Fails
Technology Review (11/30/06) Mashberg, Tom

Sarnoff researchers have found an effective way to remedy the gaps in GPS service caused by buildings and other objects that have been unavoidable up to this point. Sarnoff computer scientist Rakesh Kumar explains, "This is a general research problem in computer vision, but nobody has gotten the kind of accuracy we are getting." The technology can maintain accuracy of location in 3D space within a meter after having moved a half-kilometer into GPS-denied ground, thanks to a system that uses four cameras, two on the front and two on the back of a vehicle, to make calculations based on objects passing through its field of vision. The system first figures the distance covered by analyzing how objects "move" in relation to the cameras on the vehicle, then figuring the total distance; this is a step that requires "visual odometry," the ability of the software to match landmarks it sees with landmarks in subsequent frames to correct a problem known as "drift." Finally, the system figures which objects are moving, which would disrupt the calculations, and disregards them to form its final reading. SRI computer scientist Motilal Agrawal calls this technology "pretty damned good. For us a meter of error is typically over 100 meters." Currently, Sarnoff is working to reduce the amount of computational work needed to process the images, and after the technology has been delivered to the Navy, who funded the project, the company plans to use it to improve GPS systems in cars.
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NJIT Women Scientists and Engineers Use New Information Technologies to Tackle Isolation on Campus
New Jersey Institute of Technology (11/28/06)

New location-aware computer networks are being used to help female faculty at NJIT overcome the isolation that many females in the technology field face. "Despite decades of taskforce recommendations, women faculty at technological institutions still too often find themselves positioned on islands, disconnected from the mainland of academic life," explains Nancy Steffen-Fluhr, project leader and director of NJIT's Murray Center for Women in Technology. Interdisciplinary communities, consisting of male and female faculty, have been established and will be interconnected using P3 tools, location-aware mobile communication systems, "to increase information flow among collaborators who are housed in different departments," says Steffen-Fluhr. The project's success will be gauged using the data gather from the P3 study to create dynamic computer mapping that displays alterations in the complexity of social networks over a period of time. Steffen-Fluhr says that this technique for measuring collaboration, if effective, will "provide a new method of measuring institutional climate change that can be used at universities across the country."
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European Cyberstructure in the Making
HPC Wire (12/01/06) Vol. 15, No. 47, Lazou, Christopher

The European Science Foundation's "Forward Look" computational science forum seeks to define the scientific cyberinfrastructure, which is sorely underrepresented in Europe, writes Christopher Lazou of HiPerCom Consultants. "This lack of a European software infrastructure, for developing computer codes, and the support to deploy, maintain, and evolve these codes, as well as technical training for the next generation of computational scientists, is hindering the advancement of European science in many fields," he explains. "Eventually this would lead to European computational scientists losing their world leading position." At the conclusion of the "Forward Look" initiative will be a final report that presents a strategy for providing appropriate European software, hardware, and support infrastructures. The cyberinfrastructure encompasses all required developments for delivering the means to fully exploit the potential of rapid hardware and Grid growth. Collaborative, integrated work by European code developers is a crucial ingredient. Lazou reports that it was a recent "Forward Look" workshop's conclusion that European software infrastructure should feature an independent organizational structure to address the interests of the communities.
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Patent Reform Needs to Go Further
ZDNet (11/29/06) Carroll, John

Blogger and Microsoft employee John Carroll sees a need for a tightening of rules for designating patentability, especially to software ideas. "Patents are a useful fantasy, at least to the extent that it creates incentives to spend money conducting research that will advance human knowledge," Carroll writes. But he observes that this principle loses usefulness when it comes to the patenting of software and business processes. There are many software ideas that would be produced in the absence of patents, which makes Carroll--and the open source community--question why such ideas should be protected. As a mitigation measure, Carroll proposes assigning a dollar limit to a software patent grant. The dollar limit encompasses the patent office's assessment of the expected return on investment for the patent, which means that the patent expires regardless of how many years it has left on its 20-year allotment once the patent owner's revenue exceeds the determined ROI amount. This solution is an alternative to an earlier suggestion of Carroll's that the term of patentability for software ideas should be significantly reduced. "Preserving the 20-year patent period gives patent holders enough time to attempt to enforce their patents while providing a limiting factor in the form of a fixed financial return value," Carroll argues, although he is highly skeptical that such a proposal will be adopted. On the other hand, he sees little chance of software patents going away. Carroll concludes that "A dollar figure limit would help to prevent the filing of spurious patents while curtailing their ability to hold companies and the open source community to ransom. That should be something that appeals to companies with large patent holdings--such as Microsoft--as the costs of defending themselves against external patent claims spiral ever upwards."
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Communication Barrier Is Broken
University of Southern California (11/27/06) Mankin, Eric

Thanks to a new grid computing system developed by the USC Viterbi School of Engineering's Information Sciences Institute, doctors at 40 hospitals in North America are able to electronically share high-resolution medical images. The breakthrough will hopefully allow doctors treating young cancer patients to alter their course of action after taking note of what treatments are not working, and allow faster monitoring of current research and diagnostic practices. "We have broken the medical image communication barrier," says computer scientist Stephan Erberich, director of functional imaging and biomedical informatics at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles and a faculty member of both USC's Keck School of Medicine and Viterbi School of Engineering. The Globus MEDICUS system is the latest in the rapidly increasing number of scientific and medial communities that use Globus open-source grid collaboration software developed at ISI and Argonne national Laboratories. The MEDICUS system was founded on earlier work by the Digital Imaging and Communication in Media (DICOM) standards committee, which established an electronic format for medical images that makes any type of commercial imaging device, x-ray, MRI, or CT, capable of displaying and managing images from any other of these devices. Childrens Hospital radiologist-in-chief and Chairman Marvin D. Nelson says the system is "totally transparent. Each facility is now connected to the Grid using its own interface--you only have to [have] one interface at the hospital--and that serves the whole hospital, reusing the hospital's capital investment in DICOM visualization devices."
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You're Not Alone
New York Times (11/23/06) Hamilton, William L.

As more aspects of the household become integrated into the Internet, the potential for damage done by hackers is increasing. Computer scientist Peter G. Neumann, who specializes in security issues at SRI International, calls the home, "the next frontier of risk...here we are putting computer communications into the home so that [a hacker can] can turn on your oven, or overload your heating system...from anywhere in the world. You could bring down a lot of households simultaneously." The use of "botnets," groups of inadequately protected computers, often in homes, that hackers create into "armies" and sell to electronic criminals, has risen in the past year, and with 50 million homes now constantly connected to the Internet through broadband connections, the danger facing households is becoming greater. Symantec, in its annual threat report in September, stated that home computers make up 86 percent of those attacked, largely because unlike businesses, households don't realize the risk they face and therefore don't take appropriate security measures. Symantec's Tom Powledge says that people don't realize how many devices in their homes are actually computers that can communicate with each other, and thus don't realize their potential to be exploited. Powledge says, "Your TiVo is a small computer, with an operating system, and all your devices can 'see' each other. When you have these kinds of devices that can communicate with other devices, the potential goes up that they can be exploited." Powledge notes that 80 percent of home network users don't activate the security features, while Lawrence R. Rogers of CERT, Carnegie Mellon University's center for Internet security, says users don't want to have to worry about security in their home networks. Experts say the problem will only get worse as home theater systems are integrated with other entertainment services and the Internet and home automation systems take on health care, energy management, and other functions.
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Chipping Away at Disease Prevention
Government Health IT (11/06) Vol. 1, No. 6, P. 18; Robinson, Brian

Managing epidemics and effectively treating an aging population are among the problems that Intel's Health Research and Innovation Group is trying to address in the hopes of ultimately creating a vast new market for its products. Skyrocketing health care costs, especially those associated with elderly care, are encouraging Intel to explore a transition to a business model that stresses home care of patients and eventually patient-directed approaches to wellness. "Wellness and prevention are a big part of what we are talking about, and it's something that not a lot of time and money is spent on now," notes Center for Aging Services Technologies executive director Russell Bodoff. "With 77 million baby boomers close to retirement, the more we can do for wellness the better it will be for their health and health costs." Tracking people's activities and behavior in the home and recognizing deviations from the norm through wireless sensor networks is one of Intel's research objectives, one that could facilitate early detection of Alzheimer's disease; the disease could be managed earlier, allowing sufferers to stay at home rather than be sent to nursing homes and keeping costs relatively low. Adaptive technologies that supply the appropriate amount of aid according to people's level of function could also be developed. A preponderance of Intel chips in home entertainment appliances such as CD and DVD players, televisions, and cell phones already offers a platform for supporting medical assistance technologies, according to Intel Health Research and Innovation Group general manager Eric Dishman. He acknowledges, however, that considerable effort must be made if people are to achieve an intuitive comprehension of how such technologies could affect wellness and disease prevention; proving the technologies can make a substantial difference is also key to their adoption.
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Swordplay: Innovating Game Development Through VR
IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications (12/06) Vol. 26, No. 6, P. 15; Katzourin, Michael; Ignatoff, Daniel; Quirk, Lincoln

Brown University researchers are attempting to ascertain the applicability of interaction methods to natural human expression in virtual 3D environments through "Swordplay," an immersive game that features sword-fighting and spell-casting. Swordplay features a first-person viewpoint and control via natural human movement, and is played in the arena of Brown's surround screen VR system. The player navigates the game environment by walking and employing an analog stick, which moves and spins the player within the virtual surroundings. Players can switch back and forth between a sword and shield mode and a bow and arrow mode through a simple gesture of reaching over their shoulders with both hands. There are two controllers: One controls the sword and the other controls the shield, each of which move in sync with the controller. In bow and arrow mode, the primary controller holds the arrow's tail, while the bow's grip is in a fixed position relative to the secondary controller; the arrow is fixed in the player's grip by holding down a button, and is then shot by releasing the button after the player has pulled back the virtual string by widening the distance between the bow grip and arrow tail. Spell-casting is done by holding down the main controller's button in sword and shield mode and tracing a series of one or more symbols in the air that the computer is programmed to recognize. The same interaction techniques used by Swordplay can be employed by next-generation games via the Nintendo Wii's Wiimote, whose input device is similar to Brown's surround screen VR configuration.
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The Digital Ice Age
Popular Mechanics (12/06) Vol. 183, No. 12, P. 94; Reagan, Brad

There is no assurance that digitized documents will maintain their readability over time, given the risks of deterioration, corruption, or the obsolescence of formats due to technological change. A lack of long-term trustworthiness of the software and hardware that is used to generate and store information endangers everything constructed with that information, and experts concur that a vast amount of historical data could be lost if this problem is not addressed soon. The Software and Information Industry Association estimates that software applications are upgraded every 18 to 24 months on average, and newer versions are not always backward compatible with older iterations. The National Archives faces the formidable challenge of preserving all historically relevant documents and content the federal government produces, and the mounting volume of White House emails and other digital files makes the traditional approach of copying documents onto magnetic tape impractical; in addition, the archive must be searchable. Director of the National Archives' Electronic Records Archive Ken Thibodeau would like to create a system that preserves any file type generated on any application and any computing platform and delivered on any digital media. Lockheed Martin is developing a "migration" system under contract with the National Archives, and the system is designed to translate files into XML and other non-rigid formats so that the files are accessible by future technologies. An alternative approach is "emulation," a tactic in which a modern computer is enabled to imitate an older system in order to run a certain program. Rand computer scientist Jeff Rothenberg sees a lack of drive among average consumers for digital data preservation, noting that corporations "have very little motivation to burden themselves with compatibility because doing so only allows their customers to avoid upgrading."
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