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Volume 5, Issue 589:  Wednesday, December 31, 2003

  • "Writing an End to the Bio of BIOS"
    CNet (12/30/03); Spooner, John G.

    Intel and Microsoft are jointly pushing a replacement for the BIOS program that starts up PC hardware before the operating system is running. The new Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI) will most likely co-exist with BIOS for some time, given the slow pace of standardization in the PC industry, but nearly everyone agrees it is time for a new preboot technology. BIOS has been updated for 23 years, transforming what was originally a clean and simple system into a bowl of technological spaghetti; EFI has been created from scratch and would provide a new base for technological additions going forward. The technology will benefit both PC companies and consumers, allowing preboot software firms to more easily create code than dealing with assembly language BIOS code and speeding the boot-up process. Insyde Software has already licensed EFI technology from Intel and offers a development environment called Insyde H20 for PC makers. Gateway is another first-adopter, and uses EFI in its Gateway 610 Media Center desktop system because it affords long-term development opportunities, according to the company. Microsoft and Intel plan to launch a forum for EFI development in the next three months and will support EFI in their Longhorn and future chipset products, respectively. EFI provides a preboot software framework for which PC makers can create modules similar to Windows drivers; the system only affects functions required for start-up, increasing both the speed and reliability of the computer. BIOS software leader Phoenix Technologies says it will adopt EFI if it becomes an industry standard, but in the meantime is developing its own Core Management Environment for servers and desktops.
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  • "Spam Costs $20 Billion Each Year in Lost Productivity"
    TechNewsWorld (12/29/03); Lyman, Jay

    Consulting group Basex reports that the annual cost of junk email worldwide amounts to almost $20 million in lost productivity for companies, and estimates that spam's yearly toll for each user ranges from $600 to $1,000. "Given an environment where virtually anyone can purchase a list of 25 million email addresses for $25 and send email to all 25 million at practically no cost, it should come as no surprise that spam has become such a scourge," writes Basex chief analyst Jonathan Spira. He adds that corporate and federal antispam efforts and legislation are unlikely to curb the growth of spam, and posits that what is required is an as-yet-uninvented solution to combat unsolicited commercial email. The Basex report not only blames spam for lost productivity, but for costs associated with clogged email systems, user support, antispam software, bandwidth, and storage, while Spira adds that spam-related losses have a detrimental effect on IT spending and on monies diverted to fighting spam when they could be used for other things. Basex reports that the deployment of anti-spam measures cost corporations over $600 million this year. The research firm also cites a recent survey indicating that users are becoming swamped by spam: The average user spends about 15 minutes every day deleting junk email from inboxes. Furthermore, additional productivity can be lost when legitimate email is misidentified as spam by filters, or the sheer volume of unwanted messages causes important missives to get lost in the shuffle. Forrester analyst Jan Sundgren says that even a small amount of spam that gets by filters can be a source of frustration for corporate workers, especially since such email usually contains offensive material.
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  • "The Remaining Challenges of Linux"
    MC Press Online (12/29/03); Stockwell, Thomas M.

    A changing IT landscape will pressure Linux in ways most people may not expect: Instead of focusing on slick desktop capabilities to gain further acceptance, the Linux development community needs to build a stable platform that will support a mass influx of former Windows users. Linux has a lot of momentum on the back-end supplying low-cost, secure platforms for critical applications, but many people point to Microsoft's continued dominance of the desktop as a last major bastion Linux must take. That view is predicated on the PC paradigm which is being eroded by Microsoft's growing technical isolation and the proliferation of smaller, wireless devices used for corporate computing. Companies will increasingly use Linux to power blade servers and thin-client architectures, providing users with just the applications they need to do their work--a word processor, spreadsheets, a browser, and email client; this will mean much simpler user support and lower costs for companies. Linux will continue down the computing ladder past PCs to device-specific systems, such as for personal digital assistants, cell phones, and other personal appliances used to link mobile workers to their virtual workspace. This shift will happen as Microsoft continues to make Windows more difficult to maintain; combined with higher Windows licensing fees, it is possible Linux will be embraced by corporate users as a total solution. The Linux development community needs to shore up its fragmented support and licensing confusions between distributors, developers, and original equipment manufacturers in order to handle this growth, writes MC Press editor in chief Thomas M. Stockwell.
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  • "Mother of Invention"
    Boston Globe (12/28/03); Barlow, Rich

    MIT computer researcher and roboticist Daniela Rus has a vision of versatile, self-reconfiguring robots that can change their shape at will to carry out missions, such as search-and-rescue, space exploration, and orbital repairs and communications. She explains that this field of study "means to study life, to get an understanding of how we're made up." Making such a project a reality involves increasing the resilience and flexibility of robot bodies, and imbuing artificial intelligence with a mental agility comparable to that of humans. Another pet project of Rus' is the virtual fence, an electronic collar worn by cattle that produces an unpleasant sound whenever the animals stray out of bounds. Rus says there is a dearth of high-tech research focused on agriculture: "It's what feeds us, so I think it is our duty to contribute and see if we can help that sector out," she says. Rus led AI courses at Dartmouth that stressed ethical dilemmas, such as whether robots could eventually conquer the world or whether there is an urgency to implement safeguards such as Isaac Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics." Rus, however, does not primarily focus on the negative aspects of robotics, and cites breakthroughs such as Duke University researchers' thought-controlled prosthetics effort as evidence of the field's tremendous potential to improve human life. Rus also stands out for being a woman in a chiefly male-oriented science; the National Council for Research on Women reports that women earn less than 20 percent of undergraduate computer science degrees in the United States.
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  • "Mini Storage Drives Poised to Make Waves"
    InternetNews.com (12/26/03); Boulton, Clint

    USB flash drives (UFDs) are gaining traction in the United States as the 21st Century equivalents of floppy disks or CD-ROMs, according to analysts and flash memory experts; however, the small storage drives face a tough challenge in penetrating the mainstream as long as a large segment of the populace is unfamiliar with them and security concerns remain unresolved. Still, Gartner analyst Joe Unsworth reports that consumer adoption of UFDs was spurred significantly by dramatic dips in the flash memory chip costs, and forecasts that 15 million UFDs will have shipped by year's end. He believes the UFD market will split into two general categories: Simple drives used exclusively for data transport and storage, and more intelligent drives with processors that run software for small applications. Experts note that USB flash drives, which usually store between 8 MB and 512 MB, are enjoying wide popularity in Asia, while Semico Research's Jim Handy says their convenience has made them ubiquitous in China. A coalition of USD manufacturers recently founded the USB Flash Drive Alliance (UFDA) in the hopes of stimulating UFD adoption in the United States; Kingston Technology's Darwin Chen says American retailers are often confused as to what product category UFDs best represent. Unsworth notes that M-Systems' DiskOnKey business unit dominates the UFD market, but M-Systems has opted not to join the UFDA. M-Systems' Blaine Phelps explains that "for us to join the UFDA, it would legitimize their [the member companies] right to our IP and we have spent so much time defending it." Corporate users are hesitant to adopt UFDs because of worries that the devices could be used to steal data, while their small size makes them easy to misplace. Both Phelps and Chen say their companies are busy bolstering their drives' protection via encryption, while Chen notes that some manufacturers are developing biometric security UFDs that scan fingerprints prior to use.
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  • "Microfluidics Make Flat Screens"
    Technology Research News (12/24/03); Smalley, Eric

    Cheap, large-area flat-panel computer displays and foldable electronic paper backplanes are closer to reality with the development of a microfluidic process for fabricating organic transistors by Palo Alto Research Center scientists. An organic backplane prototype has been created using this process, which involves printing a pattern of wax on a metal-coated transparent substrate to delineate a circuit array, and then chemically removing the metal not covered by the wax. The surface is covered by a photocurable polymer that is cured through exposure to ultraviolet light, while uncured areas are defined by the metal circuits. Channels directly aligned above the circuits are left once the uncured polymer is washed off, and transistors are formed via the deposition and drying of liquid polymer semiconductor material within the channels. "The microfluidic channels act as a wick to draw the solution containing the polymer semiconductor across the array," notes Palo Alto researcher Michael Chabinyc, who compares the polymeric transistors' performance to that of organic thin-film transistors made using current techniques, the key difference being that the process is simpler than other methods. The production process has yielded microchannels 40 microns wide and 20 microns high, and pixel areas 300 microns across. Chabinyc reports that the technique obviates the need for semiconductor materials robust enough to withstand photolithography processes, adding that "the method...can be done in the ambient environment; thus the commercialization of the process should be less expensive." The researcher predicts that polymer thin-film transistors could show up in electronic paper and large-area displays within a decade.
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  • "Clark Campaign Going Open Source"
    Wired News (12/24/03); Ulbrich, Chris

    Clark TechCorps, which was launched Dec. 24 by Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark's technology team, is a project that aims to mobilize volunteer software coders to devise open-source applications available to all campaigns and elections. Target applications include a social-networking tool similar to Friendster and a program campaign field workers can employ to track mailings, contributions, and door-to-door visits; campaign data and community Web site management software are also expected to be released freely. The software will initially be distributed by developers under the BSD license, with dissemination under other open-source licenses dependent on authorization by campaign lawyers. Zack Rosen, a technology developer associated with competing Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean's open-source DeanSpace software community, notes that Dean and Clark "have the same exact problem: We need to mobilize our grass-roots base." Clark technology director John Lerner reports that open source is advantageous in campaigns where money is tight, people are pressed for time, and the ranks of volunteers are swelling. He says that the conventional business/employee model is inapplicable when it comes to managing such large numbers--a notion shared by many political campaigns nowadays, according to O'Reilly Network technical editor "chromatic." Lerner points out that a certain amount of time must be set aside for the TechCorps community to get organized, and he is confident that the community will have reached critical mass in the next 10 months. "There's no reason TechCorps can't grow to hundreds if not thousands of active developers in that time frame," he declares.
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  • "Through Thick and Thin"
    SiliconValley.com (12/24/03); Poletti, Therese

    Hewlett-Packard's leadership in the field of nanotechnology is generally attributed to the efforts of HP Labs molecular electronics researchers Stan Williams and Phil Kuekes. The pair first met in 1996, when Williams was wrestling with a key problem of atomic-scale circuitry fabrication--namely, the high probability of imperfections. Kuekes' work with the Teramac prototype proved that the circuitry could theoretically still work even with imperfections. Last September, Williams demonstrated a 1-square-micron molecular memory chip that boasts 10 times as many switches as current models. If HP successfully develops atomic-level computer chip fabrication, the company could implement the new mass-production method within the next three to five years. By 2010, HP expects to be stamping out circuits 1 million times smaller than the memory chip unveiled in September 2002. "We believe that by giving this fundamental manufacturing technology to the HP divisions, we are essentially increasing the choices that HP will have in the future to get into interesting businesses," explains Kuekes. Though Williams insists that nanotech will not be an advertised feature on HP products, he notes that new nanotech-based products could emerge within the next five to 10 years.
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  • "Will DVD Acquittal Mean Tougher Copyright Laws?"
    CNet (12/24/03); Hansen, Evan

    U.S. entertainment cartels could renew their efforts to bolster global copyright laws in response to the recent acquittal of Norwegian programmer Jon Johansen for authoring DeCSS, a software tool that circumvents DVD encryption schemes. A Norwegian court ruled that Johansen did not commit any wrongdoing under local statutes, and this represents a significant defeat for an entertainment industry wanting to deter potential DVD pirates with a conviction of a well-known figure. Morrison & Foerster attorney Jonathan Band says the court's verdict points to some of the drawbacks of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the main tool of leverage entertainment companies use to crack down on unauthorized digital copiers. Shortly after Johansen was acquitted, the Motion Picture Association of America released a statement declaring, "If the present decision is the courts' final word on the matter, we hope that the Norwegian legislature will move quickly to implement the WIPO Copyright Treaty to correct this apparent defect in Norwegian law." It is the goal of the entertainment industry to apply legislation modeled after the DMCA on a global scale, and most European nations are expected to finalize some version of the law by next year. But there are indications that other countries may not welcome DMCA-like legislation: Peter Jaszi of American University Law School reports that "there is an increasing sense...that the U.S. has a very strong protectionist agenda and that may not be in every case the best approach for countries at different stages of development." A blow was also recently struck against the entertainment sector's attempt to curb Internet piracy by suing individual infringers when a federal appeals court ruled that the record industry could not obtain the names of alleged file swappers from ISPs without prior authorization by a judge. Furthermore, several bills under consideration on Capitol Hill would grant exemptions to the DMCA for such purposes as making personal copies of legally purchased DVDs.
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  • "REALVIZ Image Manipulation"
    LinuxWorld (12/03); Tjostolvsen, Liz

    REALVIZ has ported its MatchMover technology to the Linux platform for the first time, allowing more digital 3D effects developers to access the automatic tracking software. MatchMover Professional 3.0 is based on similar ground-breaking algorithms used in all REALVIZ products and allows digital effects developers to accurately integrate digital 3D creations with live-action film. The technology was featured recently in the movies "Dinotopia," "Die Another Day," "Daredevil," and the upcoming movie "Troy." REALVIZ technology is based on work originally done at the French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (INRIA). The image-based modeling algorithms automate the process of matching digital creations with real film images. REALVIZ chief technology officer Luc Robert says the technology came from computer vision research meant to give robots 3D perception: Using the algorithms, computers could translate real video images into computer models and allow robots to move around obstacles and track their location using vision. Besides MatchMover, REALVIZ also offers ImageModeler, which is useful for photographers, Web designers, video game developers, and other digital content creators who do not want to create realistic images from scratch. Robert compares ImageModeler to the 2D image editing program Photoshop, since it is used to edit and adjust already existing images and not used to create new ones from scratch. Movie studios use ImageModeler to create realistic digital worlds, but start by constructing plaster models, which are then videoed and inputted into the program.
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  • "Survey: IT Workers Expect Raises in 2004"
    IDG News Service (12/24/03); Gross, Grant

    A Brainbench email survey finds that 43 percent of American IT workers received no wage increase this year, but 60 percent expect their salary to rise by at least 3 percent in 2004. Raises of 8 percent or higher are anticipated by 14 percent of respondents, while 12 percent expect no raise. Brainbench CEO Mike Russiello says the IT workforce's outlook for the coming year is "surprisingly optimistic," though there is less certainty regarding demand for American workers amid media reports of growing outsourcing and overseas relocation of IT jobs. Twenty-seven percent of those polled report that they earned an IT certification in the past year. Forty-nine percent of this group say their desire to get certified was driven by a need to obtain new skills, while only 6 percent say their goal was to make more money. Twenty-one percent claim shifting to a new job or new job focus was the impetus for certification, and 11 percent saw a need to fill in personal skills gaps. A 2002 Brainbench survey estimates that 65 percent of respondents who earned certifications received salary increases of 5 percent or more. Russiello concludes that money seems to have less importance for workers pursuing certification this year, which could be a sign of IT workforce maturation.
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  • "And Machine Shall Talk to Machine..."
    New Scientist (12/20/03) Vol. 180, No. 2426, P. 30; Marks, Paul

    The anticipated upgrade to next-generation 3G cell phone networks over the next 10 years may not necessarily mean the extinction of conventional mobile phone systems: Telecoms analysts believe the old networks could find new life as long-range routers for text messages via machine-to-machine (M2M) communication. M2M technology promises to make virtually any device capable of sending data through a minuscule, built-in cell phone, allowing users to control the devices remotely and check their status, which translates into tremendous savings for businesses, greater convenience for consumers, extra traffic for phone networks, and new marketing opportunities for mobile phone manufacturers. For M2M to work, its communication infrastructure must be complemented with strong, reliable hardware and software, but M2M viability has already been demonstrated by a number of companies. Zipcar, for instance, has devised a system that uses a cell phone network to relay data about the length of car trips and mileage to the company so that motorists can be automatically billed for use of vehicles. Meanwhile, Nokia has partnered with Box Telematics to build M2MBoxLite, the first commercially available M2M system. Gartner Dataquest projects that 26 million M2M devices will be shipped in Europe and the United States by 2006, while Nokia believes M2M connections will total 100 million worldwide by that time. There are concerns that mobile phone usage in some European nations is reaching saturation levels, which could limit opportunities for M2M. However, Forrester Research thinks that there will be plenty of linkable devices to keep the M2M market healthy and robust.

  • "Sun Bets On High-Performance Computing for a Volume Market"
    InformationWeek (12/18/03); Ricadela, Aaron

    Some 90 researchers and engineers at Sun Microsystems are working on a supercomputing research project funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which allocated over $146 million to Sun, Cray, and IBM five months ago to develop a new class of high-performance machines. Some $49.7 million of that funding was given to Sun under the aegis of DARPA's High Productivity Computing Systems program, which seeks to bolster American supercomputing research and development. Aspects of the project Sun has embarked upon include the development of a new, Java-like programming language and run-time environment designed to make high-performance computing applications less complicated. Migrating new technologies for wireless chip-to-chip data transfer, on-chip calculations, and more efficient cooling systems to commercial products are also goals of the Sun initiative. Sun principal investigator John Gustafson reports that the success of the project would help distinguish Sun's products from low-cost PC clusters that employ the Windows or Linux operating system for more high-end applications; "The system must be cheaper or more capable than commodity Linux clusters, or why bother?" he declared at a Sun Labs presentation on Dec. 17. Sun CTO Greg Papadopoulos says corporate R&D departments could benefit from technology developed under the DARPA program. He explains, "It's not about building one big computer. Sun is placing a big bet that high-performance computing is a volume market, otherwise we wouldn't be doing this."
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  • "Europe Increases Software Efforts"
    NE Asia Online (12/01/03); Vollmer, Alfred

    European software research is bolstered by the region's Information Technology for European Advancement (ITEA) program, which is focused on pre-competitive research and development of embedded and distributed software. ITEA projects involve companies from different markets who join together to share expertise and develop something new, says ITEA Chairman Paul Mehring. For example, Nokia brings handset experience, Alcatel comes with telecommunications infrastructure knowledge, Deutsche Telekom understands network issues, and Daimler-Chrysler is an expert in automotive applications. Participant companies share expertise so to speed development of new opportunities, such as the ITEA collaboration HomeNet2Run, which has already prototyped future home networking standards that link wired, wireless, and middleware technologies. HomeNet2Run is an architecture where small clusters around the house each act as their own small network, but are also able to trade data between each other. Another ITEA project is copyright protection system (COPS), a format-independent digital content protection technology that restricts access to data except at the point of consumption; COPS provides content owners control without requiring upgrades of the hardware itself. Another important joint project aims to create an open architecture for automotive systems where suppliers can create and swap software modules between brands easily. The EAST-EEA project covers nearly every aspect of the vehicle, including power train, telematics, and the user interface; most of Europe's large automotive manufacturers participate in EAST-EEA, which involves more than 25 companies in total.
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  • "Machine Chameleon"
    IEEE Spectrum (12/03); Verkest, Diederik

    Researchers at Belgium's Interuniversity MicroElectronics Center (IMEC) are developing a wireless multimedia handheld featuring easily upgradeable and reconfigurable hardware and software, and a prototype is on the horizon as IMEC's three-year project Gecko draws to a close. A trio of components form the basic architecture of Gecko: A field-programmable gate array (FPGA) to supply high performance for specific applications; fixed application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) to coordinate wireless communication and similar functions; and a microprocessor to support both software applications and a real-time operating system. The Gecko prototype features a Compaq iPAQ pocket PC that accepts user input and displays video, games, and other applications, and is linked to a generic prototyping board supporting a pair of Xilinx Virtex-II FPGAs. The FPGA in closest proximity to the iPAQ is dynamically configurable and features 6 million logic gates, while the other FPGA boasts half as many gates and is employed for auxiliary operations. The microprocessor element is a 200 MHz Intel StrongARM SA-1110 featuring 64 MB of RAM and 32 MB of flash memory. Most dynamically reconfigurable system research focuses on frequent, automatic hardware recasting, while the Gecko project involves task transfer and reconfiguration whenever the user desires another application to start; so as to maximize the speed and seamlessness of multitasking, Gecko's developers created a technique in which one part of the FPGA is reconfigured to create a new task while the remainder is dedicated to other hardware tasks. So that accelerating several tasks simultaneously is possible, Gecko's reconfigurable hardware is split into three independent zones (tiles): Tasks can be distributed throughout these tiles as long as the number of tasks requiring acceleration does not exceed the number of available tiles. So that tasks can communicate with each other, the Gecko engineers opted to route packets across a fixed interconnect network, allowing the tiles on the chip to talk to each other in the same way computers do online; the device's real-time Linux-based operating system facilitates seamless transition between functions.
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