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ACM TechNews is published every week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.


ACM TechNews is intended as an objective news digest for busy IT Professionals. Views expressed are not necessarily those of either AutoChoice Advisor or ACM. To send comments, please write to technews@hq.acm.org.
Volume 6, Issue 612:  Monday, March 1, 2004

  • "Microsoft, Amid Dwindling Interest, Talks Up Computing as a Career"
    New York Times (03/01/04) P. C1; Lohr, Steve

    A fall-off of computer science majors--23 percent fewer this year, according to a poll of several hundred North American universities by the Computing Research Association--has prompted industry leaders such as Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates to lecture at schools, telling students that their skills can still earn them a healthy salary even as companies export jobs overseas. Professors report that students are less enthusiastic about computer science at even the most prestigious academies, and are concerned that this attitude is fostered by more than just the disappointment of the dot-com implosion. On the other hand, computer science students who have elected to follow other career paths claim their computing skills give them an edge: Matthew Notowidigo, who has chosen to become an investment banker after majoring in computer science at MIT, says an understanding of computing technology will be critical to nearly all fields in the future. John V. Guttag, head of MIT's computer science department, says that in order to combat the erosion of computer science majors, "we have to emphasize...that a good computer science education is a great preparation for almost anything you want to do." Gates says the most talented students are not being drawn to computer science because there is little excitement or understanding surrounding the field. He told students in a series of lectures that breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, speech recognition, and machine-to-machine communications are on the horizon thanks to years of research, faster computers, and better software. Gates added that computer analysis and modeling is becoming increasingly vital to well-entrenched disciplines such as biology and industrial design, as well as emergent disciplines such as nanotechnology.
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  • "E-Voting Terminals Face Super Tuesday Test"
    Reuters (02/29/04); Sullivan, Andy

    The March 2 primary election will feature the use of electronic voting machines that have been criticized for their susceptibility to hacking and other forms of tampering. Maryland, which has spent $55 million to deploy touch-screen e-voting systems, will wrap the machines in protective tape while state election officials monitor for suspicious behavior, but Johns Hopkins University Professor Ari Schwartz said such measures will not thwart the exploitation of software errors. Stanford University computer science professor David Dill added that making e-voting systems tamper-proof is beyond the facility of current technology. A representative of Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell declared that the state will push back the certification of e-voting machines until the November election at least. Meanwhile, a judge ruled on Feb. 18 that California could employ e-voting systems in its primary, even though Secretary of State Kevin Shelley is considering whether e-voting machine manufacturer Diebold Election Systems should be sanctioned for its use of uncertified software in the October 2003 election. The California Voter Foundation has called on voters to vote through absentee ballots rather than e-voting machines. David Bear of Diebold insisted that his company's products feature an internal printer that allows officials to double-check results, adding that federal auditors examine the software prior to certification. Among e-voting's advocates is the League of Women Voters, who praise the machines for their ease of use, reduction of voting errors, and accessibility to handicapped voters.
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  • "Wesleyan's Cluster Computers"
    Hartford Courant (03/01/04); Frahm, Robert A.

    Using Beowulf cluster architecture developed by NASA in the mid 1990s, Wesleyan University physics professor Reinhold Blumel and then-student Vasilios Hoffman constructed a supercomputer, WesWulf I, using obsolete, discarded desktops. The cluster's success prompted the development of a second-generation supercomputer, WesWulf II, that currently uses about 90 cable-linked processors, which Blumel built with the assistance of Danish graduate student Thomas Clausen. Beowulf-based clusters are now found at many universities, research labs, and government agencies; MIT computer science and engineering professor Charles E. Leiserson says the clusters' appeal comes out of their cheap construction costs. Clausen notes that costs for WesWulf II were dramatically lowered by opting to use the open source Linux operating system rather than a proprietary operating system. Hoffman reports that the cluster can perform approximately 70 billion calculations each second. Blumel calculates that WesWulf II's cost thus far is around $50,000, which is probably only a third of the cost of a similar commercially-bought supercomputer. Clausen is employing WesWulf II to simulate how microwaves affect hydrogen atoms, while a Wesleyan astronomy professor is using the cluster to model galactic collisions.
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  • "Design Space, Nothing But Net"
    Astrobiology (02/25/04); Noever, David

    On April 1, 1994, leading Internet figure and ICANN Chairman of the Board Dr. Vinton Cerf puckishly posted a fictitious email from a human outpost on Mars, circa 2023, to illustrate his belief that the Internet would eventually transcend terrestrial boundaries. Three years later, he started addressing the possibility of an Interplanetary Internet composed of satellites and robotic communications platforms deployed throughout the solar system. Such a network will theoretically circumvent many of the current drawbacks of deep space communications, such as long delays between transmission and reception, power constraints, and error rates. With the help of Adrian Hooke at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Cerf discovered that standard versions of TCP/IP protocols, even those adapted for deep space, did not deliver adequate performance, and these collaborators have been working since 1998 to redesign the protocols. Cerf reports that a suite of protocols has been developed, while open source software to test the suite has also been issued. Cerf notes that the software can also be adapted for use in sensor networks and military communications. He hopes that the concepts will be tested in space on the 2009 Mars Telecommunication Orbiter, and on Earth in military and/or civilian sensor networks. "The successful Mars missions ignites a great interest in me in the creation of a solar system observation program to put many platforms in orbit and on the surface of moons and planets," Cerf notes. "Such continuous data gathering would not only teach us a great deal about our own solar system but it would also develop information we will need to plan serious, long range and long term human exploration."
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  • "Model Keeps Virtual Eyes Right"
    Technology Research News (03/03/04); Patch, Kimberly

    University of Southern California research partially funded by the National Science Foundation has yielded a computerized 3D model of a human head that boasts realistic automatic head and eye movements based on a computer simulation of regions in the primate brain that are responsible for initial visual processing. Associate professor of computer science, psychology, and neuroscience Laurent Itti notes that the model differs from conventional computer vision schemes in that it is not designed for given environments or targets, but instead uses biological cues whereby it gazes in a specific direction according to which neural feature detectors are unusually active. The detectors, which are designed to identify motion, color, bright spots, edges, and other simple features, use corresponding neurons in the primate retina and brain as their template. Itti says the detectors examine visual input concurrently: "Each responds to prototypical image properties like the presence of a red color blob, the presence of a vertical edge, or the presence of a bright spot on a darker background." The model generates feature maps that encompass a given elementary visual characteristic across the whole visual field at a given spatial scale; the maps include competitive dynamics programmed to suppress maps whose activity level is too low or too high, and to augment maps with regions that possess a significantly different activity level from other regions. All feature maps are abstracted into a saliency map that gauges the conspicuousness of each location in a given scene, and the most salient target is selected by software, which produces a scanpath. "This model shows that very basic neural feature detectors may actually explain a lot of how attention is directed to particular objects in scenes," explains Itti. The professor says the model's potential applications include target detection for smart car systems and military vehicles, while the overall objective of the research is to gain further insight on how humans employ scene understanding.
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  • "IBM Heeds Message to Integrate IM, E-mail"
    CNet (03/01/04); Kanellos, Michael

    Most of IBM's 315,000 employees use an experimental messaging client that integrates instant messaging (IM), email, voice, and other communication forms: The so-called NotesBuddy application is the future of IM, which has already become a critical business tool. The rapid rise of IM in the enterprise, however, has left it relatively unconnected with other communications forms and work applications. Ideo interactive design head Duane Bray says integrated communications systems need to simplify communications management. Other groups have taken steps toward IM integration, including Yahoo!'s deal with WebEx to add Web conferencing to the Yahoo! Messenger Enterprise Edition, and Microsoft's combination of Office with IM. IBM has been working on making computer-based communications easier for five years through its "Ease of Use" initiative, and IBM fellow Tony Temple says the effort started by surveying large groups of people about what they wanted from computer communications; as a result, NotesBuddy addresses some key deficits of standalone IM, such as the synchronization of IM and email address books and buddy lists, and archiving of IM dialogues with search capability. Current NotesBuddy development includes ways to better organize messaging, such as italicized addresses indicating urgent messages, and automatic forwarding of messages to pagers. Text messages are automatically converted to email if sent to an offline account, and text messages can be read aloud by simulated voices. NotesBuddy also uses pictures, colors, and mouse-over identifier boxes to make IM more informative and intuitive.
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  • "Report Raises Questions About Fighting Online Piracy"
    New York Times (03/01/04) P. C2; Schwartz, John

    A March 1 report from the Committee for Economic Development concludes that the economy and business could be hurt by the U.S. entertainment industry's push for stricter laws to shield copyrighted material from digital pirates. Critics argue that the delicate balance between content creators' rights and those of the public could be disturbed by industry-proposed restrictions, such as embedding technology in digital television programming to prevent broadcasts from being transmitted over the Internet. Report co-author and Yeshiva University professor Susan Crawford says that more and more business leaders are concerned that innovation is suffering because of the industry's tendency to treat intellectual property as physical property, but Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti has dismissed such views as "malarkey." Columbia University law professor Jane C. Ginsburg also finds fault with the report, arguing that its conclusions about copyright law are "unsubstantiated, misleading, or misinformed." Among the report's recommendations: A two-year moratorium on revisions to copyright laws and regulations so that more public debate can be realized; a challenge to the entertainment industry to devise new business strategies that can generate revenues from digital distribution; and permitting the use of digital rights management systems to prevent copying in certain situations, provided they are not mandated by government and are not too burdensome for consumers. Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig praised the report, but noted that more creditable mainstream groups should support such views in order to reach a wider number of people. Meanwhile, Harvard Business School professor Debora L. Spar notes that the report indicates that copy-left views are growing more popular, but finds it unlikely that the current copyright system will be completely jettisoned.
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  • "Anti-Spyware Law Proposed"
    Medill News Service (02/26/04); Newell, Adrienne

    Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Conrad Burns (D-Mont.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) introduced the Software Principles Yielding Better Levels of Consumer Knowledge (SPYBLOCK) Act on Feb. 26 in an effort to limit the use of spyware. The bill proposes new regulations that would ban harmful spyware, make it harder for companies to clandestinely install software onto users' systems, and require providers to give consumers easy spyware removal options and directions. SPYBLOCK mandates that companies that need users to install specific software in order to view Web site components or ads must furnish pop-ups or other notices that clearly detail the reason and nature of the download, and such explanations must stay on the computer screen until the user accepts or refuses to install the software. The legislation also prescribes that applications must be visible in the Add/Remove Programs menu and can be removed via normal, reasonable procedures, while ads must feature a link that tells the user how to deactivate the ad feature or uninstall the software. Enforcing SPYBLOCK would be the responsibility of the FTC and state attorneys general, but Electronic Privacy Information Center associate director Chris Hoofnagle thinks individual consumers should also have the power to take legal action against spyware companies. Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, adds that "the most effective piece that this bill can bring is more attention to this issue and greater enforcement for the worst practices out there." Meanwhile, Robert Bagnall of IDefense says anti-spyware laws will not mitigate the international threat of spyware.
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  • "Radio, Net Phone Draw Feds' Attention"
    SiliconValley.com (02/29/04); Gillmor, Dan

    Dan Gillmor writes that Internet telephony and low-powered community radio, which are garnering federal attention, could become entangled within the machinations of lawmakers, bureaucrats, and other affected parties fighting to protect their regulatory and political interests. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), if widely adopted, could divest the giant regional phone companies of a major source of revenue and lead to hundreds of thousands of layoffs. The issue is also complicated by the very nature of Internet telephone service, whereby packages of digital data are transmitted back and forth, allowing callers to place VoIP calls from any location; if VoIP companies were mandated to provide automatic 911 service, for instance, callers would be required to disclose their location to providers. Voice calls can also be encrypted to thwart tapping, which places regulators in the unenviable position of deciding policies that may trample over consumers' constitutional right to privacy and create new security risks. Gillmor points out that federal regulators will have to consider an overhaul to the Net's infrastructure if they wish to impose rules on Internet telephony, but such a retooling could be detrimental. The writer praises the FCC's Feb. 20 endorsement of low-powered FM radio, but this has not quelled the resistance of broadcasters who do not like the idea of more competition. Gillmor insists that Congress must "do the right thing"--namely, instruct the FCC to start granting free low-power licenses to community organizations and innovative programmers. The author suggests for consumers to write and call lawmakers, and notes, "I don't believe we have much choice but to let the Net's magic do its work."
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  • "Kick-Off for the Wireless World Initiative Research"
    AME Info (02/22/04); Stensgaard, Anne-Birte

    The Wireless World Initiative (WWI) has kicked off a series of Integrated Projects in the European Commission's Sixth Framework Program (FP6) Information Society Technology with the goal of determining systems and operations that offer the best possible user experience while keeping purchasing, usage, and ownership costs as low as possible. The two-year-old WWI was set up to ready FP6 proposals encompassing areas to be researched for the purpose of devising post-3G wireless communications technologies, such as services and applications, platforms, networking, new radio interfaces, and end-to-end reconfigurability. The self-contained yet complementary Integrated Projects follow a stratified model that includes radio, networking, platforms and application, and reconfigurability. A collaborative effort between Elisa, France Telecom R&D, NTT DoCoMo, Telefonica, Vodafone, and the project coordinators will facilitate a comprehensive perspective of the system and concentrate on system architecture, user requirements, quality of service, security, resilience, reconfigurability, operability, validation, and other shared research issues among all projects. The collective research initiatives have been structured into a six-year, three-phase strategy: The first phase will emphasize exploratory research and define key technologies and needs, and includes the first WWI projects--Ambient Networks coordinated by Ericsson, WINNER coordinated by Siemens, and E2R coordinated by Motorola. The second phase will concentrate on technology development and systems parameters, and the third phase will cover systems synthesis and demonstrations. Over 100 partners comprise WWI, representing nearly all member states of the European Union, in addition to Australia, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Hungary, Israel, Japan, Norway, Poland, Singapore, and Switzerland.
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  • "Visually Impaired Can Now 'Surf' Internet Thanks to Indian Software"
    Channel NewsAsia (02/26/04)

    More than a hundred visually-impaired children in India are using software that lets them surf the Internet. The software product, called Vachantar, is being used by students at the Government High School for Blind Girls in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Developed by the Center for Development of Advanced Computing and Webel Mediatronics, Vachantar enables users to browse the Internet by listening, a strategy that lessens the need for using keys. Vachantar, which does not take long to learn to use for email, makes use of a text-to-speech system and text-Braille embossing, which aids tactile reading. "We can take out the printouts and read on our own," explains Parveen Begam, a blind student in the 10th grade. The software also makes use of the software series for Learning Indian Languages through Artificial Intelligence. Vachantar was on display at the recent Asian IT Minister's Meet in Hyderabad, and is gaining some interest from other countries.
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  • "Forget India, Let's Go to Bulgaria"
    Business Week (03/01/04); Reinhardt, Andy

    India handles a lot of offshore software outsourcing work, but Bulgaria, Romania, and other European nations are moving into "near-shoring"--moving work to nations that are less expensive but nearby. For instance, German software company SAP has an outpost in Bulgaria, which is taking on various projects in hopes of improving its standard of living. "There is an exceptionally high level of talent in Eastern Europe," notes Hewlett-Packard managing director Kasper Rorsted. India is popular with U.S. and British clients because of workers' English skills, but for French or German customers, cultural and linguistic ties are more important. French firms, for example, prefer Romania, where workers' native language is similarly based on Latin. In Hungary and the Czech Republic, the abundance of German speakers attracts work from Germany. Many European companies do not say much about their outsourcing, however, for fear of political backlash. IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Alcatel, and Oracle are among the multinationals increasing their presence in Eastern European countries.
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  • "Click Here to Keep Your Info Private"
    New Scientist (02/21/04) Vol. 181, No. 2435, P. 22; Graham-Rowe, Duncan

    A U.K. information technology expert believes he has come up with a happy medium for Web users and Web site owners over the issue of privacy and cookies. Lykourgos Petropoulakis of the University of Strathclyde has developed a new system that allows Web users to turn cookies on when they do not mind businesses and organizations monitoring their activity online. Moreover, Web surfers who use WebMetric to turn cookies off will not be bombarded with pop-up items because the software does not reveal to Web sites whether cookies have been disabled. The WebMetric system consists of an application that Web site owners can buy to install on their servers, as well as a matching program that individual users can download for free. Petropoulakis will need businesses and organizations to support WebMetric for the system to gain momentum, but the desire to control personal information might convince more Web users to download the product, which could force Web site owners to install the application on their servers. WebMetric would surpass cookies in data collecting, says Ian Brown of the privacy think tank the Foundation for Policy Information Research. However, Petropoulakis maintains privacy is not an issue because Web users willingly download WebMetric.

  • "Senator: Information Sharing Is Key to Thwarting Cyber Attacks"
    Tech Update (02/25/04); Farber, Dan

    Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) has been awarded the RSA Award for Excellence in the Field of Public Policy for his work on high-tech security issues. He supports work being done by the Cyber Security Information Sharing Project, which is working on a nationwide information sharing system to anticipate, detect, and counter cyber attacks. But such a goal will require navigating organizational problems, privacy issues, data analysis difficulties, and centralized event correlation. Bennett notes that a terrorist attack requires organization, which offers intelligence-gathering opportunities, and IT can help to capture and share information. Cyber attacks are easier to mount than physical ones, and Bennett points out that it is more effective to attack private companies than government agencies--such as those companies that handle telephony or electronic financial transactions. A system of information sharing would help the government detect signs of an impending coordinated attack and notify the private sector. Potential abuse of information is a major concern, and Bennett believes that the question is with whom information should be shared. Bennett says Congressional opposition to greater personal data collection--by companies and government agencies--comes from both the political far left and far right, but that market forces serve as guarantees against corporate abuse while the free flow of information in government is the best protection against terrorism. Bennett says that "a major paradigm shift in attitude has to take place in the future...Privacy activists have to understand that the most significant advance in privacy will come from information sharing...the reason people want the information is to protect you."
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  • "Thinking Inside the Box"
    CIO (02/15/04) Vol. 17, No. 9, P. 103; Edwards, John

    Integrated security gateway (ISG) solutions that bundle together an array of security features are expected to displace dedicated security appliances in the enterprise within a few years, although they come with certain trade-offs. ISGs are particularly attractive to CIOs for their cost, as well as their promises of augmented performance; easy-to-use, single-interface security management; enhanced network protection; and more efficient retention of servers' or clients' CPU power. ISG popularity is growing as CIOs regard security as a strategic issue with multiple levels instead of disconnected problems. Among ISGs' caveats, however, is a loss of control, according to Gartner analyst John Pescatore. Frost & Sullivan analyst Jason Wright adds, "There are fewer knobs to tweak and fine-tune, so you may not be able to get it as perfectly in sync with the network traffic." The consolidation of network security promised by ISGs can increase a network's vulnerability to sudden, unpredictable failures, and reduce enterprises' flexibility by not allowing them to choose the optimal security solutions from multiple vendors. Application specific integrated circuits, which are costly and suffer from upgradeability issues, are usually relied on to enhance ISG performance. When it comes to selecting an ISG, a CIO should prioritize finding a product that encapsulates all capabilities needed for complete network security, but performance should at least merit as much consideration as functionality.
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  • "High Performance Computing: Past, Present and Future"
    Computer Technology Review (01/04) Vol. 24, No. 1, P. 26; Moxon, Bruce

    In just a few years, supercomputer design has been transformed from costly, proprietary, and specialized systems to less expensive cluster computers consisting of PC architectures, commodity microprocessors, Gigabit Ethernet, and standard networked storage schemes. As a result of cluster computing, high-performance computing is no longer restricted to academic, government-funded pursuits such as aerospace engineering, environmental science, and high-energy physics research; its scope has been widened to include drug discovery, automobile design, financial analyses, and circuit design, among other things. The next step is to develop and deploy scalable commodity storage architectures that overcome the limitations and difficulties of the data parallel computing model typical of current cluster computing strategies. Scattering and gathering data partitions is slow and vulnerable to computer node failures or program errors, and scalable storage is needed to equalize activities across storage system elements and guarantee sufficient performance. Among the scalable storage approaches that have emerged in the last several years are parallel and distributed file systems that distribute data to a number of storage devices and split file systems across a number of "metadata servers." Meanwhile, Object Storage has been tapped to supply a new technique to distribute and parallelize file systems; the emerging standard of Object-based Storage Devices determines an object storage SCSI command set that can deployed over iSCSI to implement intelligent network attached storage devices that configure into massively parallel storage systems. Diskless clusters are also being created in an effort to augment manageability and boost system reliability. Such clusters eliminate local disks and other extraneous elements, lowering the odds of node failure.

  • "Ten Technologies That Refuse to Die"
    Technology Review (02/04) Vol. 107, No. 1, P. 66; Scigliano, Eric

    An array of technologies has survived and flourished despite the advent of more advanced technologies that were expected to supplant them: The long life of analog watches illustrates the importance of device performance over extra features, and the value of elegant and intuitive functionality. Dot-matrix printing, now known as impact printing, has not outgrown its usefulness thanks to its marriage of high volume and low cost, which are valuable properties for companies that care more for speed, dependability, and economy than aesthetic appeal. Broadcast radio has a long history of bucking trends, mainly because society has become increasingly mobile, while typewriters are still a viable technology because of their advantages over computers and software--they are virus-proof, require no batteries, and can fill out printed forms, which is beyond computers' capabilities. Cell phones have not hastened the extinction of pagers; indeed, pagers are hotter than ever because they do not usually jam up in emergencies, they offer better coverage than cell phones while using fewer transistors, are less expensive, and less likely to drive users to distraction. Fax machines owe their longevity to their superior speed in transmitting on-paper images, documents, and mark-up text, while mainframe computers are still the data processors of choice for banks and other institutions that value speed, reliability, and security. Magnetic tape and vacuum tubes are still favored by many people because of their sound quality: Some recording engineers prefer reel-to-reel tape because it provides more nuanced recordings than even the most sophisticated digital recorders, while Victor Tiscareno of Red Rose Music boasts, "Vacuum tubes just sound more human, more lifelike." Finally, the Fortran programming language is remarkably resilient, thanks to its adaptability, compatibility, and learning curve. "For some people it's good enough, and it's hard to let go of something once you learn it," notes Hans Boehm of Hewlett-Packard Laboratories.
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  • "Qwerks of History"
    American Scientist (02/04) Vol. 92, No. 1, P. 12; Hayes, Brian

    Brian Hayes cites Intel's microprocessor family and the Unix operating system as examples of technologies that have proved remarkably resilient--and in key aspects, unchanged--over the last 35 years or so. All of the processors Intel has rolled out since the 8086 back in 1978 are machine-code compatible and share the same fundamental architecture, including a set of eight general-purpose registers and partitioned computer memory; Intel has made investments in reduced-instruction-set computer (RISC) chips and very-long-instruction-word processors, but these technologies are being kept out of the mainstream PC market. Hayes postulates that "the marketplace will not allow [Intel designers] to abandon 25 years' worth of 'legacy code' written for the x86 chips."
    Though Unix has undergone significant changes since 1969, its core operation--time-sharing--has remained consistent: In its infancy, the time-sharing software was employed to divide individual CPUs among multiple users, but the abundance of CPUs today has redefined that function to give individual users the ability to manage and coordinate multiple computers. Unix's task-switching mechanism also lets users maintain the simultaneous operation of dozens of programs on one machine, while the bulwarks designed to separate multiple users are now used as safeguards against rogue programs. Hayes thinks the hierarchical filing system, which sets up file directories in a treelike topology, is Unix's most significant single achievement, but one that is ripe for improvement: The system cannot accommodate multiple filing schemes--a topical file arrangement cannot be chronological at the same time, for instance. The author writes that the growth of personal file systems may lead to file management via the same tools currently used for the Web, such as the Web browser; he is uncomfortable with this prospect, however. Notable candidates for new-generation system software that could emerge in the next few decades include a "zooming space" to supplant operating systems, a "lifestreams" interface that arranges documents in sequences and subsequences, and the replacement of computers with specialized "information appliances."
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