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Volume 6, Issue 693:  Monday, September 13, 2004

  • "Let a Thousand Ideas Flower: China Is a New Hotbed of Research"
    New York Times (09/13/04) P. C1; Buckley, Chris

    The world's multinational companies are setting up as many as 200 new research laboratories in China each year, according to that country's Ministry of Commerce. China offers a huge reservoir of skilled and inexpensive researchers and proximity to what is the largest and fastest growing consumer market for many sectors. "A 50-year-old Finnish or American engineer is not going to understand the needs of an 18-year-old Chinese youth," says consultant Martin Hirt. Nokia has moved its software programming operation to China, for example, and many other companies are setting up research centers on par with their other laboratories around the world. Microsoft Research Asia's untested status among the company's other centers in the United States and England gives Beijing-based researchers motivation to prove themselves, says division head Zhang Hongjiang. Microsoft Research Asia is working on computer graphics, speech recognition, text translation, and other areas. Ma Wei-Ying leads a 10-member team in developing new Internet search techniques, and says the Chinese researchers use a more collaborative approach than do researchers elsewhere. China's rapid rise in the international corporate research scene could soon place it as the No. 2 center for that type of work, second to the United States, says Qinghua University management professor Maximilian von Zedtwitz; but he notes that the threat of intellectual property theft could slow that rise, pushing development to competing centers such as India. Another worry is the management and organization of Chinese companies, which could prevent them from fully benefiting from the foreign investment and involvement in their country.
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  • "Pentagon Revives Memory Project"
    Wired News (09/13/04); Shachtman, Noah

    Enabling soldiers on patrol to keep a diary of their activities through cameras, global positioning system locators, and audio recorders for analysis by commanders to better understand battlefield tactics is the goal of the Advanced Soldier Sensor Information System and Technology (ASSIST) project, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency's (DARPA) aborted LifeLog project. The wearable sensor systems' activation could be based on voluntary or involuntary physiological triggers, and at the end of the patrol ASSIST would automatically single out "objects, scenes and activities" from the recordings and determine significant "events and states." DARPA explains that upon completion of processing, the data would be refined into a digital report that could enhance mission planning and later patrols. So that all the information ASSIST receives can be processed, the system requires intelligence and the ability to learn from experience. The LifeLog project was also conceived as a digital diary, albeit one that raised the hackles of civil libertarians because its intended ability to record all aspects of a person's daily life fomented concerns about invasive citizen surveillance. Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorney Lee Tien notes that similar worries could impede ASSIST, but MIT artificial intelligence specialist David Karger thinks the project's narrow focus on battlefield applications should make privacy concerns more manageable. DARPA believes ASSIST has uses outside of battlefield analysis, such as urban mapping and real-time information exchange. MIT professor Howard Shrobe, who was once in charge of the DARPA unit that is developing ASSIST, regrets that the ASSIST logs apparently lack documents stating orders, situation evaluations, and commanders' intent.
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  • "Linux Backers to Support Standard"
    Wall Street Journal (09/13/04) P. B4; Bulkeley, William M.

    In a move characterized as vital in open-source Linux software's push to compete against Microsoft, the Free Standards Group today is expected to announce that major Linux backers--as well as vendors of Linux-based hardware, software, and services--have agreed to support Linux Standard Base 2.0. Free Standards Group executive director Jim Zemlin explains that such an arrangement will help ensure the interoperability of Linux applications and distributions throughout the world by minimizing variance. Among competing Linux vendors expected to declare their support for the new standard today is Novell's SuSE unit and Red Hat, as well as producers of other Linux distributions. Novell's Jeff Hawkins says his company can expand Linux's operation on larger systems and boost its performance while maintaining its compatibility with standards. Hewlett-Packard's Jeffrey Wade notes that Linux Standard Base 2.0 will allow the company to reduce costs because "we can test to a standard instead of for each distribution." A key aspect of Microsoft's anti-Linux campaign is the threat of market fragmentation through Linux product variance, also known as Linux forking. However, IBM's Dan Fry says this problem has been exaggerated, since Linux creator and trademark owner Linus Torvalds oversees changes in the software.

  • "Mainstream Companies Seek Charming Programmers"
    IT Management (09/09/04); Kuchinskas, Susan

    Seventy-nine percent of IT workers hired from 2003 to 2004 were recruited by non-IT companies, according to the Information Technology Association of America's (ITAA) Annual Workforce Development Survey, which also found that the overall size of the IT workforce increased from about 10.3 million in 2003 to 10.5 million in 2004. Programmers continue to constitute the largest single group of IT professionals, although demand for IT workers is still falling, as evidenced by hiring managers' intention to add approximately 230,000 workers this year, about 70,000 less than last year. The biggest year-to-year employment increases were among technical support and system design professionals, which both experienced 5 percent growth. The ITAA indicated that candidates with previous experience in a related field as well as a four-year college degree in a related field are of greatest interest to employers, and polled hiring managers said the best ways to ensure advancement are participation in formal, on-the-job training and certification programs; 71 percent of respondents characterized certification or continuing education as either important or very important for promotion. Information security is the sector with the greatest job growth potential in the next three to five years. The ITAA found that hiring managers are being very careful on bringing in additional staffers, given the cost-conscious atmosphere; key requirements for new hires is productivity and contribution to the bottom line. The report concluded that not only must IT workers optimize their value to employers, but "make themselves the stewards of their own careers."
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  • "Nanotechnology-Based Data Storage on Rise"
    United Press International (09/12/04); Choi, Charles

    Analysts are predicting a huge market for magnetic RAM (MRAM) and other exotic technologies that could yield nonvolatile, low-power, and low-cost nanostorage devices with dramatically larger memory and faster response times than current technologies. The most commonplace nanostorage technology at the moment is ferroelectric RAM devices, which store data using electric fields within a capacitor, while MRAM stores data magnetically rather than electrically. MRAM allows devices to be based on nonvolatile memory because it retains data after systems are shut off. Analyst Lawrence Gasman reports that Motorola is closest to rolling out commercial MRAM products outside the military, while Cypress Semiconductor is a close runner-up. Other promising exotic technologies include holographic storage media, which Gasman says is especially attractive for long-term archival storage and could potentially boast 50 times the storage volume of a DVD; carbon nanotube-based RAM, which could combine nonvolatility, high speed, and high density with low-power consumption and resistance to radiation; ovonic memory, in which data is recorded electrically onto thin films; and molecular memory, whereby the reading and writing of data is facilitated by the addition and subtraction of electrons off nanometer-scale molecules. "A lot of the upcoming technologies have the advantage of being high-density storage technologies that also allow instant-on computing," notes Sean Murdock of the NanoBusiness Alliance. "They combine what's great about hard drives with what's great about memory--speed with density."
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  • "Microcontrollers Go Generic"
    IST Results (09/13/04)

    Commercial microcontrollers, also called computers-on-a-chip, suffer from low production volumes and high design and assembly costs because, while they often boast a generic central processing unit (CPU), their CPU peripherals are customized. A possible solution to this problem is to emulate such peripherals in software, which is the goal of the IST program's EPHEM project. Coordinated by ARM Limited professor Ian Phillips, EPHEM has yielded a prototype generic, high-performance microcontroller. The technology was employed by Ireland-based LAKE Communications, which developed and demonstrated a pair of software peripherals in their Officelink product: A pulse code modulation interface impelling a Bluetooth headset and a Dual Tone Multi-Frequency generator. Another EPHEM microcontroller deployment was by Britain's Lotus Engineering, which used the prototype as a Controller Area Network link to relay chassis and engine information to an instrument pack from the Elise sports car. The microcontroller was also demonstrated in an EIB home and building automation system by Greece's Fourlis Trade, while CTI implemented the device in an Ethernet port. Through EPHEM, "we learned some of the parameters to make a more programmable product, depending on the applications envisaged," notes Phillips. "We also threw light on architectural design decisions, moving as many features as possible into the software." The project is continuing with the goal of optimizing the microcontroller's hardware to achieve all of the initiative's original objectives; one of EPHEM's findings is that software emulation of peripherals works well for concurrent operations, while hardware is more conducive for high-speed operations.
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  • "Speech Code From I.B.M. to Become Open Source"
    New York Times (09/13/04) P. C4; Lohr, Steve

    IBM today will announce the donation of some of its proprietary speech-recognition software to the open-source Apache Software Foundation and Eclipse Foundation in an effort to ratchet up speech application development and outflank Microsoft and other competitors in a market that is expected to expand quickly in the years ahead as speech applications more deeply penetrate customer-service call centers, automobiles, and other sectors. Apache will receive speech software designed to handle basic words for dates, locations, and times, while Eclipse will get speech-editing tools. These contributions come on the heels of IBM's donation of Cloudscape, a database authored in Java, to the Apache group in August. Speech-recognition application software is transitioning from custom-built products to more generic and reusable tools, while years of research coupled with advances in computing power, statistical modeling, and pattern-matching algorithms has resulted in much better products. "The whole speech world is going in the same direction as the rest of the information technology industry, and that should drastically reduce the cost of building speech applications," observes analyst Mark Plakias. IBM says the donated code cost $10 million to develop, and IBM's Steven A. Mills says, "We're trying to spur the industry around open standards to get more and more speech application development. Our code contribution is about getting that ecosystem going." Meanwhile, last March Microsoft released its own set of standardized tools for developing speech programs in Windows as well as free developer kits.
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  • "Tech Industry Presents Less-Than-Unified Defense"
    USA Today (09/09/04) P. 1B; Acohido, Byron; Swartz, Jon

    Microsoft, ISPs, and anti-virus firms need to stop relying on users to secure their computers and instead come up with uniform strategies to implement default protections, experts say. Nassau-based ISP Cable Bahamas has seen a dramatic decrease in the amount of virus infections for its 22,000 subscribers since the island ISP installed sophisticated hardware and software that filters out suspicious traffic, and this type of industry-led proactive approach could help reduce the scourge of cybercrime that continues to take an ever-larger toll on businesses and consumers. Computer Economics estimated $16.7 billion will be lost worldwide to cyberattacks this year, up from $3.3 billion in 1997. ISPs are especially trying to keep their networks and users clean of viruses, spyware, and other bandwidth-consuming malware because it affects their core operations: AOL, which claims 23 million U.S. subscribers, says it cancels thousands of user accounts each day because those PCs have been hijacked to send spam. The company has expensive teams ready to help frustrated and confused users cleanse their systems of the offending programs and set up better security. Charter Communications prohibits its subscribers from using POP3 email servers because spam programs often use the same Port 25 channel that those email applications do, while Microsoft has released its XP Service Pack 2, which automatically launches a firewall and downloads Microsoft security patches. Security experts urge users to install SP2, but ZDNet executive editor David Berlind says the expansive patch falls short of a complete fix and could provide a false sense of security. Anti-virus firms are perhaps the most complacent, despite their flurried rush to create and distribute patches, and experts say the fundamental business model of patch distribution has to be changed so that anti-virus protections are more proactive and can identify malware according to function, not specific code.
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  • "Self-Sustaining Killer Robot Creates a Stink"
    New Scientist (09/09/04); Graham-Rowe, Duncan

    Self-powered robots are a critical step toward fully autonomous machines, and robotics experts at the University of the West of England (UWE) are working to tackle this problem with EcoBot II, a device designed to capture and digest flies using a series of sewage-filled microbial fuel cells (MFCs) that generate electricity. The robot derives its energy from the insect's chitin-rich exoskeleton, which is broken down into sugar molecules by sewage bacteria in the MFCs; this process yields electrons that impel an electric current. EcoBot II will probably have to draw its food source to it using a noxious lure derived from human excreta. The EcoBot team thinks the entrapment mechanism would consist of a bottleneck-style flytrap and a pump that sucks the files into the fuel cells. Such a device could be deployed into hostile or dangerous environments for remote monitoring of temperature or toxic gas concentrations, for example, feeding its sensor readings to a data logger that transmits the information to a base station via radio. EcoBot II moves at a top speed of 10 centimeters an hour, and team leader Chris Melhuish remarks that "Every 12 minutes it gets enough energy to take a step forwards two centimeters and send a transmission back." Another UWE carnivorous robot project that was abandoned was the Slugbot, a device designed to hunt and digest slugs to produce methane fuel, which researchers deemed too inefficient. Florida researchers, meanwhile, developed a robot called Chew Chew that charged its battery via MFCs that digested sugar cubes.
    "Searching for Substance: The Road to Safe Software"
    InformIT (09/03/04); McFarlane, Nigel

    Nigel McFarlane writes that commercial software providers offer no guarantee of a software's quality--its reliability, security, usability, etc.--to consumers, but he sees a ray of hope in open-source software development practices. He notes in his study of the closed commercial software development process that independent peer review of the product in the critical stage between academic research and market acceptance testing is often paltry, thus offering an entry point for defects in both intent and execution. The transparency of open-source software, however, supports peer-review processes for defects in execution, and McFarlane argues that closed commercial software will never equal open source on such defects without sufficient investment to offset the weaker review processes. The author observes that the consumer benefits of open-source processes are threatened by oft-abused "rubber stamps" such as due diligence legislation that can bog new players down in a bureaucratic quagmire. McFarlane contends that rubber stamp equivalents must be subjected to independent peer review if consumers are to continue to gain from the peer-review process embodied by open source. "We need academics to argue what the leading indicators for software defects should be, and we need them to resist the special-interest arguments of those that would distort or avoid the statistics," he writes. "We need independent bodies providing regimes, audits, and tests that can be used to produce indicators of anyone's software." The results of these tests must be transparently disclosed, and the strangulation of innovation must be avoided through a graduated system that does not set up any obstacles to entry.
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  • "Malware Writers Using Open-Source Tactics"
    Linux Insider (09/09/04); Mello, John P. Jr.

    Malware writers have adopted open-source software development techniques to help them create zombie networks of remotely controlled PCs, which are estimated to generate between 25 percent and 30 percent of all spam. "There's a community of worm builders creating, almost in an open-source fashion, Trojan source code that can be downloaded, compiled and released into the wild," says MX Logic CTO Scott Chasin. Zombie networks earn money for their creators when rented out to spammers. Sanvine cofounder and chief architect Don Bowman says the people who control zombie networks have become more savvy to counter defense measures, such as monitoring activity on port 25. Because too much traffic on suspect channels will raise the attention of ISPs and get the account shut down, larger networks of spam software are now programmed to send out fewer messages per hour and operate during hours when the PC user is unlikely to be online. Analysts say that such zombie networks are responsible for anywhere from 25 percent to 80 percent of all spam now being sent; Chasin says the creators of these networks benefit from the open source model of application development. He says, "A lot of these Trojans and their variants borrow from the open-source industry and are built off a community effort in the underground environment."
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  • "Better Safe: Steven Cooper, CIO, Dept. of Homeland Security"
    CIO Insight (09/01/04); Barrett, Randy

    Department of Homeland Security (DHS) CIO Steven Cooper, who has the formidable responsibility of meshing the department's 190,000 federal employees and 22 member agencies, is convinced that the information infrastructure of the United States is even more threatened than it was when the DHS was established. In an interview, Cooper explains that the DHS has erected an integrated core wide-area network (WAN) backbone--DHS Net--surrounded by cybersecurity programs that include intrusion detection and a network operations center. He insists that the Homeland Security Operations Center (HSOC) is fully up and running with a crew of 24 analysts operating in three shifts round the clock: The personnel hail from the DHS as well as the FBI, the Secret Service, the Coast Guard, and other sister federal organizations. Cooper admits that the seamless integration of the HSOC's applications is still a work in progress, but argues that this does not make the DHS less secure. The CIO is confident that the department will have achieved close to 100 percent of this integration within the next 18 to 24 months. Steps the DHS has taken to secure the core WAN include the establishment of a single departmental Computer Incident Response Center, the deployment of an information security advisory board, the identification of information security managers for all major organizational components, the set-up of a digital dashboard to constantly rate the network's performance, and the appointment of application-level information systems security officers. Despite Congress' poor rating of the DHS in regards to the federal Information Security Management Act, Cooper feels that the security of the agency and to a certain degree the entire federal government has improved over the last 18 months.
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  • "Presence Applications Poised for Takeoff"
    Network World (09/06/04) Vol. 21, No. 36, P. 28; Fontana, John

    Presence awareness is the next killer application, and will see industry-wide adoption after standards gaps are closed, management tools are developed, and user acceptance increases. Most businesses currently use presence in instant messaging, but experts say it has a vast range of other capabilities beyond user-to-user interaction. Presence is basically metadata, and can enable applications to interact and share necessary interoperability information, says analyst Mike Gotta. Eventually, presence will be incorporated into the enterprise infrastructure as a network service allowing enhanced communications between applications and users. Vendors are integrating presence in their products, such as IBM's Lotus Notes product and Microsoft's Live Communications Server, for which Microsoft recently reached an agreement to link to the public instant messaging networks of Yahoo! and America Online. Monster.com has a particularly advanced presence infrastructure that allows users to route their calls to their home or work telephone number, or to reach colleagues via videoconferencing. The presence capabilities are so pervasive that some users have stopped using the system because the always-on aspect was too straining, says global operations vice president Aaron Branham. Companies need tools and policies to help manage presence, and should tie presence in with identity management, while another challenge is the standards question, with XML-based Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol and SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions vying for enhanced presence applications.
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  • "Clean Machine"
    Economist (09/02/04) Vol. 372, No. 8391, P. S18

    Electronics and electric motors will transform the automotive industry over the next 10 years. Among the changes will be a more robust electrical system than the current 12-volt standard, the use of telematic systems, increased electronic engine controls, and drive-by-wire systems that replace mechanical steering and brake components. During the height of the dot-com era, Ford showcased a concept car called the 24:7 at the 2000 Detroit motor show. The vehicle featured personal vehicle performance and communications settings for each user. Car designs today are far less software- and Web-centric, focusing more on performance, ride, and comfort, but still use electronics more and more. Electronic circuits continue to drive fuel efficiency gains, allowing engines to optimize fuel/air mixtures, ignition sequence, and valve timing, for instance. Electronic control units are also increasing car safety by adding intelligence to airbag systems and anti-crash cruise control that warn drivers of dangerous situations. Telematics, in addition to providing dashboard maps and phone calls, is also streaming video on demand to back seat passengers and transmitting vehicle performance data to dealers and manufacturers for analysis. The commercial sector is especially keen on telematics because it allows companies to track the location of their fleets. A road-pricing scheme in the United Kingdom aims to use GPS and telematics for commercial trucks on highways. Further out, experts see electronics replacing mechanical parts, similar to how large airplanes have been controlled by fly-by-wire systems for some time. This scenario was the subject of a rumored discussion between Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and a General Motors executive. Gates supposedly said cars would cost just tens of dollars if only auto makers had followed the PC industry's technology advances; to which the GM executive replied, "Would you want your car to crash twice a day?"
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  • "Staying Power"
    Computerworld (09/06/04) Vol. 32, No. 36, P. 37; King, Julia

    A projected shortage of IT professionals spurred by the impending retirement of baby-boomer employees is a clear reason why companies should make a stronger effort to entice skilled veteran workers to stay on, according to experts. Reinforcing this conclusion is research from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) indicating that a large percentage of baby boomers wish to continue working past their retirement, albeit in a part-time capacity so they have plenty of room for leisure. They also require flexible working arrangements and project-based assignments. The Concours Group research director Bob Morison argues that the effects of the expected workforce shortage will be less pronounced if more people decide to keep working beyond retirement, noting that "what walks out the door can't be replaced by a 23-year old." Adding urgency to this issue is a decline in student computer science enrollments reported by the Los Angeles Times, and Department of Labor statistics predicting significant growth in computer software engineering jobs between 2002 and 2012. Examples of companies with initiatives to retain older workers include Mitre, whose Reserves at the Ready program gives retired employees the option of returning on a part-time contractual basis while dictating their own schedules and projects; and Monsanto's Resource Re-entry Center, which permits workers who retire in good standing to come back and work part-time and on temporary assignments. However, only a small minority of businesses are pursuing the retention of older employees. AARP's Deborah Russell says, "The top three things on companies' to-do lists should be to assess their own worker demographics and map out their retirement trends, then figure out what incentives they'll offer people to get them to stay and how they plan to transfer knowledge from these experienced workers to new workers."
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  • "Next Stretch for Plastic Electronics"
    Scientific American (08/04) Vol. 291, No. 2, P. 75; Collins, Graham P.

    Semiconducting plastics could usher in a new age of pervasive computing by helping electronic paper, chemical sensors, wearable computers, flexible displays, low-end, high-volume data storage, and other technologies move out of the laboratory and into consumer and household markets. Organic transistors are easier to fabricate than their silicon counterparts because they can be assembled via ink-jet printing and other faster, cheaper techniques that do not have to operate under rigorously controlled conditions. Many polymer materials can be damaged by humidity or exposure to oxygen, so scientists are focusing on developing more robust materials. Beng Ong of the Xerox Research Center of Canada reported in April the invention of an oxygen-resistant polythiophene ink that could be used to print circuitry, while David Bocian of the University of California at Riverside developed a hardy organic-inorganic hybrid material. Plastic semiconductors may never equal the processing speed or miniaturization of silicon chips, but their performance is more than adequate for products and applications where silicon is limited or shut out altogether. Such products include a pressure-sensitive electronic "skin" that allows robots to receive tactile sensations, such as the prototype developed by the University of Tokyo's Takao Someya. Meanwhile, plastic chips could make radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags a viable substitute for bar codes by lowering the price per tag to about a penny. Advanced display applications based on organic semiconductor technology include electronic paper, a reflective rollup screen with plastic circuitry.

  • "Enabling Enterprise Wi-Fi"
    Business Communications Review (08/04) Vol. 34, No. 8, P. 45; Phifer, Lisa

    Despite expectations of ubiquitous wireless LAN (WLAN) deployments in the corporate sector, enterprise adoption of Wi-Fi has been slow because of concerns related to security, security complexity, scalability, and return-on-investment. However, new products, services, and standards are emerging that promise to resolve these issues. Studies show that enterprise Wi-Fi rollouts may mirror Wi-Fi deployments in vertical markets, and be applied selectively in areas where they generate the greatest ROI, such as LAN extension, voice over Wi-Fi, temporary access, and traveler access. More and more products are being enabled for Wi-Fi Protected Access, a more robust security standard than Wired Equivalent Privacy, and the ratification of the 802.11i standard for Robust Security Networks that employ 802.11a, b, or c radios promises additional protection. Products and services are also being rolled out to deter unauthorized network use while reducing complexity, examples of which include 802.1X alternatives such as KoolSpan's SecureEdge, the expansion of virtual private networks, and outside 802.1X security administration. The growth of enterprise WLANs will be accompanied by increased capacity demand; possible solutions to this problem include more effective exploitation of available capacity by controlling quality of service, and changing the way channels are used to boost data rates. The spread of Wi-Fi usage will require the incorporation of automated, centralized administration to facilitate cost-effective network management and reduce errors. The depth and sophistication of WLAN monitoring tools such as integrated WIDS and mobile 802.11 traffic capture and analysis products are rapidly increasing to accommodate shifting enterprise needs.

  • "A Conversation With Donald Peterson"
    Queue (09/04) Vol. 2, No. 6, P. 22; Sanders, Lucy

    Avaya Chairman Donald Peterson, in an interview with Lucy Sanders, executive in residence at the University of Colorado's ATLAS (Alliance for Technology, Learning and Society) Institute, envisions the meshing of voice and data communications with business applications, which will result in new technologies that can effect connections to the right people at the right place and time, as opposed to anytime/anywhere/anyone/anyplace communications. He says the viability of voice over IP (VoIP) has only been proven in the last year and a half, with contact centers playing the role of early adopters. Looking forward, Peterson expects IP technology and follow-on technologies to facilitate network knowledge that subsequently spurs applications and communications capabilities similar to Hal, the intelligent computer depicted in "2001: A Space Odyssey." Peterson says that "at a logical level, we're going to see choices being made on the optimal way to communicate, which is going to be not only a function of what you're communicating from where, but also a function of who you're communicating with and where that person is and what his or her capability is." Peterson opines that VoIP regulatory regimes are not synchronized with the real world, explaining that rules such as the FCC's wireless enhanced 911 requirements apply differently to Web-based telephony than they do to traditional telephony. As for security, Peterson advises today's consumers to deem IP telephony as "in the clear" unless informed otherwise. He anticipates the emergence of networks with different protocols without an IP evolution and the advent of the all-fiber office-to-office network within a decade. Peterson also foresees organizations' desire for applications that optimize their value to every end user, and judges "the right path" to be the enterprise migration to IP telephony.