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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 7, Issue 759:  Monday, February 28, 2005

  • "Virtual-Reality Movies Put a New Face on 'User-Friendly'"
    University at Buffalo Reporter (02/24/05); Goldbaum, Ellen

    University at Buffalo researchers are developing increasingly "self-aware" computational agents that can ad-lib responses to human users' spontaneous actions in order to make movies and other forms of entertainment more interactive and user friendly, a breakthrough that is also expected to carry over into electronic devices. Josephine Anstey of the UB College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Media Study says the genesis of the project was the realization that melding an artificial intelligence system with a dramatic narrative could lead to virtual characters that respond believably to humans in real time. The researchers have devised a virtual-reality drama in which members of the audience use gloves and head gear to immerse themselves within the on-screen environment, where their actions and utterances influence the virtual characters' reactions, based on a constantly expanding "library" of actions and verbal communications. The central virtual character in the drama represents a cognitive agent based on the Semantic Network Processing System, which bestows the agent with the ability to carry out reasoning tasks, make assumptions, and revise its beliefs. "We use a kind of computational 'self-perception' so that just the way that hearing people can pace their speech more effectively than deaf people, here's an agent that 'hears' computationally and can respond to what's happening," says Stuart Shapiro of the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences' Department of Computer Science and Engineering. Shapiro says the project requires more computational muscle than other efforts that focus on multiple agent systems. Human participants' actions are recorded computationally over the Internet, and it is the psychological interpretation of these actions that triggers a response in the virtual characters.
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  • "The GIMP at a Crossroads"
    NewsForge (02/25/05); Mak, Jozsef

    Jozsef Mak contends that the GIMP open-source bitmap editor will have limited usability unless its graphical user interface becomes more supportive of fundamental human-computer interaction standards, and notes that senior open source proponents are urging for unified user interface standards. Splitting the GIMP program into a more standards-based user interface and a separate program for publishing and Web design will address both challenges, according to the author. Modernizing the GIMP and making its layout more user friendly so that it complies with existing interface standards is vital, since other open source applications such as Inkscape and Scribus are following the same route, while the smoother collaboration facilitated by such a development could be advantageous to all programs. Segmenting the GIMP into two bitmap editors with unique functionalities and perhaps personalities could satisfy specifications for both Web design and publishing. Mak says the current GIMP iteration is a testament to the fact that a confusing, cumbersome interface far offsets whatever useful features a program boasts. A product is more attractive and helpful to creative professionals in generating superior artwork when it employs good design tools and interface components that are arranged in a concise, consistent, and clutter-free layout.
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  • "Eclipse Lights Up Java Crowd"
    CNet (02/28/05); LaMonica, Martin

    The Eclipse software development project has signed on BEA Systems, Sybase, and Borland International as board members, solidifying the open source platform's role as the leading source of innovation for Java tools. Less than one year ago, IBM rivals painted Eclipse as a Trojan horse meant to promote IBM software products, but since then the effort has become a unifying force. "There's the economic interest among all the vendors to drop their costs of creating new toolsets," says JBoss vice president Bob Bickel. Eclipse now counts most of the major software companies among its 91 members, and produces the most popular Java development tool, the Eclipse Platform; the software mimics Microsoft's Visual Studio in that it combines different tools and plug-ins behind a common front-end. Eclipse's success is also based on its open source and vendor-backed model, as opposed to both proprietary efforts and standardization efforts. Eclipse executive director Mike Milinkovich says vendor membership helps speed Eclipse software development when coupled with open source protections; innovation occurring in open source eventually leads to standardization, whereas standards efforts occurring at the same time as innovation is muddled, he says. BEA Systems CEO Alfred Chuang says the Java Community Process standards body was too slow, and that Eclipse's speed was one reason the company joined. Eclipse is also pushing other software development projects such as the Web Tools Platform Project, the Business Intelligence and Reporting Tools toolkit, and a tool for creating rich-client graphical front-ends in Java.
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  • "Poll: U.S. Has Conservative Tack on Innovation"
    IDG News Service (02/25/05); Bostrom, Johan

    An A.T. Kearney survey of over 300 technology executives finds a prevailing conservative attitude toward innovation that chiefly emphasizes existing services and products, even though executives consider innovation to be critical to sustaining competitiveness. A.T. Kearney's John Ciachella reports that 90 percent of respondents are aware of "major changes" in the economy, yet "they don't seem to react to them." CEOs comprised about 60 percent of the respondents, who cited innovations in products and services as the most important ingredient in tech and telecom success. But Ciachella says, "the companies' actions--improvement of existing products, bundling products and service offerings and continuous investment in research and development--add up to innovation around the core: around the current offering." He sees the implosion of the IT bubble of the late 1990s as responsible for this conservatism. However, Illinois Institute of Technology professor and Doblin President Larry Keeley says his own experience and his company's diagnostics hint at a conservatism among U.S. tech companies that is far stronger than A.T. Kearney's findings indicate; he argues that tech firms' headstrong emphasis on products excludes other areas where innovation could be beneficial, such as the customer service experience or the business model. Keeley attributes the poor level of innovation among U.S. companies to several factors, including an overabundance of engineers. He thinks innovation should be something pursued by other kinds of professionals besides engineers.
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  • "A Visit to the InfoGraphics Lab"
    GIS Monitor (02/24/05); Lucio, Matteo

    The University of Oregon's InfoGraphics Lab focuses on the integration of GIS and graphic design tools with cartographic design. The lab has three areas of concentration: Public service, such as research and mapping initiatives for state agencies; support for faculty research; and campus mapping. Lab project manager Kenneth Kato perceives one of the Lab's central objectives to be the meshing of the geographic information system (GIS) data model with cartography; he describes the facility's campus research as a continuous program rather than a project, which allows the Lab to constantly hone GIS products and work on the development of geodatabases. The Lab's residency in the school's Geography Department allows work with leading-edge technology and design concepts to proceed while simultaneously conducting research on new ways to solve problems and passing that knowledge on to students. The facility manages a single central database and constructs the network that permits data access by different departments, which manage their own data in the database. Lab research assistant and developer Erik Steiner, an expert on interactive mapping and digital presentations, says his job is to develop interactive digital maps that can be individually customized. Steiner says his products are "light simulations" or visualizations designed to reduce large data sets into interactive presentations. The Lab's cartography element supports a polygon- rather than line-based design, which facilitated a more accurate update to the campus map. Building footprints were pieced together from tape measurement, remote sensing, and digital orthophotography, which Kato says makes for footprints with far more accuracy. Facilities personnel maintain CAD files to map out the buildings' interiors, while Lab staffers perceive rooms as polygons in the GIS that nevertheless perfectly align with the CAD blueprints.
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  • "Grand Ambitions"
    Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) (02/22/05); Head, Beverley

    Institutions and organizations throughout Australia are identifying and working on grand challenges, which are complex scientific and engineering problems with wide-ranging societal effects that can only be solved via high-performance computing. Quantum computing, nanotechnology, "swarm" intelligence, autonomous systems, grid computing, information management, self-repairing and reliable systems, and pervasive and ubiquitous computing are just some of the grand challenges facing Australia, as compiled by Monash University professor David Green. Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte of the Australian Center for Field Robotics is focusing on merging machines, computers, sensor technology, and software into intelligent autonomous systems in which data is gathered from anywhere and at any time and wirelessly routed to high-performance computing networks. The data is then processed and converted into knowledge to improve the guidance of autonomous systems or people. Durrant-Whyte aims to meet the challenge of developing computer systems and robots that perform mining operations, run container terminals, and support the military in the hopes of turning Sydney into a leading center of intelligent autonomous system research, development, and commercialization. A grand challenge faced by grid computing researchers involves developing middleware that integrates and manages diverse databases to facilitate instantaneous automatic or semi-automatic accessibility to anyone, notes Australian Partnership for Advanced Computing executive director John O'Callaghan. Meanwhile, National ICT Australia chief scientist Brian Anderson expects nanotechnology advances over the next five years to combine IT and the life sciences, leading to such breakthroughs as biological processors that can be implanted within the brain.
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  • "No More Crash-Test Surgery"
    Wired News (02/28/05); Philipkoski, Kristen

    Surgery could enter a new era with patient computer modeling techniques being developed by Stanford engineer Charles Taylor and collaborators. An accurate simulation of patients would allow surgeons to predict how their systems would react to surgical procedures and determine which surgical approach is the most optimal, which is beyond the capabilities of the diagnostic tests surgeons currently depend on. Taylor, who is a surgeon himself, has spent about 10 years compiling medical data and meshing it with algorithms to model such factors as blood flow and blood vessel elasticity, with the goal of creating software that allows surgeons to virtually practice surgery in preparation for actual operations. "It's the ultimate video game," explains Stanford pediatric cardiologist and project collaborator Dr. Jeffrey Feinstein. "You sit down and make a change and you see the results in real time." Taylor's team is developing the software with the help of the Stanford supercomputer, which has been used to solve equations that can describe the flow of blood in any given patient. Taylor declared his success in incorporating the flexibility of veins and arteries into his simulation of the cardiovascular system at last week's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He predicts that the software will be ready for practical use within two years.
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  • "Women Making Strides in IT Sector"
    Canada NewsWire (02/25/05)

    Canada's association of information technology professionals plans to address the under-representation of women in the IT industry during its fifth annual "Women in IT: Looking Towards the Future" program. The series of nine Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS) events across the country kicks off Feb. 26, 2005, at the University of Alberta, and runs through April 26, 2005. CIPS says high school girls gain mentors in women IT professionals. According to an informal survey of 10 universities, CIPS found that more women are earning computer science degrees, but the number of graduates is still small and women represent than less 25 percent of the IT workforce. "More than ever, we need to continue to reach out to young women and show them the benefits of a career in IT," says CIPS director Pat Gaudet. The Software Human Resource Council reports that women accounted for 130,593 (22.8 percent) of Canada's 572,547-member IT workforce in November 2004, down from 25.4 percent in March 2000. "Enrollments in computing related courses continue to decline in part because students, parents and school counselors continue to hear discouraging reports about the state of the IT sector in Canada," states Software Human Resource Council Chair Faye West.
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    For information on ACM's Committee on Women and Computing, visit http://www.acm.org/women.

  • "Software Learns to Translate by Reading Up"
    New Scientist (02/22/05); Knight, Will

    Kevin Knight of the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute said his new translation software is in line with the new direction of machine learning. Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, D.C., Knight said the translation parameters that his statistical machine translation software develops allow computers to generate ideas about the structure of different languages. "Before long a machine will discover something about linguistics that only a machine could, by crunching through billions of words," Knight said. Knight and Daniel Marcu, also with the institute, developed the automated translation tool and formed Language Weaver in Los Angeles to sell the software. The new software is designed to translate dictionaries, patterns, and rules, and build probability rules for words, phrases, and syntactic structures. Current translation software tends to use hand-coded rules when transposing words and phrases. The software is said to be faster, and able to handle less familiar vocabulary and languages better.
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  • "Mobile Networks Seek Turbo Boost"
    BBC News (02/25/05); Shillingford, Joia

    Third-generation (3G) mobile networks will need to be dramatically faster if they are to appeal to users of broadband Internet connectivity that offers 0.5 Mbps of throughput, which overtakes current 3G networks significantly. A commercial 1 Gbps system could be up to seven years away, according to Siemens, which nevertheless claims to have developed a 1 Gbps system, at least in the laboratory. Though a 1 Gbps network may seem like overkill given today's user needs, Siemens' Christoph Caselitz says that "By the time the next generation of mobile communication debuts in 2015, the need for transmission capacities for voice, data, image and multimedia is conservatively anticipated to rise by a factor of 10." At the recent 3GSM World Congress, Siemens and other companies touted technology that offers higher speeds than standard 3G networks. One such technology is High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA). Whereas standard 3G networks offer less than 384 Kbps, early HSDPA systems boast about 2 Mbps, on average; however, Analysys expects practical HSDPA throughputs to average around 1 Mbps, which is still twice as fast as basic 3G. Though some mobile operators have opted for HSDPA- based technology, others have chosen Evolution, Data Optimized (EV-DO), which reportedly delivers typical data speeds of 0.3 Mbps to 0.5 Mbps, and peak download speeds of 2.4 Mbps. A joint Siemens/Fraunhofer Institute project has enhanced mobile communications by employing three transmitting and four receiving antennae instead of the standard one; this facilitates the fragmentation of a data transmission into multiple data streams that can be concurrently transmitted over one radio frequency band.
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  • "Microsoft Researchers Use Machine Learning Techniques to Help Advance HIV Vaccine Research"
    Microsoft PressPass (02/23/05)

    Microsoft Research is applying computer science algorithms to HIV vaccine development at the University of Perth in Australia and the University of Washington. The two universities are pursuing related approaches to developing an HIV vaccine based on specific identifying proteins called epitopes; the method addresses two of the most vexing problems about HIV vaccination--the tremendous diversity of the virus and the variation of immune system components in human populations. Scientists at the University of Perth have collected the largest set of HIV samples matched with different immune types and are using Microsoft spam-fighting algorithms to help find patterns correlating HIV epitope evolution and people's specific immune types. Eventually, the research is expected to yield vaccines that are tailored to specific populations based on circulating HIV strains and immune types. University of Perth professor Simon Mallal says the research could apply to other types of mutating viruses, such as hepatitis C. The University of Washington research is searching for ancestral HIV epitopes that will allow immune systems to identify and kill infected cells. Microsoft software that is used to condense digital video and audio files is being applied to libraries of supplemental epitopes included in the University of Washington vaccine, reducing the size of the vaccine models by half. Shortened models mean easier administration of treatment and lower manufacturing costs for the vaccine, says University of Washington microbiology professor James Mullins. Microsoft researcher David Heckerman says the computer science algorithms have surprisingly proven more accurate when dealing with biological systems than with the computer science problems they were originally created for.
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  • "Thwarting 'Evil Geniuses'"
    Spokane Journal of Business (02/24/05); Read, Paul

    Blue Water Technologies CEO John Shovic teaches computer-science majors at Eastern Washington University about cyberthreats and their perpetrators so that they can shield themselves against such dangers. He teaches four courses: The first two detail computer network operations, the deployment of security measures, and the hacking of networks; the second two courses educate students in malware creation, hacking strategies, and defensive measures by having them practice information warfare in a controlled, network-isolated environment. "Before you can learn to defend, you have to learn how to attack," argues Shovic, noting that his students attempt to breach computers in a special facility and learn computer forensics techniques to analyze security exploits and trace hackers. One exercise involves student teams attempting to disable each other's systems while simultaneously defending their own systems. Shovic divides hackers into two varieties: "Script kiddies" who download software that automates the location and infection of victims, and "evil geniuses" who craft malware and inflict serious harm; he says his courses focus on both mentalities, while the advanced classes primarily concentrate on the second, more damaging kind of hacker. To shore up against cyberattacks, Shovic recommends that businesses install internal security policies, such as restrictions on employees downloading software without supervision; protect networks from the Internet with firewalls; run and constantly update antivirus software; regularly update operating systems with patches issued by the manufacturer; make a greater effort to bolster internal security; and encrypt all data routed along wireless networks. Shovic says graduates of his courses have an easy time finding employment, given the desirability of network security expertise and the current scarcity of training in that area.
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  • "VoIP Without Wires"
    InfoWorld (02/21/05) Vol. 27, No. 8, P. 47; Gruman, Galen

    Office phones are gradually becoming mobile thanks to the convergence of VoIP telephony and 802.11 wireless local area networks (LANs), although widespread adoption is currently impeded by high costs and connectivity issues. The challenges of wireless VoIP deployment include substantial wireless LAN hardware and installation costs stemming from the placement of access points in areas where data usage would not take place, and in a denser arrangement to reduce contention for bandwidth, which can cause interruptions and even dropped calls; limitations on the maximum number of simultaneous calls over an access point, which can vary according to the wireless LAN's engineering, architecture, and type of data usage; and the need for enterprises to over-engineer their wireless LANs so that future VoIP implementations can be accommodated. Of these issues, contention management represents the biggest technical challenge that needs to be overcome. Anticipating roaming difficulties is also a sensible move, as users roaming between access points need to be authenticated, which can lead to interruptions as well as dropped calls. Options for circumventing this problem include the deployment of WEP, IEEE 802.11i authentication, and lightweight access points with no need for reauthentication during roaming. The most commonplace solution is to use two virtual LANs, one for voice traffic and one for data traffic, although the tradeoff is increased management complexity. Measuring all these issues strategically before deploying wireless VoIP technology is critical for IT. Gartner analyst Ian Keene does not expect mainstream penetration of voice over wireless for at least half a decade, but urges businesses to get ready by selecting network infrastructure that supports both wired and wireless IP telephony while also providing adequate redundancy.
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  • "Meet Me in Cyberspace"
    Computerworld (02/21/05) P. 23; Rosencrance, Linda

    Online collaboration has taken off with new Web applications that allow geographically dispersed teams to share information quickly without leaving their normal work routines. Whereas e-meetings were seen as solutions for tightened travel budgets a few years ago, they are now preferred methods for coordinating group projects. New features that mimic basic meeting functions and add new features not possible with in-person meetings have hastened e-meeting adoption. Hotel chain Wyndham International began using an online collaboration solution four years ago for property management training, but has since expanded use, replacing weekly and monthly conference calls, for example; rather than talking over the phone, participants can now view graphics, documents, spreadsheets, and PowerPoint slides. The e-meeting software also facilitates organized discussion, which is sometimes difficult in conference calls. Bausch & Lomb uses collaboration software for its product development teams, and recouped the entire cost of the software in just one project alone through saved travel costs. The software provides a common Web workspace so that team members can immediately access whatever updated files they need, and the system is entirely Web-based, unlike Wyndham's application, which requires client software. Office furniture maker Steelcase uses e-meeting software to speed priority projects with tight deadlines, says Steelcase CRM team leader Florent Burion. The application provides instant messaging and voice-over-IP communication, and lets members work offline so as to save server and network infrastructure resources. Analyst Peter O'Kelly says, "We're just now seeing the point where e-meetings are getting on the mainstream radar--where it has become the norm for facilitating conversations or conferencing, instead of the exception."
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  • "More Bits in Pits"
    Scientific American (02/05) Vol. 292, No. 2, P. 30; Minkel, JR

    Whereas conventional DVDs that use red lasers to encode data as pits in the disk's surface have a maximum storage capacity of 4.7 GB per layer, forthcoming blue-laser DVDs that use smaller pits will be able to store up to 15 GB or 25 GB per layer, depending on the format. However, researchers at Imperial College London have found a way to boost DVD capacity enough to squeeze a whole terabyte, or 1,000 GB, onto a four-layered disk. The multiplexed optical data storage (MODS) technique devised by Peter Torok and associates involves the generation of asymmetric pits whose appearance varies according to their orientation; different reflections are produced when laser light is beamed onto the pit from different angles, allowing additional bits to be registered. Torok's group believes MODS disks could be assembled cheaply with conventional DVD fabrication methods. Torok thinks a commercial four-layer disk system that uses the MODS technique could be ready sometime between 2010 and 2015, although he sees the reconfiguration of the lens to focus the laser correctly onto the pits as a major challenge. The extra capacity delivered by MODS disks will be able to support a level of high-definition resolution that surpasses that of current movies. If successful, MODS disks could give holographic storage a run for its money in the short term, although holography will likely have the advantage of faster data retrieval. IDC analyst Wolfgang Schlichting reports that accumulated research into MODS technology pales in comparison to holographic systems. "I would caution on getting excited too early about a new technology," he says.
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  • "Advances in Voice Recognition"
    Futurist (02/05) Vol. 39, No. 1, P. 7; Lodato, Janine

    Voice recognition technology is imperfect, but an essential tool for people with disabilities that prevent them from using a keyboard and mouse, writes Hi-Tech Inventions senior partner Janine Lodato, who has multiple sclerosis and uses IBM's ViaVoice software. As the technology improves and is augmented by computer vision capabilities, non-disabled users are likely to abandon typing text as well. The present state of voice recognition technology requires patient training of the software and skills development on the part of the user. In addition, the headset microphones that many disabled users need for computer dictation interfere with their use of gyroscopes that use head movements to control mouse functions. Voice recognition relies on dictation mode, in which spoken words are translated into text, with accuracy determined by clear enunciation, the audio environment, and the software's learned knowledge of the user's vocabulary and pronunciation. The command mode is prompted by a code word, and provides access to basic editing actions such as capitalization or discrete spelling. Documents created solely with voice recognition software still often require editing, but the technology vastly increases productivity for disabled users. Advances in desktop computing power and peripherals will help, but computer vision technology that allows lip-reading and eye-tracking will make voice recognition solutions much more effective in the future.

  • "The Super Bowl of Smart"
    Discover (02/05) Vol. 26, No. 2, P. 54; Lemley, Brad

    Junior high and high school students from around the world participate in the annual First (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition, in which hundreds of teams assemble machines out of a standard kit of 300-plus components in six weeks and pit them against each other in a complex game. The competition uses a sporting event model to inspire students to pursue careers in science and engineering, whose appeal DEKA Research & Development President Dean Kamen sought to increase when he founded the contest in 1989. His concerns are borne out by declining numbers of U.S. science and engineering graduates. "During the golden decade, from ages 7 to 17, we need to encourage people to celebrate the things that will improve this country and culture," he argued. The companies that fund First reap rewards in the form of participants who often work for them after graduation, and MIT engineer and First organizer Woodie Flowers pointed out that colleges and businesses have handed out almost $5 million in scholarships for First contestants. In recent years, robots designed by teams from rural areas and poor industrial cities have often outperformed machines built by well-funded teams that hail from major metropolitan centers. The competition can become a matter of pride for the teams' home communities, encouraging local businesses to contribute to the effort. The First contest supports an atmosphere of "gracious professionalism," in which teams regularly assist one another by sharing parts, labor, and sometimes entire robots.
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  • "Too Darned Big to Test"
    Queue (02/05) Vol. 3, No. 1, P. 30; Stobie, Keith

    As software grows bigger and more complicated and concurrency and distributed systems become commonplace, handcrafted tests become a less reliable means of spotting bugs, writes Keith Stobie, a test architect in Microsoft's XML Web Services group. Keeping test methods economical requires testers to better comprehend their techniques' fault models and their application so that they can be improved over stochastic testing. Addressing large systems entails good unit testing (including good input selection), good design (including dependency analysis), good static checking (including model property checking), and good concurrency testing up front. Selecting and prioritizing test cases through code coverage, customer usage data, and the all-pairs approach to controlling the number of different configurations can increase efficiency. However, code coverage should not necessarily be employed to judge tests. Test coverage and solid stochastic tests can be produced through the use of models, which can also function as test oracles. Convincing testers to embrace model-based testing is a key challenge, as many testers lack the training to consider what they are testing in an abstract manner. Rigorous unit testing and test-driven development must be required by test groups and accepted by product developers, while controlling unit dependencies ensures the achievability of integration quality.