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Volume 7, Issue 763:  Wednesday, March 9, 2005

  • "U.S. Losing Tech Lead, Lobby Warns"
    Associated Press (03/09/05); Werner, Erica

    The U.S. needs major investments in education, research and development, and broadband technology deployment in order to maintain its global tech leadership, warned TechNet, a lobbying coalition representing roughly 200 high-tech leaders. TechNet CEO Rick White and other TechNet officials discussed trends that indicate a fall-off in American high-tech development with Cabinet members and congressional leaders on March 8. Cisco Systems President John Chambers called broadband the "enabling infrastructure" for technology's continued growth, and TechNet leaders said the percentage of U.S. households with broadband connectivity is paltry compared to those of Korean, Japanese, and French households. Chambers also said the United States is "not competitive" in K-12 education, with some Asian countries producing five times more engineering graduates than America; TechNet officials announced the creation of a CEO Education Task Force to devise ways to counter this trend. Also cited at the March 8 meeting was a 30-year lull in U.S. R&D investment, compared to dramatic growth in India, Brazil, Israel, China, and elsewhere. Other recommendations TechNet officials made to Congress include the establishment of a permanent R&D tax credit, encouragement of broadband development, promotion of cybersecurity efforts, and institution of a free trade agreement between the U.S., Central America, and the Dominican Republic.
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  • "Doctors' Journal Says Computing Is No Panacea"
    New York Times (03/09/05) P. C1; Lohr, Steve

    Research papers and an editorial in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association refute the Bush administration's belief that the U.S. health care system's broad adoption of information technology will reduce medical errors, improve care, and cut costs. Principal author of the editorial Dr. Robert Wears with the University of Florida College of Medicine says the research papers clearly demonstrate the unreadiness of computer systems for clinical decision support, treatment ordering, and patient records. One paper outlines nearly two dozen ways that the risk of medication errors could be raised with the introduction of a computer system for physicians, mainly because of poorly designed software that is ignorant of doctors' and nurses' actual behavior in a hospital environment. "These systems force people to wrap themselves around the technology like a pretzel instead of making sure the technology is responsive to the people doing the work," argues Dr. Ross Coppel of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, the primary author of the article. Another article studies 100 trials of computer systems designed to enhance medical diagnosis and treatment, and concludes that technologists who often participated in the systems' design usually gave the systems their highest rating. Dr. David Brailer, the White House's national coordinator for health information technology, calls the articles a "useful wake-up call," although he denies allegations that the Bush administration is advocating a rapid IT investment for the health industry. Brailer says he will be attempting to encourage industry consensus on common computer standards, product certification, and other elements that could serve as a platform for health computer systems and digital patient records.
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  • "Software Organizes Email By Task"
    Technology Research News (03/16/05); Patch, Kimberly

    University College Dublin and IBM researchers are developing email organization software that groups messages according to activity, such as arranging travel, reporting expenses, or managing online auctions. The goal is to allow nontechnical users to customize their computing environment according to their own task priorities, and the researchers plan to extend the project to include other programs such as task schedulers. In the case of managing multiple eBay auctions through email, for example, the program automatically sorts messages into different groups based on the object being auctioned and unique process identifiers, such as an online auction number or sequence relating to that specific task. The second phase to sorting involves recognizing different stages in the task process; in the case of eBay auctions, that would mean separating "thank you for your bid" messages from "you've been bid out" messages for the same activity. Finally, an encompassing process model is created to rank the messages. University of College Dublin computer science lecturer Nicholas Kushmerick says the email task organization program is the first project to integrate text classification, text clustering, and automata induction algorithms, even though each of those disciplines has been studied independently for decades. He also says the email organizing software is not as sophisticated as some artificial intelligence systems, but the relatively structured format of email does not require such sophistication. The prototype is 91 percent accurate, but has yet to be applied to real world emails; the system is also less effective in dealing with person-to-person emails than it is with person-machine messages, but Kushmerick says the team is working on that problem.
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  • "Bringing the Past Back to Life"
    IST Results (03/08/05)

    IST's LIFEPLUS project has yielded a prototype augmented reality (AR) system that reconstructs ancient Pompeiian frescos and enhances them with virtual 3D plants, animals, and people. Users immerse themselves in the recreation with a head-mounted display equipped with a small camera that captures the view and feeds it to software on a backpack computer, which integrates the user's perspective with animated virtual objects. "We are, for the first time, able to run this combination of software processes to create walking, talking people with believable clothing, skin, and hair in real time," boasts LIFEPLUS scientific coordinator Nadia Magnenat-Thalman. She sees LIFEPLUS as an important step toward a new model of cultural tourism, and says the platform could one day be applied to location-based entertainment, on-set visualizations for the film and television industry, and e-visitor exhibits. Magnenat-Thalman says the real-time integrated character simulation technologies incorporated into the platform enable diverse heterogeneous technologies such as real-time character rendering in AR, cloth simulation and behavioral action scripting, 3D sound, body animation with skinning, speech and facial simulation, and real-time camera tracking to be plugged in. Magnenat-Thalman says future challenges will include the addition of automatic virtual character behavior when participants enter the virtual environment, as well as achieving a real-to-virtual and virtual-to-virtual interchange of natural consciousness. The LIFEPLUS project will be exhibited at the CeBIT information and communication technologies fair.
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  • "New Software May Offer a Rainbow of Sound"
    NewsFactor Network (03/04/05); Martin, Mike

    Vision-impaired Cornell University graduate student Victor Wong has developed image-to-sound software that can communicate colors in a manner that blind people can understand. Such an invention is important to Wong's doctoral research, in which reading color-scaled weather maps is a requirement. Cornell engineering undergrad Ankur Moitra authored a Java program that can convert images into sound and pixels of various hue into piano notes of varying tone. The user guides a stylus over a color image on a computerized tablet, and changes in color and tone register as notes along an 88-gradation scale. The software can also read aloud the numerical values of a map's coordinates as well as values associated with a color at any given point on the image. Wong, Moitra, and research associate James Ferwerda are working on software that can delineate key boundaries in an image. University of Missouri computer programmer Gary Wunder, who is also president of the National Federation of the Blind's Missouri chapter, notes that Wong's breakthrough could be a major step in giving blind people a way to translate color not just in weather maps, but timelines and other images. "Inexpensive color recognition could also be helpful in matching clothing and helping blind people work on circuitry where color coding is important," he points out.
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  • "RFID Invades the Capital"
    Wired News (03/07/05); Baard, Mark

    Some 40,000 new biometric ID cards equipped with radio frequency identification (RFID) and Bluetooth technology will be distributed to Homeland Security Department personnel and contractors this year, beginning in May. The RFID and Bluetooth components will facilitate communication with reader devices at DHS offices, and bearers will use the cards to log on to computers, enter secure areas, and even pay subway fares. Though the cards will include high-resolution and holographic images of the bearer, the fingerprint will be the key identifier: For instance, a DHS employee will log on to a computer by sliding the card into a special keyboard and pressing their finger on a reader pad that will compare the physical fingerprint to the card's fingerprint record before authorizing the log-on. The impetus for the new ID cards is a White House directive to provide identification that can be electronically authenticated quickly and that is resistant to terrorist exploitation. However, privacy advocates believe the RFID tags will be used to surreptitiously track the movements of individual card holders, a concern echoed by many government employees and contractors attending a recent Washington wireless tech conference. Security experts also warn that hackers, eavesdroppers, and identity thieves equipped with wireless readers could also exploit the tags and Bluetooth holders. RSA Security principal research scientist Ari Juels is concerned that the government will scramble to implement RFID, and then attempt "to bolt on" protection to safeguard the biometric data. He says hackers can intercept transmissions between the cards and RFID readers every time the card is read from potentially "tens of feet" away, although DHS Director of Authentication Technologies Joseph Broghamer insists that such transmissions will be encrypted.
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  • "Fringes vs. Basics in Silicon Valley"
    New York Times (03/09/05) P. C1; Richtel, Matt

    Critics at Electronic Arts and other Silicon Valley companies complain that fringe benefits such as gyms, bonuses, and stock options belie a dearth of tangible benefits such as overtime pay. Stock options have lost much of their allure with the collapse of the tech boom and the advent of new accounting rules that have substantially raised their approval costs. A sore point with game developers is the crunching period just before a new game's release, in which they sometimes toil 60, 70, or even 80 hours a week without a day off for months at a time. The consolidation of the video game industry has also helped spread the feeling among workers that they are laboring in a sweatshop, and employee lawsuits have been filed against Electronic Arts and other video game companies for failing to pay overtime. Electronic Arts intends to start paying some workers overtime in lieu of bonuses and stock options, although the company has made no admission that legal pressure has had any bearing on this decision. However, Electronic Arts human resources executive Rusty Rueff thinks such a measure moves game developers "out of a culture that emphasizes entrepreneurialism and ownership and into a clock-watching mentality." This entrepreneurial culture, he goes on to say, is the foundation of Silicon Valley's success. Meanwhile, Electronic Arts has warned that it will consider replacing workers if their demands become too excessive, a threat that moves people such as WashTech founder Marcus Courtney to call for the unionization of Silicon Valley workforces.
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  • "A Quantum Leap for Computer Security"
    Toronto Star (03/07/05); Goldman, M. Corey

    The principle behind quantum cryptography is that data transmitted in the form of photons cannot be observed without disrupting the photons' state, thus alerting both sender and recipient to an eavesdropper's presence. An average email or Web page currently uses an encryption key of about 40 digits, but this security is not guaranteed, because hackers are always on the lookout for increasingly advanced computer programs and decryption technology. In a quantum cryptography scheme, any attempt at interception scrambles the message, which means it must be re-sent--but the hacker is thwarted. Parties interested in the unbreakable security promised by quantum cryptography include governments, banks, public utilities, health care providers, and telecom companies. Switzerland-based id Quantique and MagiQ in the United States have introduced commercial quantum key systems: MagiQ's collaborators include various Canadian universities and institutes, while id Quantique's customers include the Swiss government, which deployed the company's quantum key technology to ensure electronic security for elections. Corporations, universities, and agencies pursuing commercial quantum information processing (QIP) include AT&T, IBM, Hewlett Packard, MIT, Stanford, Microsoft, NEC, Princeton, and Caltech, while the U.S. Defense Advanced Products Agency has made sizable QIP investments as well. It is doubtful that quantum cryptography for average consumers will emerge before quantum computing, and by that time quantum encryption could no longer be unbeatable.
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  • "Microsoft Notebook: Intelligent Software Aims to Give Users Peace of Mind"
    Seattle Post-Intelligencer (03/07/05); Bishop, Todd

    Microsoft Research's Adaptive Systems and Interaction group is developing software that perceives the surrounding environment and that can reason and adjust to situations in real time through experiential learning. Microsoft senior researcher and group manager Eric Horvitz foresees a time when "companion software" collaborates with human life in a manner that could be described as "intelligent or humanlike." An example of such software is a system developed under the aegis of the group's Priorities project: The system examines incoming messages and performs a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether the messages are urgent enough to interrupt the recipient's current activities. Factors the system weighs in the analysis include the sender-recipient relationship, what tense the message is written in, key phrases, dates, times, and the inclusion of questions. University of Maryland computer science professor Jim Hendler says Microsoft Research can exert a substantial influence on measuring the progress of artificial intelligence's practical applications, "because when they put something in practice it can get used not by one or two people but by millions." Some of the Adaptive Systems and Interaction group's projects have been implemented internally at Microsoft, such as the Bestcom system for ascertaining the optimal communication method between two people at any specific time, according to their preferences for different situations. More sophisticated projects Horvitz's group is working on include systems that can anticipate when a person will be available, and JamBayes, a system for predicting traffic conditions using a statistical model that considers numerous factors such as weather and the day of weekend sports schedules.
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  • "Coming to Grips With Technology"
    Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (03/02/2005)

    Germany's Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft group will exhibit its Personal Environment Controller (PECo), an all-in-one remote control unit, at the CeBIT ICT fair in Hanover this month. PECo is designed to reduce the complexity of conferencing, mobile office, or intelligent household technologies for users by providing an intuitive 3D interface that makes sifting through extensive manuals or menus unnecessary. The software can be downloaded onto a personal digital assistant (PDA), which then displays a 3D view of a conference room and the equipment in it; the gear can be activated individually by tapping the PDA screen, which sends commands wirelessly to a central control unit. PECo can function outside the conference room by using a wireless local access network (WLAN). The PECo program can also autonomously acclimate itself with unfamiliar environments by constructing 3D animations using the position of devices as determined by Bluetooth, WLAN, or Ultrawideband, reports Ali Nazari with the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics Research IGD. "The software can basically control all devices that have communication capabilities, devices that are remotely controllable," Nazari explains. "The only prerequisite is that they conform to a standard such as EIB [European Installation Bus] or UpnP [Universal Plug and Play]."
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  • "Camera Phones Recognize Their Owner"
    New Scientist (03/04/05); Knight, Will

    Japan-based Omron has developed software that can enable digital camera-equipped cell phones to recognize the face of their owners to help ensure that any sensitive information they carry is not compromised should the phones be lost or stolen. The OKAO Vision Face Recognition Sensor program, which currently works on phones running the Symbian and Linux operating systems, measures key facial parameters while taking up a mere 370 KB of the phone's memory, according to Omron. The company says the software can perform an ID check in just about one second, and claims the program correctly identified the owner's face in 99 out of 100 tests. "Given current concerns over identity theft, if the phone is for secure transactions such as banking, then I think people would be very interested [in this application]," notes University of Southampton computer vision expert Mark Nixon, who thinks existing smart phones ought to have enough power to effectively perform facial recognition. On the other hand, Sheffield Hallam University research scientist Alan Robinson warns that the software may fail to recognize faces when the camera views them from different angles than those that were recorded. He says 3D face recognition techniques requiring stereovision afforded by two or more cameras could not only obviate this problem, but also make it harder for someone to fool the system by holding up a picture of the authorized user.
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  • "Will Social Databases Give Way to Social Protocols?"
    ZDNet (03/01/05); Berlind, David

    The XHTML Friends Network (XFN) microformat could eliminate the need for proprietary social networking services such as LinkedIn, Orkut, and Plaxo, if XFN was widely adopted among users and blog and Web presence authoring tools, writes ZDNet commentator David Berlind in his blog. Currently, the proliferation of such social networking services (there are roughly 18 services) requires significant effort to continuously update personal profiles on each of those services. An ideal situation would entail individuals maintaining their own personal contact information on their Web site, blog, or contact management software, allowing all their friends to refer to that resource, and XFN allows for this type of nonproprietary social linking by adding relationship context to hyperlinks. The XFN profile describes possible relationship descriptors, such as brother, colleague, or even "crush." Blogrolls offer a good example of how XFN would help create loosely coupled social networks, but currently few blog authoring tools support XFN, such as by allowing people to use the rel hyperlink attribute that indicates XFN relationships. The hCard contact record standard uses XML to display contact information in a standard way, and could be used in conjunction with XFN and XFN-crawling software to automatically create directories of friends and friends' friends. This scenario would be helped by the incorporation of hCard and XFN technologies in Web presence tools--perhaps even Outlook--and blog authoring tools such as blogroll generators. Furthermore, the XFN concept could be extended to the business realm, perhaps in the form of XBN or XB2BN microformats.
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  • "Machines Not Lost in Translation"
    Wired News (03/09/05); Harrison, Ann

    The Phraselator is a handheld one-way translation device currently used by military personnel in the Middle East; the device is also being tested by U.S. law enforcement officials and corrections officers in 11 states and undergoing assessment in county health departments and hospital emergency rooms. The device, which was developed with seed funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), allows users to speak or choose from a screen of English phrases and match those phrases to their pre-recorded foreign-language counterparts, and then broadcasts the foreign-language MP3 file and records replies for translation later on. Phraselator voice modules are usually stored on secure 128 MB digital cards that can support as many as 12,000 phrases in four or five dialects, and a toolkit can be employed to download phrase modules from the Phraselator Web portal, which contains over 300,000 phrases. Phraselator software developer Jack Buchanan says the software can translate voice into text with more than 70 percent accuracy, but notes that it is technically challenging to convert text into another language prior to outputting the data vocally. He also says the Phraselator is being programmed to translate limited two-way conversation in which responses correlate to a specific domain of words such as dates, numbers, or colors, while next-generation-Phraselators will also incorporate images. Meanwhile, DARPA is funding the development of the multilingual automatic speech-to-speech translator (MASTOR) system, a bi-directional voice translator from IBM that can extract content from each sentence and match it to a comparable sentence in another language via algorithms.
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  • "Mapping the Internet: Towsley Reveals the Hidden Characteristics of a Vast and Complex Global Network"
    University of Massachusetts Amherst (03/01/05)

    University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) computer science professor and ACM Fellow Don Towsley is developing techniques for Internet measurement and internal network data flow analysis. His network tomography technology, created in conjunction with AT&T Labs and the UMass mathematics and statistics department, uses probe transmissions to build a detailed view of the interior of the global network. Towsley compares the network tomography technique to a CAT scan, where numerous x-rays gather single slices of information to complete an entire image. Distributed ownership of Internet infrastructure and commercial realities prevent sharing of internal performance data, so the network tomography solution is a good way to measure network performance using only end-to-end measurements. Towsley's recent work focused on a version of the technique that does not rely on multicast, and instead uses tightly grouped packets that behaves similarly to multicast; he is now working on a theoretical framework for low-cost measurement of internal network performance. Although network tomography is useful for understanding network behavior, network design and configuration requires different measurement techniques, such as data flow modeling. Towsley's data flow modeling research examines the behavior of TCP that offers data useful for creating congestion control algorithms or predicting unstable network behavior; data flow models have also proven useful in predicting the spread of Internet worms such as SQL Slammer. Using the data flow models, worm activity can be identified before just 1 percent of vulnerable machines are infected, for example.
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  • "Moving Toward Self-Awareness"
    Computerworld (03/07/05) P. 46; Willoughby, Mark

    As IT systems increase their network exposure and offer more on-demand resources, security and management systems are needed that use predictive modeling, opines MessagingGroup consultant Mark Willoughby. Services, infrastructure, storage, applications, content, compliance, devices, and other aspects of modern IT management are too much for an empirical management style, where humans watch for, anticipate, and react to new situations. Modeling capabilities and infrastructure intelligence are needed to manage the security and operation of on-demand, always-on systems. Today, vendors are offering intelligent management and security tools that use deductive reasoning to predict the effect of discrete changes to the IT system, but this approach is limited as the number of variable elements increases. Inductive modeling, or predictive modeling, draws from large stores of historical data and a good understanding of how systems operate and what problems could occur; this type of predictive modeling is already used in health care, air traffic control, and meteorology. In IT, predictive modeling begins with the desired outcome; IT managers input the number of users and expected workload to get optimal configurations for different elements and layers of infrastructure. Technologies such as neural networks and artificial intelligence agents will be able to build upon this approach by constantly monitoring systems and learning from changes. Eventually, self-aware systems will be able to make rational decisions when confronted with complex, multi-faceted situations, writes Willoughby.
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  • "Unleashing the Potential of Wireless Broadband"
    Issues in Science and Technology (02/05) Vol. 21, No. 2, P. 33; Hundt, Reed E.

    Former FCC Chairman Reed E. Hundt writes that the FCC and Congress should apply themselves to opening up the electromagnetic spectrum--which TV broadcasters jealously guard--to wireless broadband providers, which will trigger a cascade of new services that promise to revolutionize communications, create thousands of jobs, and transform society. He points out that government provision of licenses for frequencies will eliminate the high costs of lawsuits or negotiations between providers of machines that interfere with one another because they operate at the same frequency; it also makes sense for the government to issue as many licenses as possible without creating unacceptable usage conflicts in order to support freedom of expression and promote competitive markets. "Government's job is to take the frequencies for analog TV broadcast and give them to wireless broadband or any other use a truly efficient market would demand," Hundt states, noting that most analog spectrum goes unused because the majority of Americans receive their TV signals via satellite or cable nowadays. Studies estimate that providing wireless broadband access could be five times more costly if forthcoming communications devices cannot use optimal spectrum. Hundt writes that the government took a step in the right direction by agreeing to move analog broadcasting to digital and dramatically reduce the spectrum apportioned to broadcasters; but in the 10 or so years since that goal was set, neither Congress nor the FCC have sufficiently asserted themselves to getting the job done. Hundt believes this transition could be accelerated if the government purchases each household a digital converter box interoperable with phone and cable networks. He finds fault with the FCC Spectrum Policy Task Force's plan to boost the amount of market spectrum and manage that spectrum with market forces, and recommends that the Bush administration establish an independent commission for developing alternative solutions for making analog broadcast spectrum available.

  • "Q&A: The Secure Enterprise Interview"
    Secure Enterprise (02/05) Vol. 2, No. 2, P. 40; Joachim, David

    Former Department of Homeland Security cybersecurity director Amit Yoran says his mission while at the department was to create a cybersecurity division, recruit staff for the division, and implement programs and activities that will take the division closer to its goals. With that mission accomplished, Yoran felt it was time to leave the department and perhaps eventually focus on XML, RFID tagging, and other forward-thinking security issues. In an earlier interview, North Carolina CISO Ann Garrett expressed frustration over the priority of physical security over cybersecurity when it comes to funding and advocated "categories" of spending to ensure cybersecurity was awarded a certain amount of funding, and Yoran agrees with her assessment. Yoran believes lack of funding for cybersecurity in the private sector as well as the federal sector will lead to under investment and vulnerabilities. On the issue of Internet restrictions for the sake of added security, Yoran doubts the openness of the Internet will be easily given up and instead suggests voluntary strong authentication that will allow for openness as well as added security. Yoran says the government should take every opportunity to work with the private sector when implementing Internet security standards. Currently, government-established regulations are paper-based, cumbersome, and highly expensive with very little benefit, and Yoran feels the government is missing an opportunity to collaborate on effective security measures with the private sector and take the lead on security issues.
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  • "Identity Management, Access Specs Are Rolling Along"
    Internet Computing (02/05) Vol. 9, No. 1, P. 9; Goth, Greg

    In an environment where federated identity capabilities are highly sought after, vendors are quickly realizing that sustaining their marketplace viability depends on making interoperable products. IBM's recent entry into the Liberty Alliance Project for developing an open federated network identity standard is perhaps the best indication of federated identity's widespread acceptance. Liberty's Identity Federation Framework (ID-FF) specifications have a very close relationship to OASIS' Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) specs, although the former were primarily spurred by end users and the latter were chiefly driven by vendors; the finalization of SAML 2.0 will establish the SAML specs as a superset of the ID-FF specs. The converged specs depend on assertions, of which there are three core categories: Authentication assertions that claim a user's identity, attribute assertions that declare specific user details, and authorization-decision assertions that state what a given user is allowed to do at a specific site. Meanwhile, the Web Services Interoperability Organization's proposed WS-Federation standard is not as far along as the SAML-Liberty specs, but Joe Anthony with IBM Tivoli stresses the importance of the broader functionality base such a standard would deliver. Some analysts expect the Liberty specs and the WS-Federation specs to gradually mingle, though Liberty officials refuse to say that convergence will definitely be the case. "You learn to never say 'never' in this space, but unless convergence is being driven by underlying deployments and adoption, it becomes an academic exercise," notes Simon Nicholson with Liberty's business and marketing group.
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  • "Reining in Unstructured Data"
    Application Development Trends (02/05) Vol. 12, No. 2, P. 43; Waters, John K.

    Managing unstructured data has become a top corporate priority as a result of the tech industry bubble's implosion and regulatory compliance, says META Group analyst Andrew Warzecha. Experts say that unstructured data accounts for over 80 percent of the information companies generate, a sizable portion of which is produced by commonly used office productivity suites. "If you think about it in terms of a corporate performance framework, the idea that most companies have real control over only 20 percent of the intellectual assets of their business, and are making business decisions based on that, is pretty scary," remarks Toby Bell with Gartner's Knowledge Workplace. He notes that setting up improved controls on enterprise content is a natural and necessary response to compliance issues, but cautions that it is a practical rather than strategic measure; he also maintains that companies need to adopt a more holistic view of compliance as a competitive differentiator rather than a cost. Warzecha says the task of reining in unstructured data should begin with answering fundamental questions about the enterprise's core business processes, at-risk information and the categories it fits into, and short-term measures for minimizing risk and ensuring regulatory compliance. Longer-term recommendations for automating some of these processes can then be considered. The two biggest categories of unstructured data are bitmap and textual objects, and failure to regulate such data can create problems. Oracle's Rich Buchheim points out that the ubiquity of and casual attitude toward email and instant messaging can become a liability for companies, especially if they are used to communicate sensitive information.
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