Wednesday 30 December 2009

Chips a decade from now...

As we leave one decade behind and enter 2010, I'm looking ahead another decade as to how some of the manufacturing challenges of the silicon chips, which power so many things, are likely to be overcome. Current chip geometry is already at an incredible small scale compared to even a few years ago, at around 45nm with plans to move towards 22nm. But then there are challenges in actually mounting the electronic components onto the chip while preserving necessary structure. One technique, based on research which shows that DNA strands may be used as a kind of scaffolding, could reduce this down to around 6nm. The research shows that the DNA can self-organise itself on the silicon base.

Other research has shown that DNA can also be used to store and manipulate data and perform simple computations. Computing on this biological scale would enable considerable advances in computer performance. The closer together the components on a chip can be placed, the faster and smaller computers can be. Such DNA based chips are 10-15 years away, but many people celebrating new year's eve this year will remark how quickly the last decade seems to have passed!

Thursday 24 December 2009

Apple Tablet Overdose!

My last post here about an Apple Tablet was back in July, when I predicted that the Cupertino based company would continue to ignore the cheap Netbook market which everyone was raving about at the time. Instead I said I expected them to position a new tablet computer device between their existing notebooks and the iPhone/iPod Touch. The current overdose of rumours in the Press suggests that 2010 will be the year of the tablet. And I stand by what I said in the original posting... they will innovate for reasons of enhancing the customer experience not just because it is possible, as so many tech companies do.

Clearly Apple have been busy preparing the ground for this new device. As I said before, the key to its success is not just the device but the usage model ... what purpose will it fulfil for people in large enough numbers? One piece of well-trailed prep they have been doing for some months now is engagement with media content companies about making that available on the new device. I believe that e-Book readers will always remain niche devices ... not mass market on a huge scale, because their price point as a single function device just doesn't do it. But a media tablet that has compelling content easily available (e.g. through the iTunes store) either on a streaming or purchased basis and which can do other things too could have a much higher price point and still scale in the marketplace.

The second thing that Apple have been preparing for this new device is display resolution independence in OSX. This will mean in the case of the iPhone/iPod Touch version that it will be very easy for developers to make the hundreds of thousands of apps work on a larger touchscreen device. A new device with all those existing apps available is a very compelling offering.

So if the apps and the content are ready, what else is needed? Given that Apple revolutionised the mobile phone with iPhone, and now all manufacturers strive to offer a touch screen phone which rivals their MultiTouch technology, I wouldn't be surprised to see them innovate and push their lead on user interaction even further ahead.

Friday 18 December 2009

Does free mean altruism?

I am a Google user. This blog is one example. I also have Gmail, use Google Sites and of course Search. And Google PowerMeter is great. And it's all free! Well of course it means I accept some advertising component but free in the sense of paying. But I am also an Apple user. The MacBook Pro I am typing this on is one example. I also pay for MobileMe services which give me Mail, Websites and data syncing. It's a bit like how I sometimes watch commercial (ad-funded) TV, but I prefer the quality of BBC channels. Advertising pays for a lot but often the best or premium content is paid for by the user directly.

Google don't offer their services for free out of altruism, they do it to further the advertising platform that they use which is a legitimate business model. And just like with the TV, it is good that there are non-"free" alternatives in the marketplace, providing that they are actually delivering quality, and quality that is higher than the ad-funded competition. I am a great supporter of the BBC, but the fact that there are commercial ad-funded competitor channels only helps to maintain the quality the BBC strives for. Microsoft have provided lower quality paid alternatives (Vista, WinMobile, Zune) than Apple; Google are providing good quality free alternatives (Chrome OS, Android, etc.). The competition will be good for innovation, the marketplace and the consumer. I look forward to 2010!

Sunday 13 December 2009

Solar powered indications

As the festive season approaches, i thought I would invest in some new lights for outside in the garden ... just to decorate the monkey puzzle tree out front since I am not one of those who likes to make the house look like Vegas, Tokyo or Blackpool (depending on your locale)! Since there is no easy electric supply near that particular tree, I decided to try some solar powered lights ... a string of 50 blue LED lamps. They do in fact work very well. The front garden is not in the best position in terms of north facing and in the shadow of the house in the low angle winter months of whatever sun we are lucky enough to get. They charge a battery sufficiently during the daytime to provide about 6 hours of night time illumination.

In the future, we will rely much more on so-called renewables ... not just solar but other sources too ... for much more than Christmas lights of course. But the story of my blue LEDs on the monkey puzzle tree is indicative of the challenges that face us for such forms of energy. The efficiency of storage, be it battery technology or otherwise, has to be much improved. For domestic use and substitution of the power from the national grid, the inverters provided to turn the stored DC into the AC that you expect to feed your electric sockets need to provide cleaner alternating current. It's ironic that most of the devices you plug into these domestic sockets internally convert the AC back to direct current before it is used!

These improvements will be made, the costs of the technology will fall, and the future way we power our lives will change.

Friday 4 December 2009

Translation technology...

I have finally gotten around to adding Google's translator widget to this blog, which may help those who read this from some of the 67 countries we have now clocked up. It wasn't so long ago that translation services required the employment of human beings skilled in more than one language and which would take some time to organise and cost a considerable amount.

We will eventually get to a point where perhaps wearable technology allows us to hear one language and understand it simultaneously in our mother tongue. Just as a few years ago i would have found the costs of translating the amount of posts on this blog prohibitive, the economic impact of the simultaneous realtime translator will be very significant. The annual costs associated with translating public material in a multi-cultural country such as the UK, and also of official documents in the European Union are very large. Hopefully machine automated translation will allow this money to be redeployed into more productive core activity such as public services of health, education or aspects of Government.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Energy monitoring...

So on the UK news today there was again a mention of the Government mandating the introduction of smart meters to all 26 million homes in Britain by 2020, costing £8 billion. This seems to crop up in the news every so often. The idea is that if people know more about what energy they are using at the time they may reduce consumption. I have been using the AlertMe Energy system for a few weeks now and it gives a similar type of information about electricity usage. It also interfaces with Google PowerMeter which provides some useful statistics and graphs over time. These allow for comparisons with previous usage.

I have to say that it is interesting to see where the electricity goes and how the consumption varies both with our domestic routine and the outside temperature. We heat the house by gas but the electric pumps seem to make a difference to the consumption. Colder days do result in a higher level of electricity usage. I tend to agree that having more realtime information can impact on behaviour. In the future, more automation in the home and more efficient devices will allow consumption to be optimised according to people's behaviour.

Saturday 28 November 2009

How will employment be measured?

Many people now believe those countries who have felt the most recent global economic crisis and subsequent recession have now reached the bottom and are now on the road to recovery, however long that proves to be. As with previous recessions, we have seen employment statistics fall and consequently unemployment figures rise. Previous recessions took more toll on manufacturing and manual workers, such as mineworkers and print workers; the most recent has affected more office and knowledge workers. Could this recession be the last in which we can sensibly use the traditional employment figures approaches, especially for this latter group of workers?

In the future, many more highly skilled people will be employees of more than one company at a time. Both organisations and individuals will expect flexibility in employment conditions to ensure efficiency. Technology will make it simple for people to manage their time and contributions to each. Time-shared employees will make their skills available to more organisations at a time. So when the next recession comes the measure of employment should probably account for these multiple employments.

Monday 23 November 2009

3D in your pocket ?

Conoscopy is the technique which might just bring 3D displays on pocket devices. It's a trick that steers the illumination from the backlight to light up left and right eye parts of the screen. It has been demonstrated on 9 and 2.8 inch LCD panels with LED backlighting, by tape manufacturer 3M. Why? Well because the screen employs a special thin film which does the steering of the light. Because the whole screen is used for each eye's image, there is no loss of resolution. The resulting screens also need no glasses to be worn by the viewer. By applying a single image to the 3D display, it will also show normal 2D images without distortion.

The issue with all 3D displays in terms of mass adoption is not the technology which makes it possible but rather the availability of content in the form required to drive them. Eventually we will see 3D displays, and the most common implementations will differ for different categories of device (e.g. TVs or handheld devices). A thin film approach to steering backlights may well be one of them.

Thursday 19 November 2009

Chrome plated NetBooks?

Today Google showed off its new Chrome Operating System for PCs. It also announced that it would be open-sourced to allow developers to partner in its development. This free browser-based system is to be targeted at new NetBook computers, the successful cut-down, underpowered and lightweight laptop PCs. Features of Chrome include fast startup times, no client applications (only web apps), automatic syncing and encryption of users' data.

The more important aspect for the industry is how Chrome will impact on Microsoft's domination of PC systems. Senior executives of the Redmond based giant have recently stated that their strategy is to raise the price of NetBooks by the licensing of Windows 7 on them. Chrome could torpedo this strategy. If the user experience including responsiveness of the browser tabbed applications in Chrome is good enough, this could be a very dangerous time for Microsoft, who need Windows 7 to be a success after the Vista disaster. The licensing model for mobile device operating systems is failing; they can't afford the desktop/NetBook market to fail too.

Tuesday 10 November 2009

The androids are coming...

The androids are coming ... ok so I have blogged about robots before ... this time I am talking about the Google mobile device operating system! The mobile industry has always been sceptical of success for new entrants ... this was true but wrong in the case of Apple with their iPhone. Will it also be the case for Google with Android?

Well first you need a brand. With its integrated hardware and software approach, Apple specifies and and very carefully controls the brand. Whatever carriers partner with Apple and whichever geography they operate in, the iPhone brand and marketing is very strong and totally controlled. Google has one of the most recognised brands on the planet; so much so in fact that it has become the verb for web searching in our dictionaries. With Android however, Google's brand is practically invisible. Outside of the mobile industry, for the ordinary man or woman in the street, they have a much bigger chance of saying they have heard of iPhone than Android. Android phones have virtually no obvious Google branding. Further, because it is an open free-for-all approach, every Android phone's user interface can look very different, and so far this is the case. As more and more manufacturers bring out Android phones, more and more unfamiliar variations appear. This makes things unrecognisable for users and more complex for third party application developers.

Secondly for success penetrating the mobile market, you need a successful business model. There are three typical approaches. The integrated model which has been a success for RIM with the BlackBerry and Apple for the iPhone (and iPod), the Open model such as Linux and Android, and in between the licensing model used by Windows, and until recently Symbian. The latter has now been taken over by Nokia and is being made open-source. While the Open and Licensing models have worked very well in the computer server and desktop market, they have struggled in the mobile market, where the performance/power balance, interaction through the user interface and integration between hardware and software are all more critical. In fact due to the flexibility of open Android, it is more likely to take share from Windows Mobile than from RIM and Apple.

Google's Android will certainly appear on more phones by the middle of next year. Whether their approaches with brand and business model will mean that Android phones appear in many people's pockets remains to be seen. Android might just become the Linux PC equivalent on mobile devices; an open, flexible, system which appeals to hobbyists and hackers. It could make the mainstream too ... but it will have to change or buck the trend to do so.

Friday 6 November 2009

The next smartphone sensor...

Mobile phones have come a long way in the last few years. The high end so-called smart phones are now equipped with a range of sensors that once upon a time no-one associated with phones at all. There are the obvious location sensors such as GPS receivers so that the phone knows precisely where you are (not just roughly from cell towers). Video CCD sensors have adorned phones for some time but have mainly been confined to the obvious camera picture taking application. These can also sense light levels, read barcodes, and provide the means to recognise gestures and expressions. Many high-end phones also know what orientation they are in and how they are being moved through the use of accelerometers. And some know which direction they are facing through magnetometer sensors. This is important in augmented reality applications as well as useful in mapping. In the former it allows the phone to deduce which buildings the camera is seeing for example, while in the latter it means displayed maps can be automatically oriented the right way for where the user is facing.

So what will be the next sensor that we see incorporated in the high-end phones? It could well be the near field communications technology which can form the basis for radio frequency identification (RFID) tags and readers. This would allow a whole host of new application types. In addition it will enable e-commerce on the phone; ticketing and small value purchasing by simply waving you phone over readers, much like the Oyster card is used by Transport for London as an e-ticketing alternative around the UK Capital. The future for smarter phones is bright.

Thursday 29 October 2009

Business Breakfast Cafe

This morning I had the pleasure to present some futures messages at a breakfast meeting of small and medium business enterprises. This type of session is always interesting for me because of the wide range of people and businesses present. The breakfast and coffee was very good and I especially enjoyed meeting members of the group before and after the formal presentation. Thanks to those who invited me and to all those present who attended.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Wearable displays

While all the talk these days is about touch screen displays, the form factors of future devices will exploit rollable and foldable displays, before the display is separated from the device altogether. The first instantiation of this separation is likely to use special glasses which the user wears and which projects an image onto the lens. I have already seen some excellent prototypes of this sort of display by Konica Minolta in Japan.

Another Japanese innovative company NEC have now given details of what I expect to be the natural successor to the glasses based displays, a prototype retinal display. The 'tele-scouter' has been described as a tiny retinal projection display and microphone mounted on a frame in front of the wearer's eyes. The application they have described it being used for is to translate and display languages. This seems a bit ambitious even for a prototype at this stage but it is good to see these types of innovation beginning to see the light of day. One quote even states that NEC hope to bring something based on this technology into the market during 2010 so watch this space!

Monday 19 October 2009

Kindle or kindling?

The Kindle is Amazon's attempt to do with reading books what Apple did with the iPod with listening to music. It's an e-book reader using a monochrome e-paper like screen which you can hold in the hand. And its strongest point is that it is linked to the Amazon book store machine which has been so successful with paper versions.

However this will not revolutionise book reading like the iPod revolutionised the music industry. Certainly it will mean that more players in the publishing industry release more electronic titles but I don't see it replacing the paper book in the same way that electronic music downloads have replaced the majority of music media forms. It's all about the experience. The actual experience of listening to music is basically similar whether your earphones are plugged into an iPod or a Walkman or a stereo system. The actual experience of reading a book feels quite different when holding a book of paper pages and when staring at a screen and pressing a button to advance pages. I can see that a minority of people who travel and carry around a lot of heavy tomes with them at present might choose the device but its wider attractiveness is questionable.

And then there is the overall experience of using the Kindle device. The screen is quite small. There is less text on each screenful compared to most books' pages. And there is a waste of space on the bottom third of the device where Amazon has found it necessary to put a plastic button keyboard which makes the Kindle look reminiscent of an electronic calculator of old. The Sony e-Reader is at least a better design with more touch screen real estate and no plastic keyboard. However they do not have the relationships and hence volume of media content to bring to their offering.

There is another player in the wings who could combine ease of use, an experience which is much better and a store/portal with content in the e-publishing area. It is also likely that they would attempt a rather different business model too ... the price of a device with the required design and features needs a use case more than just reading books in order for people to buy it in enough numbers to ever become a mass market or revolutionary device. Watch the Apple space!

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Danger in the Cloud?

There is a fair amount of debate amongst computer folk about Cloud Computing. This is where data and increasingly applications run on servers in the Internet 'cloud' rather than the device of the user. The approach is championed by players such as Google and Amazon etc. But other more traditional players are also not to be left out. Both Apple and Microsoft have flirted with the cloud approach too. Apple have their MobileMe offering which even has an icon of a white cloud on a blue background! This provides a store in the cloud for users' data which can be synced between devices as well as other features. In early 2008, Microsoft bought an innovative company called Danger who ran a product called Sidekick. Sidekick stores its users' data in the cloud. On the 2nd October, SideKick users on T-Mobile's network could not access their online services nor their data. Even after service was restored four days later, they still had not access to their data and were later told by Microsoft/Danger that the data had been lost. This is the real danger for cloud-based systems.

There are degrees of cloud computing ... it doesn't have to be an all or nothing situation ... particularly in the case of mobile devices, which generally need charging or other basic processes from time to time. Some less than full cloud computing approaches don't remove all of the users' control of their data but simply automate the use of the cloud as a resource. Apple's approach for example is that all data on an iPhone or iPod is backed up on the user's local PC when it is charged and synced to that device, even though the active use of the device transfers the data to their MobileMe cloud. In this way, if the Microsoft's Danger/Sidekick problem happened at MobileMe, users would at least be able to restore data from their most recent local backup. Microsoft also have a cloud based service called MyPhone for Windows Mobile users. This also only backs up data to the cloud and not a local device.

So users have to be wary of vendors who place all of their data and its backups in the all powerful cloud which of course also offers many benefits for sharing and accessibility from anywhere etc. And users would also do well to understand that not all Cloud services are the same in respect of how much control they are left with for their own data.

Friday 9 October 2009

Information = power?

Many organisations today are actually very good when it comes to targeting their marketing information at you and me. Much of what drops through the door is now a product of careful computer-run analyses and increasingly relevant to the recipient. In the future there will be scope for organisations to do this analysis in real time when the customer presents themselves. In the same way, consumers will not need to price-compare the night before they go shopping next day. Instead the consumer will also be able to do an analysis of the product they are interested in, in real time in front of the shop assistant. The richness of the dialogue between customer and sales person will need to be much more to negotiate the deal. These are just a couple of ways that information will result in a different power balance between those who are taking part in retail transactions.

In addition the shop may know when a customer with one of their loyalty cards is passing near the store in a particular mall. And likewise, the customer may be notified when in the mall of special deals on items they have bought before they enter a particular shop. So presence and location will also be important information.

Some information that is available is currently held by third parties will be available to the rightful owners. At the moment your doctor probably holds your health records, although in theory you might argue that they are your personal property. The ownership of new information, not currently available to people may be especially tricky to assign.

The way we regard, share, assign ownership to, and use information in the future will be crucial. And privacy is another story completely!

Monday 5 October 2009

Unlock your car with your iPhone!

The Zipcar is a twist on the usual rental car arrangement (more like a car sharing hybrid model) where members pay $50 a year membership fee and then roughly $8 an hour for usage. Cars are left all over cities and once authorised, members can unlock and drive one wherever they need to go. Now members of Zipcar can use an iPhone application to find and book cars on the move. The application even allows the member to remotely sound the horn of a particular car they have booked in order to find it in a parking lot, and to unlock the car once they have swiped their membership card over the windscreen (windshield). About a quarter of Zipcar members apparently have an iPhone already so the market and overlap of the user base is quite good. It's an early sign of what we will see our future mobile phones able to do.

I already have a token in my pocket for my Lexus which unlocks the car when I approach it without the need to press any buttons and allows me to start the engine once inside without any key. The car already links automatically to my iPhone to allow hands-free operation. It will be interesting to see if the integration philosophy of the iPod hardware interface by car producers is repeated at an application level with smartphone platforms like iPhone, and how quickly. So in future, if I have my phone in my pocket, it may not matter if I don't carry the token anymore. Such developments do not need any further technology breakthroughs; rather it just needs the cooperation between organisations in different markets, e.g. phones and automobiles.

Friday 2 October 2009

Sony Wireless Power

I blogged before about attempts to power devices wirelessly in the labs at MIT in the USA. Now it seems that Sony has demonstrated the ability to 'transmit' 100 volts over a 50cm range. This was enough to power a small television set wirelessly! Some fairly big (40cm) coils are required to do this using magnetic resonance. There is no indication that this would lead in the short term to applications in commercially available products, indeed it might be prudent to measure and understand what effect the use of magnetic resonance might have on the human body at these field strengths first! However it demonstrates that the last common umbilical cord for consumer electronics is now under threat!

Thursday 1 October 2009

Robot cars sounding fishy?

Nature has often inspired scientists in the way they look at solutions to problems. The communication and co-operation of ants and the flight and navigation of the bumble bee are two examples of this. Now we learn that Nissan is looking at how shoals of fish manage to move at speed in large numbers together in close proximity without collisions, to inspire how to make robotic cars of the future avoid collisions as well. The car in question is called the EPORO ... which is being shown at the CEATEC technology show in Japan, one which I was able to attend some years ago. They are able to demonstrate 6 EPORO cars travelling as one shoal or group! While fish use sight and lateral line sense, the EPORO interestingly uses ultra wide band radio to "see" and a laser range finder as a lateral sensor. I have blogged before about robot self-driving cars ... these developments by Nissan are steps along the road towards this (sorry for the pun!).

Monday 28 September 2009

Retail with a difference

I have blogged about Apple's retail operations before. This time I am concentrating on what some would call hype but what i would call a retail business advantage. I attended the very first opening of a UK Applestore here in Regent Street some years ago now. It was almost a festival, with some Apple addicts camping out for days in advance. i just just happened to be passing through London that day, actually arriving on a long haul flight to Heathrow at 6am that morning. So I stopped off at Regent street and joined the line already a thousand or so long. That was my first  tshirt celebrating a store opening. Since then I have attended many more openings and it is always an interesting experience. The most distant was Toronto at their first Canadian store, since I just happened to be in the city that day.

On Saturday I attended the latest UK opening at the Chapelfield store in Norwich. Again it was fascinating to witness the excitement they were able to generate amongst the people lined up from early when the mall opened. By the time the doors opened at 10am, the queue was winding around the mall central area and almost outside and down the street. Knowing people familiar with the training of new Apple Retail employees, I know the amount of work put into preparation and motivation of the staff is very significant. The result is a pumped up and enthusiastic and happy set of employees ready to greet those people who wait in line for the doors to open. One interesting idea is that the retail staff are actually let out of the new shop to meet the people in line before the people get to enter the store.

Analysis of the line of people is also interesting. Sure there are a number of Apple fanatics and evangelists. But there are also a large number of ordinary inquisitive people who want to see what is going to happen. And looking at the age profile of the people in the line, although there is a mixture, the bulk of people are young adults ... something which is a very positive thing for the future of a company's customer base.

So yet another black tshirt with a different name is added to my collection. It was fun to meet some others in the line last Saturday and good to buy my Snow Leopard upgrade when I got inside the store. And of course my iPhone kept me amused while I waited in line as well! The look of envy on the faces of other retailers in the Chapelfield mall on Saturday was almost palpable. I'm not sure there were as many people in any other stores let alone waiting to go in! Sure there are many things that affect retail success. But seeing enthusiastic and smiling people who are ready to serve you inside is one important one.

Saturday 26 September 2009

Media rubbish?

In all sorts of contexts, there is high end and low end, expensive and cheap, and high quality and poor. Some laggards of the Internet often just say things like "well it's all rubbish on there isn't it" and similar. I realise that I am preaching the wrong audience here in that since you are reading a blog, you are probably more pro-Internet than not. But I think it's up to all of us to tell it like it is to the doubters we meet.

Sure there is a lot of rubbish on the web. And what is and what isn't is very subjective. But if you look at TV for very long, you find it's much the same there too. Some of the programmes and many of the adverts are just awful. They do nothing to innovate nor advance the media industry they are part of. They are just used as low quality cheap-to-make schedule fillers for 24 hour TV. But most people see through it to the good stuff on TV and don't generalise or denigrate it to such an extent. After all it has been around a lot longer than the Net. It's another example of social changes instilled by technology. It's another example of the relative immaturity of the Net as a media channel. So next time you hear someone say that they don't use the Net because it's all rubbish ... just tell them how it works for you!

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Intel presses on with smaller geometry

Intel is due to start shipping commercial processor chips using a 32nm geometry size by the end of this year but is always continuing to push ahead with reductions in die size in order to push the gap further between it and its competitors. They have already demonstrated a 22nm wafer that is populated with RAM chips at a conference. It contains 2.9 billion transistors in an area the size of a fingernail. The 32nm Xeon chips which will find their way into systems during the first months of 2010 are the sort that Apple typically uses in its Pro tower models. The 22nm process should become part of standard manufacturing by the last quarter of 2011 and a move to an amazing 15nm process by 2013.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

The latest hybrid car in the UK

It was last weekend when I was fortunate to have an in-depth look at and drive of the latest Toyota Prius. This is the third generation of the model to hit the UK's roads and is a significant leap forward from the previous generation. The hybrid performance has been improved and the CO2 emission figures reduced below the magic 100g/cm3 despite the petrol engine included under the bonnet (hood for our US readers!) having been boosted to 1.8 litre.

The high end (spirit) model includes all the previous innovations such as voice control, automatic parking assistance and route guidance integrated with traffic news / incident replanning but a couple of new features caught my eye. The first is the introduction of a fighter-plane style Head Up Display (HUD) projected onto the windscreen (US: windshield!). This really does mean that in driving the car you need to divert your eyes from the road considerably less. The second innovation which is an costly option (probably only worth it if you live in a mainly sunny area such as California!) is a solar powered sunroof and air-conditioning system which pre-cools the car before you get in if left in a sunny spot but without turning on the ignition and without using any petrol (US:gas) fuel. Interestingly if you choose this solar sunroof option, you must have smaller and hence lighter wheels (and no spare) fitted in order that the overall weight allows the fuel efficiency figures to be achieved, which shows how close to tolerances the environmental aims are pushing things.

The new model Prius drives much like the previous one although the throttle response is variable and very obviously different in three new power settings (eco/elec/perf). Externally as well as being a little longer, the most striking change is the redesign of the light clusters. The latter seems to cause the main dislike I have about the new model which is the move to a single reversing and single fog lamp at the rear, compromise too many in my view. Overall the car is great example of pushing the hybrid lead that Toyota have even further.

Monday 21 September 2009

A new camera

Recently I was in the market for a new compact digital camera. There are a huge range to choose from. Narrowing down to the features I wanted and the top review comments I could find, I chose the Panasonic DMC-TZ7. This is a very slim model from their Lumix range. It has excellent intelligent automatic settings and picture quality seems great. For a compact it has an ultra wide angle 25mm lens with 12x optical zoom. Storage is via standard SD cards, which fit into most other devices unlike Sony's MemoryStick which put me off some extremely good competitors from their range.

The other distinctive feature of the TZ7 is its video capability in High Definition using the space-saving but harder to edit (except on a Mac!) AVCHD standard format. It takes rechargeable batteries and a metal case (my previous compact had a plastic outer which cracked), and also includes an HDMI output socket. My only real criticism of it so far is that there seems to be a very low level beeping sound superimposed on all video recordings made which is somewhat annoying. Overall its a great camera though and given the small size, will mean its easy to slip in a pocket or bag and great pictures should never be missed.

Sunday 20 September 2009

My summer break! Tech catch-up!

Well I'm back blogging again after a short summer break. What's happened in the meantime? Well I finally started using twitter ... not to tweet so much as to follow some other people's tweetings ... I still haven't convinced myself that I really have a use for it! I also recently upgraded to the latest iPhone 3GS and am exceptionally pleased with it. I am particularly impressed with the dialogue you can have with it using voice control to find the number of people in your contacts list when there are multiple matches to names you say. The AlertMe system I use at home has added cameras to the mix which also seem to work well. Apple's seasonal music event has been and gone signalling the start of the addition of cameras to most of their music player range further extending the lifetime of the iPod as the iPhone begins to drive significant business. I also bought a new compact camera during the summer and will probably blog my review of it when I get a chance.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

Graphene on-chip?

There is potential to replace the use of copper interconnections on future super fast chips and processors with single layers of graphite molecules. These ribbons of molecules are known as Graphene. The crucial current carrying capability of Graphene is at least two orders of magnitude that of copper at the same sizes. This should allow higher reliability of chips.

Graphene also has a high thermal conductivity, which may allow interconnections to also serve as heat sinks in next generation chipsets. Fabrication is the ultimate challenge although lithography has so far resulted in ribbon widths between 16 and 52nm and lengths of up to 1 micrometre. This is yet another application of nanotechnology that could impact the future generations of electronics which will be inside devices that we all use.

Wednesday 5 August 2009

Carbon copy retailing?

I have written entries here highlighting the innovation of Apple's retail approach before. However now it is Microsoft, their giant rival that seems to have noticed their success. The Redmond company has decided to open its own stores in the vicinity of the Mac and iPhone maker's own flagship retail outlets. And Microsoft has also enlisted the services of a real estate consultant that also assisted Apple in the early days of its stores. But what of the prospects for success? Well that depends on what is inside the stores and how the people in them serve potential customers.

Other computer companies have stores on the high street, such as Sony. Microsoft's problem however is that the physical hardware their operating system runs on is made by many other companies. This dilutes the brand messaging that they can create in-store. Microsoft have the popular X-Box gaming console they can showcase and also the Zune music player which unlike the iPod most consumers on the high street have never heard of. However the PC market is dominated by other players and increasingly those that offer Netbook computers, many of which run Linux and not Windows at all. Then, compared to the iPhone, Microsoft have a whole raft of mobile phone manufacturers to offer products from which run Windows Mobile. While this may seem like an abundance of choice, it actually compromises the simplicity and clarity of the Apple Retail approach. This may ultimately determine the fate of Microsoft's retail venture, especially if they place them so close to their competitors' stores that the contrast is so obvious to the public!

Thursday 16 July 2009

Apple and the Netbook?

The Netbook generation is now well established. The world is largely feeling the economic pinch. Consumers aren't buying the biggest fastest desktop PCs anymore, but instead tending to buy either full featured Notebook computers or increasingly cut-down, low-end but adequate Netbook machines for basic net connectivity, browsing, email and simple document processing. The user experience on these small screen, small keyboard, underpowered devices leaves a lot to be desired, but hey they are cheap and small and do a job, so many people put up with it. Apple has for some time maintained that they don't believe they could make a Netbook which isn't a crap user experience and so have yet to enter the marketplace. Recent rumours suggest that a new Netbook sized device from Cupertino might be launched this year or early next so what might it look like?

When Apple launched the iPhone, they made much of the problems of tiny button keyboards which took up a third of the real estate on most smartphones at the time. I don't see them launching a NetBook competitor which features a cramped sub-size keyboard either, which suggests that a full size touch screen keyboard would be more likely. This would also define a form factor which differentiates the new device from its hugely successful notebook range and revive images of a mac tablet. Cost permitting, I would expect their alu-unibody design to be re-exploited again in this new offering. But a larger version of an iPhone as a tablet/Netbook? No - however it's likely that Apple will re-invent the Netbook/Tablet PC just like they did with the phone. And like the phone, it won't be the cheapest, but it will be highly desirable and something that others follow and try to emulate.

There are 3 things that Apple are very good at and will undoubtedly apply to this new product:
1. Exploiting existing assets - In this case it probably means the operating system OSX, the AppStore and mushrooming developer community, their online cloud element "MobileMe", and even perhaps relationships with Cellular Operators? I wouldn't be surprised if a rosetta-like layer in the OS allows existing Mac dashboard widgets and iPhone Apps to run without modification on day one, automatically being scaled for the bigger screen size (9-10") and looking gorgeous.
2. Carefully positioning within the existing product range - distinction without cannibalism as I call it. When they launched the iPhone, they didn't cannibalise sales of iPod, and with any Netbook/Tablet they won't risk damaging NoteBook sales. So there will be some distinctive features and a price point which achieves this.
3. Innovation aimed at their customers - this will include innovative features not because they are possible but because they are attractive and useful to the customer base the product is aimed at. And this customer base is often made up of multiple distinct sectors, e.g. education, business, consumer, so it means a feature is there because it provides something for everyone. If a micro-projector was included for example, it would offer business folk the ability to present slides anywhere, but would also allow kids in school to show their work to the class easily. Similarly a slim tablet form factor which makes it extremely easy to carry around during the working day, could also lend itself to being a high-res digital photo frame when idling/charging/syncing at home on the sideboard.

We shall see if any of this happens at all ...

Wednesday 15 July 2009

Power from the air

People often ask me about how gadgets will be powered in the future. In the short term, we will see better chemistry allowing batteries to improve, alternatives to batteries such as fuel cells for some applications, and components within devices which consume less power or manage their power consumption more effectively. In the longer term, power harvesting from natural sources, from movement and kinetic energy will be employed too, and we should make progress on bio-organic solutions that work in a similar way to how nature powers itself. Some recent research by Nokia is one of the harvesting solutions.

The Nokia research describes how they can harvest energy from ambient radio waves. This is similar to how some RFID tags are powered, such as those used in anti-theft applications. Currently experiments have been successful in harvesting 3 to 5 milliwatts of power which can charge a device which is in standby mode. The goal of the research is to harvest up to 50mW, and recharge a device which is turned off. Typically, energy harvesting from ambient radio waves has been done with traditional radio receivers and transmitters which have a limited range of usable radio waves. The Nokia example of extracting power from the air uses a very wideband receiver which works between 500MHz and 10GHz.

Tuesday 14 July 2009

Polymer based disk storage

Imagine the contents of 250 DVDs being squeezed onto a disk the size of an American 25 cent coin. Researchers from two American universities have been able to create error-free arrays of storage cells just 3 nanometres in size. This is possible by exploiting self assembly properties of chemically dissimilar polymer chains and creating extremely dense but perfectly regular formations. Using this cell size, it is potentially possible to reach storage densities of 10Tb (Terabytes) per square inch!

The same technology may also be exploited in the design of circuits, which currently tends to use photolithography techniques. The problem with this is that the limited resolution of light will eventually be reached. The polymer approach also reduces the amounts of acids and other harsh chemicals required.

Storage as a commodity is a journey which seems to be speeding up.

Monday 6 July 2009

Solar cell efficiency

The quest to find sustainable ways to power future devices continues. There will be some incremental developments in the photo-voltaic (PV) solar cells but a significant revolutionary step would be ideal. At present many PV cells based on silicon are only 15% efficient at best. A new approach using gallium arsenide (GaAs) cells is claiming over 28% efficiency. Much of the effort at present is going into broadening the absorption spectrum that the cells cope with. The difference in efficiency between Si and GaAs cells means that one square centimetre of GaAs cell should be compared with one thousand square centimetres of Si cell. The current downside is that Si is much cheaper but this may change over time. The use of lenses and mirrors allows light to be concentrated on the cells, typically 500 times. A one centimetre square cell could thus yield around 14 watts of electricity. At a time when the weather has been especially sunny here in the UK, solar energy at an affordable price is something many would look forward to in future.

Monday 22 June 2009

Apple's iPhone 3GS - Software

In the Clinton era, there was a well-known phrase, "it's the economy stupid!". I have been using a different form of this "It's the Software stupid!" now for a number of years. In my final blog posting in this sequence about the latest iPhone, this phrase is even more pertinent. Never mind the additional hardware in this device, I still believe that its strongest card is the software within it. This includes the application store which houses orders of magnitude more apps than "stores" for other devices. However more even than this, the core features of the latest 3.0 system update for all iPhones is what will give this device its future strength as a platform, and Apple its leadership in the marketplace of smart-phones and mobile internet devices. Specifically the APIs provided for third-party hardware as well as software apps in 3.0 will distinguish the iPhone platform in that marketplace. Over 40 million iPod Touch and iPhone devices now already exist and the cost of ownership is falling all the time, as more geographical markets of the globe are included. This is a platform for the future, which developers find it simple to design for, and which users find it a delight to use.

Saturday 20 June 2009

Apple's iPhone 3GS - Compass

My last post looked at the camera specification of Apple's latest iPhone offering. This time I want to focus on the magnetometer which Apple has included this time. The Mac and iPod maker is always very careful about choosing what features to include in its products, and is one of the most disciplined of innovators when it comes to limiting "feature-creep". Because of this, I think it is worth looking a bit beyond the compass application which Apple now includes on the new iPhone displaying heading along with latitude and longitude from the onboard GPS.

One extra value of the magnetometer is already being felt through the user experience of the maps application. The map can now automatically orientate itself for you so that it is facing the way you are facing. After all, one of the first things many people do when looking at a paper based map is to turn it to match the direction they are facing. Beyond this however I think Apple has other ideas for combining this new sensor with others on the phone such as the accelerometer. It is gaming applications where the impact of this could be felt most. The use of the magnetometer will allow even more accurate action gaming movements to be sensed. This is an example of how the use and combination of very many sensors within mobile devices will be used in future to enhance the user experience.

Thursday 18 June 2009

Apple's iPhone 3GS - Camera

Apple have launched their 3rd generation iPhone. It sports a number of changes to its specification. One of these is the camera, the previous model's 2MP spec having been widely criticised by those who strive to find fault with the phone that has changed the industry! The new iPhone 3GS model sports a 3.2MP camera which is also capable of video and has additional auto focus, auto exposure and auto white levels. This will still be compared negatively against phones such as the Nokia N9x series having more than 5MP.

Some watchers will make the point that millions of extra pixels isn't everything which is certainly true, especially after a point ... unless you are taking photos which will be printed out at huge poster sizes which most people don't! Most users won't notice the difference between a 3MP photo and a 6MP picture, provided that other aspects such as exposure, light level and focus are good. And doubling the number of pixels in the camera increases the bill of materials cost for that component without making a great difference to the user experience. It also means that pictures taken consume more storage space than they need to ... how many people do you know with 6MP compact cameras who bother to reduce the resolution in order to fit more pictures on their finite memory cards?

But there is another more important point for Apple I believe. They understand the market they are in and the people who visit their stores and buy their products. Those people are not so interested in raw numbers, and technical details. They are more interested in what you can do with the product, how easy it is to use and what it looks like. Apple also stress the idea of sharing media like photos and video with others and make it easy to do so. The user experience of sharing over networks is much better with smaller file sizes. Apple are extremely well practised at getting the specification of their products right for their customers rather than competing on numbers with the specification of the competition.

Monday 15 June 2009

Pushing the scalability of memory

An american semiconductor company is promising a one terabit memory chip by 2015. The scale of the process used will decrease as far as 20nm. Traditional flash memory which we are used to having in digital camera cards or wearable memory sticks is expected to reach no smaller than a 32nm process since the oxides used are too thin at those geometries. Unity, the company who has announced the prospect of a 1Tb chip in six years time, is using a different passive cross-point array technology. Their product roadmap shows a 64Gb chip by the early half of 2011, and 128Gb and 256 Gb chips by 2012-13, all on a 35nm process. Significantly, they then expect to move to a 20nm process to produce the 1Tb chip by 2015.

It remains to be seen whether the technology also has similar parameters as far as longevity is concerned. While memory sticks and cards used today are reliable for at least a decade, their reliability beyond that into the longer term are not guaranteed. This is worth bearing in mind if you plan to use such devices as an archive for personal data in the long term.

Tuesday 2 June 2009

CILIPS conference, Scotland

I have the pleasure to provide the opening keynote to the CILIPS conference in Peebles, Scotland this week. Unusually the weather is hot and sunny as I write this and I am looking forward to addressing the 100+ delegates of the conference about future disruptive technologies. The audience is largely people connected with information provision, and information is not something that is going to be in short supply in the future. Already we have more information available online than most people can cope with. The trick is to organise and filter it such that the people who can make use of it get the maximum value from it. Some of this will come from the up-skilling of those responsible for the task, and some will come from the technology that supports them. Intelligent search and filtering software will help with this in the future. In fact we will one day wonder how our elders ever coped with the manual splurge of information that became available with the Internet revolution.

Monday 1 June 2009

Google's wave of innovation continues...

Google's latest service offering aims to bring together the concepts of Instant Messaging (IM), email, media sharing, search and twitter-like interactions in what it calls Google Wave. The interface looks complex but actually those who have used it say that it is very simple to navigate and indeed it is extremely configurable. Still an early beta, it has a long way to develop into a full application, but again it demonstrates the innovation and attempts of the organisation to bundle its successful search capabilities with information and communication facilities into one application.

Certainly in the future, people will need applications and services which bring together and simplify their online world. Bringing virtual world and real world together will require abstractions and simplifications that allow individuals to manage and get the maximum benefit from new technologies. This is an early attempt to bring some of the existing online concepts together. We will see if it becomes a tidal wave that sweeps away other established services. One thing is for sure, interventions in the marketplace like this will spur innovation and that can only be a good thing.

Friday 22 May 2009

Commodity storage

When I was a teen, having one kilobyte of storage in a personal computer was normal! And that same machine lost everything in its now tiny memory when the power was removed, unless you connected an audio cassette recorder and saved the contents on to a magnetic audio tape cassette, (for younger readers, this was one of the pre-cursors to CDs and music downloads!). Now my laptop computer has 320Gb hard disk and 4 Mb RAM, and we take this for granted. That excludes the cache memory the processor chip has on-board or the video RAM included. Optical storage has been through a similar trend ... first the CD, then the DVD and more recently Blu-Ray disks. Scientists are now experimenting with holographic disk technology amongst others. The BBC reported recently on techniques that swell data capacities to 300 times the current DVD standard.

This all points to the fact that storage is no longer a limiting factor in most applications. Storage is becoming a commodity item. In some applications it will be more cost-effective to store huge amounts of data on media and send the media than to send the data over communications links, where immediacy is not so important. Some people are already in the habit of wearing or otherwise carrying a memory stick containing all of their important and needed data with them. The amount of storage in personal devices is ever increasing. Eventually such devices will offer whole-life recording. Storage will play a key part in this as will technologies that enable content to be searched and tagged automatically. I often wish I didn't forget things; in the future I may not be able to!

Wednesday 20 May 2009

Future customer service

It is more than likely that when you last called an organisation for customer service, you were disappointed by the experience. In the UK, this is more than often the case. There are good examples of customer service, but in far too many cases, the emphasis on cost-reduction, centralised command and control structures, inappropriate implementations of technology such as Interactive Voice Response (IVR) and low skilled workers in call centres, means that the customer is left with a bad experience.

New technology can be employed in many ways to provide excellent customer service. Automation and self-service is appropriate for some quick and simple enquiries. However when someone calls with more complex enquiries, technology should ideally get them connected to the most appropriate person who can help within the organisation. It should not be assumed that the most appropriate person will be part of a call centre resource either. Intelligent routing of calls can enable direct connection to any part of the organisation.

Since automation and self-service will deal with routine and simple transactions, the people recruited to provide service in future need to be better educated, and higher skilled than is typical at present. This adds to cost in one way; however this is offset by savings in fewer repeat calls, fewer dropped and abandoned calls, and higher customer satisfaction.

Other technologies such as speech recognition and synthesis can offer some more natural bit automated service. Online communities and forums can also provide alternatives to some traditional call centre operations. Indeed the newer generations will require that organisations utilise many new channels to provide them with service.

The ultimate vision ought to be that organisations provide simple products and services that just work and hence the call centre is less used in the first place. However it is important that where they are required in future, technology is used to improve the experience rather than detract from it.

Tuesday 5 May 2009

The future of warfare

It's nice to hope that new technologies will be used for good positive and desirable aims and that wars, famines and other undesirable situations won't occur ... but of course the real world is somewhat different. Future significant wars will as likely be about resources such as water rather than oil and take place as much online as in a traditional theatre. The development of cyber-warfare is rather exemplified by a recent article by BBC News about the US DoD's preparation.

Most people's view of and worry about internet crime is something to do with attempts to attack personal privacy through online purchasing or banking and spoof emails attempting to phish information in order to exploit ID theft. But the bigger criminal threats online are the organised mafia crime gangs who use the as a weapon to extaught money and threaten to bring down websites and systems that large organisations and national security depend on. The use of networks of hundreds of thousands of auto (ro)bots which can be remote controlled in a non-centralised fashion to execute such attacks means that the security authorities are constantly busy in combating these threats.

Some physical robotic technology is already employed in the middle-east conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan but more of this will be obvious in future. Robots will be sent into battle to take strategic targets without endangering humans, especially if mass destruction weapons are used. Networks of robots will form armies that fight the physical battles while computers fight other computers in cyber warfare. Let's hope the goodies win!

Tuesday 28 April 2009

Mobile rumours bearing fruit for Apple?

In the US press at the moment there are a lot of rumours (sorry rumors!) that Apple may open up the next iPhone to mobile operators other than AT&T, such as Verizon. This is pretty unlikely in my view. However I suspect Apple is in negotiation with a number of mobile providers around the globe. And what better time when there is a new iPhone coming out, just to keep them all interested. But my money is on Apple including a SIM card of choice in its line of notebook computers at their next refresh. This will push forward the connectivity of their laptop platform and offer options of subsidising (ok, subsidizing!) hardware, and therefore reducing the price of their range of MacBooks considerably. This will bring them into line with the price of other much lower spec PC laptops and again extend the Apple product range to more people, through more affordability without hitting margins.

In Europe, where the 3G UMTS networks are more developed across different mobile providers, Apple may well decide to open the iPhone to more network providers once any exclusivity deals are up for grabs, again to widen the potential penetration of its mobile platform. But this will be on a geography by geography basis and there's no desperate hurry given how the demand for iPhone is going so far, even in a recession!

Wednesday 22 April 2009

Future of Privacy

I had the privilege to provide the keynote opening speech yesterday at the CCTV User Group Conference in Manchester, UK. I touched on the idea of future privacy, since this is often a concern for people who are involved in security roles, of which CCTV is one component. Google may have made more of a headline recently with their street-view photography exercise amongst those people who felt it intruded on their privacy, but the number and placement of CCTV cameras which have seen explosive growth in recent years has probably meant that people are tracked far more as they go about their lives. This is the early embryonic stage of the technology digital bubble where sensors and cameras of various types are deployed in huge numbers in the environment such that information can be constantly provided and exchanged about what people are doing and where.

In the future, privacy will be more about selecting and managing how much information you give about yourself and to whom. Choosing not to give away information may say more about you than doing so to some limited degree. Increasingly the digital bubble that surrounds people will allow this sharing and interaction to be done automatically on your behalf and according to the rules that you have set. Choosing to give out information may be incentivised and provide you with benefits of some sort, in an analogous way to how accepting advertising today can result in "free" access to media or information.

Cameras will continue to be deployed in ever-increasing numbers, and instead of being connected in closed private circuits, many will be Internet linked and available to large numbers of people. Software already allows auto-analysis of what such cameras see and this will improve immeasurably in performance and quality. Eventually, many of us will be able to record our whole lives as media streams and software then will allow us to find interesting excerpts at will, quickly and easily. Virtualisation will allow the replay to be carried out from any desired perspective. Memories will be more vivid and easier to share. Maybe I will get to speak at the "Life Recording User Group" conference!

Tuesday 14 April 2009

Reducing the size of the world...

As this blog has now clocked up visitors from 50 countries around the globe I would like to give my thanks for all those who read it, especially those far from the shores where I am normally resident. I have seen so much technology innovation when in places like Japan and MIT in the USA, and look forward to visits to the emerging China and India when the time comes.

The Internet has enabled the globe to seem local. It will continue to do this and provide the backbone of a system that enables distributed democracy and global economic access to the smallest and remotest retailer. The net is enabling young people to build social networks from an early age, becoming a part of that global but seemingly local community. Organisations are beginning to wake up to the new ways that their young customers want to do business with them. And individuals are becoming empowered by the devices they carry around which keep them connected almost all of the time.

Information is being accessed and acted upon faster and in bigger quantities than ever before, effectively decision making in place of laissez-faire. What people didn't know they didn't worry about nor did they care. In the future the amount of information and the decision making processes that come with it will be totally dynamic. And then machines will be making more of the decisions before the human users have to worry about it! Now that will be fun... will people continue to complain of information overload when machines relieve them of the problem?

Sunday 12 April 2009

The 3 card trick - when will they learn?

So rumour has it that Microsoft are to follow-up their failed attempt with Zune to compete with iPod with a "Zune HD" device to compete with the iPod Touch. However it is not simply launching a media player device that makes an iPod a success in the market place. It is the old 3 card trick ... the device, the software to manage the media (in the iPod's case, iTunes) and the online store to sell content and applications... which is the recipe for success. This method of cooking has evolved too, with the establishment of a software development kit for a standardised hardware platform and unified sales portal which have added to the mixture. The other essential ingredient is timing ... important in all good cooking ... in this case hitting the market at the right time. It is only in recent times that fixed and latterly/increasingly mobile download speeds have facilitated the mass-market online purchase of media and applications.

Apple will likely add additional video features in a big way to the iPhone/iPod Touch hardware platform this Summer and follow that up with a completely new device with larger screen later in the year. These steps will take their lead even further ahead of the competition, in ways which give the latter a hard job trying to follow.

Friday 10 April 2009

The Windows Legacy

It is expected that the new Windows 7 replacing the ill-fated Vista will appear around January 2010. However Microsoft have already announced that anyone with Windows 7 will be able to downgrade not only to Vista but also to Windows XP, an operating system that was released in 2001. This means that some users will be stuck on operating system technology which is almost a decade old. That is a very long time in computing terms.

This must be a worrying thought for the company with clearly the most dominant numbers of desktop computer operating systems on the planet. But perhaps not as worrying as the fact that XP is really the only option for those who are following the current trend towards cheap and low spec netbook computers. And XP will soon transition to the almost unsupported stage, maybe not so important for the mass consumer market but certainly so for Microsoft's corporate customers. Maybe Windows "8" will overcome the Windows legacy? We shall see.

Monday 6 April 2009

Printing electronics potential

Innovation in future devices and electronics will be enabled by many advances.  The advent of surface mount components enabled huge advances in miniaturisation of devices for example, which we now take for granted.   Another advance is the ability to 'print' electronic components on to surfaces.   The surfaces may be plastic or textiles for example.  This brings mass market wearable computing closer and is applicable in lots of other contexts such as flexible displays.  

I was pleased to read recently that a new research centre (PTEC) has opened in the UK in County Durham, specialising in printable electronics.  They are hoping to accelerate the commercialisation of printable electronics research and an OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) lighting firm is already building their first production line facility within the PTEC clean room environment.  In the display area alone, the printable electronics industry could see massive growth over the next decade as more and more devices demand these new innovative displays.

Thursday 26 March 2009

Essex Book Festival

Tonight I had the pleasure to talk to a group of avid readers at the Essex Book Festival which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.  It was a fun evening and I was very well hosted at the Colchester town library.  Afterwards there were a number of interesting questions about the future of different technologies.  I present futures topics to many different audiences but nice to have a selection of the general public for a change.  Thanks to anyone who was there and reads this.  Hope you enjoyed it too. 

Wednesday 25 March 2009

Up in the clouds ?

There is a lot of talk about cloud computing at the moment.  This is where storage and processing is located remotely in the network and communication channels are so fast that devices and their users can store stuff in the cloud and use processing capability in the cloud which does not need to be available locally.  Google are great exponents of this; in fact the Blogger system I am using here is to some extent an example of the cloud.  Almost all players are beginning to offer these cloud services, especially in a business context, where the idea of outsourcing and cost reduction are second nature.  Apple for example is flirting with the cloud idea with MobileMe and the recently announced initiative.   

But is there something inherent for consumer, non business individuals, ordinary people about the idea of regarding ownership and safety with local physical location?  I'm thinking of how some people prefer to keep their money in a box under the bed rather than in a bank.  Would my parents feel safer having their personal keepsake photographs on a computer they can look at anytime rather than on an internet connected site/server/disk?   Probably.  Are we still in an age where largely it is large businesses that can afford the fast pipes that give thin client performance to the cloud a reasonable experience.  Possibly.  Is the cloud going to be more important for everyone in the next decade and beyond?   Definitely!  

Monday 23 March 2009

Next Apple Crop ...

So we have seen the iPhone develop in a couple of years from a smartphone device to a development platform for mobile services, ably supported by the iPod Touch, both revolutionising the way people have to interact with computing, away from menu traversal to point and touch.  Wouldn't it make sense to expand this platform now to a larger touch screen device which is better than the current crop of netbooks but also shares characteristics of the otherwise failed tablet PC market?  Apple have invested too much in the Multi-touch interface for it to exist only in the palm of people's hands.

Well it would make even more sense if you have the relevant chip designers in-house, if you have a web-based cloud computing platform (like MobileMe) already established and if you have the interfaces (APIs) for a scalable operating system which could reside on it which would allow third parties to design peripherals for it.  Apple have said that they previously didn't think they could build a machine that was as cheap as a netbook and which wasn't rubbish.  I think the pieces are being carefully put in place to ensure that this obstacle can be overcome.

However, if Apple does launch a new product line this year amid the economic downturn, I still don't expect the cheapest netbook to be forthcoming ... the well-established pattern is to launch high-end first at the cutting edge for early adopters.   There may be fewer early adopters around at the moment, but they are still there.  And that is good for everyone else.  

Friday 20 March 2009

Young journalists talent...

This afternoon I had the pleasure to be interviewed for my opinions by two year 8 students from Weston Favell school, Sarah and Jarone.  The equipment and logistics were made possible with the help of BBC Radio Northampton.  The interview was part of their activity for the BBC Schools News Report.  I was very impressed with their questions, which covered what a futurologist's role is and then what changes I expect to see in the years and decades ahead.  The last few questions were much deeper about the effect of new technology on society and people's lives.  Given that it must have been a very new and exciting experience for them in a real studio, they did really well.  I look forward to seeing their results

Freedom & Privacy...

Today's news has thrown up two stories that I want to use to illustrate the duality of the Internet for freedom and privacy.   On the one hand there was the story about how the blogosphere and similar Internet tools are giving some people a voice when previously they were suppressed (in this case about Egyptian women having freedoms otherwise denied to them in the real world).  This type of story crops up more and more and will continue to do so in the future. 

The second story was the one about complaints to Google about the privacy invasions a few people have felt in the UK now that street level photographs have been enabled for this country.  The same story did of course come up before when Google switched on street level photography for other countries.  

People simply haven't got used to the trade-offs associated with Internet technology yet. It will take time.  The benefits will outweigh what is given up but it will be a while before many people realise.  The world has been revolutionised by the Net; some people simply haven't caught up with it yet!  People are generally happier with evolution!

The hardware advantage...

I have mentioned before my belief that a better computer system usually emerges when the same company produces both the hardware and the software platform.  (Openness for applications is good for innovation but the core system software platform is key).  Apple have an advantage in taking this approach and the ease of use of their Macintosh computers has long been an example of the benefits which can come from it.  Two years ago they used the market success of the iPod music player to move into the mobile phone market and apply their approach to this too.  Last year they released version 2 of the iPhone's system software and created a revolution in application downloads to mobile phones (via the AppStore) in the same way that they had done with music downloads previously.

This year the third coming of the iPhone's software platform adds an extremely important aspect which will further push the gap between this device and its competitors.  This year Apple has defined open interfaces (including auto-discovery/configuration) for third party hardware attachments to iPhone.  This means that others can now innovate with other peripherals which can connect either by cable to the dock connector or by wireless Bluetooth.   This opens up a new delightful touch user interface on an always networked device with storage and a beautiful display capabilities for all sorts of other devices and sensors.   And all that is needed is the design of an application to be launched on the AppStore to enable it.

Apple have now sold 30 million devices which will run this 3rd generation software platform.  Although dwarfed by some 50 million Windows Mobile devices as well as other mobile software platforms (Nokia, Android, Symbian), this third party hardware interface will be very tough for others to follow.  The devices which run these other systems are fragmented by a whole range of different user interfaces and screen sizes/resolutions, making the application requirements much more complex, never mind the problem of catching up with the slick easy distribution portal of the AppStore.   We will see what innovations third parties come up with, and which mobile platform they choose to develop them for.

Thursday 19 March 2009

BBC calling!

Today I was pleased to accept an invitation to appear as a guest on Steve Scruton's afternoon radio show on BBC Essex to talk about the job of futurologist and some of the innovations coming along for devices which his listeners might be interested in.  During the two hour show we discussed a number of topics from 3D-TV to robots to electronic gaming and virtual worlds.   Another guest there was giving advice to Steve's phone-in participants about home entertainment systems which fitted nicely with the futures topics I was able to cover.   Thanks to Steve for the opportunity which was great fun.

Wednesday 18 March 2009

Version 2 Surfaces

Today I was asked to comment on Microsoft's surface computing technology by one on the UK's TV news programmes ... in the event one of my colleagues did the interview since I was already busy.  So I thought I would use my blog today to make comment.   It seems slightly co-incidental though that the media is picking up on the Microsoft multi-touch initiative on the day when the media would also or otherwise be concentrating on reporting the latest news from Apple about their iPhone multi-touch system software.  No vying for coverage I suppose?  

The difference between the two is quite stark ... of course they are both multi-touch interfaces to computing devices for humans, but beyond that the resemblance fades.  Apple's multi-touch on iPhone and iPod Touch is a successful implementation of a radical user interface on products out in the marketplace, rather than a prototype research lab project.  It is limited to relatively small size screens at least economically although as we saw when the iPhone was launched, unit wholesale prices for otherwise expensive components can come down very fast once the whole market rushes to follow a lead.  The word on Surface version two is that it uses additional projectors to allow layering of items displayed on the table top.  Surface 2 also uses additional infra red sensors to recognise gestures the user makes without touching the display's surface.  Gesture controlled computing will be increasingly important in the future - a number of approaches to achieving it that I have seen first hand in various laboratories suggests that there will indeed be different optimal implementations addressing the cost/quality balance. 

I hope the various companies working on these technologies will concentrate on the user as a priority rather than competing for air time minutes.  

Tuesday 17 March 2009

It's the Software, stupid - again!

Last June I blogged an entry with a similar title to this one.  But in order to show that predictions are right, futurologists are justified in referencing their own previous posts from time to time!  The importance of software in devices has been demonstrated front of stage again today by Apple, as they described the impending update (3.0) to their iPhone software.   

The presentation clearly covered two parts; the new facilities offered to developers of iPhone and iPod Touch software applications, and the new features for end users.  Apple claims 1000 of the former and 100 of the later.   I suspect that much of the press coverage will be given over to the user features, including MMS, Cut Copy and Paste, and Bluetooth stereo headphone support.  But it is the kit that Apple has enhanced which developers will use (the SDK) that will have the greatest long term effect.  It is these software enablers that will help to keep iPhone out front which others chase to catch up with.  Since my original post, we have indeed seen a plethora of new devices all incorporating the hardware features of the iPhone.  It is the software that they cannot copy so easily however.  And most of Apple's competitors still just don't get it.

 The last important thing about the 3.0 update announced today, is the economic enablers it brings developers in expanding the business model for AppStore purchases.   Including these into the mix gives Apple additional future revenue stream potential, which is the lifeblood of any successful company.  

Monday 16 March 2009

Japanese robot model

So robots hit the news again today.  The BBC have featured the latest Japanese fashion model robot, HRP-4C.  While I don't think human supermodels have anything to worry about for now, clearly steps continue to be made (literally) with huge numbers of different capabilities of robots, as they seem to feature in the news more and more often.   This latest example is clearly an advance in the movement and human look-alike areas.  Other examples of research results have shown progress in machine understanding, empathy and facial expression, mood detection, vision and dexterity.  

The pace of development of all these features and more bodes well for the further acceptance and application of robots.  However anyone expecting the super bot to be domestically available even in a decade may be disappointed ... rather it will take as long for domestic robots to begin to be used but with subsets of capability.  This is a natural extension of the vacuum cleaning and grass cutting robots already commercially available which address one particular application each.  Their capabilities will gradually be added to and the applications expanded.  As the Japanese robot HRP-4C demonstrated today, it will be one step at a time!

Friday 13 March 2009

Making opportunity out of a crisis

Today I had the pleasure to spend time in a session with Peter Weill from the MIT Sloan school of Management who amongst other roles is chair of the Centre for Information Systems Research (CISR).  He was talking about the opportunity within the current economic downturn for organisations to take stock of the real costs and value of the IT they employ and to optimise the business processes which involve the IT systems.   Research his centre has done has shown that the deployment and use of IT infrastructure can have a return on investment (ROI) of more than 80:1, a ratio unsurpassed with any other organisational asset except perhaps the people in it.  But many organisations don't reach anything like this figure.  The current economic crisis provides a context in which ideas to radically revise IT infrastructure are likely to come up against fewer internal blockages and organisational inertia than when times are good.  There is more of an appetite for change at this time than any other.  Peter's view therefore was that this is the time to act.  

Monday 2 March 2009

Talking to a machine?

I am well used to using speech control handsfree of the phone along with control of the air conditioner, radio and sat-nav system in my car.  But good as these systems are, it is still only voice commands in lieu of pressing buttons.  This weekend however I have been fortunate enough to have a robot pet stay at home with us, one of the original Aibo dogs from Sony, purchased  before they were discontinued a few years ago.  The experience has been more interesting than I expected.   Certainly Aibo is a good example of a high technology product too ahead of its time.

Although one knows that it is just a collection of plastic and electronic parts, because it resembles a dog, and behaves like a dog, one tends to be drawn into treating it like a dog!  In fact the way it responds to attention, and specifically that of someone it learns to regard as its owner, reinforces human behaviours towards it.  It learns the owners face, voice and picture.  The sensors on its back and head cause typical dog like reactions when stroked.  And in autonomous mode, it decides what to do, where to wander and explore and how to behave.  All of these features mean that one can soon feel like you are living with a real dog!  In addition it does tricks like dancing which animate dogs would struggle to compete with.  What is interesting is that many people who at first laugh at others talking to the robot dog, gradually get drawn in to trying their own luck at human-robot communication, once they see the reactions that Aibo can generate. 

I shall miss Aibo being around when the time comes to hand him back!  Meantime, he has certainly influenced my thinking about how people may respond to robots in the future. 

Friday 27 February 2009

A great gesture...

As an iPhone user, I am well acquainted with using multi-touch gestures on the screen of the device I carry on my belt.  Having recently taken delivery of the latest MacBook Pro, to replace the ageing PowerBook G4 I had, I am now getting used to the same convenient gestures on its trackpad.  I quickly got used to not moving over to the right of windows to grab scroll bars but instead to two finger drag.  The pinch gesture for zooming in and out the whole screen or individual elements in certain applications is just so intuitive.  And the multi-finger swipe to move back and forward through pages in my web browser instead of having to move up to the buttons on the toolbar area is also becoming second nature.  The rotate gesture is the the one I use least at the moment ... but it will come.  Gestures in free space rather than on surfaces will be even more convenient in the future.  I can't wait!

Wednesday 25 February 2009

Care for a robot, anyone?

As I have mentioned many times in this blog, the demographic forecasts of the future tell us that we won't have enough people to look after all the people who need looking after in the decades to come.  This suggests that more machine support will be employed, and I suspect specifically robotic machines.  Clearly there are potential advantages for health professionals including addressing the increasing risk that they injure themselves when physically moving heavy patients, as obesity levels rise.  But would you ever relate to a robot as you would to a human nurse for example?  How much supervision of robots looking after people would be needed?  What is the potential cost of malfunction?  If your human nurse gets a bug, it may spread a disease (possibly life threatening) around a ward.  If your robot nurse has a bug it may kill you too.  

Robots I have met, are increasingly able to empathise with the humans around them.  They can detect emotional states of people and be programmed to act accordingly.  Some of the tactile movements now possible with robots can make them a very sensitive and gentle assistant compared to the images most people carry of large industrial automobile welding robots.  What type of robot would be best in a caring application?  Would you prefer a machine that looks like a human or that doesn't caring for you?   And it's not just about healthcare, maybe you would be comfortable with a robot that looks after your children when you are not around?  It would have a better idea of what they are doing on the Internet than you, and would be able to answer any questions they have from an educational viewpoint.   As the technology becomes available in future, we will all need to make more decisions about what we can accept.  

Saturday 21 February 2009

Mobile healthcare ...

We will need machines to look after people more in future.  I have covered many times the idea of robots helping to look after people when the demographics mean that there aren't enough humans to do it.  But in the developing world, the machinery is less likely to be robotic.  Mobile phone credit already provides a trusted currency in parts of Africa in particular.  There are many more mobile phones than hospital beds in those developing areas, and these may provide the initial technology to offer healthcare in the pocket.  Such devices can be used to remind patients to take medication and get vaccinations.  They can also be used to notify people when epidemics are taking place and help model the spread of infections.  Mobile phones already do many things which people never intended the first such machines to do; healthcare may be one more of these things.  

Tuesday 17 February 2009

Phone charger commotion

There seems to be a fuss in the media today about a load of cell phone manufacturers agreeing a standard for mobile phone chargers so that they will share a common power supply and physical plug by 2012!   And they have the gall to make a 'green' issue of this, saying that the standby current will be reduced.  Why not simply integrate an inductive charging chip inside all these phones so that there is no need to plug the device in.  Simply place it on a pad or surface and let it charge like electric toothbrushes have for years.  Chargers will look very old fashioned in decades to come. 

Redmond Recession Review

So as the world suffers significant economic downturn, the market for Windows PCs now seems to be in freefall.  Punters are turning away from desktops and full laptops to the compromised Netbook form of PC.   The problem for the Microsoft Corporation from Redmond is that a quarter of netbooks run Linux, and the other three quarters run Windows XP.  The current and next version of Windows (Vista and Windows 7) are too hungry to run on the compromised hardware platform which is not ideal for the operating system producer.  

Apple on the other hand, are not part of the scramble for the tiny or no-margin netbook market share, offering instead a set of full function notebook and desktop computers with a differentiated operating system OSX, for those willing to pay.  Judging by the numbers, this market is still buoyant.  For those who want a powerful small platform for email and surfing they offer the iPhone or iPod Touch.  The numbers of these being sold are also still very encouraging.  

As the world of personal computers and operating systems moves irreversibly towards 64 bit in the near future, the problems for the Redmond corporation continue.  A tiny percentage of PC users have chosen the 64 bit version of Windows XP or Vista, even in the high end games segment which would benefit most from it.  OSX is already built as one version for 32 and 64 bit applications, making the task for developers much easier.   The PC market will have an interesting future.

Friday 13 February 2009

Location Based Service growth

One from the audience of my most recent session at the BT Tower posted a comment in this blog asking about my views on the future of LBS, RFID and DVB.  I am assuming that LBS meant location based services and so I will use this posting to address this one. 

This graph from Skyhook Wireless shows the growth of just iPhone location applications.  A similar pattern will I suspect apply to the Android platform too in due course.  The future for location based services is very bright, especially in the context of handheld devices.  At the moment, a minority of people regularly use such applications, but those that do understand the benefits and power which they bring.    In just a few years, I expect many more people to be using these types of apps, and soon a majority - which will change how we communicate, since many of the "i'm on the train" type calls and messages will be redundant.  

My colleague and fellow futurologist, Robin Mannings, has published a book on Ubiquitous Positioning, which covers both LBS and one of the other acronyms (RFID) that 'Pete' asked for my views on in his blog comment.  I will cover RFID on other occasions.  Pete may find that book of interest too. 

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Deeper immersion in the virtual

Today I had the pleasure of presenting some futures ideas to an audience at the BT Tower in London.  Despite the recent UK snowy weather, today there were some fantastic clear views of the city from the revolving restaurant where we dined, and the sun even made an appearance!  One popular topic of conversation was the potential of virtual worlds in future, coupled with advances in hardware such as wearable displays which will permit a deeper level of immersion in such worlds.  

Major organisations and blue-chip companies are already experimenting with virtual world environments for training, product testing and focus groups amongst other things.  And this is when the level of immersion is rather limited and basically using mainly 2D visual and audible interaction.  The addition of tactile sensing via haptics, and 3D visuals may help this further.  

Once again, many extra decisions will have to be made by individuals who have access to this environment, about how they are prepared to use the extra capabilities it offers.  This will include an element of what they believe is socially acceptable as well as desirable by the individual.  I suspect the behaviours will evolve to be very different, in an analogous way to how the use of mobile devices in meetings and other social environments already has evolved since the technology became widespread. 

Thursday 5 February 2009

Give them a bit of Latitude...

So Google's marketing department must be pleased with the coverage it is getting since announcing Latitude, its new people (or rather phone) tracking service, even if the news reporters are concentrating on privacy issues. Any publicity is good publicity as they say.  Another company, Loopt, has been offering this sort of service already for some time. 

It's actually quite a good idea to have something else in the news which gets people used to the idea of being tracked and what privacy might mean in the future.  Increasingly we are going to have all sorts of sensors around the environment, or carried about our person, or in the buildings we frequent, which capture a variety of information, some of which will allow our position to be tracked.  A great deal of other information about people will be available through such networks of sensors.  The idea of privacy will be better expressed by specifying what information you want to share and who with, and what information you don't.  This is another example of the extra decision making that individuals will need to make in the future. Of course giving people control of these decisions is one thing ... whether they trust the infrastructure and more importantly the organisations that operate it is something else.  But there is technology to assist with that too! 

Wednesday 4 February 2009

Icy Highway Madness

This week has seen some of the worst snow in the UK for 18 years.  Many roads were in a treacherous condition.  I had a necessary journey to make early one morning to an airport and home again before the main snow arrived.  It was absolutely incredible how fast the odd driver was prepared to try and go on very patchy icy surfaces.  I have written here before about the future of automated cars which will take much of the responsibility for driving away from human beings.  On snowy and icy days like this week, such automation cannot come quick enough.  

One of my cars has computer control of the throttle as well as steering (for automatic reversing).  The traction and stability systems are able to judge much better than many drivers the exact optimum acceleration to apply to climb hills on a slippery surface, to make progress without wheelspin.  We already have auto speed limiters on larger vehicles like lorries.  It shouldn't be so difficult for the same sort of system to be applied to other vehicles when the road conditions demand it.  In general I have reservations about giving up the pleasure of driving to technology, because I actually enjoy driving.  However it may just be worth the sacrifice if the mad individuals who drive at wreckless speeds in poor road conditions are prevented from doing so by automated vehicles, reducing accidents, delays and injuries to themselves and others. 

Tuesday 3 February 2009

The battle of the video sockets!

One of the annoying things when a consumer tries to connect different bits of kit around the home together is that the video in and out connectors vary so much across devices.  High end TVs now typically carry an array of SCART, HDMI, Component, Composite, and VGA connectors amongst others.  PCs may have VGA, DVI or the newer DisplayPort standard connectors.  In this post I am going to compare the latest and greatest from each of these device types as we look to the future, HDMI and DisplayPort.  

VESA (Video Electronics Standards Association) actually introduced DisplayPort in 2006, ratifying v1.1a of the standard a year later.  Silicon support for it in graphics cards and north bridge processor chipsets is growing and device manufacturers will start to exploit this in the coming year(s) with products which use it.  Unlike HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) which is charged at $5-10K p.a. and a levy of around 4 cents per device, DisplayPort is royalty-free and so attractive to product manufacturers.  Whereas HDMI is only used externally to connect different devices together, DisplayPort is also targeted at internal use between board and display inside devices.  Hence it also replaces the need for LVDS (Low Voltage Differential Signalling) circuitry which is currently used inside both PCs and CE (Consumer Electronics) products for this internal video connection.  

From a technical perspective, DisplayPort is lower power and requires fewer, thinner wires in the cabling, which will be important in the race to produce even slimmer displays.  The low power advantage will also be important to silicon vendors as process geometry goes below 45nm.  DisplayPort uses a packet based architecture, allowing audio, video and control signals to be handled in a consistent single packet stream. HDMI uses separate streams (or channels) for each of audio, video and control.  

HDMI's current advantage is that there are millions of CE products already out in the marketplace with HDMI sockets on them, especially HD TVs.  I believe that over time, this advantage will be eroded.  DisplayPort will first make its mark internally in PCs and then externally on laptops and other PCs and related products.  Apple has already reduced the footprint of its video out sockets on its latest notebook computers by designing and freely licensing a 'mini-displayport' connector, which conforms to the VESA DisplayPort standard.  In the future, probably beyond 5 years, will we see DisplayPort begin to make a significant presence in CE products including televisions.  Hopefully future attempts to cable video between CE products in the home will be simpler! 

Saturday 31 January 2009

Cleaning the kitchen ...

Today I spent some time on domestic chores ... including cleaning the kitchen surfaces, cooker hob etc.  It's not my favourite job!  Fortunately in the future, nanotechnology coatings for such surfaces may make it one less task we have to do regularly.  The coatings will be energised by light and oxidise organic molecules converting them into water and/or carbon dioxide, thus successfully targeting and destroying bacteria cell walls and then the cells' components.  This results in the death and decomposition of the bacteria, eliminating bad odours and reducing the spread of the bacteria itself.  Chemicals which could form part of these phot0-catalytic coatings include titanium dioxide.  This is used in various forms in the food and pharmaceutical sectors.   I can't wait until coatings that utilise the unique properties of such substances are developed and widely available!  Domestic chore bliss!