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.