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Archive for September, 2005

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September 30th, 2005

Cheap PC designs for the developing world.

Cheap PC designs for the developing world.

For several years now various organisations have been attempting to design a computer suitable for widespread use in the developing world. The primary problem is that of cost, for a computer to be even vaguely viable for widespread adoption in the world’s poorest countries it would need to cost a fraction of what we pay for PCs in the west. Other problems include unreliable or even non-existent power supplies in most of the target regions, harsh environmental conditions (heat, dust, etc.) and of course the usual reliability issues that arise from being bounced around by boisterous children.

As yet nobody has managed to crack the problem, but Professor Nicholas Negroponte of MIT’s Media Labs believes that he’s come up with a design that solves all of these problems. His design for a cheap Linux based PC does away with the hard drive and replaces it with Flash memory storage, which is more reliable than a conventional hard disk due to the lack of delicate moving parts. The machine can be powered by a clockwork mechanism, not unlike the well known clockwork radios which were designed for much the same purpose. Best of all, if Negroponte’s figures all add up then the machine should initially cost less than $100, and the price should fall to a more affordable level as manufacturing is ramped up.

It’s still early days, since the design has yet to reach the prototype stage, but the initiative is being supported by some big name backers. You can read the full story at the BBC.

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September 26th, 2005

Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make ye free.

Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make ye free.

Some years ago I wrote a comment article for Internet Magazine, in which I suggested that in the future the web would become a useful weapon for dissidents living in oppressive regimes. Not only would it allow them to communicate better with each other, but it could help focus global attention on their plight by allowing them to communicate with the outside world in relative anonymity. The web, I postulated, could be critical in bringing down the walls of secrecy behind which many despots are left free to brutalise their own people. Perhaps more than any other article I’d written (apart from the one entitled ‘Stop Whining about Microsoft’) this piece drew a barrage of criticism from the readers. At best I was accused of naivety, and at worst, stupidity, ignorance and blind faith in the false god of technology.

I’m very happy, and not just a little smug, to report that Reporters Sans Frontiers has recently released a handbook full of advice to help dissidents protect their identity when publishing online. Perhaps when I first wrote the article, people didn’t see how it was possible for the web to be harnessed in this way, but the advent of blogging has changed everything. So much so, that the Chinese government has recently felt the need to clamp down on unlicensed online publishers who clearly threaten to bring down the world’s largest dictatorship if left to freely and openly discuss political matters without any ‘official guidance’.

While we’re on the subject of “Things I was Right About” – I once suggested in an article that in the future the majority of people would access the internet through a mobile device rather than a conventional PC. MIT’s Philip Greenspun has recently had the same idea, he’s a bit later than me but his theory is far more detailed and scientific than my vague assertion could ever be, so let’s call this one a draw…

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September 22nd, 2005

O2 Begins Mobile TV Trials

O2 Begins Mobile TV Trials

The BBC reports that O2 is starting trials to allow mobile phone users to view TV broadcasts on their handsets. The trial will allow 400 participants in Oxford to receive 16 different channels, including all of the main terrestrial channels, on a Nokia 7710 multimedia smartphone. This is undoubtedly cool technology, and there will no doubt be some sort of market for it. However, we can’t help wondering if Mobile TV will live up to the hype and have to question just how many people are going to want to watch that much TV on a mobile phone.

Even if users opt for the chunky, cumbersome multimedia phones that will be capable of displaying video streams at high enough quality to be viewable, the experience will still be extremely poor in comparison to a conventional TV. Digital music works well in the mobile market, because the physical and technical constraints of handsets do not adversely affect audio playback quality, whereas video quality is likely to remain very limited on all but the largest of mobile devices.

Nevertheless, we’re not the nay-saying type, so we wait with baited breath for the day when we can watch Futurama on our handsets while waiting for the train home every night.

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September 22nd, 2005

Virtual Balls

Virtual Balls

VirtuSphere is a kind of giant hamster-ball designed to allow people to walk around virtual worlds. Users wearing VR goggles can walk around inside the ball and as they do so the ball turns on its rollers, which work in much the same way as the roller sensors for a common mouse-ball, enabling the computer to move the user through the virtual environment based on the speed and direction of their footsteps.

There are lots of practical applications for this, obviously hazardous environment training being a prime candidate, but we think the best use of this technology would be for online gamers to get a bit of excercise while they’re playing 3D shooters like Battlefield 2 for hour after hour.

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September 14th, 2005

Sun Microsystems and Hugh Hefner – together at last!

Sun Microsystems and Hugh Hefner – together at last!

We know we’re being manipulated into perpetuating a viral marketing campaign here, but we can’t conceal our admiration for what is probably the best technology advert ever (PDF, 2.1MB). Sun Microsystems presents its charming Sun Fire server (1.67, 16.75, 24.88) in this parody of a Playboy centerfold. In a market known for pictures of dull boxes, this advert sparkles with wit and verve.

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September 12th, 2005

Journalists vs Scientists

Journalists vs Scientists

There’s a great piece in today’s Guardian about poor science reporting, and the problems it creates in terms of ensuring the great unwashed always get handed the wrong end of the stick. This has always annoyed me – public opinion of science in general appears to be quiet negative, without good cause, and I think the way the subject is represented in the media is largely responsible. People will tell you they strongly disapprove of scientists “playing God” but will happily lap up the cheap food and medical products that scientific research makes possible – the public sees no link between the two, because they think of scientists as irrelevant Professor Frink characters who meddle with nature for fun and rarely produce anything useful.

My favourite recent example of poor science reporting is the “Human Brain Still Evolving” story which broke last week. A little basic knowledge of Darwinism should be enough to tell you that all living things are engaged in a constant process of evolution, humans and their brains are no exception.

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September 1st, 2005

BBC to offer TV on demand via web.

BBC to offer TV on demand via web.

Speaking at the Edinburgh Television Festival recently, the BBC director general Mark Thompson outlined plans to make all of the broadcaster’s programming available for download within the next two years. This could finally herald the beginning of a TV-on-demand revolution that has been brewing for years. Technologically speaking, there’s no good reason why people shouldn’t be able to download TV shows for viewing at their convenience. However, the conventional broadcasting business model is of course heavily dependent on advertising in key timeslots, and digital downloads threaten to disrupt that situation quite severely.

Completely failing to learn any lessons from what happened in the music industry, most commercial broadcasters have stuck their heads firmly in the sand and refused to countenance any alternative to the status quo. Maybe they thought it would never be feasible for people to download and view TV shows on their computers? Dead wrong – for years there has been a thriving online culture of ripping and sharing popular TV shows. The networks won’t deliver TV-on-demand services, so hard-core fans are creating their own.

The publicly funded BBC hasn’t got much to lose by straying from the traditional broadcasting model and letting people download its shows. In fact, one could even argue that it has a mandate to provide innovative, convenient mechanisms for the public to access its content at will. Quite how this will be received by the public or whether it will spur commercial networks into action remains to be seen, but it’s certainly going to make interesting viewing.

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