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Technology Futures

Commentaries on Directions That Will Impact the Future of Technology

Archive for the month “March, 2012”

Envia Systems: Savior of the Electric Car?


The holy grail of the electric car business is a competitively-priced vehicle that will travel several hundred miles on a single charge.  As shown in the graphic, we ain’t there yet.  One key to finding that grail is battery technology.  A little-known Silicon Valley company called Envia Systems claims to have made tremendous strides in developing a battery technology that will lead the industry directly to that grail – pass Go, collect $200.

The operative measure for vehicle battery technology is Wh/Kg, or Watt-hours per Kilogram.  Current technology, like that used in Tesla Motors‘ cars, is around 240 Wh/Kg and costs roughly $200 per Kilowatt-hour.  Envia promises to deliver 400 Wh/Kg at $125 per Kilowatt-hour.  With those numbers, a $20,000 car could travel 300 miles before it needs to be recharged.

In general, battery technology improvement appears to be advancing at a rate of 5% a year.  If Envia’s claims are valid, its technology nearly doubles state-of-the-art energy density at half the cost.  Lots of folks are excited by the possibilities, including General Motors which has invested a bunch of money into the venture.

Envia began its journey in 2007 when it licensed some patents from Argonne National Laboratory (ANL).  Although Envia execs claim that the Envia technology was developed on its own, the Argonne patents gave it a start.  Although the details of the patent agreement are secret,  apparently ANL will share in Envia’s success if and when it happens.

Envia’s batteries are Lithium-Ion. (Li-ion), the same used in cell phones and portable electric tools.  Envia’s technology is based on using unique element chemical compositions for the anodes and cathodes, notably silicon and carbon, and an electrolyte that is stable at high temperatures.  Not all the problems that need to be solved have been solved, however.  Current tests show that, although Envia batteries can be recharged to 80% capacity after 400 charges, that number needs to be 1000 to last 300,000 miles, considered to be the average lifetime of a car.

Envia’s technology lends itself to conventional manufacturing processes.  The company plans to license it rather than go into the manufacturing business itself.  Possible licensees includes General Motors and some other high-profile domestic and foreign firms.

Compared with Solyndra’s $500 million failed investment, Envia Systems looks  like a bargain basement deal.  The total investment in the company is probably less than $25 million including a $4 million grant from ARPA-e and $7 million from General Motors, part of a $17 million package.

As noted above, while battery technology is one key to mass acceptance of electric cars, it is not the only key.  Getting those great batteries charged may pose an even bigger barrier.   One only has to look at GM’s recent problems with the Volt to get an idea of the challenge.  I took my wife’s Chevy into a dealer a few days ago for service.  While there, I asked one of the sales guys how Volts are selling.  He looked at me and groaned.  He said that the tree-huggers were there in force the first few weeks, but now nobody is interested.  FYI, I live in an area heavily populated by tree-huggers!

 

 

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The Personal Cloud: Truth or Dare?


Analysts love to coin new expressions.  The one I’m most proud of is “Business Intelligence,” which I thought was a lot sexier than “data mining” and “data warehousing,” two earlier expressions which meant essentially the same thing.   IBM and a couple of other big companies jumped on the Business Intelligence bandwagon and made it an IT proverb.  I shoulda copyrighted or trademarked it, or started a domain business-intelligence .com.  Mighta made a few bucks.  Water under the dam.

I was impressed the other day when I saw a reference to the “Personal Cloud.”  This expression is claimed by Gartner Group, possibly the world’s largest techy analyst company, and mentioned prominently in a recent press release entitled “Gartner Says the Personal Cloud Will Replace the Personal Computer as the Center of Users’ Digital Lives by 2014.”  (Unfortunately, personalcloud.com is already a registered domain name, indicating that Gartner isn’t any smarter than I was.)

In any event, I read the press release.  I thought it made sense -sort of.  Do you agree with the following quote?

“Gartner analysts said the personal cloud will begin a new era that will provide users with a new level of flexibility with the devices they use for daily activities, while leveraging the strengths of each device, ultimately enabling new levels of user satisfaction and productivity. However, it will require enterprises to fundamentally rethink how they deliver applications and services to users.”

The 46-word opening sentence aside (my composition professor would have slammed that writer), I agree that users will  potentially be more productive using the cloud, but I’m having a tough time with the prediction that enterprises will have to rethink how they deliver services to users.  In my experience, enterprises seldom rethink anything.  Rather, they change as little as possible so as not to freak out those users and make more work for themselves.

Don’t get me wrong.  I think the cloud is terrific.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, the timeshare business of the late 60s – early 90s essentially offered cloud computing, but, in those days, networks were slow and storage capacity limited.  Today’s broadband networks and virtually unlimited random access storage enable a user to do almost anything online instead of the desktop.  The only real barrier to cloud computing is security, an issue that I believe will never get resolved.

If you are skeptical about the cloud, I’d like you to test out an app called Dropbox, a web-based file hosting service.  You can get a free single-user account or an account that can be shared by several users.  The learning curve is practically non-existent.  It’s a great example of cloud storage.

You can also try some cloud apps.  If you use Google’s gmail or calendar, you are already apping in the cloud!  Others you can try for free are Quicken Online, WordPress (blogging service that I am using right now), and Adobe Photoshop Express.  Check out this website, “10 cloud apps that slam-dunk their desktop counterparts.”

Of course, these personal apps have little to do with enterprise applications, but will certainly give you a taste of the possible.

The IBM Tech Trends Report: Can 4000 IT Pros Be Right?


The eight-striper wordmark of IBM, the letters...

Image via Wikipedia

Last year, IBM conducted a survey of 4,000 IT professionals in an attempt to identify the most important technology trends.  The survey population included IT pros from 93 countries and 25 industries.  The US, China, Russia, India and Brazil contributed the most responses.  The results are published in a publicly available report titled The IBM Tech Trends Report.

This blog post shamefacedly plagiarizes from the IBM report.  For many years, I conducted similar types of surveys and published similar reports, but always for individual clients who would never let the competition see the results.  It is an interesting statement that IBM is willing to share its findings with anyone willing to take the time to read the material.  Even more interesting (to me) is that IBM also published the survey data.  Thus, if you don’t like IBM’s conclusions, you can formulate your own using its data!  Very cool indeed.

The data is in SPSS format.  Since not many people have SPSS, IBM cut a deal so that individuals can download and install a 14-day trial version, plenty of time to analyze the information.  I’ve already done that.  In future blog posts, I’ll present some of my conclusions, but I’m not going to tell you that they are based on this data, since that would be only one input that I would be inclined to use.

IBM’s study focused on four areas: business analytics, mobile computing, the cloud and social business.  According to IBM, these are four critical and interconnected areas that developers must concentrate on to build what IBM’s PR folks call “The Smarter Planet.”

I’m not going to regurgitate the findings of the study – you can read that for yourself – but there are a few things that came out of the study that I think are noteworthy:

  • There is less interest in automation in the US than there is in the other large countries.  Does this suggest that the US is so far ahead that it doesn’t think it needs it, or does the US have its collective head up its collective a-s?
  • Developers of mobile computing applications would be wise to concentrate on the Android platform.  Although iOS is very popular in the US and developed countries, Android offers a much shorter learning curve, and will be more appealing to the rest of the world.
  • Cloud Computing offers new opportunities for building and delivering applications and can lead to new ways of conceptualizing business models.
  • The popularity of social networking in the business environment is very closely tied to culture.  For example, social networking is embraced in India and spurned in Russia.  The US loves it, but is worried about security and privacy.

Most of the tech trends info that is on the web is written by reporters who get most of their information from interviews with people in the booths at the latest techy conference.  It’s nice to see real study results based on meaningful statistical data.

 

 

New Mini Temperature Sensor from TI to Extend Battery Life


Everybody knows that the Achilles heel of portable electronics is battery life.  While many researchers around the world are trying to find better battery technologies, Texas Instruments (TI) has come up with a miniature temperature sensing chip that may turn out to be a game-changer for devices like cellphones, tablets and laptops.

This tiny chip, designated the TMP006 reads temperatures without having to be wired into a circuit.  It merely has to be near it.  It detects infrared (otherwise known as “heat”) energy over the range -40 to 125 degrees Centigrade.  All this work is contained in a chip that measures 1.6 mm square, tiny enough to be adaptable to virtually any portable electronic device.  TI claims it is 95% smaller than any competing solution and uses 90% less power.

When it was first announced last year, TI had the QTY 1000 price pegged at $1.50 each.  I did a quicky online search and found prices today as low as $.10!  At that price, almost any product you can think of could incorporate the chip.

Contactless temperature sensing of course has many applications outside of the computer/phone businesses.  It doesn’t take much imagination to think of applications in motors, automobiles, medicine, etc., etc.  Virtually any application that can benefit from thermal management or thermal protection is fair game.  Looks like TI has hit another winner.

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