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Technology Futures

Commentaries on Directions That Will Impact the Future of Technology

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.

 

 

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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.

Phone and Tablet Remote Control Update: Was I Wrong?


Vizio 8" Tablet

A few months ago I posted a blog entry about using phones and/or tablets as remote controls for home entertainment systems.  I was bullish on the trend, but some recent experience suggests that maybe it isn’t going to happen as quickly as I thought.  Although the technology is there, it doesn’t seem to be ready for Joe Couch Potato.

A few days ago, I purchased a Vizio 8″ tablet, Model VTAB1008-B.  This tablet includes a built-in IR blaster and an application called “Remote Control.”  First of all, the screen is gorgeous, providing 1024 x 768 resolution, the same as an iPad, but in an 8″ instead of the iPad‘s 10″ form factor, providing denser pixels and sharper images than the iPad.  The screen is prettier than any of the high-end purpose-built touch-screen remote controls from companies like Crestron and URC which are typically 640 x 480 and cost a couple of thousand dollars.  The IR radiator works well, although I haven’t tested it in “stressful” conditions.  Certainly good enough for most in-home situations.

The Remote Control program, however, is all but useless.  You are supposed to set it up by selecting an equipment category from a list (DVD Player, TV, Amplifier, etc.), then selecting a manufacturer from another list, and, if you know it, typing in the model number.  If  the model number is found, a screen for the device is set up automatically.  If the model number is not found, there is a trial-and-error process for finding the device.  I was amazed at the completeness of the model database.  (I assume Vizio gets that list from UEI or another company that maintains a database of equipment IR codes.)  It even listed an X10 ir543 receiver!  Go to this link and click on “How to Set Up the Remote Control App” to see a video of how it works.

The first problem is that the database model entries do not reliably associate the correct IR codes with the buttons that appear on the screen!  The second problem is that the buttons on the screen do not represent the controls that are needed to operate the device with the device.  For example, I have a Sony CD jukebox that holds 300 CDs.  You operate it by inputting the number of the disc you wish to play using a numeric keypad and then pressing the Play button.  The screen that comes up for this device has no keypad on it, thereby rendering the control of that device useless.  The X10 ir543 screen does not contain any controls that related to the device at all.  The DVD screen contains mostly controls useful for operating a TV.  On top of everything else, the program crashed repeatedly and could only be recovered by powering down the tablet.

I called Vizio tech support, was told that a “significant upgrade” was coming soon, and that I might consider waiting for that.  In fairness, they also generously offered to send me a new tablet, but couldn’t guarantee that the same problems wouldn’t exist.  I am certain it is a software problem, so I declined the offer.

The way most of the phone/tablet-based remote control systems operate today is by sending the signals via a Wifi connection.  This requires that the user purchase a box that converts the Wifi signal to IR.  These boxes cost around $100 for 1-way transmission and $150 for 2-way (for RS-232 capable equipment).  Putting an IR blaster in a tablet is a great idea that eliminates the expense of the Wifi-IR converter box.  It obviously would add very little to the cost of a tablet or phone.

I paid $190 for the tablet, shipping included.  (MSRP is $329.)  If the remote control application worked as it should, the tablet could easily be justified on the basis of that app alone.  If I were Vizio’s CEO, I’d hire a couple of guys laid off from Philips now-defunct Pronto Division and have them write a Windows/iOS-based editor that would allow customers to create customized remote control screens.  As it is, all I can do is wait for the upgrade and hope it fixes the problems I confronted.

I contacted a couple of companies (e.g., iRule) that have systems for using phones and tablets as remote controls, but neither of them could take advantage of a built-in IR blaster.  I suspect this might change in the future, but probably not until some big-name tablet/phone manufacturers begin to put IR blasters in their devices.

 

Tablets: Is the Enterprise a New Frontier?


Windows 8 Libraires Concept

Windows 8 (Photo credit: louisvolant)

Everybody knows that Tablets are becoming more or less ubiquitous.  The great majority of them, however, are being bought for playing games, web browsing, mapping, watching movies and TV shows, video telephony and other personal pursuits.  The buzz now is for the tablet to become an important device for businesses, known in the trade as “enterprises.”

Not long ago, I was on an airplane, seated next to a youngish man who had an iPad with him.  We struck up a conversation, and I learned that he was an electronics engineer who worked for a leading Silicon Valley company.  He was effusive about his iPad, but, when I asked him what he used it for, he said “mostly I play Scrabble!”  I think most tablet owners would have a similar response.

That said, the time has come for the tablet to become an important tool for businesses.  There are some new driving forces that will make that happen.  One of them will be the appearance of Windows 8, scheduled for release later this year.  Why is that important given the tremendous lead of iOS and Android?  Because you will be able to run existing Windows applications.  Since Windows-based apps are at the core of most business IT operations, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the benefits.

Coming from a different direction, wireless carrier Verizon announced a new enterprise initiative it calls Blank Slate.  The plan is to deliver a tablet without the usual pre-installed settings and apps.  Instead, the tablet will be set up with customized software and/or hardware that are optimized for specific industry applications.  In addition, there will be a private app storefront which will enable an employee to access company proprietary applications.  Although the program will start with Android, one can presume Windows 8 will follow.

Recently, Meg Whitman, HP’s new CEO, indicated that HP will be back in the mobile platform business, but, instead of trying to complete with Apple and Google for consumers, the focus would be on the enterprise where HP is strong.  Up until the other day, she was talking up Open WebOS, HP’s open sourced mobile operating system, but, now is talking Windows as the most likely candidate.

I conclude that the enterprise tablet business will be a really big deal in a couple of years, given the muscle of companies like Microsoft, HP and Verizon.  If you watch the various CSI TV shows, you would know that law enforcement couldn’t operate without them. (Chuckle)

 

5G Wifi: Will You Use It?


11ac Coverage

WiFi at home, Wifi on your phone, Wifi on your tablet, Wifi at Starbucks, here a wi, there a wi, everywhere a wifi – or so the song goes.  This year, the next generation of Wifi, known as 11ac or 5G WiFi (5G = Fifth Generation), is going to hit the market.  Never mind that the relevant standards body (i.e., the Wifi Alliance) is two years away from actually defining a standard, companies like Broadcom that make chips for Wifi , are already in 11ac production.

The current and latest real Wifi standard is 802.11n.  11ac (full name is 802.11ac) will offer much wider bandwidth, longer range, more reliability and better battery life.  The icing on the cake is that 11ac won’t cost much more than 11n!  Maybe even the same price.

Broadcom, the first big company to announce 11ac product, is making 11ac chips in at least three bandwidths:  433 Mbps, 867 Mbps and 1.3 Gbps.  The chart above, from 5Gwifi.org, shows what the average user can expect performance-wise from 11ac.  Even, the low-end implementation is three times faster than 11n.

One of the more interesting 11ac efforts comes from a small company you probably don’t know, called Redpine Signals of San Jose, CA.  It’s implementation focuses on low-power devices, and so is suitable for smartphones and tablets.  While it isn’t clear that phones really benefit from 11ac, tablets certainly will, especially if used for viewing HD movies.  Redpine calls its technology Quali-Fi.

11ac will likely have it’s biggest impact in the home.  Wifi deadspots will be a thing of the past and families will be able to stream multiple movies over the same network.  Pretty cool!  The caveat here is that the broadband Internet connection may limit the technology’s usability.  If the Internet connection  provides only a few megabits per second, 11ac won’t offer much, if any advantage.

If you are an early adopter, you will be able to buy an 11ac router this year.  In fact, In-Stat forecasts that 1 million ac routers will be sold this year, growing to 350 million by 2015.  Eventually, all home routers will support 11ac.  However, it’s not clear which products will be the first  to incorporate 11ac WiFi since none of the consumer electronics and phone companies have announced product yet.

Nevertheless, if you have a fast Internet connection, you can look forward to much enhanced Wifi in your home, your office and even Starbucks!

Inductive Charging: Bad News for Cable Makers


Charging the Tesla

Charging the Tesla (Photo credit: sbisson)

If you live in California or a few other states that have traffic signals that are switched by vehicles, you already know about induction.  You also know about it if you use an electric toothbrush.  Transmitting electricity by induction has been around a long time and the phenomena is well understood by electrical engineers.  If you want to read about how it works, click here.  Basically, there parts consist of a transmitting coil and a receiving coil.  In the presence of a magnetic field, current travels between the coils wirelessly.

Today, there are two major efforts afoot with regard to  inductive charging.  One primarily concerned with cellphones and the other for electric cars.  The technology for cellphone charging is based an established standard called Qi (pronounced “chee”) adopted by the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC), and industry standards group.  Although there are some inductive charging systems available for cars, there is no industry standard.  However, the Society of Automotive engineers (SAE) expects to have one by 2014.

The differences between charging a cellphone and charging a car are vast.  All you need for a practical cellphone system is a couple of watts transmitted over a very short distance – inches.  A practical system for a car requires kilowatts transmitted over as much as several feet.

The systems available for phones now consist of a pad (transmitting coil) that is wired to a power source and a “case” that encircles the phone (the receiving coil).  Placing the phone in the case on the pad charges the phone.  In the future, phones will be manufactured with the receiving coil built-in, so the case won’t be needed.  If the phone supports Qi, then  one Qi pad that will suffice for any Qi-enabled device.  The charger from battery company, Energizer, is a good example of the current state of the art.

Personally, I find it difficult to get excited about inductive charging of cell phones.  With the current state-of-the-art, it takes 2-4 times longer to charge a phone than with a car or wall charger.  That time differential will surely improve, but still it’s not very compelling.  The most interesting system I’ve seen is one from Oregon Scientific that puts the pad into a clock.  If you need a clock, and many people do, then why not have an inductive pad too?

The car charger is much more interesting to me.  It will be possible (and technically feasible) to put transmission pads under roadways, say at stoplit intersections.  While you are waiting for the light to change, your car’s batteries could be charging, and your credit card could automatically be debited for the cost!  In addition, there is some significant economic muscle behind inductive charging.  The Korean, Japanese, and German auto companies are pushing the technology, not to mention Chrysler, Ford, GM and even Tesla!.  It is going to happen.  Pick a car manufacturers name, couple it with “inductive charging” and Google or Bing the words.  You’ll be flooded with hits.

In summary, inductive charging technology, something that has been around for decades is going to be a very big deal!~

The Paperless Society: Myth or Reality?


CBS syndicated columnist Dave Ross recently said “The best thing about the Internet is that there is no paper.  The worst thing about the Internet is that there is no paper.”  I think Mr. Ross has succinctly captured the essence of the dichotomy.

Several years ago, the Aetna Insurance Company hired IBM to do an extensive $3 million study with the objective of reducing paper handling throughout Aetna by 10%.  When the study was completed, and recommendations made, Aetna management rejected it, concluding that the trauma caused by doing things differently would cost the company far more than the anticipated savings!

In 2004, FedEx paid $2.4 Billion to acquire 1300 Kinko stores.  What services does Kinko (now called “FedEx Office“) provide?  Primarily printing and copying paper.  Kinko’s also provides shipping services.  What do they ship?  You guessed it, mostly documents.  Is FedEx nuts?  Probably not.

The US Post Office is on the ropes because its paper shipping business has declined to the point where the existing infrastructure is bigger than it needs to be.

The Kindle, the Nook and the iPAD have obviated the need to read books on paper.

Several years ago, I visited the Head of HP’s Workstation Division.  When I asked him how they were making any money given the current competitive situation, he replied:  “Every morning, before office hours, we all gather in the parking lot, face Boise, bow down and utter a prayer of thanks.”  If you didn’t already know it, Boise is the HQ of HP’s Printer Division!

The newspaper business is on its last legs, given that an increasing number of people get their news over the Internet or on TV.

Visit Costco, Staples, Office Max and Office Depot and see rows and rows of paper for sale:  Copy paper, printer paper, card stock, colored paper, envelopes, etc., etc.

Reading a Magazine in a Barber shop

Who among you men can imagine waiting in a barber shop reading Playboy on a tablet?  Who among you women can imagine reading Vogue on a tablet while waiting for your manicure.

Although paper consumption in North America has declined by 25% in recent years, demand is on the upswing due to improvement in the economy, the introduction of new products and huge growth from Asia, especially China.

Here are oft-repeated statements: “Finding specific information in a stack of paper can be time consuming and often frustrating. Finding specific information in digital data is quick and easy.”  My response to that is a big MAYBE.  The statements may be true IF the data has been organized efficiently and the reader knows the right keywords to search on.  But suppose you are reading a lengthy document and want to refer back to something you read earlier.  If you are sitting in front of screen, how easy is it to do that?  Often, it is much faster to riffle through the pages of a paper document than to do a computer search where you might not even remember searchable keywords.

So what is one to make out of these seemingly contradictory observations?  I think it is safe to say that paper and electrons will coexist for a very long time.  Paper will be replaced where it makes sense, and used where it makes sense.

According to ecology.com, each person in the United States uses 749 pounds of paper per year!  (Yes, that includes toilet paper).  We are not going to see that consumption decline significantly for a very long time.

Voice Input: Mind Over Matter?


List of The Big Bang Theory episodes (season 2)

Image via Wikipedia

A few nights ago, I happened to watch an episode of the TV comedy show “Big Bang Theory,” in which one of the lead characters carries on conversations with “Siri.”  For example:

Character (speaking with an Indian accent):  “Hello”

Siri (speaking with a sexy woman’s voice):  “Hello”

Character:  “What’s your name?”

Siri: “My name is Siri.”

Character: Are you single?”

Siri: “I don’t have a marital status.”

Character:  “How about a cup of coffee?”

Siri: “I found 6 coffee shops, 3 of them near you.”

Another example, this one truer to life, was the Jeopardy contest between IBM‘s Watson supercomputer and the show’s most successful contestants.  Questions were asked by host Alex Trebek and Watson’s answers were given in a staccato-sounding computer-generated English.

Speech recognition and speech synthesis are technologies that have been studied and under development for a long time.  IBM was one of the pioneers of this research, and the company continues to pursue it in labs all over the world.  IBM groups various voice-related technologies under the umbrella phrase Human Language Technologies.  Clicking on this link will bring up a page that will direct you to a layman’s overview of IBM’s many research projects, patents and related information.

There are two main parts to the speech field as it relates to computers:  Speech Recognition and Speech Synthesis.  Beyond that, subsidiary technologies include Speech-to-Text, Natural Language-to-Formal Language Translation, Speaker Recognition and Speaker Verification.  Besides IBM, other major companies including Microsoft and Google are investing in speech-related research.  DARPA (Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency) is particularly interested in recognizing speech in noisy environments, and has funded research in this field for 40 years through SRI International’s Artificial Intelligence Center.  That research formed the basis for the aforementioned Siri.  Nuance, the company known for its “Dragon” speech recognition software for PCs, does its own research and collaborates with IBM.  Nuance licenses its technology to Apple.

It is difficult to pinpoint the level of investment in speech-related technologies, but with big companies and government agencies heavily involved, together with push from the hugely competitive mobile market, we will see continuing investment and great accomplishment in the years to come

Eventually, these technologies will lead to nothing short of a computing revolution.  Chuck the keyboard, the mouse and the pad.  We were all born with the I/O of the future.

 

 

Social Media: The End of Conventional Market Research?


A New Market Analysis Methodology

I just finished reading about a San Francisco startup called Topsy Labs.  This company searches posts on social media websites and uses this information to detect forthcoming trends.  For example, it picked up a lot of tweets from people who said they were cancelling their Netflix subscriptions and used that information to predict a drop in Netflix’ stock price.  There are other new companies doing similar work, for example, WiseWindow and Derwent Capital Markets, a London-based boutique investment company running a hedge fund.

The work of these companies is based on sentiment analysis in which the chatter on Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other social media is analyzed and used to predict stock movement, market trends, product acceptance, competition and other factors that is the purview of classical market research.  It is a bit early to predict the demise of classical market research, but it will certainly be impacted in a significant way.

Will the Statistics Texts be Rewritten?

I spent more than 30 years working for market-research based companies.  We were called “industry analysts”.  Setting aside things like focus groups, the principal data-gathering MO of such companies is interviewing.  We did face-to-face interviews, phone interviews and online surveys interviews.  We tried to do enough of them to be “statistically significant.”  (It turns out that the statistics books state that 50 interviews of a homogeneous population will produce results with ±10% accuracy with 90% confidence.).  Nonetheless, obtaining 50 great interviews wasn’t easy and was very expensive.

Real-time Twitter sentiment

Realtime Twitter Sentiment

I don’t know what the sentiment analysis companies are charging or going to charge for their services, but, since the process is highly automated, it could be relatively inexpensive.  In fact, it could ultimately put the market research firms out of business or force them to change their their existing business models.  In reply, representatives from those firms are touting the limitations of sentiment analysis, but the quotes I’ve seen aren’t very convincing.

Conclusion:  Sentiment Analysis and Spin-offs Will Have a Huge Impact

In conclusion, I predict that data gathering by scanning social media and other web-based information will have a huge impact on the way market research will be done in the future, and will provide a precision unmatched by conventional techniques.

Blu-ray Disks: Singin’ the Blues


Bly-ray Disc logo

Image via Wikipedia

Last night, my wife and I began to watch a rental movie on DVD.  The opening screen said (I’m paraphrasing) “This DVD contains only the movie.  If you want the best picture and sound plus many bonus features, you should buy this movie on Blu-ray.”

Audio

I checked and found out that the audio on the Blu-ray disk is 5.1 surround, the same audio provided on the DVD.  It is true that Blu-ray can provide “lossless” 6.1 or 7.1 surround sound which adds an additional back channel like you might encounter in a movie theater.  However, a competing 6.1/7.1 technology, Dolby Digital EX or THX EX can also provide 6.1 or 7.1 sound on DVDs.  Maybe if you have 15-year old ears you can hear the difference, but most people won’t notice.  In either case the argument is virtually moot, since the number of movie disks that have either Blu-ray or EX 6.1/7.1 sound is miniscule and the numbre of people set up for 6.1/7.1 sound reproduction is even smaller.  Strike 1 for Blu-ray.

Picture Quality

Now let’s examine the issue of picture quality.  Most TV sets sold in the past 5 years are capable of handling HD (High Definition) images with up to 1080p resolution.  That means 1080 scan lines, non-interlaced (“p” stands for “progressive”, which means exactly the same thing as non-interlaced).  Blu-ray provides 1080p natively, while DVDs offer only 480p resolution.  Thus it would seem that Blu-ray has a huge advantage in picture quality.  While Blu-ray images are superior, they are not that superior, because the clever folks who design DVD players have provide a feature called “video upscaling” that takes a 480p signal and converts it to a 1080p signal!  It used to be that this technology cost $20,000, but today it is reduced to a chip that costs less than $5.  Therefore, if your DVD player has upscaling (and almost all of them built in the past five years do), your picture will be almost as good as Blu-ray.  Strike 2 for Blu-ray.  In fact, 90% of people over the age of 50 can’t tell the difference.

Bonus Features

So far, I’ve shown that Blu-ray’s advantages in picture and sound quality are there, but meaningless to the average TV viewer.  That leaves bonus features as the last significant DVD/Blu-ray differentiator.  As it turns out, very few Blu-ray disks have whiz-bang bonus features.  Why?  It turns out that the great majority of Viewers have very little interest in bonus features.  Not only that, whiz-bang bonus features are expensive to produce, and, as a result, are not common.  Strike 3 for Blu-ray.

Streaming Video Competition

Finally, we have the issue of streaming Internet video which virtually every pundit has declared is the future of TV or at least will be a major part of it.  It will be  a long time, if ever, that streaming video will be able to accommodate Blu-ray.  There simply isn’t enough network bandwidth.  This is especially true in the US, which is practically a third-world country when it comes to providing its citizens with broadband Internet service.  In any event, streaming video is not Blu-ray’s friend.

Not Going Away Soon

I don’t mean to say that Blu-Ray is dead.  Disney, for example which has the highest ratio of disk to box office sales in the industry, says it will continue to push Blu-ray until it no longer is no longer a viable medium for movies.  I also want to emphasize that this discussion is limited to movies.  As a data medium, Blu-ray has a lot to offer – unparalleled storage density in a portable format, for example.   If you have a lot of data, a Blu-ray disk player/recorder is just the thing for your PC or Mac.  Blu-ray is also an important technological piece of the gaming market.

Cost Differential

Back to the movie I saw last night (“Dolphin Tale“, excellent family movie by the way).  Amazon sells the DVD version for $15 and the Blu-ray version for $24, a 60% premium.  I think that price differential is very difficult for Joe Couch Potato to justify.  Don’t you?

References

If you are interested in learning more about TV audio and video, I recommend the following websites:

  • For an excellent layman’s description of the various audio options,go to the Crutchfield website.
  • Wikipedia has several entries re TV video technology.  Try 480p and 1080p for starters.

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