Monday, June 29, 2009

Are Environmental concerns killing our electronics?

Technology continues to advance at an ever-increasing pace and usually, were better off as a result.

However, there seem to be a growing number of instances where our attempts to improve our lot are having unexpected side-effects.

One example of this which might very well have a nasty effect on the electronics and computer industries is the switch away from lead-based solder.

Yes, the shiny gray metal alloy that for years has been used to attach all those various components to printed circuit boards has undergone a subtle change in recent years - and it's all down to a fear of lead.

Lead, as most people will know, is a soft, malleable and very heavy metal with quite a low melting point (as far as metals go). This low melting point and relatively good electrical conductivity meant that an alloy of tin and lead made the ideal "glue" for connecting wires inside electronic devices.

When the printed circuit was introduced back in the 1960s, there was no lead-phobia. In fact, houses were regularly decorated with lead-based paints, the glaze on kitchenware frequently contained a small percentage of lead and our cars belched clouds of the stuff into the atmosphere thanks to the octane-improving effects it had in petrol.

Roll forward a few decades however, and lead had become a villain.

Everywhere you looked, lead was being shunned as awareness grew of the subtle and devastating effects that it could have on health and the environment at large.

As a result of this, the ROHs directive was introduced and lead-use fell under its umbrella.

One of the first victims of this "lead-be-gone" campaign was a subtle change to the solder used in our computers and other electronics. The toxic lead was dumped, replaced with a cocktail of other metals including bismuth, silver, indium, zinc and others.

Unfortunately, in ditching the lead, these new solders have created what some believe is a disaster waiting to happen.

The issues are manifold but the key one is that of tin-whiskers, think crystals of tin that, over time, grow inexorably out of soldered joints, sometimes to the point where they create a short circuit by reaching adjacent components or circuit-board pads.

Some of the strongest concern comes from within the aerospace community, where a single tin-whisker could bring down an aircraft worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

What's more, the problem isn't something that can easily be weeded-out at production time or even in post-production testing. The tin-whiskers can take years to form to the point where they become apparent or cause problems. The computer that works perfectly today may fail completely tomorrow -- and without any warning.

Although work continues on addressing the issues created by the use of lead-free solders, it appears we're still a long way from coming up with a replacement that is as good as the old stuff.

Some pragmatists in the industry are still lobbying for a return to lead-based solders, claiming that the best way to preserve the environment while also retaining previous levels of solder-joint reliability, is to focus on effective recycling rather than dumping of waste electronics.

The case argued by these people is backed up by the realisation that, even at its peak, the total amount of lead used in solder accounted for just 0.5% of all the lead consumed world-wide. What's more, only 50% of such solder is used for electronics, the balance going into structural soldering such as plumbing etc.

So, if you've got the feeling that your new consumer electronic devices simply aren't as reliable as the old ones were - perhaps you can blame the solder they're now forced to use.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Pirates roll out new weapons in their battle with publishers

The technology war taking place between publishers and pirates looks set to intensify, as those who seek to unlawfully copy and disseminate music and video move to lift their game.

A successful law-suit against the operators of the infamous Pirate Bay website has spurred some of the world's smartest and most highly motivated programmers to come up with new tools to thwart the surveillance and detection techniques used by publishers.

The latest addition to their arsenal is a virtual private network (VPN) that effectively hides the nature of content being transferred behind a curtain of strong encryption.

Now, simply monitoring the flow of bits and bytes along an ISPs data circuits will no longer be sufficient to pick up illegally copied software, music or video content.

And, even if authorities suspect that a file transfer contains illicitly copied material, the pirates are ready for them with a tool called BitBinder that cloaks the user's IP address.

Those charged with the job of identifying and collecting evidence against copyright infringers are challenging the claims of the pirates however, and believe that although these new systems may be a hindrance to enforcement officials, they won't completely hide such illegal activity. Nor, it is claimed, will they stop investigators from establishing the identity of those who are offending.

This skirmish comes at a time when governments are struggling to introduce new policies to cope with an ever-increasing level of piracy. Neither France nor New Zealand governments have been able to make their "three strikes" laws stick and both have gone back to the drawing board.

In Britain, the government has directed ISPs to cut illegal file-sharing by at least 70 percent within 12 months. Exactly how this will be achieved once the pirates' new tools become widespread is yet to be revealed.

Some experts have expressed the opinion that this war will only really be ended by way of a negotiated settlement rather than by the appearance of some insurmountable technology from either side.

Unfortunately, no such settlement is in sight, so the escalating arms war between pirates and publishers looks set to continue, at least for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps the next step in the pirate's game will be to harness the power of indirection and, instead of storing an entire copyrighted item on any individual site, distribute it across a network of servers in tiny chunks, randomly extracted from the original work. Downloaders would then simply exchange keys that effectively directed them to the servers involved and allowed them to extract the individual fragments - none of which is large enough to qualify for individual copyright protection.

One thing's for sure -- it's an intensely interesting war with many a strategy yet to be played out.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

OLED where are you?

Most modern computer systems use some form of LCD monitor to display
output and provide visual interaction with the user.

LCDs are relatively energy efficient, compact and are proving to have
respectable lifespans in most environments; almost the perfect solution one might think.

However they're not without their limitations. In some applications (such as laptops and other portable equipment) they can become difficult to read under high level of ambient lighting or direct sunlight. They are also relatively fragile and can be irreparably damaged by a fall or knock with a hard object.

Hard-core gamers frequently complain about the inability of some LCDs to keep up with the pace of fast onscreen action, an attribute that's also clearly visible on some of the cheaper LCD TV screens.

So what's better than LCD?

Well it appears that OLED is the next big thing, and has been for quite some time now.

OLED (Organic Light Emitting Devices/Diodes) differ from LCD in one key aspect -- they actively emit light. Unlike the LCD which simply controls the passage of externally produced light, the OLED is a light source and that means there's no need for a separate backlight or ambient lighting to use them.

Another key strength of the OLED is its speed, something that could eliminate that annoying smear or latency characteristic of so many LCDs.

To date however, the yield and lifetime of OLED devices has been disappointingly low. These two factors have constrained their use to small, relatively low-cost applications.

Experimenters can buy fully-operative OLED displays already but they're still confined to either relatively small sizes or a single colour, unless you want to spend a lot of money.

Now, if you've been watching TV recently, your heart may have skipped a beat when you saw ads for the Samsung Full HD E-LED flat-screen TV.

What? A 46-inch flatscreen LED TV?

How can this be? Surely, if LED display technology was to follow the same evolutionary path as LCDs, we'd see LED-based computer monitors appearing first, wouldn't we?

Well it turns out that the display on this TV set doesn't actually use a matrix of active LEDs to create the image -- it's simply an LCD with an array of white LEDs around the edge that are used to provide backlighting.

A cunning piece of marketing of course and by all accounts, the picture quality is very good -- but a true LED-based TV it is not.

So, if you're still longing for the ultimate in display technology, your wait is not yet over and it maybe a few years yet before we see any really practical and affordable big-screen OLED displays for computers or TV.

In the meantime we'll just have to make do with our LCDs and the occasional CRT, while continuing to read article after article telling us how great these OLEDs will be, when they finally get to market.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Wave goodbye to spam?

Spam is one of the biggest problems to plague the internet.

Not only does it clog your inbox with offers for products you probably neither need nor want, but it's also a vector for the delivery of scams, malware and attempts to phish your login details.

Over the years, many different tactics have been tried in an attempt to stem the flow of spam but although some, such as filtering, do a reasonable job of hiding the problem, they are only a symptomatic treatment.

The big problem has always been that the basic services on which internet email is build were designed in an era before the ghastly spectre of spamming ever raised its ugly head.

Those who first designed the SMTP mail protocol never dreamed that, one day, hoards of spammers would hijack their hard work to regularly deliver billions of unsolicited commercial emails to a world of unwitting recipients.

Since then, the attempts to "update" the mail system in ways that would stem the rising tide of spam have been ankle-tapped by an unwillingness to scrap the now deeply entrenched standard on which the mail system relies.

However, there's now a bright light of hope on the horizon.

By dint of its huge dominance on the net, only one entity has the power to replace the current email infrastructure with something brand-new and spam-proof.

That entity is Google and the new platform that may eventually bring us far more spam-resistant email is "Wave".

Effectively forsaking the old SMTP protocol for something newer has allowed designers to start from scratch, moving us tantalisingly closer to the day when spam doesn't represent over 90% of all the email moving around the Net.

But wave is a lot more than just a replacement for email...

Wave is an integration of many different internet services that have popped up on the web over the years. If you understand the concept of synergy then you'll realise just how much more powerful Wave might be than anything that has come before.

It's early days yet but I encourage everyone to fire up their browsers and do your own research on Wave.

Could it be that the tsunami of spam may be laid to rest by the Wave of Google?