Friday, November 27, 2009

High noon in the news business

The battle between Rupert Murdoch and the rest of the "evil news-stealing world" seems ready to reach a crucial point very soon, with the future of free news content hanging in the balance.

Right now we tend to take it for granted that Google is "the" internet search engine and that other players, even Microsofts' much-hyped "Bing" are little more than "also-rans".

While that might be true now, there's a small chance that Murdoch and his publishing empire may join forces with Microsoft to significantly alter the balance of power in the online world.

For some time now, Murdoch has been moaning about the way that Google "steals" the news published by his online news and entertainment websites. The way he sees it, the search engine giant is exploiting his intellectual property for profit without proper reimbursement.

Of course you don't have to be a rocket scientist to realise that if NewsCorp really didn't want Google to index its websites, and thus link to them from its search engine and Google News services, all they had to do was add one small line of code to those pages and they would, as if by magic, be dropped from those indexes.

So why hasn't Murdoch done this already, if he's so worried?

Might it be that he's not as stupid as he seems and is actually well aware that Google's links are providing his sites with valuable extra traffic they might not otherwise get?

Or has Murdoch played a very canny game that has resulted in Microsoft rolling up to his door with its chequebook wide open?

The latest chapter in this evolving saga you see, is that Murdoch is now in talks with Microsoft to provide them with the exclusive right to index his websites.

If NewsCorp and Microsoft are able to strike a mutually acceptable deal then, almost overnight, all of Murdoch's online properties will vanish from Google and only be searchable through Bing.

Now if NewsCorp was some second-rate publisher this wouldn't even be worthy of comment -- but they are a massive player in the news and entertainment fields so if Google loses their content from its indexes, it will actually be quite a blow for services such as Google News.

By the same token, it will certainly send a lot more people to Bing, which is just what Microsoft needs to really make a dent in Google's online dominance.

For that reason, I don't think it's hard to work out that Microsoft may well be offering some significant amount of money to NewsCorp -- an amount that will go some way to stem the rapidly dwindling revenues that all in the news industry are presently experiencing.

So, while commentators the world over have been casting aspersions on Murdoch's ability to understand the internet and even his business savvy, it looks as if he might just get the last laugh this time.

What's more, I doubt we'll see the threatened NewsCorp paywalls -- simply because Murdoch's been smart enough to find a new way to make news pay online.

Or I could be completely wrong -- but it's food for thought, isn't it?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Carbon: from hazard to hero

Carbon is the climate-killer element of the 21st century -- however, it's also a potential miracle material that could not only dramatically reduce our energy requirements but also revolutionise the way we build computers and other electronic devices.

While most of us are busy releasing billions of tonnes of climate-altering carbon into the atmosphere every year, there are some dedicated researchers who already claim that carbon will be the basis for a whole new generation of technologies that will significantly improve our lives.

One of the key new carbon-based materials is graphene, effectively a lattice of carbon just one molecule thick.

Graphene displays a wide number of very interesting physical and electrical properties that might represent the future of ultra-miniature hi-speed electronics and high capacity energy storage.

While researchers struggle to come up with more effective battery technologies, increasing attention is being paid to the use of graphene films to create "supercapacitors".

Unlike chemical batteries that store electricity by way of reversible chemical reactions, supercapacitors directly store the electrons that create the flow of electrical current.

In order to store enough electrons to rival the capacity of chemical batteries, a supercapacitor needs an enormous internal surface area on its plates. The thicker the plates, the less area can be crammed into a given volume and the heavier the capacitor will become. Existing capacitor technologies rely either on thin metal foil or film, often separated by an insulating sheet, liquid or even a simple oxide layer on one of those plates.

In such capacitors, the total storage ability is limited primarily by the thickness of the metal plates. By switching to graphene it is expected that the capacitance (therefore the number of electrons that can be stored in a given volume) will be increased by many orders of magnitude.

Within a decade or two, chemical batteries as we currently know them may have all but disappeared.

Some researchers suggest that in their place will be graphene-based supercapacitors delivering a far longer service life while allowing recharging in just seconds rather than hours. What's more, they'll be capable of delivering much higher peak currents, along with significantly higher energy densities.

The important bits of a modern hi-tech piece of consumer electronics such as a netbook computer are presently comprised largely of silicon and lithium. The netbook of the future could well be heavily based on carbon instead.

One thing is for sure with this new carbon technology -- it's unlikely we'll ever run out of the raw material and the more of it we can sequester into a new generation of electronic devices, the better off our climate will be.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Why Flash is like booze

One of the most loved and hated pieces of code on the internet today is the Adobe Flash player.

It's thanks to the power that this browser plug-in provides, that services such as YouTube and many others have flourished.

Flash has delivered web designers with a rich ability to create vivid multi-media displays on webpages and also deliver hitherto unattainable levels of interactivity between the page and the person reading it.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case with such complex pieces of software, Flash is not without its problems.

The first problem is what some see as the blatant over-use of this system. Whenever you see irritating ads that immediately start playing video (sometimes with an embarrassing or irritating level of sound), chances are that Flash is doing the work.

What's more, the bulk of those distracting, garish, eye-catching, annoying highly-animated banner ads are also delivered through the Flash player that is part of most browser setups.

However, more recently there has been an even more sinister side to Flash -- and that's the discovery of nasty security holes that make every website using Flash a potential booby-trap for unsuspecting websurfers.

The latest Flash security hole has been described as "huge" by at least one security expert.

The flaw has the potential to affect any website that uses a Flash applet to allow the upload of files. This would include sites such as GMail and YouTube, both of which rely on Flash applications to perform intelligent upload operations. Fortunately these companies have already taken great care to try and mitigate the problem.

However, by uploading their own carefully crafted malevolent Flash applications to less well administered sites, hackers could effectively then deliver those packages to other unsuspecting internet users with Flash-enabled browsers.

Adobe says that the flaw is not patchable and that the responsibility for ensuring that it can't be exploited lies with the website operators themselves.

In an amusing twist of irony, at least one media outlet is reporting that some of Adobe's own websites are themselves suffering from this very Flash-induced vulnerability.

This leaves the average Web-user in a bit of a quandry.

The only guaranteed way to avoid exposing themselves to the very clear and present danger associated with Flash right now is to uninstall the plug-in itself -- but that would leave many websites that rely solely on Flash for navigation, unusable.

Another option is to install a Flashbocking plug-in so that visitors to an untrusted page can select for themselves whether they enable Flash on an applet by applet basis.

No doubt this latest revelation will again rekindle the debate as to whether Flash has been grossly over-used and abused by webdesigners, something which certainly seems to be the case when so many websites rely totally on Flash applets with no alternative means of navigation.

Even NZ's Official Lotto website falls into this category.

Fortunately, with HTML 5.0 ready for the big-time, Flash may be almost reaching its use-by date and this proprietary system (complete with its security holes) may well fade into oblivion, from where some claim it should never have emerged in the first place.

The truth is that Flash is like alcohol... a little bit of it can make life more fun and does no harm. Over-use however, can lead to a whole bag of misery for all concerned.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Faking it in cyberspace

One of the amazing things that has been done with modern computer technology is emulation (or simulation).

Computers have become so powerful that they can now easily create images, sounds and movies of objects that simply never really existed -- but in a way that produces total realism.

The most obvious showcase for this technology is the incredibly realistic computer-generated images (CGI) to be found in so many contemporary movies.

NZ's own Weta Workshops made extensive use of CGI in the Lord of the Rings movies and separating computer imagery from reality has now become a difficult task, even for the most expert observer.

We now have the ability to return long-dead or retired actors to the screen by way of CGI and some of the later Terminator movies have apparently done just that with the computer-created image of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the original Terminator robot.

However, all this uber-accurate simulation seems to be creating problems.

It's not an issue with the massive amounts of computer power required to accurately model the 3D images or the complex physics involved -- it's all about lawyers and intellectual property rights.

An example of what may well become a vexing issue in future recently surfaced when a company began selling downloads of popular tracks by The Beatles.

For whatever reason, tracks by the Beatles have never been made available for legal download, so plenty of people, especially EMI who control the rights for the Beatles' albums, became very interested in exactly what was going on.

When challenged, Media Rights Technologies (MRT), the company offering the downloads, responded by saying that they owned the copyrights because these weren't the original Beatle's recordings, they were "pyschoacoustic simulations" of those tracks.

MRT head Hank Risan describes these psychoacoustic simulations as being the "synthetic creation of that series of sounds which best expresses the way a particular melody should be heard as a live performance".

To be honest, this sounds like a load of bunkum to me.

Maybe MRI have added a bit of reverb, noise and delay to the original tracks so as to simulate a life performance from a studio recording -- but it does raise a very important possibility.

It's only a matter of time before programmers to create acoustic models of famous voices.

Once this is done, it will become quite possible to recreate famous bands such as The Beatles and effectively "re-record" those much loved songs.

Although the melodies and lyrics will still be covered by the original copyrights, will the actual "virtual" performance be considered a unique work in its own right and therefore granted separate copyright protection?

What if the "virtual Beatles" band then covers other songs or is even programmed to play entirely new compositions?

Will the current owners of the copyright on existing Beatles' albums have any call on this totally new material?

In another twist, pop group No Doubt are suing Activision, the makers of video game Band Hero over a similar conflict.

The game makers have created a virtual copy of the band (with their permission) and the software allows game-players to have that artificial band play tracks that the real band never actually recorded. This has irked No Doubt members who feel that their virtual personas may end up singing inappropriate songs.

I see a real legal nightmare appearing just around the corner and we can expect many groundbreaking precedents to be set in coming years as reality and simulation go head to head in the courts.

Sometimes, computers are just too good at what they do.