Friday, May 28, 2010

The sky is falling (not today, but soon)

As a civilization, we have become incredibly dependent on a vast array of orbiting satellites.

In the span of a single lifetime (my own) we've gone from having no man-made objects in orbit to the point where now we're approaching saturation point and are hugely reliant on the services they provide.

It's not that the heavens are clogged with satellites, it's that they're becoming increasingly strewn with "space junk" over which we no longer have any control.

In fact, items of space junk outnumber in-use satellites by a ratio of 336:1

There is now growing concern that it may take just one major collision between objects of any significant size to trigger a massive chain reaction that could cripple many other communications and navigation satellites.

Although much of the "space junk" currently in orbit is very small, even something as tiny as a screw can knock out a large satellite if it impacts at the right point with enough velocity.

Any major impacts would be sure to generate a cloud of much smaller pieces, each of which has the potential to rip through other orbiting objects with more energy than the bullet from a high-powered rifle. An example of this was the collision last year between an inoperative Russian satellite and a communications satellite operated by the US company Iridium. Scientists estimate that these two objects broke into more than 1,500 fragments, which are still in orbit around the Earth.

The effect of a Chinese "satellite-killer" test against an orbiting bird produced an astonishing 150,000 pieces of space-junk.

The problem and potential disaster it may produce is even greater than you might think.

Should a chain-reaction of impacts be set off, not only would this eventually render large numbers of satellites inactive but it would also create a cloud of fragments that would continue to circle the earth at that distance for many years to come. This shell of shrapnel would effectively make it impossible to replace those damaged satellites, as the new units would also be subjected to impact from the orbiting fragments.

Fortunately, the issue does seem confined mainly to satellites in low-earth orbits (LEO) which are just a thousand Kms or less above the surface of the planet. There appears to be less concern being voiced over the risks associated with satellites lodged in geostationary orbits which are about 37,000kms above the surface. This is perhaps because the area of a sphere with such a markedly increased radius is much greater and therefore the odds of an impact is dramatically reduced.

Geostationary satellites also have zero relative motion to each other and therefore the velocity of any impact would be minimal.

So what happens if this chain reaction does occur?

Well the vast majority of communications satellites, tend to be geostationary and would thus avoid the resulting mayhem. However, the networks associated with satellite telephones, GPS navigation and some kinds of military surveillance could be dramatically impacted.

Even the loss of the GPS network would pose a major problem to the world's transport services, forcing airlines, shipping and other long-distance craft to revert to older, less accurate navigational systems.

There is a small chance that the international space station may also have to be evacuated for fear of damage from the resulting space debris.

So yes, one day, when you look up, you might find that the sky is falling and the first you may know about it is when the sat-nav system in your car goes deathly quiet.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A new display technology - the good and the bad of it

Within a few short years, that LCD display on your desktop, mobile phone, laptop and even your widescreen TV may be "so last week".

That's because a number of companies claim they're making huge advances in the area of flexible displays that are not only lighter, tougher and more efficient than LCDs, they'll also be able to roll up so that when not in use, take up far less space.

As mobile phone users are well aware -- when choosing a phone these days you really need to make a compromise between overall size and screen area. Some models, like the iPhone have opted to completely dispense with a conventional keyboard so as to gain maximum screenspace while others have resorted to sliding keyboards and all manner of other strategies.

But imagine a phone where the screen can be unrolled like a blind when needed -- or which automatically slides out of the phone as required. With this technology, the phone itself could be as small as a pen -- because some of these new flexible paper-thin displays are also touch-sensitive, eliminating the need for a keyboard.

A leading player in this field right now is HP who are chasing the lucrative military market with the promise of active maps. These maps appear as a simple sheet of translucent plastic but when activated, can display any of the topographical or photographic images stored in a tiny integrated processor system. One map to rule them all, so to speak.

Another clear application for this exciting new technology is in the burgeoning market for e-book readers...

Right now, even state-of-the-art readers like the Kindle and iPad are too heavy and bulky for many people to consider practical. Readers based on thin, flexible film displays may change all that, allowing a reader, complete with a huge library of titles, to be made almost as thin and light as just a few pages of the book it replaces.

The only downside of these new low-cost, thin-film, flexible display materials is that there are already plans afoot to harness the technology for advertising.

Eventually, many of the static posters and billboards we ignore every day as we go about our business will become highly animated distractions. It will be like having Flash applets littered throughout the real-world.

I really have to wonder if the benefits will outweigh the penalties of this technology :-)

Friday, May 14, 2010

Apple's two-fingered gesture to competitors

It seems that whenever new user-interface technology appears, lawsuits follow close behind.

Those who can remember when the first GUI interfaces began to appear on personal computers will recall that Apple and Digital Research became involved in a bit of legal biffo over who owned the intellectual property associated with a virtual trash-can.

Goodness knows how much money was spent on lawyers over the issue but now it all seems so trivial -- although at the time it was a deadly serious business.

Well the mouse-driven GUI has been "the" user-interface standard for desktop and laptop computers for decades but now there's a new kid on the block.

The advent of mobile phones and other small computing appliances with ever-larger touch screens has seen the introduction of "multipoint gestures" as a key component of modern user-interfaces.

Simply touching a virtual button on an LCD is no longer a powerful enough way to interact with these devices. Manufacturers have come up with clever stuff that represent pinching, parting and other gestures involving the use of more than one finger and movements beyond a simple touch.

But who owns these "gestures"?

Well (once again) we have Apple coming out with all (lawyers') guns blazing and filing suit against another major handset maker HTC.

Just as it did with the trash-can, Apple is laying claim to multi-touch gesturing as its own sacred and patented intellectual property, making it clear that (as far as the big A is concerned) nobody else can use this technology without their permission.

So why don't HTC simply come up with their own alternatives rather than knowingly infringe Apple's patents?

Well it seems that they can't actually come up with anything better and they know that if they're going to compete head on with Apple, they need to provide this level of intuitive interface.

In fact, the patenting of multi-point gestures could be a real roadblock for all the other mobile device-makers who will find themselves stuck with second-rate user-interfaces and reduced market share as a result.

Will Apple license this technology to competitors?

I doubt it. After all, why rent out the goose that is laying the golden egg? Better that they keep this stuff for themselves and reap the benefits that come from higher sales of their iPhones and iPads.

In fact, the "do or die" importance of multi-touch gesturing is even forcing other big-name companies such as Palm and Motorola are said to be contemplating their own multi-point
gesturing interfaces, possibly risking legal action from the Apple in the process.

However, all hope is not lost.

Back in the early days of the PC GUI, Apple did cross-license technologies with Microsoft which explains why Windows ended up with a trash can.

The real question is whether HTC, Palm, Motorola or any of the other mobile device makers has anything Apple might want in return for such a license. If not, Apple may be quite prepared to give a different kind of two fingered gesture to its competitors when it comes to this technology -- and, as they've proven in the past, they're quite prepared to back that up with legal action.

Of course if you think you've developed something better than multi-point gesturing as a user-interface to small hand-held devices, you may be sitting on a goldmine.

Friday, May 7, 2010

iPad in, Netbook out

If reports out of the USA are correct, it would appear that buyers may find themselves able to score some pretty hot deals on Netbooks in coming months.


Well apparently a significant (44%) of those who were previously planning to buy a Netbook have instead opted for the iPad as a "sexier" alternative.

Even though the iPad lacks true multi-tasking, has some wireless connectivity issues and locks its purchasers into Apple's software, users are flocking to it in droves.

Whether it's just a fashion trend or an acknowledgment that the iPad's simple, intuitive user-interface and 10-hour battery life are ultimately more important to people than anything the Netbooks have to offer is a subject for debate.

When I first saw the iPad promotional video and read the specs I knew this was going to be a massively popular product and was surprised that so many commentators said it wouldn't sell because nobody "needed" it.

Nobody "needs" HD TV either, but it sells like hotcakes, because it's what people "want" that empties their wallets just as much as what they need.

But why is the iPad selling in such huge volumes? (over a million shipped so far)

Because, unlike a Netbook or laptop, it isn't a computer -- it's a tool, and a very well designed tool at that.

iPad users don't have to worry about what OS they're using or what anti-virus software's installed. They don't need to concern themselves about compatibility with this application or that peripheral.

Rather than all that geek-stuff, they've purchased a shiny rectangle of fun that lets them read e-books, watch movies and surf the web in a most hassle-free way.

It's not a generic untailored product that attempts to be all things to all people -- it's a slick "appliance" that just does a few things really, really well.

If you're one of the millions who really want an iPad, that's probably good and bad news.

Good, because it's an endorsement that you'll be getting a pretty cool piece of kit.

Bad, because it means that, with demand continuing to remain high, prices will not drop and you may find yourself waiting longer than you'd hope to get your hands on one.

If you're a Netbook lover or someone who likes the challenge of trying to get your computer to do as many different things as humanly possible (all at the same time) then you'll also be happy.

Should the reports be true and the market be turning away from Netbooks, demand will fall and, sure as eggs and, with falling demand comes falling prices.

Thank you Apple for making life better for iPad and Netbook users alike.