Friday, July 30, 2010

When the last number has gone, what then?

The internet is a complex maze of origins, pathways and destinations through which packets of data have to be directed.

Whether it's email, web-traffic, file downloads, video or VOIP, all of this data relies on the existence of IP numbers so as to sort out which turns to take and where the packets are to be finally delivered.

When the Al Gore first invented the internet (yeah, right), there wasn't any problem. IP numbers were plentiful, in fact there were about 4 billion of them to go round and in the early days there simply wasn't much demand. Indeed, plenty of people would have scoffed at the suggestion that one day we'd run out of these numbers.

Well bad news.

That day is now less than a year away.

At the current rate of allocation, we have a little over 300 days worth of IP numbers left.

The problem is that people just keep on adding stuff to the internet at an ever-increasing rate.

It's not just computers either. There are a growing number of "smart" devices that hook up to the Net, and each requires an IP number. The webcams which keep an eye on traffic - they need IP numbers. The webserver on which this site is located -- it needs an IP number (perhaps many in fact) and every time you log on to do some browsing, you also need a number.

So what's the problem? Surely they can just make some more numbers can't they?

Who says that 4 billion is the limit?

Well unfortunately, because of the way current IP numbers are formed, we can't just print more of them.

Right now, IP numbers consist of 4 bytes and are usually expressed in the form nnn.nnn.nnn.nnn, where each 'nnn' is a number from 0 through 255. Once we've used up all the numbers from 0.0.0.0 to 255.255.255.255, there are no more -- unless we switch from 4 bytes to more.

And indeed that's just what's planned.

The current system is based on what's known as IPv4. A new system is slowly being rolled out called IPv6 which uses four times as many bytes to create the numbers needed.

IPv6 will offer a massive increase over the humble 4 billion numbers we already have -- in fact it's a mind-bogglingly huge number -- but only a fool would say that it's more than we'll ever need. However, I think it's safe to say that by the time we run out of these numbers, the internet will have evolved to something far more sophisticated and will probably use a totally different addressing system.

So what's the problem then... let's just roll out IPv6 and start handing out new (bigger) numbers before the IPv4 ones run out.

Unfortunately it's not quite that simple. In order to use IPv6 a whole lot of expensive equipment has to be replaced or significantly upgraded -- and that's going to cost, a lot!

ISPs, telcos and others who are responsible for the routing of data around the place will be looking at big bills to become IPv6 compatible and that could mean higher prices for the rest of us, as they pass those costs on.

There are interim solutions that may postpone the fateful day when the last IPv4 number is allocated but some of those techniques will break popular internet applications. Examples of this kind of thing have been around for a while, with many web-hosting companies managing to squeeze hundreds of websites onto the same IP number.

In the meantime, the next 12-24 months will be "interesting times" for the internet industry as they struggle to update and hone their systems to work with the new, much larger IPv6 addresses.

I'll revisit this issue in a year's time, let's see how they've gotten on by then.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Publishers typing with fingers-crossed for iPad rescue

Newspapers, magazines and other print-media publishers have been hard-hit by the abundance of free material made possible by the Internet.

When I think back a decade or two I recall that I subscribed to at least a dozen monthly periodicals which were either delivered to my mailbox or kept for me by my local bookshop.

I would eagerly await the arrival of Byte, DrDobbs Journal, Scientific American, Australian PC, RC Models and Electronics, plus a number of other titles which contained a plethora of interesting articles and an avalanche of advertising.

They were good times for the print publishing industry with advertisers' dollars flowing in like water.

Oh how things have changed!

Now it would be a very brave (or stupid) person who opted to launch a print-based technology magazine (or any magazine for that matter) in today's "connected" world.

Long delays between the time that an article is written and when it finally reaches the reader means that print is all but dead for tech-industry news publications. Readers expect to be able to log in on a daily basis to get the latest news and happenings. The normal four to six week turn-around for print is no longer acceptable.

Many print publishers have done their best to move their periodicals to the web but few are making anything like the money they did in the pre-IP era. Online advertising just doesn't command the same price as print advertising and advertisers can see just how (in)effective their ad-spend is today, something that often surprises them, and not in a good way.

However, the launch of the Apple iPad in NZ this week has seen print-media publishers getting very excited. It's almost like the second coming, the buzz is so great.

At last, there is now a platform that offers the ability to deliver a real print-magazine format without the limitations of online browsing.

When used as an e-Mag reader, the iPad allows users to enjoy full-page colour ads and longer, in-depth articles with almost the same comfort and convenience as offered by a glossy magazine.

This re-opens the doors for those magazine publishers who were worried where their next meal was coming from.

Now they can go back to a subscription model, charging readers for each issue downloaded and commanding a new premium for the ad-space contained in those iPad editions.

Or at least that's the plan.

Whether it actually works or not, a surprisingly large percentage of mainstream print-media publishers are jumping aboard with all fingers crossed.

Whether readers will warm to the idea of once again having to pay for content is another question.

Once the novelty wears off their shiny new iPad, will they just go back to a PC and web-browser for their news, information and entertainment? Or will they continue to stump up cold, hard cash for the iPad e-version of their favourite print magazines?

I really don't know.

Will the iPad audience be large enough to support this publishing model?

So many questions, so few answers -- yet.

Would you pay for the iPad version of a periodical you currently get for free online?

Would you pay for the iPad version of a print publication you currently subscribe to or buy regularly from the local dairy or book shop?

Friday, July 16, 2010

The technologies that nobody really wants

Have you heard of video-phones?

These have been a standard part of our vision of the future ever since the telephone itself was invented.

Futurists and Scifi writers have predicted the arrival of the video phone for decades and now we have the technology to deliver this service but, it seems, nobody really wants it.

Oh sure, a few people play around with Skype's videophone service and perhaps even use their mobiles to exchange live video while making calls but, once the novelty wears off, most go back to good old voice-only conversations.

It seems that video-phones are just one of a long line of technologies that should be outrageously popular but which in fact, nobody wants.

Need another example?

What about voice-controlled computers.

As far back as the 1980s, companies like IBM were predicting a future where the human voice was the primary interface mechanism between man and machine. A number of computer manufacturers even shipped machines with speech synthesizers in them. I remember well the Bondwell portable computer I owned in the early 1980s which had just such a feature.

After playing with this feature for an hour or so it was turned off and never used again. Today's computers no longer have built-in speech synthesizers. What does that tell you?

IBM themselves invested enormous amounts of money into voice-recognition, in the hope of producing a system that would allow non-typists to simply dictate their letters directly into a computer's microphone and have them then pop out the printer, spell-checked and immaculately formated -- perfect in every way.

This still hasn't happend, even though voice recognition systems are now more than capable of providing very high levels of accuracy.

It seems we live in a world full of solutions that are still looking for problems.

Perhaps there's a sage lesson there for any budding entrepreneur who thinks they have an idea that will make them a fortune.

Just remember, it's better to actually research your market and found out what it needs and wants, before you assume that your idea will sell.

In the meantime, I'm still waiting for my fusion-powered flying car to be delivered.

Perhaps tomorrow.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Chinese are invading

This week, an awful lot of my time seems to have been taken up dealing with matters related to China.

Just a few decades ago, nobody really considered China to be much more than a 3rd-world country, with subsistence farming and small quantities of low-tech exports making little impression on the world's economy.

My, what a difference a few decades can make.

Today China is a massive industrial and economic superpower, exporting huge amounts of low and hi-tech products to eager markets around the world.

A quick check of the home appliances and electronic devices around your home or office will quickly show just how much we have become reliant on this previously sleeping giant.

And now China is already taking another huge step towards filling the world with its plethora of products...

They're selling direct via the internet.

Until recently, the Chinese followed traditional business practice, selling their wares to importers around the world, who then sold to retailers, who sold to end-users. That is changing, and changing very rapidly, thanks to the Net.

I'm not here to promote commercial websites but I recently spent almost an entire day browsing the incredibly comprehensive aliexpress.com site.

My goodness.... there is a bewildering array of products there and they're all available for purchase over the web, at typically Chinese prices.

Whether it's farm machinery, MP3 players, electronic components, metalworking machines, raw materials or services -- they're all there and all just a few mouse-clicks away from your door.

Until recently, there have been many sites that showcased Chinese products and companies on the Net but most of those had no e-commerce capabilities, simply acting instead, as a generator of sales-leads, requiring buyer and seller to transact business directly between themselves. These newer sites however, actually handle the transaction and even offer an escrow service to take much of the risk out of such purchases.

To be honest, I don't think I'd be investing in bricks and mortar retail to any degree, now that the Chinese are getting serious about making their products directly available to anyone with a credit-card and internet connection. There are challenging times ahead for the traditional whole-sale/retail distribution model, that's for sure.

As someone who's always looking for a bargain, I can see that I'll inevitably be wasting far more time trawling these websites for a good deal. Come to think of it, when I factor in the time I spend doing this, the total cost may not be such a bargain after all.

However, I think it's fair to say that the Chinese invasion is well underway. Be prepared. Go place your credit card in an ice-cream container filled with water and stick it in the freezer. That'll help reduce the chances of an unexpected "impulse purchase" while you're trawling the pages of these new Chinese online superstores".

Friday, July 2, 2010

We're falling for gyros

Back in the early days of aviation and aerospace, gyroscopes were bulky mechanical devices which, despite their size and weight, were amazingly fragile.

Anyone who's ever played with a spinning top understands the basics of a gyroscope.

One of the most common demonstrations of gyroscopic stability is a childs spinning top.

When not turning, the spinning top will never balance on the narrow point that is its base. No matter how carefully you try to get it balanced and level, when you release it, it quickly falls to the side until it is resting on that point and the edge of the disk.

However, spin that top up and it will quite happily sit, steady as a rock on that tiny point in the center. Even if you give it a good shove, it will still maintain an upright stance and continue to pivot on its base.

The wonders if gyroscopic force go far beyond a simple child's toy however. Gyroscopes have long been at the very cornerstone of our ability to build and fly aircraft, rockets and orbiting satellites.

And now, thanks to the inexorable tide of miniaturisation and advances in solid-state technology, gyroscopes, and their close cousins called accelerometers, are now built into a growing number of consumer electronic devices.

What's the difference between an accelerometer and a gyroscope?

An accelerometer detects an acceleration (such as the force of gravity or a change in the speed of an object) in a single plane. A gyro detects an change in angular movement (rotation).

To draw an analogy -- let's say you mount a gyro and an accelerometer on your head...

Now, if you are standing and you crouch, then return to standing position, the accelerometer will have been able to measure the forces that were created by that movement and when connected to a suitably programnmed computer, could even produce a graph that ploted the vertical position of your head against time. However, the gyroscope would not have even noticed the movement because there was no rotation involved.

Yet, if you twisted your body and head around so as to look behind you, the accelerometer would read nothing but gyroscope attached to your head would be able to tell you just how many degrees it had rotated and (with the right computer/software) could plot a graph of your head's rotational position against time.

So just how are gyros and accelerometers being used these days?

Cameras with "Optical Image Stabilisation" which promises to reduce the effects of camera-shake, usually contain either gyros (to detect the small rotations of the lens-angle when your hand wobbles) and/or accelerometers (to detect vertical/horizontal displacements of the camera). The signal from the movement sensor is then used to adjust the angle of a small mirror or prism to compensate for the movement, effectively eliminating or greatly reducing the effect of that camera-shake.

If you've got an iPhone or iPad then you'll know that these devices have accelerometers in them that allow the display to recognise whether it's being held in landscape or portrait mode.

Users of the Wii console will be very well acquainted with just how accelerometers can convert the direction and speed of a movement into a game-input.

And of course, we've all see the Segway which relies heavily on gyros and accelerometers to maintain its upright position and allow control inputs to be made simply by leaning forwards or backwards.

So where are the big, heavy spinning wheels that used to make up the gyros of yester-year?

Well they've been replaced by tiny etched slithers of silicon which vibrate at a high frequency and in the case of a gyro, rely on something called Coriolis Effect.

Accelerometers use a small strip of silicon which is bent by the force of acceleration, effectively changing the gap between it and surrounding bits of silicon. When a high frequency signal is passed through this arrangement, the amount of deflection (hence the acceleration) can be very accurately measured.

Both these bits of clever stuff are what's called MEMS devices (Micro Electro Mechanical Systems) and form part of a family known as motion sensors. Most of these devices are smaller than a fingernail, making them ideal for today's ultra-compact consumer electronics.

They're already making huge (often covert) inroads into our hi-tech appliances and you can expect to see a lot more features and functions that rely on them as we wake up to the potential they offer to clever and innovative technology designers.