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Die floppy disk, die, die!

01/05/2010 1 comment

Floppy Disk

Floppy Disk

I have been teaching IT since the early 1980s.  To start with I used cassette-based storage.  By the mid-1980’s I was using a network, whose server employed eight inch floppy disks for storage, with the stations having no local storage.  We then moved to Research Machine’s PCs which employed the then exciting 3.5 inch floppy disk.  It was not really floppy, as the magnetic media was encased in a hard plastic case, with a metal shutter protecting the recording surface.

The capacity of this disk is 1.4Mb, laughable by today’s standards.  However, in 1986 we issued students with a single floppy disk which was a boot disk (using MS-DOS), with a word processing program complete with spell-checker (MS Word), a spreadsheet (MS Multiplan) and a database package (dBase II) and there was still room for the student’s data files!

The advent of the CD-ROM, and the later USB flash-drive pens was supposed to announce the demise of the floppy drive. However, nobody actually told the floppy disk users.  One would assume that sales would be very low, and for niche markets only.  The former is false, although the latter tends to be true.  In the UK alone in excess of one million of them are sold very month.  Some of the niche markets include dataloggers and oscilloscopes used in science, CNC [computer numerical control] machines for metalworking and manufacture use floppies because their instruction sets are small enough to fit on the disks, for boot disks, in the aviation industry they are still used to update firmware on ticket printers, most if not all ATM (cashpoint) programming is installed direct to the machine from a floppy disk and they are used is sewing machines – there are top-end models that accept embroidery designs stored either on a special cartridge on floppy disk.

The floppy disk is dead.  Long live the floppy disk!

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Categories: Computing

Is it a new tablet, hand-held or an iPad rival?

23/04/2010 Leave a comment

Looking Glass

Looking Glass

Details are emerging of the new Dell “Looking Glass”.  It is early days, but already it is being touted as an iPad rival.  So what makes it so special?

The specification is as follows:

  • 7inch display – resolution of just 800×480
  • NVidia T20 (or Tegra 2) processor
  • 4GB of RAM
  • an SD card slot for additional storage
  • 1.3 megapixel front facing camera for video calling
  • optional digital TV tuner module so you can watch live TV
  • compatible with Mp3, WMA, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, AMR, Midi and WAV audio formats
  • supports H.263/H.264, 3GP, MPEG4, WMV and FLV (Flash) video formats
  • USB 2.0
  • a G-sensor
  • A-GPS
  • e-compass
  • a 2100 mAh battery
  • supports multitasking

An initial scan of the features shows it has some of the functions that the iPad lacks, but does it have the style and ‘desirability’ that Apple manage to breath in to their products?

As it is St. George’s Day (patron saint of England), perhaps I will be forgiven a bit of jingoism and say that the head designer for all Apple products Jonathan Ive, is a Brit.

Categories: Computing, Gadgets

NOT the iPhone 4G

20/04/2010 Leave a comment

Acer 521

Acer 521

After all the fuss about today’s Gizmodo story about the yet-to-be-released iPhone 4G ‘found’ in a bar, and the accompanying conspiracy theories, here is a story about a real product.

The Acer 521, at first glance, appears to be yet another Netbook.  What makes it different is the fact that it appears that it will not use the ubiquitous Atom processor, but will use the AMD Nile V105 processor.  This processor is a single-core processor, operating at 1.2HGz.  It has a total power draw of 9 watts, which makes it efficient for an AMD chip and supports DDR3 memory.  Tests will show it performs compared to the Atom.  It will also have ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4225, the letters ‘HD’ indicating the HD playback capability.  It remains unclear whether it will support 720p or 1080p HD video.

This Netbook the netbook will have optional Bluetooth 3 support and a compact charger with interchangeable plugs called MiniGo. The battery is supposed to be good for up to 7 hours.  It will have 1GB RAM, 160GB or 250GB hard disk drive and runs Windows 7 Starter Edition.  The 521 will be launched in June.

Categories: Computing, Gadgets

Moore’s law gets a boost

12/04/2010 Leave a comment

Memristor

Memristor

In 1965 Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel, suggested that the number of components in integrated circuits had doubled every year from the invention of the integrated circuit in 1958 until 1965 and predicted that the trend would continue “for at least ten years”.  In 1970 Douglas Engelbart (co-inventor of the mechanical mouse) of Caltech coined the phrase “Moore’s Law”.   In 1975, Moore altered his projection to a doubling every two years.  There is a  popular misconception, that he predicted a doubling “every 18 months”.  However, which ever version of the Law you ascribe to, it has held up over the decades

The challenge has been that of physics, and the increasing difficulty of increasing the density of transistors on the integrated circuit.  It seems that help may be on hand.  In 1971 Prof Leon Chua, at Berkeley, suggested that having two separate devices in a computer, one to store data and one to process data did not make sense.  He suggested memristors (transistors with memory), and that there was a conceptual symmetry  between the resistor, inductor, and capacitor, and suggested that the memristor is a similarly fundamental device.

He compared this theoretical device to the synapses and axons in the human brain.  With their use we can re-think the architecture of computers, allowing “brain-like computers” to be developed.  Such computers would be more energy efficient, would be less computational wasteful and could replace today’s flash memory.  Research by a team at the University of Michigan has already shown that they can store twice as much as an equivalent sized flash memory, and that they can be stacked to form three-dimensional arrays (theoretically in stacks of thousands of layers) .  It is hoped that this memory device will be ready to come to the market in three years.

It is the longer-term future (6 to 10 years)  for this device which is most exciting.  Currently, processors have transistors which are as small as 22 nanometres.  Memristors have been made as small as 3 nanometres.  It is the memristors compatibility with existing transistor-based technologies which will allow rapid implementation using today’s materials and chip fabrication plants.  This will allow Moore’s Law to continue for several decades to come.  HP who are developing the technology believe it has the ability to “turn the computing world upside down”.

Categories: Computing, Technology

Electrowetting – coming to a screen near you

11/04/2010 Leave a comment

Electrowetting

Electrowetting

Whilst electrowetting sounds like a medical condition, it is actually the ability to modify the wetting property of certain hydrophobic surfaces through the use of an electrical charge.  This phenomenon was first observed by Gabriel Lippmann as far back as 1875, but it was not until 1981 that the term ‘electrowetting’ was first used when research was conducted in to finding a fluid transistor for use in displays.

Whilst television producers pursued the use of Gas Plasma, LED (and recently OLED), further research and development has been taking place in to electrowetting technology.  Very basically, it involves the manipulation of tiny beads of coloured oil inside pixels by means of an electrical charge.  Most eReaders on the market use this technology, in black and white, and it is often referred to as e-ink.  One of the two disadvantages, thus far, has been the restriction to black and white pixels, and a refresh rate of up to two seconds a page, making video an impossibility.

However, a Dutch company, Liquavista, claims to have solved these two problems.  It hopes that its coloured screens, using electrowetting, will be incorporated in to a range of devices from 2011.  “You certainly could see this technology in your smartphone, in your mobile phone, in your web tablet, in your PC, in your notebook,” said Guy Demuynck, head of the company.  Their screens are up to four times more energy efficient than an LED screen, allow refresh rates of up to 60 times per second (making video a reality), and they use colour without the need for backlighting.  It is hoped that this will mean laptops will only need charging every few days, rather than every few hours.

It has been suggested that at last paper-thin displays used on advertising hoardings and even as wallpaper may be upon us.  As always, the success of this technology will depend on price.  At least it meets the growing demand for devices which consume less energy and that on its own may lead to demand.

Categories: Computing, Energy, Technology

Jolicloud – a good OS (operating system) for netbooks

29/03/2010 Leave a comment

Jolicloud

Jolicloud

I have something of a reputation of being an early adopter.  This is not true, having only just bought my first Blu-ray player, I did not buy the first generation of the iPhone and I have not rushed out to buy a Nexus phone or order an iPad.  Having said that, one device which caught my early attention was the Asus EEE PC.  I quickly bought one and indeed persuaded my boss that we should buy one for any of our 60 staff who wanted one.

I specified the Linux version, and most staff were very pleased with what was for many their first use of Linux (Xandros Linux).  Several of us wiped it to install Ubuntu, and since then I have tried many other distributions such as Open Suse, Linux Mint, Mandriva – amongst others.  At last I have found a version which has been designed for the Netbook PC from the outset.  It is called Jolicloud, and is now in final pre-release version .  The interface is very similar to that of Ubuntu NBR, but I have found it to be much quicker, especially running the Chrome browser.  I am also pleased with the screen resolution which brings my Asus 901 to life (by the way, this is probably my favourite gadget and one I use every day).

There is a particular focus on cloud computing and social networking.  The inteface for installing additional applications is very easy to use. A constant bar at the top of the screen shows a great deal of useful information.  The opening screen has a panel on the left showing groups or categories of applications, and the right-hand panel shows all the locations that the computer is connected to.  All of this customisable, at least to a certain extent.

Tariq Krim and his team in Paris have done an impressive job on this OS.  If you have a Netbook, but are running Windows, then go to the Jolicloud web site and download a version to run off a memory stick.  This will allow you to boot from it, run Jolicloud and all its applications without touching your installed copy of Windows.   Linux has come of age, allowing the user to install, automatically pick up the drivers required and to use without any recourse to either a command line interface or a compiler.  I can thoroughly recommend Jolicloud. (Oh, did I mention in boots in 15 seconds?)

Categories: Computing, Gadgets

Technology convergence – the statistics

24/03/2010 Leave a comment

I came across an interesting video on the “The Future of Learning” web site.  The sources are all referenced, and look reputable.  Although the statistics are largely USA centric, they make interesting reading nonetheless.

  • In excess of 1 000 000 000 books are published each year, a Google book search scanner can digitize 1 000 pages an hour
  • Americans have access to 1 000 000 000 000 web pages, 65 000 iPhone apps, 10 500 radio stations, 5 500 magazines, 200+ cable TV channels (near identical to the UK, apart from the radio channels, if you exclude web radio channels)
  • Newspaper circulation in the USA is down by 7 million in the last 25 years, but in the last 5 years unique readers of online newspapers are up by 30 million
  • In the last 2 months more video was uploaded to YouTube than if all the major US broadcasters had been broadcasting 24hrs a day, 365 days a week, since 1948
  • The same broadcasters get 10 million visitors a month to their websites.  In that period FaceBook, YouTube and MySpace receive 250 million (none of these sites existed 6 years ago).
  • 95% of all the music downloaded last year was not paid for.
  • Wikipedia launched in 2001, has 13 million articles, in 200 languages and worldwide employs just 12 full-time staff (no, that was not a typo).
  • Cisco’s Nexus 7000 data switch could move all of Wikipedia in just 0.001 of a second
  • The average American teenager sends 2 272 text messages a month, one of  my daughters regularly sends 4 000 a month
  • Nokia is manufacturing 13 mobile phones every second
  • 93% of Americans own a mobile phone.
  • 1/3 of mobile phone users feel it is unsafe to use them to make purchases.  So much for the ‘digital wallet’.
  • In 2007 Dell claim to have earned $3 million from Twitter posts
  • In February 2008 John McCain attended fund raising events for his presidential campaign and raised $11 million.  In the same period Barack Obama attended no such events.  Instead his campaign team used social networks to raise $55 million in 29 days.
  • 90% of the 200 billion emails sent each year are spam
  • By 2020 the mobile device will be the primary device for accessing the Web
  • The computer embedded in your mobile phone is a million times cheaper, a thousand times more powerful and a hundred thousand times smaller than the single mainframe owned by MIT in 1965
  • The computer that once filled a building now fits in your pocket, and in 25 years from now will be small enough to fit in a blood cell.

The link to the original video is in the bottom right of this page.