Technology News

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Sunday, March 05, 2006

Fastest view of molecular motion

Scientists have made the fastest ever observations of motion in a molecule.

They "watched" parts of a molecule moving on an attosecond timescale - where one attosecond equals one billion-billionth of a second.

The researchers say the study gives a new in-depth understanding of chemical processes and could be used in future technologies like quantum computing.

The study, which relies on short pulses of light from a specially built laser, was published in the journal Science.

"Understanding how something changes in time means really understanding its essence, and we are now looking at changes on a very, very fast timescale," said team member Dr John Tisch, of Imperial College London, UK.

Ultra-fast process

The researchers devised a new technique to "see" the motion of protons, one of the building blocks of an atom, in molecules of hydrogen and methane.

The technique involves firing a very short but intense laser pulse at a molecule, which rips an electron away, leaving the molecule in an excited ionised state.

The electron is then drawn back to the molecule, and when it collides a very short burst of x-rays is released.


Online amateurs crack Nazi codes

Three German ciphers unsolved since World War II are finally being cracked, helped by thousands of home computers.

The codes resisted the best efforts of the celebrated Allied cryptographers based at Bletchley Park during the war.

Now one has been solved by running code-breaking software on a "grid" of internet-linked home computers.

The complex ciphers were encoded in 1942 by a new version of the German Enigma machine, and led to regular hits on Allied vessels by German U-boats.

Allied experts initially failed to deal with the German adoption in 1942 of a complex new cipher system, brought in at the same time as a newly upgraded Enigma machine.

The advancement in German encryption techniques led to significant Allied losses in the North Atlantic throughout 1942.

The three unsolved Enigma intercepts were published in a cryptography journal in 1995 and have intrigued enthusiasts ever since.

Although assumed to have little historical significance, they are thought to be among just a handful of German naval ciphers in existence still to be decoded.

Exponential growth

The latest attempt to crack the codes was kick-started by Stefan Krah, a German-born violinist with an interest in cryptography and open-source software.

Mr Krah told the BBC News website that "basic human curiosity" had motivated him to crack the codes, but stressed the debt he owed to veteran codebreaking enthusiasts who have spent years researching Enigma.

He wrote a code-breaking program and publicised his project on internet newsgroups, attracting the interest of about 45 users, who all allowed their machines to be used for the project.

Mr Krah named the project M4, in honour of the M4 Enigma machine that originally encoded the ciphers.

There are now some 2,500 separate terminals contributing to the project, Mr Krah said.

"The most amazing thing about the project is the exponential growth of participants. All I did myself was to announce it in two news groups and on one mailing list."

Nevertheless, in little over a month an apparently random combination of letters had been decoded into a real wartime communication.

In its encrypted form the cipher makes no sense at all, reading as follows:


Unencrypted and translated into English, the message suddenly comes to life:

"Forced to submerge during attack. Depth charges. Last enemy position 0830h AJ 9863, [course] 220 degrees, [speed] 8 knots. [I am] following [the enemy]. [barometer] falls 14 mb, [wind] nor-nor-east, [force] 4, visibility 10 [nautical miles]."

A check against existing records confirmed that the message was sent by Kapitanleutnant Hartwig Looks, commander of the German navy's U264 submarine, on 25 November 1942.


Friday, March 03, 2006

Details unfolding on Microsoft's Origami

As rumors unfurl about a new gadget upcoming from Microsoft, the company's Origami Project is starting to take shape as a very small tablet computer, one perhaps affordable enough to appeal to mainstream consumers.

The concept, which Microsoft plans to detail next month, is built on top of the Windows XP operating system but aims to be a new kind of device, rather than a replacement for existing PCs, according to sources familiar with the effort. With a screen bigger than that of a handheld but smaller than a notebook PC screen, Origami devices won't fit in the pocket, but they'll make it into purses and even the smallest of backpacks, sources said.

Microsoft's goal is to create a blueprint for devices that could sell for $600 or less, although the actual prices will depend greatly on what manufacturers decide to include. Origami is capable of supporting features like GPS, Bluetooth, 3G cellular technology and Wi-Fi, though each of these adds to the cost of the device.

Rumors have been swirling about the device over the past week. The Origami Project Web site, which is owned by Microsoft, pledges that more information will come Thursday. However, sources say this is likely to be more buzz, with actual details not expected until later in March, likely at the CeBit show that takes place March 9 to 15 in Hannover, Germany.

In a somewhat uncharacteristic move, Microsoft has remained mum on Origami, while fanning the flames with its Web site.

However, Origami doesn't come out of the blue. Microsoft first showed off an Origami-like prototype at last year's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in Seattle. At the time, Chairman Bill Gates flashed something with a 6-inch screen and said Microsoft hoped to have it sell for $800 or less, though the company said it didn't know when that would be commercially feasible.

Gates said at the time that significant hardware and software advances were still needed to make the Ultramobile 2007, as the prototype was dubbed, a reality. However, he said a 1-pound, 6-inch device that combines all the power of a PC, a phone and a camera for about $800 would be possible within a couple of years.

"We do believe this is achievable," Gates told the crowd of hardware makers.

Microsoft also reportedly talked about plans for an Origami-like device at a partner conference earlier this month.

A Microsoft representative on Monday declined to offer further details on Origami. Microsoft has confirmed that a video that's been making the rounds is indeed from the software maker, though a representative said it's nearly a year old and represents only the company's "initial exploration into this form factor."

Earlier this year, a small start-up called Dualcor Technologies did announce a mini tablet that seems similar to Origami, although it's aimed at businesses. That device, the cPC, uses a Via Technologies processor, has a 5-inch screen and runs Windows XP, though it also has a Windows Mobile 5 cell phone built-in.

Though Microsoft is enjoying considerable buzz about Origami, there's some concern that the hype could overshadow the product itself, a concern Microsoft blogger Robert Scoble voiced on his Web site.

Industry observers note that Microsoft appears to be breaking considerable pricing ground with Origami, but they note that it's still unclear what the specific use of Origami will be, or which, if any, existing devices it will replace. There is some thought that its initial incarnation might appeal primarily to gadget aficionados, rather than mainstream consumers.

Microsoft's Origami is completely distinct from a gadget that National Semiconductor showed at the 2001 Comdex trade show, which also resembled a mini-PC, was to perform several functions, and bore the code name Origami.


Oracle releases enterprise search software

Oracle has entered the standalone enterprise search market with Secure Enterprise Search 10g. The company hopes that the new product will do for corporate data what Google has done for public data on the web.

"We're very excited about this product," said Larry Ellison, Oracle's chief executive officer, speaking at the Oracle OpenWorld Tokyo 2006. "It's one of our biggest announcements for many, many years. It's the result of years of innovation and hard work."

Oracle Secure Enterprise Search 10g will support the searching of a company's databases, applications, file servers, repositories, portals and internal and external webites, according to Sandeepan Banerjee, director of product management for objects and extensibility with Oracle. The search engine is integrated with multiple user authentication systems so that a particular user will only be able to see search results tied to the information they are authorised to view, he said.

"Our search tool understands which information goes to which user," said Greg Crider, senior director for technology marketing with Oracle.

Ellison had indicated that this was a key difference from Google, which doesn't do well searching private data.

"There is a reason why public search is available and popular but no one yet has done a good job on secure search," he said. "No one has done a good job yet searching private data, even though the private data is the most valuable data you have."

"It's a separate database that indexes all of your data," he said. "There are crawlers, in a sense it is very similar to what Google does, but you're not crawling the public Internet. You're crawling and indexing all of your private databases, Microsoft Word files and all your data and building in a separate Oracle database all these indexes."

As different as Google and Oracle's new applications might be, there is one are where they are very similar: the interface. The Web interface to Oracle's Secure Enterprise Search shown during the keynote was very similar to the minimalist public Google search engine, with search types above a centrally placed text box and an "advanced search" link to the right of the box.

Oracle has 15 years of experience in full-text search technologies incorporating such capabilities into its databases, data warehouse software and business intelligence tools, according to Banerjee. However, the new software will be the company's first stab at a stand-alone enterprise product, he said. Previously, a customer wanting such stand-alone capabilities would need to do their own development work to build on top of the Oracle Text search technologies, Banerjee added.

Ellison encouraged users to download the application and take it for a test drive before deciding whether to buy it or not.

"Just go ahead and download it from our site, it's very easy to try," he said. "Normally you buy an Oracle database product, your engineers work for a while, it's really a pretty substantial project before you start returning value to your company. This is very unusual. Literally, within a day or two of installing this product you can start delivering this search capability to the people inside your organization."

Recently, application vendors have begun to wake up to the potential of the enterprise search market which has experienced double-digit growth over the last few years, according to Sue Feldman, research vice president with IDC.

IBM already has its OmniFind search engine, while Microsoft has its Index Server software. Oracle Secure Enterprise Search 10g is likely to shake up the enterprise search market still further, Feldman said. "They [Oracle] have such a great installed base, they can have a real effect," she added.

Oracle's main rival in the enterprise applications arena, SAP, has its Trex search technology, but has yet to release it as a standalone search engine, she added. Last month, SAP announced plans to extend its search capabilities with the next major release of its NetWeaver application development and integration software set to allow the searching of both structured and unstructured data.

Being able to find a particular piece of information is becoming more and more important to companies, with enterprise search becoming "their interface to life online," Feldman said.

Meanwhile, traditional lower-end Internet search companies like Google are working hard at scaling up their offerings and adding in security features to appeal to enterprise users. "One of the main pain points for consumer search is security," Feldman said. "That's why Google recently teamed up with [consultancy and systems integrator] BearingPoint Inc."

Oracle Secure Enterprise Search 10g will be available worldwide sometime between now and May, according to Oracle's Crider. User-based pricing is still being finalised and should be announced Monday, he said. The cost per central processing unit (CPU) will be US$30,000, Crider added.


Software helps the illiterate find work

Microsoft Corp.'s Office software and Windows operating system is typically associated with slick "information workers" on the go, using the latest technology to solve complex business problems.

At a company research and development lab in India, however, workers are grappling with a much different problem: How to use technology to help people who cannot read or write, let alone use a computer.

Working with a local advocacy group, Microsoft has developed a prototype of a system that would help connect illiterate domestic workers in India with families seeking their services. The goal is to help the women see how technology can make finding work more efficient, as the first step toward creating broader tools to allow illiterate people to benefit from technological advances.

The software was on display for Microsoft employees Wednesday, as part of Microsoft Research TechFest, an annual gathering of employees from the company's various research and development centers. The researchers, located in China, India, England and the United States, provide the company with a mix of far-flung technology and more practical applications.

Researchers on the Indian project say they have had to overcome their preconceptions about how the technology should work, and why people would want to use it.

The system uses pictures, video and voice commands to tell women what jobs are available, how much the jobs pay and where they are.

Kentaro Toyama, a researcher overseeing the project, said the first big hurdle was to understand what kind of computer images actually made sense to the domestic workers.

A photograph of dirty dishes, for example, was too realistic -- the women thought those were the actual dishes they were supposed to wash. But a realistic cartoon, with water running over dishes, worked well.

Also, the women associated neighborhoods with landmarks rather than addresses, so an interactive map and verbal directions had to be tweaked to represent that.

Even after extensive revisions, the researchers found that while the women understood how to use the technology, they had trouble seeing why a computerized system for finding work was better than traditional word-of-mouth.

The researchers eventually created a video -- with popular "Bollywood" movies in mind -- showing a woman complaining to her spouse that she needed another job, and using the computer to find it. That worked.

The researchers say they are now trying to figure out how to implement the system, since most women who do domestic work don't own computers. One option is to put up a kiosk in a community center, Toyama said.

Raj Reddy, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who is also working on ways for illiterate people to best use computers, said his early research in rural Indian villages showed a disconnect between what people think rural residents need from technology, and what those people really want.

For example, Reddy said, if you give someone in a remote area a telephone, car or television, you'll get nothing but gratitude.

"But if you go to them and say, 'I'll give you a PC,' they have no clue what the hell you are talking about," he said. "That's the problem I am trying to solve. I am trying to say, 'This is not a PC. This is an appliance which can take on many forms."'

Reddy thinks people in rural India with little literacy skills will initially be most interested in using the computer to do familiar tasks. For example, they might want to talk to their family via computer-based videoconferencing or use the computer to watch a video.

From there, he hopes, researchers will be able to teach them that the computer can also help them order farming supplies or get medical care for a sick child.

For that reason, Reddy, who is also on Microsoft's technology advisory board, said he thinks Microsoft's approach of using cartoon-like images may be ahead of its time. But he supports the company's efforts in a field that, he says, isn't getting nearly as much attention as it should.

"There are many paths to Nirvana," he said. "There are many ways that one can attack these problems."