Hardware: Sony Blurs The Boundaries

 Not sure whether this is a PDA or a notebook or what. PalmInfoCenter says that Sony Japan is expected to officially announce its new Clie PEG-UX50, its first with a mini laptop like design, swivel screen and built in keyboard. The device has a integrated in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless as well as a digital camera.
 
 
More details and an official US announcement are expected later today when Sony’s handheld President, Masanobu Yoshida, holds a press conference in San Francisco. The UX50 will be available in Japan around August 9th, pricing and worldwide availability is not yet known.

News: Tag Me Up, Scotty

 Interesting article from Wired on a technology called Hypertags from the UK. Starting this month, Londoners will be able to point their handphones or personal digital assistants (PDAs) at posters in cinemas and get back links to web pages. The idea is not a bad one, although I’m not sure how exciting that particular example is. A better use of the technology appears to have been last year’s demo at the Tate Modern museum in London where visitors could download snippets of information about the exhibits as they looked at them. The smart tags can be attached to anything — advertising panels, billboards or walls — and customers wielding gadgets equipped with infra-red or Bluetooth can download a small program to utilize the service.
 
 
Hypertag promise improvements such as visual recognition, where users point their phone at a magazine or newspaper article and be linked to a Web page. TV viewers could point their phones at a television program, they say, and access related Web pages. Hmmm. I like the idea in general, in that it’s theoretically less intrusive than the usual sort of phone pitching-at-you-where-you-are thing, but a) all this big content stuff depends on the phone becoming a virtual Internet browser and b) I feel they may be missing the bigger opportunity here. Surely this kind of thing should be used in shops where you can glean more information about what you’re about to buy by pointing your device at it — whether it’s cabbages or a DVD burner — and making the best use of the phone’s selling points: its mobility, its size, its connection to instant data. Who wants to visit the movie homepage when you’re in the cinema foyer? Or am I missing something?

News: Bloggers free to speak

 Bloggers Gain Libel Protection 
 
Wired reports that the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last Tuesday that Web loggers, website operators and e-mail list editors (folk like me, in other words) can’t be held responsible for libel for information they republish, extending crucial First Amendment protections to do-it-yourself online publishers.
 
The ruling, the Wired article by Xeni Jardin says, effectively differentiates conventional news media, which can be sued relatively easily for libel, from certain forms of online communication such as moderated e-mail lists. One implication is that DIY publishers like bloggers cannot be sued as easily.
 
My tuppence? It’s good news in the sense that blogs and the like are more like commentaries, and therefore free speech, than publications. But that doesn’t mean they should not strive to be accurate, and differentiate between facts and opinions: Product X does A, B and C; I don’t think it’s any good because of D, E and, er, F. Blogs on specific topics (I’m not talking about daily journals about what your pet tortoise has been up to, unless it happens to be designing a new Bluetooth standard) will only be read if they’re considered to be reliable, if not authoritative.

Column: USB and the CIA

Loose Wire — How to Steal CIA Secrets: It’s as easy as USB; Universal Serial Bus drives are getting small enough to hide in coffee mugs, and you can attach them to most computers and all sorts of other gadgets

 
By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 5 June 2003 of edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review , (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
I got some flak last time I was rude about how implausible technology is in Hollywood movies, even supposedly authentic fare such as Minority Report, The Bourne Identity and Mary Poppins. One comment was “grab a beer and chill out, dude, it’s only a movie,” though that doesn’t count because it was from my mother.

But I can’t help venting my spleen, if that’s what you do with spleen, after watching The Recruit with Al Pacino and Colin Farrell. It’s a thriller revolving around a recruit (no, really) to the Central Intelligence Agency trying to smuggle a top secret program out of CIA headquarters at Langley. There are some neat gadgets in there, such as biodegradable bugs and a program that hijacks nearby television screens. But the premise is that it’s well nigh impossible to steal data from the CIA since none of its computers have floppy drives, printers or (presumably, if we’re going to get finicky) infrared ports or Bluetooth dongles. In short, how do you transfer data if you can’t download it? I wanted to shout out suggestions but my friends, alerted by previous visits to the cinema, had gagged me beforehand.

Anyway, not a bad idea and not a bad movie. Except (skip the rest of this paragraph if you intend to watch the movie) someone succeeds in downloading the top secret program by plugging a USB drive into a USB socket on a CIA computer (USB is a commonly used port that allows users to connect gadgets to their computer). She then hides the said drive — about the size of a lighter — in her aluminium coffee mug. I mean, duh! I can’t believe they have USB sockets in Langley and that the X-ray machine confuses a gadget for coffee dregs. Tsk.

Anyway, it made me realize that Hollywood really, really needs my help in making their scripts believable. So here are some ideas for future movies, all involving existing USB gadgets:

— Our hero penetrates high-security installation, wanders nonchalantly up to floppy-less computer, and accesses USB port (inexplicably left on computer despite it being responsible for massive security breach as revealed in The Recruit). Uncoils USB cable from watch strap, plugs into USB port, downloads data into USB watch from German company LAKS (between $40 and $95 from www.laks.com).

— Our hero wanders nonchalantly up to floppy-less computer, plugs USB drive into USB port (amazingly still there despite aforementioned movie and pioneering column from tech writer), and accesses own e-mail via newly released PocoMail PE ($40 from www.pocomailpe.com). Okay, this doesn’t sound that wild, but it’s a great plot twist if you’re using someone else’s computer and they don’t have an e-mail program you need, or, in the case of our hero, you don’t want to leave any trace of yourself (say at an Internet cafe or a public library).

— Our hero has made off with the data on a USB drive. But he’s caught by the bad guys. Being avid readers of this column, they know what to look for and quickly locate the USB drive. But our hero’s drive is a bit different: Made by Singapore’s Trek 2000 International (www.thumbdrive.com), his ThumbDrive Touch has a silver pad that requires the user’s thumbprint before data can be accessed. Unfortunately for our hero, but great for a plot twist, the baddies simply cut off his thumb and plonk it on the biometric pad.

— Armed with a $100 MP306 USB drive from Azio Technologies (www. azio-tech.com/azi0-root/products/MP 306.asp), our hero fails to access the CIA computer because his nemesis has installed a SecuriKey Computer Protection System, Personal Edition ($130 from Griffin Technologies at http://securikey.com/personal/). This looks just like a USB drive but in fact works like a key: If it’s not plugged into the computer, then the computer locks up. Confounded, our hero sucks his remaining thumb and admires the silver metal mini-briefcase that the SecuriKey dongle comes in. Resigned, our hero reaches for his Azio USB drive, dons earphones, kicks back and listens to MP3 music files stored on the drive. Fiddling with the built-in equalizer for improved playback quality, he hears footsteps and quickly switches the USB drive to recorder mode to eavesdrop on two CIA officers passing by, griping about their canteen lunch.

Okay, so not all these plots will win prizes. But one thing I’m willing to bet my DVD collection on: USB drives will replace floppy drives, those flat disks of old, as PC manufacturers add USB ports to new models and remove external disk drives. Prices will drop further, meaning gadgets smaller than lighters will carry gigabytes of data for peanuts. Already you can buy a 1 gigabyte model for $300: Expect to pay half that in a year or less. They will be so cheap people will give them away: Visitors to a recent launch in Britain of Microsoft’s Windows Server 2003 were given freebie press bags with 32-megabyte USB drives inside.

In future, folk will carry around all their programs and data aboard one dongle and run it from any computer they come across, effectively personalizing the computer for however long they’re sitting at it, but without leaving any trace. Wait for the futuristic movie where everyone’s life is stored on a USB drive and every computer in the world is for public consumption. Interested? Call my agent.

Column: Blue in the teeth

Loose Wire — Bluetooth’s Teething Problems
 
For a hugely promising technology that’s supposed to let gadgets lose their cables, Bluetooth seems more effective right now at causing sleep, weight and sense-of-humour loss
 
By Jeremy Wagstaff


from the 27 February 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

 It’s not easy to tell someone who’s been working on the same thing for more than five years that you think his or her product doesn’t shape up. But Anders Edlund, marketing director for the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, took it on the chin when I told him that all the Bluetooth devices I’d ever used had caused me sleep, weight and sense-of-humour loss. [Bluetooth, by the way, is a standard that allows two or more gadgets to be linked without using cables]. “Er, depending on what Bluetooth devices you’re using, the experience can vary,” he said evenly.
 
You’re telling me. All the headsets, phones, printer adapters and whatnot I’ve tried have ended up in the cupboard along with Aunt Thelma’s Christmas presents. Er, yes. Turns out those predictions of 100 million Bluetooth devices out there by 2002 are closer to 35 million, Edlund says, and he’s reluctant to make a prediction for this year.
 
 
OK, all this isn’t really fair, given that Edlund’s job is to sort out some of these teething problems. His nonprofit group is trying to make it easier for some 2,000 manufacturers to get Bluetooth up and running in their products. “The sole purpose is to ensure that when you open a Bluetooth product, when you get it out of the box, it is in most cases ready to be used in five minutes,” Edlund says.
 
I’m still sceptical. I’d hoped that once Microsoft jumped aboard Bluetooth, it would be plain sailing, the thinking being that if you can integrate the software that runs Bluetooth into Windows, it should be as easy to use as, say, the infrared that every laptop comes equipped with. Sadly, this hasn’t happened. Microsoft has recently released an upgrade to Windows XP that includes Bluetooth, along with their first Bluetooth products, a keyboard and mouse. Installing the upgrade takes way too many coffees and reboots, in my view, while using the keyboard required a special dongle [about the size of a lighter] that will then transmit to your wireless keyboard and mouse. After hours of fiddling, I had the keyboard working for about a day and a half before it gave up and I switched to a wireless Logitech keyboard — which eschewed Bluetooth in favour of the old infrared. That still works.
 
 
This is a shame, because the potential of Bluetooth is huge. Some folk are already there: Hand-phone-maker Nokia is about to launch N-Gage, a phone, MP3 player and gaming device wrapped into one: You can play others through the phone network, or your nearby friends by Bluetooth. Expect to see Bluetooth keyboards for hand-held devices in coming months, as well as portable MP3 players that will wirelessly connect to the nearest hi-fi system, feeding music to whichever room you’re in. Saab’s 9-3 car has a built-in Bluetooth phone which allows you to send data from your palm device or laptop wirelessly.
 
 
Bluetooth does not intend to replace Wi-Fi, a wireless standard for connecting computers to a wider network. Instead, think of Wi-Fi as the big hook-up with the outside world, and Bluetooth as the link between the devices in your immediate area. The two complement each other well. United Parcel Service, for example, is installing a worldwide network using both: Bluetooth will replace the cable between a waist-mounted terminal and a hand-held scanner, while the terminal will use Wi-Fi to send the data — in this case, tracking information from packages — to the UPS central computer.
 
The future? With Bluetooth chip prices falling — from $25 to $5 or below — there’s no reason most peripherals connected to your computer can’t dump their cables for Bluetooth. And you could configure your DVD recorder, alarm clock or microwave, for example, on your palm device screen via Bluetooth. Can’t find the car keys? Type “find keys” on your PC and it could send a beep to the Bluetooth-enabled key chain that’s fallen behind the bookcase. We’re some way off, but when this starts to happen, I promise to stop giving nice folk like Edlund a hard time.