Thursday, August 07, 2008
Wednesday, August 06, 2008
A Spherical Camera Sensor
A stretchable circuit allows researchers to make simple, high-quality camera sensors.
By Kate Greene
Today's digital cameras are remarkable devices, but even the most advanced cameras lack the simplicity and quality of the human eye. Now, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have built a spherical camera that follows the form and function of a human eye by building a circuit onto a curved surface.
The curved sensor has properties that are found in eyes, such as a wide field of view, that can't be produced in digital cameras without a lot of complexity, says John Rogers, lead researcher on the project. "One of the most prominent [features of the human eye] is that the detector surface of the retina is not planar like the digital chip in a camera," he says. "The consequence of that is [that] the optics are well suited to forming high-quality images even with simple imaging elements, such as the single lens of the cornea."
Electronic devices have been, for the most part, built on rigid, flat chips. But over the past decade, engineers have moved beyond stiff chips and built circuits on bendable sheets. More recently, researchers have gone a step beyond simple bendable electronics and put high-quality silicon circuits on stretchable, rubberlike surfaces. The advantage of a stretchable circuit, says Rogers, is that it can conform over curvy surfaces, whereas bendable devices can't.
The eyes have it: This camera consists of a hemisphere-shaped array of photodetectors (white square with gold-colored dots) and a single lens atop a transparent globe. The curved shape of the photodetector array provides a wide field of view and high-quality images in a compact package.
Credit: Beckman Institute, University of Illinois
The key to the spherical camera is a sensor array that can withstand a curve of about 50 percent of its original shape without breaking, allowing it to be removed from the stiff wafer on which it was originally fabricated and transferred to a rubberlike surface. "Doing that requires more than just making the detector flexible," says Rogers. "You can't just wrap a sphere with a sheet of paper. You need stretchability in order to do a geometry transformation."
The array, which consists of a collection of tiny squares of silicon photodetectors connected by thin ribbons of polymer and metal, is initially fabricated on a silicon wafer. It is then removed from the wafer with a chemical process and transferred to a piece of rubberlike material that was previously formed into a hemisphere shape. At the time of transfer, the rubber hemisphere is stretched out flat. Once the array has been successfully adhered to the rubber, the hemisphere is relaxed into its natural curved shape.
Because the ribbons that connect the tiny islands of silicon are so thin, they are able to bend easily without breaking, Rogers says. If two of the silicon squares are pressed closer together, the ribbons buckle, forming a bridge. "They can accommodate strain without inducing any stretching in the silicon," he says.
To complete the camera, the sensor array is connected to a circuit board that connects to a computer that controls the camera. The array is capped with a globelike cover fitted with a lens. In this setup, the sensor array mimics the retina of a human eye while the lens mimics the cornea.
Stretchable mesh: The square silicon photodetectors, connected by thin ribbons of metal and polymer, are mounted on a hemisphere-shaped rubber surface. The entire device is able to conform to any curvilinear shape due to the flexibility of the ribbons that connect the silicon islands.
Credit: Beckman Institute, University of Illinois
"This technology heralds the advent of a new class of imaging devices with wide-angle fields of view, low distortion, and compact size," says Takao Someya, a professor of engineering at the University of Tokyo, who was not involved in the research. "I believe this work is a real breakthrough in the field of stretchable electronics."
Rogers isn't the first to use the concept of a stretchable electronic mesh, but this work distinguishes itself in that it is not constrained to stretching in limited directions, like other stretchable electronic meshes. And importantly, his is the first stretchable mesh to be implemented in an artificial eye camera.
The camera's resolution is 256 pixels. At the moment, it's difficult to improve resolution due to the limitations of the fabrication facilities at the University of Illinois, says Rogers. "At some level, it's a little frustrating because you have this neat electronic eye and everything's pixelated," he says. But his team has sidestepped the problem by taking another cue from biology. The human eye dithers from side to side, constantly capturing snippets of images; the brain pieces the snippets together to form a complete picture. In the same way, Rogers's team runs a computer program that makes the images crisper by interpolating multiple images taken from different angles.
The most immediate application for these eyeball cameras, says Rogers, is most likely with the military. The simple, compact design could be used in imaging technology in the field, he suggests. And while the concept of an electronic eye conjures up images of eye implants, Rogers says that at this time he is not collaborating with other researchers to make these devices biocompatible. However, he's not ruling out the possibility in the future.
Thursday, August 07, 2008
Cloud Computing's Perfect Storm?
An Intel, Yahoo, and HP initiative will use large-scale research projects to test a new Internet-based computing infrastructure.
By John Borland
Last week, Intel, Yahoo, HP, and an international trio of research institutions announced a joint cloud-computing research initiative. The ambitious six-site project is aimed at developing an Internet-based computer infrastructure stable enough to host companies' most critical data-processing tasks. The project also holds an unusual promise for advances in fields as diverse as climate change modeling and molecular biology.
The new array of six linked data centers, one operated by each project sponsor, will be one of the largest experiments to date focusing on cloud computing--an umbrella term for moving complex computing tasks, such as data processing and storage, into a network-connected "cloud" of external data centers, which might perform similar tasks for multiple customers.
Credit: Technology Review
The project's large scope will allow researchers to test and develop security, networking, and infrastructure components on a large scale simulating an open Internet environment. But to test this infrastructure, academic researchers will also run real-world, data-intensive projects that, in their own right, could yield advances in fields as varied as data mining, context-sensitive Web search, and communication in virtual-reality environments.
"Making this marriage of substantial processing power, computing resources, and data resources work efficiently, seamlessly, and transparently is the challenge," says Michael Heath, interim head of the computer-science department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an institute that is part of the alliance. Heath says that for the project to be successful, the team, which also includes Germany's Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and Singapore's Infocomm Development Authority, needs "to be running realistic applications."
Much of the technology industry has recently focused on cloud computing as a next critical architectural advance, but even backers say that the model remains technologically immature.
Web-based software and the ability to "rent" processing power or data storage from outside companies are already common. The most ambitious visions of cloud computing expand on this, predicting that companies will ultimately use remotely hosted cloud services to perform even their most complex computing activities. However, creating an online environment where these complicated tasks are secure, fast, reliable, and simple still presents considerable challenges.
Virtually every big technology company, including Google, IBM, Microsoft, and AT&T, already has a cloud-computing initiative. Farthest along commercially may be Amazon, whose Web Services division already hosts computing, storage, databases, and other resources for some customers.
The new cloud-computing project will consist of six computing clusters, one housed with each founding member of the partnership, with each containing between 1,000 and 4,000 processors. Each of the companies involved has a specific set of research projects planned, with many broadly focusing on operational issues such as security, load balancing, managing parallel processes on a very large scale, and how to configure and secure virtual machines across different locations.
Researchers will be given unusually broad latitude to modify the project's architecture from top to bottom, developing and experimenting with ideas applying to hardware, software, networking functions, and applications. Project managers say that one goal is to see how changes at one technical level affect others.
"In the cloud, we have the opportunity for integrated design, where one entity can make design choices across an entire environment," says Russ Daniels, chief technology officer of HP's cloud-services division. "This way, we can understand the impact of design choices that we make at the infrastructure level, as well as the impact they have on higher-level systems."
HP, for example, will be focusing in part on an ongoing project called Cells as a Service, an effort to create secure virtual "containers" that are composed of virtual machines, virtual storage volumes, and virtual networks. The containers can be split between separate data centers but still treated by consumers as a traditional, real-world collection of hardware.
Among Yahoo's specific projects will be the development of Hadoop, an open-source software platform for creating large-scale data-processing and data-querying applications. Yahoo has already built one big cloud-computing facility called M45 that is operated in conjunction with Carnegie Mellon University. M45 will also be folded into this new project.
Running in parallel with this systems-level research will be the assortment of other research projects designed to test the cloud infrastructure.
Computer scientists at the Illinois facility have a handful of data- and processing-intensive projects under way that are likely to be ported to the cloud facilities. According to Heath, one key thrust will be "deep search" and information extraction, such as allowing a computer to understand the real-world context of the contents found in a Web page. For example, today's search engines have difficulty understanding that a phone number is in fact an active phone number, rather than just a series of digits. A project run by Urbana-Champaign professor Kevin Chang is exploring the idea of using the massive quantities of data collected by Web-wide search engines as a kind of cross-reference tool, so that the joint appearance of "555-1212" with "John Borland" multiple times online might identify the number as a phone number and associate it with that particular name.
Heath says that other projects might include experiments with tele-immersive communication--virtual-reality-type environments that let computers provide physical, or haptic, feedback to users as they communicate or engage in real-world activities controlled remotely over the Web.
In an e-mail, Intel Research vice president Andrew Chein said that other topics could include climate modeling, molecular biology, industrial design, and digital library research.
"By looking at what people are really doing, we will learn about what is really important from an infrastructure perspective," says Raghu Ramakrishnan, chief scientist for Yahoo's Cloud Computing and Data Infrastructure Group. "We already know enough to put forth systems that are usable today, but not enough that we can deliver on all the promise that people see in the paradigm."
Wednesday, August 06, 2008
Microsoft after Gates
Jun 26th 2008
From The Economist print edition
Microsoft knows what it wants to do when Bill Gates leaves—but the road ahead will not be easy
“DOES Microsoft still have a big, hairy audacious goal?” Not everybody would presume to ask Bill Gates a question like that. But Mr Gates was this week due to remove himself from the firm’s day-to-day business, to become its non-executive chairman, and Tim O’Reilly, a noted internet guru, felt emboldened to commit lèse majesté. Putting “a computer on every desk and in every home” had been the original mission of Microsoft, which Mr Gates founded more than 30 years ago. But now the job is pretty much done, at least in the West, and Microsoft is the world’s largest software company. What is its mission now, Mr O’Reilly recently asked at a technological shindig, called “All Things Digital”—other than just to sell as much software as it can?
Mr Gates (pictured with Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer, left, and Ray Ozzie, chief software architect, right) is leaving Microsoft for the charitable foundation he set up with his wife, Melinda, even as his firm is in some disorder. Windows, Microsoft’s all-conquering operating system, has become so complex, some say, that it is collapsing under its own weight. Its latest version, Vista, is not a complete flop, but it is a huge disappointment. Many users prefer the previous one, XP, and Microsoft is already hyping the next, Windows 7. Microsoft is also struggling to keep up with Google, its main rival. It recently announced a product that pays consumers money if they buy something through an advertisement next to its search results—a gambit that smacks of desperation. And the firm’s aborted bid for Yahoo!, an online giant, has done nothing to reassure investors. As a result, Microsoft’s shares continue to do worse than the industry average. Some observers have started to wonder whether Microsoft should not break itself up—for instance into a legacy business, containing Windows and Office, a service unit, and games, where the company has recently been most innovative.
Mr Gates’s reply to Mr O’Reilly was not entirely reassuring. The firm, he said, now has dozens of “quests”—revolutionising television, automating data centres and creating software ten times faster. Perhaps this fragmentation of Microsoft’s ambition is only natural. In its 33 hectic years the company has swollen to nearly 90,000 employees (see charts); revenues this year should exceed $60 billion and net income reach almost $18 billion. Even Microsoft’s own senior executives struggle to grasp its growing empire. The firm now sells 75 different products, many of them in lots of versions.
In fact Mr Gates could easily have given a more pointed answer. Of all that Microsoft hopes to achieve in the post-Gates era, one goal dominates all others—even catching Google. That is to become the dominant force in the forthcoming era of cloud computing—or, to refresh Microsoft’s original mission: “to supply services to every desk, to every home and to every hand”. That ought to be big and hairy enough to satisfy even Mr O’Reilly.
To understand what that means, and the difficulties it poses Microsoft, start with the idea that computing is undergoing one of its great periodic shifts. In its early days, most computing took place on mainframes. Ever-falling costs led computing to shatter—first into minicomputers, then into personal computers (PCs) and, more recently, hand-held devices. Now communications is catching up with hardware and software and, thanks to cheap broadband and wireless access, the industry is witnessing a pull back to the middle. This is leading much computing to migrate back into huge data centres. Networks of these computing plants form “computing clouds”—vast, amorphous, delocalised nebulae of processing power and storage.
Service with a simile
Marc Benioff, a cloud-computing pioneer and the boss of Salesforce.com, which helps firms manage their customers on the web thinks this will spell the “death of software”. Rather than being a big chunk of code sitting on a hard disk on your desk, software will come “as a service” over the internet through a browser. This idea is also espoused by Google. Although the online giant is best known as the world’s biggest online search and advertising firm, it now also offers many other services—plenty of which compete with Microsoft’s PC programs.
Not so fast, says Mr Ozzie. He has been Microsoft’s chief software architect since 2006 and will steer its technology after Mr Gates goes, while Mr Mundie will take over as the company’s long-term thinker and public face. “Whenever these things happen, people think that it is going to be a complete extreme shift,” Mr Ozzie says. “But in reality customers are very pragmatic and figure out the right mix of old and new stuff.” This mix, he argues, will depend on where people are, which device they use and what they want to do. Instead of the death of software, Mr Ozzie speaks of “software plus services”—the title of Microsoft’s new strategy.
He thinks of cloud computing differently. Fewer people will put the PC at the centre of their computing universe; it will be one of many devices connected through the web, which Mr Ozzie calls the “hub”. But what sounds like bad news for a firm making PC software is in fact a huge opportunity, he says—because this new set-up sits well with Microsoft’s DNA. The heart of its business has always contained a simple, powerful idea: find a market that is global in scale—one that is split between lots of vendors and so dysfunctional; then integrate the various parts into a “platform” and develop its chief applications; and finally, build an “ecosystem” of developers writing programs for it.
This has been Microsoft’s approach to its largest products—with Windows as the most successful. Versions of this operating system run on over 90% of the 1 billion PCs in use, because Microsoft has excelled at building an ecosystem around its platform, in particular by giving developers the tools for their job. This supercharged what economists call “network effects”: the more applications run on Windows, the more attractive it becomes for users; that, in turn, attracts more developers, and so it goes on. Although Mr Ozzie hesitates to put it in such terms, his goal is to create a kind of Windows in the cloud. “If you were to build an operating system today,” he explains, “it would not be a single piece of software that operates a single computer.”
He is first tackling device integration. In a recent internal memo, which Microsoft made public, Mr Ozzie talks of “a personal mesh of devices—a means by which all of your devices are brought together, managed through the web as a seamless whole.” This mesh will make sure, for instance, that devices automatically synchronise important files, such as an address book, and that one device can control the others. Windows has other similarities with the platform Microsoft wants to build in the cloud. The firm plans to provide developers with tools to weave services together into new offerings. And it will give them ready-made routines, such as checking a user’s identity, tracking his location and processing payments.
The club in the cloud
As with all big ideas emanating from Redmond, Mr Ozzie’s vision has provoked strong reactions. Here we go again, says one side, who think they have spotted a monopolist’s latest plan for world domination. Welcome to the club, comes the retort from the other. Google, Facebook, Salesforce.com and others are already building similar platforms—Microsoft is just a Johnny-come-lately hedging its bets.
Needless to say, things are a bit more complicated. Mr Ozzie’s plans amount to more than a dominant software company trying to protect its franchise. Building a platform for the cloud does not seem such a bad idea, since it is precisely what many in the industry are trying to do. Yet the cloud will be based more on open standards than on proprietary technology. It is too big and too diverse to be dominated by one provider. And governments would be unlikely to allow one firm to control such an important infrastructure.
As Mr Ozzie rightly points out, it is the very essence of the shift towards services, that computing now allows for applications and data to sit where it is technically most appropriate—or, just as important, where users prefer. And people are not about to throw out their powerful PCs or other “client” devices anytime soon, not least because they will sometimes be offline. Even Google is now offering software that allows its applications to be used off the internet.
The problem is that, so far, Microsoft does not have much to show for its plans, says Brent Thill, director of software research at Citi Investment Research. Take Windows Live, a collection of online services that in 2006 Mr Ozzie called the “hub to bring it all together”. Many of Windows Live’s services are derivative and few have a lot of users. Recently, Microsoft said that it will shut down some services, including Windows Live Expo, a listing service for classified advertisements.
Worse, Microsoft has not got much to show for its huge investments in online search, the killer application in Google’s cloud. The firm’s market share in search is only 8.5% in America, compared with Google’s share of more than 60%. As a result, Microsoft’s online-advertisement platform has not succeeded either. That matters, because even if companies pay for their cloud services, most consumer services will be funded by advertising. This explains why Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s boss, was prepared to pay $47.5 billion for Yahoo! The online giant would have been an “accelerator” in its quest to catch up with Google in search and advertising.
But those setbacks should not obscure that Microsoft has a plan—and is willing to put a lot of money behind it. It is spending billions to build a network of data centres, a huge infrastructure to cope with the expected demand for all its software-plus-services business. The company does not disclose how many computers now populate its server farms. It says only that it is adding 10,000 servers a month, which is roughly the total number used by a company like Facebook.
What is more, Microsoft has already spent the past couple of years writing software for its new platform. In April Mr Ozzie presented a first chunk, called “Live Mesh”—in his words, the “connective tissue that brings together devices in the cloud.” It will enable users to synchronise files on lots of computers as well as to a web desktop in the cloud, for instance. More will come in the autumn, when Microsoft is likely to publish some new tools for developers.
Microsoft is further along with its new services than most think. Health Vault, launched in October, is not just a place where people can store their medical details online, but a service that can connect to all sorts of monitoring devices, as well as software used by hospitals and doctors. Microsoft is likely to come up with combinations of consumer and institutional data in other areas, such as education. It hopes they will become the killer aps of the new platform, rather as Word and Excel were for Windows.
Microsoft’s familiar products are also being recast for the cloud. Sometimes the change is modest. The latest versions of Office, the software package that includes Word and Excel, enable users to share files and collaborate. Mr Ozzie argues there is no demand for a fully featured web-based version, (though, it has to be said, the old desktop-bound Office is one of Microsoft’s biggest money-makers and one of the main reasons for people to use Windows). Other overhauls are more ambitious. Customers will soon have the choice of running Microsoft’s business programs, such as its mail-server software, Exchange, on their own computers or in the cloud. Chris Capossela, who oversees this shift at Microsoft, expects half of the mailboxes managed by Exchange to be online.
This flurry of activity in Redmond does not guarantee Microsoft success in the cloud. Top of the list of Redmond watchers’ worries is the firm’s culture and management. Mary Jo Foley, a long-time Microsoft correspondent, thinks it will lose something vital when Mr Gates walks out of the door. She concludes in her recently published book “Microsoft 2.0” that if “Microsoft were still the company it was ten or 20 years ago, with the simultaneously ruthless and cautious Gates at the helm,” she would have “no qualms” about predicting its success.
The firm has become bloated, insiders say. “It’s a huge problem. Microsoft has so much raw potential, but it needs extreme leadership to break out of the bureaucratic morass it encumbered itself with,” says the book’s foreword, written by “Mini-Microsoft”, an anonymous blogger-cum-employee who is required reading for Microsoft watchers.
If Microsoft has made one excellent hire in recent years, it is Mr Ozzie. Although he is unlikely to become a public figure in the mould of Mr Gates, he is more in tune with a style of computing in which everything is connected. He understands that a take-no-prisoners attitude will get you only so far. Mr Ozzie is also level-headed, hands-on and a brilliant technologist. He himself wrote much of Lotus Notes, an early collaborative program, and came to Microsoft when it bought his latest start-up, Groove Networks, in 2005.
Yet some think Microsoft needs more fresh blood in its upper echelons. Although some veterans have recently left and some new executives have been hired, many senior positions are still filled by people who have been with the company for more than a decade, says Michael Cusumano, a professor at the MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the author of a book on the inner workings of Microsoft. Can a veteran leadership team, he asks, foresee how the software business will change? And can it attract a new generation of employees to the company?
Microsoft is no longer the chosen workplace for many young geeks. Second-generation internet firms, such as Google and Facebook, have more “mind share”. The same is true for investors and users, which is partly why Microsoft will launch a $300m rebranding campaign later this year. To make Microsoft hip again, the firm has hired one of America’s coolest advertising agencies, Crispin Porter+Bogusky.
Microsoft’s image is still tarnished by the antitrust saga of a decade ago, when it was judged to have abused its Windows monopoly. That would prove a more serious stain if it stops consumers from trusting the firm with their personal data, a necessary part of many cloud services. After similar antitrust woes, IBM took decades to shed its reputation for being overbearing and arrogant. It managed partly by becoming a champion of industry standards and open-source software.
Microsoft is treading a similar path. The firm has already changed—whether the American and the European antitrust actions have tamed it, or customers want different behaviour, or Microsoft has just grown up. It has become more open—it no longer wants to lock the world into its own proprietary technology. “We have matured a lot,” says Mr Mundie, who spearheaded this opening-up.
Microsoft has indeed done many things that would not have seemed possible a few years ago. It has embraced industry standards, published “interoperability principles” that guide its developers, and released thousands of pages describing how its programs work together, so that rival products can join in. To boot, Microsoft has accepted that open-source software is here to stay. It has adopted some of the techniques of volunteer developers, given them code and even put some open-source code in its programs.
Still, many do not believe in the new Microsoft. When Information Week, an American computing magazine, surveyed some 500 technology professionals, more than half said they thought that Microsoft’s openness was mostly a publicity campaign. In a recent speech that was widely interpreted as taking a swipe at Microsoft, Neelie Kroes, the European Union’s competition commissioner, said that governments and businesses would do well to use software based on open standards. And Matt Asay, a blogger and executive of Alfresco, an open-source software company, speaks for many in the open-source movement when he says that Microsoft “is the only major software company other than SAP that has not fully engaged with the open-source community.”
Microsoft’s approach to open source hints that the firm has not yet made up its mind what it wants to be. Even as the company seemed to have made peace with the other camp, signing licensing deals with open-source companies, it accused open-source software fans of violating 235 of its patents and threatened legal action.
The defining test of Microsoft’s openness will be whether it tries to use its monopoly on the desktop to gain an unfair advantage in the cloud by tightly integrating—or “bundling”—software and services. Critics say the firm has already tried to favour its online search service in its Windows Vista operating system, but backed off when Google complained. Mr Mundie, however, is eager to offer reassurance: although Microsoft will make its software and services work well together, it will do nothing unlawful, he says: “The company has been quite clear how we are thinking about interoperability.”
Microsoft is in transition. “The Road Ahead” will not be as straight or as smooth as it was on the cover of Mr Gates’s bestseller, written in 1995. Yet Microsoft is unlikely to hit a wall, as IBM did after Mr Gates steered his own big shift in computing all those years ago—if only because Microsoft has a clearer view of the future. And if the worst happens, watch out for Mr Gates returning to put his creation back in the fast lane.
Tuesday, August 05, 2008
Tuesday, August 05, 2008
A New View for Documents
Browser-based technologies aim to make it easier to view documents online.
By Erica Naone
A new tool for embedding documents on Web pages is cropping up on sites as diverse as the storage service Drop.io; LabMeeting, a social network for scientists; and the Obama campaign's official blog. Launched earlier this year, the format, called iPaper, is technology from Scribd, a company that hopes to become the sort of clearinghouse for documents that YouTube is for videos. With iPaper, the company offers a browser-based system for viewing documents that retains their original formatting and can be employed by the 98 percent of Internet users who have installed Adobe Flash.
Although most Web pages are documents, they often don't display consistently from one browser to another, and it can be awkward to navigate through a large document if it's displayed as a series of connected pages on the Web. Alternatively, when individuals want to share documents with each other, they can have compatibility problems. For example, the new .docx format created by Microsoft's Office 2007 can't be accessed by many other programs, including earlier versions of Office. One traditional method to solve both of these problems has been Adobe PDFs, which preserve formatting and can be opened by most computer users.
Web words: Documents can be embedded in Web pages using Scribd's iPaper, which allows users to quickly navigate its pages, search, and copy and paste.
Credit: Scribd/Books iRead
However, Jared Friedman, chief technology officer of Scribd, sees a need for a solution to the problem that's built specifically for use through the browser. He says that browser-based versions have been built for most essential desktop programs. "In some sense, Adobe Acrobat is among the last programs to migrate online in a Web-based version," Friedman says.
Web-based software is typically stripped of some of the specialized features available in desktop versions but has added social features. IPaper is no exception. Users can convert documents, including PDFs, Word documents, and rich text files, into iPaper by uploading them to the Scribd website or to a website that supports Scribd's system. Readers can navigate documents by scrolling or flipping to a tile view, search them, and copy and paste. They can also share them, embed them on other sites, and, if the publisher chooses to allow it, download them in their original format to view offline.
FlashPaper, an earlier technology from Macromedia, inspired Scribd and iPaper, according to CEO and cofounder Trip Adler. Since Adobe didn't continue to support the product after it acquired Macromedia, Scribd decided to build its own version from scratch. The iPaper technology is built using Adobe Flash, and it streams documents to a Web page. This allows a reader to jump smoothly to page 500 of a document, for example, even if the rest of the document is still loading. Although Flash has recently become easier for search engines to index, Friedman says that streaming documents can still be a problem. Scribd supplements iPaper documents with a searchable format that crawlers can read.
| Pages and pages: The iPaper viewer supports several ways of navigating a document, including scrolling, a tile-based view (above), and book mode, which shows pages two at a time. |
Credit: Scribd/Books iRead
Adler says that Scribd is still experimenting with business models, although the company has seen its technology adopted fairly widely. Storage companies such as Drop.io and Box use iPaper to allow their customers to view the items they have in storage without having to download them. Adler says that the Scribd site currently gets 21 million visitors a month. He notes that the company may make money through ads embedded in documents (a feature that's already available) or through buying and selling documents.
But Scribd may have more to worry about from Adobe than it thinks it does. Al Hilwa, program director for IDC's application development software research, says that Adobe has been working to fuse documents with Web presentation. He adds that the company has begun incorporating Flash into PDFs and making its various document technologies available through Acrobat.com.
Indeed, Adobe says that FlashPaper is not abandoned technology. Erik Larson, director of product management and marketing for Acrobat.com and the former product manager for FlashPaper at Macromedia, says, "FlashPaper as a product is no longer being developed, but FlashPaper as a concept is alive and well." He adds, "FlashPaper has become a set of Web services on a set of servers in the cloud."
Monday, August 04, 2008
Tracking a Shopper's Habits
Infosys's sensor network turns stores into mini-Internets.
By Michael Fitzgerald
Infosys may have solved a $100 billion problem for companies in the retail business: how to tell whether their promotions really work. In the process, Infosys has also created the potential for stores and consumer-goods companies to track things like traffic and inventory in real time.
Consumers like Procter & Gamble and the retailers they sell through spend more than $100 billion per year to promote products in stores, according to Forrester Research. They pay fees for shelf space in stores, including premiums to have their products at eye level. They pay for special promotion stands. And although they pay for armies of checkers to see whether retailers follow through on the deals, it's a system fraught with error, says Forrester analyst George Lawrie.
"Stores make lots and lots of mistakes," Lawrie says, noting that at many retail stores, the people who stock the shelves may have little or no interaction with the people who make the promotional deals. "In the big brands, the CFOs know they've had to hand these funds over to be eye level on aisle number one, and they don't know if it's really happening, and they're beginning to start to ask if the stores can prove it."
So Infosys, which counts 12 of the world's 20 largest retailers among its current customers, has developed ShoppingTrip 360, a hosted software application that can track shoppers and inventory, using wireless sensors placed on shelving, promotional displays, and shopping carts. The sensors, which use the 802.15.4 wireless protocol to connect to each other in a mesh network, can send information such as where shoppers stop in a store, what products they pick up, what they put back, what they put in their cart, and whether a product is out of stock. Infosys has also developed an application to let consumers in the store use their cell phones to get information such as store maps, or to access an online shopping list or collection of recipes.
"This, we believe, is the next wave of innovation in the retail space," says Infosys cofounder and CEO S. "Kris" Gopalakrishnan. He notes the push by retailers in the 1970s and '80s to develop electronic data interchange, as well as the 1990s push into e-commerce. He says that Infosys is trying to usher in the in-store Internet.
Retailers and consumer-goods makers typically get data on a daily basis, from point-of-sale scanners. Getting better data about product sales was a big reason why retailers like Wal-Mart and Target pushed radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, minuscule radio chips that were expected to replace the bar code on individual products. But RFID chips remain too costly to be ubiquitous, and Lawrie says that they may never be. He says that the cost of the chips, coupled with the substantial amount that retailers would have to spend to outfit their stores to work with the chips, have limited interest in RFID.
What's more, RFID raises privacy concerns that ShoppingTrip 360 might not. Infosys says that its system is completely anonymous, unless the consumer agrees via cell phone to tell the system who he or she is (and consumers can opt to identify themselves based on just their shopping-cart number). Infosys says that it will pay to install the sensors in stores, charging retailers only for the data that they want to use.
"I'm charging to tell them when stocks are reduced by a certain percentage, or when a consumer redeems a coupon through their mobile phone," says Sandeep Dadlani, global head of sales for Infosys's retail unit.
Exactly what the data will cost is not yet determined, says Gopalakrishnan. He says that Infosys is piloting the system at a number of large retailers in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Girish Ramachandra, head of the innovations practice for the Infosys retail unit, says that it is no harder to install its wireless sensors than to set up a wireless router in a home. Initially, it will take a week per store to deploy and test the system.
Infosys says that it is ready to offer three things: "heat maps" of stores that show levels of inventory, levels of inventory at the fronts of shelves, and concentrations of shoppers in the store; a smart shelf pad with a built-in wireless sensor that is powered by the store's lights; and a shop-by-cell phone option, which lets consumers get recommendations or coupons on their phones.
Infosys thinks that there will be many other applications it can develop for the system, such as a "perpetual checkout" service that would let shoppers ring up their goods as they put them in their carts, allowing them to walk out of the store when they are finished shopping. For apparel retailers, the company is developing smart mirrors that will recommend combinations of clothing and automatically notify salespeople to bring things for shoppers to try on. Infosys could develop an application to let stores employ the sensor networks to manage energy usage. And it intends to open its development platform so that other companies can create applications for the service as well.
Forrester's Lawrie says that without seeing the system in action in a store, it's too early to say how well it will work. But if the system works as promised, he says, "this would be a huge breakthrough."
Monday, August 04, 2008
Chinese entrepreneur dreams of a global brand
By Associated Press
BEIJING (AP) _ His company's gadgets are barely known abroad. But Aigo CEO Feng Jun, a boyishly exuberant walking advertisement for the fast-growing Chinese electronics maker, is out to change that.
Seconds after meeting a reporter at a business conference, the burly, baby-faced 39-year-old whips an Aigo computer memory card out of his wallet and throws it to the floor to show its durability. He plucks an Aigo digital camera off his belt and snaps pictures. Then he plays back the conversation on his MP3-equipped watch, also from Aigo.
"We want to be another Samsung, another Sony," said Feng, who started the company in 1993 with $26 from his mother.
Feng is a prominent member of a wave of entrepreneurs striving to break with China's status as a cheap, anonymous factory and join the global elite of consumer brands that create profitable technology. They are a key element of the national image that China's leaders hope the upcoming Beijing Olympics will showcase to the world: bold, creative, high-tech and international.
More importantly, the shift is a step that economists say China must make if it is to move up the economic ladder and continue its rapid growth.
It is too soon to know which, if any, of China's would-be global brands will succeed, said Stefan Albrecht, a McKinsey & Co. senior partner in Beijing.
Most successful so far is Lenovo Group Ltd., the world's No. 4 computer maker following its 2005 purchase of IBM Corp.'s PC unit. Other aspirants include appliance maker Haier Group and TV set manufacturer TCL Group, which owns the Thomson and RCA brands.
China's advantage is still low costs, not creativity, Albrecht said. But he said the Chinese brands that succeed should climb the ranks faster than their Japanese or Korean predecessors, because Chinese companies adopt new products or strategies more quickly and are willing to expand by acquiring established foreign outfits.
"For some Chinese companies, you could argue they need only five to 15 years to develop a global brand," Albrecht said.
Feng is candid about Aigo's daunting challenge in persuading foreign customers to pay brand-name prices for made-in-China goods.
"Perhaps consumers all over the world will think China is all low-end. But we want to be the high-end," he said in an interview at Aigo's headquarters in Beijing's Haidian district, the base for Lenovo and other technology companies. "To change that view is very difficult, but we have no choice."
The aspiring gadget king wants to use the Olympics to boost Aigo's brand abroad, marketing translation devices for visitors. In Europe, Feng is trying to raise Aigo's profile by paying to display its name on the McLaren Formula One team race cars.
Feng represents the second generation of Chinese technology entrepreneurs.
In the 1990s, foreign-trained scientists came home from the United States, Australia and elsewhere to found Web sites and other companies.
In contrast to their science backgrounds, Feng studied civil engineering -- the classic grounding for earlier generations of communist technocrats -- at Beijing's Tsinghua University, the alma mater of President Hu Jintao. He then got a master's in business administration from Peking University. He has never lived anywhere but the Chinese capital, though he is studying English and says he might like to go to Harvard.
Such homegrown success stories are beginning to emerge as China's fast-developing economy and education system start to offer the training and experience that technology entrepreneurs once could get only abroad.
Feng worked for a government construction company before he quit to start Aigo -- known in Mandarin as Aiguozhe, for "Patriot" -- in a cramped apartment to sell keyboards to China's infant computer industry.
He made his name not as an inventor but as a hard-driving salesman. A biography published last year, "Patriot: Feng Jun" by Huang Qiuli, dubbed him "Five-Yuan Feng" for his willingness in his lean years to slash the profit margin on a keyboard or computer housing to five yuan (85 U.S. cents at that time) to close a sale.
Aigo took off in the mid-'90s when it started making portable computer memory devices. Today, it is China's biggest producer of them, including the credit card-size 30-gigabyte unit in Feng's wallet. Aigo has expanded the range of products sold in its orange-and-white packaging to include digital cameras, MP3s, portable media players and a digital microscope. Its 1,700-member work force includes 700 people in product development.
Revenue is growing 60 to 70 percent a year, with 80 percent of profits plowed back into research, Feng said. He declined to give figures but BDA China Ltd., a Beijing research firm, says Aigo's 2006 revenue was 2 billion yuan ($290 million).
Aigo's growth has made Feng a star in the Chinese business press. The World Economic Forum, known for its annual Davos conference, named him the only Chinese member on its list of Young Global Leaders.
Still, Feng's company faces the same handicap as other aspiring Chinese brands: it has yet to develop a unique, must-have product -- its equivalent of an iPod -- with fat profit margins. That leaves Aigo vulnerable to pressure from other low-cost competitors.
Despite his boyish energy, Feng dresses in the standard Chinese executive's blue suit and talks the MBA talk of corporate strategy. His management ideology, dubbed "Six Win," stresses to employees that Aigo cannot succeed unless its partners and customers do too. Feng refers to such mutual benefit as "1 + 1 11."
To stay in touch with consumers, Feng requires his executives to spend one day a month working the complaints counter at an Aigo service center. Product development specialists put in time as salespeople.
Feng's latest attempt at a signature product is the Aigopen, a gadget that reads aloud when pointed at specially printed books or maps. Beijing's imperial palace has ordered them to use with its exhibits. Aigo also sells an Aigopen-equipped Olympics Encyclopedia.
Feng opened a European office in France last year, followed this year by its first U.S. office in San Francisco. He put off expanding into the United States until Aigo could set up service centers, which he says is key to a premium brand. Feng said that for now, Aigo has no plans for foreign acquisitions.
"We want to do the Europe market last year and this year," he said. "Next year will be the United States. Step by step."
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