Technology: May 2008 Archives

Apple's is beginning to drive me up the wall. Thanks to a bone-headed decision made in the Leopard update, a nearly useless feature has rendered a very useful addon almost as redundant.

For some reason, a UI genius at Apple decided that it would be just spiffing to have the program jump to an email when you hit a key, using the starting letter of the email's subject line as the destination. Unfortunately, the code conflicts with the handy Mail Act-on from Indev. This piece of donationware which comes from the same company that provides the also-handy tool MailTags, lets you assign macros to keystrokes.

I have three key-commands that I use all the time. One shoves press releases into the Releases bucket folder; one puts emails into the Invitations folder (which is slightly misnamed - it's the folder for everything related to interviews and meetings); and the third does the same but sets a @Waiting tag.

However, since Leopard came out, Mail Act-on now has to fight with the built-in keystroke detector so it works only about 50-60 per cent of the time. On an operating system where you find a lot of add-on software that adheres to the 'wei wu wei' philosophy, this is a real problem. It means having to go back to dragging releases with the mouse or watch the fight between a great little piece of software and some weekend hack that has almost no reason for existing.

You want to see how Mail deals with folders that contain emails from a mailing list - most will start with the same letter. I'm not sure I've figured out the logic of what it does yet.

Steering a company into a near-suicidal megamerger has to be one of the more creative ideas to get rid of a chief executive that a chairman has ever had. But that seems to be the upshot of the story reported by the Financial Times Deutschland earlier today. The story has no named sources. But, at the same time, Reinhard Ploss, head of operations at Infineon Technologies, had to recruit vice president Eric Mayer to stand in for him at the IET/GSA Semiconductor Forum today while Ploss apparently dealt with things back at base.

According to the story, Infineon chairman Max Dietrich Kley thinks buying NXP Semiconductor, currently owned by private-equity KKR, is a good idea. Chief executive Wolfgang Ziebart disagrees strongly. There is no real way to reconcile these differences so one of them will have to go, and it will probably be Ziebart. As the story in FTD sums up:

Despite Ziebart's competence, "in a shark-tank like Infineon he is out of place," said a senior manager.

Big is the new small

13 May 2008

Last week, three of the world's biggest chipmakers decided that they were going to try to move to bigger wafers in the next decade. Today's wafers are the size of vinyl LPs: 300mm across. The next step up is that of a family sized pizza: an impressive 450mm in diameter.

The people who the chipmakers expect to build the equipment to handle these things greeted the news with...very little. They certainly didn't jump up and down, waving to Intel, Samsung and TSMC, shouting out: "Me, pick me!" They might consider investigating the feasibility of boosting wafer size to 450mm if these three were going to pay all of the development costs. But, they had played this game before, with the transition from 200mm to 300mm at the start of this decade and they weren't going to get fooled again.

Last time around, the big chipmakers - and there were about three times as many in the club as this time - said they wanted to do the move early, during the late 1990s. Then there was the Asian crisis and the chipmakers decided they didn't want to move after all. Instead, they decided to speed up the development of the processes rather than use bigger wafers, at least until around 2002. And it was the equipment suppliers left wondering how they were going to explain hundreds of millions of dollars in R&D for products that would not be needed for several years.

Splashpower, the UK company that launched several years back with a popular promise - to banish the proliferation of power adapters in business baggage - is no more. Having gone into liquidation just over a month ago, its patents have been bought on behalf of competitor Fulton Innovation by its parent Alticor.

Fulton has its own wireless charging technology that it calls eCoupled. The Splashpower purchase means it gets a second tranche of patents, just in case this business ever takes off.

The problem that Splashpower faced, and which Fulton still has, is convincing electronics OEMs that they should dump a cheap charger, that uses cables, and replace it with something more expensive. Yes, there is the vague promise that, if lots of manufacturers go with inductive charging, you need only take one charger and its associated power pad with you on a trip to keep music players, cellphones, laptops and PDAs all nicely topped up. Just as long as all the manufacturers sign up to the same system.

It was a with a hint of disdain that Raglan Tribe nodded across at the teams placed next to his company’s table. "You see some of the other teams? You have one right here. They have all this equipment. We have just got this one vehicle," he said, pointing to the small battery-powered car sitting beside him.

Until Tribe and his colleagues at consultancy Mindsheet stripped it down and gave it a new electronic brain, it was a regular toy car. Now, it’s a wheeled robot that is meant to find guerilla marksmen hiding in alleyways and buildings. But Mindsheet was flanked by two teams that are not taking any chances in the UK Ministry of Defence Grand Challenge final in the summer: they have one-time nuclear-waste inspection and bomb-disposal robots that are meant to work alongside purpose-made aircraft and off-the-shelf gliders. The venue was a conference to show off what Grand Challenge teams had developed so far to visiting military chiefs and researchers.

The Mindsheeet vehicle was meant to be small and easily portable, not like some of the vehicles sitting nearby, including a UAV with a 1.5m wingspan. Tribe said his team talked to soldiers who fought in conflicts such as Afghanistan to find out what they needed. Soldiers are pretty consistent in what they want: something light, easy to assemble and reliable.

At a seminar last year to kick off the competition, which is meant to uncover robotic technologies that can detect threats in the kind of wars that the British Army is now fighting, in countries such as Afghanistan, soldiers talked about the problem. They want to be able to see a lot more when on patrol. But, when your pack already weighs 70kg, anything else that goes in has to earn its keep.

It's taken more than 35 years to find, but it looks as though HP Labs has found a cousin to the resistor and the capacitor hiding in the delicate thin films of metal oxides.

Naturally, HP Labs talks up the prospects of the memristor. One application the researchers have put forward is as a potential successor to devices such as the venerable DRAM. On the face of it, this is arguably the worst place to go. The industry is littered with 'nearly there' memories that have better properties than those apparently on offer with the memresistive approach. The HP labs team namechecks a bunch of materials in the Nature paper that show memresistive-like effects. However, at least three major categories are already in production or have multiple teams working on them, with varying degrees of success.