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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Future Laptop

The rules of notebook design and the components that go inside are being rewritten to make the road a better place to work and play. Here's a peek at key changes coming, from cases to displays.
A lot has changed in the 20 years since the first laptop computers appeared, including gigahertz processors, color screens, optical drives and wireless data. However, one thing that has stubbornly stayed the same is the conventional clamshell format with its hinged display lid that opens to reveal a mechanical keyboard.
That's about to change. The rules of notebook design and the components that go inside are being rewritten to make the road a better place to work and play.
"Between now and 2015, we expect to see a series of big changes that will redefine what a notebook is and what it looks like," said Mike Trainor, Intel Corp. 's evangelist for mobile products.
With crystal ball in hand, we talked to designers, engineers and marketers about how notebooks are likely to change over the next seven years. Here's what they told us.
Concepts for the future
First, let's take a look at some concept notebooks. Just as futuristic show cars give us insight into what we might be driving in the future, concept notebooks offer a sneak peek at how we'll be computing.
These concept notebooks typically are created by independent designers and firms retained by laptop vendors. This is highly secretive business: the designers we spoke were willing to talk about some of their concepts but couldn't tell us who they were working for.
Rarely does a concept notebook make it to the real world as a whole unit, but certain aspects often make it into production. Early 1990s concept devices contained integrated pointing devices, speakers and webcams, all of which are now standard equipment. It's likely that at least some of the new ideas, components and features showcased below will be coming to a notebook near you.
For example, several concept laptops rely on touch-sensitive screens that act as the system's keyboard and mouse and go beyond today's multi-touch technology. Imagine being able to slide your finger across the screen to immediately shut off the display and keep what you're working on confidential, and you get an idea of its potential.
The Compenion concept notebook from independent designer Felix Schmidberger in Stuttgart, Germany, borrows heavily from slider cell phones to move beyond the clamshell. Rather than lifting the lid open, just slide it up.
The pair of superbright organic LED panels slide into place next to each other, with the lower panel acting as keyboard or scribble pad. The whole thing is only three-quarters of an inch thick.
"It reduces thickness, but the slider was more about the feel of using the notebook," said Schmidberger. "The idea is to break free from traditional notebook hardware without having to adapt to new ways of using a computer."
Together, the 11-in. screens will yield about 16 inches of usable workspace, so the system has the dimensions and weight of a thin and light system but the screen of a larger one.
Dual-screen systems could well be the rage in seven years. The Canova from V12 Design, a Milan, Italy-based design firm, is closer to the tried and true clamshell layout, but with a twist.
Instead of a display and a mechanical keyboard, the device has two touch-sensitive displays: The upper screen is primarily for viewing applications, and the lower screen is for the mundane activities of typing, drawing and jotting notes. But the Canova can also lie flat for a large expanse of working space.
According to designer Valero Cometti, "the idea was to close the gap between man and machine." This notebook changes personality depending on how it's held. Opened all the way, it's a sketch pad. Fold it half open and rotate it 90 degrees, and it's an e-book. By emulating a musical keyboard on the lower half, when it's flat on a table, it can be a go-anywhere piano.
Who needs a screen at all? Long Beach, Calif.-based independent designer Jonathan Lucas' eccentric Siafu concept can touch you, literally. That's because Siafu is for the blind and has no screen.
"The idea was to open a new realm of digital interface for the visually impaired by enhancing and even surpassing existing technologies that currently cater to this group," said Lucas.
Because the blind can't see what's on the screen, Siafu converts images into corresponding 3-D shapes that are created with Magneclay, an oil-based synthetic material that instantly forms shapes in response to electrical fields.
In such hands-on computing, you interact with Siafu with your fingers to feel the bumps and protrusions that pop up. The Magneclay surface could be used for reading a Braille newspaper, feeling the shape of someone's face or going over a tactile representation of a blueprint.
When could it be available? "I don't know," answered Lucas. "How about 2015?"
Imagine a system that is at home in a car, in an Internet caf? or on a hotel desk, and you have the job description of Anna Lopez' Cario.
"The concept offers several ways of working on the move or at a desk," explained U.K.-based independent designer Lopez.
Equal parts form, function and fashion, this concept replaces the traditional lid hinge with a shiny bar that, as the name implies, is a carrying handle. It also allows the lid to fold up for travel and can be converted into a an easel or sit on a car's steering wheel.
Not surprisingly, then, Cario comes into its own on the road. So the driver doesn't get cross-eyed or crook-necked by looking down at the screen when it's locked into the steering wheel, Cario has a microprojector that projects its images onto the vehicle's windshield. This heads-up display can show maps, videoconferences and find the closest gas station.
A safety hazard in the making? "The notebook is connected to the [car's] dashboard so that Cario can only be operated if the vehicle is stationary," said Lopez.
Changing materials
Some changes and new functionality in the laptops we'll use in 2015 will come about because of significant advances in the materials used to create the devices. Magneclay is just one example.
Another example is a change in the plastics used in the notebook case. In fact, by 2015, dropping a notebook might not be the catastrophe it can be today.
That's because a group at UCLA 's Exotic Materials Institute led by Fred Wudl has come up with an epoxy that's strong, durable and can repair itself. Called Automend, small cracks can be sealed by just heating the surface with a hair dryer, making it a godsend for the clumsy among us.
Another example relates to peripherals used on the road. For instance, future mobile systems could easily include projectors, which will be reduced to about the size of a pack of cigarettes by 2015.
Because such projectors use a laser, "you can project images on a wall within a distance of several meters without having to adjust a lens," said Schmidberger. "It can even be bumpy or bent."
Powerful components
It doesn't take a very clear crystal ball to know that the next generation of notebooks will deliver much more computing power. And notebooks will also get smarter as components continue to shrink and more components get squeezed onto a sliver of silicon the size of a fingernail.
The result will be that notebooks will be able to perform tasks that we can only dream of today. Here's what our experts say those components will look like and what they'll be able to do.
It's a sure bet that we won't be using a mere single- or double-core processor by 2015. Most notebooks will have at least six computational cores, if not eight, according to the experts we contacted.
Such technology is available today, so it surely will be standard-issue on laptops of the future, the experts agreed. Having at least six computational cores at your disposal will not only make high-end simulations and data visualizations possible, but will also make for one heck of a game of Halo.
Missing your bus
The CPU's front-side bus will likely disappear by 2015. The bus acts like a traffic cop, sending data to the different parts of the system at a slower speed than the computational core. In its place will be an integrated controller that makes this distribution of data much more efficient by operating faster.
As with multiple-core processors, this trend is already under way; Intel, for instance, has announced that its Nehalem CPU microarchitecture, set to debut later this year, will feature an integrated memory controller, eliminating the need for a front-side bus. However, it will take a long time for this trend to reach CPUs used in notebook computers -- the 2015 time frame seems reasonable, the experts agreed.
With most notebooks having built-in wireless broadband connections, a new onslaught of data is expected. As a result, where we'll store our accumulated files will be transformed.
According to Intel's Trainor, we'll see ever-more storage capacity in smaller and smaller packages, along with solid-state memory that is lighter and faster, while being more rugged and using less power.
Currently, adding 64MB of solid state capacity to a notebook's hard drive runs an extra $1,000. By 2015, the typical mainstream notebook could be outfitted with a 2TB hard disk drive, which should be plenty of room for even the biggest data hog, the experts speculated. For smaller and lighter machines, look to having something like 250GB of flash memory at your disposal, but it will likely come at a small premium.
There will be a new type of storage as well that has can boost performance, said Intel's Trainor. Currently, with Windows Vista , a USB flash memory key can act as an intermediate data cache for the system's hard drive.
This makes the most-used data more quickly available for the processor, streamlining its operation. Called Turbo or Robson memory, this technique will go into overdrive when the flash memory is put on the motherboard for faster access, Trainor noted.
We'll look at our notebooks in a different light in 2015 as sequential red, green, blue LED backlighting replaces the cold cathode fluorescent lighting tubes found in today's LCD screens. This technology will not only offer brighter images, but will also use less power.
Ultimately, organic LEDs will take over, although they may not be ready in time for a 2015 system in the sizes and quantities required for mass production. Because they make their own light, OLEDs can be made thinner than today's screens.
These screens have been used on phones for several years, and Sony's XEL-1 is the first TV to have an OLED display. Its 11-in. OLED screen is just over a tenth of an inch thick. "We're very excited about OLEDs," said Trainor. "They're capable of producing beautiful, rich colors and using less power. It adds another choice."
In a more speculative vein, in seven years, we just might have 3-D displays that show the world as it really is. This will not only be great for gamers, but it can aid in representing complex data and displaying computer-aided designs.
Such displays could also revamp the way we interact with our desktops. Imagine an on-screen desktop that, rather than a flat expanse, has depth and perspective so that you can hide your list of passwords behind the icon for opening your Web browser.
More, better power
Most experts agree that future notebooks will be just as limited by battery life as they are now. But that doesn't mean we won't see significant advances in mobile power supplies; such advances will be necessary to keep up with all the extra power.
While fuel cells that turn methanol into power showed promise over the past few years, batteries will continue to dominate the power scene. However, there will be a move from lithium-ion cells that have to be made in cylinders to lithium polymer cells that can be formed in a variety of shapes and sizes.
"This allows notebook designers to fill small nooks and crannies of a notebook with extra batteries," explained Trainor.
Powering up could also change with inductive charging, which is key to both the Compenion and Cario concept notebooks. Rather than plugging a cord into the notebook to charge it, you just put the notebook on a special surface that has an inductive power pad, and juice is sent wirelessly to charge the battery.
The payoff is that there's no AC power adapter to carry, but this new method of charging devices will work only if enough charging pads are available. They'd need to be at cafes, hotels and even on airliner tray tables. This technology is ready today , although it is a long way from being adopted widely enough to be useful.
"Inductive charging," said Lopez, "would allow easy access and a secure way to charge."
An innovative mobile approach to power is taken by Nikola Knezevic, a Serbian designer who has turned the clamshell format on its head with solar panels. His concept design, called, not surprisingly, the Solar Laptop Concept, has an extra hinged lid covered with solar cells that can be adjusted to get the most out of the sun.
It'll add a few tenths of an inch to the system's thickness and won't be able to fully charge the system, but when you're done, just fold it up and go.
Still, Trainor, who avidly follows developments of technologies such as solar power, cautioned against becoming too optimistic that this type of technology will make it easier to keep laptops of the future charged.
"We're still a ways away from generating enough to power the notebook," explained Trainor.
In this one way, the more things change, the more they stay the same. While mobile computers in 2015 will significantly eclipse today's notebooks in terms of usability and capabilities, we'll still need to find ways to keep the devices charged.

Keeping Up With The (Nuclear) Joneses

In the last two years, more than a dozen Arab states have announced plans to pursue nuclear power programs. This has raised concerns that such countries are interested in developing nuclear weapons.

All state parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) have the legal right to develop nuclear energy programs. Yet civilian nuclear power programs can provide the technology and expertise necessary to begin a nuclear weapons program. Some civilian nuclear reactors also provide the fuel necessary for the construction of nuclear weapons.

There has been growing international interest in nuclear energy options, but the particular spike in Arab interest has raised concerns about parties' true motives.

Cairo said in 2006 that it would start constructing nuclear power stations. In December 2007, it said that it would not sign the additional protocol to the NPT, which allows U.N. inspectors to make intrusive inspections of nuclear sites on short notice. However, the protocol is voluntary, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is providing technical assistance to establish the country's first nuclear power plant for electricity generation.

Amman announced in early 2007 that it would pursue a nuclear power program, with the aim of building the country's first reactor by 2015. Jordan is working with the IAEA to assess the feasibility of a nuclear power plant, and has signed the additional protocol.

Gulf Cooperation Council
The GCC announced in 2006 that its members aim to jointly to develop a nuclear power plant in cooperation with the IAEA. The first stage of a feasibility study was completed in late 2007.

GCC States
In addition to joint GCC plans, the United Arab Emirates is moving forward with plans for nuclear power and is working with the IAEA to study the feasibility of a nuclear power and water desalination plant. The UAE has said it would import its nuclear fuel and sign the additional protocol. Qatar has expressed interest in nuclear power. Saudi Arabia has discussed provision of nuclear energy equipment and expertise with countries such as Russia and France.

Sana'a has expressed interest in nuclear power for economic development.

North Africa
Both Algeria and Morocco are working with the IAEA to study the feasibility of developing nuclear power programs. Libya is reportedly buying at least one nuclear reactor from France for nuclear desalination, and may pursue a broader nuclear energy program. Tunisia has also expressed interest in its own program.

The Arab states argue that nuclear power is part of a wider strategy to reduce dependence on oil and gas for energy. With growing populations, all the states--especially GCC members--face high and increasing energy demands. In addition, several intend to use at least some nuclear power for desalination.

States that possess oil and gas also argue that exporting these resources is more economically advantageous than consuming them domestically. Thus, developing nuclear energy can appear economically sound, even to hydrocarbon-rich countries.

Many also view nuclear programs as a technological milestone on the path of economic development.

However, security concerns could be a key factor:

For Saudi Arabia, a nuclear energy program providing a possible foundation for a future nuclear weapons program could serve as a hedge against a potentially nuclear-armed Iran. In addition, Arab countries may be trying to send the message that a nuclear Iran would spark a regional arms race.

The Arab states have lived with a nuclear-armed Israel for decades, so it is unlikely that they have suddenly decided to counter Israeli power with their own nuclear weapons. Yet some Arab states still view Israel as a potential threat, and also would gain a sense of national pride by matching Israel's nuclear weapons.

Other regional issues help drive the programs, such as the rivalry between Algiers and Rabat.

Arab states increasingly doubt U.S. security guarantees and may be losing confidence in the global non-proliferation regime. Developing nuclear technology and facilities with a goal of eventually developing nuclear weapons provides a hedge against future global security crises.

To read an extended version of this article, log on to Oxford Analytica's Web site.

Motorola Renews Itself by Spinoff

While Motorola is in disarray as a result of its split into separate companies, Nokia and Samsung will be able to grab market share, analysts agree.

"The short-term winners will be Nokia and Samsung, and maybe Sony Ericsson will be able to increase its market share as well," said Leif-Olof Wallin, research vice president at Gartner.

Ben Wood, director of research at CCS Insight, agreed. "With any change there is some disruption, and competitors can grab market share before it stabilizes," said Wood.

Before the split was announced Wednesday, he wrote in the company blog that Motorola competitors would use CTIA Wireless, next week's big telecommunication conference in Las Vegas, to take advantage of Motorola's woes to increase their share of a highly competitive market.

But in the longer term, Motorola can stage a comeback, according to Wood. "The bad news is that Motorola has the wrong products, the good news is that can be changed," he said Wednesday, after the announcement.

He still sees strong fundamentals in Motorola. It has a strong brand and presence in important markets like China and India.

Also, a third major vendor in the market is needed to keep Nokia and Samsung in check. "It's needed to provide some balance with Nokia. A Nokia-Samsung duopoly isn't good for anyone," said Wood.

The Motorola split is a result of its under-performing mobile phone division. During last year, it fell from second to third place, with Nokia in first and Samsung in second in the fourth quarter, and its market share decreased from 21.1 percent to 14.3 percent, according to Gartner.

Gartner's analysis of what happened is that an unspecified deal with an unnamed Asian vendor fell through and as a result, Motorola decided to go ahead with the split.

"We think it was ZTE, which still can become a force in the new company," Wallin said.

He also notes that Nokia is the only Western mobile phone vendor that has been able to compete with Asian manufacturers. Along the way, Siemens and Alcatel have disappeared, and Sony Ericsson is 50 percent Japanese,


Motorola has taken heed of pressure from shareholders including billionaire Carl Icahn, and announced it will spin off its mobile handset business.

Motorola (nyse: MOT - news - people ) shares rose 1.5%, or 15 cents, to $9.91, on Wednesday morning, after a pre-opening rally of over 9.0%.

The changes will be made in 2009, under which two publicly-listed companies will be created, one focusing on mobile phones and the other bringing together Motorola's home and networks business, which sells TV set-top boxes and modems, and its enterprise mobility unit, which sells computing and communications equipment for businesses.

Motorola expects the transaction will be tax-free, allowing shareholders to own stock in both the new companies

Nomura analyst Richard Windsor said this represented the best deal for shareholders. "It is the least disruptive remedy to their recovery plan for their mobile phone division," he added.

He said the company would have struggled to get a good price if it had chosen to sell its mobile handset division, which has suffered from a slump in sales thanks to stiff competition from the likes of Nokia and Sony Ericsson.

"Our decision to separate our Mobile Devices and Broadband & Mobility Solutions businesses follows a review process undertaken by our management team and board of directors, together with independent advisors," Chief Executive Greg Brown said in a press release.

"Creating two industry-leading companies will provide improved flexibility, more tailored capital structures, and increased management focus - as well as more targeted investment opportunities for our shareholders."

Motorola launched a strategic review in January, following a weak set of fourth-quarter earnings that were weighed down by troubles at its handset business, which has failed to repeat the success of its Razr phone.

Just ahead of the announcement, UBS analyst Maynard Um cut his estimates for sales of Motorola handsets for 2008, by 9.0%, to 146.5 million, despite Motorola's plans to launch several new 3G phones and low-cost handsets targeted at emerging markets.

Icahn had pressed for the spin off and for the appointment of a new chief executive for the division, arguing that the company functioned as a conglomerate, and a carving off the handset unit was in the best interests of shareholders. (See: " Icahn Rattles Motorola")

Yahoo! and Google’s OpenSocial Platform

OpenSocial APIs allow developers to create a single web-based application that can work on any number of social networking sites.

A single application could be created which uses data from any site or adds a new function between several services.

"Yahoo believes in community-driven industry specifications and expects OpenSocial to fuel innovation and make the web more relevant and more enjoyable to millions of users," said Wade Chambers, vice president of platforms at Yahoo.

"Our support builds on similar efforts with the OpenID community and will expand the opportunity for developers and publishers to benefit from an open and increasingly social web."

Yahoo also announced that it will partner with Google and MySpace to form a non-profit group dedicated to the technical and legal aspects of OpenSocial. will develop frameworks for handling intellectual property and governance issues, and establish guidelines for documentation and technical issues.

Google was quick to welcome Yahoo into the OpenSocial fold, which now includes LinkedIn, MySpace, Friendster and

"We are looking forward to Yahoo users joi
Yahoo agreed to join rival Google’s OpenSocial platform, which aims at building an infrastructure for the social web, as Google described it. Through the OpenSocial, platform, developers will be able to create applications for social-networking sites. The platform was launched last November, and MySpace is already a member.

“OpenSocial has been a community-driven specification from the beginning,” said Joe Krauss, Director of Product Management with Google. “The formation of this foundation will ensure that it remains so in perpetuity. Developers and websites should feel secure that OpenSocial will be forever free and open,” Krauss added.

This association appeared as a surprise considering the known rivalry between Google and Yahoo, but, together with MySpace, the three said they were planning to ensure neutrality and longevity for OpenSocial and as founding members to offer developers the potential to connect with over 500 million people worldwide.

“Yahoo! believes in supporting community-driven industry specifications and expects that OpenSocial will fuel innovation and make the web more relevant and more enjoyable to millions of users,” said Wade Chambers, Vice President Yahoo! Platforms. “Our support builds on similar efforts with the OpenID community and will expand the opportunity for developers and publishers to benefit from an open and increasingly social web.”

MySpace also welcomed Yahoo! as an important addition to the OpenSocial network, stating that this alliance will provide developers with the necessary tools to make the Internet faster and ‘foster more innovation and creativity.” The organization will be created within the next three months.

With the help of OpenSocial, developers will be able to create applications to access social networks and update feeds, and with the help of a common API, they will also be able to make them available to users. This movement looks as a response to Facebook’s own open system that allows developers to create applications on the Web.

little more about opensocial
Google has released a set of open application programming interfaces (APIs) that lets developers simultaneously craft applications for multiple social networks.

The OpenSocial APIs will work with any participating social network, and allow applications to integrate information from the user's profile, along with data about friends, contacts and activities.

A programmer could use the information to build a messaging application to exchange instant messages with friends in their network, and potentially across networks.

An application developed for Facebook is limited to this one service, but a set of common, broadly supported APIs would allow developers to distribute applications across multiple social services.

Facebook was the first major social network to open up its platform to developers, and has attracted more than 5,000 applications since June.

Google, however, is going beyond building an open alternative to Facebook's APIs. OpenSocial also boasts support from enterprise players and Oracle.

Early OpenSocial supporters include LinkedIn, Friendster and Plaxo, as well as the Google-owned Orkut social network. Big networks such as MySpace and Facebook are missing from the list of partners.

Google has an advertising partnership with MySpace. Facebook signed a similar deal last week with Microsoft, which is believed to have outbid Google for the agreement

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