Dec 30, 2006

Neuronet - The Matrix is here?

The Matrix films have been ridiculed by many people to be an impossible scenario- with machines enslaving human beings and feeding off our body heat to keep us immersed in a virtual world. Well, they have not mastered us yet, but a recent announcement from the International Association of Virtual Reality Technologies could indicate the birth of a more Matrix-like Internet.

Called the Neuronet, scheduled to go live in 2007, the network would provide a platform for virtual reality and gaming innovators around the world to develop applications for a second-generation network.

Virtual reality refers to computing systems which provide sensory feedback to the user to make her feel like she is actually in a different environment. For example, flight simulators are examples of virtual reality environments where a trainee pilot can learn the nuances of flight training before actually flying a multi-mllion dollary aircraft.

Although much cruder than the versions depcited in sci-fi movies like the Matrix, virtual reality is all set to grow in the coming years with quantum improvements in computing power and network bandwidth.

The Neuronet would be separate from the current Internet, the IAVRT announcement explains. Virtual reality programs like IBM's Second Life has become very popular among its members, where they can actually live out a virtual life.

3D designer Sven Johnson has questioned the "reality" of the virtual reality network, saying that it could be a "get-rich-quick" scam funded by domain name sales. (link)

Scam or not, it is only a matter of time before virtual reality environments become more possible and inviting to the masses. Even now, the chore of getting online, checking your mail and IMs, hanging around in a social networking site, etc. is considered by some to be "virtual reality". Where "real" ends and "virtual" begins is becoming a tougher question to answer.

CNET article

Dec 2, 2006

Opera Mini 3 - Mobile web unleashed

Study after study proclaims the arrival of the Mobile Web, information on the go and being "always connected". The few who have actually explored the Web on our mobile devices would know better that things are not all that great right now. Clumsy browsers trying hard to fit Web pages on the small screen, slow download speeds and the worst of all, the exorbitant charges for data usage by mobile operators.

Opera Mini 3

Opera Software, the makers of the popular desktop Web browser, have announced the latest version of their browser for Mobile phones, Opera Mini 3. Opera Mini is a Java application that can be installed on most of today's smartphones or mobile devices supporting Java.

Unlike traditional mobile browsers like Opera's own Opera Mobile and Symbian browser, the Mini does not connect to the concerned web server directly. Instead, it connects to a proxy server that fetches the requested page and reformats the original HTML, Javascript and multimedia content into a format optimised for mobile phones. Thus, when you type in the address bar, the application relays it to the proxy. The proxy then fetches the Yahoo! homepage, strips it off all the bells and whistles, optimises for your specific device and sends it to the application. All the app has to do is take this and render on the screen, a much easier task when the heavy objects are taken off.

The killer utility

What makes Opera Mini so useful is that it cuts out the data consumption drastically, since the proxy has filtered out most of the unwanted content already, making the pages much lighter. Some reviews claim to have observed 70-80% reduction in the data consumption, which can be extremely useful considering the exorbitant charges levied by mobile operators. Thus, even if the webpage is not optimised for your mobile device, you can expect Mini to step in and do the dirty work for you.

The standard homepage of the browser carries a Google searchbox, and a customisable search engine containing sites like Wikipedia and RSS feeds are also supported, and so is photo blogging that helps you blog from your phone to the Opera Community server. The scroll feature is really user-friendly and keyboard shortcuts are really a breeze.

Mobile web proxies

If your phone doesn't support Java and you can't install Mini, you can still use other mobile web proxies to reduce your data usage. A good one is Google Mobile service, available at Enter the site name or URL in the Google Mobile search box and click on the relevant link. Google Mobile uses a proxy server to interpret the target webpage into a format more suited for mobile devices, although you can't really compare it with the Mini's performance. But then again, that was not what it was designed to do. It is a search again, after all. For browsing on mobile devices however, I highly recommend getting the Mini. Goto on your mobile and install the app. The Web is truly mobile now.

Nov 9, 2006

Gmail client on Java mobile

Google released its mobile client for Gmail sometime back, but I never actually got around to testing it until now. After having used Gmail & Yahoo Mail on my mobile browser (Opera), I had quit the service as the data transfer charges were getting out of hand. This client does help out a lot in that regard and much more.


The installation of the software was pretty simple. Type in the download URL ( in your mobile browser and you can dowload the client and have it installed on your phone under a minute. There is hardly any setting or configuration changes required, and you can use it out of the box. You will need to have Java support on your phone for the client to work. Most modern phones support Java, so that isn't really a problem. (Installation on my Nokia N70 was very easy and totally trouble-free.)


Once the program is launched, you are prompted to enter your Gmail username and password to sign in. A fairly redundant warning appears saying the program will use the network to send and receive data. Once confirmed, your Gmail inbox loads almost instantly. You can select messages and read them as conversations, in true Gmail style. I have not found that feature useful enough to cheer about, but some of my friends are crazy about it.

What is really interesting about this tiny app is that it can provide you almost all Gmail features, as if you were using it on a PC. Major functions are available through the numeric keypad, and also through a menu if your prefer that instead. Besides standard email functions like reply and forward, you can also archive, mark as read or unread, report as spam or delete.

Google claims that this client is faster because it has built-in prefetch feature, which automatically loads links in background while you are still reading the first message. Preloading is not recommended if your phone company charges for every kilobyte downloaded, as you may waste money on messages you never actually read. For a flat rate data plan, it is simply great.

The Settings menu does not offer you much though. You can choose to be signed in always, or turn off the preload messages or use smaller fonts, and that is about it. Another thing the program lacks is a new mail notification feature, which I believe would come in the later versions. Also, you can not compose an email to a new email address, unless you have added it in your contacts list which is not all that great either. For a Version 1.0.0b launch however, I think the program comes off really nice.

Better than Gmail through mobile browser

One major advantage of this application over using Gmail on a mobile browser is that it can limit your data consumption to a great extent. Many phone companies charge for data usage (usually for every Kilobyte downloaded) and over a month, this can add up to a decent amount. By using built-in forms like the login prompt, the app reduces your data consumption, which would have otherwise cost you for every sign-in. The prefetch feature is simply great if your data plan is a flat charge one, as it really speeds up the mail functions many times.

This application should encourage more Gmail users to use the service on their mobile devices, widely considered to be the next phase in computing. I would love to see if Yahoo can come up with something similar, as my experience with Yahoo! Go has been less than satisfying. Considering the two companies are going neck to neck in so many areas, it wouldn't surprise me to see a similar app from Yahoo very shortly. (Read the Google - Yahoo rivalry)

Oct 27, 2006

Social search with Google Custom

Speak search and Google comes to mind. There is a very good reason why that is so. They try to make all Web users search more and more using their engine, and they roll out newer and newer ways of doing that. The newest in line - Custom Search Engine for everyone.

Using Custom Search, built upon Google Co-op, anyone can make a personal search engine of their own, defining the sites they want to be searched. They can either limit the search to a few sites, or the entire Web, emphasising the defined sites. If your passion is astronomy or computer hardware, you can define the few sites you visit religiously and the searcher would get results from these few sites.

Strategically speaking, this move from Google is nothing short of brilliant. When everybody you know is digging or bookmarking on, Google could have probably beaten all of them to the game by bringing in social search in its own ingenious way. Let us examine how Google has done this.

Suppose you are very passionate about astronomy, and has been so for some time. Definitely, you would be an authority on the best sites on the subject and visit them regularly. When Google gets you to sign up for Custom Search on astronomy for your site, you would be defining them with your favourite astronomy sites, and more often than not, these would be sites with premium quality content.

You have essentially built an engine that searches the best sites on astronomy, and the definition of best is coming from you, a human being, who can recognise quality content much, much better than a computer program. Google has thus succeeded in coaxing you to sharing your judgement and reviewing skills, which combined with Google's automated technology brings up the best results on astronomy. Somebody who has used your Custom Search would find it giving more relevant results than the generic Google search, which even by Google's standards has not contained spam sites to a large extent. The site with the Custom Search thus gets more visitors searching on it and it is ideally a win-win situation for all concerned - Google, the Custom Search site and the users who search through it.

Google has always faced strong criticism because of the lack of human element in its search technology. The famous Googlebot and PageRank are, after all, only computer programs. Many people say that is an inherent weakness as they can be tricked by malicious webmasters who try to stay one step ahead of it. Yahoo!, on the other hand, had a better technique of human editors reviewing the pages in their directory, thereby providing quality content. But this model was simply not efficient enough to keep up with the tremendous pace that the Web is growing at. Any attempt to do it would be overwhelming, if not impossible.

Google might have jumped one more step ahead of Yahoo! by subtly bringing in the human element it has been so far lacking in their technology. With more and more Custom Search Engines springing around the Web, the quality of search results should also improve dramatically.

Get your own Google Custom Search

P.S: You can try a sample one at the bottom of this page.

Oct 18, 2006

Innovation for innovation's sake

Innovation. The concept has been driving management principles for years together now that it has almost become a cliche. Entire industries have spawned in the last few years, with self-proclaimed creativity consultants and experts helping out corporations lacking the edge to beat the competition in the race for the most innovative product out there.

Many people equate innovation with business success and use them synonymously. It is almost as if innovation or the lack thereof alone can make or break a company. This innovation fever comes with its many cousins - lateral thinking, thinking out of the box and creativity. Of course, these should be, by no means, discouraged for only this vitality can churn out the next iPod or Post-it notes. But when a company gears itself for innovation and creativity alone and forgets how it affects the bottom line, you can know for sure it is headed for trouble. Innovation, for the sake of innovation, is simply not worth it.

The very concept of innovation, successful innovation that can affect your company's future, may not be what it seems. In a very insightful article on the topic, Carleen Hawn dissects the history of Apple and its corporate culture which teems with innovation and creativity. Hawn recalls how Apple almost single-handedly created the personal computer market, only to be taken over by IBM and its clones, powered by software from the then lesser-known Microsoft. What happened after that is history. Apple's decision of not to open up and license its operating system could have also considerably contributed to its low market share in the global personal computing market. As she puts its, technological innovation is what drives Apple, not business-driven. And that is the problem.

To take the exact opposite of Apple, we need to look no further than Microsoft. Technological innovation has not been the company's strongpoint. But when it comes to business-models, Microsoft is second to none. Gates and co saw an opportunity to bundle their very first operating system (which wasn't designed by them, as a matter of fact) with IBM's PCs, thus getting access to a very large customer base, with virtually no investment in distribution. What is more, Microsoft got paid by IBM for every PC that shipped with MS-DOS. The growth from a startup started by a college dropout to the software colossus that it is now is not a freak incident, it was business strategy and execution at its best.

So the next time you hear another preacher touting innovation as the only thing that can keep you going, just remember this old but very relevant quote:

"Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two, and only two, basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs. Marketing is the distinguishing, unique function of the business." - Peter F. Drucker

Oct 7, 2006

The jargon of technology

Research from Nielsen/NetRatings, Britons using cutting edge technology are not as savvy when it comes to jargons, reports For example, 40% of online Brits receive news feeds, but are not familiar with the official term Really Simple Syndication (RSS).

Some more examples:
  • Only 57% of online Brits knew that acronym for instant messaging was IM.
  • 75% did not know VOD stands for Video-on-Demand.
  • 35% have heard about podcasting but didn't know what it meant.

That is all very well, but does any of these statistics matter? If people are already using technology but just don't call it by its popular name, does it mean they are any less technologically inclined? In a world where technology is obsolete the second after it is invented and only the ubergeeks can keep up, doing that would be next to impossible.

A rose by any other name...

I am pretty certain the findings would be applicable throughout most of the world, not many people who actually use technology would be aware of the different names it is known by. That is because there is no need to. That is because being able to use the technology for betterment of our lives is infinitely more important than keeping track in the acronym jungle. If you now how to use newsfeeds and read them daily, why bother with the "official name" of RSS anyway?

Link: BBC

Sep 27, 2006

Nokia N95 - Pushing technology further

If you happen to be one of the millions of mobile phone owners who have just upgraded to the latest Nokia N-series 'multimedia devices', this article can be quite depressing. Yes, you have been just rendered obsolete.

Nokia has announced the latest member of the N-Series family, the mighty Nokia N95. The first Nokia phone to have integrated GPS functionality (with maps of over 100 countries), the N95 comes with a 5 Mega-Pixel camera with Carl Zeiss lens. More notably, it has a 2.6 inch QVGA screen and runs the Symbian S60 OS. The device has a TV out feature and support for Universal Plug and Play technology facilitating connection with a compatible TV. Also supporting HSPDA and EDGE technologies for high-speed network connections, it also has integrated WLAN.

With 8 GB hard-drive that can carry almost all your favourite tracks, the device has built-in stereo speakers with 3D stereo effect and a standard 3.5 mm audio jack. This very well could be the nemesis of the new generation iPods.

A few posts back, I had written about the innovation wave and how I try to cope with it. I had just jumped from Nokia 6670 to the N-70 (not much of an upgrade anyway!) but technology just beats me to it. When Nokia terms their products 'high-performance multimedia devices' instead of just phones or even smartphones, I think they maybe right.

Get more details at the Nokia N95 site. For the more technologically inclined, the technical specifications are also available.

Aug 30, 2006

Free and legal music downloads from SpiralFrog

In what could change the music industry since the launch of Apple's iTunes service, a startup company called SpiralFrog will offer music downloads for free. Supported by the vast catalogue of Universal Music which backs the service, this model hopes to make its revenue through advertisements. The users of the service will have to watch advertisements and the downloaded music will be copy protected to prevent being passed onto others. The advertisements will be a 90-second block which has to be watched before the content will be made available.

This move could be even more critical when the music and film industry is fighting a losing battle against piracy and illegal sharing through peer-to-peer networks. Almost every copy protection technology that has been employed recently has either landed the publisher in hot soup (Sony's DRM woes) or has been broken (FairUse4WM breaks Microsoft DRM).

Although not the first service of its kind to offer free content supported by advertising (Napster is already doing it and Kazaa is expected to follow suit shortly), SpiralFrog will offer actual music which can be stored on the user's computer, whereas Napster provides a streaming service, which can be heard only once. The likely option for Universal's cut would be a share of the advertising revenue generated through the service.Initially, the service will be available in the US and Canada, and may branch out to other regions depending on the success of the venture.

Aug 26, 2006

Web analytics revisited

Just like research into customer behaviour is vital for all businesses, websites today cannot do without Web analytics. Simply put, Web Analytics is the collection and analysis of data on how users behave on a particular website. Web analytics can help you in deciding what users look for and see in a website, whether they are interested in staying on or decide to move on and so on.

After investing a lot of money, effort and time into building traffic to a website, it is really important to check your return on investment, and web analytics tools helps in doing that. Web analytics solutions can tell you which pages are the most popular on your site, what content users find more appealing and where they skip off to other destinations. They can also tell you which pages referred users to your site or what keywords in search engines led them to you.

Such kind of information is vital for webmasters and marketers because it helps them in tailoring their site content and design to cater to the needs of the users. When users find more relevant content during their next visit, they are sure to stick on. Besides, the solution can also tell you where users leave off, hinting at where your content or design needs modification to make them stay on.

There are lots of web analytics solutions in the market and depending on the features and benefits offered, the prices range from free to several thousands of dollars. I have been using Google Analytics (formerly Urchin) for sometime now, and I find it extremely useful, not to mention, it is free as well. Google Analytics has just been released for free sign-ups from the invitation-only mode and I would recommend getting an account to get started. It is extremely simple to use and gives you more information than most of us bloggers would need.

Web analytics solutions are not something that you can use just for the fun of it, it is something that is critical to measuring user behaviour metrics on your website. Anybody serious about developing a website as an online business or even as a hobby should definitely take a look into them. By creating more compelling content and improved design, you offer a better reason for users to visit your site again, which is a critical factor in deciding the success of the website.

Aug 19, 2006

How fast is your computer?

No matter who you are or what you do, people are always complaining about how slow their computers are. We groan about how much time it takes for that spreadsheet to load or how jittery the graphics in that new videogame is. And that is after spending loads of money to get that blazing fast new processor and motherboard. When it comes to giga-hertz and giga-bytes, It seems we are simply obsessed with speed. Faster is always better.

That is why somebody who would say that all that processing power is maybe too much for us strikes you as somewhat odd. I have a friend who says just that. He thinks that we are simply being forced to upgrade to newer and faster hardware because of the evil nexus that exists between hardware vendors and software companies.

He might have a good case though. The latest operating system won't run with hardware that is now in the market, you would have to wait two more months for that to happen. Indeed, it might very well be the case that clueless consumers are being forced to upgrade to software that is by no means better, but definitely expensive and requires nothing less than a supercomputer to run on. But then, we have great visionaries like Bill Gates who made a software empire make statements like 640 K should be sufficient for anyone. Maybe he is seeing the glass half-empty. (To be fair to Mr. Gates, the authenticity of that quote has not been established beyond doubt.)

Consider what we have seen in the last decade in personal computing. To be more specific and really to the point, let us take computer games. Would you really believe that someone who was playing Dave in 1995 can play Halo 2 or FIFA 2006 now? (If you have actually played through all those games, you would get my point more easily.)

This revolution in the industry didn't happen because we sat tight with what we had. No, we decided to push the limits. When software was too demanding on the hardware, we made faster hardware. When we got better hardware, we wrote better code to take full advantage of its capabilities. This virtuous cycle is what drives innovation and indeed, the entire industry. It is not that we never seem to have enough, we just shouldn't. Maybe our obsession with speed isn't accidental, it very well could have been hardwired into us. So the next time you are wondering why that document is taking too long to open, you might be actually fueling innovation.

Jul 8, 2006

YouOS Web Operating System

Seriously speaking, the title of this article is a bit misleading. YouOS is more like a bunch of useful apps put together that distantly resembles an operating system like Windows or Linux. Indeed, the application works on your browser, which itself requires another operating system to run. However, the idea is to have a virtual desktop that you can access from a Web enabled device, from anywhere around the world.

The system is in alpha testing, and what is more, it even comes with your own little shell for all that command-typing wizards out there. And as can be expected, 'ls' and 'mkdir' is about as advanced it gets. But what really impresses me is the idea behind it.

To actually have an operating system that runs on the Web is quite intriguing, something like even more personalised computing for people who are always on the go. We inevitably comes across a paradox in this situation though - how can you access an operating system that runs on the Web because don't you already require a Web browser to access the site? Hmm.

The idea is not that new, actually. In these very columns, I had toured another similar application - Goowy. It also had its own desktop, text editors and stuff and also a very attractive email system. What makes YouOS different is that it is done using AJAX instead of Flash, as Goowy is. Not that being done in AJAX itself merits more credit, it is just that I find the whole AJAX thing very interesting.

YouOS gives you the ability to write your own app for the system, and if you think that is not your cup of tea, you can install other apps from a nice little collection that you can browse within the system. You even get virtual sticky notes that you can set as reminders.

For sometime now, the idea of the Web based Operating System has been doing the rounds on the Web. Once we get around the paradox we mentioned before, maybe we will get to a real Web OS. Something like where the software for starting up the computer itself is received from a remote server, and all the usual operating system routines like IO, File and memory management is done by a remote service. I don't know if something like that exists already, forgive my ignorance if it does. Are the giants of the Web listening?

Jun 30, 2006

The Instant Messaging battle

Consider this - how would it be if you could send an email only to another user on the same domain? Or you could call a subscriber on the same telephone network alone? Not many would welcome the idea, but that is how it is now with Instant Messaging.

Instant Messaging is a must-have tool in a world that runs on real-time. If you can't communicate now, better forget it. But all the big operators that provide IM services right now - MSN, Yahoo, AOL and Gmail prefer to use proprietary standards and that means communicating within their own network and only that. So, even if you are a regular Yahoo! IM user but has a friend on MSN, one of you two would have to register with the other's service to communicate. Had the operators been charging for new registrations, you wouldn't quite fancy that option, would you?

Metcalfe's law (also referred to as the Network Effect) states that value of a communications network is proportional to the square of the number of users. What it essentially conveys is that the more the number of people using the same system, the better for everyone. You wouldn't need different softwares, different protocols and all the difficulties that come with them. Then why are they all still separate?

Of course there are numerous apps out there that can work with the different services, but still they are all running on different systems, and no standard has yet been defined. On the other hand, take IRC(Internet Relay Chat). Although now made obsolete by the more interactive and graphical substitutes offered by MSN, Yahoo and the like, IRC is an open system. Any user with an IRC client can connect to the server, and chat - it is as simple as that. It supports one of the basic tenets of the Internet that its founders dreamt of - accessibility. The more modern versions of IM do not. And that is a big problem.

If only the big IM services would just sit together and agree on a common standard, one which would work transparently and all the users in a single database, just imagine the value of the network as proposed by Metcalfe's law.

P.S: There are practical difficulties, of course, of uniting all these user bases into a single one, like overlapping usernames and database considerations, but technology has come so far, can't we work something out?

May 26, 2006

Picasa - A cool photo management software

Picasa, the software that is available as a part of Google Pack, is a great piece of software for your image management requirements. As like all other Google services, it comes for free.

For starters, Picasa gives a simple point and click interface which requires minimal effort to master. You can lighten dark shots, apply color balance, crop and cut, zoom in or out. Other effects like sepia, black and white are also available, along with a red-eye removal feature. It can search for images on your hard drive, maintain a library that is easy to manage and find images effortlessly. It can save the finished images to the hard disk or burn it to a CD or DVD or upload it to the Net.

Give Picasa a try and you will not look at your photographs the same way again. Download now, it's free!

May 25, 2006

The new mobile web

Accessing Internet and email on your mobile device is nothing new. However, from last week, businesses have been buying up .mobi domain names, which will indicate that the site is designed specifically for mobile devices, and therefore optimising performance in terms of speed and accessibility. The Internet regulatory authority ICANN had approved the concept almost a year back, but the domain names are available only recently.

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, have shown clear dislike for the idea. In his argument, he has stated that the new top-level domain names (TLD) will fragment the web. Instead, he says, the content should be made smart to recognise what kind of device it is being viewed on, mobile or not.

The opposing group, the ones who are supporting .mobi domains are saying that the .mobi domains are intended to serve as a trust mark, which will assure users that the site will work on their mobile phone.

Source: BBC

May 19, 2006

The new managers of technology

The importance of Technology Management as a course in business schools around the world have been growing over the years. Now there is even more good reason for that.

Deloitte, the management consultants, in their report titled "Eye to the Future — How Technology, Media and Telecommunications Advances Could Change the Way We Live in 2010", have concluded that technical skills will become crucial in plotting your way up the corporate ladder. As managers work in an increasingly complex world filled with complicated technology, their skill to make informed decisions will depend on their ability to understand the technology and how it will affect their business. The more technology oriented you are, the more your chances of making it big.

The report also looked into the issue of mobile and remote working and concluded that the number of employees with always-on mobile email is forecast to rise from the current millions to at least tens of millions by 2010.

The report states that by 2008, 41 million corporate employees globally may spend at least one day a week teleworking, and 100 million will work from home at least one day a month.


May 16, 2006

Riding the technology wave - Nokia 6670

I am a techno freak, and I love gadgets - the newer, the better. Fortunately, I don't go by my desires everytime I see the new Blackberry or the Nokia N Series and that has kept me from going broke. Most of the features of the gadgets won't be either supported by my operator, or will cost me an arm and a leg for it. Instead, I try and ride the innovation wave. That way, I can stay just ahead of being totally obsolete and not end up paying a fortune for it. Talk about having your cake and eating it too.

That is why I got myself a Nokia 6670. I did quite some research on it before the purchase, both online and offline, and my experience with it is simply excellent. It has all the basic features that I need and I am quite satisfied with it. I opted for the model because I didn't want to spend a lot of money on an object that I could lose easily, get stolen easily or let go and break even more easily. But I didn't want to end up with a stone-age cell phone either. And I think I have succeeded in timing my purchase just right so that I can get my next gadget (not 'phone', your next 'phone' may not be a 'phone'. Says who? Says Nokia!) My point: The price may stagnate at the current level, giving no incentive to wait any longer and your phone's life is just enough to take you to the next wave.

Apr 20, 2006

Quantum encryption - The new security frontier

What has Werner Heisenberg got to do with computer security? A lot, actually. Quantum encryption technology is maturing fast enough to replace the current encryption technologies employed in today's digital systems, and the best thing about this is that, it is theoretically unbreakable. The final frontier in security may not be too far.

We will go back to what Heisenberg has got to do with all of this. Werner Heisenberg, in 1927, discovered a very interesting property of elementary particles. Based on his experiments, he concluded that it was impossible to accurately measure the position and momentum of an elementary particle simultaneously. The key word is 'accurately'; you can predict either one accurately, but the other one would lend itself only with a degree of uncertainty. [Uncertainty principle]

Coming back to the normal world, current encryption technologies almost invariable use keys - public key encryption is the most preferred. However improbable breaking this security system may seem, with enough computing power on a parallel-processing system, it is possible to compromise the security by the classic "brute-force" attack.

Quantum encryption is immune to this because the photonic stream which carries the data is ruled by the Uncertianty principle and anyone trying to intercept the stream will alter the state of the photons in a way that it will be detected. Thus, in theory, it is impenetrable and can be proven mathematically.

Quantum encryption and NIST breakthrough

Apr 10, 2006

IBM joins the hardware encryption club

Let us face it. The world we live in is not a very secure one. You are not safe, nor is your precious data. Everyone, from multinational corporations to ordinary citizens doing their banking on the Net is paranoid when it comes to data security. And maybe it is this paranoia that is getting the big computer makers out there to build more and more hardware with built-in security. Soon after Intel's announcement of LaGrande technology that integrates encryption into the central processing functions, IBM is following suit with its SecureBlue system.

According to CNN, IBM researchers are of the opinion that as long as the CPU, essentially the brain of the computer and the encryption engine are two different systems, hackers can get in between the two and cause enough harm or steal whatever data he needs. Intel's implementation uses something known as a Trust Platform Module (TPM) and Apple's new Intel-based PCs are rumoured to carry these (Read more).

Hardware security, then again, is only as good as the chip designers have made it. Unlike software which can be upgraded for bug fixes or updated to include more features and tighter security, hardware implementation is something only the designers know about and is essentially a black box. If we believe that it is truly secure, our security is only as strong as that belief.

One interesting point noted in the article is the comment of Bruce Schneier, founder of Counterpane Internet Security Inc., on the new security system: "Security is a chain and it's as strong as its weakest link. They're talking about taking a very strong link and making it a little bit stronger, at best. Maybe."

Apr 8, 2006

DRM and hardware security

Did you just get a new Mac with an Intel chip inside or are you planning to get one soon? If so, you might find this article interesting.

I don't know a lot about how TPM (Trusted Platform Module) technology works, but if this article is even half right, you may think twice before getting that Mac.

The one thing in the article that caught my attention was the reference to the EFF's (Electronic Frontier Foundation) analysis of the Trusted Computing initiative, in which a significant portion of security implementations are based on hardware. (Read more about it here.)
It opens a very fundamental question - is hardware security really secure? Just consider the following hypothetical situations :

1. The hardware version has implementation errors - This is something very serious because it basically means you will have to throw out your whole hardware to ensure that it is secure. If the software had bugs or glitches, you can always replace it with an upgrade or a completely different system, much like changing the firmware of your cellphone. You would never even know this until you come up with something like what Intel faced with the Pentium FDIV bug. (And it wasn't pretty.)

2. The hardware vendor intentionally creates backdoors - This is an unlikely scenario, but far more dangerous than the previous one. While the former possibility would arise only when discovered by somebody accidentally and then find ways to misuse it, this option gives the vendor known pathways into the system. The possibilities of abuse are endless and I wouldn't even want to imagine what the vendor could do with such a kind of privilege.

I am no Mac expert and I wouldn't know RISC from CISC, but if the article is pointing to something really fishy, I would rather stay with my PC for now.

Mar 28, 2006

Apple in DRM soup

Digital Rights Management (DRM) laws are still very much in their infancy today. This may be partly because laws just can't seem to keep pace with technology and partly because technology itself is in a state of constant flux. Apple's experience in France is a case in point.

The French Government has proposed a law that would force Apple to open up content from its online music store iTunes so that they can be played on any digital music player. Currently, songs downloaded from iTunes plays only on Apple's own hugely successful music player iPod.

The law would require DRM developers to reveal details of their technology to rivals that wish to build compatible systems. Apple uses FairPlay DRM in its iTune store and iPod players. The law could wreck Apple's current system since it can not control music on players other than iPod. Apple has reacted to the government's move by terming it "state-sponsored piracy".

Experst feel that Apple would be better off withdrawing the iTunes service from the French market completely than give in to the pressure and suffer. If Apple executives had been thinking of this strategy, their worries would have been compounded by news that Denmark will soon be following France in implementing similar legislation. If more countries decide that Apple is locking in customers by abusing its dominant position in the market and follow suit, the entire digital rights managment issue will come under intense scrutiny and companies and customers will soon be needing a universal yardstick to measure what is acceptable and what is not. Shutting down operations in every country that implements the legislation just doesn't seem to be a viable option for Apple right now.

Mar 20, 2006

Does IT matter?

To say that we live in a world of technology would be to state the obvious. Technology pervades every aspect of our lives and transforms it. It influences everyone and everything - from individuals to giant multinational corporations. Technology is after all the means through which businesses deliver value to their customers. It even helps them build and sustain competitive advantage over competitors in a rapidly changing world. Or does it?

In his groundbreaking Harvard Business Review article, Nicholas Carr examined how technology and more specifically, information technology helped businesses build competitive advantage and sustain it in the long run. He argued that the costs of adopting the latest, state-of-the-art information technology was plummeting and this was in fact levelling the playing field for the smaller players, who were till now at a disadvantage. These smaller players, who couldn't afford the technologies that their bigger competitors enjoyed, no longer had to sit back and watch the game. They could also go in for the same, if not better, technology and compete with the Goliaths, and that the playing field was indeed levelled. He says that business can no longer seek to gain an edge based solely on the technology that they employ.

Let us examine this argument. It is indeed true that the cost of adopting the latest technologies in IT have fallen drastically from those of yesteryears. Processing cycles are much more abundant and a lot cheaper, storage even more so. Entire industries thrive on seeking to provide the best solutions at the lowest costs, and this competition has caused a huge acceleration in the diffusion of technology throughout businesses across the world. Concepts in Information Technology like Enterprise Resource Planning have enabled corporations ranging from the Fortune 500s to medium size businesses to integrate their business processes and cut through layers of bureaucracy, increasing efficiency and cutting response time to competition and the market. But that is that.

Even today, no business can dream of surviving, let alone beating the competition, without that necessary ingredient that we all like to preach about but seldom practice, intentionally or unintentionally - innovation. Innovation spawns new businesses, it keeps existing businesses afloat. Without it, your business is as good as dead. Like every other business aspect, innovation helps companies find new ways of better leveraging their existing IT systems, or even better, design entirely new ones. And in doing so, the company pushes itself ahead of the competition. Relentless, non-stop innovation can virtually keep the company there, but that would be too ideal a scenario.

Granted, Information Technology is only a tool that helps businesses deploy their resources at the right time and right place, against competition or in a new market. And as Carr argues, the competitive advantage that the company gains from adopting a new technology is perhaps short-lived. But in a dynamic global business environment, where markets appear and disappear in Internet time, that may be more than sufficient. IT does matter.

See both sides of the argument:

Does IT Matter?

IT Doesn't Matter

Mar 15, 2006

To link or not to link

What makes the World Wide Web such an efficient medium for dispersing information is its non-linear organisation. Unlike a book that you read from one end to end, a web page contains hyperlinks that can transport you from page to page (or indeed, from site to site), thus giving the reader the control of what to read and what to skip. That is good for the reader; not that good for the publisher.

Granted, the quantity and the quality of the hyperlinks in a page is a key factor that determines the quality of the page as a whole. As a reader, you search for something on an engine, find a page and go there. You run through the first few paragraphs and finally find that what you exactly were looking for is not there. What do you do? Yes, you click. You find the nearest hyperlink that you think will lead you to nirvana and you dump the site, just like that.

Now see this from the publisher's perspective. He has been spending hard cash to get you to his site using all the tricks in the book - search engine marketing, search engine optimisation, referral programs and what not. He doesn't want you to leave the site that soon; not before you have taken a look or even better, clicked at some of his advertisers, or browse other articles which drives up his pageview stats, a valuable information he needs to sell more advertising.

Frankly, he doesn't want to put any external links at all on his site. But that is not how the Web is designed to work. If your reader doesn't find quality links, you can be hundred percent sure that she doesn't think it is worth visiting again. On the other hand, putting too many will increase the probability of driving away the reader even before the page has fully loaded.

The solution here, as it is for most things in life, is a trade-off. Keep those links that you think will provide value to the reader, and you can be sure that the reader will reciprocate the feeling by visiting again. Happy linking!

Mar 1, 2006

Spam and the CAPTCHA defence

It is difficult to imagine e-mail without spam these days. The vast majority of the world's electronice mailboxes are haunted by it and an entire industry thrives on it. Companies and ISPs spend billions of dollars to fight it. Not only does it clog the networks due to the excessive traffic, but precious processor cycles and manhours are spent everyday to keep them off our inboxes. It is no wonder that another industry, the ones out to fight spam, is thriving as well. Spam is so much a part of our life that 'checking mail' means clearing up our mailboxes so that we don't lose out on genuine messages. So if everybody hates spam so much, what is being done to stop it?

Stopping Spam

The spam industry works on numbers, large numbers. This means that , say for every 100 e-mails that the spammer sends, his client gets one response. ( A 'response' here refers to a click on a link which either promises you a debt-free life or the woman of your dreams or eternal youth, or whatever.) To get 10,000 responses out of which only 10 may give any returns, he has to send a million emails. It is quite clear that sending that many emails is simply beyond anyone. The solution - automation. A software program, similar to a bulk mailer, is programmed to send out the message to a database of addresses the spammer has harvested from the Web or bought from another spammer. This is where the CAPTCHA defence comes in.

CAPTCHA, which stands for 'Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart' tries to identify if the entity trying to send an email or make a blog post is human or just a robot. It supplies that entity with a graphic, such as the one shown below and challenges it to enter the characters shown in the graphic in a textbox.

If there is a match, the entity is assumed to be a human and the email message goes through or the blog gets published and so on.

CAPTCHA broken

The main problem with CAPTCHA is that it is just a computer program trying to beat another computer program, namely the spambot. CAPTCHA will win as long as the spambot is dumb enough that it can't recognise the characters. But it loses the moment the spambot begins to think like the CAPTCHA program.

How does the spambot 'think' like a CAPTCHA? It is quite simple. Since it knows that there is a valid character sequence in the graphic and it was generated by a computer program albeit distorted and deformed, enough combinations and permutations of the graphic will definitely yield the original sequence. And that is exactly how CAPTCHA is broken. By identifying and learning the distortion patterns of the CAPTCHA program, the spambot is turning the tables around.

A few interesting links:

The CAPTCHA project

Breaking a Visual CAPTCHA

PWNtcha - captcha decoder

Feb 22, 2006

VoSky - The Skype enhancer

Everyone has heard of VoIP, Voice over Internet Protocol, the technology that lets users make cheap phone calls over the Internet. Chances are everyone have heard about Skype too, the program that allows users to make online calls to other users, now owned by eBay. Put two and two together and you can probably use Skype to make calls over the Internet to conventional phonelines, fixed and mobile. And that is exactly what the VoSky Call Centre does.

The Call Center comes for around $70. You can attach an ordinary fixed line phone and use it to make calls to regular phones over the Internet at a reduced rate, made possible by the SkypeOut service. You can always make free calls to other Skype users anyway.

It also lets you forward incoming Skype calls to your landline or mobile phone and even lets you know when another Skype user is online by ringing your phone. The Call Center connects to the USB port of the PC, meaning no external power source is required. The only people who will not be too happy about this technology is your phone company. Say goodbye to long distance phone bills.

Feb 21, 2006

The Million Dollar Homepage

What would you do if your debts are way too high and you are so poor that you don't even have a good pair of socks? If you are Alex Tew, you would start a million dollar homepage. And make a cool million dollars in four months!

How can I become a millionare?

That is what Alex asked himself when his finances were really bad, even to the point that his pair of socks was not decent enough. He got out a notepad and started thinking of a way to get out of the misery. Twenty minutes later, he had an idea. He would sell pixels.

For the uninitiated, pixels stand for 'picture elements', those tiny dots that make up your computer display. In most Internet advertising, pixels are sold in bulk, like banners or skyscrapers. The very idea of selling individual pixel was what made this different from the rest.

That very night, he registered the domain and started working on the project. The minimum purchase was for $100, which will give the buyer 100 pixels in a 10 X 10 space. Clicking on that space will take you to the advertiser's page.

With the $1000 that he raised from friends and family, he bought some publicity to his site. With every new visitor, the word about the new idea spread and the whole thing snowballed until he was able to raise his target within a short period of 4 months.

Besides making Alex Tew a millionaire, the site also spawned an entire industry of pixel selling sites. Many copycat clones with similar domain names have been registered, and what is more, you can even get a basic pixel selling kit for a few dollars.

For 20 minutes of thinking and 4 months to project completion of getting a million dollars, that is not bad, Alex, not bad at all.

Feb 14, 2006

The first anniversary

One year is not that long a period. However, in Internet time, it is eternity. And that is exactly how long this blog has been around. Wandering in Elysium is one year old today!

I didn't start off the blog as something that I would regularly update and maintain (and it hasn't been, I am afraid!). But then again, as all of you know, a blog is a precious little thing that you hold close to to your heart once you start one. Same is the case here. Completing one year is not a great achievement; but completing one year after it had been entirely deleted is something (Recovering deleted blogs).

I would like to thank all those nice people who happened to stumble across this blog and read a line or two and found it worthwhile. If any of my posts made you sit back and think about technology and how it affects our everyday lives, the purpose of this weblog has been served. I hope to write more frequently from now on, and hopefully, the writing shall get better as well. Wish me luck!

Feb 8, 2006

The Google Bomb lives on

Almost everyone reading this post would know what Google is and why it is the top search engine on the Web today. Type in a few words and you are guaranteed to find the most relevant website pertaining to that topic. Well, almost.

The set of algorithms that makes this possible is hailed as revolutionary in how it makes sense of the structure of the Web. The major innovation Google brought into Web search was the computation of value of a web-page on the basis of how many pages link to it, among many other things. This means that if page A links to page B, page B's value goes up; how much, depends on the value of page A itself. The algorithm is a work of genius. (On hindsight, it looks obvious enough; true genius always does.) But, like all software, it has loopholes.

The anatomy of a Google Bomb

As mentioned before, Google computes the value it assigns to page X on the basis of a number of factors, an important one being the number of pages linking to it and their respective values. However, it also does one more thing - it also notes the anchor text of that link and associates it with that page. That means if enough pages link to one particular site with the same text in its anchor, that word/phrase will be associated with the target site. That is exactly what a Google Bomb is.

Yes, that is right. The Google algorithm is not safe from attack. However, I will say that it is the more immune than others to the so-called black-hat techniques. Still don't believe me?Try searching for 'liar' or 'miserable failure' on Google and you will be surprised by what you find as the first search result.

This was done by a few Net-activists who set up enough pages with the above word/phrase as the anchor text and pointed it to the target site. (However, doing it on the same page won't give the desired result. You might even be black-listed by the Googlebot for spamming!)

It was first said that the Google Bomb was not a serious threat to the integrity of its search results. The temporal variables that Google has in its algorithm would defuse the bomb over a period of time, or after a couple of re-indexing. However, the 'miserable failure' search has been yielding the same first result for quite some time now. Maybe the Blogosphere is way too strong for Google to handle after all.

Read more - a few interesting links.

The Google Bomb
Google acknowledges the Google Bomb

Feb 1, 2006

The copyright debate

As like most of their other offerings, Google News is a great utility for Net users to stay updated on the world around them. Unlike Yahoo and others who offer similar services, Google News is completely automated - the Googlebots scour the Web and deliver the cream, all at one easy to access location. But that may end soon if some newspaper websites can prove that they have been wronged.

The World Association of Newspapers have brought a suit against Google, claiming copyright infringement. They argue that Google is using their content- headlines, stories, even photographs, in its own website and they are suffering as a result. Let us examine that argument.

If you have used Google News, you would know that it is categorised into sections like sports, business, science and technology, etc. Once a category is selected, news snippets from various websites are shown, one after the other. The point to be noted is that the whole content is not displayed; instead, a link to the original website is given. If a particular item catches your attention, you click that link and read the whole thing on that website.

Another important thing is that Google News does not carry advertisements. (Not yet, anyway.) Apparently, Google is not getting any benefit from this service and it doesn't pass off the content as its own either. It even links to the original websites. Personally, as a regular user of Google News, I have visited hundreds of websites that I would otherwise never had. I fail to see the rationale behind this lawsuit brought forward by these websites which raises the issue of copyright in a manner that seems to beat their cause rather than help it. Talk about cutting your own leg with your axe.

Jan 18, 2006

Backup your posts

Back up all your data, regularly. That is the first law for any prudent computer user. Virus attacks, hard disk crashes and simple human errors all gobble up your precious bytes in no time. And it is no different for a blogger. In a world where easy-to-use interfaces allows you to dump all your valuable posts to oblivion in a split-second, it is all the more true.

So how do you backup your blog posts? That would mainly depend on the blog you are using. I will describe a very simple method to backup your posts in one single file from Blogger, and things shouldn't be very different for others as well.

As you might know, every blog on Blogger has a unique ID. First, find out yours. Then, type in the URL :, replacing xx with your ID. You might be prompted for your Blogger username and password. Enter it and you will get all your posts in that blog, in one single XML file. Save it to your harddisk or CD and you can be assured that next time you need it, you can safely find it there. Do this on a regular basis and you will never lose another post. (And yes, I did say that it was a very simple method.)

Other blogs offering RSS, XML or Atom feeds will most probably have a similar option as well. Play around with your feed to find them. Any feedback in the comments section will be greatly appreciated.

Jan 11, 2006

The technology paradox and innovation wave

The story is a familiar one. You wish to own the latest, most advanced mobile phone (or notebook computer or digital camera) and you pick your brand and spend those hard-earned cash to get the gadget of your dreams. You get home and see the newspaper lying on the floor. You stoop down to get it and guess what you see - an ad for a better model of the gadget that you still haven't unpacked, and at a lesser price!

The rate at which technology advances is mind boggling. It is amazing that the so-called Moore's law still holds to such a large extent, even after so many years have passed. Not only does the computing power expand exponentially, the cost comes down drastically too. And that is what haunts the mind of anybody wanting to buy the coolest gadget in town. Because as soon as you buy it and get home, it is no longer cool, and certainly more expensive than the latest model.

But what is the solution to this paradox? You obviously can't put off buying a computer that you need badly forever. I should know, I have been wanting to get a notebook computer for some time now. Everyday I scan the newspapers and see a better model at the same price or the same model at a lower price. Enter, the innovation wave.

Innovation wave

"Always remember that someone, somewhere is making a product that will make your product obsolete. " - Georges Doriot

Innovation wave is a term that vaguely describes the advancement of technology in terms of conceptualisation to actual product realisation. An innovation wave starts with a disruptive technology, something that is totally new that it suddenly makes the preceding technology totally obsolete immediately. An example would be how the advent of Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) made command prompts obsolete. A person who adopts the technology at the very start of it would stand to gain the maximum from it, although the cost may be higher at the initial stages. But if you wait for the cost to come down, you may buy it at a lower rate, but another technology would have made what you bought even more obsolete. So you end up with an inferior product although at a lower cost. The person who adopts the technology at the middle stages of its life gets a trade-off between cost and the utility - it will not be state-of-the-art nor obsolete, and it won't cost you an arm and a leg either. It all depends on what matters to you more - the cost or the performance/utility.

Thinking about buying a notebook computer is a similar issue. The best ones will definitely burn a hole in your pocket, and you always run the risk of being obsolete when a better technology comes along. So looking at how the industry has been progressing on the technology and economy front, it would be a wise choice to wait for a while when the cost comes down. But wait too long, and you risk becoming obsolete. Other questions like the validity of Moore's law in the future comes into play, with the possibility of packing transistors even more densely pushing the physical limits. Maybe another wave of innovation like nanotechnology or quantum computing is just around the corner. And maybe, just maybe, that sleek new notebook that you are flaunting right now at your neighbour has just been made obsolete.

Jan 7, 2006

Google to offer video downloads

Television may well be on its way out. Google has announced that it will offer video downloads, not unlike Apple's hugely popular iTunes online store, which offers paid music and video downloads to users. Video downloads are very popular on the Net, although most of the traffic is allegedly illegal using peer to peer file transfer software like the Gnutella and Kazaa networks.

Convergence advocates have known it all along. With broadband becoming increasingly popular around the world, the role of television will be taken over by the PC, even when the mobile handsets get smarter everyday. Google will offer content from hits like "Survivor","I love Lucy" and "The Brady Bunch". The service will be known as Google Video Store.

The move comes in the wake of Yahoo announcing its own video offering, Yahoo! Go TV. The new service allows users to take content from their personal computer or from the web and extend it onto the biggest screen in their home, according to

Jan 3, 2006

Questions and answers

The Web has changed the way people store, retrieve and use information. With an entire generation growing up believing that Google has answers to all your questions, it is not that hard to get the idea that any information we need is available on the Internet. The tough part is finding it.

Yes, web search is not the most difficiult thing to do when you are searching for 'general theory of relativity' or 'iPod'. However, when you are searching for concepts that are hard to put down in a couple of words, you hit the brick wall of irrelevant results.

This is because all current search engines work on the principle of keywords. The keyword based search system implicitly assumes that the user knows enough about what he is looking for, and only then can she find a relevant webpage. I emphasise on the point that we are not talking about simple factual queries like the 'capital of Finland', which will yield the correct answer in Google, Yahoo, MSN and Ask Jeeves. Instead, imagine you are researching on the problems that a traditional media company will face in the next few decades. Depending on your luck and the keywords that you choose to search the Web, your results may range anywhere from mediocre to average. Unless, of course, you have done some lateral thinking.

The lateral thinking I mentioned is not exactly the Edward de Bono variety, you really don't need to go that far. It is indeed much simple. If you got what you are looking for with the exact keyword of the stated problem - 'problems faced by traditional media company in the future', well done. However, in the more likely scenario that you did not, consider stating the problem in a different way. Try using synonyms of the different words in your search query, mixing and matching them and see if your quality of results improve. In fact, to be more succesful, imagine yourself as an online webmaster or publisher writing an article on the topic and use the words that you would use in your article as the keywords. Chances are you will get to the relevant results much sooner.

Search engine technology have come a long way and already some of them provide answer to basic questions. However, their semantic and syntactic abilities are much limited at the moment, but improvements in artificial intelligence will see much clever search agents ready with answers to more complicated questions in the near future. Until then though, we will have to contend ourselves with keyword tweaking and trial- and- error searching before that elusive page answering all your doubts can be found. As Peter Drucker once said, a great consultant is one who asks the right questions.