Reports from the IT horizon

by / May 6, 2001


LANCASTER, Pa. -- Youre ready to ditch those pesky wires that connect employees to your buildings LAN and go wireless, but youre tired of those feng shui-disrupting, surface-mount antennas cluttering up the decor. What will you do?

Armstrong World Industries recently launched next-generation ceiling panels, named "i-ceilings." What looks like an innocuous ceiling panel is actually an "antenna panel."

The entry-level antenna panel is the WL2 series, which includes one 850/1,900MHz dual-band voice antenna; one 1,900MHz voice antenna that can be either stand-alone or used as a diversity element with the dual band antenna; and two 2,400MHz antennas in a diversity configuration.

"What were promoting is being able to get a suite that has all the antennas that you need in North America to distribute voice, data or both in a space," said Gregg Maberry, general manager of new business of the building products/operations division of Armstrong. "These antennas will work with any service provider."

Other series with different antenna configurations are available.

Maberry said "in-building wireless" is gaining popularity as companies are attempting to make sure employees always have access to data and phone services without being tethered to their desks.

Armstrong believes that ceilings are the best place for antennas because a ceiling has a superior line of sight and increases propagation of the signal because theres less chance of interference, he said.

No need to worry about compatibility issues, either, as the company said the WL2 series is compatible with all wireless voice and data standards, including the IEEE 802.11b standard and the Bluetooth standard.


SAN JOSE, Calif. -- A survey of worldwide mobile-phone sales released by Gartner Group unit Dataquest in February showed a total of 412.7 million units sold in 2000, a 45.5 percent increase over 1999 results.

Dataquest senior analyst Bryan Prohm noted that although mobile-phone sales were healthy through most of the year, persistent rumors of a market slowdown that dogged the industry started to prove true toward the end of 2000.

The report stated that Nokia strengthened its lead as the top vendor in the market during 2000 with shipments growing 66 percent over 1999. Some of the companys success was attributed to a strong second half, when 59 percent of sales occurred, the survey showed.

Worldwide mobile-phone sales estimates for 2000 show that Motorola ranked second, followed by Ericsson, Siemens, Panasonic and Samsung.

The survey said 2000 was a transitional year for the mobile phone industry, identifying a number of issues affecting growth:

- Global capacity caught up with demand;

- Lowered entry barriers allowed an influx of smaller manufacturers to exploit demand in some of the key Far Eastern markets, such as China;

- Wireless application protocol failed to impress increasingly savvy mobile users; and

- Mobile operators began to shift attention away from straightforward subscriber acquisition to a greater focus on lifetime customer loyalty.

The researchers concluded that "the long-term prospects for the mobile sector look tough." -- Newsbytes


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Scientists at Sandia National Laboratories took miniaturization to new levels in February, introducing a robot that weighs less than one ounce and is a mere one-quarter cubic inch.

The robot is mobile and traverses terrain atop a tiny set of tank treads. Sandia researchers have already outfitted the robot with a temperature sensor, and future accessories could include cameras, microphones, communication devices and chemical micro-sensors, said Ed Heller, one of the researchers involved in the project.

Researchers envision a myriad of uses for the robots; perhaps locating and disabling land mines or testing for traces of chemicals or biological agents used in such weapons.

"Theyre most compatible with being able to go into a building where you have relatively flat surfaces," Heller said. "A hostage situation, for example, where you didnt want to send people in. The robots could carry a small video camera or they could carry a small microphone and they could transmit that information back out."

Heller said it will take a few years to outfit the robots with the appropriate chemical or biological sensors because further testing on the sensors themselves needs to be done.

In addition, the researchers speculate, the robots could well become capable of communicating with each other and relaying information back to a manned station, working together in swarms like insects.


STOCKHOLM, Sweden -- Telia said that its automated directory-assistance service, which was launched in January, received around 200,000 calls in its first month of operation.

The company said its "talking telephone directory" is a first in Europe and uses speech-recognition technology to understand the dialects and accents common in Sweden and replies to user queries by speaking the telephone number back to the requester.

The system is being run by Respons AB, a Telia subsidiary, which is responsible for most directory-assistance services in Sweden and answers approximately 1 million calls per day.

The new talking telephone directory is accessed through dialing 118-888. Telia sees the 118-888 automated service -- known as Autosvar in Sweden -- as offering a basic directory-assistance service for phone users, allowing the 118-118 human operator service to be marketed as a premium service.

Barbro Sjlander, Respons ABs managing director, said the Autosvar service is certainly the first in Europe of its type, and possibly the first in the world.

"We believe that with this number, we will increase the total usage of our directory inquiries service," he said, adding that call volumes handled by the 118-118 human directory assistance service so far have not decreased.

Telia said that it expects the Autosvar service to appeal to non-business users who currently think twice about using the human operator 118-118 service because of the cost. -- Newsbytes


LYON, France -- At this years BioVision conference, researchers at the Rubber Research Institute of Malaysia announced that genetically modified rubber plants can be used to produce human proteins, the New Scientist reported in February.

The institutes Hoong-Yeet Yeang told the magazine that rubber plants are living bioreactors capable of producing human proteins and antibodies that fight bacteria. According to Yeang, a gene added to the rubber plants leads the plants to produce human serum albumin, a nutrient thats used in drip feeds for patients in intensive care.

Though Yeang didnt tell the New Scientist a precise amount of the protein produced by the plants, he said a plant produces milligrams of the protein per milliliter of latex (the plants milky sap).

Yeang said the trees could eventually produce valuable pharmaceuticals and antibodies that would aid a bodys fight against bacteria -- speculating that such an antibody could be used in toothpaste or other personal care products.


TORRANCE, Calif. -- New technology now makes it possible to determine, in 90 seconds, if a person is too impaired to perform his or her job.

Eye Dynamics new "SafetyScope" uses blinking and moving spots of light to look for impairment related to drugs, diseases, fatigue or other conditions that may pose a threat to on-the-job safety.

A significant benefit is that the system can detect impairment immediately, while traditional drug tests can take days to complete, too late for detecting a problem the day it occurs, said Ron Waldorf, the companys chairman.

The scope is based on work done by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the 1970s to determine a simple screening test for highway patrol officers to use when assessing a drivers ability to drive, Waldorf said. The test is now called the Standardized Field Sobriety Test.

"Weve taken our core medical technology, which has FDA approval and patents, and weve configured a part of that to be used in SafetyScope," he said.

When a person looks into the scope, the device tests how that persons eyes track a moving light and how the persons pupils react to the brightening of a light. The computer samples the eyes 60 times a second during the 90-second test, he said. The results of the test are compared to a baseline set of tracking-and-reaction data obtained during a pre-employment physical or a yearly physical.

That baseline data can be stored in a smart card, on a PC or even on a server, Waldorf said, depending on what configuration the customer desires. In addition, organizations using the scope dont pay for the scope itself; only for the number of tests performed.


MORGAN HILL, Calif. -- While PC penetration into homes is growing and more families can access the Net, millions of households in the country still dont have a way to forge the digital divide.

A California-based company, with a little help from public utilities across the country, may have hit on a solution. The company, MainStreet Networks, can transform a homes electric meter into what its calling an Internet gateway.

The gateway provides the Internet connectivity, while the iCenter, a thin client inside the home, allows residents to check e-mail, conduct limited e-commerce transactions and access community news through MainStreets first offering, Community Connections Service.

To the outside world, the gateway appears as a Web server that speaks TCP/IP. Internally, the gateway communicates over existing phone wires using HPNA protocol and can also act as a server for an array of devices in the home -- information appliances, PCs, set top boxes, household appliances or other sensors.

The company has negotiated deals with 58 community-owned utilities in which the utilities have agreed to evaluate MainStreets technology, said Bruce Matulich, executive vice president of MainStreet Networks.

A community-owned utility in Colorado, the Delta Montrose Electrical Association, is the companys first pilot area, Matulich said, adding that MainStreet is preparing for a larger rollout in Greenville, N.C., in partnership with Greenville Electric.

"Well be putting in a little more than 2,000 gateways and iCenters," he said.

The companys first goal is to deliver local content to residents of a particular city or town from the local government, law enforcement, social services agencies, schools and other organizations in the community.


OAKLAND, Calif. -- Skullduggery is at a new height.

The CIA struck a deal with SafeWeb in February that will allow CIA agents to use a customized version of the companys "Triangle Boy" software to surf the Web in anonymity.

CIA field agents and other employees in foreign countries can use the software to transmit information back to field offices or the McLean, Va., headquarters without "arousing suspicion" that they are using SafeWebs own IP-disguising PrivacyMatrix product to cover their tracks, said Stephen Hsu, the companys president.

Most CIA resources are foreign nationals. For that person to be able to transmit information back to the CIA without arousing suspicion is very important to them, Hsu said.

"If they go to an Internet cafe or home, the browser actually has a strong encryption engine built in," he said. "Our technology talks to that little engine and lets you access any Web site."

Hsu also noted that the Triangle Boy software -- in essence a "lightweight packet reflector that forwards stuff to our server" -- is something that could help Internet users take advantage of SafeWebs PrivacyMatrix product in a country like Saudi Arabia, which has banned PrivacyMatrix use. -- Newsbytes


BOSTON -- When it rains, it pours. First, the U.S. economy hit the doldrums in spectacular style. Now, the United States itself is slipping, according to The World Paper, published by World Times and International Data Corporation (IDC).

The two organizations collaborate on an annual study, the Information Society Index (ISI), which ranks countries according to their ability to access and absorb information and information technology, according to IDC.

Sweden ranked the highest on the ISI this year, and the United States dropped to fourth. Norway jumped past the United States to second place and Finland came in third. Last year, the United States ranked second.

A countrys rating is based on four infrastructure categories: computer, information, Internet and social infrastructures.

The ISI credited Sweden, Singapore and Australia with the highest Internet infrastructure scores. The United States came in at the 10th position.

"Many people in the United States still dont have Internet access, and this is dragging down the countrys total ISI rating," said John Gantz, chief research officer of IDC. "It adds to its modest score in the information sector and relatively low score in the social sector."

The ISI ranked the U.S. information infrastructure 9th and the U.S. social infrastructure 17th. The countries with the strongest information infrastructures are Taiwan, the Netherlands and Denmark, according to the IDC, which noted that Norway, Hong Kong and Japan have the strongest social infrastructure.

This year is the fifth installment of the ISI, which tracks data from 55 countries that collectively account for 97 percent of the global GDP and 99 percent of global IT expenditures.

-- IDC, World Times