Thursday, June 30, 2005

Flexible Displays – Coming Soon to an Application Near You

The other day I saw the scfi film “Minority Report” which is set in the year 2050 with Tom Cruise playing a cop in a world of hyper technology. At one point he sits down on a bus seat and picks up a newspaper. The page was a single sheet and as he read it, the image changed giving him a page view at a time. The year 2050 seems like quite a while to wait before using this technology. In fact, this technology may be coming to an application near you sooner than that.

As technology continues to shrink computers in size, the display becomes a bottleneck in achieving ever smaller, more convenient packaging. A flexible display – one that can be rolled up while not in use and then unrolled for viewing, is one approach under active development today.

Displays consist of a backplane for controlling the pixels and a front plane for controlling the light source. Typically silicon is used for the backplane so transistors can be etched into the surface. To achieve a flexible backplane, some companies make the transistors out of plastic. Wikipedia has a nice description of the technology here. Polymer Vision and Plastic Logic are two companies making transistors out of organic polymers which can be deposited on a plastic substrate with screen printing and ink jet technologies.

In traditional displays, such as LCDs, each pixel acts as a shutter for a separate light source. One solution to creating more flexible backplanes is to move away from LCD technology to electrophoretic techniques. E Ink pioneered the use of electrophoretic displays in which each pixel actually emits light. An electric charge turns a microcapsule from one side (colored black) to the other (colored white). They even have versions that can show video at 20 frames per second. This web page gives a clear overview of the technology. The drawback is they are slow and currently provide only black and white images.

Flexible displays are already in use in high-end TV sets, heads-up display systems in helicopters, and more. They are predicted to come to more mundane applications such as the one used in Minority Report– the newspaper. Will this obsolete the newspaper? Probably not. Instead it will consolidate their position. Such is the prediction of the president of Samsung in his address to the 58th World Newspaper Congress.

In addition to targeting paper-like mediums, researchers are also seeking to embed the display into clothing. Government funding is supporting research in this area so that displays could be integrated into soldier’s clothes.

As computers shrink and become more embedded in machines and tools, the ability to display information and provide input will become an important one.
If you are working with display technologies, I would like to hear from you. Please email me at
Best regards,
Hall T. Martin

Friday, June 24, 2005

Wireless Sensor Networks – Mesh Networking Coming to Reality

Mesh Networks are moving out of the emergence category into reality. The key drivers are the falling prices of wireless Ethernet radios, rising need for reconfigurability of the network, and improving power management technology. Mesh networking offers multi-point to multi-point connectivity of the nodes. Point to point networking is quite easy. It’s the transition to many to many networking that proves to be a challenge.

This past week I had the opportunity to talk with a number of wireless sensor network companies. Zigbee is the key technology driving many of the wireless sensor network companies. With over 150 members the Zigbee Alliance is initially targeting industrial automation in addition to home control and building automation.

Building Automation is one area that receives a great deal of attention from wireless sensor companies. The benefits of wireless and low-cost, low-power nodes make for a compelling application. This site discusses the move to generate compatibility between Zigbee and Lonworks.

One of the companies I visited, Airbee makes wireless network software and implements Zigbee at the Mac Layer compatible with the 802.15.4 PAN standards. While Zigbee provides the basic framework for mesh networking, customers may want more configuration and development tools. Airbee is positioning itself to supply these tools.

Cool-sounding application scenarios abound – as they usually do with emerging technologies. One application making the rounds is a scenario in which a security force surrounds a building, and fires bullets embedded with wireless sensor nodes into the building. The nodes then wake up, create a network and start monitoring activity. Most real-world applications are in the sub 50 node range with the exception of meter reading which can scale to over a 1000 nodes, or specialized government applications.

If you are working with wireless sensor network technologies, I would like to hear from you. Please email me at
Best regards,
Hall T. Martin

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Extreme Programming – How Does it Work?

In searching the web for emerging technologies in the programming languages area, Google (try the following key words: programming languages emerging technology) brings up a host of techniques including Extreme programming, Pair programming and more.

Extreme programming is a software development method that performs in the following way:
1. Code is always reviewed by pair programmers.
2. Tests are made all the time.
3. Integration tests are made before and after adding new modules.
4. Code is redesigned to leave it in the simplest possible state.
5. Iterations are radically shorter.

Also called Pair Programming, it places one programmer in the driver’s seat in control of the keyboard, while the other programmer is an observer checking syntax, spelling, and strategy. This allows one programmer to write the code while the other can aid in brainstorming.

Pair programming believes that two pairs of eyes looking at code are better than one. This article brings Murphy’s Law to the code review and states that two pairs of eyes are better than one if they are don’t suffer from groupthink – sharing the same illusion.

In looking at some case studies pair programming is not as easy to implement as one would think. Programmers vary in how fast they code and type and how they use the keyboard (e.g. shortcuts). On the upside, the weakness of one can be offset by the strength of another. In the example in the link above, the team finished a 5 day project in only 2 days. Also, each learned new techniques and tools through the process.

Getting started with Pair Programming varies from one group to another. This article draws an analogy to learning how to swim. There are those who dip their toes into the water and slowly make their way in, while others commit wholeheartedly similar to performing a cannonball into the swimming pool.

For those who want to read more about Extreme Programming, this blog recommends the Extreme Programming Adventures in C# which describes in diarist format one programmers exploration of a new programming language. It does not provide perfect programming examples, but rather gives an insightful view into how one learns new languages.

If you are working with new programming methodologies, I would like to hear from you. Please email me at
Best regards,
Hall T. Martin

Friday, June 10, 2005

Programming Languages – What’s Hot and What’s Not?

Programming languages go in and out of fashion like the clothes you see on display at the shopping mall. In reviewing what’s currently hot and what is not, I found several new programming languages that leverage the web. Codecrawler is one example which searches and indexes source code stored on the web. This facilitates groups working in a cross-geographic setting. There are many other examples of niche programming languages. They typically do or two things in a very cool way, but they lack robustness to become an industry leader.

Java, one of the hotter technologies in the programming language world recently turned 10. The first press release heralded Java as "the first language to provide a comprehensive solution to the challenges of programming for the Internet, providing portability, security, advanced networking and robustness without compromising performance." Java is no doubt a successful language. Factors such as portability, strong community support, and standards served it well. But is it still hot?

One way to gauge programming language popularity is to look at book sales for that language. The O’Reilly Blog tracks book sales to see trends in the industry. According to their blog, computer science books dropped 20% per year since 2001, but are now seeing an upturn. The choice of computer languages is somewhat insightful. C# is outpacing Java. Java was down by 10%, Visual Basic was down by 23%, C/C++ was down 4%. Object-oriented programming languages are up 245% and Patterns is up 55%. A new title that may be pushing up the numbers here is Head First Design Patterns.

Another way to gauge popularity is to use Google hits. In this blog the author attempts to quantify Google searches to find out what programmers use today. In it he found that C# and Java are still widely used.

Also, he used the Craigslist to find out what jobs are open for each programming language. Again, C# and Java come to the top of the list, but IT languages such as SQL and COBOL also come up in the top tier as well.

If you want to see an historical perspective of programming languages this site provides a poster-sized view.

If you are working with programming languages, I would like to hear from you. Please email me at
Best regards,
Hall T. Martin

Friday, June 03, 2005

WiMAX – Living up to the Hype

WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) is a wireless communications standard for high-speed, last-mile broadband connectivity to homes and businesses and for mobile wireless networks.

It operates in the 10-66 GHz bandwidth range with channel bandwidths of 20, 25, and 28 MHz. For backhaul operations it works in Line of Sight only with a radius of 1-3 miles. The fixed version of WiMAX can theoretically achieve 30 miles, but only in ideal conditions. The Altera Whitepaper provides a technical overview of the 802.16 standard including both the fixed version (802.16d) and the mobile version (802.16e). Also the site offers a wealth of information on WiMAX’s technical standards.

Intel announced its first WiMAX product for WiMAX. This article discusses the rollout prospects of WiMAX. It predicts WiMAX chip sets are not likely to fall below $20 before 2010, which is based on a recent study from West Technology Research Solutions in Mountain View, Calif. It goes on to quote Len Barlik, VP Technology Sprint, “We’ll probably start to see initial test equipment in the first part of next year, and from there it could be into ‘07 or ‘08 before we started to see any mass deployment.”

Gartner calls the technology overhyped. In this blog Gartner lists their five phases of emerging technologies:

1. Emergence
2. Hype
3. Disillusionment
4. Enlightenment
5. Productivity

and places WiMAX in the Hype stage. Gartner indicates that several technical issues remain such as conflict with analog TV, battery life for mobile WiMAX, undefined mobile specifications, and probable competition with 3G and proposed 4G networks. Also, Gartner gives the current list of players a low rating since they are focusing on buying each other rather than committing to development.

On the political side, WiMAX may face a challenge from the Telcos who want to control how fast wireline services are replaced with wireless ones. An interesting case study to follow is the city of Philadelphia which wanted to provide low cost wireless access to its citizens who did not have access to DSL. The Telcos lobbied the state government to prevent the rollout. They failed in Philadelphia, but may win elsewhere.

In the absence of a fully approved standard for WiMAX, numerous companies are offering “Pre-WiMAX” solutions such as Aperto Networks. They are focusing on the “last mile” applications space.
Clearwire, a promising startup, is led by Craig McCaw of the McCaw Cellular Communications fame. Clearwire offers its wireless broadband service in Daytona Beach, FL, Jacksonville, FL, Abilene, TX, and St. Cloud, MN. Another contender is California’s Nextweb who recently joined the WiMAX Forum.

It takes about 2 years for a company to design, build, and rollout a new technology. So the technologies that we see coming on the market today, were funded back in 2002. Ignition Partners believes that WiMAX will come out in 18 to 24 months and will initially target the fixed wireless market with the mobile wireless market a secondary effort.

If you are working with WiMAX, I would like to hear from you. Please email me at

Best regards,
Hall T. Martin