Features

Technology

National

Issue: "Osama's witnesses," May 18, 2002

A need for more than speed
Home broadband connections are powerful, fast, and cool. So why aren't more people using them? Broadband business is growing, but the most-ballyhooed digital revolution may need more time. Jupiter Media Matrix reports that only about one-quarter of today's dial-up customers plan to switch to cable modem, DSL, or other high-speed service within the next 12 months. Several cable industry executives said at an industry convention that the public needs more compelling content to add broadband. That means video-on-demand, where subscribers can watch any program at any time by downloading it. Richard Parsons, co-chief operating officer of AOL Time Warner, admitted that today's broadband experience might not be interesting enough to attract a mass market. "Essentially, what you get with broadband now is narrowband faster," he told the National Cable and Telecommunications Association convention. "The challenge is not having the same old stuff faster." To reach critical mass, broadband providers must recruit the Internet's low-end users, the people who only go online a few times per week to check e-mail. Since those users aren't heavy downloaders, they need strong reasons to upgrade their services. As it stands, dialup access could survive for many years to come. Wireless worries
The Best Buy electronics chain was using new wireless cash registers-until managers discovered a serious security risk. Criminals apparently could sit in the parking lot and eavesdrop on the signals, silently grabbing customer data and credit card numbers. So the company shut down the registers nationwide while officials try to find better security. Such snoopery is the stuff of paranoia and urban legends, but many executives and information technology experts take these concerns seriously as wireless networks become widespread. Older-style wires and cords may be cumbersome, but they provide a useful bit of security. In order to access such a network, a user must be physically linked to it. Wireless signals, on the other hand, can go through walls and travel hundreds of feet, which means a crook with the right equipment could get close enough to capture data. Best Buy officials don't know whether hackers actually tapped cash registers, but one anonymous poster on an Internet discussion group claimed to do so. That scared them enough to take action. "People need to protect [systems] commensurate with the value of the data," said Brian Grimm, a spokesman with the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance. "As with any new technology, it provides benefits but there are responsibilities affiliated with it." Screens as scrolls
You could wear your next computer-or roll it up and stick it in your pocket. Researchers are looking for ways to make full-size computer screens that are flexible and portable instead of stiff and bulky. If successful, cheap displays could be embedded in walls, plastic, and even clothing. While microchips and circuitry continue to become smaller, screens remain a problem. Liquid crystal displays (LCDs) found on laptops and cell phones are hard and rigid because they are sandwiched between two pieces of glass. While they can be miniaturized, tiny screens are hard to read. If manufacturers could make screens using materials other than glass, they could design all sorts of new portable devices. So five researchers at Royal Philips Electronics of The Netherlands have devised a way of making screens by painting the raw materials onto a surface. The technique, described in the journal Nature and called "photo-enforced stratification," could lead to new computer displays that users could roll up or fold. Philips is also working with an American company called e-Ink on a type of electronic paper display. Such flexible screens could help make the dream of pervasive computing a reality. Interactivity one day could be taken for granted like running water, long-distance phone service, and AC electrical current.

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