Weekend news roundup

21 Jun 2010

A quick glance at some of the technology stories breaking in the weekend papers.

New Kings of the Valley?

Is this Silicon Valley or Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, asked the New York Times as it looked at the new generation of electronics giants who are key to the future of the internet. Over the last 18 months or so, this question has become tougher to answer as a flood of products with names like Voldemort, Hadoop and Cassandra have appeared on the scene.

They are part of a new wave of highly specialised technology — both software and hardware — built by and for web titans like Facebook, Yahoo and Google to help them break data into bite-size chunks, and present their webpages as quickly and cheaply as possible, even while grappling with increasing volumes of data. Facebook, for example, created Cassandra to store and search through all the messages in people’s inboxes.

The products, championed by a bustling crop of start-ups, reflect a potential changing of the guards here in the technology world’s heartland, as young companies try to capitalise on radical shifts in the way new and old businesses run.

“There is a foment happening,” said Andrew Feldman, the chief executive at SeaMicro, a hardware start-up that hung up its shingle last week. “It’s a bubbling of ideas and technology.”

In the original dot-com boom, companies tended to buy the fastest, most expensive systems so that they could manipulate ever larger, centralised databases of information. But this approach has proved too costly and cumbersome for the types of work that companies like Google and Yahoo tend to do now.

The focus instead is on taking chunks of information, chopping them up and spreading the data across thousands of computers and storage devices. It’s a divide-and-conquer approach to making the avalanche of data produced online manageable.

Get out of broadband clause

The Guardian reported that UK telecoms regulator Ofcom is allowing broadband subscribers to get out of broadband clauses easily and earlier. If you are fed up with your home phone/broadband provider but tied into a long contract, you can now buy out of it for much less, following the intervention of the telecoms regulator.

Over the past 18 months, Ofcom as been working with the three biggest UK landline providers, BT, Talk Talk and Virgin Media to ensure the charges they impose when customers end their contracts early (“early termination charges”) come down.

Ofcom said the three firms have agreed a new set of maximum charges – and it is good news for consumers who want to vote with their feet.

Those wanting to escape BT contracts will have to pay between £2 and £5 for every outstanding month, depending on the package taken.

Those wanting to leave TalkTalk early will pay between £3 and £8 a month to escape, while Virgin customers face a £4-£9 penalty per outstanding month.

Prior to Ofcom’s intervention, customers had to pay the full monthly tariff if they wished to leave their contracts early.

School of the Future – getting in the groove

USA Today reported over the weekend how a US$63m school of the future built by Microsoft is faring. When the Microsoft-designed School of the Future opened, the facility was a paragon of contemporary architecture, with a green roof, light-filled corridors and the latest classroom technology, all housed in a dazzling white modern building.

It might as well have been a fishbowl: Educators and media from around the world watched to see whether Microsoft could reform public education through innovation and technology.

Although the school’s creative ambitions have been frustrated by high principal turnover, curriculum tensions and a student body unfamiliar with laptop computer culture, the school graduates its first senior class Tuesday with each student having been accepted to an institution of higher learning.

“The first three years were definitely a challenge,” said Mary Cullinane, Microsoft’s liaison to the school. “They’re hitting their groove now. I’m excited to see what’s in store.”

Robo-footballers of the future

According to The Observer, by 2050 full-size robots will be playing football with the ease and agility of the Brazilian squad. At corners, they pose as much threat as a Hobbit would against a team of Orcs. Their passing and shooting are laughable while their ability to keep the ball from reaching the back of the net is only marginally better than that of an English goalkeeper. Robot footballers have a long way to go, it would seem.

Yet great things are expected of them, it transpires. According to the organisers of RoboCup, the international football competition for humanoid players which kicked off in Singapore yesterday, the skills that are being built up through the design and manufacture of robot players for the tournament are performing a vital role in helping engineers and scientists perfect a team that will have the prowess and the ability to take the official World Cup trophy away from humans.

That target has been set by RoboCup’s organisers for the year 2050 and was established following the success of the artificial intelligence chess challenge that was fought out in the ’90s. That clash was eventually won in 1997 when IBM’s Deep Blue computer program beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years