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Tech a look around

From PDA to VoIP, the year of the acronym was upon us in 2004, and the new technology emerged thick and fast

Looking back at the year's developments is like watching one of those quiz shows where you have to remember the names of consumer goods on a moving belt. Especially this year.

Computer boxes suddenly shrank in size - the AJ office computers for starters are now the width and depth of two drives and are effectively thickish flat-screen stands - and they are set to shrink further. And, because motherboards have started to change over to a new and faster systems architecture involving throwing away all your existing peripherals, they will be expensive.

Flat screens have dropped in price and are expected to go even lower next year when a 19-inch monitor (the equivalent size, almost, of 21-inch VDUs) will be the new standard. The mobile phone is now actually a camera, a PDA (personal digital assistant), email receiver, and a live video messager. A colleague has actually implemented his Bluetooth earpiece so he can chat and ride his bike at the same time - apparently he looks like a Vogon or a whitevan driver, all of whom now sport metallic Bluetooth ears as well as shaven heads. As with AutoCAD, you will never find the time to discover how all the phone/camera/ emailer/whatever features actually work before you have to buy the next version.

Plodding blogs The next big thing for most of the year has been weblogs - or blogs, as they are commonly known. At best these are small newsy or specialist-information websites; at worst they are long maundering personal diaries that are of interest only if you are a groupie and the writer is a pop star. But with the rise of signature architecture, the first starchitect blogs cannot be far away.

Big talk I don't claim any prescience, but VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), in which you use a special handset to talk over the internet for free or very nearly, started to take off big time following our coverage a few months ago.

The US Federal Government has just told the States to keep its hands off the regulation of VoIP, there is suddenly much talk of takeovers and acquisitions in the City, and you wonder whether the directors at pioneering company Skype will roll over and take the money.

The traditional telephone provider, jobsworth monopoly BT, is all of a sudden getting worried and, anxious to stay in the game, it has started its own VoIP service.

It is almost as expensive as the old system. Whatever, £50 plus a £20 payas-you-go fee to, say, www. calls-calls. com will see us giving the system a trial using a Bluetooth headpiece, though not simultaneously riding bicycles.

And then there is VoWLAN (Voice over Wireless Local Area Network), in which you ditch your telephone cables and route all your internal office calls via smart-phones, using the office wireless wide-area network.

Other big talk Voice recognition is claimed to have got better, though the whole thing seems to have stalled because better still isn't good enough for anybody to be able to talk usefully to AutoCAD or MicroStation in the office.

The other much-vaunted alternatives to VDUs, such as roll-up screens (ePaper is one such of these Paper Like Displays) and LTPS (low temperature poly silicon), OLED (organic lightemitting diode), LEP (light-emitting polymer) have all remained at much the same stage as they were last year - which is due out, to use the ironic industry jargon, 'real soon now'. Maybe the low price of flat screens will further inhibit development here. Then fuel cells made a brief noisy appearance and went quiet although, because the car industry has fuel cells firmly in view, this one has legs.

There is Project Looking Glass, the three-dimensional desktop authored and developed by Japanese computer wiz Hideo Kawahara, which lives under the aegis of Sun. With the Looking Glass interface you can move menus, like you can now, and then rotate them so they are stored with only the edges showing.

It is still a tad inchoate but, if you have a Linux machine, download a demo version from the Java community website at http: //community. java. net.

Open software On the open software front, Mozilla has at last brought out Version 1 of the lean browser Firefox, which got the pundits excited because Microsoft and at least one US Federal Agency apparently think it is more secure than bloated Internet Explorer. In consequence, Microsoft lost a couple of percentage points of market share. So it now has only about 92 or so per cent.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has been roaming the world badmouthing the iPod, Apple's real commercial success story that is, according to Ballmer on one hastily retracted occasion, used mostly for playing pirated music. Ballmer is also doing regular conference stints damning Linux - and discounting Windows heavily to any government authority (such as the London Borough of Newham) that threatens to move over to Linux and Open Office. Try it on with your Evil Empire dealer next time you upgrade. However good Linux is - and it is - you will need Microsoft, for some time at least, for AutoCAD and MicroStation, especially now that Bentley has abandoned the Mac.

Look, no wires For four or five years now, Bluetooth kit has been too expensive to allow it to take off in a popular way. The whole system has been upstaged by quick and dirty WiFi (short for wireless fidelity), which this year moved over to a much (theoretically five times) faster variant: the IEEE 802 11g standard. Superfast and wide, IEEE 802.3ae is known as 10GB Ethernet and, if internal VoIP and zapping files around the office becomes standard, more and more offices will have to take it up.

Oh, and Intel is developing UWB, (ultra-wide broadband), which is a PAN (personal area network) technology and is room-scale rather than office or local. The latter is just coming on stream as WiMax (IEEE 802.16), the rural broadband with an 8-50km range that is initially intended for getting broadband to remote areas.

The US government is proposing to broadcast it alongside television signals, but it presents quite interesting possibilities when implemented in urban settings. Security will presumably be a nightmare.

Novel but not all that Cables are still in, but not necessarily in the most obvious ways. We have mains power down the Ethernet cable (PoE), and data transfer down the existing office mains cables buried in your walls and under floors, known as DoM (data over mains). Packard Bell has one of the latter systems but, possibly for very good reasons, wouldn't let us try it out.

A similarly priced system comes from another company, which plays a variant of the US dollar-forpound exchange rate trick. It's the euro-equals-sterling number, so we wouldn't bother you with the firm's name. Both are about £100, which seems excessive, especially when mains transmission is inherently spiky and slow and WiFi is a lot cheaper.

Nor is sending power down the data cable particularly new. I have some small LCD screens that are powered down the graphics-card cable, and they date from the 1990s. There have been trials by Nortel of PLT (powerline transmission) in selected parts of the UK to test whether broadband can be transmitted along power lines.

There were protests from short-wave enthusiasts. Given the lack of activity reported, it is still obviously a maybe.

Searching sketch Searching for that door handle whose name you have forgotten is a nightmare. Now a US professor is developing a search engine based on images. You draw the door handle you want on screen, press the button and there are displayed half a dozen or whatever examples of what you are probably searching for. Don't ask, but voxels are involved somehow.

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