The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday approved a delay in the deadline for U.S. broadcasters to abandon traditional analogue broadcasting frequencies and go digital.

The so-called compromise delay measure lets broadcasters make the switch as originally planned on February 17 or wait until this coming June 12. But, if they switch now, they may lose some faithful viewers.

The delay was originally proposed when figures came to light indicating that at least 6.5 million U.S. households — and, perhaps, as many as 20 million — would not be prepared for the switch this month.

Those directly affected by the switch fall into the dwindling minority of U.S. TV viewers who are not hooked up to cable or satellite systems and are still using conventional antennas to directly receive TV signals. They’ll either have to connect to cable or satellite services or get set-top adapter boxes so their older, analogue sets can receive the new digital transmissions.

The U.S government offered grants of (US)$40 per household, starting last year, toward the cost of the set-top adapters but that program ‘sold out’ of more than a Billion in allotted funding before the demand was met. An additional (US)$600 million was recently approved as part of U.S. President Obama’s economic stimulus program.

Google Latitude is a new feature of Google Maps on your smart phone or other mobile device which lets you see where your friends are at any given moment. — Friends who have opted-in to Latitude and want you to know where they are, that is.

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As the Official Google Blog explains:

Once you’ve opted in to Latitude, you can see the approximate location of your friends and loved ones who have decided to share their location with you. So now you can do things like see if your spouse is stuck in traffic on the way home from work, notice that a buddy is in town for the weekend, or take comfort in knowing that a loved one’s flight landed safely, despite bad weather.

Sounds great… But what about privacy?

Everything about Latitude is opt-in. You not only control exactly who gets to see your location but you also decide the location that they see. For instance, let’s say you are in Rome. Instead of having your approximate location detected and shared automatically, you can manually set your location for elsewhere — perhaps indicating a visit to Niagara Falls. Since you may not want to share the same information with everyone, Latitude lets you change the settings on a friend-by-friend basis. So, for each person, you can choose to share your best available location or your city-level location. Or you can hide. Everything is under your control and, of course, you can sign out of Latitude at any time.

Latitude also works on your desktop or notebook computer, using the Latitude iGoogle gadget.

Latitude is already available in 27 countries worldwide and Google is working on adding more.

Visit the Latitude Web site to see if your smart phone is compatible with Latitude. You’ll also find links to further details and installation instructions.

IBM, which announced major layoffs of more than 4,000 workers in the U.S. and another 2,800 in Canada last week, is offering redundant workers a novel compensation package. The Company will pay their relocation costs to other countries where tech is still a growth industry and jobs that fit their skills are opening up.

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“IBM has established Project Match to help you locate potential job opportunities in growth markets where your skills are in demand,” IBM says in a leaked internal memo. “Should you accept a position in one of these countries, IBM offers financial assistance to offset moving costs, provides immigration support, such as visa assistance, and other support to help ease the transition of an international move.”

‘These countries’ include India, China, Mexico, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Russia, South Africa, Nigeria, and the United Arab Emirates.

And the memo makes it clear that workers who take the deal are on their own once they reach their destinations and will have to work under ‘local terms and conditions’.

While out-of-work techies with a taste for travel might line up for job opportunities in the Emirates, South Africa, Brazil or even Mexico, many of the other destinations suffer much lower standards of living than the U.S. and the jobs there pay much less than similar positions in North America.

No word as yet on how many soon-to-be-ex IBM workers will take their former employer up on the relocation offer.

The Indian government this week revealed a prototype of the Sakshat, its promised answer to the One Laptop Per Child low-cost computer.

The small computer — described by some critics as a glorified calculator with an Internet connection — is intended as the basis for an Indian government e-learning initiative to link the country’s 1,800 colleges and 400 universities.

The Sakshat — which means ‘before your eyes’ — and the networks supporting it are designed to allow students to access lectures, course material and tutoring help from anywhere in the country.

Designed by a team at India’s Vellore Institute of Technology, the Sakshat is expected to have 2 GB of onboard memory, a small LCD screen and wireless Internet connectivity.

Whether the government-mandated price point of 500 rupees (about (US)$10) per unit can be met remains to be seen. Officials say the Sakshat prototype, as it stands, would cost 1,000 rupees (about (US)$20) to manufacture, but that the efficiencies of mass production should push that figure down closer to the official target.

By comparison… The XO computer, the low-cost designed by a team at MIT in the U.S. for the OLPC project, was supposed to sell for under (US)$100 but the current version still costs about (US)$200 to make. The Classmate PC, an Intel project, currently comes in at about (US)$400 while ACER’s Eee PC retails for as little as (US)$200.

Panasonic Corp. has joined the growing group of Japanese tech giants predicting major losses and responding with major layoffs and plant closures.

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Panasonic this week announced it will post a loss of (US)$4.2 billion for its 2008 fiscal year. In an attempt to cut costs, the company will close 27 manufacturing sites lay off at least 15,000 workers this year.

Like other major Japanese tech players, Panasonic blames its financial woes on a combination of factors, not the least of which include steadily weakening sales of its consumer electronics products over the past four quarters and an uncharacteristically strong Japanese currency — now at a 13-year high against the U.S. dollar — which has made their products more expensive in export markets.

Earlier this week, Hitachi Corp. confirmed a projected (US)$7.8 billion loss for its 2008 fiscal year — a record to date for a Japanese company — announced the layoff of 7,000 workers in its television and automotive businesses, and announced it would restructure its leadership team by it’s April corporate Annual Meeting.

Last month, Sony announced it would lay off 8,000 full-time workers and 8,000 contractors part and parcel of closing at least five of its 57 manufacturing plants worldwide this year. U.S. based tech giants Microsoft, Intel, ATT and IBM have also announced major layoffs since the beginning of this year.

Security software giant Symantec has ‘reintroduced’ Norton Utilities, a product nameplate that pre-dates the Internet and virtually all of the products you are probably familiar with that bear the Norton name.

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When Microsoft (MS) Windows came into its own and started providing more and more of its own built-in system optimization and tweaking tools, third party utility suits like the iconic Norton package faded from popularity.

Now, Symantec VP Rowan Trollope says, the tanking economy and persistent performance issues with recent versions of Windows have conspired to trigger the rebirth of a classic.

“In today’s economic climate, we’re all trying to do more with what we’ve already got,” Trollope observes. “Norton Utilities provides the tools to give your PC an instant tune-up and get it running like new again. Whether it’s a new PC that you want to maintain or an older one whose performance is dragging, Norton Utilities tunes-up, tweaks and maintains your PC to ensure you get the most mileage out of it.”

The lead utilities in the new Norton suite include:

  • Startup Manager & Services Manager – Manages programs configured to run at system startup.
  • Registry Cleaner – Cleans the registry of unnecessary entries created during the installation, de-installation and normal work on the PC.
  • Registry Defragmenter – Analyzes the registry for errors and rebuilds it completely from scratch if needed. Defragments and corrects any structural errors.
  • Disk Cleaner – Scrubs the hard disk of temporary files, Internet cookies, and other junk data.
  • Performances Test – Benchmarks a PC using a variety of different speed tests and compares the results before and after changes.

We’re particularly glad to see a new third party Start-Up Manager and Registry Cleaner which, together, one hopes will allow users to easily obliterate the crapware from their factory-configured PCs in a more-straightforward manner than Windows’ own tools do, and accelerate their Windows XP and Vista performance considerably. In fact, Symantec proudly reports an independent test by PassMark Labs showed that a run-of-the-mill Windows XP machine started up 16 per cent faster after running the new Norton Utilities than it did before the tune-up. You can try a similar test on your own machine by running the Norton Performance Test before and after you run the other utilities.

The new Norton Utilities is available now at a suggested retail price of (US)$49.95 for a package you can run on up to three PCs. That price includes free 24×7 email, chat and Web support.

Microsoft’s (MS) Internet Explorer (IE) Web browser lost ground consistently to Mozilla’s Firefox and Apple’s Safari last year.

Year-end figures from research firm Net Applications also showed that Google’s new Chrome browser, launched last fall, made steady gains but remained well back of the IE’s two principle challengers.

Specifically… IE started the measurement period, last March, at 70.8 per cent of the browser market by actual usage and ended up, at the ends of last month, at 67.5 per cent. By contrast, Firefox rose more than 3.5 per cent in overall popularity and Safari use increased almost 2.5 per cent over the same period.

Opera use remained more or less stable in 2008, at around 0.7 per cent of the market, according to the Net Applications figures.

While MS still controls the lion’s share of the market, the report confirms that challengers continue to erode what was once a virtual IE monopoly on the browser scene. While MS may feel its grip on the market slipping, industry observers say the presence of strong competition is healthy: Real competition will not only keep MS on its toes but will also ensure the availablity of viable alternatives should the MS monster stumble.

The danger of relying on a single source for vital products and services was brought home abruptly last weekend to millions of Internet users when search giant Google temporatily branded all Web sites appearing in its search results as possibly malicious and dangerous to visit. It was a small problem with big repercussions, ultimately put down to human error. But it caused widespread confusion — in some cases, panic — among users and Web site proprietors.

Daddy, is this water safe to drink?

Just dip your pendant in it sweetheart, the way you were shown at Kindy. There you go… No, we have to boil it first.

How does my pendant work, Daddy?

Er.. something to do with diamonds honey… I think… Ask your mother. She’s the expert.

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Peering into the Tea Leaves this week, I see all sorts of changes coming to our lives, soon. Many are similar to the infinitesimal changes that have accreted in technology over the last 20 years or so. Little things — so little that we don’t notice — yet, in aggregate, they make a significant impact on our daily lives.

This post is about some of the recent advances in materials science and the way they’ll affect  us.

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First, there’s the Fifth Element on the periodic table: Boron. It’s been predicted, for a while, that this unusual material — an element that is schizophrenic about deciding whether it’s a metal or not — should be able to be formed into an ionic crystal. Something not as hard as diamond — well, not quite — but, unlike diamond, it won’t burn and evaporate into CO2 when heated in air. Gamma Boron  is stable up to about 100,000 atmospheres and, so, would be ideal  for precision machinery and bearings that operate inside turbines and other engines. As a coating, it may all but eliminate wear. Ceramic block internal combustion engines with Gamma Boron bearings may become sealed units — good for a century of use before they start losing efficiency.

It was in 1951 that the late, great Alec Guiness (Okay, Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars) appeared in the British comedy The Man in the White Suit. This was about an eccentric inventor who developed a cloth that never wore out and never needed cleaning. At first, the clothing manufacturers were all for it, till they realised the implication: No repeat sales — ever.

We’re not quite at that stage. Not yet. But firms are starting to use nanotechnology to put coatings on work clothes that repel virtually everything. Using this technology, the company Nano-Tex has already produced 100 million garments that basically don’t need cleaning. Last year, at the Conference of Supply Chain Professionals, a demonstration was given showing a can of coke being spilled over a business shirt and tie — something that usually happens just before important demonstrations to customers, not during them. The clothing remained dry.

It’s only a little thing, never having to worry about coffee or Jolt spills on your clothing any more. But it affects our lives more than you’d think. Especially if the clothing repels less-benign substances, pollution or even chemical weapons. And, of course, had members of for U.S. President Clinton’s staff worn clothing using this technology, history could have turned out quite differently.

That brings me to the little girl dipping her Magic Pendant(TM) into the water supply at a camp site.

“Smooth, electrically conducting diamond film has many potential advantages for biosensors. By using MEMS (micro electrical mechanical systems) technology, we can miniaturize the devices making it economically feasible for people to carry a sensor in their wallet or as a piece of jewelry which would allow them, for example, to determine if water is safe to drink. In the case of military personnel or first responders, detectors could be integrated into uniforms or personal protective equipment…”

That’s from Advanced Diamond Technology’s Chief Technical Officer. They and other developers are working with the U.S. Defence Threat Reduction Agency on an array of similar technologies.

As Arthur Clarke said, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Due to many micro-advances in materials science, our lives will become just a little more magical.

Most cell makers let you secure your phone using a four-digit PIN number. That will keep your address book and other data safe and will keep others from running up minutes on your service plan if the phone is lost. But what if someone shoulder surfs you while you’re making a call and then steals your phone?

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Start-up security company PINoptic has an answer: Picture-based PINs.

The PINoptic system adds picture icons to each number key on your cell phone keypad. When you want to unlock your cell phone, you punch in a sequence of pictures, not numbers.

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What’s the difference between hitting numbers and punching pictures, you ask?

The PINoptic system will use ‘smart button’ technology to randomly redistribute the picture icons over the available number keys each time you want to unlock your phone.

PINoptic is currently looking for partners to license and develop its technology. No word, yet, on when PINoptic security protection may be available on production cell phones.

Well… You had your suspicions but, now, they’re confirmed: More than 90 per cent of the e-mail sent to companies worldwide last year was spam.

That’s just one of the shocking findings in the PandaLabs 2008 Annual Report, from  the research wing of Internet security tools developer, Panda Software.

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Based on a study of more than 430 million e-mail messages monitored last year by Panda’s TrustLayer Mail service, Panda tallied 89.88 per cent as straight spam and another 1.1 per cent as containing active malware.

The real shocker in those numbers may be that less than two per cent contained malware. Industry observers say that could simply be confirmation that cyber crooks are relying less on direct e-mail delivery of invasive bugs and more on social engineering e-mails that don’t actually carry malicious code or doctored Web sites that trick visitors into downloading malware.

The PandLabs statistics also confirm — as other authorities have reported — even the major coup last fall, which brought down mega spam host McColo of San Francisco, had no real, lasting effect on the spam problem. In spite of initially reducing global spam levels by up to 65 per cent, the bust was only a minor annoyance to the baddies who were up and running again on new servers outside the U.S., spamming more than ever, within two weeks.

Canada’s cell phone service providers have been ordered to upgrade their systems to allow 911 emergency services to locate callers within a radius of 10 m (30 ft.) in urban areas and 100 m (300 ft.) in rural areas by 2010.

That would bring Canada’s cell infrastructure into line with existing U.S. standards.

The Canadian Radio Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), in its order to the cell companies, referred to the upgrade as ‘a cost of doing business’, which is seen as a signal to the cell providers that they should not attempt to raise their 911 system access fees, currently ranging from (C)$0.50 to (C)$1 based on the carrier.

Cell companies will be required to use cell tower triangulation, GPS or a combination of the two to meet the CRTC requirements for locating callers.

“GPS is becoming like air conditioning in cars,” Ken Englehart, head of Regulatory Affairs at Rogers Communications, told the Globe and Mail recently. “It’s going from being an option to the point where all of the handset manufacturers are putting it into all of the phones. So I would guess in another three or four years, pretty much all the phones that are being sold will have GPS in them.”

Singularity University, actually — a new academic institution offering ten weeks of summer programs hosted by the NASA Ames Research Center in the heart of Silicon Valley, CA.

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Singularity’s catalogue offers full ten-week courses as well as ten-day and three-day programs in ten different disciplines including future studies and forecasting; biotechnology and bioinformatics; nanotechnology; AI, robotics, and cognitive computing; and finance and entrepreneurship.

The founds — tech industry movers and shakers all — hope that students come from all corners of the world and that the Singularity U. melting pot will produce new ideas, new technologies and new companies to commercialize them.

As the Singularity U. official ‘Overview’ states:

Singularity University aims to assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies and apply, focus and guide these tools to address humanity’s grand challenges.

Anyone can apply to attend Singularity U. If you’re interested, inquire now via the online application form at the Web site. But Singularity will accept a maximum of only 30 students this summer, with plans to expand in future years to 120. So, visit the Web site now. The available spaces are apparently filling up fast. The Singularity U. site was, in fact, offline due to overwhelming (attempted) visitor traffic when we tried to visit a second time this morning.

Unlike other university course catalogues, the Singularity U. Web site does not advertise its program fees and costs.