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  • Sci-fi loving Samsung wins easy cool points from high court judge

    July 9, 2012 @ 4:20 pm | by Laura Slattery

    Spot the difference: a Samsung Galaxy tablet 10.1 and Apple's iPad. Clue: the one on the right is apparently not as cool. Photograph: REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak/Files

    Yes, yes. A judge has declared that Samsung’s Galaxy tablets don’t infringe Apple’s registered design because they aren’t “as cool”.

    In the seemingly damning point 190 of a 191-point ruling, the judge notes: “From the front they belong to the family which includes the Apple design; but the Samsung products are very thin, almost insubstantial members of that family with unusual details on the back. They do not have the same understated and extreme simplicity which is possessed by the Apple design. They are not as cool.”

    But is this really the Pyrrhic victory it first seems? Can Samsung survive such a slapdown? Of course it can. Since when has a high court judge ever been regarded as the arbiter of cool? Since never. As a group, they are notorious for their tenuous grasp of popular culture, and as for their fashion sense, well, who really knows what’s going on underneath those gowns? (Other than a sneaky game of Words With Friends during the more boring witness testimonies, of course.) Consumer psychology suggests Samsung will now see its appeal in certain trend-conscious circles rocket in comparison to the court-approved iPad – an added bonus to the fact that it has actually won its case.

    In any event, Samsung’s relative uncool in the eyes of Judge Colin Birss wasn’t the only thing that helped the South Korean company emerge victorious from court. Its expert technical witness, Itay Sherman, also called on the science fiction canon to argue that Apple didn’t invent the tablet computer, and therefore all hands are legally on deck.

    Point 70 of the ruling reads: “Considering the design corpus generally, Mr Sherman explained that the idea of tablet computers has existed for a long time, and pointed out they had been imagined in science fiction, referring to Star Trek (from 1966 onwards) to 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968).”

    Sherman, on behalf of Samsung, asserted that the “optimal design principles for tablet computers had been commonly understood for a long time and by 2004 it was understood that any tablet computer should offer unfettered views of electronic media by means of a large display screen and that the screen would be the main element in the design of any tablet”.

    The judge accepted this evidence, though which episodes of Star Trek he watched in order to confirm Samsung’s argument is not recorded. Neither, sadly, is his verdict on whether Starfleet’s Personal Access Display Device is as cool, cooler or not as cool as the iPad’s model of “extreme simplicity”.

  • Taxi to Spaceport America, launchpad for suborbital flights of fancy

    October 21, 2011 @ 8:55 am | by Laura Slattery

    Performers hang from wires on the facade of the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space terminal at Spaceport America near Las Cruces, New Mexico. The runway, the WhiteKnight Two and SpaceShip Two are shown in reflections on the glass. Photo: Reuters/Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic.

    You’re supposed to grow out of wanting to go into space, but if anything, my desire to see this blue sky from above has only increased with age. Notwithstanding a conspiracy theorist-nurturing lack of lunar landings in recent decades, the possibility of going off-planet now seems within closer reach. You used to have to be a super-fit, super-impassive, super-American specimen in order to venture off the Earth; now you just have to be super-rich or in close proximity to someone who is. Even in these gloomy times, the latter seems the more likely prospect: The genetic lottery is no longer open for play, but I might one day win EuroMillions and cultivate close personal relationships with members of the Branson family.

    Earlier this week, Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic friends held a modest dedication ceremony for Spaceport America, the New Mexico base from which the era of commercial suborbital spaceflight will eventually launch, possibly as early as 2013. Its gleaming hangar is designed to house the mothership, WhiteKnight Two, and the actual people-carrier, SpaceShip Two (aka the VSS Enterprise). Tickets cost $200,000, which seems like a bargain when benchmarked against bubbly Irish house prices, but is still twice the annual salary of a Nasa astronaut – should they want to take a busman’s holiday.

    Deposits “start from $20,000“, apparently, though any would-be passengers should probably read the small print that states how suborbital flights will rise up into space, but won’t actually complete a full orbit – or indeed do anything as exciting as slip off to the Delta Quadrant to chase renegade aliens. In essence, Virgin Galactic’s jumpsuited commercial astronauts will get to feel all weightless and floaty and superior and stuff, without having to spend much time contemplating the black depths of infinity.

    Spaceport America’s departures lounge promises to be spine-tingling, but arrivals will surely just be plain tense. What goes up, must come down, but doing so without burning up will be the trick. Branson and his children Sam and Holly will be among the first passengers though, which might prove something of an incentive to make sure all the nuts, bolts and freeze-dried ice-cream are correctly secured before take/lift-off. (Freeze-dried ice-cream, according to an episode of Blue Peter I saw sometime in the late 1980s, is special astronaut food. As far as I’m concerned, that’s all they eat.)

    Back when Pluto was still considered a planet, astronauts were remote, unflinching, patriotic veterans of Nasa training; sturdy and fearless. Now they mix freely in the Twittersphere and arm themselves with pepper spray to vanquish love rivals. Who hasn’t been there?

    Last year, “astronaut” made its debut appearance in a UK careers’ handbook, with the inclusion naturally dubbed “space: the final career frontier” by headline writers. But soon trips to the stars will be not just work, but pleasure. Wikipedia has a page with the title “list of spaceports“. Even though most of them seem designed purely to fire up more space debris, it’s still exciting. Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal and CEO of SpaceX, is frequently seen walking the corridors of Capitol Hill, lobbying the US government and occasionally muttering something about his plans for the human colonisation of Mars. Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic’s site boasts the words “book with your local accredited space agent”, and maps them.

    So my question is… How cold can it be, really?

  • Would-be entrepreneurs shun the great shake-out

    May 31, 2011 @ 8:00 am | by Laura Slattery

    Enter the dragons... with presenter Richard Curran. Photo: RTE

    So it turns out the Chinese word for crisis is not actually opportunity.* For some employees facing redundancy this has nevertheless happily proved to be the case. In certain sectors, at certain times, mass layoffs have historically swelled the ranks of start-up firms. Once handed their P45s, redundant workers discovered it was the perfect chance to realise long-held desires to be their own boss. They scrambled through contact lists and made now anachronistic appointments with bank managers – ideally armed with a redundancy cheque as collateral.

    It happened after the 1993 closure of the Digital Electronics Corporation in Galway, which led to the formation of a cluster of indigenous tech firms, sucking in new investment. The still-thriving, Oscar-winning creativity of Ireland’s animation sector was born from the ashes of Sullivan Bluth, the multinational animated movie producer that shut its Dublin doors in 1995. And the demise of aircraft leasing company GPA in the early 1990s is survived by a generation of aviation finance firms.

    New figures from Vision-net suggest that this phenomenon isn’t repeating itself – not yet. The number of people choosing to become a company director for the first time has fallen by more than 40 per cent, according to the business information service company. Its study of Companies Office data found that 4,883 people registered as first-time directors in the first quarter this year, down 31 per cent from 7,062 on the same period in 2010. Since then, the sharp decline – described as “telling” by Vision-net managing director Christine Cullen – has accelerated.

    Timing is everything. Redundancy is a bitter blow at the best of times, but it is during the best of times that such bitterness can be channelled into productive outlets. Digital, Sullivan Bluth and GPA all closed at a time when the only thing on Ireland’s economic horizon was a massive boom. These were skilled workers freed from their contracts during a time of rising employment and nicely surging wages. But post-bust, start-up business models that would have seemed like simply marvellous ideas in 2001 now look like naive fantasies. Where once customers would have lined up, eagerly contributing to the top line, there is only a vacuum.

    Critically, this recession has also been accompanied by a dearth of the one thing even the most innovative of entrepreneurs with the most solid of business plans requires – finance. These are the days when securing a slot on Dragon’s Den is seen not only as a valid strategy, but – for consumer-facing businesses at least – vaguely sensible. It’s a television show, an entertainment. But the banks, after all, are out.

    Starting your own business has always been a risk, but in today’s dysfunctional economy it looks suspiciously like a folly. People who do, against the odds, manage to make their debut as a company director face a business climate that is still very obviously in the throes of a vicious shake-out. In May, companies were declared insolvent at a rate of eight per working day and liquidated at a rate of six per working day. Once it was the construction sector that led the implosion, now it is retail and wholesale firms that are hitting the wall with the greatest haste.

    Vision-net’s figures show that more than one in every two companies are showing signs “consistent with business failure”, by which they mean a decline in profits, tighter cashflow and an over-reliance on bank finance. Companies failing to meet their daily trade and finance commitments are, according to Cullen, having a “real domino effect” on the cashflow and debt repayments of other companies, exacerbating the crisis. The bulk of liquidated companies’ creditors are unsecured, meaning they’re unlikely to be paid what they are owed. It’s a form of contagion that’s hardly conducive for a fledgling start-up to thrive or even survive.

    *Sadly for motivational speakers, the Chinese word for crisis isn’t quite a combination of the characters for “danger” and “opportunity” either.

  • The Flip has flipped. Shame I just bought one

    April 15, 2011 @ 12:25 pm | by Laura Slattery

    It only seems like yesterday that an infinitely more tech-savvy colleague showed me the sleekly designed delight and built-in USB-port convenience of the Flip video camera. It was actually about two-and-a-half years ago, but sadly it was only a couple of months ago that I purchased one. This week, Flip’s owner Cisco Systems announced it was shutting down Flip.

    Boo. It used to seem like being an early adopter was the risky strategy – you shelled out a high price for a glitch-laden technology that was far from certain from becoming the standard platform. Now the tech world’s metabolism is so fast, the risks of not being an early adopter seem almost as great.

    Flip has gone from being glowing new kid to extremely popular camcorder vendor – in the US, more than here – to old-school irrelevance in just four years. But while tech analysts did largely blame high-speed innovation for Flip’s demise, it wasn’t just the cannibalistic powers of the smartphone that killed it. Its shutdown was also the result of a poor commercial decision by Cisco to acquire Flip’s maker, Pure Digital Technologies, in 2009. Cisco specialises in business networks rather than consumer technologies and couldn’t make Flip fit.

    So Flip’s fate is not exactly that of the Sony Minidisc (another gadget loved and lost) all over again. For those who own the cameras, they still have the advantage of great battery life. No one’s going to convince me that the great age of technological convergence has arrived until smartphones boast something as basic as a battery that lasts longer than the parental supply of alcohol at a kids’ birthday party.

    Still, whatever advantages it retains over its apparently more evolved replacements, few people like committing to a technology just when it’s about to become a collector’s item – something consumers might like to keep in mind next time they’re considering buying a PC. According to research firm Gartner, PC sales in the first quarter of 2011 fell 1.1 per cent worldwide and 6.1 per cent in the US.

    (I also bought a cute little mini tripod for my Flip, although so far I’ve only used this as an office desk toy, splaying the cables of its three legs and twisting them into a spiral as the fancy takes me. Procrastination is never going to be an Apple/Google duopoly.)

    The Flip RIP (with a USB port that pops in and out)

     P.S. My television set is 11 years old. It’s older than most of my friendships. I’m not replacing it until it explodes.

  • How the rich get richer at 90 per cent the speed of light

    March 25, 2011 @ 10:25 am | by Laura Slattery

    Thinking about a career in stock market trading? Start by learning how to swim, because the global financial centres of the future may be located in the middle of the ocean. According to this fascinating report by BBC science and technology reporter Jason Palmer, mid-ocean island chains may become the optimal location for financial hubs because high-frequency traders are seeking to exploit the speed of light.

    High-frequency trading carried out by computers often depends on the varying prices of a financial instrument in two separate geographic stock markets. So exactly how fast the data travels – and how far it has to travel – can make the difference between a profit and a loss. As Palmer outlines in his report, Harvard physicist Alexander Wissner-Gross told a meeting of the American Physical Society this week that financial institutions are increasingly looking at ways to exploit this trick of the light. The only limit is the speed of light, and trades can now travel at nearly 90 per cent of this ultimate limit.

    Indeed, one of the many people to have recognised the profit potential of high-frequency trading is Irish businessman Brian Conlon, last year’s winner of the Ernst & Young entrepreneur of the year award. His company, the Newry-based First Derivatives, started developing and selling its own software for “low-latency, high-volume” trading three years ago.

    “If you think about highly liquid stock like IBM or Microsoft, the price is going to change maybe five, 10, 20 times a second,” he explained in an interview with Barry O’Halloran last September. “So if you’re going to make a decision like ‘I want to buy IBM when the price hits 100’, then you have to make that decision within microseconds or milliseconds. If you don’t get your order into the exchange, then the price will have changed and the price will be invalid. Similarly, if you look at any trading screen, they are ticking many times a second. If you’re doing a program trade you have to make that decision fast or else your price is out of date.”

    First Derivatives’ software is programmed to make these decisions – buy IBM at 100 and sell it at 110 – without human intervention and the risk of all those nasty “fat finger” losses. Algorithmic trading such as this is driving the mushrooming volume in daily global financial trades – in New York alone, the number of transactions carried out every day has gone from five million a decade ago to over a billion today. As a result, Conlon’s company, which he started in a spare bedroom 15 years ago, is doing very nicely, thank you.

    But why might a chunk of Wall Street eventually relocate to, say, the Azores? It’s because the latencies in global fibre-optic links – the time delay for a signal to shift it from one global financial centre to another – are lower in some locations for certain trades. Last year, Dr Wissner-Gross mapped the optimal points where financial transactions should originate in order to maximise the chances of buying low and selling high. The answer was midway between the two major financial hubs involved in the trade. This often meant the ideal location was at nippy high latitudes or mid-ocean.

    Unsurprisingly, companies weren’t too keen on deploying floating data centres in places where there’s nothing but blue sea on the horizon – not even a Costa Coffee – so now Dr Wissner-Gross is helping firms work out which geographic stock markets they are best positioned to trade from their current location. But there’s still a clear physical advantage, and therefore competitive advantage, to moving, he maintains. Desert island trades, here we come. How does the Atlantic Stock Exchange or the WaveStoxx 1000 sound?

    Just remember: if you can make money at 90 per cent the speed of light, you can lose it that fast too.

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