Archive for August, 2007


Mobile hysteria – again

Public perception of the effects of RF and/or electromagnetic radiation on biological tissue is one of the most emotive issues in the industry. Whether it be cellular handsets and basestations, overhead power lines or TV and radio broadcasting transmitters, each time a new scientific report emerges, there is sure to be much hand wringing and cries of “what about the children” from concerned public interest groups around the world.

And so it has proved again with the release of the preliminary findings from an Israeli project that has found evidence of cell division brought about by exposure to low-level radiation at 875MHz. Crucially, the researchers seem to have identified that a different mechanism is at work, compared with previous studies, which have focused on heat-related effects. In this study, the radiation is credited with stimulating the production of an enzyme that controls cell division and differentiation.

For the popular press this is the proverbial gift from heaven: the headlines write themselves. “New cancer threat from mobile phones” – that should get anyone’s attention, shouldn’t it? Let’s ignore the fact that the frequency used in the experiments is not actually a mobile frequency - the implication that it’s “close” to a mobile band should be enough to spark mass hysteria. And what about that enzyme: surely that must cause cancer, mustn’t it?

Well, praise the lord for apathy. It seems those hand-wringing public interest groups have “cried wolf” so many times in the past that the vast majority of the general public have become immune to the reactions that once accompanied such shock reports that make giant leaps of supposition based on experimental observations.

So I guess my big exclusive based on anecdotal evidence of prize-winning vegetables being grown under power lines and linking this to Alzheimer’s among geriatric gardeners will have to wait until public gullibility falls to a new low.


Waiting for smart metering

When the UK Government announced that it would supply every household in the country with a free graphical display to help them monitor energy consumption, we at Electronicstalk quite rightly praised the move as a step in the right direction.

However, many readers wrote in to comment that it didn’t go far enough. And now evidence suggests that the UK really is lagging behind much of the rest of Europe in terms of smart metering technology.

A recent report from Berg Insight places Italy and Sweden at the top of the European smart metering league table, predicting full coverage by 2009. Large-scale smart-metering projects are already under way in Denmark, Finland and Austria. And the governments in Ireland, the Netherlands and Norway are currently going through the legal process to make smart meters obligatory.

There is no doubt that full-blown smart metering will give citizens in those countries far more data about their energy usage – and therefore the means to reduce it. But the timescales for such projects are worryingly long, as one might expect with any national infrastructure project.

The UK proposal has the major benefit of easy installation (assuming a clamp-on design is used), which should mean a timescale of a year or two rather than a decade for full implementation. And that is why it still gets my vote.


Reference designs – all too easy?

The market for TV set top boxes presents an interesting illustration of how well today’s consumer electronics sector has responded to the reference design methodology of the semiconductor industry. But is it a unique case?

Certainly, the demand for the end product is assured. The growth of new broadcasting standards and the great global analogue turn-off are two special market drivers that have easily convinced consumers of the need to buy (or subscribe to) at least one box per household.

And when you add to this the ready availability of reference designs willingly proffered by chipmakers eager to speed adoption of their devices, you find a market where the costs of entry are low and the rewards are potentially great.

Now factor in the spectacular growth of the Far Eastern OEM/ODM sector, and you begin to see the reasons underlying the results of the latest survey of the market from IMS Research. The study found that although the traditional leaders such as Thomson, Motorola and Scientific Atlanta still predominate among the 122 million units shipped globally during 2006, an ever higher proportion of the market is being taken by smaller Asian manufacturers – particularly at the low end of the market.

Perhaps ironically, one major that the study finds to be suffering and losing significant market share is Philips – itself one of the greatest proponents of STB reference designs before its semiconductor operations were spun off as NXP.

The question has to be asked whether the reference design based business model is healthy for the global electronics industry. By taking innovation out of the hands of the end equipment manufacturer does it make it “too easy”? Or is this exactly what the industry needs?


Knowledge is power

Knowledge is power, or so it is said. But these days we are more likely to be stumped for knowledge when we run out of power - battery power that is. And as one who is currently in the midst of a business trip around the UK, I can assure you that there is never enough power (more…)


Cellular standards – an expensive gamble

The high stakes involved in the cellular infrastructure game are highlighted in a new report from analyst IMS Research. And the trends observed will not make good reading for anyone that might have invested in 2.5 or even 3G technology.

The report, “The worldwide market for cellular infrastructure – 7th edition”, makes the case that the continued evolution of Edge (Release 7 has raised datarates to 118.4Kbit/s and Release 8 is imminent) effectively nullifies the advantages offered by W-CDMA. And this, the analyst predicts, will add at least another 5 years to the life of the 2G (GSM/GPRS/Edge) system.

Key to this conclusion is that the major expansion in cellular infrastructure has shifted to the developing world (notably India and China), where costs dictate that 2G will predominate. So – quite logically – if 2G can continue to improve performance (however gradually), there is no incentive to switch to an “intermediate” technology. And this is particularly apposite when the cellular industry is so fastidious as to lay out its roadmaps so far in advance.

The IMS report concludes that 2G will continue to dominate until a low-cost 4G technology hits the market. What’s the betting that in five years time we will be making similar predictions about xG?


Magnetic media fight back

Regular readers of Electronicstalk will know by now that I have a soft spot for magnetic media on the grounds that it is a technology that simply refuses to lie down and die. The fields of application may be changing, and many mass markets have switched to other forms of recording and/or storage. But every time anyone is bold enough to predict its demise, one of the big names will come up with a further advance that makes us all re-evaluate exactly what you can and cannot accomplish with magnetic storage.

And today is just one of those days with the release by Toshiba of a 2.5in hard disc drive with a thumping great 320Gbyte capacity - and the full story is here.

Lest we forget, it was only a year ago that many observers were predicting that the inexorable increase in density and falling cost of Flash-based storage would mean that the traditional HDD’s days as the PC market storage medium of choice were numbered. But while Flash certainly does have a role to play in replacing HDDs for shock-prone applications, if the HDD industry can continue to increase its densities at this rate, I reckon that prediction could be as much as 20 years too early.


Compact disc silver jubilee

So, do you recall exactly what you were doing 25 years ago? The past quarter century has seen plenty of changes, and many of them have been enabled by the first successful application of optical storage technology - the compact disc, which celebrated its silver jubilee over the weekend. (more…)


Round one to Blu-ray

This week has seen the first meaningful sales statistics in the battle for supremacy between the two competing next-generation optical disc standards, And it’s round one to Blu-ray.

The figures, released by Home Media Research, show that Blu-ray discs outsold the competing HD DVD format by two to one in the USA during the first half of 2007. And while such statistics may have as much to do with which films are available on which format, they will be music to Sony’s ears.

Lest we forget in the VCR format battle of the 1980s, Sony - the inventor of both the VHS and Betamax formats - famously backed the wrong horse (Betamax) and licensed VHS to the competition. This time, though, Sony is up against Toshiba (the originator of the HD-DVD format) and Microsoft, which has backed the standard along with several film studios, including the giant Warner Bros.

For the record, Home Media Research attributes 1.6 million disc sales to Blu-ray from 1st January to 1st July 2007, compared with 795,000 HD-DVDs during the same period.


Tom’s Diner

It’s a curse, I know, but (unlike Einstein) I have one of those brains that contains more than its fair share of trivia. And while this can be very handy when there are beers to be won at the pub, I do admit it does tend to get in the way of simple clear thinking.

However, I did come across one of those odd facts the other day that I knew full well would stay with me to my deathbed. And it concerns the development of the mp3 audio codec.

It appears that when the good folks at the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits were working on the mp3 algorithm, the one song that really had them foxed was a 1986 acappella version of “Tom’s Diner” by Susan Vega.

Apparently, the song in question was well known in the pro audio world as an excellent loudspeaker performance test. And the first results with mp3 encoding in 1988 were somewhat less than satisfactory. Naturally, it was just the sort of failure the researchers were looking for. The data from that trial laid the foundations for what has become one of the most enduring audio algorithms of all time.

And why should this come to mind now? Well it just so happened that while preparing for a concert earlier this month at Nuremberg, Vega was able to visit the institute as part of its celebrations to commemorate 20 years of audio coding.


Volunteers please

How would you like a chance to shape the future direction of Electronicstalk? Well, now is your chance as we are looking for nominations for our first ever Electronicstalk Advisory Board. (more…)

About the Author

Electronicstalk and this Editor's Blog are edited by Laurence Marchini

Laurence Marchini

Laurence Marchini began his career in the electronics press with the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1980, cutting his teeth on a variety of learned and member publications, ranging from IEE Proceedings to Electronics and Power. He moved on to join the launch team of the innovative weekly Electronics Express in 1986, and became Editor just 18 months later. Sadly, Electronics Express lasted just four and a half years, wound up by the infamous Robert Maxwell. However, Laurence had already jumped ship and joined the world of electronics PR with the agency of the 1990s, Smith and Jones Communications. It seemed Laurence was lost to the world of journalism. But after 11 years we managed to lure him back as launch editor of Electronicstalk. Laurence is married to Sally and has a young son, Alexander.

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