Ultrabooks: Thin Is In


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You may not know it yet, but notebooks will be going through a revolution in the next 12 months. A new class of mobile PC will emerge: thin, light, style-focused and high-performing.

A women measuring her waistline

We've been concerned about our waistline for years and now it seems we also want thinner notebooks.

Fuelled by advancements and competitive innovation from both AMD and Intel, notebooks have ramped up in performance and specifications, but with the exception of a few, haven’t really shed their traditional notebook dimensions or basic characteristics such as boot up time and battery life. At the same time, tablets have become a mainstream product that can replace a notebook for some tasks.

The Ultrabook range, coined by Intel, addresses some of these issues affecting the notebook market. Although netbooks were the more mobile and lighter version of its notebook sibling, they are limited to a smaller screen and fitted to more basic PC tasks. Ultrabooks are designed to deliver the full PC experience, with the core propositions of “thin” and “light” manifesting themselves in stylish, eye-catching designs.

Ultrabooks will be the portable PC you want to use, and be seen using. The casual look-at-me email or Facebook check at a café will never have been more popular once these machines start making their way into the market.

There’s no doubt that notebooks are the best value they’ve ever been, and from a “bang for buck” perspective there’s never been a better time to upgrade if you feel the need to. But with longer battery times, an “always on” state similar to tablets, and a burning desire to reveal your sleek Ultrabook at every opportunity, you may find the attraction too hard to resist.

Intel are predicting that Ultrabooks will make up 40% of the consumer notebook market by the end of next year, with each successive Intel chip development driving even greater performance. The first range, due out in October, will make use of a low-voltage variant of the Sandy Bridge processor.

Acer will be the first PC manufacturer to reveal their Ultrabook lineup in Australia later this week, and we’ll be there to take a close look at their offering.

The revolution starts now.

In the Digital Age, No Crime is Perfect

In the past fortnight, Sydney has been gripped by the Madeleine Pulver case. An intruder surprised the young schoolgirl while she was home alone and forced her to wear a potentially explosive collar bomb around her neck, leaving her frantic and hysterical while police bomb experts first determined that there was no explosive device, then detached it from her after 10 long hours.

The extradition order has revealed how police were able to use a combination of first hand witness accounts, email access points, CCTV footage, and multiple co-operating agencies to home in on their suspect, who had departed Australia to the United States.

The progression of the manhunt shows the value of an interconnected, extended “web” of online and offline information drawn together to achieve a single, focused goal.

A concerned burglar

Do you know if big brother is watching you?

The intruder left a USB stick on a lanyard which stored a pdf copy of the printed note that had been given to the schoolgirl. Now, if you’ve ever used a flash drive, when you delete a file, you can’t just bring that file back. It appears that the person using the flash drive didn’t realise that deleted files could easily be brought back – in fact a quick search on google offers many different methods to retrieve deleted flash drive files. The recovered files revealed slightly different versions of the demand letter that was last saved.

But it was the suspect’s use of a newly created Gmail account that began the unravelling of the case. The pdf document and printed letter quoted an email address to use for communication with the suspect, presumably for whatever demands would be made at a later stage.

Police were able to track where the Gmail account was initially created – Chicago Airport. They were then able to track where that email account was accessed, using the IP address presumably provided by Google, who own Gmail, and the ISPs who serviced the accounts.

The access was pinpointed to a library in Kincumber, NSW and at a video store in Avoca, NSW. The suspect apparently didn’t realise that even if you are using an alias email, IP addresses are very sticky, and in the case of the library and video store, those connections were quite basic in their internet services and wouldn’t have the sophistication to “hide” the IP addresses.

Police used the CCTV footage from the library and from a liquor outlet adjacent to the video store to match visitors to the description given by the victim. The car the suspect drove, a Range Rover, was then matched to the RTA database – and the associated license photo, of a Paul “Douglas” Peters, was a good match for the CCTV footage. Police then confirmed with immigration authorities that Peters was indeed at Chicago Airport on the day the Gmail address was created.

Police were even able to use credit card history to show Peters purchasing a USB flash drive at a local Officeworks store identical to the one left with Madeleine Pulver, providing even more verification that police were concentrating their efforts on the right suspect.

From there, it was a case of working with US agencies to determine where the suspect was living in the US, and arrange for an arrest. Local airport CCTV footage was examined and also firmed up their suspicion of Peters.

If you look at the above process, and consider it took only a fortnight to review CCTV footage, access IP address information from Google and relevant ISPs, and cross-reference information from the RTA and immigration and then local US authorities, the case has taken very little time to get to an arrest and subsequent extradition order.

Consider all the different sources of information that had to come together in order to find the person suspected of this crime – Google email databases, motor vehicle and license registry, multiple CCTV footage sources, immigration and passport databases, and credit card purchase history, not to mention actual witness statements.

It illustrates how well the unified power and application of information can result in a positive outcome – in this case, the arrest of a person thousands of kilometres from where the alleged crime was perpetrated.

How do you feel about authorities being able to draw on this secure information? Would it be warranted for any criminal circumstance or otherwise? Feel free to share your opinion and perhaps personal experiences below.

Hackers – The Invisible Enemy

I fear we may soon lose our nerve. On the back of Sony’s Playstation Network being infiltrated with millions of members’ details stolen, Sega has now revealed that over 1.3 million members on its Sega Pass gaming network has been compromised, with passwords and personal information of 1.3 million members accessed by hackers. It is the latest in a trail of highly public failures in online security, and the paying public who entrust their confidential details with these networks have a right to ask: is anything really safe online?

The global companies that create these networks for people to play, communicate, compete and interact have done so with the understanding that the subscription fees pay for a certain level of service – high speed online connection, quality gaming experience, and last, but not least, strong security measures. In return, the company makes a tidy profit for hosting these virtual environments and creating new ways for its members to interact and challenge each other. But when the big names fall prey to these highly organised trouble makers, the impact can cause global ripples of nervousness.

Indeed, smaller companies are reeling from similar attacks. A friend of mine uses a Melbourne-based hosting company, Distribute IT, to host his videos and online promotional data. The hosting company’s home page has now become a blog page where the company is posting regular updates to its customers. The attack on this company’s servers was malicious and apparently intent on destroying data. 5 days later, they are still struggling to bring their full set of services back to speed, illustrating the effect of such destructive attacks. It appears that Distribute IT has been deliberately targeted – kill the host company and you take down anyone that relies on them for their online presence.

So what are the motivations of hackers? Some are politically driven, to override a webpage with their own message. Others seek to maintain a reputation within the hacker community. Some would be focused on revenge. But there is a more troubling trend emerging, of companies being held at ransom until they pay up, at which time their site is released. Of course, there would be a demand for further, regular payments to keep the site “protected” from any future attacks.

This scenario was played out at another colleague’s online business less than a fortnight ago. A Denial of Service attack was launched on their online store, bringing down the servers that were not able to keep up with the tens of thousands of page requests a second. A short while later, an email was sent through – pay up and we’ll stop the attacks. Police were called in, and the culprits were tracked back to Russia. The Denial of Service was halted by the hackers to indicate who was in control of the site, and then the attacks continued after payment was not forthcoming.

A workaround solution was eventually found, filtering out all non-Australian IP addresses, letting local traffic flow freely on the site. Luckily, most, if not all business on that site is generated in Australia and so that fix has worked for this particular company. But if you had a global business with customers worldwide, you’d be in big trouble.

This is an issue that will not go away, and it’s a global concern that requires an international approach. As we all gradually migrate to the cloud-centric file storage paradigm, there will be more than monsters in the closet – a veritable school of online piranhas will be sniffing out opportunities to threaten, invade and destroy our data. The answers to this threat aren’t yet clear, but one thing is certain – consumers will demand no less than complete protection in return for their trust and at times well-earned money, and will be baying for blood if the system falls over, as it has spectacularly over the last few weeks.

Tesla Motors: Charging Up the Car Market

On Saturday the 15th of January, Tesla Motors provided an opportunity for the public to take a close look at the Roadster that is now available for sale in Australia. Under dark clouds that threatened to open up and rain on their parade, the Tesla Motors representatives and their two electric supercars were nevertheless shining beacons to what may very well be the future of not just what we drive, but also the entire process of buying and owning a car.

The Tesla Roadster parked outside the Museum of Contemporary Art.

A little bit of water wasn't going to spoil the Roadster's party. 100km/h standing still.

We travelled to Circular Quay in Sydney, just outside the Museum of Contemporary Art to see firsthand what Tesla Motors was offering. The Tesla Roadster has already received a huge amount of publicity worldwide, so a brief recap on vital statistics. The Roadster is an all-electric supercar powered by over 6,800 lithium-Ion batteries with no combustion engine whatsoever. Globally, over 1,500 Roadsters have been sold so far, travelling over 14 million kilometres completely emission-free. It can accelerate from standstill to 100km/h in 3.7 seconds, and can travel just under 400 kms on a single charge. But this isn’t the story we’re telling today. What we’re talking about is a radical shift in our perception of the personal transport industry. It’s an exciting time to be witness to the foundations being laid to what may be the norm in years to come.

Tesla Roadster Dashboard

With no gears or revs to worry about, it's all about the kilowatts!

After seeing the car, talking to the local Tesla Motors sales and engineering managers, and understanding that the Roadster is out of reach of most of the working population, you realise that there is a much larger agenda at work here. People who want a AUD$223,000 supercar will buy one because they can afford it, because of the exclusivity and its performance. The fact that this is the most environmentally advanced vehicle in the world will appeal to a lot of those buyers who can contribute to energy consumption change while enjoying the image that the car conveys.

As an aside, if the government really wanted to make this car more attractive and boost their climate change credentials, they could look at concessions on the luxury sales tax and other duties that total 53% of the sale price of this car. Then we might see quite a few on the streets very quickly, and bring the electric car offer to the forefront of the industry. Think about it, a supercar that costs only half its current drive away price? The value in marketing emission-free vehicles that hundreds of these cars on the road would provide could surely justify some level of support.

Tesla Roadster Rear

"Let's see, price $223,000, with over $100,000 worth of extras! Wait, is that Government extras?"

But Tesla Motors isn’t interested in just selling supercars, or the battery packs that power them, even though both sales operations would keep them in business. Tesla Motors wants to change the world. And that’s an awesome mission.

Much of the way that today’s car industry works is based on large dealerships and frequent services. What car dealers discount on a new vehicle sale is made up in the labour charges for future service visits. Anyone that owns a car knows how complicated an engine is, and how many things can and will go wrong. If we think about it, the current car market is built on negative expectations: that components will fail and so on. The new car market that Tesla Motors envisage, and that I’d love to see eventuate, is a car market built on customisation, minimal service levels and high reliability. Let’s take a sneak peek into that future:

I’m ready to buy a new car, so I jump onto the Tesla Motors website, which directs me to the Australian sales portal. I choose the car I want, selecting colour, number of seats, type of speakers, etc. I negotiate and order online, and the car is delivered to me a fortnight later, fully charged. After enjoying the first couple of days cruising around town and travelling to and from work, I go home and connect my car to my mains power in the garage, and overnight the car’s batteries are fully juiced up again.

After a year of driving with no petrol fill-ups, oil changes or radiator top-ups, Tesla Motors sends a service agent to my house to look at the car. After a firmware upgrade, dusting the fans and checking brakes, the cooling system and the four (yes, only four!) moving parts on the car, the service agent leaves for another year.

 

Tesla Roadster LCD screen

The coolest message ever seen on a car screen.

 

In this brave new world, at no point during the ownership of this car would I need to visit a petrol station or a service centre. Of course, I’d need to change tyres and brakes during the life of the car, but other than that it’s pretty much firmware updates and vacuum cleans. Even the replaceable batteries will last at least 7 years of regular driving.

Tesla Roadster Battery and Power Management

Batteries and motor management system. The combined power of a container load of notebooks.

This whole scenario is a massive mind shift for both car buyers and car sellers, and it certainly won’t be an easy path to pioneer for Tesla Motors. However, the plan to introduce a mass-market vehicle in 2012 will mean that finally, a fully electric car that can be owned outright will be within reach of the mainstream market, and that will begin to really challenge the status quo.

We’ve seen this shift before in lower value markets, like television. We’ve gone from tube televisions connected to VCRs, and evolved to 3D Flat Panels with content delivered through the internet. But we’re still doing the same thing – watching and enjoying visual programs. Likewise with electric cars, the purpose and method is still the same – we need to get from A to B, and we will do it with a car. However, the method of sales, delivery, service and of course environmental impact has the potential to experience a massive overhaul.

Tesla Roadster Right hand door

Here I am imagining going from A to B in this supercar. Note my serious driving pose despite being stationary.

The business model that Tesla Motors is rolling out can’t be ignored by traditional car manufacturers. Even though only 7 Tesla Roadsters have been sold so far in Australia, the vision of a society making its own environmental contribution and minimising its carbon footprint through one of life’s basic needs – transport – is what drives this company despite the nay-sayers and barriers to entry.

Tesla Roadster Portable Charger

Never before has the term "fill 'er up" been used with the phrase "is the powerpoint on?"

Tesla Motors is looking at the inefficiencies of the traditional “car yard” and redefining the entire customer interaction model. There won’t be dealerships, instead there will be a central showroom and supporting service centre. The service centre is currently located at Botany in Sydney. There’s definitely a hint of the Apple philosophy here, keeping tight ownership of the brand image and its product range.

Without a local showroom as yet, Tesla Motors are finding innovative ways to present the car, and their vision, to as many people as possible. In February, Tesla Motors begins its roadshow on the east coast of Australia, starting in Queensland and ending in Melbourne or potentially Adelaide. Hopefully we’ll have an opportunity to spend some face time with the guys that run the Australian Tesla Motors arm and take an in depth look at the local operation.

Holiday Post – Escape from Technology

Happy New Year everyone, I hope you had some great time off! One question – how many of you changed your online or social media habits while you were on vacation? What is a holiday if you’re still connected?

For those of you who love a bit of snow, Thredbo is an internationally recognised skiing and snowboarding destination about 5 hours’ drive from Sydney, travelling south. Of course, that’s in the winter months. During summer, the ski fields are converted into mountain bike trails, and visitors from around the world use Thredbo as their base to walk to Mount Kosciuszko, the highest point in Australia.

This was our chosen family holiday point, with plenty of activities for the young kids and a much cooler temperate than back in Sydney. It also presented me with an opportunity to consider our perpetual attachment to our beloved gadgets, away from the usual work environment.

On one such occasion, I made a lone trip up to Mount Kosciuszko. I had my Garmin GPS watch monitoring my heart rate and speed, a Shuffle with my favourite metal tracks to keep me motivated as I made my way up the mountain, and my iPhone so I could take pictures and update my progress to my friends. Of course, in my rush to get my gadgets ready I almost forgot to take survival essentials like food and water (in my case, Powerade and Binka’s Snakes).

A ten minute chairlift ride that’s not for the vertigo-affected!

It’s a 13km return trip from the top of Thredbo to the peak of Mt Kosciuszko, a relatively short distance. I fancy myself a bit of a runner, so I started jogging right from the chairlift drop-off – and immediately proceeded to hyperventilate and nearly collapse. I hadn’t taken into account the change in oxygen levels, so I was forced to merely briskly walk to the peak.

This was fortunate, though, because it allowed me time to take in the breathtaking views. It occurred to me while I was up there that this was how any animal or human would have seen this area for thousands of years. I turned off the music, took the headphones off and just enjoyed what was around me for the rest of the journey.

One destination that needs to be seen in person to be believed.

By the time I’d reached the top of the mountain, I was having some really intense thoughts about our reliance on all things techy – I’ll put it down to the brain being starved of oxygen, or the spectacular vistas I was gazing at, wide-eyed in wonder. Why are we so beholden to the very devices that are supposed to set us free? Could I forsake these material things that seem to define part of who I am? Where are all the trees up here? Am I the only one wearing sports shorts on the peak?

Not shown: Trees

Once I’d reached the peak, I had a good, long, appreciative look at the natural world around me, and asked a fellow traveller to take a photo for me on my iPhone. When I looked at the photo, I couldn’t help but notice that the 3G signal was at full strength! I quickly emailed the photo to my work colleagues back at Bing Lee and on Facebook, and almost instantly had replies, all while I was sitting up amongst this awe-inspiring view.

Shown: the only guy on the peak that wore his running shorts.

I made my way back to the chair lifts pretty quickly, being able to run as my body had adjusted to the altitude, and it was mostly downhill! But I did stow the GPS, Shuffle and iPhone in the backpack, and just enjoyed the path through the magnificent environment.

Somewhere down there is my family’s hotel room.

As I ran, I reflected on my previous thoughts while walking up. Unlike jewellery, or fashion clothing, or other self-defining purchases, tech gear almost always helps us connect to someone or something. They’ve evolved from serving you, to serving you to the masses, encouraging us to share, to communicate, and to participate. It’s not a question of to have or have not; it’s considering what the right product is to suit the purpose. The thrill I had from my live update and prompt responses on the mountain could not have been duplicated with older products and platforms.

This makes me more excited than ever to see what products I’ll be talking about to you this year. It will always be more than just about the model, its specs and design, I’ll be discussing how it makes your life better and helps you achieve what you set out to accomplish.

With that, I wish 2011 is everything you dream it to be, and I’ll be back soon with the next Ritchie’s Room instalment!

Intel’s New “Sandy Bridge” Sneak Peak

This week, two of my contacts from Intel came to visit me. The purpose? To show me a demonstration of their new Sandy Bridge Processor, and Bing Lee had the honour of being the first retailer in Australia to see it in action.

Being under a confidentiality agreement, I can’t talk about the specifics of the demos or specs that were displayed. What I can say is that the demonstrations definitely showed that the new processors perform impressively well, utilising the GPU/CPU combination that this new 32nm platform offers.

Intel have been talking up Sandy Bridge for a little while now, so there is some information out there, however to see it in action was exciting. It’s no secret that a huge proportion of internet traffic is video and will continue to grow its share, and that video transcoding from PC to portable device is a common task. From an end-user perspective, PC gaming, video content and the way it is delivered and managed is a big focus for the new Intel range and it’s great to see real-life applications benefiting from the new architecture.

That’s all I can say for now, but thanks to Intel for the demo, and look forward to posting more details closer to the launch date!