by Dana Blankenhorn
  Volume VIII, No. XIX

This Week's Clue: Zigbee Biochips Make Always-On Closer Than You Think

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This Week's Clue: Zigbee Biochips Make Always-On Closer Than You Think
SSP (Shameless Self Promotion)
SP (Shameless Promotion)
The Old Broadband Policy Switcheroo
Spinning Spintronics
Malware Wars
Clued-in, Clueless

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For the Week of May 10, 2004

The hottest Always-On technology today is Zigbee .

Zigbee is a standard for linking single-chip sensors, through radios, into a network that can handle environmental automation for 5-10 years on a single battery.

Take some matchbox-sized sensors, install them in strategic locations, and they form a network that can calculate conditions and, through any PC, make changes. In an office building sensors could see which rooms are empty and save energy. Outside they could control and limit watering while keeping the gardens green, and keeping a look-out for burglars. The Zigbee members plan to get together next month in Seattle to talk about all this. .

In one recent test, covered in a wide-ranging Business Week feature on wireless, , Andover Controls placed sensors in hotel rooms to cut air conditioner use automatically, and make the rooms more comfortable at the same time. Andover thinks sensors can cut energy use 10%, which when you're running a corporate campus is a big number. Honeywell is using Zigbee-networked sensors to cut energy costs in basic industries like steel and aluminum by up to 15%, and monitor other conditions very accurately.

We're still at the beginning with Zigbee. Today's sensors are about the size of a matchbook (remember matchbooks?). In a few years they will be like dust, and "installation" of a Zigbee network could be as simple as a kid blowing a dandelion flower.

Now at the same time we're moving toward some historic advances in the area of biochips. While there would be scary implications if privacy isn't protected the promise is real enough. While companies like Digital Angel today are mainly focused on tagging cattle and letting you know where they are , their technology can also monitor heart rate, blood pressure and other vital functions.

By combining common CMOS semiconductor technology with MEMS , chip-makers like DALSA Semiconductor can create systems that sense, analyze, and engage with the real world, all on one chip. Here are some of the biometric applications DALSA lists on their Web site:

  • blood pressure
  • micro-arrays
  • microfluidics
  • biochips
  • biosensors
  • implantable drug delivery
  • silicon microphones and audio transducers

All you need to do to complete a medical revolution is to link Zigbee and these MEMS-CMOS chips.

Consider. You have (as I do) high blood pressure, the silent killer. You get a bio-chip implanted under your skin that measures your blood pressure constantly, and (through Zigbee) can alert you when it goes high. This lets you take action before your heart is stressed, action that can be as simple as eating an apple, or spending a few moments in meditation. The result is you will live longer.

That's what I call a killer app. And it's just one of many. You can use the same system for blood sugar, for monitoring the delivery (and result of) chemotherapy. As you age you can have any condition remotely monitored so you can live at home longer, with medicines, nurses, doctors and ambulances called only when necessary, to deal with conditions those providers know about with precision, in advance, so treatment too can be quicker and cheaper.

All this is possible now, using technology that is available now. Yes, there are privacy implications and unless we the people are guaranteed ownership and control of our own medical data it's very possible none of this will ever come about.

But when you have a wireless broadband application in your body, based on Zigbee technology, then you live in an Always-On environment. If that Always-On environment is built on a modular, scalable platform you can easily add home automation and RFID (home inventory) applications, in a plug-and-play way.

What this really means is that the interface between your home network and the greater Internet needs to be a server, not a client. Instead of building residential gateways that let you bring Internet pages to your kids, I would propose a motherboard based on PDA technology, with rechargeable AA batteries for back-up power, a plug that goes into the wall, and onboard intelligence to only recharge those batteries when it's most efficient to do so. I would propose an expandable system, with "slots" on which applications rest, one that can be "daisy-chained" remotely, simply by adding another unit in another room, essentially building a "mesh" network within the home.

As a start, that motherboard should be equipped with a firewall, anti-virals, and encryption, so that it provides value to the LAN owner from the start. It should also be equipped with 802.11 networking, although your first unit might plug directly into a residential gateway through Ethernet. It could run the MacOS, Linux or Windows - I don't care. It should not be running a small kernel Real Time Operating System (RTOS) like VXWorks from Wind River - you can't run a server off it.

You can build and market such a system right now for a few hundred dollars, then recruit application developers to build out whatever people want to buy, in an open competitive environment. Although I should add that the first operating system vendor to deliver such a box should have a big advantage.

Always-On is closer than you think.


Shameless Self-Promotion

I work as a business analyst with Progressive Strategies, a New York research firm that has the ear of the world's top technology companies.

My last book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards .

You have my permission to forward this newsletter widely. And if you have trouble subscribing let me know. Remember: it's journalism that keeps the Clues coming...


Shameless Promotion

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Takes on the News

The Old Broadband Policy Switcheroo

I've looked over coverage of President Bush's broadband plans, and they're "the old switcheroo." That is, they sound good on a superficial level, but a look at the fine print shows a different picture.

The headlines are grabbers. There's the goal of universal access, and a call against taxes. Both sound great.

The problem is how we get there. The Bush plan is simply not market-oriented.

A market-oriented plan wouldn't impose hidden taxes on our access endorsing a cable-phone carrier duopoly that was created through protected monopolies.

A market-oriented plan wouldn't fence-off wireless spectrum as property. Bush is planning on continuing the Clinton-era policy of auctioning-off spectrum, rather than treating spectrum for what it is, an ocean where non-interference should be our guide.

I should say here that the Democratic party's official criticisms of Bush's plans were, frankly, small-minded and counter-productive. We have seen what happens to Universal Service subsidies -- they go right back into the pockets of the Bells -- and the Kerry criticisms of Bush's plan seemed aimed at just making that worse.

At the risk of repeating myself, we can increase broadband take-up dramatically without spending a dime of the government's money. Here's how:

  • Encourage cable and phone wholesaling of their capacity to third parties, at rates that encourage entrepreneurs rather than discourage them. Right now the monopolists are strangling wired competition.
  • Encourage wireless broadband by opening up more unlicensed spectrum. Encourage the FCC toward a more judicial function, mediating disputes over interference, rather than have it regulate all the time.

The key to broadband is competition, it's entrepreneurship, it's getting the government out of the way. As any good conservative would say, "the government shouldn't pick winners." It won't surprise many that Democrats reach for subsidies and don't get that. It should surprise you that Republicans don't get it either.


Spinning Spintronics

Moore's Law is a challenge. It's not a scientific principle.

Moore's Law tells the electronics industry what it should hope to do, however it can do it, based on the idea that, in 1966, the goal of 100% improvement every 18 months looked achievable for some time to come.

What most people don't know is that, in many cases, and in many different areas of technology, engineers and scientists have been blowing the Moore's timetable to smithereens.

They're doing it with breakthroughs like spintronics. IBM and Stanford have announced a major deal to push this science into the market. SUNY Binghampton has a similar deal with Seagate.

Spintronics is a bit of science that was science fiction when Moore wrote his 1964 article. It's a system for controlling the spin of individual electrons, then using that reliable control to save more data in less space than ever before.

It's a very good thing indeed.

Malware Wars

The collapse of online ethics is destroying the Internet as we knew it.

Spam gets most of the publicity. But the malware problem is getting just as bad.

Spyware programs are one form of malware. Viruses are also a subset of malware. I define anything that comes into your computer unbidden and with its own agenda is malware.

A lot of the malware you see today got its start on porn sites. (Yes, another innovation from that technologically on-top-of-it industry.) But it has spread, far and wide.

I have personally had to clean up both my kids' computers in the last few weeks, using a combination of Ad-Aware and Spybot Search & Destroy. As with viruses and spam there's a whole new industry springing up to fight malware. Why does it feel like protection?

But these two programs aren't always enough as my webmaster, TBass, told me when he came to visit the other day. While I'd been dealing with my kids, Tommy had been dealing with some cousins.

"I learned a LOT, but I put in a lot of hours including about 14 hours of reading online, both at home and on site at my cousins. It was a lot of repetition until I could recognize patterns, and pick up some specifics."

While I just went to the Web and got the most popular shareware, Tommy went the extra mile and found two freeware programs - CWShredder and HijackThis.

CWShredder can be just Initiated and let do its work, but HijackThis takes a good bit of knowledge or it can be dangerous because all things Identified do not, and must not be 'FIXED'," Tommy notes.

"HijackThis gathers information from the Registry and if the wrong things are FIXED you can end up with a boat anchor rather than a computer. I had to read for hours in the ComputerCops website and other places before doing anything with HijackThis.

"It is advised to join 'Computer Cops' so one can create a file from the information gather by HijackThis and submit it in a thread to 'Computer Cops' for advise formats. Then one must follow up by doing what they are told and continuing to send more information to the 'Computer Cops' forums for follow ups until a clean state is obtained.

"By The Way, the activity still took booting in Safe Mode and going to the Top Level Adminsitrative Account on my cousin's computer to get rid of a few things."

After this a cousin called Tommy with more trouble. "I was able to troubleshoot his daughter's computer over the phone at the end of this much quicker because the learning curve was on my side by thime she called from Alabama with a similar problem. (I assured her she had not gotten it from an e-mail since in all of the reading I have done on this problem i have not seen a single incident where it came from an e-mail.)"

We can't continue creating problems and new industries that just solve those problems. Ways must be found to eliminate problems before they become problems. All the possible solutions I can think of are going to be nasty -- nasty toward your privacy, toward your freedom, toward your assumptions about what the Internet is and how it works.

But that's the way it is.


Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in is Linksys founder Victor Tsao , and Cisco is pretty clued-in to keep him in charge there.

Clueless is the Online Journalism Review, which had Matt Glaser do yet-another one of those overwrought "is the Net to blame" pieces . It's the mass media, not the micro media, that needs to look in the mirror, and articles like this one only delay that day.


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