Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 19, 2002

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Issue 19, 2002

This week's headlines:

EU imposes e-commerce tax
May 07, 2002

The European Union has agreed new rules forcing internet retailers based outside the EU to levy value-added-tax (VAT) on sales to customers within the 15-nation bloc. The measures, which look set to hit the European sales of major US e-commerce operators such as AOL Time Warner, could exacerbate an ongoing EU-US trade dispute over steel.

The European Commission said the new rules would make it easier for EU-based internet retailers, who are already obliged to charge VAT on sales to customers within the European bloc, to compete with their non-EU rivals. At present, EU consumers can avoid paying VAT on many products by ordering them online from US-based e-commerce companies.

The new VAT regime, which is due to come into force in July 2003, will apply to sales of products downloaded from the internet, including software and online film or radio subscription. The US, which has already threatened to refer the issue to the World Trade Organisation, fears that the rules would shut non-EU firms out of the market.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Microsoft faces tough EU action
May 10, 2002

Microsoft faces having to make radical changes to meet European regulatory concerns that go well beyond what is being demanded of it in the US. After a three-year investigation, European antitrust regulators are studying wide-ranging measures to prevent Microsoft from using its strong position in the software market to injure competitors, according to people familiar with the case.

The measures being considered would force Microsoft to change the way it produces and sells its Windows operating system and Media Player software, and to provide a large amount of technical information to competitors.

They would go well beyond the terms of last year's settlement between Microsoft and the US government, which also investigated the company's alleged anti-competitive practices, and could further sour relations between the two antitrust authorities after last year's high-profile spat over General Electric's thwarted $43bn bid for Honeywell.

Full story: Financial Times Back to top

Deutsche Telekom faces EU fine for overcharging
May 08, 2002

Deutsche Telekom could face a fine from European regulators after the Brussels authorities accused the German telecommunications group of stifling competition for internet services through unfair pricing.

The European Commission has reached the preliminary conclusion that Deutsche Telekom hampered competitors' access to the 'local loop' - the infrastructure that is vital for the provision of internet and telecom services to consumers' homes.

After a three-year investigation, the commission found that 98 per cent of consumers still used Deutsche Telekom, although the market was formally liberalised four years ago. The European watchdog believes this is because the former German monopoly abused its position in the market to shut out competitors through a complex pricing structure.

Deutsche Telekom has two months to reply to the commission's allegations or to stop the alleged anti-competitive practices.

Full story: Financial Times Back to top

Scientists warn of 'wireless waste'
May 09, 2002

The sheer mass of mobile phones that will be binned in the coming years will pose significant health threats, according to US research. With phones having an average lifespan of 18 months, the US alone will dump 130m phones a year over the next three years, contributing around 65,000 tons of rubbish, according to environmental research group, Inform.

Mobiles create special problems at landfills or in municipal waste incinerators because they have toxic chemicals in batteries and other components. This 'wireless waste' includes arsenic, antimony, beryllium, cadmium, copper, lead, nickel and zinc, materials which have been closely linked with cancer, especially in children.

The research has urged the industry to expand measures that will reduce the number of mobile phones thrown away. One solution could be the 'take-back' recycling schemes, which are commonplace in Australia. The European Union is also considering legislation on such a practice.

Full story: VNUnet UK Back to top

US plans to boost GPS satellite power
May 08, 2002

The US military has asked for $90m of extra funding to increase the signal strength of its satellite Global Positioning System (GPS). The Department of Defence says this would protect it from atmospheric interference and deliberate jamming.

Whether the funds will be awarded will be decided early in 2003. The money would be used to modify up to 20 new satellites. The new satellites would be fully operational by 2006. Each satellite would be fitted with more powerful radio transmitters to boost the GPS signal to eight times that currently used. This would provide greater accuracy by reducing atmospheric interference. It would also make it more difficult for an adversary to jam the signal to disorientate troops on the ground or throw smart weapons off course.

But, according to one expert, the signal boost may reflect a US determination not to be outdone by Galileo, Europe's recently approved navigation system, which is supposed to have stronger signal strength.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

'Doubly infected' computer virus packs nasty surprise
May 07, 2002

An ancient computer virus has infiltrated the latest fast spreading email scourge to create a nasty 'double-infected' virus. Anti-virus software makers say some versions of the widespread computer virus Klez.h hide a mutation of a very destructive virus first seen in 1998 and known as Chernobyl or CIH. The Chernobyl virus variant automatically infects files and programs files on computers running Microsoft Windows.

Chernobyl can cause permanent damage to some computers' underlying system software, or BIOS. In some cases this can make the computer unusable. The original virus was programmed to activate on 26 April, the anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. But the new variant - W95.CIH.1049 - triggers on 2 August.

Klez.h, on the other hand, does not cause permanent damage to a computer. But it has various tricks that have enabled it to spread itself far and wide.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Video games to help you relax
May 08, 2002

Most video games tend to get the pulse racing, but researchers in Dublin are working on developing games to help calm people. The MindGames team at MediaLab Europe is looking at using gaming technology to aid people suffering from depression or trauma.

One of games is a two-player dragon racing game called Relax To Win. Two electrodes are attached to a player's fingers and as the person relaxes, their dragon moves faster. The game uses galvanic skin response technology which works measuring the ability of the skin to conduct electricity. This changes as a person relaxes or tenses up and forms the basis for lie detector tests.

The team's next project, a game called Brainchild, measures brain reaction as well as galvanic skin response. The player wears a cap packed with tiny sensors that pick up changes to brain wave patterns associated with concentration and relaxation. During the game, the player is guided through a relaxation technique to unlock a door.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Video revolution for text messages
May 09, 2002

Nearly one billion text messages are sent in Europe every month. With a unique language, it took off in the late 1990s and has become almost as popular as voice calls. Now SMS (short message service) is set to become dated as phone operators push ahead with new products. Waiting in the wings is multimedia messaging (MMS).

MMS allows users to send and receive messages with graphics, photos and audio and video clips. When it becomes widely available, it will be possible to access banking services and watch film previews.

Thirty per cent of all European operators are launching their MMS service within the first half of 2002 with another 25 per cent in the second half, according to research firm Forrester. So far, Telenor in Norway and Hungary's Westel have begun commercial multimedia messaging services over their networks. UK's Vodafone, Europe's largest operator, says it plans to introduce its MMS service later this year.

Full story: CNN Back to top

IBM, start-up launch massive 'grid' for online gaming
May 08, 2002

Start-up company, and computing giant IBM, have created a global network for online video games capable of supporting a million players or more that will be rented to major game publishers.

The 'Butterfly Grid' will also be one of the first major commercial applications for IBM's concept of 'grid computing', in which far-flung computers are linked using open-source software to create powerful computing networks, IBM said.

Software development kits for console- and PC-games that would plug into the Butterfly Grid are available, after two years of development work on the project designed to reduce the cost for game publishers.

Butterfly will provide software, while IBM will provide the actual operating hardware for the grid.

Full story: SiliconValley / Reuters Back to top

Insect swarming inspires jazz software
May 06, 2002

Jazz musicians who enjoy freeform improvisation may soon be using software to accompany themselves. A team at University College London has written a program that mimics insect swarming to 'fly around' the sequence of notes the musician is playing and improvise a related tune.

The creators of the Swarm Music program believe that improvised music is self-organising in the way swarms of insects are. The software works by treating music as a type of 3D space, in which the dimensions are pitch, loudness and note duration. As the musician plays, a swarm of digital 'particles' immediately starts to buzz around the notes being played - in the same way that bees behave when they are seeking out pollen.

Periodically, the position of each particle is translated into musical notes or chords which are played back to the musician a beat or so later. By following a few very basic insect-like rules, such as 'move towards the centre of the swarm' and 'do not bump into any other members of the swarm', the software plays music that the inventors say 'is hard to believe is not of human origin'.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Warplane ID technology could scan shopping in one go
May 06, 2002

Supermarket checkout staff could be an endangered species thanks to cheap magnetic labels that would allow shoppers to take their trolleys through a scanner which would work out the bill instantly. The tags are a spin-off from defence technology developed by British company QinetiQ for radar systems and, unlike conventional barcodes, they do not need to be scanned individually by a light beam.

The barcode consists of a series of magnetic stripes, which are converted into a number by a metal coil sensitive enough to pick up the effect of the tag on the Earth's magnetic field. This means that a shopping trolley could be pushed past a reader and the contents simultaneously scanned.

Not only would this speed shopping but it would release the estimated one fifth of store space set aside for tills. QinetiQ thinks the technology could be ready within two years, depending on how quickly common standards can be established for the use of such labels.

Full story: Daily Telegraph Back to top

Workstations 'dirtier than toilets'
May 09, 2002

A health expert in the US has claimed that many toilets are cleaner than computer workstations. A study by University of Arizona microbiologist Chuck Gerba demonstrated that the average workstation has 400 times more bacteria than the average loo.

According to Gerba, office lavs had the lowest levels of germs of all of the surfaces he tested, but some of the office workstations he looked at were bacterial nightmares.

The telephone is the worst offender with the highest bacteria counts, closely followed by the desktop itself and the computer keyboard.

Most workstations are hardly ever cleaned, and Gerba said that they can 'sustain millions of bacteria that could potentially cause illness'.

Full story: VNUnet UK Back to top