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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Microsoft Quietly Launches Private Internet Explorer 8 Beta

By Scott Gilbertson EmailFebruary 25, 2008 | 10:30:04 AMCategories: browsers, software, Windows

ie7.jpgMicrosoft has sent out invitations to a select number of testers allowing them to participate in a "limited technical beta program" for the upcoming Internet Explorer 8. The announcement also says that there will be a public beta as well, once the invitation version is complete.

ActiveWin has the full text of the e-mail Microsoft sent out, but aside from the program announcement there are few details available.

So far we know that Microsoft claims that IE 8 will pass the ACID 2 compatibility test and include support for a controversial “version tag,” which will allow web developers to force the browser into “super-standards” mode — enabling the browser to correctly render webpages that adhere to the W3C’s standards.

We’ve written before about the contentious debate surrounding the so-called version tag, but the basic idea is that website developers will be able to add a meta tag to their pages telling IE how it should render the page — in traditional mode (non-standard IE 6-style rendering), standards mode (IE 7’s half-baked concept of standards) and super standards mode (where IE will render similar to the way Firefox, Opera and Safari have been doing for the last five years).

A number of developers have decried the meta-tag flagging as a way of versioning the web, which they feel is a bad idea. But regardless of how the meta-tag might play out, we find it interesting that, if the rumors are to be believed, IE 8 will automatically render in traditional mode.

If that’s the case, IE 8 better have some killer features. Otherwise Microsoft may be hard pressed to convince anyone to upgrade. Although IE 7 usage has climbed since its release, much of it may well be driven by the release of Windows Vista (which bundles IE 7). Since IE 8 won't have an OS upgrade to piggyback on, without compelling new features many users may not bother upgrading.

Microsoft reportedly plans to demo IE 8 at the MIX conference, which kicks off the first week of March. We’ll be sure to keep you updated as details about IE 8 begin to emerge.

Wireless Power

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Wireless light: Marin Soljacic (top) and colleagues used magnetic resonance coupling to power a 60-watt light bulb. Tuned to the same frequency, two 60-centimeter copper coils can transmit electricity over a distance of two meters, through the air and around an obstacle (bottom).
Credit: AMPS/MIT Libraries (top); Bryan Christie Design (bottom)
View a few methods of wireless energy propagation.
Marin Soljacic on wireless power.
Who: Marin Soljacic, MIT
Definition: Wireless power technology transmits electricity to devices without the use of cables.
Impact: Any low-power device, such as a cell phone, iPod, or laptop, could recharge automatically simply by coming within range of a wireless power source, eliminating the need for multiple cables—and perhaps, eventually, for batteries.
Context: Eliminating the power cord would make today’s ubiquitous portable electronics truly wireless. A number of researchers and startups are making headway in this growing field.

In the late 19th century, the realization that electricity could be coaxed to light up a bulb prompted a mad dash to determine the best way to distribute it. At the head of the pack was inventor Nikola Tesla, who had a grand scheme to beam elec­tricity around the world. Having difficulty imagining a vast infrastructure of wires extending into every city, building, and room, Tesla figured that wireless was the way to go. He drew up plans for a tower, about 57 meters tall, that he claimed would transmit power to points kilometers away, and even started to build one on Long Island. Though his team did some tests, funding ran out before the tower was completed. The promise of airborne power faded rapidly as the industrial world proved willing to wire up.

Then, a few years ago, Marin Soljačić, an assistant professor of physics at MIT, was dragged out of bed by the insistent beeping of a cell phone. "This one didn't want to stop until you plugged it in for charging," says Soljačić. In his exhausted state, he wished the phone would just begin charging itself as soon as it was brought into the house.

So Soljačić started searching for ways to transmit power wirelessly. Instead of pursuing a long-distance scheme like Tesla's, he decided to look for midrange power transmission methods that could charge--or even power--portabl­e devices such as cell phones, PDAs, and laptops. He considered using radio waves, which effectively send information through the air, but found that most of their energy would be lost in space. More-targeted methods like lasers require a clear line of sight--and could have harmful effects on anything in their way. So Soljačić sought a method that was both efficient--able to directly power receivers without dissipating energy to the surrounding­s--and safe.

He eventually landed on the phenome­non of resonant coupling, in which two objects tuned to the same frequency exchange energy strongly but interact only weakly with other objects. A classic example is a set of wine glasses, each filled to a different level so that it vibrates at a different sound frequency. If a singer hits a pitch that matches the frequency of one glass, the glass might absorb so much acoustic energy that it will shatter; the other glasses remain unaffected.

Soljačić found magnetic resonance a promising means of electricity transfer because magnetic fields travel freely through air yet have little effect on the environment or, at the appropriate frequencies, on living beings. Working with MIT physics professors John Joannopoulos and Peter Fisher and three students, he devised a simple setup that wirelessly powered a 60-watt light bulb.

The researchers built two resonant copper coils and hung them from the ceiling, about two meters apart. When they plugged one coil into the wall, alternating current flowed through it, creating a magnetic field. The second coil, tuned to the same frequency and hooked to a light bulb, reso­nated with the magnetic field, generating an electric current that lit up the bulb--even with a thin wall between the coils.

Probabilistic MicroChips

Krishna Palem
Credit: Brent Humphreys
Krishna Palem on the importance of error.
Who: Krishna Palem, Rice University
Definition: PCMOS is a microchip design technology that allows engineers to trade a small degree of accuracy in computation for substantial energy savings.
Impact: In the short term, PCMOS designs could significantly increase battery life in mobile devices; in a decade, the theories behind PCMOS may need to be invoked if Moore’s Law is to continue to hold.
Context: Palem and his collaborators have begun building test chips for specific applications; Palem is working on plans for startup companies to commercialize the technology.

Krishna Palem is a heretic. In the world of microchips, precision and perfection have always been imperative. Every step of the fabrication process involves testing and retesting and is aimed at ensuring that every chip calculates the exact answer every time. But Palem, a professor of computing at Rice ­University, believes that a little error can be a good thing.

Palem has developed a way for chips to use significantly less power in exchange for a small loss of precision. His concept carrie­s the daunting moniker "probabilistic complementary metal-oxide semi­conductor technology"--PCMOS for short. Palem's premise is that for many applications--in particular those like audio or video processing, where the final result isn't a number--maximum precision is ­unnecessary. Instead, chips could be designed to produce the correct answer sometimes, but only come close the rest of the time. Because the errors would be small, so would their effects: in essence, Palem believes that in computing, close enough is often good enough.

Every calculation done by a microchip depends on its transistors' registering either a 1 or a 0 as electrons flow through them in response to an applied voltage. But electron­s move constantly, producing electrical "noise." In order to overcome noise and ensure that their transistors register the correct values, most chips run at a relatively high voltage. Palem's idea is to lower the operating voltage of parts of a chip--specifically, the logic circuits that calculate the least significant bits, such as the 3 in the number 21,693. The resulting decrease in signal-to-noise ratio means those circuits would occasionally arrive at the wrong answer, but engineers can calculate the probability of getting the right answer for any specific voltage. "Relaxing the probability of correctness even a little bit can produce significant savings in energy," Palem says.

Within a few years, chips using such designs could boost battery life in mobile devices such as music players and cell phones. But in a decade or so, Palem's ideas could have a much larger impact. By then, silicon transistors will be so small that engineers won't be able to precisely control their behavior: the transistors will be inherently probabilistic. Palem's techniques could then become important to the continuation of Moore's Law, the exponential increase in transistor density--and thus in computing power--that has persisted for four decades.

When Palem began working on the idea around 2002, skepticism about the prin­ciples behind PCMOS was "pretty universal," he says. That changed in 2006. He and his students simulated a PCMOS circuit that would be part of a chip for processing video, such as streaming video in a cell phone, and compared it with the performance of existing chips. They presented the work at a technical conference, and in a show of hands, much of the audience couldn't discern any difference in picture quality.

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