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Exploring the Future of Computing
Updated: 1 hour 53 min ago

Is it time for open processors?

Saturday 20th of January 2018 12:13:27 AM
The disclosure of the Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities has brought a new level of attention to the security bugs that can lurk at the hardware level. Massive amounts of work have gone into improving the (still poor) security of our software, but all of that is in vain if the hardware gives away the game. The CPUs that we run in our systems are highly proprietary and have been shown to contain unpleasant surprises (the Intel management engine, for example). It is thus natural to wonder whether it is time to make a move to open-source hardware, much like we have done with our software. Such a move may well be possible, and it would certainly offer some benefits, but it would be no panacea. Given the complexity of modern CPUs and the fierceness of the market in which they are sold, it might be surprising to think that they could be developed in an open manner. But there are serious initiatives working in this area; the idea of an open CPU design is not pure fantasy. A quick look around turns up several efforts; the following list is necessarily incomplete.

Google's Fuchsia OS on the Pixelbook: it works!

Thursday 18th of January 2018 11:57:29 PM
So after the recent news that the Fuchsia team picked the Chrome OS-powered Google Pixelbook as a supported device, we jumped at the chance to get it up and running. And after a little elbow grease, it actually booted. Now, we're not just running the system UI on top of Android like last time, we're running Fuchsia directly on a piece of hardware! This means it's finally time for a deep dive on what Fuchsia looks like in early 2018. Our usual in-development OS testing caveats apply: Fuchsia only started development in 2016 and probably has several years of development time ahead of it. Everything can - and probably will - change between now and release (if a release ever even happens). Google won't even officially acknowledge the OS exists - Fuchsia is a bunch of code sitting on fuchsia.googlesource.com. This is quite exciting, and I'm definitely jealous I can't justify buying a Pixelbook just for this. Not that I could - as with everything Google, it's not available here.

Wine 3.0 released

Thursday 18th of January 2018 11:51:21 PM
The Wine team has released Wine 3.0. The main new features and improvements are: Direct3D 10 and 11 support. The Direct3D command stream. The Android graphics driver. Improved DirectWrite and Direct2D support. You'll get it through your distribution of choice, or you can build or download it yourself.

Nintendo reveals Labo, a DIY experience for Switch

Thursday 18th of January 2018 01:07:21 AM
Nintendo unveiled what it calls a "new interactive experience" for Nintendo Switch today that’s unlike anything else on the console. Called Nintendo Labo, it’s a "new line of interactive build-and-play experiences that combine DIY creations with the magic of Nintendo Switch," according to Nintendo. Labo will let Nintendo Switch owners build cardboard versions of real-world items like a 13-key piano, fishing rod or motorbike. Nintendo calls those cardboard creations Toy-Cons. And, by inserting Joy-Con controllers into those Toy-Cons, players will be able to play games themed to the cardboard creations. This is a great idea, and such a novel thing to do with a games console.

Antique BeOS Content by Scot Hacker

Wednesday 17th of January 2018 12:43:52 AM
In late 2002, Byte.com decided to combat falling ad revenue by charging admission to its archives of computing content. I have first-hand experience tring to harvest enough revenue from the Internet to pay operating costs, and fully support Byte's decision to move to a subscription model. However, my BeView columns on Byte.com are now virtually hidden from search engines and thus from the Internet, and hundreds of incoming links (which now redirect to a subscription page) might as well be broken. The BeOS content I provided to Byte.com over the two years I wrote for them is tailored to a very specific niche audience. BeOS itself is, for practical intents and purposes, completely dead. Even though these articles were surprisingly well-trafficked at the time, it is hard for me to imagine that anyone would pay for access to the Byte archives just to read a few old nuggets. Scot Hacker's BeOS columns for Byte, neatly archived. What an amazing treasure trove. I don't think this archive is new by any means, but it's the first time I've seen it.

Apple changed the future of laptops 10 years ago today

Wednesday 17th of January 2018 12:37:49 AM
"It's the world’s thinnest notebook," said Steve Jobs as he introduced the MacBook Air 10 years ago today. Apple's Macworld 2008 was a special one, taking place just days after the annual Consumer Electronics Show had ended and Bill Gates bid farewell to Microsoft. Jobs introduced the MacBook Air by removing it from a tiny paper office envelope, and the crowd was audibly shocked at just how small and thin it was. We'd never seen a laptop quite like it, and it immediately changed the future of laptops. The unveiling of the original MacBook Air was a watershed moment for laptop. Sure, the first model wasn't exactly a speedy machine, and it had an incredibly hefty price tag, but it changed the entire market. Later models became incredibly successful, and for years it formed the backbone of Apple's laptop lineup. Every other manufacturer would eventually copy most of its design and construction, to the point where every laptop in the €800-1200 range sported the MacBook Air-like design. It became the benchmark every other similarly priced laptop was compared to. It's still for sale today, but it's an outdated machine mostly kept around for its low price, ironically enough. Interestingly enough, just today, I bought a new keyboard for my iOS laptop (a 2017 iPad Pro 12.9"), which gives it a look very similar to a MacBook Air - just without the legacy operating system. The spirit of the Air definitely lives on in laptops of the future.

Google memory loss

Tuesday 16th of January 2018 10:10:06 PM
Tim Bray, former Google employee, currently working at Amazon, writes: I think Google has stopped indexing the older parts of the Web. I think I can prove it. Google’s competition is doing better. It's an interesting theory for sure, but it seems hard to back this up with any tangible evidence. How would you even test this? You can pick specific web sites to test this with, but that will always be an incredibly small - infinitesimally, unbelievably small - subset of web sites, and there's no way to extrapolate any of that to the web as a whole. To make matters worse, Google tailors search results to the information they have on you, making this even harder.

New bill aims to ban US gov from using Huawei, ZTE phones

Tuesday 16th of January 2018 10:04:25 PM
US lawmakers have long worried about the security risks posed the alleged ties between Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE and the country's government. To that end, Texas Representative Mike Conaway introduced a bill last week called Defending U.S. Government Communications Act, which aims to ban US government agencies from using phones and equipment from the companies. Almost all phones and electronics - including most "American" or "European" phones - are made in China. This seems more like a battle in a wider trade war than something related to spying.

Wrong dropdown menu selection led to false missile warning

Monday 15th of January 2018 09:09:27 PM
Around 8:05 a.m., the Hawaii emergency employee initiated the internal test, according to a timeline released by the state. From a drop-down menu on a computer program, he saw two options: "Test missile alert" and "Missile alert". He was supposed to choose the former; as much of the world now knows, he chose the latter, an initiation of a real-life missile alert. "In this case, the operator selected the wrong menu option," HEMA spokesman Richard Rapoza told The Washington Post on Sunday. A dropdown menu with just two options. That's incredibly bad user interface design.

Reading disks from 1988 in 2018

Saturday 13th of January 2018 11:59:34 PM
I used an Apple IIe computer throughout high school and into my second year in college, before I bought a Mac SE. That following summer I sold the Apple IIe and everything that came with it - the monitor, floppy drives, and dot-matrix printer - and pocketed the cash. What I was left with were two boxes containing two dozen 5.25-inch floppy disks. I could've thrown the disks away - I had already transferred all the files I cared about to the Mac. But for some reason I saved them instead. And the two dozen floppy disks stayed in two battered boxes for the next 27 years.

Apple's iOS security document

Saturday 13th of January 2018 11:56:08 PM
Apple designed the iOS platform with security at its core. When we set out to create the best possible mobile platform, we drew from decades of experience to build an entirely new architecture. We thought about the security hazards of the desktop environment, and established a new approach to security in the design of iOS. We developed and incorporated innovative features that tighten mobile security and protect the entire system by default. As a result, iOS is a major leap forward in security for mobile devices. This document provides details about how security technology and features are implemented within the iOS platform. It will also help organizations combine iOS platform security technology and features with their own policies and procedures to meet their specific security needs. Some light reading over the weekend.

What really happened with Vista: an insider's retrospective

Saturday 13th of January 2018 11:53:40 PM
I enjoyed reading Terry Crowley's thoughtful blog (What Really Happened with Vista). Terry worked in the Office organization and did a fantastic job covering the complex machinations that went into Windows Vista and the related but doomed Longhorn project - from an outsider's point of view. He correctly identified many of the problems that dogged the project and I don't mean to rehash any of them here. I figured it was only fair to try to offer an insider's view of the same events. I can't hope to be as eloquent or thorough as Terry but hope to shed some light on what went wrong. Ten years have gone by since the original release date of Windows Vista but the lessons seem more relevant now than ever. I really enjoy these stories from people involved with the Vista project. Even though we complained left and right about Vista itself, the release was still hugely important and many of Windows NT's core systems were rewritten from scratch, and we still profit from those reworks and rewrites today. Doesn't retroactively make using Vista any less painful, though.

See the long-lost NES prototype of SimCity

Friday 12th of January 2018 11:52:53 PM
Gamers of a certain age probably remember that Nintendo worked with Maxis to port a version of the seminal SimCity to the brand-new SNES in 1991. What most gamers probably don't realize is that an NES version of the game was developed at the same time and cancelled just before its planned release. That version of the game was considered lost for decades until two prototype cartridges surfaced in the collecting community last year. One of those prototypes has now been obtained and preserved by the Video Game History Foundation's (VGHF's) Frank Cifaldi, who demonstrated the emulated ROM publicly for the first time at MAGFest last weekend. I'm a SimCity 2000 person myself, but the original SimCity is a classic, and I love that they finally managed to preserve it.

Apple is moving its Chinese iCloud operations to a local firm

Thursday 11th of January 2018 12:28:53 AM
Apple is moving its Chinese iCloud operations from its own datacenters to a local Chinese company run by the government. The firm is called Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBD). It's based in Guizhou Province and supervised by a board ran by government-owned businesses. In emails to mainland Chinese customers, Apple says that the move enables "us to continue improving the speed and reliability of iCloud and to comply with Chinese regulations." But there's also the chance that closer ties with the Chinese government might mean more regulation, which Apple has a record of abiding closely to in the past. Last July, Apple deleted VPN apps from the App Store that had helped netizens evade Chinese censorship, "because it includes content that is illegal in China." Those who aren't happy with the move at least have the option of closing their iCloud accounts. Read into it what you will, but the ties between Apple and the Chinese government are strengthening. One has to wonder how long until Apple has to open up iMessage's encryption.

The fight for patent-unencumbered codecs is nearly won

Wednesday 10th of January 2018 11:49:00 PM
Apple joining the Alliance for Open Media is a really big deal. Now all the most powerful tech companies - Google, Microsoft, Apple, Mozilla, Facebook, Amazon, Intel, AMD, ARM, Nvidia - plus content providers like Netflix and Hulu are on board. I guess there's still no guarantee Apple products will support AV1, but it would seem pointless for Apple to join AOM if they're not going to use it: apparently AOM membership obliges Apple to provide a royalty-free license to any "essential patents" it holds for AV1 usage. It seems that the only thing that can stop AOM and AV1 eclipsing patent-encumbered codecs like HEVC is patent-infringement lawsuits (probably from HEVC-associated entities). I can barely believe this is still a thing, and that it seems like a positive outcome.

Gemini is a tiny Android laptop with the spirit of Psion

Wednesday 10th of January 2018 12:39:57 AM
The Gemini is a clamshell Android device with an 18:9 ultrawide 1080p screen and a compact but more-or-less full physical keyboard. It runs on a 10-core MediaTek Helio X27 processor and has 4GB of RAM, a 4,220mAh battery, and two USB-C ports. It’s 15.1mm thick when closed and weighs 308g. There are both Wi-Fi-only and LTE-capable models. The software is pretty much stock Android with a useful customized dock that can be brought up anywhere, and you can also dual-boot into Linux for more customization. This is exactly what I've always wanted. A tiny Psion Series 5-like computer running a modern operating system. This machine can run Android and regular Linux, and seems quite similar in concept to the GPD Pocket 7, which sadly seems to be hard to come by here in The Netherlands (I'd want to run Haiku on the GPD Pocket 7). To be honest, I'm not entirely sure what's I'd use such a tiny laptop for, but they're tiny enough they're not really taking up space.

Performance impact of Spectre, Meltdown patches on Windows

Tuesday 9th of January 2018 06:03:36 PM
From Microsoft's blog: Last week the technology industry and many of our customers learned of new vulnerabilities in the hardware chips that power phones, PCs and servers. We (and others in the industry) had learned of this vulnerability under nondisclosure agreement several months ago and immediately began developing engineering mitigations and updating our cloud infrastructure. In this blog, I'll describe the discovered vulnerabilities as clearly as I can, discuss what customers can do to help keep themselves safe, and share what we've learned so far about performance impacts. The basic gist here is this: the older your processor and the older your Windows version, the bigger the performance impact will be. Windows 10 users will experience a smaller performance impact than Windows 7 and 8 users, and anyone running Haswell or older processors will experience a bigger impact than users of newer processors.

Everything is too complicated

Monday 8th of January 2018 10:55:11 PM
It's the very beginning of CES 2018, and the first trickles of gadget news are starting to come out. The flood begins tomorrow as the show floor opens and keynotes and press conferences begin in earnest. It's easy to see the broad themes of the show and the tech industry at large already forming: smart assistants everywhere, sensors and radios in every device you can think of, and an eternal hope that something, anything, will be the reason people will finally upgrade their TVs. All of that is exciting - I love gadgets and am one of the few crazy people that think CES is incredibly fun! - but I want to take a half-step back before it all begins and point out something obvious: most people have no idea how any of these things work, and are already hopelessly confused by the tech they have. Shoving a display and garbage software on every single possible household item is simply a really, really dumb idea. Add networking into the mix, and it becomes outright dangerous. People end up with products they have no idea how to use, that quickly become outdated, aren't getting software updates, and quickly become dangerous attack vectors for all sorts of possible criminals. The article also touches on something else - namely, that even things like smartphones are getting way, way too complicated for most people. I, too, am continuously surprised by how little people around me really know about their smartphone - be it iOS or Android - and what certain things mean or how certain functions work, or that they even have said functions at all. Tech companies are doing a terrible job of exposing users to functionality in a meaningful, understandable way.

The oldest x86 processor still supported by a modern Linux kernel?

Monday 8th of January 2018 10:48:29 PM
What is the oldest x86 processor that is still supported by a modern Linux kernel in present time? I asked the above quiz question during the Geekcamp tech conference in Nov 2017 during my emcee role. The theoretical answer as you can glean from the title of this post is the 486 which was first released in 1989. I determined that fact from this article where support for the 386 was dropped in Dec 2012. To get you interested, here is the result of my effort. Cool project.

An 8-tube module from a 1954 IBM mainframe examined

Monday 8th of January 2018 01:32:00 PM
IBM's vacuum tube computers of the 1950s were built from pluggable modules, each holding eight tubes and the associated components. I recently came across one of these modules so I studied its circuitry. This particular module implements five contact debouncing circuits, used to clean up input from a key or relay. When you press a key, the metal contacts tend to bounce a bit before closing, so you end up with multiple open/closed signals, rather than a nice, clean signal. The signal needs to be "debounced" to remove the extra transitions before being processed by a computer. This is so far before my time, it basically looks like 19th century machinery to me. The steps between this module and what we have today blow my mind.

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