Sunday, December 26, 2010

Online Content Is Exciting

By Ramin Vaziri Dec. 25, 2010, 12:01am PDT 2 Comments

What is it like to cut the cord from pay TV? What’s working, what’s missing, and what kind of equipment does the best job replacing the cable box? In our new weekend series, we’re asking cord cutters to tell us about their experiences. This week’s featured cord cutter is Ramin Vaziri, who uses not one, but two laptops to bring video to his TV.

Two years ago, I began supplementing my cable service with online video by hooking my laptop up to my 32″ LG flat screen with a VGA cord and stereo speakers. I began watching more and more online content, and four months ago I cut the cord entirely. I cut the cord partly to save money but mostly because my favorite content exists only on the Internet.

I now have two different hookups:

Laptop number one.
Wired Connected Laptop. After using my HP laptop for five years, I decided to buy a new laptop. This left me with a spare laptop. So I keep my extra laptop (HP Pavilion) connected to my LG 32″ LCD TV.

I’m using a VGA cord for the video and laptop speakers with subwoofer for audio. I keep an Ethernet connection plugged in to this laptop so the Internet speed is better than I can get wirelessly. I use a wireless Logitech mouse to control the laptop from across the room.

Wireless Connected Laptop. The new laptop I purchased was a Toshiba Satellite E205 with the Netgear Push2TV Wireless Display adapter. The Netgear adapter is connected to the TV via HDMI.

Laptop number 2.
The HDMI is great because it transmits my audio and video, so the audio plays right through my TV speakers. This hookup lets me stream whatever is on my laptop screen wirelessly to my TV so I can browse on my laptop, select a video and stream it to watch on my TV. I love having access to a browser and 100% of all online content.

There is definitely no shortage of content. I can find my favorite cable broadcast shows streaming online; I bought the NBA League Pass; and I have a Netflix subscription for movies. But what gets me most excited about online video are the new Internet-only content creators. The Young Turks, VBS.TV, MaxBoxing – The Next Round, ThisWeekIn, Wine Library TV, and The Real News Network are some of my favorites.

I also rely on curators like Music Video Jam, Gawker TV, Guyism and Huffington Post to suggest videos. ChannelStack helps me navigate between these favorite bookmarked sites. I think as people discover the great online content creators and curators, they will find that their traditional broadcast/cable programming is replaceable and be tempted them to cut the cord.

Ramin Vaziri is the founder of ChannelStack, a site that aims to be something like the Netvibes of online video. You can find his personal ChannelStack page here.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

They Won. And Then What?

An update on past winners of the Journal's Innovation Awards

Innovation is an accomplishment in itself, but it's just the beginning of a bigger story. So what happens next? Here's a look at how things have gone so far for some recent Innovation Award winners.



AWARD: Overall Silver, 2009; Medical Devices category winner

INNOVATION: The company won for the i-Limb, a prosthetic hand that is more lifelike than others in appearance and performance.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW? Touch Bionics began offering its second iteration of the prosthetic, called the i-Limb Pulse, in May. It gives the user an adjustable grip that can be up to 25% stronger than the original i-Limb. The Pulse allows objects to be held longer and offers better control over fine motor skills.

In December, the company unveiled motorized prosthetic fingers called ProDigits. Mark Ford, vice president for North American operations, says the market for ProDigits has the potential to far outstrip that for i-Limbs.

Touch Bionics has sold nearly 1,200 of the original i-Limbs and more than 100 of the i-Limb Pulse. About 100 ProDigits systems have been sold, each system consisting of one or more fingers.

LOCATION: Washington, D.C.

AWARD: Health-Care IT category winner, 2009

DataDyne's EpiSurveyor in the field

INNOVATION: This nonprofit won for developing EpiSurveyor, mobile-device software that can be used by organizations to gather and send health data on commonly used phones in remote areas of developing countries.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW? EpiSurveyor has more than 2,400 users collecting data in more than 120 countries. Users include the government of Canada, Unicef and Boston-based health-care consulting firm John Snow Inc. Some are exploring new uses for the software, including the collection of economic data and information on the health of farm animals. co-founder and Chief Executive Joel Selanikio says he expects the program, funded in part by the United Nations Foundation and the Vodafone Foundation, to be self-sufficient through paid subscriptions in two years. The group offers a premium subscription that allows unlimited data collection for $5,000 a year. Basic users, who pay nothing, are limited to 20 distinct forms, or lists of questions to be answered in the field, and 500 completed questionnaires for each form. also has developed another program called the Mobile Information Platform. It allows information to be sent from a central location, for example a government agency, to locals through text messages on basic phones.

One pilot MIP project sends weather information to farmers in Chile. Another helps provide continuing education for community health-care workers in Peru via text messages.

LOCATION: Watertown, Mass.

AWARD: Materials and Other Base Technologies category winner, 2009

An LED bulb using QD Vision technology

INNOVATION: QD Vision won for turning harsh light from light-emitting diodes into a warmer-colored beam through the use of quantum dots, which are semiconducting nanocrystals. A warmer light, more like the glow of an incandescent bulb, is seen as essential to the widespread adoption of energy-efficient LED lighting.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW? Nexxus Lighting Inc. has been selling screw-in LED light bulbs with QD Vision's quantum dots since March. The bulbs are designed for use in hotels and retail spaces.

According to Seth Coe-Sullivan, QD Vision's co-founder and chief technology officer, the bulbs being sold by Nexxus last for 50,000 hours—the equivalent of about 17 years at eight hours a day—and burn about one-fifth of the energy consumed by comparable halogen bulbs, most of which last no more than about a year at the same rate of use. The LED lights are more costly upfront—one LED bulb costs just under $100, while a halogen equivalent is about $5. But Mr. Coe-Sullivan says an LED light pays for itself in 12 to 18 months from the energy savings.

QD Vision is working with a lighting company it declines to identify to make another commercial bulb and is collaborating with display makers in Asia on LED screens for devices from handsets to television sets.

LOCATION: Palo Alto, Calif.

AWARD: Software category winner, 2009

INNOVATION: VMware won for its virtualization software suite called vSphere, designed to make it easier for a company to turn its existing data centers into a private cloud—an array of IT services delivered throughout a company over its own computer network—that's secure, reliable and easy to manage.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW? VSphere, VMware's flagship virtualization and cloud infrastructure platform, is used in more than 170,000 deployments at companies around the world. The latest version of the software, called vSphere 4.1, is designed to expand the capacity of the platform and lower its operational cost. VMware revenue for the first half of 2010 was $1.3 billion, an increase of about 41% from $926 million for the first half of last year.

LOCATION: Sunnyvale, Calif.

AWARD: Environment category winner, 2009

INNOVATION: This building-materials maker was recognized for a drywall substitute called EcoRock made of recycled material. The product requires 80% less energy to make than standard gypsum-based drywall and is termite and mold resistant, according to the company.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW? EcoRock remains in the testing stage with projects in California, due to the slowdown in new construction, says the company's chairman and chief executive, Kevin Surace. Meanwhile, Serious Materials has refocused its resources on energy-efficient windows, an area of growth. The company has nearly doubled its number of employees to about 400.

Serious Materials is supplying more than 6,000 windows for the Empire State Building, a project that is planned for completion in the fall.

LOCATION: Santa Clara, Calif.

AWARD: Energy category winner, 2008

INNOVATION: This manufacturing-equipment maker won for its SunFab production line, which was designed to manufacture large solar panels using thin-film photovoltaic material more quickly and cheaply than traditional production methods. It promised to drive down the cost of solar power, which would make it more competitive with traditional electricity sources.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW? The SunFab line was discontinued in July, due to the weakness of the economy and a reduction of government incentives for solar energy, according to Applied Materials spokesman Matt Ceniceros.

Meanwhile, Applied Materials' sales of equipment used in the crystalline silicon solar-energy business are strong, driven by demand from China. And the company intends to focus as well on opportunities in LED lighting.

LOCATION: Santa Barbara, Calif.

AWARD: Consumer Electronics category winner, 2006

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Sonos music-networking gear

INNOVATION: This company won for a user-friendly digital-music networking system that allows music to be streamed wirelessly to speakers in different rooms of a home.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW? The company is five times bigger than it was in 2006 in terms of revenue, according to co-founder Tom Cullen. And it continues to expand its product line. Among other things, it has developed software that allows a Sonos network to be controlled from an iPhone or iPad. The company also has expanded its expertise by hiring staff with acoustics knowledge.

In 2006, Sonos was just beginning to tap the European market; now about half of its business is outside the U.S., mainly in Europe, with Asia being the next target.

And Tomorrow's Winners Will Be...


It's one thing to know what innovations are winning awards today, but what if you could know what will win in, say, five or 10 years?

We don't have a crystal ball, but we have the next best thing: the informed opinions of people who are either innovators themselves or who study innovation in various fields.

Here are some of their thoughts on which areas—and possible companies—will see the most innovation in the years ahead:

Space Travel and Habitation
"Commercialized space travel will see a lot of innovation," says Jeffrey Baumgartner, founder of the JPB innovation consultancy.

"Much of it will be incremental in nature, but the result—low-cost, easy travel to space and potential bases on the moon and, in the longer term, Mars—will involve substantial innovation."

Some firms to watch, says Mr. Baumgartner, are Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic LLC and Bigelow Aerospace LLC.

Human habitation in space so far has taken place in rigid vehicles like the International Space Station. Bigelow, based in North Las Vegas, Nev., is developing inflatable modules that should be easier and cheaper to launch. Bigelow already is orbiting two unmanned, expandable prototypes and says it is planning assembly of four new spacecraft by 2015.

"The key here," says Mr. Baumgartner, "is that aeronautics is leaving government control and being taken over by industry, where cost-cutting and profitability, rather than contractors milking the state for as much as they can get, will lead to a lot of innovation, affordability and efficiency."

Heavy-Lift Launching
A critical obstacle to any sort of space-based future is getting some rather sizable objects beyond the reach of the Earth's gravity.

But Langdon Morris, a partner with the InnovationLabs LLC consulting firm, notes that while state-invested companies in the U.S., Russia and Europe have developed "heavy lift" launch capabilities, one private firm is moving to surpass them all in terms of payload capacity—an innovation that could slash launch prices and make larger payloads commercially viable.

SpaceX, of Hawthorne, Calif., says it hopes for a 2013 launch of its Falcon 9 Heavy rocket, which is designed to carry payloads of up to 70,000 pounds into low Earth orbit, about one-third more than the Space Shuttle, which is the largest-capacity launch vehicle now in operation.

"Cost-effective heavy-lift launch will enable new space commerce industries," says Mr. Morris.

Space-Based Solar Power
"Once heavy-lift launch is solved, space solar power will be close behind," says Mr. Morris. "Space solar power could transform the Earth's economy."

The idea is for satellites in geostationary orbit to collect the sun's energy and convert it into radio waves for transmission to surface stations, where it will be converted into electricity for local power grids.

Mr. Morris thinks there are several companies that could achieve this.

One is Manhattan Beach, Calif.-based Solaren Corp., which last year reached an agreement to sell 200 megawatts of electricity a year to California's largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., for 15 years, starting in 2016. Solaren says it plans to test key systems and deployments in space in 2014, and launch its Space Solar Power Plant into geostationary orbit in 2016.
A competitor, Switzerland-based Space Energy Group, says it hopes to launch a test satellite within three years, assuming it gets expected funding.

Nano-Scale Medical Devices
With advances in nano-scale engineering, medicine is about to redefine "minimally invasive," says Francis Collins, former leader of the Human Genome Project and current director of the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Collins notes that Johns Hopkins University researcher David Gracias and his colleagues are developing a new class of nano-scale tools for surgery and drug delivery.

"The drug-delivery devices are small enough to fit through a hypodermic needle, thereby facilitating minimally invasive implantation and guidance in hard-to-reach microspaces," says Dr. Collins.

New Treatment for Blindness
Dr. Collins also sees possible breakthroughs in the work of Ehud Isacoff, John Flannery and their colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, who are working on a novel therapy for blindness.

Their technique involves introducing light-sensing molecules, or "photoswitches," into retinas that have lost photoreceptor cells. The photoswitches can be used to control the activity of proteins in the eye that are essential to transmitting information from the outside world to the brain in normal vision.

One such protein, the glutamate receptor, has been put under the control of a photoswitch and introduced into the retinas of mice. The photoswitch turns the glutamate receptor on or off by changing its shape depending on the wavelength of light used—a technique that's been shown to induce light sensitivity in blind mice. Mr. Isacoff says technologies of this type could one day treat blinding diseases in humans such as retinitis pigmentosa.

"The downstream retinal neurons that receive and process information from photoreceptor cells are preserved for years after the onset of blindness," says Dr. Collins, "giving hope that visual sensitivity might be restored by allowing the artificial input of information to these surviving cells."

Several retinal prosthetic devices have been under development, but their optical resolution has been poor and they present challenges in achieving long-term compatibility with host tissue, Mr. Isacoff says.

Breakthrough Fuel Technologies
Two firms could provide significant breakthroughs during the next few years in the search for cleaner fuel technologies, says Andrew Shapiro, founder and president of GreenOrder, a unit of consulting firm LRN that promotes corporate environmental sustainability.

In the race toward off-the-grid, personalized power stations, Sun Catalytix Corp., of Cambridge, Mass., is challenging the dominant notion of batteries as a means of electrical energy storage.

The company is developing a system that would use power from solar panels to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, then store both in tanks for use in generating power when the sun goes down.

Meanwhile, Amyris Inc., of Emeryville, Calif., is developing genetic-engineering technologies that change the way microbes process sugar, turning them into "biorefineries" that could provide alternatives to products derived from petroleum.

The company has filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission to raise about $120 million through an initial public offering of shares, and it recently received a corporate innovation award from the Aspen Institute.

Adaptive Learning
Education, like most other services, could become more tailored to individual needs. That's difficult in the low-tech, labor-intensive context of the traditional classroom, but "adaptive learning" could change everything, says Michael Horn, co-founder and executive director of the Innosight Institute, a nonprofit think tank.

The technology—an amalgam of computer science, education and cognitive science—uses both desktop and Web-based programs that in some ways mimic the interactivity of human teachers.

"Start-up companies like Knewton and Grockit as well as stalwarts like Kaplan are starting to push in this area," says Mr. Horn, "and there promise to be breakthroughs in the next five years."

One breakthrough could be a platform that tracks and analyzes the progress of individual students, allowing teachers to customize lessons to the individual. There's no clear leader here, says Mr. Horn, but outfits like Agilix Labs Inc., Nixty, L Point Solutions Inc. and IQity & Co. are making early waves.

Most Innovative Technologies 2010

The Winners, Category by Category
From Computing Systems to Wireless, the Most Innovative Technologies

This year the Innovation Awards judges chose winners in 17 categories. Here's a look at the winning entries.

Lightfleet Corp., based in Camas, Wash., won in this category for a novel way of connecting computer processors, using beamed light instead of copper or fiber-optic wires.

In big data centers, even the fastest servers get slowed by bottlenecks in the connections between microprocessors, or nodes. Lightfleet's technology aims to eliminate the bottlenecks by replacing the wired switches typically used to manage these connections with a device that sends a data-carrying beam of light to all the nodes at once. The faster transmission of data promises to make it possible, for example, to run Wall Street's high-speed trading operations more efficiently.

The company, founded in 2003, delivered a prototype of its first product earlier this year to Microsoft Research, the R&D arm of the computer giant, which will test how it handles different applications. A Lightfleet spokesman says the company expects the first commercial sales by the middle of next year.


Marvell Semiconductor Inc., U.S.: A small, low-power networked home server, called the Plug Computer, that can deliver data and applications to a variety of devices.

Consumer Electronics
Industrial Technology Research Institute , winner of the overall Gold award, won in this category. (See " Paper-Thin Screens With a Twist ")


NanoLumens Inc., U.S.: Lightweight digital displays that are flexible, thin and energy efficient. The first product, a 112-inch display, weighs less than 90 pounds, is less than an inch thick and consumes less energy than five light bulbs.

Ford Motor Co., U.S.: MyFord Touch, an instrument panel for cars that replaces traditional buttons, knobs and gauges with voice commands, customizable LCD screens and five-way controls on the steering wheel similar to those on cellphones and MP3 players.

Nokia Corp., Finland: An "augmented reality" browser for mobile devices, called Point & Find, that lets users get information about real-life objects by pointing a camera phone at the object.

New Orleans-based Receivables Exchange LLC won in the e-commerce category—the first winner in this group since 2004—for its online marketplace where small and midsize businesses can auction their receivables.

Smaller companies don't have the same access to financial markets that their larger counterparts do, so it's especially difficult for them to raise short-term working capital. Taking out a loan backed by receivables—known as factoring—is common in some industries. But for most small and midsize businesses, a factoring deal can be costly and often takes a long time to arrange.

Receivables Exchange aims to make it much easier for a company to tap the cash locked in its receivables. A company posts its unpaid invoices on the exchange, which screens the seller to make sure it has a certain minimum revenue and has been in business for at least two years. The screening can be completed within 24 hours and the invoices can be posted the next day. Bidders offer to buy some or all of the posted receivables, and the exchange takes commissions from the buyer and seller.

The company was launched in 2007 by Justin Brownhill, a former investment banker who is now Receivables Exchange's chief executive, and Nicolas Perkin, its president. The exchange hosts between $1 million and $5 million in trades each day, a spokeswoman says; it doesn't reveal its revenue.

InEnTec LLC, based in Bend, Ore., won in the energy category for a process that uses high-temperature plasma gasification to produce synthetic fuel from municipal and industrial waste.

The technology offers a cleaner alternative to using incinerators to burn garbage.

The company's Plasma Enhanced Melter heats the waste in a super-hot plasma. This produces a synthetic gas that can be converted to ethanol, methanol, clean diesel and other transportation fuels. Ash from the process is captured in molten glass, producing an obsidian-like material that can be buried in landfills or used in construction materials. Metals are captured separately and can be recycled.

Plasma gasification isn't a new technology; companies have used it for more than a decade to break down industrial and medical waste. Other companies are planning plasma-gasification plants to convert municipal waste, and a pilot plant from U.K.-based Advanced Plasma Power has been in operation since 2007. But InEnTec says its technology is more energy efficient than other plasma-gasification systems.

InEnTec was formed in 1995 by researchers who had studied and improved the technology in a collaborative effort between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Last year, the company created a joint venture with Houston-based Waste Management Inc. to build and operate plasma-gasification facilities using InEnTec's technology. The first, planned for Arlington, Ore., is scheduled to open by the end of the year, with the capacity to handle 25 tons of waste a day.


Enphase Energy, U.S.: The Enphase Microinverter System, which converts the direct-current output of solar panels to the alternating current used in homes and businesses. The system includes a meter that collects information about panels' performance and sends it to a website where customers can view the data.

Idaho National Laboratory, U.S.: An efficient, environmentally friendly process for making high-quality biodiesel from waste fats, oils and greases.

Solexant Corp., U.S.: Ultrathin-film inorganic solar photovoltaic cells.

Desalination promises to deliver virtually unlimited quantities of water to a water-constrained world. But for it to succeed, researchers are going to have to reduce the huge amounts of energy needed to make salt water drinkable.

NanoH2O Inc., based in El Segundo, Calif., was voted best in the environment category for a nanotechnology-based reverse-osmosis membrane that promises to reduce the cost of running a typical desalination plant by as much as 25%.

Reverse osmosis, which separates salt and other impurities from salt water by forcing it through a membrane at high pressure, is increasingly favored as a desalination technology. But the pumps that push water through the membranes consume large amounts of energy, and traditional membranes easily are clogged by impurities, reducing their efficiency.

NanoH2O, using technology based on research at the University of California, Los Angeles, weaves nanoparticles into its membranes. The nanoparticles are more permeable to water molecules than the material in traditional membranes, and they resist fouling by bacteria, salt and other contaminants. As a result, the company says, its membranes enable desalination plants to maintain the same levels of production while reducing energy consumption, or to produce 70% more fresh water at current energy levels.

The company says it has begun producing membranes and complete reverse-osmosis modules, which incorporate the membranes and can replace the filters already used in existing desalination plants. It delivered the first products in August.


Active Water Sciences LLC, U.S.: A portable, self-contained wastewater-treatment system, the Water Phoenix, that can convert municipal wastewater into effluent that meets U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards in less than 24 hours, producing little to no sludge.

Ceracasa SA and FMC Foret SA, Spain: A porcelain tile, BionicTile, with a photocatalytic glaze that reduces levels of nitrogen oxides and nitric acid in city air.

ClimateWell AB, Sweden: SolarChiller, a solar-powered air-conditioning unit that delivers heating, cooling and hot water to buildings without using electricity.

Health-Care IT
Software called Connect, developed by more than 20 federal agencies led by a program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, won in this category for technology that enables health-care providers to exchange health information electronically.

The health-care industry is moving, albeit slowly, to replace patients' paper records with electronic files that can be easily shared among physicians, hospitals, health-care agencies and others. Two roadblocks stand in the way, though: The cost of electronic records systems and the need to ensure security and patient privacy.

Connect addresses both problems. The software was devised to meet all requirements for maintaining the security and privacy of medical records, including rules for federal agencies that are stricter than those for private health-care companies. And the Federal Health Architecture program, which coordinates health IT activities for several federal agencies, distributes the open-source Connect software free to both government and private health organizations.

In one of the first deployments, the Social Security Administration worked with the state of Virginia's regional health-information network to streamline the process of determining eligibility for disability benefits. Instant access to patients' records cut the time it takes to process disability applications to 46 days from 84.

Though there is other software for exchanging medical records, the Innovation Awards judges praised Connect for its ability to put the technology in the hands of lots of medical providers. The developers "were one of the few people who could move the needle on adoption of these things," says Barry H. Jaruzelski, one of the judges and a partner at Booz & Co.


Life Image Inc., U.S.: A cloud-based platform for sharing and storing diagnostic images, such as X-rays.

Ingenix, U.S.: Disease Precursor Identification software, which can identify people at risk of developing costly, difficult-to-manage diseases, such as diabetes.

Materials and Other
Base Technologies
Cement production pumps a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. U.K.-based Novacem Ltd. was recognized in this category for a new cement-making process that takes in more CO2 than it emits.`

The secret is using magnesium oxides instead of calcium carbonates, the main ingredient in Portland cement, the most common type. Magnesium-oxide cements have been around for a long time, but their quality wasn't as good as that of Portland cement, and their manufacture still emitted a lot of CO2.

Novacem, spun out of Imperial College London in 2007, says its cement is as durable as traditional materials and the production process can absorb 100 kilograms of CO2 for each metric ton of cement produced—compared with the roughly 800 kilograms of CO2 emitted in the production of each metric ton of traditional cement.

Novacem plans to begin construction next year of a plant to produce up to 25,000 metric tons of cement a year using the new technology, and to open the first commercial-scale plant by 2015.


Cambrios Technologies Corp., U.S.: A coating material made of highly conductive silver nanowires that can be used to create a transparent, less costly, bendable thin film for touch screens and other electronic components.

Bolt-A-Blok, U.S.: A building system that uses steel-reinforced concrete blocks that can be easily assembled into houses and other structures by unskilled labor.

MicroGreen Polymers Inc., U.S.: A method for reducing the cost of recycled plastics by adding a gas that expands the length and width of solid polymer sheets.

Medical Devices
Zoom Focus Eyewear LLC, winner of the overall Silver award, won in this category. (See " A Different Kind of Eyeglasses ")


MIT Mobility Lab, U.S.: The Leveraged Freedom Chair, a wheelchair designed for use in developing countries that can travel on virtually any terrain.

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Abbott Laboratories
Abbott Labs' MitraClip for heart-valve repairs

Abbott Laboratories, U.S.: The MitraClip System, a catheter-based device designed to repair damaged heart valves without open-heart surgery.

Aribex Inc., U.S.: The Nomad, a hand-held dental X-ray device. It's rechargeable, can be taken anywhere and allows the operator to stay with the patient during the procedure.

Counsyl Inc., winner of the overall Bronze award, won in this category. (See " A Genetic Test for Prospective Parents ")


CardioDx Inc., U.S.: Corus CAD, a genomic test designed to help clinicians determine, from a simple blood sample, whether a patient with chest pain has a significant blockage in the coronary arteries.

Pacific Biosciences, U.S.: A DNA sequencer, which reads individual molecules of DNA as they replicate in order to determine an organism's precise genetic code in real time—producing results 20,000 times faster with less overall cost than other systems.

DuPont Qualicon, U.S.: Tests using DuPont's BAX System to detect pathogens in fish and shellfish and E. coli O157:H7 in beef and fresh produce.

Network/Internet Technologies/Broadband
Vidyo Inc., based in Hackensack, N.J., won in this category with its technology for delivering high-quality videoconferencing over the Internet or cellular networks at a fraction of the cost of dedicated "telepresence" systems.

Internet videoconferencing has been around for a few years, but the calls typically are characterized by jerky, low-resolution video. More-realistic, high-resolution videoconferencing systems generally require dedicated communications lines and expensive equipment, limiting their use.

Vidyo uses a new video-compression standard to produce a high-definition videoconferencing product that can work on desktop or laptop computers, tablets and smart phones and travel over the Internet or 3G and 4G cellular networks.

The company introduced its systems, which can include routers and other hardware in addition to software, in 2007. This summer, it licensed software to Hewlett-Packard Co., which will use the technology to extend its Halo telepresence service to desktop computers and to conference rooms not already set up with dedicated systems.


Microsoft Corp., U.S.: An experimental Internet application, called Pivot, designed to help users to explore, organize and visualize collections of data quickly by showing relationships between the information.

Network Security
The Internet is thick with malware—viruses, worms, spyware, Trojan horses. The judges awarded Symantec Corp., based in Mountain View, Calif., the top prize in the network-security category for a new way to head off these threats: "reputation-based" technology that examines the usage patterns of millions of computers to spot dangers that traditional security products typically miss.

In general, security software identifies malicious software by looking for distinguishing patterns of code or watching for bad behavior—a computer's inexplicably connecting to an unknown server, for example. The problem is that there are so many new malware variants constantly appearing, some of them targeting only a small number of computers, that those techniques can't always spot them before they do mischief.

Symantec's new technology examines the software running on the computers of millions of volunteers, who remain anonymous, to spot possible threats. Based on what these patterns show about a program's source, age, prevalence and other characteristics, the technology assigns a "reputation rating" to every piece of software that it comes across. The technology had been known initially as Quorum but will soon be renamed.

Symantec says that the technology, first incorporated in the company's Norton 2010 security suite that was released in late 2009, is detecting about 10 million new threats a month that are invisible to traditional security methods.


Panda Security, Spain.: Panda Cloud Antivirus, a free, cloud-based antivirus solution.

Symplified Inc., U.S.: Symplified SinglePoint, a cloud-based service that enables organizations to apply and enforce security policies and controls on cloud applications.

Physical Security
Surveillance cameras generate a prodigious amount of video; unfortunately there's not enough time and manpower to watch it all.

The winner in this category, Israel-based BriefCam Ltd., has developed a fresh solution to the problem: Video Synopsis, which enables a viewer to browse a day's worth of recording in just a few minutes by creating a summary of all the activities captured by a camera.

Other video-surveillance technologies address the too-much-information problem by fast forwarding through recordings or capturing images only when something happens—using motion detectors, for instance.

BriefCam takes a different approach. Its patented technology pulls out activities recorded over the course of a day—vehicles driving through a security gate, people walking in and out of a building—and compiles the images into a highlight reel in which each vehicle, for instance, follows immediately the one that preceded it through the gate, regardless of how much time actually elapsed between their arrivals. Each vehicle's image carries a time stamp to show when it was recorded, and the user can click on the time stamp to call up that section of the video.

"Five hours of video is not five hours any more," says Shmuel Peleg, developer of the technology and the company's chief scientist. "It's five minutes."

Video Synopsis, licensed from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where Mr. Peleg is a faculty member, was launched in 2009.

Liquid Robotics Inc., based in Sunnyvale, Calif., is the winner in this category for developing an unmanned seagoing craft propelled by the power of ocean waves.

Most unmanned ocean craft can remain at sea for only a short time, relying on batteries to power propellers or pumps. The heavier their payload, the less time they have.

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Liquid Robotics, Inc.
Liquid Robotics' Wave Glider

Thanks to its propulsion system, Liquid Robotics' Wave Glider avoids those limits.

The craft, which consists of a surface buoy and a submerged glider with wing-shaped panels, converts the up-and-down motion of waves into forward thrust, making it possible to propel the buoy indefinitely without relying on batteries or other power sources.

The craft can be controlled remotely via satellite over an Internet connection. Instruments are powered by a solar panel on the surface of the floating buoy. Innovation Awards judge William Webb says the technology is "simple, novel and very workable."

The vehicle originally was designed by co-inventor Roger Hine, a Silicon Valley engineer and now the company's chief executive, to monitor the activities of humpback whales. It can also be used for tsunami warnings, observing weather and ocean conditions, and national-defense applications. The first craft was sold in 2009.

This summer, BP PLC deployed two Wave Gliders to the Gulf of Mexico to monitor water quality near the site of the well that exploded in April and spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf.

InVisage Technologies Inc., based in Menlo Park, Calif., took the prize in the semiconductors category with QuantumFilm, an image sensor for digital cameras that uses semiconducting nanocrystals to capture far more light than traditional sensors.

Inexpensive digital cameras rely on sensors made from silicon that are limited in the amount of light they can capture. This is especially an issue in the smaller sensors used in cellphone cameras.

InVisage replaced silicon in the sensor with quantum dots, semiconducting crystals that are nanometers in size. The product, InVisage says, captures more than 90% of the available light, compared with 25% for a silicon-based sensor.

The technology taps research from the University of Toronto by Ted Sargent, a nanotechnology researcher and InVisage's founder and chief technology officer. The first QuantumFilm prototypes were unveiled in March, and the company says it will deliver sample chips to smart-phone makers by the end of the year; these chips will be used to build prototype devices. The chips could be available in consumer products as early as the end of next year.


Industrial Technology Research Institute, Taiwan: Slim, flexible sensors. ITRI envisions use of the sensors in such things as electronic musical instruments and weight scales embedded in luggage.

STMicroelectronics, Switzerland: The iNemo family of smart multisensor devices, which can be used in new ways to measure movement, pressure, temperature and altitude.

Nanosys Inc., U.S.: QuantumRail, a component that delivers more vibrant color and brightness in notebooks and mobile devices as well as increased energy efficiency.

San Francisco-based Unity Technologies won in this category for a set of game-development tools that make it cheap and easy to create three-dimensional interactive content, including games, training simulations and medical visualizations, for a range of devices from cellphones to game systems.

The software for creating 3D online universes typically requires teams of engineers who spend years creating and refining these tools. As a result, they're often too complex and expensive for small-scale or amateur game developers.

Unity's software simplifies the process of building 3D games and other programs. It includes an easy-to-use editor that can take prefabricated components—rain or falling crates, for example—and combine them with other features to create full game environments.

The software also makes it possible to deploy games on a range of computer systems: Macs or PCs, game consoles from Sony Corp., Nintendo Co. or Microsoft Corp., and Apple Inc.'s iPhone and iPad.

The tools are simple enough for hobbyists or start-up developers; two developers used it to make the popular Zombieville USA app for the iPhone. They also are powerful enough for the largest game developers. Electronic Arts Inc., for example, used Unity to create its Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online game. "What you can create in a short time frame with a low learning curve is pretty revolutionary," says Robert Drost, a computer architect and one of the Innovation Awards judges.

The first version of the software was introduced in 2005, and it currently is being used by more than 200,000 developers. In October 2009, the company began offering at no cost its entry-level version, normally priced at $200 and intended mainly for hobbyists and small, independent game developers.

Technology Design
The efficient and compact storage of cookware may not be one of the world's great problems, but for anyone who has tried to put away a stack of awkwardly shaped pans with their lids and protruding handles, it's definitely an unmet need.

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Gavin Thomson Design Ltd.
Gavin Thomson Design's nesting pans

Gavin Thomson Design Ltd., based in the U.K., won this category with an elegant solution to this daily annoyance. Mr. Thomson designed a set of three saucepans that nest one inside the other. The largest pan snugly holds the next smaller pan, which holds the smallest one; each permanently attached handle rests inside the hollowed-out grip of the next larger pan, and the lids all fit on top.

The patented design was licensed to Stellar brands, a unit of Portugal-based Silampos SA, and the first products, called Eazistore, were introduced in March in the U.K. Mr. Thomson's firm is negotiating with housewares brands in North America and Asia to distribute the pans in those regions.


Smart Lid Systems, Australia: A disposable coffee-cup lid that changes color from brown to red when hot.

Panasonic Avionics Corp., U.S.: An in-flight entertainment system that integrates a touch-screen monitor with a thin, lightweight economy-class seat.

Ubiquisys Ltd., based in the U.K., won in the wireless category for a low-priced femtocell—a small cellular base station for use indoors.

Femtocells are designed to address two big, related problems: the poor cellphone coverage typically found inside a house, apartment or office building, and the growing congestion on cellular networks, aggravated by the explosion of data use on the latest smart phones. While femtocells have been around for a few years, their adoption has been limited by their high cost.

The company's G3-mini, introduced in December, is the first femtocell to be sold at a wholesale price under $100—a price that makes it possible for carriers to provide them to customers free of charge.

Ubiquisys keeps the cost down by providing software that's already proven to work on the leading carrier networks and delivering hardware blueprints to consumer-electronics makers, which can take advantage of their high-volume manufacturing lines to turn out lower-priced gear.

Tokyo-based Softbank Mobile Corp. began offering free G3-mini devices to consumers, retailers and small-office customers in the spring, and the first units were shipped in August.


Motorola Inc., U.S.: The iSIM, a thin, flexible wafer that attaches to the SIM card in a mobile device. The iSIM enables a host of new mobile applications built by third-party developers.

Shared Spectrum Co., U.S.: Technology that permits two or more networks or applications to share the same radio-frequency band by using channels when they are idle.

Pyxis Mobile Inc., U.S.: Application Studio, which allows companies to create applications for BlackBerry, iPhone, Android and Windows mobile devices from a single configuration with no coding.

Correction & Amplification

In one of the first deployments of the Department of Health and Human Services' Connect software, the Social Security Administration worked with a private regional health-information network in Virginia to streamline the process of determining eligibility for disability benefits. A previous version of this article incorrectly said the health-information network was run by the state of Virginia.

Google Goes to the Cloud for New Idea in PC System

Google Goes to the Cloud for New Idea in PC System

In the personal-computer industry, where things change fast, one fact has been a constant for years: There are two major, mainstream operating systems for consumers. One, Microsoft Windows, runs on many brands of hardware and dominates sales. The other, Apple's Mac OS X, runs only on its maker's Macintosh computers, and has had a resurgence in popularity in recent years. Other contenders, such as various versions of Linux, have remained on the fringes.

Google's new Chrome OS aims to do everything online, turning the entire PC into a giant browser. There are advantages, Walt Mossberg says, as well as disadvantages. For example, a Chrome OS computer can't do much when it's not connected to the Internet.

Next summer, however, Google hopes to add a third broad-based computer-operating system to challenge the duopoly. It's called Chrome OS, and is based on Google's Chrome Web browser. With Chrome, Google isn't just aiming to elbow its way into the OS business. It's hoping to change the entire paradigm. Instead of storing most programs and files on your computer itself, the Chrome OS will mainly run programs from, and require you to keep your data in, the cloud—remote servers located on the Internet. In effect, it turns your entire computer into a giant Web browser, instead of treating the browser as just one among many local programs.

The Chrome OS isn't finished, and isn't ready for broad public testing. Google readily concedes it has lots of bugs and rough edges. But the company has designed a small test laptop with the new operating system installed and distributed "a few thousand" of them to outsiders to try.

I have been using this machine, called the Cr-48, for about a week, and have some explanations and first impressions to share. This isn't a formal review; that will have to wait till the product is finished and is on commercial computers.

I focused mainly on the software, which is built on a Linux underpinning. That's because Google doesn't ever intend to sell the Cr-48 hardware, an all-black, unbranded laptop with a 12-inch screen, a rubbery surface and a large, buttonless touchpad that resembles those pioneered on the Mac.

In my tests, I found this early Chrome OS machine to be fast, with decent battery life and almost instant resumption from sleep. It handled most Web sites fine, and worked almost exactly like the very nice Chrome browser on Windows and Mac.

I also liked the one hardware feature worth mentioning: a radically redesigned keyboard. Instead of function keys, or various legacy keys such as Caps Lock, Chrome OS keyboards feature dedicated browser-oriented keys, like ones for moving back and forth among Web pages and windows, refreshing a page, entering full-screen mode, or quickly opening a new tab and beginning a search.

The Chrome OS will have a big advantage. Because it is mainly a front-end-to-cloud service, if you lose your laptop, you can get another one and just sign into your cloud accounts. You should be able to find all your stuff waiting for you.

However, users of the Chrome OS will have a huge adjustment to make. They will have to give up the rich, local programs they have spent years learning to use and tweaking to their liking. You can't install local programs on a Chrome OS computer. Instead, Google provides a Web Store inside the browser that allows you to download icons for "Web apps"—mostly websites designed to look and work like standard programs.

Some of these, like Gmail, are familiar and popular. Others are newer. For instance, the New York Times and AOL already designed Web-based news apps for Chrome OS, and there is a Web-based version of the TweetDeck program for Twitter. These apps, and the store's own icon, appear on the new Tab screen of Chrome OS (and also are available in the current Chrome browser.)

In my tests, I found these apps generally worked fine. But most aren't as rich and versatile as local Windows and Mac programs. For example, there was no way to play my local, personalized iTunes music collection, unless I spent many hours uploading it to some Web-based service.

I also had to settle for Web-based productivity programs—like word processors and spreadsheets—with many fewer features than standard local ones, such as Microsoft Office.

And I ran into plenty of frustrations. At this stage, Chrome OS can't do anything with USB flash drives or SD memory cards, and can't synchronize phones. And it has a very limited ability to store, or allow you to do anything with, email attachments or other files you might download and prefer to keep locally rather than on a server controlled by somebody else.

Printing was a chore, requiring a complicated setup on a Windows computer that Chrome used as a conduit to a printer.

Plus, Chrome OS is hardly stable yet. I suffered numerous crashes of Adobe's Flash player, and even Google's own Google Talk instant-messaging service, which appears in a little pop-up window on top of the browser. The company says it hopes to fix these problems by next summer.

Finally, the biggest downside: Because it's a cloud-oriented system, Chrome OS is almost useless if you lack an Internet connection. Google says it plans to offer some limited offline functionality, and to encourage makers of Web apps to do the same. It will also eventually be able to make some use of some files stored on external hard disks. But the basic operating mode will require you to be connected to the Internet.

To help with this, the Cr-48 has a Verizon cellular modem built in, to supplement its Wi-Fi connectivity. Verizon is offering 100 megabytes of data free, but that is a small amount, and you have to pay for more.

Like the Mac OS, but unlike Windows or Google's own smartphone operating system, Android, the Chrome OS will be deeply integrated with hardware. So, Google doesn't plan to distribute or license the new operating system to every hardware maker—at least not at first. You won't be able to install it on an existing computer. It will be available in 2011 on a limited number of computer models from selected manufacturers.

Google says this is because security is a high priority and requires special hardware designs that tightly bond with the software.

Also, Chrome OS computers will, in some respects, be more like iPads than laptops. They won't have hard disks, just a limited amount of flash-memory storage, and they won't have DVD drives.

They are an attempt to realize the old idea of a "network computer," or one which is mostly a front end for network services.

Of course, many people already spend most of their time with their PCs and Macs connected to the Net. Many use Web-based email programs or streaming music programs instead of local software.

So the time may be right for a cloud computer, a change in the paradigm. Google certainly hopes so.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

4 Ways To Convert YouTube Videos Into MP3 Files

Just several years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine a one-stop solution for all our media needs; and yet today, YouTube practically fulfils every part of it – from searching for our favourite music videos, to catching up with the latest media gossip.

But what if there was a certain song you wanted to listen to on your portable music player, or a business podcast you wanted to carry around in audio format – instead of watching it as a video online? Fret not, for here are a few magical ways to transform that YouTube video into an audio mp3 file for your convenience:
1. How To Convert Youtube Videos Online And Download Them Instantly

By far the easiest way to obtain an MP3 file from a Youtube video is to have all the work done for you beforehand, so that you can use it instantly with no extra hassle. This is probably the preferred method for most laymen, since it’s as simple as click-and-go in most cases.

Video2MP3 is personally my favourite site for online video conversion. All you have to do is copy and paste the Youtube URL of the video you want to convert into the text bar, select whether you want the MP3 file in standard or high quality (higher quality usually takes longer to download), and press the convert button. You’ll have to wait awhile for it to convert and download, but it’s mostly an automated process in which you don’t have to lift a finger otherwise.

If you like this kind of instant conversion, other sites to consider include VidtoMP3, FromVideo (which also supports Vimeo!) and YoutubetoMP3.
2. How To Convert Videos Locally On Your Computer Straight From YouTube

The first method converts the YouTube videos into MP3 files on a third party’s computer, then allows you to download them; but what if you wanted to skip the download and head straight to the conversion step? One reason you may want to do this is perhaps for security reasons, so here’s a way to bypass the third party and keep the process strictly between your computer and YouTube.

DVDVideoSoft provides a large warehouse of free conversion software, but by far their most useful offering is their free Youtube To MP3 Converter. As the name implies, the software extracts and converts Youtube videos directly on your computer, so you’re assured of a safe MP3 file if you’re cautious about viruses. The interface may not be as pretty as more recent software, but the entire process is easy to understand and user-friendly, with a straightforward guide to help you out in case you need some hand-holding.
3. How To Download Videos First, And Then Convert Them At Your Convenience

If you’re like me, then you probably won’t want to just convert the videos into songs, but would like to store a collection of the videos themselves as well. To do this, you’ll have to take two steps: firstly, to download the videos to your computer, then convert them into MP3s yourself.

To download the videos to your computer, you can either choose to download them via online downloaders, or use local software to do the job. Some of the online video downloaders include KeepVid and SaveVid, while the free Youtube Video Downloader is installable onto your computer. If you use Mozilla Firefox, you’ll be happy to know that Download Youtube Videos + offers a secure solution for downloading Youtube videos right from within your browser.

Next, you’ll want to convert the videos you’ve downloaded into MP3 files. If you’re using Windows, the free Freez Flv to Mp3 Converter works well to convert the downloaded Youtube videos (.flv) into MP3 files.

And there you have it, your untouched downloaded Youtube videos and converted MP3 audio files, all in one setup!
4. How To Download Videos & Convert Them Into MP3s On a Mac

If you’re on a Mac, then you’ll have to use slightly different software to perform the above steps, but the process is mostly the same. The reason behind this is because Macs are unable to run the FLV codec natively, so you have to download them as H.264 videos instead and use the appropriate software to convert them into MP3s.

Videobox offers a nifty solution for downloading Youtube videos to your Mac. In tech speak, it downloads Flash videos and converts them into H.264 format so that you can play them on Quicktime – but for the layman, it downloads them so that it just works on your Mac.

After you’ve downloaded the video, the next step is to convert it into an MP3 file. FfmpegX is an amazing conversion software which works exceedingly well and has independently amassed glowing reviews, and is by far the best conversion software I would recommend. In fact, codec fans will be happy to note that FfmpegX handles a wide variety of formats, so its conversion capabilities are not confined to merely converting videos into MP3 files.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Traveling Internet

Looking for free or cheap Wi-Fi while traveling? Thankfully there are a number of ways to get it now. And while cheap wireless Internet isn’t available everywhere, it is easier than ever to plan ahead for your connectivity needs.

Let’s start with airports. Several airports offer free Wi-Fi some or all of the time. (Just don’t be fooled by, or sign in to, a network with the SSID “Free Public WiFi”)

The Zombie Network: Beware 'Free Public WiFi'
It's in your airports, your coffee shops and your libraries: "Free Public WiFi."

Despite its enticing name, the network, available in thousands of locations across the United States, does not actually provide access to the Internet. But like a virus, it has spread — and may even be lurking on your computer right now.

Wireless security expert Joshua Wright first noticed it about four years ago at an airport.

"I went to connect to an available wireless network and I saw this option, Free Public WiFi," he remembers. "As I looked more and more, I saw this in more and more locations. And I was aware from my job and analysis in the field that this wasn't a sanctioned, provisioned wireless network, but it was actually something rogue."

Free Public WiFi isn't set up like most wireless networks people use to get to the Internet. Instead, it's an "ad hoc" network — meaning when a user selects it, he or she isn't connecting to a router or hot spot, but rather directly to someone else's computer in the area.

Though it doesn't actually provide Internet access, the network has spread across the country thanks to an old Windows XP bug.

How It Works

When a computer running an older version of XP can't find any of its "favorite" wireless networks, it will automatically create an ad hoc network with the same name as the last one it connected to -– in this case, "Free Public WiFi." Other computers within range of that new ad hoc network can see it, luring other users to connect. And who can resist the word "free?"

Not a lot of people, judging from the spread of Free Public WiFi. Computers with the XP bug that try to connect to the Internet will remember the name, create their own ad hoc networks and entice other users wherever they go.

Microsoft is aware of the issue and says it has eliminated the network in more recent versions of Windows. It also created a fix to the problem for the older version of Windows XP — Windows XP Service Pack 3 — but many people still haven't updated their computers.
How To Protect Yourself

"Free Public WiFi" isn't inherently harmful, but if you connect or unintentionally create the ad hoc network you could expose yourself to hackers. Here are two steps you can take:

Step One: Regardless of whether you're on a Mac or PC, or which version of Windows you're running, resist the urge to connect to "Free Public WiFi" or other unknown wireless networks.

Step Two: If you're still running Windows XP, make sure your computer is up to date so that you won't unintentionally broadcast the ad hoc network in the future. Here's a statement from Microsoft:

"This issue was fixed in Windows XP SP3, Windows Vista, and Windows 7. Customers who wish to install Windows XP Service Pack 3 can do so by visiting this site.
Learn More At

That means, Wright says, the network continues to spread across the country like something from a horror movie — the kind "where a zombie takes a hold of one person, bites them and they become infected by this zombie virus."

It's not the only zombie network out there, either. Others you may have seen go by such alluring names as "linksys," "hpsetup," "tmobile" or "default."

A Trick That's A Treat For Hackers

No one knows for sure where Free Public WiFi began. One theory, Wright says, is that someone may have set it up as a joke. It might have been created to trick a friend into connecting "so he would get a Web page with some kind of a gross image or childish prank."

Unintentionally creating or connecting to the ad hoc network isn't inherently harmful, despite its virus-like spread. It does, however, provide an access point for hackers to come in and check out the user's files.

Part of Wright's job is to hack into a company's wireless network in order to expose vulnerabilities. When he sees Free Public WiFi, he says, "we break out the champagne."

"Because I know at that point I will be able to get unlimited access to internal resources just from that one starting point."

The site Wi-Fi FreeSpot offers a directory showing airports with free access around the country. Don’t see your airport on there? Remember that last year Google and others sponsored free airport Wi-Fi at several locations for the holiday season. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that happen again this year starting some time in November.

What about on the plane? A ZNF friend recently posted on the travel site Upgrd about a deal from Gogo on in-flight Internet access. While Gogo normally charges a fee of $12.95, if you’re heading across the country on a red-eye, the company offers a “FlightNite Pass” for only $5.95. You know, in case you’re not planning to sleep anyway.

Once you’re grounded, there are the standard free hotspot locations to look for, and the options are expanding all the time. Starbucks is always a good bet. You can also cozy up to a Cosi, a Panera, or even (in many cases) a McDonalds. Several ISPs also offer free access to their own hotspots while you’re on the go. On the east coast, Comcast just radically expanded available Xfinity hotspots in the New Jersey and Philadelphia regions.

If all else fails, and you still need connectivity, there’s always that credit card in your wallet and a hotel lobby nearby. Or you can plan ahead and get a USB modem with a 3G or WiMAX subscription. Clearwire is launching 4G WiMAX service in several new cities (New York, LA, San Francisco) before the end of the year.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Roku box developer has a sixth sense about video

In the late 1990s, Anthony Wood created one of the first DVRs. Now, with a device that streams movies and television shows to TV sets via the Internet, he's banking on a continuing shift away from DVDs.

Michael Hiltzik

October 13, 2010

As the last century waned, scarcely a day passed without someone showing up in our newsroom offering a demonstration of a new dot-com service or consumer device. ECommerce sites for T-shirts and sandals, search sites paying jackpots to lucky users, you name it.

One day a team from a company called ReplayTV wheeled in a television set wired to a box with a hard drive inside. They hooked it up to our cable jack to show how we could use it to pause, rewind and fast-forward live TV.

I still remember that day because it was the only time I ever left one of those pitch meetings thinking, "That will change my life, and I must have it." Today such devices, known as digital video recorders, are commonplace — a survey last year estimated that 36% of all U.S. homes have at least one, many provided by their cable or satellite company.

The man who conceived the ReplayTV device was Anthony Wood. Now 44, he is also the man behind the Roku box. This device, the size of a couple of decks of cards, is one of several allowing Netflix subscribers to stream movies and television episodes directly to their TV sets via a home Internet connection, without waiting for a DVD to arrive in the mail.

That makes Wood possibly the only man alive to have placed two digital inventions in my house — a historical footnote, to be sure (if that), but one that hints at his remarkable instinct for the consumer market.

A serial entrepreneur, Wood has experienced almost everything that can happen in the high-tech business since he founded his first company in high school in Houston to sell software: He made almost $1 million with one company, got turned down by dozens of venture firms with another, then landed backing from a big firm and got shouldered into the background by his investors. He's been bought out and spun off, and he's still here to tell the tale.

Privately held Roku Inc. is Wood's sixth startup company (the name means "six" in Japanese) and its working environment is right out of the form book: offices in a Silicon Valley industrial strip, no receptionist in sight, packing materials stacked here and there, whiteboards in the conference rooms covered with inscrutable flowcharts. Wood met me at Roku's Saratoga headquarters not long ago dressed in baggy jeans held up with suspenders.

Wood started ReplayTV in 1997 after leaving Macromedia Inc., to which he had sold a precursor to the leading Web authoring program Dreamweaver. (Macromedia later was acquired by Adobe Systems Inc.)

"I'd had the idea for the DVR for a long time," he told me. "But I'd look at the prices for hard drives and at compression technology and it was not practical." Initially, no venture firms would back his proposal for a consumer TV player, so he funded ReplayTV from his own pocket and money from private angel investors, and started hiring engineers to make his idea a reality.

ReplayTV found itself in competition with TiVo, which was employing a different business plan to market a similar device. Where ReadyTV charged full price for its box — as much as $1,000 in the early days — TiVo sold its unit for less upfront but charged a monthly or annual subscription fee to make up the difference.

Both companies cut deals with entertainment companies, but TiVo was more "industry-friendly," as Wood puts it. For example, ReplayTV had a 30-second skip-ahead function, which drove broadcasters nuts because it allowed users to avoid seeing commercials; with your TiVo box you could only fast-forward through the ads, not miss them completely.

ReplayTV bested TiVo for video best in show honors at the Consumer Electronics Show in 1999. But TiVo beat ReplayTV to the IPO stage, raising $88 million that same year. By the time ReplayTV was ready to go public, the market had crashed and the IPO window shut tight. ReplayTV was eventually acquired by DirecTV for its patents. TiVo still exists, but it has lost money in nine of the last 10 years.

Wood launched Roku in 2002 to market home digital devices. Its first products included a unit to display photos and art images on HDTVs, which were still novel, and Soundbridge, which allowed you to stream your digital music files or Internet radio stations to speakers around your house.

Meanwhile, Netflix was trying to figure out how to sell video via the Internet. In 2007 it brought Wood into the fold as vice president of Internet TV. He built the team that developed what became the Roku box as well as applications allowing PC users to stream Netflix movies onto their computers. Differences of approach soon surfaced — for example, Wood wanted to offer streaming services to video distributors such as Amazon, which he says made Netflix uneasy. Netflix didn't see itself as a hardware company, so it spun Wood's engineering team back out to Roku, retaining the rights to license the technology to others.

Roku duly signed up Amazon — for a fee you can rent or buy movies and TV episodes from Amazon to view via the box — along with other partners such as Major League Baseball. Roku's Channel Store also offers 75 channels developed by outsiders, much as Apple's App store offers third-party apps for the iPhone and iPad.

Sales have soared as consumers get used to the idea of streaming TV and to the technology. This year Wood expects revenue to reach $50 million to $60 million, up from $33 million last year and $17 million the year before that.

Yet Roku is the kind of company that may never be out of the woods (so to speak). Netflix has licensed its streaming technology to makers of Blu-ray DVD players and for game players such as Microsoft's Xbox and Nintendo Co.'s Wii, all of which compete with Roku.

The device Wood says he worries about the most, however, is Apple TV, introduced by Steve Jobs last month. That device also affords access to Netflix, as well as to movie and TV episode rentals. On the other hand, it sells for $99; Roku's two cheapest units offer similar if not superior services for $59 and $79. On the horizon is Google TV, which will roll out later this year but will be available, at first, only in a $300 box.

Wood says he's counting on video distribution continuing to move away from cable transmission and the DVD and toward Internet delivery. "That trend is what will make Roku successful," he told me. "We think the one box to rule them all will be the Roku box."

Considering that video is the most rapidly evolving entertainment market, that's an audacious prediction. Still, given Wood's track record, whatever he thinks about the future, I'm willing to listen.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Google Search Tricks

Google is an amazing search engine. Most of us use it to find websites with information, but Google is so much more than a search engine. There are hundreds of built in features and these are 10 of the most useful ways to get common information directly from Google.

Movies Times

Enter “movies” followed by your town/city/postal or zip code and you’ll see some movie times for a couple popular movies along with a link to get the full list of movie times for your area.

Track Packages

Just type in a FedEx, UPS or USPS tracking number and Google will give you a link to see the shipping details.

Track Flights

Enter the airline and flight number and search. No more clicks, the info will be right there.

Find the Best Price

Enter the model name or number of a product you’d like to buy. Then click the “shopping” link at the top and Google will show prices at online retailers. To ensure you get the lowest price, you can sort by price (including shipping). There will likely be some retailers that you’ve never heard, so you can sort by reviews as well.

Define a Word

Lets say some fancy pants uses a big word and you don’t know what it means, you could go to your favorite dictionary site, or you could type “define simple” into Google search.

Unit Conversion

Whether you need to convert cups to gallons or you need to go between metric and imperial units, Google’s conversion engine can help.

Currency Conversion

Just type in the value and the currency to convert from and to, example: 100 Euros in Australian dollars


You think you’re doing a nice thing, calling somebody far away to make sure they’re well and give them a familiar voice to talk to. Then they answer the phone as if you woke them up in the middle of the afternoon, but you forgot that’s 4am in Tokyo. You can easily avoid this by checking the local time before calling.


Should you pack shorts or pants for your weekend getaway? Get a 5 day forecast in seconds.

Stock Quotes

Just enter the stock symbol and click search.

There are many more of these features and I’ll be sure to share more. In fact, I discovered an undocumented one tonight too.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

How to Watch Blocked Internet Videos

By Chad Upton | Editor

The internet is a great place to catch TV shows and clips that you or your PVR missed.

Unfortunately, a lot of websites only allow their video content to be viewed in their service area. It’s not because they’re mean, it’s for legal and cost savings reasons.

That’s right, it’s expensive to stream video over the internet to thousands or hundreds of thousands of people in a reliable way. You need a lot of servers and bandwidth, both of which are expensive, especially in large quantities. If a broadcaster only services one country, they’re not likely going to speed money to reach customers outside of their service area, although they may allow it if there are no legal restrictions and the advertisers are willing to pay to reach those users.

Secondly, they may not be legally allowed to broadcast outside of their broadcast area. Broadcasters buy distribution rights for the shows and other content that they air. These distribution rights are usually sold by country. That means a broadcaster who airs a show in the US is not allowed to distribute that show over the internet to another country since they have not bought the distribution rights required to broadcast in that country. In fact, another broadcaster in that country likely has paid for the rights to broadcast that same show there.

There are also legal agreements with members of various guilds and unions that may prevent content from being distributed in certain areas or for a finite time after the original air date.

Broadcasters can identify which country you’re in when you access their website. They use various methods to determine your location, but the most popular is something called Geo-IP look up. Basically, when you navigate to their website, the network address of your computer is sent to the web server. They can look up that address in a database to see the country that address is registered to. This method is accurate most of the time and in some cases they can actually narrow down the part the city that you live in.

Although there may be legal and ethical issues with it, there are ways to circumvent some of the methods that are used, potentially allowing you to view content from outside their intended region of distribution. These methods may be illegal in your country, so verify the legality of doing this before attempting them.

I think there is at least one ethical use for circumventing regional lockouts. For example, I was in Canada a couple weeks ago and I wanted to catch up on one of my favorite shows. I normally watch the show on network TV and all of the advertising is relevant to me. I wasn’t able to watch videos on the broadcaster’s website from Canada, so I employed the following method to make it work:

1. Install this Firefox plugin: (requires Firefox browser)
2. In Firefox, Go to “tools” > “modify headers”
3. From the drop down box on the left select add
4. Then enter: “X-Forwarded-For” in the first input box without the quotation marks
5. Enter one of the following IP addresses in the second input box without the quotation marks (choose the country where the content is accessible from)
Canada –
UK –
6. Leave the last input box empty, save the filter, and enable it (should look like this: )
7. Click the “Configuration” button on the bottom right then proceed to check the “always on” button.
8. Close the Modify Headers box, restart the Firefox browser and visit the intended website.

I should note some websites that the above method does not work for:

* (the CW)
* (showtime)

There are at least four times that many sites that DO work, although I’d rather not single them out for legal reasons. There are also a few other methods, but this is by far the easiest to setup and use. If you have IP addresses for other countries, let me know and I’ll add them.

Also, it takes a lot of people and money to make these great shows, be sure to support them by purchasing them when they come out on disc and renting them from iTunes, Netflix, etc.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

How to share your email address online without getting hit by spam

Put your email address online and you’ll be at the mercy of spam bots and email harvesters. These are automated robots which troll the internet looking to add to their ever growing spam mailing list. So how do you share your email without getting hit? is a free service which helps put a layer of security around a short URL so that spambots will not be able to find your email address easily.
Sharing your email

Simply just type in your email and pick your short URL for easy reference

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

5 Tips and Tricks: USB Video on the Roku

One of the big selling points for the XR version of the Roku is the addition of a USB port. And although there’s no official Roku support for USB video playback yet, there is a private USB channel available thanks to citizen-coder Nowhereman. (Submit your own channel in Roku’s developer contest by September 7th.) The channel is easy enough to set up with Nowhereman’s detailed instructions, but there are some quirks to watch for. If you want to try it out, arm yourself with a few tips and tricks first:

1. Be prepared to convert video files for playback on the Roku, as the USB channel only supports MP4 video (plus MP3 audio, and PNG and JPG photos). Luckily, you can grab transcoding software for free off the Web. Try downloading the open-source HandBrake transcoder if you need format conversion.
2. You can use a USB flash drive with the Roku’s port, but it likely won’t work if you try to hook up your 500 GB Western Digital external drive. Rule of thumb: if it needs to plug into the wall, it probably won’t work with the USB channel.
3. Frame rate matters. Encode your video files at 29.97 frames per second rather than the standard 30 fps. Otherwise, be prepared for a lot of buffering.
4. Bit rate matters. Encoding at a bit rate that’s too low will create blockiness in playback, particularly with action scenes. Start with a rate of 2.5 Megabits per second. The trade-off in file size is worth it.
5. Get a bigger USB drive. It’s amazing how much space a movie can take up when you’re encoding at 2.5 Mbps. Luckily, thumb drives are pretty cheap these days. You can grab a 16 GB drive for a measly $25 or $30 on Amazon.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Preparing Windows XP for the long haul

Microsoft's support for Windows XP may be fading, but a loyal horde of XP users plans to stick with this venerable OS for as long as possible.

If that's your long-term goal, there are a number of steps you can take now to ensure a finely tuned XP system for months — possibly years — to come.

Windows XP is almost a decade old, which in both computing and dog years makes it very long in the tooth.

Microsoft has officially dropped support and security updates for all XP versions through Service Pack 2. The only version of 32-bit XP that still qualifies for Microsoft's security patches and major bug-fixes is the Service Pack 3 edition. (The relatively rare 64-bit flavor of XP is a special case. See Microsoft's explanation.)

XP has had a long and excellent run, but SP3 is the end of the line.

That said, XP is not dead, and it's still the best OS for older hardware designed with XP in mind. (I have XP on several of my older systems.)

If you're still using an XP box by choice (or necessity), there's lots you can do to keep things humming along until you eventually move to new hardware — which will almost assuredly come with the excellent Windows 7 already installed.

Here are some key steps you can take to get — and keep — your XP system running great! And if you move to Windows 7 (or are also running Vista machines), many of these techniques can also help you.

Start with a thorough XP system checkup

► Check the hardware. Hardware? Yes! No operating system can be better than the hardware on which it's installed, and older systems are prone to age-related problems. One often-overlooked problem is dust buildup, which can cause chips and drives to overheat and malfunction. These hardware errors can masquerade as software problems, causing you to waste time troubleshooting the wrong thing.

It's easy to clean your PC. Consult my how-to article, "Getting the grunge out of your PC." (It's a few years old, but still completely apt.) While you have your PC's case open, make sure that all plug-in cards and socketed chips are fully seated and all cables firmly connected.

► Check your hard drive's "physical" health. Most new and XP-era drives are equipped with Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology, also known as SMART reporting. SMART data is stored within the hard drive itself and can often alert you to impending problems before they get serious.

It's easy to check the SMART data. Two tools I like are PassMark's DiskCheckup (info/download page) and Active@ DiskMonitorFree (download page). Both programs are free for personal use and also come in commercial versions for organizations.

► Check your hard drive's "logical" health. Run chkdsk.exe to check the integrity of your hard drive's files and to repair any errors.

Click Start and Run, then type chkdsk c: /f into the Run dialog box. Hit OK.

Chkdsk may tell you that it can't check the drive because the drive is in use. It will then offer to check the drive at reboot. Type Y (yes) and hit the Enter key.

Repeat for all drives/partitions on your system.

► Correct driver errors now, while you can. Just as Microsoft is providing less support for XP, third-party vendors are withdrawing support for older hardware. Someday soon, you may discover that the drivers you need are no longer available. Fix problems now!

Boot XP and right-click My Computer. Select Properties, Hardware, then Device Manager. (Or, click Control Panel/System/Hardware/Device Manager.) Click View and select Show hidden devices to make sure you're seeing everything.

Correct any problem indicated by a yellow exclamation mark or a red X; in most cases, you should get correct or updated drivers from the hardware vendor's site.

It might also be wise to save copies of any special drivers your systems needs; burn 'em to a CD or DVD, and tuck the disc away in a safe place.

Review and update your PC's security system

► Patch and update XP and apps. Starting with Windows Update, make sure your operating system is fully up-to-date with all necessary patches, fixes, and updates. Do the same for all your non-Microsoft software, visiting the vendor sites to download any new updates and patches for your applications and utilities. A tool such as Secunia's outstanding, free-for-home-use Personal Software Inspector (PSI) (download page) can make this step a breeze.

► Verify system security. Regardless of the antivirus and anti-malware tool(s) you're using, visit a competing vendor's site and run their free live or online scan to verify that nothing slipped past your usual defenses.

Next, check that your firewall is providing the protection it should. There are many good, free, online firewall-test sites, such as Hackerwatch, Gibson Research ShieldsUP, and AuditMyPC.

Give your computer a thorough file cleaning

► Take out the trash — all of it. Needless file clutter makes a system harder to use and slower to operate. For example, AV scans and Windows' indexing both take longer when they have many junk files to process.

Start by deleting old $NtUninstall{xxx}$ files from XP's C:\Windows folder; these files can occupy a shocking amount of space! You need these files only when a Windows Update fails and you (or the OS) have to roll back your system. If your system is working fine, $NtUninstall files serve no purpose.

Next, wade through your hard drive, folder by folder, making sure files are where they're supposed to be and that you're not storing needless duplicates or other useless files.

Next, uninstall obsolete or unused software.

Finally, use a tool such as Piriform's free CCleaner (site) to rid your drive of useless junk files and broken or obsolete Registry data.

► Rein in XP's three worst space-hogs. System Restore, the Recycle Bin, and browser caches are like black holes for data, and your system can run better if you limit their voracious appetites.

System Restore is at best a limited recovery tool, so I don't feel it's worthwhile to devote vast amounts of disk space to it. The Kellys-Korner article, "System Restore for Windows XP," tells you how to manage it.

Windows' default Recycle Bin can consume hundreds of gigabytes on a large drive. Pare this down to a reasonable size by right-clicking the Recycle Bin and selecting Properties. Reduce the size of the Recycle Bin to a smaller percentage of the total disk space. (Click the disk tab — e.g., Local Disk (C:) — to determine its reserved Recycle Bin space in gigabytes.) I set it to around 500 MB (0.5GB) on large disks and 250MB (0.25GB) on smaller ones.

To reduce Internet Explorer's cache size, click Tools and Internet Options. Then, under the Browsing History section, click Settings and adjust the cache size downward to, say, 50MB.

For Firefox, click Tools/Options and then click Advanced. Under the Network tab, look for the settings box in the Offline Storage section.

Chrome's cache-size adjustment uses the command line, as described on a Chrome Help forum page.

► Defrag. Once your disk is rid of all unnecessary files and is organized the way you want, run your defragmentation tool to reorder your files for optimal performance. If your disk was badly fragmented, it may take several iterations of defragging to achieve maximum benefit. (Paid subscribers can read an in-depth discussion of defragging in my Aug. 5 column.)

Use disk imaging to preserve your new setup

Once you've worked through all the above, your XP system should be lean, clean, defragged, and fully up-to-date. Wouldn't it be great if you could somehow preserve your PC's current software state so that, should you ever need to in the future, you can bring it back to this nearly perfect condition in just minutes?

You can! Use a disk imaging tool to create a perfect, complete, working copy of your current setup. You'll never again have to rebuild your system and reinstall all your software from scratch!

XP requires third-party disk-imaging software (Win7 has it built in) such as Acronis' U.S. $30 True Image (info page), Norton' $70 Ghost (site), or — my personal favorite for non-Win7 systems — Terabyte Unlimited's geeky-but-powerful $35 BootItNG (info page).

All three programs make disk images and bootable recovery discs that can be used to restore a complete, everything-installed-and-working setup — even to a raw, unformatted drive.

There's plenty of free disk imaging software available, too. For example, see Freebyte's page titled "Free disk image software;" TheFreeCountry's list of "Free hard disk and partition imaging and backup software;" or OptimizingPC's how-to, "Create free bootable Windows XP image disk."

Run through the above steps once or twice a year to keep your system in tip-top shape, and make a fresh disk image from time to time — especially if you make any significant changes to your hardware or software. Store your disk images in a safe place (off the hard drive), such as on CDs or DVDs stored away from your PC.

With this kind of routine maintenance, your XP system will most likely run well for as long as you need it. And, should the worst (major crash, hard drive failure, etc.) happen, you can use your disk images to rapidly restore your system to the near-perfect state you just created.

You're now set for the long haul!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Have You Hit the Netflix 500 Title Queue Limit?

You're limited to 500 streaming titles, but one way around the 500 title limit for DVDs is to setup multiple profiles. You can have up to 5 different profiles for each Netflix account, for a total of 2,500 titles, but only the main account can have a streaming queue.

To setup a new Profile, go to Your Account & Help, and under Preferences select Account Profiles.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Help Key: Watch Netflix from outside the U.S.

You Americans have all the good stuff. Stuff like BP pumping oil in the Ocean and guns, lots of guns. And then you have Netflix. Sweet Netflix. Us foreigners are wondering what it feels like to have a service like that. Now I know.

In Europe we also have online movie services. They are completely useless unless you are prepared to pay 3€ ($5) for a single movie for 24 hours. The content of these services is not very satisfying either. This is of course not an option for people who know that such things as Netflix exist. In Germany for example there are lawyers who make a living off scouting torrent trackers to see if you download a single MP3 or a movie. If they get you they will try to get your name and address from your ISP. First your ISP will refuse to hand your data to the rats. This leads to a pile up of legal costs. Finally 3-4 months later you will find a letter in the postbox saying that you have to pay a 1000€-5000€ + penalty because you downloaded something plus the legal fee that they spent on suing your ISP to give them your personal data. This has happened to many in Europe and while my solution is certainly not the best at least it’s not illegal (at least the swine will not come after you). So let’s get started.

Even to be able to open you need a decent VPN service. Fortunately you can give in any address in the U.S. and you don’t need a matching credit card. I pay $11.50 per month for the HydeMyAss pro VPN service and so far I’m satisfied with it. They have Linux/OSX/Win7 clients and they work pretty well. Now the trick is that if you want to have a decent picture quality you can’t use a VPN since it will slow down your connection pretty much.

Once you have a Netflix subscription and a VPN service subscription, do the following:

1. Connect to you VPN service to a server in the U.S.
2. Open your browser
3. Go to Netflix
4. Choose a movie and click Play Now
5. Wait until you see the “Downloading Movie Information” message in the movie player
6. Disconnect from the VPN service and you are now using your full bandwidth

Now I’m able to watch Netflix in HD from Germany (or from anywhere else). You can do the trick with WMC and this should even work with the Xbox 360 extender although I didn’t try. Also when you are watching series you can stay in the session; you don’t have to do the trick every time you want to watch the next episode. Just click play next. Overall the whole thing costs $9 for the unlimited Netflix subscription and $11.50 for the VPN pro monthly. That’s just over $20. Cheaper than a 5000€ fishing expedition.

This way you can watch many other online services. For example Top Gear on BBC2 or Hulu. The speed trick, however, only works on Netflix. Be sure to experiment though.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

YouTube URL Secrets

It used to be, when you wanted to share a video, you’d attach it to an email and send it out to your friends.

Now when you want to share a video, you find the video on youtube and send a link — that keeps everybody’s inbox from filling up.

Change the Starting Position

Sometimes, you’ll want to make sure your friends see exactly what you’re talking about. To start the video at a specific spot, you can append “#t=MMmSSs” to the end of the url (link). You’ll replace the uppercase Ms with the number of minutes and the uppercase Ss with the number of seconds in the video where you want playback to begin.

For example, if I want to jump to the 2 minute, 39 second point in a video, then I would add “#t2m39s” to the end of the URL (example:

This trick also works for embedding a video. Although, when embedding use “&start” instead of “#t” and it’s in seconds only. (example Try playing the following video, it will start near the end.

High Definition

Many YouTube videos are now available in HD. To ensure you link to the HD version, append “&fmt=22″ to the end of the url. (

Download Video

Maybe you want to transfer a video to your iPod or laptop for offline playback. If you load a video in youtube, you can swap out “youtube” for “keephd” in the URL. If there is a forward slash “/” after “watch” then you may want to remove that as well. This new url will take you to and it will give you links to download the youtube video.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Run your PC from afar — securely and easily

By Susan Bradley

Your office PC is miles away, when suddenly you realize you forgot that all-important file — what to do?

Luckily, there are free tools (including one possibly residing in Windows) that give you remote access — or even full-scale remote control — of your PC, as if you were sitting right in front of it.

By day, I work as a server admin for my clients; by night, I become a support tech for my sister and dad. But when problems arise at some inconvenient hour, the last thing I want to do is hop into the car and drive to the troubled PC (or server). Instead, I pull out one of my many remote-connectivity software tools and access the ailing PC from afar.

With remote-access software running, I see their screens on my monitor. I control their cursors with my mouse. I use my keyboard to enter commands and text into their systems. It's as if I were sitting at their PCs without ever having left my house.

That's pretty cool, but there are many good reasons for using remote access/remote control software beyond family tech support. You can also use it to access your personal or office PC when you're away — pull down that file you left behind, synchronize data between your notebook and desktop computers or your home and office PCs, or run applications you have on one machine but not on another.

Look to Windows first for a remote connection

Microsoft's Remote Desktop Connection (RDC) is found in most versions of XP, Vista, and Windows 7, and it's relatively easy to use. (See list below.)

RDC, like most applications of its kind, has two main components: a host (or server) app and a client app. Communication between the host and client is one-way — a client PC controls the host, but not the other way around.

To establish a remote connection, you launch the host RDC app on the remote PC and the client app on the local system (the one you're sitting at).

Starting with XP, all versions of Windows have the RDC client software and thus can connect to an RDC host.

However, only certain versions of Windows include the host side of RDC. Even though RDC has a myriad of home and non-business uses, Microsoft sees its remote-control utility as primarily a business-oriented tool. So only the business-oriented and higher-end editions of Windows have the RDC host software built in.

Here's how it breaks down:

* XP: XP Home contains only client software; XP Professional contains both client and host software. See the MS article, "Get started using Remote Desktop with Windows XP Professional."

* Vista: The Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, and Ultimate editions all have client software; the Business and Ultimate editions also have host software. See MS's Vista RDC FAQ and article.

* Windows 7: Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate have client software; Professional and Ultimate also have host software. See the Win7-specific article, "Connect to another computer using Remote Desktop Connection."

In all Windows versions, you can click Start/Help (or its equivalent in your edition of Windows) and search the Help system for the phrase Remote Desktop. The local Help system will show you authoritatively what your copy of RDC can do — and even more important, how to configure and use it.

Non-RDC alternatives offer more flexibility

RDC is good — I use it all the time — but it's not the only game in town. Many third-party alternatives bring host capability to the Windows editions lacking RDC host-mode support.

For example, LogMeIn's software, available in free and paid versions, lets any current Windows version act either as a LogMeIn host or client. LogMeIn also offers a Mac version, opening up interesting options for cross-OS remote sharing and control. (See more on Mac connections below.)

Similar solutions include RealVNC, Copilot, GoToMyPC, CrossLoop, and many more.

Microsoft also may end up competing against itself with a new cloud-based sync/share service called Live Mesh (site).

(If you know of other tools or have had experience with any of the ones I've mentioned, please visit this story's thread in the Windows Secret Lounge and share your thumbs-up or -down recommendation!)

Making connections across the Internet

In general, setting up and using these tools is fairly straightforward. Start by configuring the host system to receive inbound connections, and leave it turned on when you're away. When you need remote access, connect your local computer to the Internet and launch the client app. The exact method varies from product to product.

For example, with Microsoft's RDC, the client software asks at startup what you want to connect to. You enter the network address of the target host PC. (On a LAN or intranet connection, you can alternatively use the machine's local network name.) RDC negotiates an encrypted connection and then takes you to the familiar sign-in page on the host system. Enter the username and password you usually use on the host PC, and you're in — just like that. (See Figure 1.)

There's one caveat for this to work reliably: the host computer must have a static IP address (one that does not change). Most businesses have static IPs, but most homes do not. So connecting to your work PC should not be a problem.

If your company requires a virtual private networking (VPN) connection to the office computers and servers, you must first establish the VPN link and then launch your remote-control software.

Remote Destop Connection sign in screen
Figure 1. To connect to a remote PC with Microsoft's Remote Desktop Connection, simply enter the system's IP address.

I use still another option at my workplace: Remote Web Workplace (RWW), which is built into Windows Small Business Server. RWW provides secure remote access for the office staff without using VPN.

For home-to-home connections, use one of the alternatives to RDC, such as LogMeIn — which uses an intermediary computer to manage connections.

With LogMeIn, you set up the host software on the remote machine and then connect it to a password-protected, LogMeIn central server. When you launch the client app on your local PC, you do not connect directly to the remote system but rather to that same LogMeIn server.

Once the LogMeIn server has checked both host and client PCs' credentials, it establishes a connection between the two. Windows' own security still comes into play — the client operator must enter a valid username and password for the host system. It's not as hard as it sounds — usually, setting up a connection takes only a few minutes, and the better remote-access tools have good FAQs and help files.

If your client computer is a Mac, Microsoft's Remote Desktop Client for Mac (download page) works almost identically to the Windows version. It gives my MacBook Pro remote access to my Windows workstations and servers — both at work and at home. (My home-based HP MediaSmart Servers included remote desktop software.)

You can also work the other direction — I use ReaLVNC to control a Mac from my Windows PC and LogMeIn to sign in remotely. (Many third-party remote-control apps have Mac versions.)

Support for Apple products extends beyond the Mac. For example, while sipping coffee at Starbucks, I can still connect to my remote PCs and servers — through my iPhone! Yes, you read that right. There are remote desktop clients such as LogMeIn for smart phones. And yes, it works: the relatively tiny screen of a smartphone makes it a bit cumbersome to scroll around your full-sized Windows desktop, but it doable.

On that Apple's iPad is out, Wyse has announced a version of its PocketCloud app (info page) for the iPad. As a user of the iPhone version, I can atest that PocketCloud is a nice remote desktop client for checking servers and responding to emergencies.

Windows Mobile also supports a version of Remote Desktop Connection called "Remote Desktop Mobile." It's built into some Windows Mobile phones and can be downloaded into most others.'s article, "How To Control Your PC from Windows Mobile Cell Phone," provides a good overview. The Microsoft Windows Phone forum's thread, "Remote Desktop Mobile," includes additional information and a link to download the Remote Desktop Mobile software.

So you can see there are many, many options. The next time you need access to a system miles away, look around — chances are good one of your local PCs, Macs, or smartphones can make the connection!