Anthony Doesburg: Do they stand the test of time?

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Regular readers of this column might be wondering how, after a couple of years of reporting on one new technological marvel after another, there can be anything left to write about.

As a former subscriber to New Scientist magazine, I know the feeling - week after week it would arrive in the letterbox with a cover story about some discovery that completely rewrote the rules of the universe. After a year or so, I had discovery fatigue. The question that nagged at me was: how many of these apparent breakthroughs will stand the test of time?

The same can be asked about new technologies. Invariably announced as the greatest thing since sliced bread, how many survive the transition from development lab to the real world?

Over the next few weeks, we're going to find out. Rather than serve up the usual fare of fresh technological wonders, we'll look back at a dozen or so that have graced this column in the past 20 months to see how they've made out.

FUEL CELLS

When I wrote in March last year about methanol fuel cells being on the brink of a mass-market breakthrough for powering consumer electronic goods, others before me had been writing the same story for several years.

So how many fuel-cell-powered electronic devices do you now own and why would you want one? None, answers the first question; and better operating life than batteries the second.

Osama bin Laden is partly to blame for fuel cells still being missing in action. One of the main obstacles to equipping laptop computers with the alternative power source has been transport authorities' refusal to let them on planes. Methanol is flammable and, post-9/11, it was always going to take a good deal of persuasion to get fuel cells through security. In January, there was a breakthrough when the International Civil Aviation Organisation began allowing methanol fuel cells and cartridges on passenger planes, and the United States Department of Transportation is considering doing the same.

On the strength of that, Toshiba, a leader in fuel-cell development, is promising products powered by them next year. Fine - but we've heard that before.

RFIDS

Radio frequency identification tags have been on the drawing board for almost as long as fuel cells. The tiny high-tech replacement for bar codes was going to revolutionise everything from retailing to border security; every item on shop shelves would have them so goods could be automatically tracked from manufacturer to warehouse to checkout; and passports would get them so immigration officials could spot you coming and process you accordingly.

How? by transmitting a specific radio signal over a short range that is received by a scanner.

The origin of the RFID goes back to World War II as a means of identifying friendly Allied aircraft.

The Warehouse has been trying RFIDS in a bid to keep better track of stock and Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer, requires its suppliers to use them.

If you believed the hype, by now they'd be everywhere. Gary Hartley, of GS1, the body that promotes RFIDS here, says that the hype has dissipated and many organisations are quietly testing RFIDs. They're not making a fuss about it because they don't want to give away any advantage they're getting from the technology. And they don't want to draw attention to themselves in case it flops.

ONE LAPTOP PER CHILD

By the first half of this year, this ambitious project was going to see the delivery of low-cost laptop computers to children in poor countries. OLPC has missed a few earlier deadlines so it's excellent news that mass production of the machines, which were intended to cost US$100 ($133) each, started this month.

Although the cost has risen to US$175, it could fall to as little as US$50 once production is in full swing. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology-inspired project has created a laptop with several special features: it is light and strong; its battery will last a school day and can be recharged using a hand generator; a classroom of the laptops form a wireless network; and the laptops are child-friendly with rounded edges and bright colours.

Okay, so it's lagged a bit on delivery deadlines but the OLPC promises to change millions of lives.

FREEVIEW

A preview a year ago suggested the arrival of free-to-air digital TV from the freeview consortium of TVNZ, Canwest, Maori TV and others would give satellite television a big boost in this country.

That seems at least partially true, despite the satellite freeview uses being wrongly configured, a problem only discovered once it was 35,000km up in space.

Since freeview began broadcasting in May, more than 60,000 households have been tuning in, general manager Steve Browning told Computerworld this month. The attraction is clearer pictures than analogue TV.

Next year, freeview will begin terrestrial digital broadcasts - something for those of us without a satellite dish to look forward to.

* Next week, we'll take the pulse of another batch of technologies that have featured in this column.

* Anthony Doesburg is an Auckland-based technology journalist

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