Wednesday, May 27, 2009

GPS Satellites "Wearing Out"

Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — A government report says the accuracy of GPS signals could deteriorate in the next few years because of delays in satellite launches, but the Air Force says it has plenty of ways of keeping up the navigation system increasingly relied on by drivers and cell phone users.

The Government Accountability Office reported last month that there is a risk that launches of new satellites will not keep pace with the wear and tear on the Global Positioning System.

That could mean that the accuracy and reliability of hundreds of millions of civilian and military GPS devices — including everything from "buddy finder" cell phone applications to guided bombs — could degrade until new satellites are in orbit.

The next generation of GPS satellites, dubbed IIF, has been beset by launch delays and budget overruns. Contractor Boeing Co. said the delays were due to design changes necessary to ensure that the satellites would last. The work is now done, and the first IIF is slated to launch in November, nearly three years behind schedule.

The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, said the chief risk is that the following generation of satellites, IIIA, will be delayed in a similar fashion. Lockheed Martin Corp. is building that series, and the first are scheduled to launch in 2014.

Though it's now in widespread civilian use, GPS was originally developed for the military, and it's still managed by the Air Force.

The Air Force's mission is to maintain a "constellation" of 24 working satellites, virtually ensuring that at any time there are at least four in the sky above any point on the Earth. That's the minimum number needed for a GPS device to compute its location by measuring the slightly different amounts of time it takes for radio signals to reach it from each satellite.

The satellites don't work forever: A few launched in the early '90s are still in operation, but most have shut down. The delayed launch of the IIF series means that for a few years, satellites could be failing faster than they're being replaced.

Lt. Col. Tim Lewallen, deputy director of GPS at Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, agreed with the GAO's conclusion that there is a risk that service could degrade. But he said the risk is very small.

There's substantial spare capacity in the system, Lewallen said. There are 30 working satellites in orbit, plus three older satellites that could be reactivated. Another satellite, based on the previous-generation technology, is due to go up in August. The $30 billion system has never been larger and more accurate, Space Command says.

There are also ways to extend the useful life of current satellites if some of them break down, Lewallen said.

For instance, the Air Force could shut down other functions of the satellites to conserve power for GPS signals. These secondary capabilities of the satellites are mostly secret, but one that has been made public is that they carry sensors to detect nuclear explosions.

Per Enge, a professor of aeronautics and the director of the GPS Research Laboratory at Stanford University, said the Air Force had developed good stopgap measures, but they won't work forever.

"No one can complain or state that the sky is falling right now," Enge said. At the same time, delays in launch schedules and funding are difficult to account for and it's possible that new satellite models could have problems that aren't discovered until they are in orbit.

Enge would like to see the nation commit to maintaining a higher minimum number of satellites, perhaps 30.

"The GPS constellation is skinny compared to what it should be," he said. "The most important thing is that we keep funding GPS and don't take it for granted."

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Lenovo Group Reports Loss, Expects Rocky Road Ahead For PC's

Story from the Wall Street Journal

Lenovo Group Ltd. swung to a net loss for its fiscal fourth quarter because of hefty restructuring charges and weak demand.

Lenovo, like other global personal-computer makers, has been hurt as the global recession has made consumers reluctant to upgrade their PCs. Lenovo and its major U.S. rivals, Hewlett-Packard Co. and Dell Inc., have restructured in recent months to cut costs.

Lenovo on Thursday posted a net loss of $264 million for the quarter ended March 31, compared with a net profit of $140 million a year earlier.

The company took a $116 million restructuring charge in the quarter. Sales fell 26% to $2.77 billion.

Lenovo, China's largest PC maker by shipments, said it expects market conditions to remain "very challenging." The company said it expects contraction in the global economy will put continued strain on the commercial and consumer PC markets.

The global recession "has significantly affected the world-wide PC-market demand as many large enterprises delayed purchase decisions" and reduced information-technology budgets, Lenovo said. "Even the growth of the China PC market has slowed."

Still, Chief Executive Yang Yuanqing said at a news briefing that he expects the Chinese market to remain Lenovo's main growth driver. He said the company has seen significant improvement in demand in China since the end of the quarter. And there seems to be a corresponding demand in used Lenovo laptops.

Mr. Yang declined to predict when the company will return to profit.

Lenovo booked $146 million in restructuring charges for the fiscal year, mainly for reductions in its work force. Mr. Yang said the company has no plans for further layoffs.

Lenovo reported a $226.4 million loss for the fiscal year, compared with a profit of $484.3 million a year earlier. Revenue fell 8.9% to $14.9 billion.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Tech Ticker: HP-Microsoft; EA; eBay

Mercury News wire services from Bloomberg News


2nd Microsoft deal

Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft will spend as much as $180 million over the next four years to jointly develop and sell hardware and software for messaging, video and voice in a challenge to Cisco Systems. HP plans to create new desk phones and expand its ProCurve networking products for use with Microsoft software, the companies said Tuesday in a statement. The effort is one of the largest undertaken by the Frontline Partnership they formed two decades ago, the companies said. The deal is the second in the past month between HP, the world's largest personal-computer maker, and Microsoft, the biggest software company.

— Bloomberg News


Looking for a spark

Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello said the company's release of a new fitness game Tuesday may help spur demand for Nintendo's top-selling Wii console after two months of declines. "What we've been lacking so far this year is any reason to buy hardware," Riccitiello said. —‰'EA Sports Active' may be the first software catalyst that can move hardware." Electronic Arts is adding Wii games including "EA Sports Active" as part of a turnaround plan that includes the release of "The Sims 3" on June 2.

— Bloomberg News


PayPal's Potential

EBay CFO Robert Swan said the company's PayPal online payment system will account for 73 percent to 78 percent of checkout sales on its e-commerce Web site by 2011. EBay aims to double its PayPal revenue to $5 billion within three years, Swan said at an investor conference in Boston. He also said customers' creditworthiness has improved since the recession began. EBay expects PayPal to become the company's biggest moneymaker, as the payment system outpaces sales from e-commerce commissions. PayPal accounted for less than a third of sales last year. The marketplace unit, which makes money from auctions and other transactions, accounted for more than half of revenue. EBay, which generated free cash flow of $578 million last quarter, is holding most of its cash outside the U.S. The company plans to use it for acquisitions, he said.

— From Bloomberg News

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Unity Semiconductor Corp. Unveils Latest Evolution In Memory Chips

Story from the Wall Street Journal

After seven years of labor in secrecy, a Silicon Valley start-up is disclosing one of the most radical efforts yet to replace today's memory chips.

Unity Semiconductor Corp. hopes to provide an alternative to chips known as NAND flash memory, which are a mainstay of products such as digital cameras and Apple Inc.'s iPod music player. The closely held company says its technology can store four times the amount of data as NAND chips of the same size, and record data five to ten times faster.

Unity said it has working prototypes but doesn't expect to offer chips commercially for two years. Besides completing a finished product, analysts say, the start-up must find a big manufacturing partner.

"For anybody to come out with a new memory it must be adopted by one of the major NAND makers," said Alan Niebel, an analyst at Web-Feet Research who has been briefed on Unity's plans.

Unity Chief Executive Darrell Rinerson, formerly an executive at memory chip specialist Micron Technology Inc., said Unity hopes to forge a partnership with an existing memory chip maker, but didn't disclose a candidate.

NAND chips, which retain data even when electrical power is switched off, have become an essential commodity in the tech sector. But price competition has whipsawed suppliers. The research firm iSuppli estimates world-wide sales of NAND chips fell 15% in 2008 to $11.8 billion.

NAND also faces an uncertain future. As companies keep shrinking circuit dimensions, many experts believe that at some point it may become impossible to boost the storage capacity of the technology any further.


Prominent candidates to succeed today's memory-chip technology

* PCM: Phase-change memory records data by causing material to change from a crystalline state, or phase, to a disordered state.
* MRAM: Magnetoresistive random-access memory uses magnetic charges rather than electric charges to store data.
* FRAM: Ferroelectric random-access memory is another technology for exploiting magnetic rather than electric charges.
* RRAM: Resistive random-access memory stores data as a change in the electrical resistance of materials under varying circumstances.
* NRAM: A technology based on carbon nanotubes, materials that can be fabricated in ultrasmall dimensions.
Source: WSJ Research


Unity's approach is particularly unusual, dispensing with basic concepts such as the use of electrons to store data. The company bases its technology on ions -- charged particles formed by the addition or loss of electrons -- and the way they move through certain materials, Mr. Rinerson said.

Memory chips, which are fabricated on silicon wafers, typically store data using transistors in cells that are laid out in a two-dimensional pattern. Unity says its technology, which uses no transistors, makes it possible to stack four cells on top of each other and pack more data in less space.

In another unorthodox tactic, Unity plans to buy partially finished wafers from services called foundries. Mr. Rinerson said costly production tools will only be needed to add final layers on the wafers. As a result, a new factory to make Unity's chips might cost around $1 billion, instead of $4 billion, he said.

Unity plans to jointly finance a factory with the aid of the unnamed manufacturing partner; both companies would sell a portion of the output under their own brands. With the aid of about 60 patents issued so far, Mr. Rinerson said Unity's intent is "to keep others out, to not allow this technology to be commoditized."

Unity, which has raised close to $75 million in venture capital so far, expects by mid-2011 to offer a commercial chip that stores 64 gigabits -- about twice the capacity of the most advanced NAND chips on the data centers market now. The will help in applications where chips have played a limited role to date, Mr. Rinerson predicted.

But the company faces many hurdles, including proving it can churn out chips at competitive prices. Jim Handy, an analyst at the market-research firm Objective Analysis, said other NAND alternatives have been proposed before that never met that challenge. "The memory game is always about cost," he said.